I go out far away from my home, as a hostage, without ever taking up habitation with you, nor ever being your guest, since you have no residence, but I also thereby fulfill my calling, which is to be at home no longer. (Lyotard, The Differend 115)
A Negation of the Anarchy Principle
(Draft Paper for the Southwest Seminar on Continental Philosophy, College Station, May 2016)
This particular slot at the conference, in our first idea, was to be devoted to a roundtable discussion of Jean-François Lyotard’s posthumous book Logique de Levinas, recently published in France (2015), which brings together some texts on Emmanuel Levinas or around Levinasian themes that complement the section of Lyotard’s Le différend (1983) devoted to the French-Lithuanian thinker. As you might remember if you have read The Differend, there is a chapter entitled “Obligation,” where Lyotard engages with Levinas and Kant in the fragmented, quasi-aphoristic style that is the mark of that book. In that chapter Lyotard makes some observations that have a bearing on what can conceivably be understood as the ontological difference with a Levinasian twist. Everything has to do with the difference between prescription and description, or with the difference between what Lyotard calls the “ethical phrase (infinity)” and the “speculative phrase (totality)” (Differend 115). Lyotard adds:
When the universe in which you are the addressee entails an addressor instance that is left empty, and is perhaps “absolutely“ not marked, not even by a silence, that is the ethical situation, or the disposition of the universe presented by a phrase of obligation. But that cannot be inscribed into your own experience. For, in this universe, you are presented on the you instance, you are called, but experience and cognition take place in the first person, or at least as a self. What you judge to be the Lord’s call is the situation of you when I is deprived of experience, “estranged,” “alienated,” “disauthorized.” You do not therefore have the experience of the Lord, nor even of alienness. If you were to have that experience, it would not be the Lord, and it would not be ethics. You cannot therefore testify that whatever it is that calls upon you is somebody. And that is precisely the ethical universe. (115-16)
We can suspend for a moment whatever it is that the notion of “ethics” prompts in you. Make no presumptions: Lyotard is pretty fierce in this respect, stating as he does that the “addressor instance is left empty.” There is no “somebody” on the other side. We have no idea. All we know is that there is a form of discourse, prescriptive, a form of discourse that Reiner Schürmann would have called “imperative” against any notion of merely “indicative” discourse, a form of discourse linked to a “peregrinal ontology.” We had been thinking about all of this, and we had been linking it to something we started to call the infrapolitische durchbruch, the infrapolitical breakthrough, in connection with Reiner Schürmann’s work on Meister Eckhart (Cf. in particular Wandering 29, 69-73, 87). If “toute pensée n’est pas savoir” (Lyotard, Logique 89), then there was a form of thought whose momentum would be something other than knowledge, non-denotative thought, responsive thought, indeed imperative thought. The reflection was pretty simple: prescription obligates not by referring to truth or falsity. It obligates in terms of what is just. But prescription is not politics, even if politics, in its democratic instantiation, which is the only possible one since non-democratic politics is merely a game of interests, business not politics, is also about the just. Where is the difference? Democratic politics must universalize its procedures, must turn all decisions into a norm valid for all. Infrapolitics does not universalize, does not normativize. It provides no knowledge. Is it therefore an “ethical praxis” in the Lyotardian sense?
When we thought of organizing a conversation on Lyotard’s Logique de Levinas we were just coming out of a workshop we organized here in College Station (in January of this year) on the work of Reiner Schürmann where some of those problems were discussed, and we figured there would be something in the new Lyotard book we needed to pursue (none of us had read the book at the time, so this was only a guess, more or less informed.) To sum it up briefly, we anticipated Lyotard’s comments on Levinas might have something to tell us of importance for our ongoing project on marrano infrapolitics, on posthegemonic infrapolitics, and we thought they might even correct or help correct some particularly significant issues in Schürmann’s work that we imagined needed correction. That was the initial hypothesis, on the basis of which we made our proposal. Unfortunately the idea of the roundtable had to be dismantled: two of our copanelists announced they would be unable to make it to this conference, and Dan Conway suggested it would be better, then, if Marco Dorfsman and I simply read more normal papers in two different time slots.
