Thursday, June 07, 2007

Problema III -- more

Since Adam pre-empted my section (thank goodness!), let me respond to some of what he and others said, both with particular responses and with wandering musings, even ruminations.

Adam wonders whether Kierkegaard isn't "too neatly align[ing] the ethical with the universal." I think the answer is "yes," as Levinas argues. For Levinas, the ethical is first of all the relation to the other person, a singular relation. In the presence of the third person (which it turns out is there from the beginning) that relation to the individual becomes a relation to the universal.

We could distinguish these two by referring to the first relation as the ethical—our ethos—and the second as the moral—our rules of conduct. If we make that distinction, then God is certainly beyond morality ("beyond good and evil," to steal from Nietzsche), but I doubt that he is beyond ethics. But is there a gap between ethics and religion? That is more difficult. The gap between morality and religion is easy to see. We talk about it as the difference between the Spirit and the law, and every Primary child learns about it, though perhaps it is less and less a topic taught overtly. However, what about a gap between ethics and religion?

As I said, that is more difficult. I don't think that Levinas sees any such gap. For him, to be ethical is to be religious. (See Otherwise than Being 168, the last half of the third full paragraph). There is a sense in which I can agree, but I do not think his view takes account of covenant. Our covenant relation to God is the relation that establishes our relation to other persons. The saying that has never been present and which obliges me, my responsibility for the other, which I have never assumed, binds me to other persons (OTB 168), but it has its origin in an even more primordial relation, that to God, the covenant relation. SK's authors rarely if ever speak of covenant, so they rarely if ever speak of true biblical religion.

What about the "return" to immediacy? That return doesn't mean leaving universality behind to go back to the black cows in a black night. We can understand the "re-" in "return" not to mean "once again," so that "return" means to go back to where one came from, but to mean "to continue" as it does in "resound." To resound ("re-sound") is not to go back to some original sound, it is to prolong the sound. So I take the return to immediacy to be its continuation rather than its mere repetition. Continuation doesn't occur in opposition to memory (distinctions among cows, universality), though it may seem to. Immediacy could not continue without memory. Without memory, even immediacy would be forgotten—or not even forgotten because never remembered.

Thus, thinking of pure immediacy, I like Hegel's image, but also Nietzsche's in "The Use and Disadvantages of History for Life," part 1:

Observe the herd as it grazes past you: it cannot distinguish yesterday from today, leaps about, eats, sleeps, digests, leaps some more, and carries on like this from morning to night and from day to day, tethered by the short leash of its pleasures and displeasures to the stake of the moment, and thus it is neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard on the human being to observe this, because he boasts about the superiority of his humanity over animals and yet looks enviously upon their happiness—for the one and only thing that he desires it to live like an animal. The human being might ask the animal: "Why do you just look at me instead of telling me about your happiness?" The animal wanted to say, "Because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say"—but it had already forgotten this answer and hence said nothing, so that the human being was left to wonder.

But he also wondered about himself and how he was unable to learn to forget and always clung to what was past; no matter how far or how fast he runs, that chain runs with him. (Unfashionable Observations [frequently translated Untimely Observations], translated by Richard T. Gray, 87)
To live in pure immediacy would be to be unable to remember and, so, to be unable to speak or even to think. Yet that we cannot live in pure immediacy does not mean (as Hume may have thought it does) that we are, intellectually, completely cut off from immediacy. The trace, a term that Levinas gets from Plotinus and Derrida gets from Levinas, is the unspeakable but ever-present immediacy in universality. Skepticism's distrust of universality is appropriate, for universality denies the immediacy traced within it. But skepticism runs the risk also of claiming too much for immediacy and, therefore, of denying universality its due. For the skeptic, immediacy "is all we know," though we cannot know it in any meaningful sense without universality. Without universality, without memory, we are merely black cows in a black night or, perhaps, young calves gamboling mindlessly in Alpine fields on whom night is yet to descend, though it doesn't matter.

Does the return to immediacy require the absurd? If by "absurd" we mean "what philosophy cannot hear" (the original meaning of "absurd" is "what cannot be heard"), then I think the answer is "yes," which is why John of Silence is the author of our treatise: he says as much as the philosopher can about being a Christian, but he cannot hear what Abraham says, though presumably the Christian can. Perhaps the Christian can even hear through what John of Silence says to what a Christian can say. Perhaps the Christian can hear what John cannot say in what he can say.

