One thing that I admire about continental philosophy is the way a single sentence is often utilized to convey a complex idea. While it’s easy to take these sentences out of context and accuse the author of obscurantism, I think the most rewarding task would be to examine the context in which the sentence is said and explain their meaning. My blogs in the near future will focus on this task, of putting a single sentence that I take to be indicative of the project of a text and examine it.
For this post, I’ll be looking at this sentence by Emmanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity, which I take to be representative of his project (thus far — I haven’t completed the book):
Cronos, thinking he swallows a god, swallows but a stone (58).
Levinas here straightforwardly refers to Greek mythology, wherein Cronos seeks to swallow his son, Zeus, out of fear he would become a usurper. Important for this context, Cronos in antiquity was interpreted as a personification of time, hence “chronological time.” The real magic in the sentence is the way in which Levinas utilizes Greek mythology as a metaphor for his own criticism of objective, historical, chronological time.
Totality and Infinity claims that totality, rather than infinity, dominates the Western tradition. While it is beyond the scope of this blog post to fully explicate both of these terms — indeed, it is the project of Levinas’ entire book — a brief explanation will suffice for for my purposes.
Totality defines the way in which philosophy typically interacts with intersubjective relationships, where both the same and Other are mediated by a third term. For instance, Kantian ethical systems use practical reasoning in order to mediate disputes and show a common sense among persons which can be used to resolve differences. Similarly, rights frameworks refer to something common between persons which is used to ground ethical interactions. This mediates both the I and the Other through a commonality among both, and for Levinas, thereby eliminates the inseparable difference between self and Other.
Infinity, on the other hand, refers to the surplus of the Other. For Levinas, the Other is always more than any systematization or categorization. Any attempt at segregating others into categories is violent because it denies the radical alterity of the Other. Levinas explains in the preface that
violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action
- Page 21
History, particularly when history is thought of as an objective means of recording past events, plays into this violence Levinas is describing. The preface of Totality and Infinity describes the way in which totality requires endless violence. He opposes ethics to history, inasmuch as the ethical relation that Levinas describes attempts to disrupt the continuity of history, which is necessarily violent, with messianic eschatology, a religious end to history. This eschatology attempts to move beyond totality, beyond history, into the ethical relation.
History as Levinas conceives of it attempts to reconcile unreconcilable differences between the I and the Other. It mediates the relation between the I and the Other, where Levinas demands that ethics be based around an immediate face to face encounter with the Other. The ethical demand therefore does not emerge from the universality of reason, or the rights of others, but from the conversations that one has with others.
When man truly approaches the Other he is uprooted from history (52).
The relationship between history and totalization is so strong that Levinas will claim that “Totalization is accomplished only in history — in the history of historiographers, that is, among the survivors” (55). In other words, totalization never truly “works” with other living, breathing people. To make Levinas’ argument concrete, the people you know and speak with on a daily basis always exceed your own idea of them. They inevitably surprise you, your conceptual categorization of their identity necessarily fails. The experience of the Other is the experience of sonder, not only that the Other is potentially more than any totalization, but that she actually exceeds and contests totalization.
It is only once the Other is dead that totalization is successful. Unable to further actively contest Otherization, history for Levinas is a violent recapitulation of peoples’ identities. This critique is quite similar to what we mean when we say that history is written by the victors, that those in power have the ability to retroactively determine “objective” history. For Levinas, this is violence at its core.
Hence, our return to Cronos and the sentence: “Cronos, thinking he swallows a god, swallows but a stone”. Cronos in the sentence being interpreted should be seen as a metaphor for chronological, objective history. In the same way that history believes it can swallow the identities of those it claims to write about and summarize what is considered important, it doesn’t capture the life of the Other, but only a hollow shell. Subjectivity is eschatological — it enters at a break with history, not in continuity with it —precluding any successful totalization into history.
Cronos, thinking he swallows a god, swallows but a stone.
History, thinking it accurately depicts events, ignores subjectivity.
Totality, thinking it captures the whole, ignores precisely what defines human subjectivity, its infinity, its relation to the Other.
Next time I will write about Heidegger’s enigmatic statement: “Philosophy is philosophizing,” showing it’s more than a straightforward tautology. I hope this was useful. Stay tuned.