Of course, for better or for worse from your point of view, this gave both Marco and me more time. I have decided to use my time, now 45 minutes as opposed to 10 or so, to be as clear as possible about some of the questions that were on my mind at the time of the initial plan. Let me, then, before getting into what I think might be the heart of Lyotard’s posthumous book (and you must remember this could be a heartless book, an unfinished book, nothing more than the dream of an editor, since Lyotard himself had no idea such a book would be published under his name—but I like unfinished work, or rather: I suspect all finished work), let me point out some of the considerable problems Reiner Schürmann’s work brings to the project of infrapolitics. I will do this, and then I will try to offer some ideas from Lyotard’s book that I think might help us. The obvious caveat is: Lyotard’s book will get little time in my explanation, I will only be able to indicate some themes for further scrutiny and reflection on the basis of the first part of Logique de Levinas, that is, the essay titled “Logique de Levinas” (19-74). There would be more to say, but that should be enough in terms of the discussion, which is what I want (I do realize most of you have not even heard of infrapolitics, might not know what they could be about, and of course there is no proper time to clarify it. But perhaps, just perhaps, you might get a glimpse of it by following the set of problems that we are trying to grapple with, or better put: that I am trying to grapple with in solidarity with a collective thinking endeavor.)
At the end of Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy (286-89), Reiner Schürmann explicates four “Consequences for the Direction of Life.” I will address all four of them, all four of those consequences, looking not for exhaustivity in terms of Schürmann’s own considerations, rather in terms of their problematic relevance for infrapolitics. Schürmann suggests, of course, that his Heidegger interpretation imposes some obligations on the thinker. I will attempt to describe infrapolitical obligations in disagreement with the alleged “consequences” Schürmann posits regarding Heideggerian thought. One could say that we are simply disputing the Heideggerian legacy, and I do not wish to contest that. Perhaps that is indeed all we are doing.
First disagreement (I am sorry about the long quotation): Schürmann mentions a “heuristic” function in Being and Time’s concentration on “everyday activities” in view of the need to establish a “fundamental ontology.” But, beyond the establishment of a fundamental ontology, he says,
there is another priority of praxis in Heidegger, which appears as early as in Being and Time and which remains operative throughout all of his work: to retrieve the being question from the point of view of time, a certain way of life is required. To understand authentic temporality, it is necessary to ‘exist authentically;’ to think being as letting phenomena be, one must oneself ‘let all things be;’ to follow the play without why of presencing, it is necessary ‘to live without why.’ Here the priority of praxis is no longer heuristic . . . According to the mainstream of the metaphysical tradition, acting follows being; for Heidegger, on the other hand, a particular kind of acting appears as the condition for understanding being as time. Here praxis determines thinking. In writings subsequent to Being and Time, it is suggested that this praxis is necessarily of a political nature. (287)
There is, then, the call for a certain way of life according to which acting is a precondition of understanding, and praxis determines thinking. This second (non-heuristic, non-cognitive) priority of praxis is fundamental to the infrapolitical constellation, which emphasizes it and names it “existential.” A praxis of existence—not a politics, not an ethics, certainly not a disciplinarization or institutionalization of existence, which is the reason why infrapolitics breaks and must break with university discourse—opens the way to infrapolitical reflection to the very same extent infrapolitical thought cannot be premised on anything but a specific relation to existence.
But Schürmann all too quickly says: “this praxis is necessarily of a political nature.” Why is that? Whether Heidegger himself indicated the possible political relevance of this existential understanding of praxis is probably irrelevant for infrapolitics, but it may not be irrelevant regarding the fundamental thrust of Schürmann’s interpretation. There is, in or behind the attribution to the late Heidegger of a (reluctantly) “anarchic” political drift, an assumption perhaps essential to the work of Schürmann that I would not share: that changes in thinking, in order to be relevant, are necessarily epochal, that is, historical or historial (even if, at a certain point, under the hypothesis of the closure of metaphysics, their epochal or historial stance would mark, according to Schürmann, the end of epochality, the end of epochal history), and, as epochal, they reach and affect and shape and force the compliance of the totality of the political collectivity as such. In other words, the supposition is that the discovery of a non-heuristic, non-cognitive praxis of existence must become “political” in order to be hearable or in order to reach the dignity of historial presence—that, indeed, there is no historial presence without political relevance, and viceversa.
