Toward a Dialectic of Totality and Infinity: Reflections on Emmanuel Levinas

by Anselm Kyongsuk Min
Citation
Title:
Toward a Dialectic of Totality and Infinity: Reflections on Emmanuel Levinas
Author:
Anselm Kyongsuk Min
Year: 
1998
Publication: 
The Journal of Religion
Volume: 
78
Issue: 
4
Start Page: 
571
End Page: 
592
Publisher: 
Language: 
English
URL: 
Select license: 
Select License
DOI: 
PMID: 
ISSN: 
Abstract:

Toward a Dialectic of Totality and Infinity: Reflections on Emmanuel Levinas*

Anselm Kyongsuk Min / Claremont Graduate University

No one in recent years has done more than Emmanuel Levinas to carry on a sustained, rigorous critique of the notion of totality and the logo- centrism it implies, not in order to indulge in what might appear to be a rather frivolous and nihilistic play of sheer alterity but in order to uphold the objective reality of ethical values. With passion, radicality, and abso- luteness that remind us of Kierkegaard and Barth, Levinas questioned the claims of totality and its ontology of war in the name of infinity and its eschatology of peace.' In an age bleeding from the "crimes of logic" (Camu~)~

unprecedented for their scale, art, and technological efficiency, in a world ever haunted by the permanent possibility of war, the only way for human beings to live together in peace and justice, Levinas insisted, is the ethical recognition of the infinity of the Other that transcends and resists all categorical mediation and the establishment of a communion of Others in fraternity and solidarity.

In this article I revisit Levinas's central intuition, the infinity and tran- scendence of the Other. I shall, first, try to bring out the philosophical significance of that intuition; second, confront it with certain immanent

*A version of this article was presented to the Theology and the Phenomenological Movement Seminar of the American Academy of Religion, Anaheim, Calif., November 20, 1989, and at the Institute for Philosophical Research, Korea University, Seoul, May 28, 1997.

For recent works of general introduction to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, see John Llewelyn, Emmnuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995); and Colin Davis, Levinas: An Introductzon (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996). Levinas's conversations with Philippe Nemo in Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, trans. Richard

A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), is a very readable introduction to his thought in his own words. Sean Hand's editorial "Introduction" in The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 1-8, is also a brief but fine summary of Levinas's thought.

Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essaj on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Knopf, 1956), p. 3. O 1998 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0022-418919817804-0004$02.00

criticisms, namely the historical conditions of infinity and transcendence; and third, argue for a dialectic of totality and infinity rather than a sharp opposition between the two. My argument is that we do concrete justice to the transcendence and infinity of the Other not by attacking totality as such but by the praxis of creating liberating totalities. As social beings we cannot avoid the politics of totality, a system of identity binding on all, such as laws, policies, institutions, and structures. The question is not whether we can avoid totality as such but only whether we are willing and able to construct a totality that serves liberation and solidarity by provid- ing their economic, political, and cultural conditions. Totality without in- finity is indeed oppressive and totalitarian, but infinity without totality is impotent and equally liable to oppression. What we need is a dialectic of totality and infinity in the interest of solidarity-solidarity of Others.

THE PHILOSOPHIC.4L SIGNIFICANCE OF LEVINAS

Levinas's protest is no doubt one of the most radical against the destruc- tion of human dignity ever mounted by a philosopher. His protest is based on a stringent critique of the very roots of such destruction, the logocentrism or the priority of reason, logic, idea, concept, and the cate- gories of immanence that pervade the Western philosophical tradition, not to speak of a critique of the brutalities of the many political totalitari- anisms of the present century. For Levinas the main culprit has been the conjunction of egolatry, totality, and history. Whenever egolatrous reason approaches persons and things, it inevitably reduces them to a moment of the ego and the same, of totality and history, and the result is not only intellectual reduction of reality to components of totalizing ontology but also political reduction of persons to moments of omnivorous totalitarian- ism. The whole of Western philosophy, based on the imperialism of the same, "has been struck with a horror of the Other that remains Other- with an insurmountable allergy."" an expression of the ego, the source of all identity and identification, Western thought has been essentially an "egology," a philosophy of "power" and "injustice," in fact "an ontology of war."4

As opposed to this ontology of war, Levinas advocates an "eschatology of messianic peace" or "prophetic eschatology." Eschatology does not mean providing information about the future and completing a philoso- phy of history by demonstrating the teleology of being, which would only

