Hospitality, Labour and Representation – Lecture 6

February 17, 2013

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.

The Dwelling and the Feminine – Lecture 5

February 10, 2013

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,

[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).