Schürmann names his own political practice “anarchy.” For Schürmann “anarchy,” on his terms, is not the singular choice of a thinker but rather the offspring of the contemporary economy of presencing with which the (contemporary) thinker should comply. Anarchy would be a paradoxical nomos at the end of principial (metaphysical) epochs, at the end of the time of metaphysical epochs. “The nomos or injunction always and everywhere determines the oikos, the abode of man” (235). But I would like to argue that there is a certain ultimate incoherence in claiming both that thinking presupposes a particular exercitium that belongs to the thinker’s singular existence (a change in the direction of life, the obligation of a non-heuristic, non-cognitive praxis before understanding, an existential immersion in existence), and that thinking only lives through attunement to a nomic or temporal presencing that affects everyone. This is the first of the problems I wanted to point out regarding infrapolitics. Infrapolitics affirms that changes in the direction of life do not have to become historial or epochal, do not have to become “political,” in order to appear as obligations, hence already dramatically relevant for the endeavor of thought.
The second problem follows from the first. Schürmann says: “Being can be understood as time only through its difference from history. The investigation into the concrete epochs and their regulation is what binds the later Heidegger’s phenomenology to experience. Since this is, however, not an individual’s experience, the issue of phenomenology proves to be political in a broad sense. An economy of presence is the way in which, for a given age, the totality of what becomes phenomenal arranges itself in mutual relations. Any economy is therefore necessarily public” (287). The politicality of epochs has to do with the fact that epochs force an order of the visible (things, words, actions) into an order of domination. Principial epochs guarantee the domination of the principle as hegemonic domination (at the time of modernity, for instance, subjectivism dominates hegemonically, and it dominates all orders of existence: politically as well as philosophically or artistically, and in any other register of cognition). But Schürmann’s distinction between history and time prepares his affirmation of an end of epochal history that opens the visibility of presencing as non-domination.
At the end of the cycle of principial epochality, where we hypothetically are (this is “the closure of metaphysics”), the thinker can move or prepare the way for anarchy as non-domination. But the politicality of the thinker is then either prophetic or it has the character of a historical vanguard. In both cases it appears as messianic, as it incorporates and enables a promise (the “early” correspondence of the thinker, as response to an incipient unconcealing presencing, is a commitment to and an announcement of a general dispensation to come, a dispensation that, on becoming general, becomes political as well). The thinker appears in this account as the vanguard of history, as a preparer, as a harbinger. The thinker is still, in this account, a world-historical figure, a hero in a sense that becomes hardly distinguishable from the Hegelian determination of the hero. Infrapolitics must take exception. Infrapolitics prefers to consider its own time, which is the time of posthegemony, as the deconstruction of all political legitimation, including the preparatory, anticipatory, or transitional legitimation of a purported, posthistorical economy of presencing of universal reach. Infrapolitics gives up on preparatory thinking (it is, in that sense, a non-messianic thinking of the now-time) as it refuses the distinction between history and time.
The exposition of the third problem requires another fairly long quotation:
The hypothesis of closure results from the reduplication ‘will to will’ substituting itself for the difference ‘being and entities.’ Enframing, then, is not like any other principle. It is transcendence abolished. Total mechanization and administration are only the most striking features of this abolition and reduplication, of this loss of every epochal principle; a loss that, as Heidegger suggests, is happening before our eyes. (288)
For Schürmann technology would be “the age without a beyond” (285) that terminates the epochal cycle, the history of being. He claims that, at the end of the epochs, “originary time” resurfaces into a presencing no longer to be understood as the constant presence of the metaphysical dispensation. Responding to originary time—the worlding of the world, the thinging of the thing—is what the thinker today prepares: “to think is to follow the event of presencing, without recourse to principial representations” (286). But the withering away of epochs needs not be thought of as the welcoming of an unepochal dispensation, about which we know nothing and we experience nothing others may not have also known and experienced in any of the previous transitional times. Infrapolitics makes no claim that its claim is a claim about the end of history as such, the end of epochality, it makes no claim about the singular experience of time it enables, it makes no claim that others, our ancestors, in their epochal perplexity and delusion, were stuck in a deadend the will to will has now cleared by opening up, through its very intensification, an inaugural glimpse into an entirely other time, the time of non-epochal or non-historial history. Infrapolitics remains content with its affirmation of a “simple dwelling” in the here and now, instead of thinking of itself as the promoter of a “step into the blue” (284) at the abyssal end of the history of being. Another way of putting this, maybe, would be to say that the time of infrapolitics is always the time of what Schürmann refers to as “the legislative-transgressive fracture” or double bind (Broken 25), a posthegemonic time that refuses legislation without transgressing it into an alternative one.
And, as to the fourth problem, Schürmann says: “Poein kata phusin . . . Thinking is essentially compliant with the flux of coming-to-presence, with constellations that form and undo themselves. To think is to follow the event of appropriation, to follow phuein” (289). Schürmann proposes two master terms for such compliance: non-attachment and releasement, both taken from Heidegger in specific reference to Meister Eckhart. There is certainly a difference between submitting to ordering principles and “acting according to presencing,” in compliance with the worlding of the world and the thinging of the thing. But who guarantees the public, collective, universal compliance with the second under the guise of the (transitional) principle that there are no principles? A second-order hegemony, in this case presumably guaranteed by the thinkers and the poets to come, is no better than the pedestrian economy of the principle. Infrapolitics prefers the suspension of compliance, not out of any fundamental suspicion towards the mysterious dispensations of the fourfold, rather out of a fundamental suspicion of its interpreters. Letting-be is infrapolitically to be thought of as, indeed, existential releasement for the sake of a radical attachment to the free singularity of existence, which is therefore also an un-attachment to everything else. Letting-be is not to be thought of, infrapolitically, as the secret hegemony of the thinkers and the poets to come.
Let me sum up the four disagreements, which are disagreements regarding Schürmann’s drawing of consequences after his otherwise admirable interpretation of Heideggerian thought. They all amount not to a rupture with Schürmann’s thought, rather to its infrapoliticization. Schürmann’s Heidegger interpretation remains all too political—that is in a sense both its strength and its weakness. They have to do with the structure of obligation. Against Schürmann, first disagreement, the obligation of thought, as regards infrapolitics, is not an obligation of a historico-political nature; the obligation of infrapolitical thought, second disagreement, is not of the order of the heroic, and it cannot be, as it does not found itself on a difference between time and history that necessarily turns history into a site of cognitive dispensation as opposed to the mere existentiality of the time of life; infrapolitical obligation, third disagreement, does not depend upon the final catastrophe of the principle that kills all principles, technology or the will-to-will as the unintentional provider of originary time, and infrapolitical obligation does not respond to the event of postechnological presencing, it is fond of no steps into the blue, and it does not like to fall into any unthinkable abyss of the “not-beyond;” finally, infrapolitical obligation, fourth disagreement, does not claim to breach the path for universal compliance with the presencing of the fourfold, the worlding of the world, or the thinging of the thing. Infrapolitical obligation, through those disagreements which are perhaps better to be understood as a negation of the premise, appears as a much more modest endeavor. We could sum them all up into the negation of the principle of anarchy as exposed by Schürmann, to which I now turn.
The complicated conjunction between “principle” and “anarchy” is motivated, for Schürmann, on the alleged or suspected fact that the so-called “hypothesis of metaphysical closure,” and the consequent loss of any recourse to principles or principial thought, do not immediately condemn us to an a-principial world, since, on the “transitional” line, at the line but not beyond the line, we can only think, our language can only offer us to think, the lack of a recourse to principles through the painful enunciation of the principle of anarchy, the principle of non-principles. The principle of anarchy would necessarily be a precarious phrase—no principle if anarchy, no anarchy if principles; and yet, there is a principle of anarchy as a placeholder for an unthinkable time to come where anarchy would dissolve the principiality of any principle, including itself as principle. This is not a trivial affair. If, as Schürmann establishes at the end of Broken Hegemonies, a hybristic insistence on the maintenance of principles as constant presence equals something like (non-ethical, non-moral, but nevertheless overwhelming) evil, the principle of anarchy might also be considered historial evil—is it not after all a reluctant recourse to principles in the last instance, in the very face of the absence of principles? Is it not a desperate clinging to the principle—an irremediable and yet radically bogus extension of its presence—under the ruse of anarchy? How are we to negotiate the ultimate catastrophe assailing the hypothesis of closure? Would the principle of anarchy be a bite into evil, apotropaic or not, but in any case fundamentally the largest kind of bite, to the extent that it knows itself as evil?
