Hospitality, Labour and Representation – Lecture 6

The home is already a relation to the other, though as we have seen this relation is ambiguous, since the other is not the other of language, but the presence of the feminine, which is the welcome of the home. The home is not just situated within the world that already gives it its place, or through which the home intensifies this sense of place, rootedness and particularity, but is already openness to the other through hospitality. The feminine does not announce, for Levinas, the fact that there might be a woman at home, which of course would be absurd, but that hospitality precedes rootedness, such that the former is the forgetting of the latter, and not the latter the former. It is not that we have to derive hospitality from our sense of place, but that our re-interpretation of the other as ‘them’, as the ‘enemy’ as in contradistinction from ‘us’, the ‘friend’, must always come after the fact and not first.

To be a self is to be at home in the world and to have a home is to be in the world. One is not in the world and then subsequently has a home. Not to have a home is not to have a world at all. This is a reversal of Heidegger’s position where what one has first is the world and the home is merely an instrument to occupy this world that is already one’s own. The home is merely an extension of one’s self, whereas for Levinas the home is what it is to be a self. It is the possibility of returning to oneself out of enjoyment. To live from the elements is also to be open to the insecurity of their appearance and disappearance. This is tension of enjoyment that is both active and passive. Active, in the sense, that I live from my own enjoyment. My enjoyment is the enjoyment of enjoying. But also passive, because in enjoying  the water against my skin, or the warmth of the sun, I suspend myself in their overflowing. As they come, they can also go. It is not that insecurity undoes my enjoyment, or comes to it from the outside. On the contrary, such a insecurity belongs to the enjoyment itself. It is what marks the generosity of nature. Yet nature is always on the edge of disaster. The elemental can always slide into the nothingness of the il y a, from which it swells up.

The dwelling, therefore, is a way of resisting the insecurity of the future. It is a pulling back into oneself, but it is also a way of storing up resources for a rainy day. This is why Levinas describes it as ‘recollection’. A recollection in terms of time, as memory, which gives the world back again as thought (which we shall return to with the description of representation), but also recollection as literally ‘re-collection’, a tacking back of the world into my possession and storing up of its power so I can use it another day. Things, Levinas writes, become furniture. They are something that I can take up and possession and move around to suit by own needs.

Taking possession of the world is the way in which Levinas interprets labour. It transforms the elemental world into the identifiable and is thereby the condition of representation. Like Marx, it not thought that determines life, for Levinas, but life thought, and it does so through the medium of work. If labour is the condition of knowledge, it is not knowledge itself. It is the seizure of the world. First of all the hand gropes in the darkness. It does not know the beginning of itself, or the beginning of the world. Both merge together. It seizes things to directly consume them. The hand that labours, on the contrary, seizes the world by manipulating matter directly and transforming it. It transforms the future of uncertainty of the elemental into the certainty of the future of things. What first gives form to the elemental is labour, and it is from this solidity that the permanence of substance is built on which representation rests. Without labour, philosophy, representation would not be possible. Substance, which philosophy takes as primary, is not the first given of experience, but is experience already moulded by the hand. Enjoyment is the quality of the element before it has been transformed into something permanent. The evanescent pleasure of things that evaporate in their consumption. But who is to know whether this will return? So labour is the maintenance of enjoyment. The attempt to preserve what is always vanishing in the moment for another day. But to preserve the thing is to dominate and possess it. Labour is therefore always a kind of violence against the thing. It is a violence, however, that is conditional on the home, even when it forgets this condition. If labour is essentially the storing up of things for another day, then there first of has to be a place in which to store. Such is the home. And as we have seen, the home itself is inseparable from the presence of the other, even if this other is only the feminine and not the other of language and the ethical relation.[1]

Representation presents the world as though it had no condition, as though it were born in thought itself. But this representation of the world is always a memory of world that has already been experience, and memory itself is only possible because of the recollection that the home makes possible. It allows me to separate myself from the elements such that I can forget that I too am dependent on the world. The home is a relation to the other, but one can also shut oneself away in the home, close one’s door and curtains against the world. If the window is the reminder that the home is always open to the world, then the curtain conceals the window from within as without. The home is the very egoism of the I, content and happy in itself and fundamentally closed against the stranger.

This inhospitality, however, is always a forgetting. For the very possibility of the home is an original hospitality that was forgotten and without which this shuttered world would not be possible. The only way that I can withdraw from things is because I have relation with something that does not belong to the elemental. This other relation is the relation to the feminine. I have to refuse both enjoyment and possession in order to make representation possible. But this refusal requires the presence of the other. I represent the world because of others and not despite them, but after the fact I forget this condition and think my representation comes to me despite them.

Representation, then is not just violence against the thing, if it does not forget its original social condition, but a gift given to the other. My world already has to be in question for me to represent it, but that means that I have to exist apart from it. It has to mean more than something I consume or possess. Such a possibility is only given through the experience of the other who calls into question my possession of the world. To represent the world I have to be dispossessed from it. I have to no longer see it as mine. It is this dispossession that is forgotten in a philosophy that thinks it can gain everything back again more fold than that which it had lost.

Being dispossessed of one’s world is not an original violence at the heart of knowledge but the concrete experience of language. The act of speaking is sharing of a world in common, but to share a world means that one has to have been dispossessed of it and such a dispossession is what I experience in responding to the presence of the other in speech. I see the world as the other sees it, rather than as my own. I see myself in the face of the other as what I am, but what I am only occurs in this experience itself, as though I had no identity before.

Generalisation, objectification, what Western philosophy sees as primary, is dependent on this offering of the world to the other. Thus, the relation to the other is what makes representation possible, since the world represented is a world shared and offered to the other. I speak of the world to someone, in response to someone. I do not speak of the world to myself until after this fact. This is why language is not just one action like any other, but the ‘offering’ of the world, and an ‘offering’ that would not make any sense if I did not offer it to someone, if it were not a response to their demand. ‘The ‘vision’ of the face,’ Levinas writes, ‘is inseparable from this offering language is. To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture’ [TI 174]. The irony or paradox is that as soon as the ethical relation sets up the world of representation it is forgotten. The world becomes the abstract relation between things, and the other is only one more type of thing, even if a special and unique one, amongst other things. The self and the other are thought of as identical and the same, mediated through a third term. In Levinas’s thought it not enough to acknowledge the difference between ethics and ontology, but that ethics has its source in ontology. The first, if we might put it this way, is an ‘empirical’ event. The face of the other interrupts the ontological order. The second is a transcendental argument. The very ontological order had its condition in the ethical event that it has forgotten or suppressed.

[1] This is one of the problems of reading Levinas’s account of the separated self in Totality and Infinity. What is the status of the feminine other. This is not merely the question of whether the feminine is empirical or not, but whether she (is she is a ‘she’) has the same force as the ethical other (and is this ethical other a ‘he’?). In the account of the genesis of representation that requires the anteriority of the demand of the other, is this other the feminine other of hospitality, or the other of language? The condition of representation seems to be the feminine other, but the gift of representation (that I speak of the world to another), seems to be the other of language and it is the latter that appears to have priority over the former.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: