The face is at the heart of Levinas’s ethics, but what is the face? Is it something that I see or look at? But isn’t looking the very meaning of intentionality, thought and objectivity that Levinas argues precisely misses what is other about the other? To look at something is to grasp it, to place it under a concept, to possess it. How then can I look at the face of the other? Would it not be an object of an intention like any other. If the other’s face is not a physiognomy (for even things have faces), what then is it? Can one even speak of it as a ‘what’, a quiddity?
If there is another relation to the face then that of vision, then this would be to question the whole prejudice of western philosophy that takes vision to be the fundamental way in which we engage with the world and make sense of it. Without seeing something, we cannot understand it, and we know that philosophy is littered with examples of sight as the pre-eminent way of knowing. Levinas goes back to one of the most famous of these examples, which is Socrates discussion of vision in the Republic through the metaphor of the sun (507b-509c). What is important about this metaphor is in fact there are three elements: the seer, what is seen, and most important of all the visible (which is represented by the sun itself, a ‘third kind of thing’ [γένος τρίτον] Plato calls it). Without the visible, without the sun, nothing would be seen by the seer, since everything would be in darkness. The visible, therefore, must precede the visible object and makes it possible that I can see it. It is this region of the visible that stands for ‘being’ in Plato’s explanation, and for Levinas it is what reduces the terms in the relation to equivalents. He sees the same pattern of argument repeat itself in contemporary philosophy in the work of Heidegger. What is truth in Heidegger but the same as the sun in Plato? It is manifestation, disclosure, or intelligibility that brings together in the same region the same and the other. The comprehension of an existent consists in precisely going beyond the existent, into the open. ‘To comprehend the particular being,’ Levinas writes, ‘is to apprehend it out an illuminated site it does not fill’ [TI 190].
To make the face an object of vision would precisely therefore reduce it to a being like any other. It would destroy what is different about it. If there were a relation to the face, then it would have to be a relation with something that interrupts or disturbs the region of the visible. Such as relation is only possible in language. Speech is not a different kind of relation of visibility. It does not belong to vision at all. As Levinas writes, ‘the ‘vision’ of the face 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 alterity of the other is not a property or quality of something. I cannot define the other by listing the shape or colour of someone’s face. In fact, in this sense, the other has no face at all, or would have the face in the same way that things or animals have faces. The face in its ethical sense is not the object of the gaze, but that to which one responds to in speech. Such a speech breaks with the very conceptual world that has its source in vision, in which things and people are defined in advance by a system of signs and the intentions that fulfil them. If language were merely such a network of significance, then there would be no relation to the other. But speech is not just what is said, it is the fact of speaking itself, the very relation of speech over and above the words and meanings spoken.
Language accomplishes a relation between terms that breaks up the unity of a genus. The terms, the interlocutors, absolve themselves from the relation, or remain absolute within relationship. Language is perhaps to be defined as the very power to break the continuity of being or of history. [TI 195]
Such a break should not be understood negatively as though it were a limit in my intelligence or perception that prevented me from understanding or finding the right definition for the other. On the contrary, the ethical meaning of the other is an ‘original positivity’ that precedes any lack. The other is not the opposite of me, everything that I am not, but more than me, and this surplus defines the very possibility of meaning itself. Ethics precedes ontology. It is because I have this relation to the other, or better that that other calls into question my enjoyment of the world, that something like representation or objectivity is possible, and not the other way around.
There is a difference between the other as an interlocutor and the other as a theme of discourse who is spoken about. It is this difference that explains the transcendence of the other, his or her difference from me. Such a transcendence Levinas describes in terms of the infinite, but the infinite here (as in Descartes argument, though Levinas in not concerned with its validity but only its form) does not come after the finite but before it. The infinite is not a negation of the finite, but on the contrary, the finite emerges from the infinite. The infinite is first and not second. The infinite as concrete event of human experience, rather than just a formal idea as it is in Descartes, is instantiated in the face as speech. It is the other who summons me and not I them, and is the presence of the other in speech that breaks with intentionality, where every term is reduced to the same in the region of visibility.
The face as sensibility is not reducible to vision or touch. It is a sensibility that belongs to speech, as though it were the voice and not the hand that touched me and sees through me. It is this voice that utters the command ‘thou shalt not kill’. It does so not through the words of the command itself, but the tone of the voice that interrupts. It is the expressive face itself that acts as the ultimate sanction against killing. Murder does not aim at the face. To murder is already no longer to experience the other as other. Is already not to hear the voice that prohibits killing, but to only see the other as a thing, as just one more visible thing amongst many, and as obstruction to one’s will. The resistance to murder is not a property of the face, as though the bullet or knife would bounce of it, but an ethical injunction that one can refuse to hear. This refusal, however, is anterior to the ethical command and attests to it even in the moment that it does not listen.
Such a prohibition against murder should be thought positively rather than negatively. To be responsible is to have one’s freedom founded in the experience of the other. It is to be called to be a self in response to the ethical demand. The other does not limit my will by force, but transforms it into responsibility in its summons to me. The appeal of the other does not negate the I, but inspires it. It promotes its freedom and goodness rather than denying them. The very relation of language to thought itself is only first made possible through the language of responsibility. The shared world of truth and knowledge as its source in the ethical relation and not the other way around. In calling into question my world of enjoyment and separation, the other does not restrict my world even further but opens it out. My horizons are expanded but they are done so through the other and not against them, nor them against me. Thought, reason, and objectivity are therefore parasitic on sincerity. It is because I am sincere that I share a world with others, and through such a dispossession the world first of all is made common, rather than communality being the basis of my relation to the other, it has to be discovered and re-discovered there. The other side of reason is not irrationality or mysticism, which in the end is merely a fusion of the same and the other, but the superlative presence of the other in speech who is the very condition of reason itself.