The Enjoyment of Life – Lecture 4

We have seen that formally speaking, so as to break with the idea of totality, both terms in the relation, the self and the other, have to be absolved from the relation; that is to say, both terms, whilst being in the relation, are also separate from one another. They are in a relation, and paradoxically speaking, also not in a relation, otherwise the relation itself would determine the terms in the relation and make them equivalent as is the case with the idea of totality. But what does it mean to be a self that is not subject to a totality that exceeds it on all sides and already defines what it means to be that self? The answer to this question, for Levinas at least, is enjoyment. A singular life is life that is enjoyed. Now it is this life that is interrupted by the demand of the other in speech. This demand calls into a question the egoism of the self. In turn, as we have already seen, it is this demand, and not the relation of the self to itself, which is the condition for the very relation of knowledge that forgets the original demand that made it possible.

To distinguish the particular nature of enjoyment Levinas has to differentiate his analysis from other ways in which the self is understood. First of all he has to convince us that theory is not the original way in which the subject gains access to the world. For it is this relation that reduces the same and the other to equivalent terms. He does this by criticising the priority that is given to intentionality in traditional phenomenology. At the heart of intentionality is the idea that the self is always in some relation to the world, is always directed outside of itself, transcends itself. In this way, we might say that Levinas description of ethics in Totality and Infinity still remains within the orbit of phenomenology.[1] Nonetheless, how Husserl describes intentionality gives priority to the theoretical attitude. Intentionality means for Husserl that my relation to the world is always a ‘consciousness of…’. In other words, there is always an object of my acts no matter what my act is, whether it is an activity of thought, perception or feeling. This object for Husserl is always an idea, and this idea gives meaning to my world (‘giving meaning’ is the translation of the German word Sinngebung, which Levinas sometimes refers to). This would mean that even if I were not having a theoretical relation to an object, then it would still be determined by an idea. Thus even if I were to love someone, then this love, as a conscious act, would always have as its object the representation of that person.

Levinas’s description of enjoyment precisely asks whether this relation is the only way that I relate to my existence, and more whether there is a more immediate experience on which it is founded.[2] Must I always have an idea of what I relate to? This would mean that whatever relation the I had with what was other than itself it would always determine the meaning of that other in advance. This would mean that intentionality would never really have a relation to something  outside of itself, for anything that it did encounter it would already be in possession of its idea or meaning, otherwise it would have no relation to it whatsoever. What is outside, then, is not really ‘outside’ at all, but already in advance constituted by consciousness’s idea of it. This is not to say that representation is wrong, and we should dismiss it, but Levinas asks whether it has its origin in itself, and thus is constituted by another relation to the world that does not have representation as its basis. It is this other relation that Levinas calls enjoyment..

Before, however, we can get to this relation, we need to distinguish Levinas’s phenomenological description of enjoyment from Heidegger analysis of care in Being and Time, for it is clear that Levinas situates his analysis in opposition to this one. Heidegger also questioned the overtly theoretical bias of Husserl’s account of intentionality and whether it could give us an adequate understanding of our relation to the world. For Heidegger, the theoretical attitude is not the first relation to the world. Before the world is an object of knowledge it is part of our existence, and our existence cannot be understood as derived from its representation. Existence, for Heidegger, is first of all an activity, a practice. Before I have an idea of my life I must live it. But what does it mean to live a life for Heidegger? It means that I am involved in my world. It has a significance to me in terms of my possibilities. This means that I encounter things in the world as part of my projects. In this way things are not ideas first of all, but things I use, so to speak, within a general network of finalities. To use Heidegger’s example: I don’t first of all know a hammer but I use it and this use only makes sense in relation to the totality of my existence as whole. I use the hammer in order to hammer a nail, I hammer a nail in order to build a roof, I build a roof in order to construct a house, and I construct a house in order to shelter from the elements. This list of ‘in order to’s’, if we might speak that way, is what Heidegger means by the structure of care that is the basis of my existence.

Again just as with theoretical attitude, Levinas is not questioning that I do not have a practical relation to the world, but whether this is the only relation to the world and whether it is the fundamental one. Do I just shelter myself from the elements, the sun on my face, the rain on my skin? Do I not enjoy them, and do so first of all before I have built a house or even thought about one (for Levinas dwelling comes after enjoyment, but he even points that I don’t just use my home, but also enjoy it). One way that Levinas thinks about this priority of enjoyment is sensibility (the feel of the warmth of the rays on my face). I am a sensible being because I have a body, but this is what is lacking in both the theoretical attitude and Heidegger’s analysis of existence. They are both strangely disembodied affairs. We first of live from things before we theorise about them or even use them. I enjoy things for themselves and not for any purpose, practical or intellectual. This enjoyment is the very basis of the happiness of the I who is not concerned for the other and who is thus a separated being.