I do not mean to answer that question (or perhaps I will answer it without meaning to). Let me only point out a curious circumstance. Emmanuel Levinas, whose work could be considered committed to the awakening of goodness in his sense, published Otherwise than Being in 1974. His Chapter 4 opens with a section on “Principle and Anarchy” (Otherwise Than Being, 99-102). It could be expected that any posterior attempt at dealing with the “and” in Levinas´ phrase would refer back to that work and those pages—and to the rest of the Levinasian chapter those pages initiate. And yet Schürmann’s Heidegger on Being and Acting, whose original French title was and is Le principe de l’anarchie (1982), devotes only one footnote to Levinas (in the English translation, page 346, on the difference between originary and original Parmenidism, which will not concern ua), and, let us say, half of another one, whose main thrust is intended as a sharp critique of Jacques Derrida. Let me quote that section of the second footnote: “Among the company of writers, notably in France, who today herald the Nietzschean discovery that the origin as one was a fiction, there are those who espouse the multiple origin with jubilation, and this is apparently the case with Deleuze. There are others who barely conceal their regret over the loss of the One, and this may indeed be the case with Derrida. It suffices to listen to him express his debt to Lévinas: ‘I relate this concept of trace to what is at the center of the latest work of Emmanuel Lévinas,’ Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 70. The article by Emmanuel Lévinas to which he refers announces in its very title—‘La trace de l’autre,’ the Other’s trace—how far Derrida has traveled from his mentor. For Derrida, the discovery that the ‘trace’ does not refer back to an Other whose trace it would be is like a bad awakening: ‘arch-violence, loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of,’ ibid., p. 112” (Schürmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting, n. 44, 321-22).
As you have just seen, there is no mention of Levinas’s take on “principle” and “anarchy,” on on “principle and anarchy,” unless we extend the intended critique of Derrida into an indirect critique of Levinas’ notion of the trace, as referring to an Other understood as neighbor, as always already nostalgic of the pure presence of the One. If so, there would be a terminal disagreement at the level of conceptualization. But the footnote does not really warrant it. In fact, the footnote might on equal or even hermeneutically superior grounds be taken to be an endorsement of the Levinasian position against the Derridean “bad awakening.” In that case Schürmann would be approving, or not disapproving, of the Levinasian notion of the trace as strictly the trace of the Other. But what about Schürmann’s relation with “principle and anarchy” as Levinas discusses it?
For Levinas, and please forgive me if I do nothing but cover some basic ground here, “consciousness” does not exhaust the horizon of Being and should not be, against modernity, considered the Being of beings. Or perhaps it can, but then the positing of a non- or me-ontological region (from the Greek “me,” meaning “non”), beyond Being, certainly beyond consciousness, becomes obligatory. Within that structure, “principle” is very much on the side of consciousness: in fact, subjectivity is the principle invoked in the phrase “principle and anarchy, as the following quote attests:
Being a theme, being intelligible or open, possessing oneself, losing itself and finding itself out of an ideal principle, an arché, in its thematic exposition, being thus carries on its affair of being. The detour of ideality [Levinas has just said that ‘even an empirical, individual being is broached across the ideality of logos,’ 99] leads to coinciding with oneself, that is, to certainty, which remains the guide and guarantee of the whole spiritual adventure of being. But this is why this adventure is no adventure. It is never dangerous: it is self-possession, sovereignty, arché. (99
If there were to be an “spirituality” beyond “the philosophical tradition of the West,” it would have to be found beyond consciousness, that is, beyond always already archic being. It would be the place of “anarchy.” Of a dangerous and adventurous anarchy.