Emmanuel Levinas, "The Trace of the Other," in Deconstruction zn Context: Literature and Philosophj, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 346. 'Levinas, Totalzty and Infinity An Essaj on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), pp. 44, 46, and 22, respectively

mean assimilating eschatology to the ontology of totality. Eschatology "in- stitutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and the present," or with the "void that sur- rounds the totality." It is "a relationship with a surplus always exterior to the totalitj, as though the objective totality did not fill out the true measure of being." It is a relationship with the infinity of being that "exceeds the totality" and is "as primordial as t~tality."~

This eschatological infinity, however, is not merely "beyond" totality and history; it is also "reflected within the totality and history, within experience," where it "draws beings out of the jurisdiction of history and the future; it arouses them in and calls them forth to their full responsibility." The eschatological judgment is not the "last" judgment but the judgment of history as a whole, of all the instants in time, restoring "to each instant its full signification in that very instant." For eschatology, beings still exist in relationship, "but on the basis of themselves and not on the basis of the t~tality."~

Eschatology thus implies "the breach of the totality, the pos- sibility of a signzJication without a ~ontext."~ In short, eschatological infinity is "in" history but not "of" history in that it judges, subverts, and tran- scends the totalizing and reductionist categories of history from within. In this sense, peace is possible only eschatologically, not hi~torically.~

The eschatological path out of the brutalities of rationalist logocentrism and murderous totalitarianism is to root thought itself in a reality above the immanence of thought, in something "more than it can think." This reality is the infinite and transcendent reality of the Other, (L'Autrui), infinite as bearer of the "trace" of the divine infinite and transcendent over all categories of finite mediation. In retrieving the Cartesian "idea of the infinite," Levinas insists that the Other is "infinite" in that it does not enter into but "overflows" the entire sphere of the same. Infinity "remains ever exterior to thought" and "overflows the thought that thinks it," while also remaining "the condition for every opinion as also for every objective truth" and "the common source of activity and the~ry."~

This infinity of the Other "interrupts" and 'Ijudges" totality. As such, the Other is not an object of knowledge, which would immediately denature the Other by degrading her as a moment of one's own Bei-sich-Sein. The Other is ap- preciated precisely as Other, in her radical alterity and irreducible singu- larity, only when thought renounces its totalitarian hubris and learns to

Ibid., pp. 22-23.

Ibid., p. 23.

'Ibid., and Levinas, Ethics and Infinzty, p. 86

Xevinas, Totality and Infinit3 p. 24.

"bid., pp. 195, 25, and 27, respectively.

think of the Other on her own terms, kath'auto, not as a moment of a totality, not in terms of her relationship to others within a system, but to think "otherwise than being" or "beyond essence."

As the epiphany of the Other, the "face" is "a fundamental event."I0 The Other can only be "invoked" in a face-to-face conversation, which "reveals" the Other "in his refusal to be contained," as "absolute being," that is, as being "withdrawn from the categories," not "disclosed" as a theme nor "comprehended" in a category nor addressed in the violence of rhetoric." The Other "has only a reference to himself, he has no quid- dity."12 The Other is not "constituted" by me in any way as in knowledge and vision. The alterity of the Other is absolute, not relative as in the case of comparison and distinction, both of which imply a community of a genus and destroy the alterity of the Other. The Other remains "infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign," and "breaks with the world that can be common to us, whose virtualities are inscribed in our nature and devel- oped by our existence."13 The Other embodies the priority of the existent over being, of metaphysics over ontology.14

Ethics is the "royal road" to this metaphysical thinking of the Other in her radical alterity. Doing justice to the metaphysical reality of the Other requires radical humility of thought and radical transcendence of its in- nate egolatry. Justice consists in recognizing "my master" in the Other. The Other puts the I and all "solipsistic dialectic of consciousness" in question. I truly meet the Other only when I welcome the Other precisely in her challenge to my freedom in all its spontaneity and arbitrariness, in its essence as "imperialism of the same," only when I welcome the "face" of the Other imposing itself on me in all its destitution and hunger "be- yond the manifested and purely phenomenal form," "without the inter- mediary of any image," and "prior to all disclosure of being and its cold splendor."15 The Other is approachable only ethically, only in heeding the categorical imperative that comes to us not from the general dignity of persons as ends in themselves but from the "face" of the singular Other that "opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation,"16 challenging me to justify my freedom and even my existence, my very

lo Robert Bernasconi and David M'ood, eds., The Provocation oflevinas: Rethinking the Other

(London: Routledge, 1988), p. 168.

'I Levinas, Totality and Infinity, pp. 194 and 70-71, respectively.

l2 Ibid., p. 69.

"Ibid., p. 194.

l4 For a classic critique of Levinas's primacy of metaphysics over ontology, see Jacques Derrida, Writzng and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978),pp. 134-52 ("Of Ontological Violence"). inas as, Totality and ~nfinitg p. 200; also pp. 72, 86, and 195. l6 Ibid., p. 201.

"right to be," and keeping me in the "vigilant insomnia" of infinite ethical responsiblity, the responsibility of a "hostage.""

The face-to-face is the "primordial event" of signification, putting into question all "constitutive freedom" and conditioning all possibility of meaning, words, concepts, Sinngebung, consciousness, reason itself, and the very "universality that reigns as the presence of humanity in the eyes that look at me."1s It is the face of the Other with its inviolable exteriority, not a concept, not being in general, that constitutes the pimum intellzgibile. Ethics as the sovereignty of the Other is prior to epistemology, ontology, and politics, all of which require a thoroughgoing ethical critique.lg

It is also through this ethical responsibility to the Other that the ego is constituted a true subject. The Other is neither a scandal to be assimi- lated into the identity of the ego as in Hegel nor a threat to be guarded against as in Sartre. Nor is the Other, as in Heidegger, simply another category of beings to be encountered in one's being-in-the-world, where one's primary preoccupation remains one's own existence, especially one's own death. For Levinas, true subjectivity is not found "at the level of its purely egoist protestation against totality, nor in its anguish before death."'" Rather, it is found only in subjecting itself to the ethical sum- mons of the Other, willing to be "obsessed" with the Other, to be "ac- cused" and "persecuted" by the Other, and to "substitute" oneself and "expiate" for the Other."

In an unqualifiedly heteronomous account of subjectivity, Levinas in- sists that "it is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the Other that makes me an individual 'I.' I become a responsible or ethical 'I' only to the extent that I agree to depose or dethrone myself-to abdicate my position of centrality-in favor of the vulnerable Other."2' My relation to the Other is not symmetrical as in Buber, but "asymmetrical": "I am responsible for the Other without waiting for re~iprocity."'~ As Le

"The Levinas Reader (n. 1 above), pp. 86, 28, and 84, respectively
Levinas, Totalitj and Infinity (n. 3 above), p. 208.
'"bid., pp. 43, 48, 201, and 216.

2"

Ibid., p. 26.

2'

Levinas, Otherulise than Being or Bejond Essence, trans. Aphonso Lingis (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981), pp. 99-129 ("Substitution").

22 Richard A. Cohen, ed., Face to Face with Levinas (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 27. For Levinas's critique of Heidegger and Sartre (Emmanuel Levinas and Richard Kierney, "Dialogue with Emrnanuel Levinas"), see pp. 14-17. For nuanced comparisons of Levinas and Heidegger, see David Boothroyd, "Responding to Levinas," in Bernasconi and Wood, eds. (n. 9 above), pp. 15-31; on Levinas and Sartre, see Christina Howells, "Sartre and Levinas," also in Bernasconi and LVood, eds., pp. 91-99.

See Levinas, Ethics and Infinitj (n. 1 above), p. 98, Totality and Infinity, p. 297, The Levinas Reader, pp. '72-74; and Levinas and Kierney, p. 31. For a discussion of Levinas's relation to Buber, see Robert Bernasconi, '"Failure of Communication' as a Surplus: Dialogue and Lack of Dialogue between Buber and Levinas," In Bernasconi and Wood, eds., pp. 100-135.

vinas is fond of quoting from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, "we are all responsible for everyone else, but I more than other^."'^ The Levi- nasian subject is not the subject of traditional ontology that reduces all things to itself but the "meonotological," ethical subject that recognizes the moral priority of the Other and one's own heteronomous responsibil- ity as more primordial than one's own autonomous freedom.