What does it mean to have a body? It means that my first relation to the elements is one of sensibility, and Levinas wants to underline the fact that these sensations, these feelings are not just the idea of sensations, the idea of feelings. I live first of all at the level of affectivity, the qualities of experiences and not at the level of thought, such that these feelings would only be mutilated thoughts. Sensibility is not an instance of understanding or thought that has somehow gone wrong, or even a feeling that is waiting for a thought to animate it. Rather, it is a moment of enjoyment that is not thought at all. It is through my body that I first occupy the world, but this means that I am, for my independence, dependent on my place, my situation. The world is not an object of thought or even concern first of all, but  my sustenance and support. ‘I am myself,’ Levinas writes’, ‘I am here, at home with myself, inhabitation, immanence in the world. My sensibility is here. In my position there is not the sentiment of localisation, but the localisation of my sensibility’ [TI 138].

Enjoyment and sensibility, this primary way that I relate to the world, to the elements, Levinas describes in terms of nourishment. This is how I transmute the world from being other to me to being part of the me. But nourishment is not simply about what nourishes me, the bread or the water, for example, when I am hungry or thirsty. It is the act of nourishing itself which nourishes me. Nourishment becomes its own object. This is what Levinas means when he says that enjoyment is transitive. It has its object in itself (this is also what it is distinguished from Heidegger’s analysis of existence, for my relation to tools always has an end outside of itself). I find in enjoyment in satisfaction, not just the cigarette that is smoked but in smoking itself. ‘Enjoyment.’ Levinas writes, ‘is precisely this way the act nourishes itself with its own activity’ [TI 111]. An activity might have a content or purpose, but I live from activity itself. The activity is what is enjoyable, it’s very sensation. This enjoyment from living from things is the very meaning of egoism. Life is not bare needs that demand satisfaction. Life is not a lack that has to be endured. It already has a meaning as the very living from living, and if there is suffering and happiness, then it is a falling away from enjoyment rather than the very first attitude towards existence.

Enjoyment is not a psychological state distinguished from other emotions. It is the very meaning of being a self. It is the pleasure I get existing. We do not live life for the sake of tranquillity, supressing needs as the ancients thought, because they already interpreted life as essentially tragic, something we suffer rather than enjoy. Life is not a search for what is absent. We thrive from what we need. We do not lack or suffer from it. I enjoy eating, I enjoy drinking, I enjoy the sun on my skin. We are not happy because we have no needs. We are happy because we have needs and we enjoy fulfilling them. Happiness is a surplus above privation. The very personality of the I, the very self of the I, is the accomplishment of this happiness. This is the concrete accomplishment of being a self.

The life that is life from something is happiness. Life is affectivity and sentiment; to live is to enjoy life. To despair of life makes sense only because originally life is happiness. Suffering is a failing of happiness; it is not correct to say that happiness is an absence of suffering. [TI 115]

We are now beginning to see where the individuality of the I exists. The I is not an individual because it is an object. Objects are always tokens and types and thus never purely singularities. The individuality of the self lies in the immanence of a life that is always a life and never life in general and life is only a life because it is lived. The individuality of my life therefore is all the countless sensations I enjoy; the water, the sun, the colours, before it is the thought of the water, the sun or the colours. It is not the I as a concept that is the support of the enjoyment, rather enjoyments supports the I. The I is outside of itself in the elements, as the foot that feels the warmth sand between its toes. This is my place beneath the sun, but it is the sun that grants me this place. Here we do not understand the individual as the human sciences do. For them the individual is always a concept, a species that belongs to a genus, and never an individual self that feels.

It is this self-sufficient I that is called into question by the presence of the other and it does so through language. There are, as we have already seen two ways in which we can understand language. Either as the said, or the saying. In the said of language, what matters is what is spoken and not the saying itself. The said is the idea, concept or representation. It is not this that demands that I break with the world, for this relation of objectivity is itself dependent on the social relation to the other. The revelation of the other, which is not something that I enjoy, is the straightforwardness of the human face in speech. Not what is said, but the speaking itself demands that I respond from my silent world of enjoyment to the other. This is a different transcendence than the transcendence of intentionality (or even the transcendence of existence that Heidegger describes) that breaks with the immanence of my enjoyment of the world. It asks me to justify my enjoyment, but in so doing it breaks the spell of enjoyment itself and my solitary self-sufficiency. It makes me understand that my place under the sun is already an usurpation, and has been so from the very beginning, longer even than my enjoyment of the world. Such a demand is the very possibility of pluralism and society.

Pluralism implies a radical alterity of the other, whom I do not simply conceive by relation to myself, but confront out of my egoism. The alterity of the Other is in him and is not relative to me; it reveals itself. But I have access to it proceeding from myself and not through a comparison of myself with the other. I have access to the alterity of the other from the society I maintain with him, and not by quitting this relation in order to reflect on its terms. [TI 121]

Works Cited

Drabinski, J.E., 2001. Sensibility and Singularity : the Problem of Phenomenology in Levinas, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


[1] This is certainly Drabinski’s analysis. See, ‘The Subject in Question: Relation and Sense in Totality and Infinity’ (2001, pp.83–128).

[2] This move is similar to Heidegger’s in Being and Time when he reverses the priority between the ‘present-to-hand’ and ‘ready-to-hand’. My first access to the world is not representation but using things in terms of my everyday projects. As we shall see below, this reversal does not go far enough for Levinas. The world of work described in Being and Time has it source in an enjoyment for its own sake.

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