Anarchy is presented by Levinas as a persecution and an obsession. “The subject is affected without the source of the affection becoming a theme of representation” (101); “Anarchy is persecution. Obsession is a persecution where the persecution does not make up the content of a consciousness gone mad; it designates the form in which the ego is affected, a form which is a defecting from consciousness. This inversion of consciousness is no doubt a passivity—but it is a passivity beneath all passivity” (101). Far from being a hypertrophy of consciousness, it hits us as irremediable and always unwelcome trouble. It comes from outside. It is not domesticable, tamable, it admits of no reduction to arché. It is an absolute passion: “This passion is absolute in that it takes hold without any a priori” (102). Do we want it? But that question is only a question posited to consciousness, to the archic. Beyond consciousness we cannot resist it, and that is all there is to it.
Anarchy is the unconditional call that befalls us from the Other, or the other, whatever that may be, the dismantling of any archic certainty, the dismantling of the principle of consciousness or consciousness as principle. What is it, specifically? Levinas calls it “a relationship with a singularity” (100). It therefore irrupts from a “proximity” we cannot organize or measure, and it is a proximity beneath all distances (“it cannot be reduced to any modality of distance or geometrical contiguity,” 100-01). It is the “trace:” “This way of passing, disturbing the present without allowing itself to be invested by the arché of consciousness, striating with its furrows the clarity of the ostensible, is what we have called a trace” (100).
Is this in any way commensurate to Schürmann’s thought of the principle of anarchy? Does it come under the possible indirect critique in his footnote? Yes, without a doubt, the Levinasian anarchy is “arch-violence, loss of the proper, of absolute proximity, of self-presence, in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of.” Schürmann’s critique may hint at the notion that any surprise in this regard, such as the Derridean one, would be always naïve or feigned. It is true that Levinas makes it dependent on the encounter with the other as neighbor (“What concretely corresponds to this description is my relationship with my neighbor,” 100). This is what Derrida is said to depart from, and what Schürmann seems perhaps, in our second reading, to take for granted as correct. But it is difficult to judge here whether Schürmann’s acceptance of the notion of the trace as necessarily the trace of the face of the other in me, as face, that is, as human referent, is exclusive, in the sense that it would preempt an expansion of the trace referent. In fact, it does not seem it could be so. The irruption of anarchy would not for Schürmann, any more than for Derrida, be reducible to an encounter with human otherness, even if the encounter with human otherness could trigger it every time, or some times, also as a persecution and also as an obsession. In Levinas the persecutory obsession of relational anarchy does not seem to be triggered by unspecified being, by being in general, or by Being as difference, it would not seem to be triggered by, for instance, the “legislative-transgressive predicament” of a transitional time—it is always, it seems, a relationship with a singularity that does it, with an entity—the widow, the orphan, the neighbor—that poses a demand and imposes an obligation. We have already seen Lyotard’s intended correction to the restrictive interpretation of ethical otherness in The Differend (see above)—for Lyotard the addressor may not be “somebody,” may be absolutely unmarked.
But, leaving Levinas’ ultimate position aside, there is something else in Schürmann’s gesture of (non)citation that should be questioned.
Schürmann, by invoking the principle of anarchy as the political response in transitional times to the absence of metaphysical principles in metaphysical closure, seems to naturalize, hence disavow, the persecutory aspect of me-ontological anarchy by positing (displeased) surprise at Derrida’s feigned surprise and celebrating Deleuze’s jubilation in the face of it. As if there were nothing particularly painful in being thrown over to an anarchic relation as radical obligation. As if, therefore, the resources of subjectivity—the subjectivity of the thinker—were or could be enough to keep the dangerous adventure of anarchy at bay, under control. The Schürmannian principle of anarchy could then be thought to be still the subjective reaction to the epochal dismantling of ontology (as metaphysics). But, if so, the principle of anarchy emerges, plainly, as principle, and principle of consciousness. Anarchy runs the risk of becoming yet another form of mastery, or rather: anarchy, as principle, is the last form of mastery. At the transitional time, posited as such by the hypothesis of metaphysical closure, metaphysics still runs the show as consolation and consolidation. But this may not be good enough. It is not exposure but counterexposure. It is reaction, taming, and re-enclosure. Let us now see if Lyotard’s unfinished work on Levinas can help us with it.