A genuine human community is possible only as a communion of fra- ternity and solidarity at the transcategorical level, only as a "religious" bond or communion of Others liberated from the tyranny of immanentist categories and concepts and reconstituted beyond all ontology, at once "absolved" from all relations and radically "separated" from all by virtue of their infinity yet also related to all in a nontotalizing way, beyond the formal unity of a genus,'j where each, in Luther's language, is "a perfectly dutiful servant of all," without, however, considering oneself "a perfectly free lord of all," where the Other does remain the lord. It is a relationship with the Other that does not constitute or become part of a totality, hu- man or divine, "a relation without relati~n,"'~ where "the terms remain absolute despite the relation in which they find them~elves."~~

This "es- chatological" goal of ethics is a genuinely pluralistic society where each is bound to the Other by ethical responsibility, beyond all totalizing catego- rization, beyond the unity of genus, mutual resemblance, and even a common cause, where each is indeed an "atom," separated from all others when viewed in terms of rationalist categories but related to Others at a level beyond all objectifying knowledge and totalizing history.2s

The Levinasian ideal, then, is a radical pluralism of egos, each deposed from the throne of self-idolatry and recentered on the Other in an equal- ity in which "the Other commands the same and reveals himself to the same in responsibility."'"t is a solidarity of Others in their simultaneous "absolute proximity" and "absolute separation," "a primordial multiplic- ity" "observed in the very face to face that constitutes it,"30 a society of a radical, not merely numerical, multiplicity of terms that are "absolute and yet in relation" with a "surplus" beyond the possibility of total reflec- ti~n.~'

It is a society of simultaneous kinship and radical heterogeneity, in an "unrelating relation," which "does not fill the abyss of separation but

24 Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, p. 98, The Levinas Render, p. 182; and Cohen, ed., p. 31.

Emmanuel Levinas and Richard Kearney, "Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas."

25 Levinas, Totalzty and Infinity, pp. 102-5, and 195.

26 Ibid., p. 80.

2i Ibid., pp. 180, 195.

28 Ibid., pp 40, 52, and 214.

29 Ibid., p. 214.

30 Ibid., p. 251.

31 Ibid., pp. 220-21.

confirms it,"32 "a relationship without intermediary, without mediations," "beyond the categories of unity and multiplicity which are valid for things."33 In the language of Alphonso Lingis, the eschatological commu- nity of Levinas is a "community of those who have nothing in common."34

Levinas echoes the attack of Kierkegaardian existentialism and con- temporary deconstructionism on the logocentric hubris of the Western tradition, but his critique is based on the irreducibility to reason, not of "the existing individual" as in Kierkegaard but of the ethically encoun- tered Other. He also echoes the attack of Barthian neoorthodoxy on lib- eral theology and natural theology in the absoluteness of his denial of all mediation and his affirmation of the sovereignty of the Other, but unlike Barth, Levinas includes human Others among such unmediated sover- eigns, not only the divine Other; our primary access to the divine Other is precisely through human Others. In any event, Levinas exemplifies the postmodern disenchantment with the reign of reason and all its works and the pluralistic groping for a livable community in an intellectually and politically oppressive world.

Most important, Levinas echoes certain central themes from the Judeo- Christian tradition, themes forcefully recovered for our attention in re- cent decades by liberation theology. Finding the "traces" of God in the marginalized Others of history, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger; the primacy of the ethics of preferential option for the poor; ethics rooted in the confrontation of egolatrous egos with the concrete "faces" of Oth- ers and in the selfless surrender to their appeal; the prophetic denuncia- tion of the ideologies and instruments of domination; and the prophetic annunciation of an eschatological, transcategorical utopia of liberated human community: Levinas recovers these themes philosophically, not theologically, yet with denials and affirmations whose absoluteness echoes the passion of the Hebrew prophets.

ETHICS WITHOUT HISTORY: A CRITIQUE

Levinas's reflections embody phenomenological freshness, metaphysical depth, and prophetic intensity to a degree that does disturb and chal- lenge. His appeal lies in the absolute, unqualified affirmation of the infi- nite, transcategorical, unmediated transcendence of the Other. This ap- peal, however, I fear, is also his weakness. In order precisely to do justice to his intuition of the Other's ethical infinity, I argue, Levinas has to be

32 Ibid., p. 295; also p. 293. 33 Levinas, Existence and Existents, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988), p. 95. 34 This is the title of a book by Alphonso Lingis, The Community of Those Who Have ,Vothing in Common (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

aufgehoben in the Hegelian sense, that is, preserved in his ethical defense of the Other, negated in his dualism of ethics and history, metaphysics and ontology, infinity and totality, and raised to the positive dialectic of infinity and totality in the interest of solidarity.

