The Dwelling and the Feminine – Lecture 5

The self enjoys the world without guilt or acknowledgement of the suffering of others. It enjoys its enjoyment. Like Rabelais’ Messer Gaster, the I is a stomach without ears.[1] In enjoyment, I am at one with life. There is not gap between me and the living of my life. What philosophy confuses as the opposite of joy and thus the opposite of life is the disquietude that belongs to enjoyment itself, but this anxiety does not destroy the enjoyment of life. It is not needs that make us sad. On the contrary, it is because we have needs that we are happy. For what would life be without food and drink that I can consume and enjoy? But is such an enjoyment sufficient to itself? One can enjoy existence like a child, bathing in the elements, to use Levinas’s expression, but this would not be secure enough to possess the world. I might enjoy my food and drink today but how would I know that there would still be some tomorrow? It is true that this concern belongs to enjoyment and does not undermine it, but enjoyment in itself is not sufficient to ensure enjoyment continues.

What guarantees that I can enjoy the world is the security of a home. It is the home that is my fortress against the anonymity of the elemental that can destroy my enjoyment at any moment. It is the home, which is part of enjoyment and sustains it, that counteracts the necessary insecurity of enjoyment itself. The home is not the opposite of enjoyment but belongs to it. Nourishes nourishment itself. Levinas speaks of it as creating a delay within enjoyment such that the self can re-collect itself against the threat of what tomorrow might bring. Rather than directly consuming the world, I store up my enjoyment against a rainy day. The home, therefore, is the condition of what Levinas will call possession, labour and economics, which we shall need to discuss in greater detail later.

The self is a self because it is literally at home with itself. The stomach without ears has a house. This interior of the interiority of the self is the very meaning of what it means to be an I. To have a place in the world, to situate oneself in the world against the void surrounding you so as to enjoy enjoyment itself. To be content, to be self-satisfied, to be bourgeois and to endlessly scan the life style pages of newspapers and magazines, this is what it means to be alive to have a life. Why should I be concerned by what happens to others? What does it matter to be me in my nice little house, shut against the world so it can be my world and nothing but my world, my home, my street, my neighbourhood.

Levinas is not criticising this life. It is the very meaning of what it is to be a separated subject, and without it the I would dissolve in the anonymity of the elemental, or simply become one item amongst many in an impersonal system of thought. Yet it is this separated subject that is called into question by the presence of the other. It is not just the impersonal world of the elemental that laps against my front door but also the world of others, who I cannot shut out even if I keep my curtains resolutely closed. Yet this relation of the other to the self, as we have already seen, is not a relation of opposition or negativity. The other does not call into question my self-satisfied existence by simply not being me, as though they lived in a house on the other side of the street, otherwise the I and the other would be equivalent, since it would only be in lacking my qualities that the other would be what they were. The other is not ‘not-me’, but completely other than me, coming from elsewhere than my world but demanding a response from me (which of course I can refuse, but the refusal itself has its source in this original demand).

The exteriority of the other is not something that stands against me from the outside. Rather than an interiority opposed to an exteriority, my interiority, from the very beginning is already interrupted by an exteriority from within. We have already seen this strange logic in Levinas’s description of the idea of the Infinite. As we know, Levinas is not interested in Descartes’ proof of the existence of God, but the form his argument takes. Although the cogito comes first in the order of explanation, it is second in the order of argument. The idea of God is already internal to the cogito from the very beginning of the process when it has already begun to think itself. It realises that it cannot be the beginning of itself but is already dependent on the existence of God of which it is has an idea but cannot be the origin of that idea as a finite being.[2]

In the same way Levinas describes my first relation to the other. It is not opposed or outside of my world, as world beyond this world, but has always been at the heart of this world from the very beginning and makes it possible (we saw the same movement in Levinas’s discussion of representation: it is the demand to justify oneself to another that is the ultimate ground of truth and not self-certainty). Interiority is ruptured from within. This is the ambiguity of the subject itself. Exteriority is not produced from it, but nonetheless it is to be found at the heart of its interiority. As Levinas writes, ‘Interiority must be at the same time closed and open’ [TI 149]. This exteriority that is at the heart of the interiority of the self, Levinas calls hospitality. What makes the home a home is not first of all my possession which I try to guard against the uncertainty of the future, but its hospitality. Hospitality, therefore precedes habitation. Hospitality is what makes habitation possible.