Against the so-called “Hegelian persecution” (Logique 19), Lyotard finds in Levinas the claim “the self does not proceed from the other; the other befalls the self” (24). The ethical phrase depends on the radical exteriority that Hegel’s phenomenology must dismiss: “the demand of the exteriority of the exterior-interior relation is no less required for ethical discourse than the demand of the interiority of the same relation is required for phenomenological deployment” (27). In Hegelian terms, the speculative approach would concern the true and the false, whereas the non-speculative engagement—discourses on justice, on aesthetics—would be relegated to “discursive arts” such as morals or politics, literature or rhetoric. But Levinas inverts the terms and wants to claim that philosophy, as first philosophy, “does not consist in describing the rules that determine the truth or falsity of statements, but rather those that determine their justice or injustice” (29). The game is served. It has to do with establishing a philosophical procedure on prescriptions not descriptions. And it is prescriptions that introduce the anarchy that, without them, would be merely whimsical.
An expression like “Welcome the stranger!” . . . must be valid not because it can be inferred from previously accepted statements, or because it would conform to more archaic propositions, rather from the only fact that it is an order that has its authority in itself. It is therefore in some way a command of command. In particular the considerable importance Levinas attaches to the idea of anarchy resides in the refusal to infer normative statements. And it is also there where his attacks on ontology, not just Heideggerian but also for instance Spinozist, find their strength: ontology would only be another word for a metalanguage of descriptive statements. (37-38)
Of course the thinker that did the most of the attempt to deal with prescriptions rather than descriptions in the philosophical tradition was Kant, whose notion of the categorical imperative in the second Critique is ostensibly conceived of as an imperative. But Lyotard shows how the Kantian second Critique unguts the anarchy of the Kantian imperative by referring it on the one hand to a causality (freedom) and on the other hand by referring it to the need for universal consensus, for normativization (40-60). Levinas, against all of that, would have attempted to pursue the thought of an obligation never convertible into a norm.
Norms pass through their understanding before they can force action, whereas obligations prompt action before understanding. In the latter case, obligations follow the Schürmannian specification of the non-heuristic, non-cognitive praxis, and bring the issue into the region of existential infrapolitics. Infrapolitics must reject what Lyotard terms, following Levinas, “the infatuation of the Self in knowledge” (65). The interruption of the domination of knowledge, that is, of the infatuation of the descriptive statement, is a precondition for infrapolitical exercise. Does it turn infrapolitics into an “ethical phrase”? “Do not let ‘you’ ever become ‘I’” (73) is the prescription that Lyotard pragmatically extracts from his analysis: a prescription cannot be tamed into description. For Lyotard, the incommensurability between obligation and enunciation is also the incommensurability between the freedom of the sovereign subject and becoming-a-hostage to the addressor. And Lyotard says: “but the ethical and political question does not begin with the question of liberty where the I plays, it begins with the obligation that seizes the you. Not with the power to announce . . . , but with the other power, which is in the West an impotence, which is to-be-required-for . . .” (73).
Is infrapolitics a praxis outside the universe of knowledge? Is this characterization, seized by the power of unconditional obligation to no known addressor, consistent with our four disagreements with Schürmann’s Heidegger interpretation? And what of the anarchy principle? But there is no anarchy principle that does not turn anarchic persecution into a norm, that does not turn anarchic obsession into a universalizable duty. It is indeed possible that the universe of politics and ethics, that the universe of ethics and politics, begin in the obligation imposed by an unknown exteriority on the you. But it is also possible, if not necessary, that, before ethics and politics, another discursive instance is interposed—that which refers to the infrapolitical acknowledgement of an addressor without referent that turns every possible solipsism and every possible infatuation into a practice of existence.
Texas A&M University
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trans. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend. Phrases in Dispute. Georges Van den
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