Levinas is quite right in insisting that the Other as Other is irreducible in his ethical transcendence and infinity. However, by categorically deny- ing all historical and ontological mediation of the Other, he isolates the Other from the concrete totality of constitutively mediating sociohistori- cal relations, which alone would provide the essential context and condi- tion for the genesis and actualization of the ethical transcendence of the Other as a human-not angelic-Other, and thereby also reifies and re- duces the Other to an ahistorical abstraction. There is an internal con- tradiction between Levinas's intention, the defense of the Other in her ethical transcendence, and his philosophical procedure, the denial of all historical mediation, which ironically reduces the human Other to ahis- torical, angelic existence elevated above all contingencies of history, above all vulnerabilities, and thus neither capable of issuing the categorical im- perative "Thou shalt not kill!" to devouring egos35 nor indeed needing protection against such murder in the first place. Let me elaborate.

It is only proper in an immanent critique to ask what the conditions are for the very possibility of the ethical problem as a problem, that is, the murder of human beings and the countless acts of injustice, and of the solution to the problem, that is, the recognition and protection of the human dignity of the Other in her irreducible transcendence.

How Is the Ethical Problem as a Problem Possible?

How is domination possible? The egolatrous domination and murder of the Other is possible, one would think, because, among other things, the Other, for all her ethical transcendence and infinity, is constitutively- ontologically-interdependent on Others and mediated by them in such a way that the Other is intrinsically exposed to the negativities of history, to the pressures, temptations, and opportunities for evil generated by the social structure as a system of economic, political, and cultural interde- pendences, a system that is also always historically determinate, each sys- tem (e.g., capitalism, socialism, feudalism, primitive agrarian society, etc.) generating its own kind of temptations to murder and exploitation. Cer- tainly the global murders we are rightly concerned about-by mechanized and nuclear warfare, massive pollution of the environment, politi- cal uses of the food weapon, the bloc politics of the superpowers, and the destructive clashes of economic imperialisms, not to speak of the many

''Levinas, Totalzty and Infinzty (n. 3 above),p. 199, and Eth~cs and Infinzty (n. 1 above), p. 89.

racial holocausts, the great sharne of the present century-are inconceivable apart from our ontological and historical dependence on the systems under which we live.

It is precisely the concrete totality of historically specified ontological relations of interdependence that produces the "stranger," the "widow," and the "orphan" with whom Levinas is so concerned in all their naked- ness and vulnerability. By denying all ontological and historical mediation of the Other, then, Levinas renders the ethical problem of murder and injustice simply unintelligible and dissolves it as a problem. Without the many concrete mediations constitutive of the vulnerability of the Other as Other, we no longer have the problem of the Other. At best, Levinas reduces the stranger, the window, and the orphan to abstract symbols of human vulnerability in general with nothing historically concrete and specific about them.

How Is the Ethical Infinity and Transcendence of the Other Possible?

To this question Levinas provides a profound answer: the Other is ethi- cally infinite because he bears the "trace" of the divine infinite.3We is not infinite in himself but because of his "absolute" relation to the divine Other. The human Other shares in the transcendent dignity of the divine through that transcategorical relationship called "creation," which express "a multiplicity not united into a totality." The creature "indeed does depend on an other, but not as a part that is separated from it." In this sense, creation ex nihilo "breaks with system, posits a being outside of every system," and makes it open to the infinite.37

There is, however, another aspect to the question. How is the ethical transcendence of the Other possible precisely in her humanity? Is the Other ethically transcendent only in is her absolute relation to the divine infinite? Is she not also ethically transcendent in the totality of her imma- nent relations to persons, things, and structures of this world? Does not the problem of ethical transcendence arise precisely because the Other is murdered, degraded, and exploited, which is possible only in her many immanent relations in history and society? Are we not ethically com- manded by the Other to feed, shelter, clothe, educate, and heal her and in any event to concretely show our respect for her by striving to fulfill her manifold needs and desires? If so, are we not also admitting that the Other is transcendent not only in her absolute relation to the divine but also concretely in the totality of her many constitutive needs, desires, and

16 Cohen, ed. (n. 21 above), p. 31. For a brief exposition of Levinas's views of religion, see Davis (n. 1 above), pp. 93-1 19.

j5All quotations are from Levinas, Totalzty and Infinity, pp 104-5.

relations? The ethical dignity of the Other may "trace" its origin to her transcendent relation to the infinite, but that dignity is effectively de- stroyed or honored only in her immanent relations to history and society, and both the transcendent and the immanent relations are inseparably connected in the unity of the one person.