So speaking of Christianity, of our relation to God, requires philosophical silence. But it does not require mere silence. The Christian can speak. He or she can preach the gospel. They can bear witness, but they cannot say something that philosophy can hear because philosophy is tone deaf—except Christians can speak to philosophers ironically, posing perhaps as someone who cannot speak, who is not yet Christian, who finds Abraham both admirable and absurd. Saying what philosophers cannot hear even though it is said.

De Silentio is criticizing family life when he says that it is the height of the ethical. It does not get beyond the universal. That proves that he is no Christian, for if he is right, then we cannot be the children of God and Jesus' sonship is religiously meaningless. Romans 8:14-16:

As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.
Religion is ultimately about family, so it cannot be that the family is merely ethical. Indeed, verse 17 makes that clear: "If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together" (my italics).

We can only be sealed to the Father as a joint-heir with Christ if we suffer with Christ. But suffering is always individual, one real person at a real time. Suffering has no universal; it has no place in the Kierkegaardian ethical, though it is unavoidable in the Levinasian ethical.

It seems obvious to me that this business about suffering has something to do with our understanding of Abraham's sacrifice, but I don't know what it is. Any ideas?

11 Comments:

Blogger Robert C. said...

Jim, very thought-provoking post, as always.

Has Levinas written on the Akedah? I can't help but think Kierkegaard (or at least John of Silence) would say that, according to Levinas's philosophy, Abraham would be a murderer. Here's a passage from Entre Nous that might be taken up in thinking about this accusation:

"All love--unless it becomes judgment and justice--is the love of the couple. . . . Thus, the crisis of religion results from the impossibility of isolating oneself with God and forgetting all those who remain outside the amorous dialogue. The true dialogue is elsewhere. One can, to be sure, conceive isolation with God as including the totality, but unless a mystical or sacramental sense is given to this affirmation, the notion of God and worship of him would have to be developed in terms of the unavoidable necessities of a society that entials third parties." [p. 21, near the bottom]

It's this necessity of third parties that I worry makes Levinas's view irreconcilable with Kierkegaard's notion of an individual in absolute relation to the absolute. Perhaps if we think in terms of a covenant with God, who is the author/mediator of justice, then we can think about a covenant that is both private and yet allows for the type of just community Levinas is talking about. But I don't see how this covenant would avoid Levinas's charge of being mystical or sacramental which I think is tantamount to K.'s absurdity that Jim discusses (i.e. can't be heard by oustsiders).

To take this same point up from a slightly different angle, near the top of p. 22 of Entre Nous, Levinas continues, "[God] would be the fixed exterior to Society, from which the Law would come . . . ." I'm not sure I'm understanding this (thanks, by the way, for your patience as I try to make sense of Levinas!), but it seems that Levinas only allows for God to be the author of the Law (and the spirit of the Law, as at least Hutchens seems to argue...). Since the Akedah seems to go so radically against both the Law (letter and spirit), I don't see how there's room in Levinas's thought for the kind of individual relationship that we see at work in the Akedah (at least in Kierkegaard's version of the Akedah).

Also, thanks Jim for pointing to the suffering bit in Romans 8:17. The problem I keep having in thinking about suffering is in trying to disentangle the ways that we might suffer with Christ vs. the ways we do not suffer with (or "as") Christ did/does, per D&C 19. Are these passages talking about suffering in ways that are simply too different to really reconcile, or is there a good way to reconcile both of these scriptural discussions of suffering? (I've discussed this a fair amount with Jacob Morgan, Blake Ostler, and others at the New Cool Thang blog, which has helped me come up with several ideas of my own, mostly quite different from their views, but it's still a very gnawing question for me. I'll probably take this up at the wiki soon in order to sort out my thoughts better....)

7:32 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Having worked through Kierkegaard (so briefly, so cheaply), and beginning to work through Derrida (never so briefly, never so cheaply), it seems that the primary concern here is politics. It is interesting to note how seldomly politics (per se) entered into our discussions while we worked through the texts (I imagine that this is in part a consequence of Ralph's busyness), whereas we seem to have raised few unpolitical questions as such since we've taken up Kierkegaard.

