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Hospitality: being a host, being hostage

Levinas' analysis of the face in T&I drafts several elements for deconstruction. It is in a great extent about the voice, about seeing language in its formal element as structurally dialogical and its prime function as that of enabling discourse aimed towards a public - and not description or coping with the world. The structure of language - and indeed of voice - makes explicit the asymmetry between the other, as a master, and the speaker. As a speaker, I'm in the hands of the other because language is a public device formally structured by diaphonia, by different discourses and that difference is embedded in the very structure of thematizing anything, in the very structure of the conceptual. As a consequence, it is not that I have a grip on my concepts and not even that they have a grip on me but rather that the others have a grip on me through my conceptual life. Concepts make me think, but they do so only because they make my masters present. Without a public language, as Sellars once put, there would be nothing to talk about. Levinas adds that a public language is precisely the formal structure of the presence of the others - it is made by the traces of their intervention.

This structural asymmetry that makes the use of public language a very ethically charged endeavor, can be better understood if we start out with Wittgenstein's remarks on following a rule. When we use concepts, we are hostage of the others. We are hostage of our masters. This is what Levinas calls the absolute surplus of the other. One is always hostage to the others in order to think. Denken is danken: to think is to be in the hands of somebody else who could come along and tell me that I haven't applied "+2" in the appropriate way. Someone could always place me in the situation of section 185's pupil. Each word I use in in this predicament: through them the others have a grip on my thinking. Each one of them is a host - to each one of them I'm hostage. Language is itself hospitality and thinking is therefore an exercise of being a guest - a guest of everyone else.


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