Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Derrida on Levinas

The following excerpt comes from an article by Oona Eisenstadt:

LEVINAS'S ZIONIST WRITINGS are generally neglected. This might seem odd in light of the fact that one of the criticisms most often made of Levinas is that he has no interest in politics. You would think that scholars looking to defend him would be led to a consideration of his most overtly political writings. But as yet they have not. Partly this has to do with the prevailing political wind: in the last decade, Zionism has not been altogether popular with the socially conscious, and it is the socially conscious who read Levinas. But it is not just a question of the leanings of Levinas's readership. What those who criticize Levinas for having no politics want is the occasional policy statement, a comment here or there on how the ethics might apply to the concrete problems of the twentieth century--the kind of thing they are used to from, for instance, Jacques Derrida. What they get instead in the Zionist writings is a fervent discussion of the upper limits of human political possibility. It is an intemperate discourse, one in which the sobriety for which Levinas is known is all but entirely relinquished. Readers tend to find this alarming. Even those who crave more political discussion than is offered in the major works grow uneasy at the enthusiastic embrace of Israel's higher potential.

Derrida is one of the few commentators who take up the Zionist writings at length. His discussion, which appears in the essay, "A Word of Welcome," oscillates between praise and criticism. (1) Ultimately I think the criticism is intended to stand in the service of the praise; in other words, Derrida's intention is to deepen our appreciation of these writings and the political theory they present by deepening our understanding of their problems...


Derrida is uneasy about what seems to him a fetishizing of the holy city and the holy land that stands at odds with Levinas's usual subordination of the idea of Sinai to the idea of the face. He responds to Levinas's assertion that "the longing for not [just] one more nationalism," by pointing out, dryly, that all nationalisms make this claim (ADV 70, WW 117). To be sure, this does not rule out the possibility that the claim may sometimes be true, but it does imply strongly that nationalism, pure and simple, is Levinas's motivation in the lecture. However, Derrida also says that the apparent fetishizing may be less of a problem than it initially appears. He reminds us of Levinas's many "extraordinary political essays" that "always placed the covenant above or beyond a 'Jewish nationalism'" (WW 118), and in this light hints that it might be possible to think of Levinas's Jerusalem as any city, and indeed, to consider whether any and every actual tangible city including Jerusalem does not inscribe wit hin it all the theoretical social levels--offering violence, refuge, and something higher, some connection to God.

But Derrida is still left with what I will call the problem of the promise. (from here)

Note: these posts are a first meager contribution toward an attempted reading of Levinas together with Gary, or preparatory steps in that direction, maybe. In fewer words: there will be more.

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