My wife and I took a nice long Sabbath walk tonight, and we found ourselves discussing the meaning of sealing texts, as in Isaiah 8 and Isaiah 29. And the political tensions at work in the very act of sealing became the primary focus of our discussion: the text, as written, is by nature published (that is, politcized), which means that the act of sealing amounts to a kind of retrieval of the published/politicized text from the realm of the political (or perhaps an absolution of the text precisely that it becomes the realm of the political). Of course the seal itself remains public or published and, hence, political: it can be read (the sealed text is given to the learned man who can read the seal and recognize that it is not for him: "it is sealed"). Might we then say that the sealing amounts to a depoliticization of the text, which survives in the political realm only as a trace (the seal as a signature, etc.)? That is, might we say that sealing the text amounts to its withdrawal from what Kierkegaard would call the ethical (where it leaves only a trace), even as it seals up what Levinas would call the ethical (this radical encounter of the Other... an angel with a book, etc.)? There is much more to think about here... (I hope it is obvious that I am only just sketching out a lot of jumbled thoughts here.)

Now, to get to the point, to the reason I'm writing any of this up tonight: what is implied in our nearly universal neglect of the political as such in reading the scriptural texts? Though we have asked a thousand literary questions, we have not yet asked any questions of textuality (as textuality), and I wonder what that has to do with this question of sealed texts and its relation to the question of sealing families up: in the book of life, in a priesthood of writing, in a recording that is recorded on earth and in heaven, etc.

In a word: if we are so profoundly interested in what it is that separates Mormon theology from other theologies, etc., is it not precisely a question of textuality? Is it not a question of Joseph as the translator? Is it not a question of Abraham as writing, as transferring from his fathers to his children a text? Is it not a question of recording on earth and in heaven? Is it not a question of sealing up texts and thus sealing up families? Is it not a question of a covenant that is fulfilled by the arrival in 1823 of an angel with a book? Is it not, in a word, a question of the written word?

Abraham and Joseph Smith together remain "de Silentio": we have only so many texts...

8:29 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jim said: ‘Does the return to immediacy require the absurd? If by "absurd" we mean "what philosophy cannot hear" (the original meaning of "absurd" is "what cannot be heard"), then I think the answer is "yes," which is why John of Silence is the author of our treatise . . .’

Jim, I appreciate your take on the “re-” in “re-turn.” I wonder if part of our discussion about the “place” of the absurd doesn’t have to do with the ontological status of absurdity (of what cannot be said or made sense of). We could ask the question: “in the beginning, was there absurdity?” or “is absurdity a later, quasi-fatal intrusion?” The inverse of these questions would be to ask whether or not there ever was an immediacy or if the immediacy is just a retroactive “trace” projected by a primordial desire.

I’m partial to the later, to the position that there was no original unity/immediacy and that absurdity is, in a sense, ontologically constitutive. Immediacy, then would be a phantom by-product of absurdity rather than absurdity being a phantom by-product of immediacy.

Another way to say this is to ask if, in the beginning, there was multiplicity or unity. The decision for multiplicity is a decision for “ontological” absurdity and truth/atonement as fundamentally produced rather than deduced (to hearken back to Robert hearkening back to a comment I made some time ago).

How we answer these questions seems to have a political weight as well (to turn to Joe’s point without actually taking up the issue of textuality explicitly – though a “sealed” text might be a kind of “absurd” text, a text that is both necessarily public and unreadable). Is the political orientation conservative (there was immediacy, absurdity intervened, and the immediacy needs to be recovered/recuperated), or progressive (using the word in an at least partially non-technical sense to say: there is absurdity and in the face of it, without obliterating its silence, we must have truths nonetheless).

Jim says: 'Religion is ultimately about family, so it cannot be that the family is merely ethical. Indeed, verse 17 makes that clear: "If children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together" (my italics). We can only be sealed to the Father as a joint-heir with Christ if we suffer with Christ. But suffering is always individual, one real person at a real time. Suffering has no universal; it has no place in the Kierkegaardian ethical, though it is unavoidable in the Levinasian ethical.'

As Jim points out, suffering is identified by Paul as being essential to the production of a covenant family. Also, as Jim points out, suffering is necessarily absurd (unspeakable, absolutely singular). Absurdity then is the stuff families are made of?

In at least one sense, this is, of course, obvious :)

But can we talk, then, about suffering with someone? Is suffering with a kind of oxymoron or paradox? To accomplish such a thing might be to enact something along the lines of what we’ve earlier identified as a “universal singurality,” a kind of “shared” absurdity (or, “sealed” text?).

