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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Totality and object-oriented ontology

In his interesting "Levinas' triple critique of Heidegger", Harman presents Levinas as a critic of Heidegger in three respects: one to do with ethics (or rather the ethics of ethics, as Critchley would put), one to do with separation and one to do with substance. He points out, quite correctly in my view, that Levinas' original attempt was to provide a metaphysics devoid of any commitment to totality; totality, Harman writes, is his "strategic enemy". In Totality and Infinity (T&I) he exorcises totality thoroughly by proposing a metaphysics in the first person where one's selfishness and its interruptions form the basis of the narrative. Hence, the egoism of incorporating the others by the same in order to survive and the interruption placed by the other from outside through a metaphysical desire present in ethical demands as much as in the public language imposed on my selfish freedom or spontaneity. At the same time, Harman objects that the metaphysical project of Levinas restricts the interrupting other (the absolute other) to the human others that reveal my spontaneity as unworthy and make sure my freedom is invested as responsibility. Harman's objection could motivate an object-oriented metaphysics: every object affects every other through metaphysical desires (as much as through needs) and, as a consequence, there is transcendence not only in the human other. There is infinity - what Levinas contrasts with totality and associates with separation - in every object. Because separation is warranted, such an object-oriented metaphysics wouldn't be committed to totality (to an existence indifferent to existents). In fact, Harman plays separation against totality while discussing the friction Levinas imposes on Heidegger.

Now, to exorcise totality is not an univocal endeavor. There is a sense in which totality contrasts with separation and, more precisely, with exteriority. Levinas insists that exteriority requires interiority - interiority, he writes, is the holiday of totality. In that sense, an object-oriented metaphysics would avoid totality by entrusting each object with a withdrawn element (say, the Real Object of Harman). This element, conceived by Heidegger in connection to his reading of the Ding in Heidegger's Einblick as something that reveals and conceals itself of its own accord as an episode of zuhanden, would take care of the infinity in the interiority of the other that Levinas points out in a contexts very different of that of episodes of zuhanden (Levinas understands that only thematization, and not the coupling of things when tools are used, reveals the bite of the other, through word). In that sense, an object-oriented metaphysics could expand Levinas' metaphysics beyond the confines of the human other. But Levinas wants to exorcise totality in other senses. We can understand totality in Levinas at least in these four possible senses:
(1) The opposite of interiority (separation, exteriority)
(2) The commitment to a third-personal view, a sideways-on view in an expression of McDowell
(3) The use of the first person as an example, the other viewed as an alter-ego and my own experience as the basis for a speculative flight
(4) The commitment to neutral, impersonal terms
He is clear about senses 2, 3 and 4, as much as 1 in the opening pages of T&I. In 2A6 ("Le moi de la jouissance n'est ni biologique ni sociologique") he criticizes an impersonal view of the relation between me and the other. He wants to avoid any description in neutral, third-personal terms of my relation with the other which is thoroughly personal and cannot be described in a lateral way (from a sideways-on point of view) unless one is committed to viewing both me and the other as examples and the other as an alter ego. Levinas doesn't want any speculative flight from my own first-personal experience: this would amount to projecting myself and my relation with the other beyond my personal terms and therefore would entail a commitment to totality - and to understanding the other as an alter-ego.

It seems that an object-oriented metaphysics, as something other than a metaphysics made in the first person, would be committed to totality in the 2, 3 and 4 senses. The withdrawal of the other, for Levinas, is not the withdrawal of an object in general - which is neutral. I don't withdraw in the same way as the other does to me. An object that withdraws is a neutral structure speculatively achieved by expanding my first person experience. In his terms, such an object-oriented metaphysics is an ontology in the sense that it collapses the other into the same and turns my experience with the other into a concept (the concept of object among objects).

What interest me in all this is the metaphysical commitment to totality. Yesterday, in the Anarchai's group reading of Jean Wahl we were discussing a tradition in metaphysics (certainly a very 20th century one) that would start out by avoiding totality. This spreads from Levinas' insistence in a first personal metaphysics to Deleuze's n-1 account of multiplicity through Jankélevich's presque rien and je ne sais quoi and Derrida's deconstruction (and to what Heidegger proposes, for example, in the Kehre in the last lecture of the Einblick. We thought that maybe Jean Wahl could be placed as one of the origins for such a (20th century) tendency. It is interesting to understand the ontological turn (and the speculative turn) as a break with that avoidance of totality. It is, perhaps, a consequence of abandoning what Malabou once called "a culture of aporia".


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