Work and Death – Lecture 8

The paradox of work is that it both sustains my life and undermines it. Without work, I would forever be at the mercy of the elements, which, though they sustain my life, can also take it away from me. Work is the attempt to tame the forces of nature. To make them work for me rather than I for them. Yet what is at the heart of work is alienation. For as soon as I produce something then it no longer belongs to me. It enters the world of commerce and economy and rather than finding myself in work I am absent from the work that I produce. It has its value in what others make of it. ‘The labour which brings being into our possession,’ Levinas writes, ‘ipso facto relinquishes it, is in the very sovereignty of its powers  unceremoniously delivered over to the Other’ [TI 227]. Work is therefore for very opposite of speech, where the speakers are present in the words that they speak and attest to their own sincerity.

Work too is the basis of history. History is the history of works and nothing else. The ruins of civilisations are testimony to the desire to hold onto time and to resist the elemental, like the ruins that one might stumble across in a jungle or in the desert. But such a history is quite literally a dead history, for it is history of those who are no longer alive. History is written by those who have survived the disaster and not its victims, who are only the countless names or numbers that have been written in the record.

Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the  usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement, forgetting the life that  struggles against slavery. [TI 228]

The self is therefore dispossessed by the very work in which it seeks to possess the world. This is the paradox of the work and the true lesson of the ruined monuments. The more I seek to make this world mine through labour, economy and commerce the more the world is taken from my grasp. The only way to resist the fate of victims of history is one’s own interiority that has no history. Such an interiority, however, is not the result of a heroic individualism railing against its fate, but is produced in the responsibility to the other. It is the demand of the other who calls me to be good that in the end preserves the self from its historical fate. A subjectivity outside of history is therefore defined by Levinas as ‘apology’. My existence is only justified in the demand of justice that the other places upon me. My identity is not nominative but accusative.

Yet is it possible to defeat death that history tells me is my fate and everyone else’s? If we no longer believe in an eternal life what other possibility is there in the end but my own annihilation? Death, however, is never just a relation to impersonal forces, but to someone. Death comes to me from an other’s hand or I am preserved from death by the aid of another. Levinas has in mind here the analysis of ‘being-towards-death’ of Heidegger, where I face the possibility of my nothingness resolutely and with courage. What matters to me is my own being and if I do relate to others, then it is only for the sake of this rather than for them. Even if the time of my death is a mystery to me, this does not mean that my life is defined in terms of its power. Life is not concerned with death, rather it is the postponement of its inevitability. Death is not the possibility of my impossibility through which I define my own authenticity. It is, rather, the possibility of my impossibility. It is not the fear of nothingness that assails me, but the threat of violence. What threatens me is the bullet or illness, and not some abstract nothingness at the heart of my being. This is why I attempt through living to postpone death.

Such a postponement, however, should not be interpreted as heroic. On the contrary, the very analysis of work shows that I cannot defeat death. I do not defeat death, but rather suffer it. That is, I remain at a distance from it. Even in the instant of my death, I feel that there is still time, as though the interval between my existence and death’s coming were never to be crossed. The real ordeal is not death but suffering which is the bearing of the violence of the threat of death that comes from the outside. Such an ordeal Levinas calls patience. Patience is the opposite of work that thinks it can defeat death by its monuments but discovers that they have an existence despite and outside of the self that seeks to preserve itself in them. When the tomb is opened it is empty.

If patience and apology are the testimony to an interior life that is not subsumed in history, then they do not have their origin in a self that stands outside reason and necessity. The singularity of the self is only found in the demand that others place upon it. I bear death for the other, just as I am apologetic for them. The I, then, is only an I because of its responsibility and not despite it. This responsibility is not the result of abstract reason. Responsibility does not have its source in universality, where the self would have no uniqueness, but in the face of the other that demands justice from me. It is not history that judges me, because in history we are all equivalent. It is the face of the other that does so. Such a judgement is the very opposite of the annihilation of the self that we discover in the death and in the works that hope to defeat it. In the judgement of the other the self is preserved. The judgement of history is the absence of the will that is judged, which is why it is only present in the third person and not the second. Not the direct discourse of speech but the indirect discourse of writing. The word that is added to the direct speech, the word that attends the words spoken is not a word that would be of any significance to historical writing. It is the speech of the subject as an apology in front of the demand of the other. Only in this way do I not disappear in a language that judges me.

This means that the I who enjoys the world is only confirmed in the demand of the other and not in work and history. It is the response to the demand of the other that is the true source of the individuality of the self, which is neither at the mercy of the elements nor disappears in the anonymity of its ruined monuments. The self is there an ‘election’. It is called to be responsible in the face of the suffering of the others. Called to be itself. To be itself, however is not to be true to itself, but to be true to the other. It is not a truth of existence, but a truth of ethics. The final restoration of the subject is therefore in apology. I am responsible for the other, and it is this that marks my  singularity and unicity, and not being towards death as Heidegger argues. As Levinas writes, ‘To be an I and not only an incarnation of a reason is precisely to be capable of seeing the offence of the offended, or the  face [TI 247].

2 Responses to Work and Death – Lecture 8

  1. Marcus says:

    I’m very grateful for these eight lectures on Levinas posted on this blog; they’ve been helping me through my reading of Totality and Infinity. Much thanks! I’ve just asked the staff on Gothenburg University Library to buy in your new book on Levinas.

    /Marcus, Swedish student of philosophy


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