Also, the verse argues that only if we suffer with him will we be glorified with him. The word for glory, here, is literally doxa: what appears! Only shared suffering/absurdity makes possible the covenant family experience of sharing an (impossible?) manifestation/appearance? Perhaps the sharing of the sealed text of suffering?

11:52 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Thanks for drawing that question back out of Jim's post, Adam. That the suffering in question is a suffering-with seems to me radically to question to conclusion that suffering is necessarily absurd. I don't know whether I'm thinking of 3 Nephi 28 or of Dostoevsky here, but certainly suffering need not be singular? Doesn't the very passage from Romans 8 point to a typological suffering? Hmm... I need to think about this more.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Robert C, yes EL has written on the Akedah, but not much. For him, the ethical moment, and the point of the story, occurs when, at Mount Moriah, Abraham listens to the command not to harm Isaac.

I agree that EL's view is incompatible with SK's—or at least with the view of Silentius. But I'm suspicious of the characters given as authors of SK's pseudonymous works. He wrote the Works on Love at the same time he was writing his aesthetic works. In the former he wrote directly to Christians (as a Christian), who could understand what he was saying. In the latter we wrote to philosophers (as a philosopher), who could not understand Christianity (i.e., for whom it was absurd, "unhearable"). Both sets of works are addressed to the single individual, but the Christian discourses are meditations on Christian themes, many of them on themes of love, which necessarily includes at least a second. So, I think that we can defend SK against the charge that he envisions the world as an acosmic place.

My problem with SK is that even if we give him the most charitable reading, it is difficult to get a relation of more than two, a romantic rather than an ethical relation, in EL's sense of that term. EL surely has this very idea in mind when he writes what you quote from Entre Nous, and he may have SK specifically in mind.

I don't see how it is possible to think of biblical covenant in merely one-to-one terms. However, one way out of that difficulty would be to see whether it is possible to read SK as using his Christian writings to say something similar to what EL says: my relation to God, is not a romantic relation because it necessarily entails love of other persons, a relation to Levinas's third person. I haven't read SK closely enough and recently enough to say whether that is a plausible reading. If it is, then perhaps the contradiction between SK and EL can be resolved. If it isn't, then I vote for EL.

Suffering: I understand the word in its roots sense, "allowing," which is open to the possibility of pain, but not necessarily the same as pain. On that understanding of suffering, rocks do not suffer; human passivity is different than "natural" passivity because it is an interruption or giving up of will. To suffer with someone is to be open to that person's interruption of my will, but also open to the possible interruption of that person's will. It is unspeakable because it is cessation, interruption, real possibility (rather than merely as-yet unactualized reality).

Joe, isn't the translator someone who is both active and passive, someone who acts on a text, but does so by allowing it to act on him or her? The translator, even the prophetic translator, is not merely a conduit through which something moves from one world to another. A translation is the result of a wrestle between the speaking translator and what is unspoken, even unsayable. To translate is to make the absurd surd, but doing so creates something different from the "original," from the absurd, leaving what was unheard unheard, or heard differently. Every translated text remains sealed even as it is opened.

This suggests, however, that there is neither pure absurd nor pure surd which means, as Adam puts it, that atonement is produced rather than deduced: Christ's atonement doesn't make manifest in the world something that already exists in some Platonic heaven. The atonement isn't a mere transfer of something from a transcendent realm into our realm. Rather, it is a fundamentally creative "act." Inaction/passivity/suffering brings into existence something that does not otherwise exist. This rather than the creation of the physical world is creation ex nihilo.

Isn't the political point that, contra the modernist understanding of the state, the political world is ultimately something that comes to be through passivity rather than by our activity? Modern political thinkers take the political covenant to be something that we create and agree to. For Abraham and Paul it is, instead, something that happens to us, something we allow together. To quote Adam again, "Only shared suffering/absurdity makes possible the covenant family experience of sharing an (impossible?) manifestation/appearance? Perhaps the sharing of the sealed text of suffering?" Yes, with the note that doxa is not the same as phainestai,. It is not just appearing, but appearing in brightness, splendor, and radiance—honor and majesty.

What makes a person impressive, honorable, glorified is absurd because it is shared suffering. This is the absolute reversal of the Greek understanding of the world (and our own).