The Other, then, is ethically transcendent and irreducible as a concrete unity of her vertical relation to the divine in her interiority and her hori- zontal relations to society and history in her externality, that is, as a total- ity of her constitutive relations to transcendence and history. Only as a unity of transcendence and history, only as a transcendence mediated by and mediating history is the ethical sovereignty of the Other as a human Other possible and meaningful. Without this constitutive mediation, we denature the Other to abstract, angelic existence. It is important to re- member that we murder the Other not only by reducing the Other to an object of violence in history but also by elevating and etherealizing the Other beyond all history in thought.

The Other of Levinas's is "concrete" only in the phenomenological sense of the lived immediacy of the face-to-face encounter. One wonders, however, how concrete such an encounter really is, whether in fact it is not an abstraction, precisely because the Other is separated from all the mediating sociohistorical conditions that account for the vulnerability and degradation of the Other. However ethically compelling and irreduc- ible such an experience might be as a whole, the "face" of the Other is never unmediated. Concretely, it may be the face of a Romero shot to death during the Eucharist, or the terrified faces of those fleeing from the death squads in El Salvador, or the despairing faces of the many helpless refugees turned back at the U.S.-Mexican border, or the emaciated faces of the many victims of the civil war in Cambodia languishing in Thai camps, or the horrified faces of the several million Jews waiting for their turns in the Nazi gas chambers, or the outraged faces of young Palestin- ians caught up in a bloody intifada in the occupied territories, or the lonely and despairing faces of the tens of thousands of victims of AIDS avoided by many like the plague. The otherness of Others increases its ethical challenge precisely to the degree that we encounter them in all the concreteness of their mediating social conditions, not when we ab- stract from them. Ironically, Levinas is guilty of the very "disdainful spiri- tualism" of which he was accusing Buber on account of the latter's formal conception of the I-Thou relati~nship.~~

To concretize the Other in this way by introducing the many sociohist- orical relations into the very constitution of the Other is also to raise per-

1X Ibid., p. 69.

plexing questions about the ethical sovereignty of the Other that Levinas so insists on. In concrete history, which is always a history of struggle among classes, races, sexes, religions, and so on, we encounter the Other not only among the oppressed but also among the oppressors. What if the "face" of the Other happens to be that of a Marcos, a Pinochet, a Mobutu, a Pol Pot, a CIA assassin, a Botha, a Hitler, a Stalin? What does it mean to "welcome" the Other, to "let the Other be" in these instances? As human beings, they too are indeed vulnerable-in some sense more vulnerable and more destitute than many of us-but they are not just individuals in "absolute" relation to the infinite. Their very individuality is also constituted by the many historical relations that endow them with such horrendous power over the life and death of millions of Others. How, then, do we still respect the ethical transcendence of these oppres- sive Others while also trying to bring them to justice in history? Should we forgo historical judgments because all such judgments, for Levinas, are judgments in absentia and unjust?3g Furthermore, how do we con- cretely discriminate between oppressive Others and oppressed Others ex- cept through historical mediations and historical judgments, except through categorical thinking that places them in the context of a social totality? This also leads to the next question.

How Is the Actualization of the Ethical Transcendence ofthe Other Possible?

The ethical is inseparable from the will to actualization, a categorical im- perative that is indifferent to its own actualization would be a contradic- tion in terms. The ethical, therefore, is not only a breach of totality in its demand but must also become a moment of that totality in its actualiza- tion. The ethical cannot remain merely an eschatological judgment that may be "in" the world but not "of" the world; it must also be "of" the world as its transforming power. The stranger demands food and shelter, job training and green cards; the widow demands medical care and subsi- dized housing; the orphan demands education, foster parents, protection against drugs and pimps. In order to deliver on our infinite responsibility for the ethical transcendence of the Other, we must bring the Other into concretely liberating economic, political, and cultural relations in history. Without this concretizing historical mediation, which necessarily entails constitutive relations to a social totality, the ethical demand would remain only verbal and empty, a sentimental moralism that either exhausts itself in the "unhappy consciousness" of unrelieved negation or turns into cyni- cal realism at home in the very negativities it condemns.

