Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Levinas touches on a truth about language that we should pay heed to

Jan 30, 2009 Formed through Work, Worked through Form
from Fido the Yak by Fido the Yak

Perhaps there is something like a schema of the face that we humans are born with. Perhaps such schemata are imprinted in early infancy. Why won't I admit that the face is both metaphysical and physical? Or simply metaphysical? What's the story with my attitude towards the metaphysical? Am I holding on to a face, a dear face? Am I afraid of other faces? Or have I really set my feelings aside in order to maintain a critical distance? Will I allow myself to be so naive? Does the face, by its nature, evoke naivety? Shouldn't I want to be free of the magistrature of criticism, once it's recognized as such? But such a freedom isn't quite the promise of the face.

Let's flesh out the sense in which Levinas means for us to understand language as metaphysical. First, though, a word on forms. Do we need forms to work through language? Levinas speaks of naked things, things which have no need for disclosure. He says they "disappear beneath their form. The perception of individual things is the fact that they are not entirely absorbed in their form; they then stand out in themselves, breaking through, rending their forms, are not resolved into the relations that link them up to the totality" (p. 74).

He acknowledges a phenomenon of adumbration (and the als etwas, for this how things are disclosed) as he prepares to offer an alternative. He calls this alternative "revelation," which, as we have remarked, is a difficult thing to ask an English speaker to regard as truly different from disclosure. Expounding, on the theme of language, Levinas says that the work of language "consists in entering into a relationship with a nudity disengaged from every form, but having meaning by itself, καθ αύτό, signifying before we have projected light upon it, appearing not a privation on the ground of an ambivalence of values (as good or evil, as beauty or ugliness), but as an always positive value. Such a nudity is the face" (ibid., Levinas' emphasis).

He goes on to add, making his critical stance abundantly clear, that the face "is by itself and not by reference to a system" (p. 75, Levinas' emphasis). (There may be an irony in positing the revelation of the face as a step in the critique of the system, but I don't mean to be sarcastic by any stretch.) Why language? Why is this the theatre of revelations? Is it simply because language was the talk of his century?

To be sure, Levinas touches on a truth about language that we should pay heed to whether we are talking about language in a metaphysical sense or what the linguists call natural language. He says "language institutes a relation irreducible to the subject-object relation: the revelation of the other. In this revelation only can language as a system of signs be constituted." (p. 73). He says that "in its expressive function language precisely maintains the other–to whom it is addressed, whom it calls upon or invokes" (ibid., my emphasis). What then is the relationship between expression and form? Perhaps we should imagine the press of air in the throat, the touch of air, its sculpting. Who will then take from the skop the final word?

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