3:08 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Jim, perhaps because I've already been buried in The Gift of Death for a week, I'm thinking about political in a very particular manner (I'm suffering greatly---in the root meaning of course---under the massive weight of Patocka's insights... by the way, anyone read Plato and Europe? Patocka is becoming quite fascinating to me the more I read in this book by Derrida). In short, I'm taking the political per se as the Platonic per se, that is, as a function of the philosopher's living for death, etc. It is primarily in Patocka's (or Derrida's Patocka's) name that I'm thinking about the sealed text as withdrawn from the political, and hence, as withdrawn from the Platonic (I'm pretty sure I will post about all of this at some length when we come to chapter 2 of Derrida).

If the political per se can be taken as the Platonic, as a function of the melete thanatou, then we can speak, I think, of eternal life in much the way Michel Henry does (I'm thinking primarily of I Am the Truth here): it is another phenomenology of sorts, another mode of appearing, but one according to life rather than according to death. Sealing is a way of... translating ...the towards-death into the living (does this amount to typology, to a spiritualizing of the temporal?). Hmm... I'm trying, really, only to articulate presuppositions here, but I'm not sure where it is taking me. More to think about here.

But let me meet up, for a moment, with your point about translation as passive and active: I entirely agree (in fact, I think you nicely summed up George Steiner's After Babel). What I'd like to begin to think about is how translation functions in a non-political (that is, sealed) text (if such a thing is possible). For example, inasmuch as the Book of Mormon can be read as one long epistle to the Lamanites, how does this active/passive engagement called translation disrupt the father/children relation implied in the address, etc.? Taking an old sense of the term, the translator of a letter could simply be the carrier, but what would a phenomenology of the letter carrier look like?

I suppose what I'm trying to do in my comment from last night as much as in my comment right here is to suggest that at the very foundation of any uniquely Mormon theology is this question of textuality (of angels with books, of sealing up families according to a priesthood of writing, etc.), and thus to suggest that we are summoned to thinking about textuality on a number of different levels, rooting out and talking about the presuppositions that go into such thinking, and working out so many phenomenologies or so many hermeneutics of whatever must be thought. I suppose I'm seeing, to take up Derrida's Patocka again, what remains "unthought" in Mormonism...

7:59 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

I actually started this a few days ago, trying to think through some of these issues from the beginning. It's a bit long for a comment, but I'm not really saying anything new, just trying to synthesize in my own words and mind much of what has already been discussed here. I kept thinking I'd have time to come back and improve upon it, but since I probably won't find such time (I haven't started reading Derrida yet...), I'll simply post as is.
__

Jim, thanks for addressing so many of my questions in your response. I've been rereading some of your papers and studying more Levinas (esp. the passages you reference in your papers), and I think I'm understanding much better what you're saying in this post and in your papers. I'm still struggling, however, to think through the sense in which covenant works at a community level vis-a-vis the individual. Please bear with me as I try to summarize below some of my thoughts on all of this, based mostly of course from discussion here:

1. From individual to community. In being called to Moriah, Abraham is called "out of himself" as an individual in the sense that (1) he has to give up his son which is most dear to him, and (2) he has to give up his own sense of right and wrong. Abraham is going through an ordeal that exemplifies the basis for how a (religious) covenant community must work, with each individual being ready to give up not only physical and emotional attachments, but intellectual attachments as well. Only by transforming oneself from an individual who is only superficially related to others to an individual who can relate to others in a meaningful and true-ly faithful way, can an individual enter into a religious community where each individual relates openly and unconditionally with each other (singularly). If faith is to trust in that which is beyond oneself, then this community is, in a very literal sense, a faith-based community where each person enters into a singular, open relation with each other person in that community.

2. The problem of one-on-one relationships. We might be tempted to think of about covenant in terms of an individual, one-on-one relationship with, say, God. However, this is misleading because God does not care only about me, and so to think in these terms is to do violence to the very idea of God. Rather, God cares about others too--He is already in relationship with others, and so to enter into a relation with God is to enter into a relationship with everyone else also. If I fail to recognize this aspect of God, then I am only worshiping an idol-God, a Being who is merely a projection of myself. (Jim has put this more succintly: "my relation to God, is not a romantic relation because it necessarily entails love of other persons. . . ."