The ethical demand of the Other requires threefold historical medi-

19 Ibid., p. 242

ation, cultural, political, and economic. For Levinas, the "primordial" encounter with the "face" of the Other puts our freedom in question, challenges all our a priori conceptions, and arouses us to infinite re- sponsibility. However, for all its phenomenological priority to the split between theory and praxis, activity and passivity,40 this "primordial" ex- perience is not an isolated event independent of the totality of our social experiences. It takes developed ethical sensibility to see the "trace" of the infinite in the "face" of the Other and to feel its demand and challenge. Such an ethical development is possible only through the mediation of a culture of care and respect, a social ethos of compassion and solidarity. If, for Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century bourgeois ethos encouraged "aestheticism" and speculation and enervated the will to ethical exis- tence, it is also possible today that capitalism has been encouraging a "culture of narcissism" (Las~h),~~

weakening not only our sense of solidar- ity but also the sense of the ethical as such. If the very recognition of the ethical transcendence of the Other requires mediation by a socially supported culture of solidarity, the actual fulfillment of the many needs of the Other requires mediation by political protection of basic human rights and by economic provision of the material conditions for human development. Without these threefold social conditions, the Other would remain, for all her transcendence and infinity, helpless and vulnerable- in fact, reduced to the immanence of a thing. By the same token, the concrete realization of the ethical imperative requires the transformation of oppressive structures, which is possible only politically, that is, by a collective action for social change in solidarity with the oppressed.

In any event, just as the oppression of the Other is brought about by a negative mediation of history, so the liberation of the Other can only be brought about by a positive mediation of history, not by denying all his- torical mediation in the name of ethical transcendence. Such a denial might be psychologically satisfying to the moralist, but it does not really care to improve the actual condition of the Other. The ethical that re- mains only an eschatological 'tjudgment" on history remains an abstract negation of history, not a concrete negation, that is, the actual transforma- tion of history into structures and forces of liberation capable of reducing violence and murder. The "primordial" experience of the Other may be a source of our ethical renewal, but such renewal must become part of a culture, and its imperatives politically recognized and economically sup- ported. The oppressed Others cannot "live" on our "piimordial" experi- ence alone.

To be true to the ethical demand that the Other be respected in his

Ibid., pp. 82-90.

4'

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1978).

irreducible transcendence "actually," not just "ideally," the primordial must be brought into a transforming relation to concrete history, where it must "dirty its hands." The eschatological must become "flesh" in his- tory. The infinite must become part of a totality. The point of the ethical, in the final analysis, is not to preserve my moral purity at all costs but to actually liberate the Other from the oppression and injustice that violate his ethical transcendence. Without this will to historical actualization and the necessary praxis of liberation, the insistence on the ethical transcen- dence of the Other, however passionate and edifying, would lapse into impotent idealism, not indeed the idealism of egocentric logos but the idealism of a "primordial" consciousness incapable of action in history. It would also leave history to the "children of darkness" (Reinhold Nie- b~hr)~'

and make it even more oppressive, which in turn, as Hegel's Phenomenology has shown, would lead the "pure" moral consciousness to en- gage, with increasing intensity, in judgment and negation, in a vicious cycle of actual violence and rhetorical condemnation, which, however, does nothing to change the world for the better.

This project of the actual liberation of history, of course, requires ap- preciation of the constitutive significance of history for human existence and the positive possibilities of history for human liberation. It is pre- cisely on this point that I find Levinas, as I do Kierkegaard and Barth, wanting. All three are uncompromising in their denial of constitutive his- torical mediation of human existence and all that such mediation implies. They likewise agree in their passionate denunciation of history. History, totality, system, world: these are essentially bad words, with no hope of redemption except through something extrinsinc to history, be it individual commitment (Kierkegaard), the irruption of the eschatological (Levi- nas), or the forgiving grace of the sovereign God (Barth).

