Perhaps the strongest post-foundational encounter with the ethics of the demand to love the neighbor appears in the recent writings of Emmanuel Levinas.11 In Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974), Levinas reformulates the Biblical call to neighbor-love as the insistence on the priority of ethics over ontology, a relation to the other that antedates the very being of the subject.12 The "neighbor," in its double connotation of proximity and strangeness, names the occasion of an originary responsibility that precedes both the subject who assumes or denies that obligation and the community in which responsibility will be represented or rescinded under the sign of Justice. In a 1982 interview Levinas comments that "responsibility for the neighbor" is doubtless the "strict term for that which is called the love of the neighbor" (Entre Nous 113, my translation), insofar as both are defined by an ability to respond to the other that is not predicated on the experience of self-love (as in St. Augustine) but is rather the precondition of the self. 13 Levinas argues that the subject as such is "called into being" only insofar as it is called into question, finding itself already guilty, already indebted to and obsessed with its neighbor.
For both Lacan and Levinas, substitution does not imply an act of self-sacrifice within an economy of expiation and redemption, but rather the sacrifice of sacrifice. The moral economy of sacrifice entails giving up enjoyment for a place in the symbolic order (always advertised as a "higher" pleasure). The sacrifice of sacrifice, on the other hand, insists not on the enjoyment that attends responsibility, but rather on the responsibility for enjoyment, the obligation to maintain the jouissance that makes responsibility possible. In Lacan's dictum, "the only thing one can be guilty of is giving ground relative to one's desire" (SVII 321); renunciation in the name of the symbolic order to morality is merely a ruse, a resistance to desire and the trauma that is its cause. For Levinas, enjoyment is not simply renounced by the subject of responsibility, but remains its intimate and ongoing condition: "only a subject that eats can be for-the-other, or can signify" (OTB E 74). Levinas articulates the responsibility of "for-the-other" as a substitution that determines not one meaning among others, but rather opens the field of signification as such. Like Lacan's substitutive love, Levinasian responsibility institutes the process of metaphorization without abandoning jouissance, which indeed depends on the primal signification of substitution: "I can enjoy and suffer by the other only because I am for-the-other, am signification" (OTB 90). For Levinas the subject's passive responsibility for its neighbor is experienced as a "deafening trauma" that creates the subject as the response to a call so loud or so close that it cannot be heard, cannot be fully translated into a message. In the deferred temporality that places ethics before ontology, responsiveness before being, the subject is produced as "the echo of a sound that would precede the resonance of this sound" (OTB 111).
Sade's refusal to be a "good neighbor" exposes the fundamentally asymmetrical structure of neighboring: I never "am" a neighbor, I only have neighbors to and for whom I am responsible. That is, the neighbor is not an ontological category, defining my being, but an ethical situation vis à vis the other, who always logically precedes me. Nor is it an epistemological category, insofar as it is always marked by a certain misrecognition of the "neighbor" within ourselves, the strange sadistic enjoyment that causes Freud to renounce the Levitical injunction in nearly Nietzschean terms in Civilization and its Discontents as the cruel joke of a world defined by unlimited aggressivity. In Lacan's rewriting of the Sadian maxim, there is no limit to the neighbor's right to enjoyment [droit de jouir] save the "capriciousness of the exactions that I might have the taste to satiate"; the only ground for Sade's ethical rule is aesthetic, a law which not only applies exclusively to the other, and not to me, but which also leaves that rule open to the sublime groundlessness of aesthetic judgment. The responsibility called for by the neighbor's jouissance is a judgment, a radical act of asymmetrical substitution where the unlimited freedom of the torturing agent's erotic "taste" is secured at the expense of that agent's subjective autonomy. To reinflect Klossowski's phrase, Sade is my neighbor, despite the fact that he refuses for me to be his. Sade recognizes that to have a neighbor means to put myself in the neighbor's place, to substitute myself for him or her--not to imagine myself as like my neighbor, to constitute myself as his or her mirror or antithesis, but to serve my neighbor's jouissance, no matter how strange or traumatic or not to my "taste" it may be. 25
In their situation side by side, connected as ethical "neighbors" rather than either brothers or enemies, Kant and Sade open a gap in the history of ethics that unveils the place where psychoanalysis will have come to be. This is not to suggest that for Lacan either Sade's catalog of perversions or Kant's limitation of the possibility of knowledge "anticipates" or enables Freud's discoveries. If Sade is the "inaugural step of a subversion, of which . . . Kant is the turning [End Page 801] point," this ethical rhythm repeats itself and is only visible in the gap between Freud's death at the beginning of World War II and the resumption of Lacan's seminar eight years after the Occupation: namely, through the breach torn in the history of pure reason by the Holocaust. It is indeed the Holocaust that provides the occasion of the return to Sade, not only by Lacan, but also by such writers as Adorno and Horkheimer, Blanchot, Bataille, de Beauvoir, and Klossowski. All of these thinkers turned to Sade after the war to try to discover the failure of the project of Enlightenment, the perversion at its core; for it is only after Auschwitz that the most disturbing consequences of the failure to recognize Sade as our neighbor emerge. If Christianity defines itself as the universalization of the Levitical injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself," the Holocaust reveals in the most horrific way both the violence and the blindspots of that totalization. In its wake, neighbor-love, once more confronted in its non-commutativity, becomes the locus of an ethics in excess of the Pauline dialectic of enlightenment which had appropriated it. (Kenneth Reinhard, my emphasis in bold)
Update: Just to balance things out, here's something more current (and less cryptic) by Todd May (pdf) (scroll down for the relevant bit):
There can be a convergence between analytic and Continental approaches to ontology. Both ask about the nature of what there is. But their inflections on this asking are different. Analytic philosophers are interested in the beings of which the universe is constituted. They seek to account for the nature and existence of those beings and their relationships to one another. Continental philosophers often see a question of being that cannot be addressed in terms of constituent beings. Following Heidegger, they see in the attempt to reduce the question of being to that of beings a symptom of an age that is too ready to accept the terms in which science conceives the world....Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault and Derrida have shown the constrictions that arise when the question of how one might live must answer to ontology. Deleuze suggests that it is possible to move in the opposite direction, to create an ontology [or ontologies] that answers to the question of how one might live rather than dictating its limits...
Regarding such an optimistic reading of Deleuze, I remain unconvinced.