3. Ethical dilemmas. This kind of open (unconditional) relationship that I have toward God is the same kind of open relationship I should have towards each person in the community. However, conflicts can arise when another person (outside the religious community, by definition) desires something unrighteous, i.e. that will do an injustice to a Third). This marks the birth of an ethical dilemma, but also the possibility of thinking philosophically about these issues, esp. through law or notions of justice. However, it seems that for the Mormon theologian (in contrast to the philosopher...), this framework for law and justice--and philosophy and theology--must be viewed in the context of an unconditional covenant with God. Thus, anything that can be said is contingent (always on the verge of being destabilized) based on the possibility of being mediated by God's saying something (or anyone in the divine/religious community saying something...). I don't think we can get around this anti-philospohical idea that God is (or gods are), or can be, the ultimate mediator(s) of law, justice, philosophy, theology or anything that can be said. This is where I think Levinas has to try and ignore the initial call to Moriah, and why I think Jim is right in saying we need to complement Levinas's thought with something more, like covenant--but I think the root of this covenant is ultimately mystical (God can always say something to undo what he has already said...). Put differently, I think that the Spirit (religoin) will always have final say in mediating the spirit of the law (ethos). Since I've been thinking about D&C 121 a fair bit lately, I think it's interesing how we find the same thing expressed there: "Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost". What I don't see, is how Levinas tries to get around this gap--as I see it, this gap is precisely what prevents my relation to each other from being totalizable (but then, I feel I'm only just starting to have any clue what Levinas is talking about...).

6:31 PM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Joe , does Patočka take the political per se to be Platonic or does he only take the present political to be so? I think the latter is the case (though I've not read him, only Derrida talking about him). Isn't he trying to rethink the political without the orgiastic. The secret remains in such a political—must remain, precisely because it no longer involves orgiastic unity, in which no secret is possible—but it remains without the repression of the orgiastic.

The very foundation of any uniquely Mormon theology is this question of textuality (of angels with books, of sealing up families according to a priesthood of writing, etc.) so, we are summoned to thinking about textuality on a number of different levels, rooting out and talking about the presuppositions that go into such thinking, and working out so many phenomenologies or so many hermeneutics of whatever must be thought.

Amen.

Robert,

I don't think that covenant works at the individual level, perhaps not at all. Perhaps when I say "individuals and communities of individuals" I give away too much. After all, In Deuteronomy God makes his covenant with Israel, not with any individuals. However, I stake my claim that covenant is a matter of both on the fact that he also makes his covenant with Abraham.

I think your analysis (point 1) is very good. Abraham's covenant is with God, but it only makes sense as a covenant that is also with others, such as Sarah and Isaac. I like your way of putting it: "Only by transforming oneself from an individual who is only superficially related to others to an individual who can relate to others in a meaningful and true-ly faithful way, can an individual enter into a religious community where each individual relates openly and unconditionally with each other (singularly). If faith is to trust in that which is beyond oneself, then this community is, in a very literal sense, a faith-based community where each person enters into a singular, open relation with each other person in that community."

Obviously I also agree with your second point. As to your third, I don't understand the dilemma you speak of. Are you speaking of Levinas's problem of the third person: I have an obligation to the other person and that obligation is infinite. But I also have an infinite obligation to any third person. So I cannot merely act by trying to fulfill my infinite obligations. I must have law to decide between those obligations.

Is your point that continuing revelation makes law problematic, since it means that the law can always be undone? If so, that fits well with Levinas's thinking, since he doesn't think that the law is something that can be over and done with. It is always unstable because it is founded on our responses to these infinite obligations.

However, you're right that there is no place in Levinas for the Spirit. Does that lead to the necessity of covenant? I don't know for sure. I think that the necessity of covenant comes from the separation or distance between any two entities, including and especially God and any person or any two persons. Covenant or faithfulness (I take the two to be the same—the Old Testament and the New are about the same kind of life: faithful, covenant life) is the only unity that two distinct. Separate, entities can have.

Since mysticism, as that term is usually used, implies union ("orgiastic union" in Derrida's terms; "the sacred" in Levinas's), I don't think that the origin of covenant is mystical, though it is unsayable and unknowable (where "know" means wissen rather than kennen).

You say, "What I don't see, is how Levinas tries to get around this gap--as I see it, this gap is precisely what prevents my relation to each other from being totalizable (but then, I feel I'm only just starting to have any clue what Levinas is talking about...)," but I'm not sure what gap you are speaking of. If you mean the gap between persons, then I don't think that Levinas is trying to get around it because, as you rightly say, that gap "is precisely what prevents my relation to each other from being totalizable."