Again Levinas has in mind here Heidegger’s description of the ‘work world’ in Being and Time. For Heidegger, the home is first of all a tool. It shelters me from the elements. But the home is not one item within my world. It is the very possibility of me having a world. To be at home in the world is literally to have a home. I am not already in the world and then find a home, but having a home is the condition for being in the world. Existence does not make my dwelling possible. It is not in order to exist that I have a house; rather my house is my existence. It is what it is concretely to be a self. Yet to have a home isn’t just a matter of life-style. To have a home is to be at home, and to be at home is already to be with someone. To have a home is not simply to have a nice sofa, kitchen table and TV, but to be welcomed. A home is a welcoming place, and as such is not just a collection of things, but a human presence.[3]

What is particularly strange about Levinas’s description of this human presence is that it is sexed. The presence that makes the home a home is the feminine sex.

The other whose presence is discretely an absence, with which is accomplished the primary hospitable welcome which describes the field of intimacy, is the Woman. The woman is the condition for recollection, the intimacy of the Home, and inhabitation [TI 155].

There are two ways that we could respond to this. We might immediately say that he is being sexist. Why should it be the woman who makes the home a home? Is not this just a reactionary, patriarchal and conservative view of the home. One thing that might hesitate to make this judgement is that Levinas is clear that the feminine, which is the welcoming of the home, does not point to the actual presence or non-presence of a woman. The welcoming of the home is describes a feminine and not  a particular individual, because of course to describe the other as a woman would already be to reduced or negate their alterity. We might, however, not be satisfied with this defence of Levinas, as many have not.[4] Or we might argue, that even though Levinas’s views are coloured, shaped and prejudiced because of his own position as a man, and as a Jewish man, that he nonetheless recognises that we are sexual beings. What is remarkable, for example, in Heidegger’s description of human existence, is that in reading it you would hardly know that we sexed beings at all, that human beings are not neutral beings but men and women, and they have different experiences of the world. Of course, we might suspicious of the neutral being. We might find, on closer inspection that Heidegger’s Dasein is not that neutral, and looks very much male. There is no doubt that is this virility (a virility that is at the heart of Western philosophy since the norm has always being male), is what Levinas himself is questioning by saying the feminine is the very possibility of subjectivity.

I cannot make my home in the world without the other, because my house is not a home without out this welcome. This means there is already an ‘extraterritoriality’, to us Levinas’s expression, at the heart of my territory. The self is already in relation to the self before it has become a self. The other is already at the heart of the self before the self even welcomes the other. The very possibility that I might welcome the other, that I might not just be a stomach with ears, is because I already in relation with the other at the heart of my interior of my interiority. Dwelling does not belong to the anonymity of existence, as if the human being were thrown into the world like a pebble on a beach. Rather it is made possible by hospitality which is the presence of the feminine.

Works Cited

Katz, C.E., 2003. Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine: the Silent Footsteps of Rebecca, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Perpich, D., 2008. The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


[1] As referred to by Perpich (2008, pp.98–9).

[2] Levinas calls this peculiar logic the ‘posteriority of the anterior’. I discover what comes second is in fact first, so that the relation to the other already makes possible the separated self (TI 54).

[3] I am reminded of the ‘Ikea scene’ in the film Fight Club, where the description of furnishings is precisely the opposite of having a home. See, http://videosift.com/video/Fight-Club-Ikea-scene.

[4] Katz gives a brief description of this feminist criticism of Levinas description of women’s roles in her chapter on Totality and Infinity (2003, p.78).

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