8:35 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Jim says, "Isn't he trying to rethink the political without the orgiastic?"

I want to make sure I understand you here. Do you mean by "the political without the orgiastic" a kind of (impossible) Christian politics, or some kind of non-European politics?

In the end, though, I think Patocka (though we're only reading him through a glass, darkly... in fact, I should say Derrida) is attaching the political per se to the Platonic. I'd have to fish out references to make a case for it, but the idea seemed, roughly, to be something like this: politics itself is an instance of melete thanatou (I suppose I'm thinking of the Crito here, but certainly of the Apology and the Euthyphro as well). I suppose I see Derrida picking up on this idea so radically because he is working his way towards taking up Kierkegaard's "absurd" by chapter 3.

I'll have to regroup my thinking on this, but I won't be able to get back to it until Saturday (I'll be in the temple all day tomorrow!).

9:57 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Jim, the reason you didn't understand what gap I was referring to is because this is precisely what I'm struggling with, whether there is a difference (esp. in Levinas) between (1) the gap between persons, and (2) the gap between (Levinas's) ethics and religion as you defined it above, in contradistinction to (3) the gap between morality and ethics (basically, the gap between the letter and spirit of the law, respectively).

Another way to forumlate my question--or what I see as at least a similar question to my question about the difference between (1) and (2) above--is as follows. You said above that "there is no place in Levinas for the Spirit". My question is: what is the difference between the Spirit and Levinas's justice?

To my mind, the difference is that the Spirit speaks directly to us whereas justice does not. But what do I mean by "the Spirit speaks directly to us"? After all, doesn't justice in some sense communicate with us also, otherwise in what sense is justice meaningful? It seems to me that the difference here amounts to thinking about society interpreting justice so that society is ultimately talking to itself (though mediated by justice which is beyond society--I'm ignoring for the moment the distinction between society and the individuals in society...) vs. thinking about justice or God as speaking to society in some more radically direct sense which leaves little or no room for interpretation. Note, this touches on some earlier discussion we've had about the Akedah (as well as the account of Nephi slayig Laban and Abraham lying to Pharoah...), that it is striking how there is no discussion of interpretation--God (or the angel) speaks, and Abraham (and Nephi) must simply hearken or not. We have no account of them trying to interpret the call, at least at the moment they are called (we see Nephi trying to understand why he is called to slay Laban, but I think this is different than him questioning whether God is really calling him to slay Laban...). So although I think it makes sense to try to interpret the law (and according to Levinas we have a pressing ethical responsibility to interpret the law in a way that brings about justice, right?), I do not think it makes sense to try and interpret the Spirit (at least when the Spirit calls us to a specific action...).

I am thus inclined to think that the gap between persons is mediated not only by justice, which calls for interpretation, but by the Spirit also, at least sometimes, a Spirit which directly calls me to do (or be) something in a way that does not require interpretation. That is, I think there must be a gap between ethics and religion. If, however, Levinas is arguing that justice is in fact given to us directly/purely, without need for "interior" interpretation, then I don't see how justice is really different than the Spirit.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Under the light of a new day, I realize how poorly worded and muddled my above comment is. Let me try to clarify just one thing:

When I say "I am thus inclined to think that the gap between persons is mediated not only by justice...", I actually meant to refer to Levinas's problem of third persons, which I also had in mind in terms of an "ethical dilemma" before. I understand this to be a difficult problem precisely because of this Levinasian unbridgeable gap between persons which makes it impossible to really "know enough" to confidently mediate between conflicting calls of infinite responsibility from others (the reason I conflated the two above is because of this relation I see between 'the gap between persons' and 'the problem of third persons'...).

Levinas seems to talk about law mediating this conflict, and that the interpretation and implementation of the law should be for the purpose of establishing justice. My question is about this justice, and how we are to understand or conceive of it, whether it is purely given to us from beyond ourselves (like the Spirit), or whether it is something we have to actively determine for ourselves through some sort of hermeneutic process.

If we think in terms of D&C 9, it seems we see a hermeneutic process interacting in a rich way with the burning of the bosom, which I'm taking as (loosely) equivalent to what I'm calling "the Spirit" above because this burning of the bosom seems to be something that is "purely given." Actually I think D&C 9 would be a fascinating passage to take up quite carefully in terms of this gap between hermeneutics and "more pure givenness" (i.e. pure revelation, or the Spirit) that I'm trying to think about....

6:29 AM  

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