They do not recognize with all due seriousness the constitutive relation of history to human existence, or, if they do recognize it at all, it is only in its negativity and even then only implicitly in their furious attack on the oppressively totalizing (Levinas), enervating (Kierkegaard), or idola- trous (Barth) consequences of history on human existence. They do not, therefore, appreciate the positive possibilities of history for human trans- formation, proposing instead, either explicitly or by default, a solution that is essentially individualistic, the intensification of individual in- wardness (Kierkegaard), the renewal of the primordial experience of the separated Other (Levinas), and radical self-negation before the sovereign God (Barth). Such a solution does not come to grips with the historical sources of oppression, aestheticism, and idolatry and denatures the con-

-Reinhold Niebuhr, The Chzldren of Lzght and the Chzldren of Darkness (New York. Scrib- ner's, 1944).

Crete totality of human existence by reducing it to a single dimension, be it individual inwardness, encounter with the Other raised above history, or the sinner before the sovereign God.

Levinas's incapacity to appreciate the constitutive and positive signifi- cance of history might be located in his starting point-his critique of philosophies of egocentric subjectivity. For him, such an egocentric sub- ject necessarily reduces the Other to the same. It may recognize otherness and contradiction but immediately reconciles them as moments in a total- ity of the same. The Other is other only relatively, not absolutely. Levinas finds a corrective of this egocentrism in heterocentric subjectivity, the ego questioned and challenged by the irreducibly transcendent claim of the Other. The ethical center has shifted from the ego to the Other. Levinas's ethical metaphysics, however, remains an essentially Cartesian philosophy of the subject, albeit with a different ethical content. It still remains a philosophy of the subject as individual, without intrinsic sociohistorical mediation, where one's relation to the Other as an individual "is ulti- mately prior to his ontological relation to himself (egology) or to the total- ity of things that we call the world (co~mology)."~~

The individualist sub- jectivism of modern philosophy is only abstractly negated, not concretely aufgehoben. Levinas's metaphysics remains infected by the very subjectiv- ism it has not wholly overcome.

To be sure, his subject is not a completely solipsistic ego. He speaks of the interhuman and even calls such a relation "primary ~ociality."~~

This sociality, however, is just that, "primordial," "preontological," raised above all categorical historical relations-not the painfully concrete sociality of historical mediation. Distinguishing "ethics," which governs the relation of one subject to another, from "morality," which governs our social, polit- ical relations in history, Levinas considers ethics primary and morality derivative. History occurs only because there are, unfortunately, more than two people in the world. "If there were only two people in the world, there would be no need for law courts because I would always be respon- sible for and before the Other."45 Concrete history is only derivatively and secondarily constitutive of human existence; it is not a primordial existential of human being.

This ontological devaluation of history also leads to its ethical devalua- tion. In entering into the political world, which we cannot avoid doing, ethics "becomes morality and hardens its skin."4% soon as there are three, "we invariably pass from the ethical perspective of alterity to the

<' Cohen, ed., p. 21.

4'

Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 304.

45 Cohen, ed., p. 21; also see Levinas, Otherwise than Being (n. 20 above), pp. 157 ff.

Cohen, ed., p. 30 (my emphasis).

ontological ~erspective of totality," and "the ethical relationship with the other becomes political and enters into the totalizing discourse of ontol- ~gy."~~

At best history is a necessary evil, a paradoxical necessity, a degen- eration from the ethical, and always a threat to the ethical integrity of the primordial sociality of the ego and the Other. Levinas criticizes idealism for reducing the Other to a concept and sees the completion of idealism in the reduction of ethics to politics, which reduces Others to "moments in a system," absorbing all multiplicity and ending all discourse.48 Politics reduces the human being to "the sum of his works," where the person remains inter~hangeable.~~

Thus, "politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself."50 No wonder, therefore, that Levinas defines politics as "the art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every mean^,"^' as "the primal disrespe~t."~~

My "objective" existence in the state, in history, and in the totality "does not express me, but precisely dissimulates me."j3 History is our "original" or "primordial" sin. Levinas repeats philosophically the early Barth's theological dialectic of pure negation between sin and

While, therefore, appropriately insisting on the necessity of an ethical critique of politics at the "primordial" level "prior to any act,"55 at the level of "that which stands behind practical morality," "the extraordinary relation between a man and his neighbor, a relation that continues to exist even when it is severely darnaged,"jXevinas also disclaims all con- crete responsibility for political transformation. "As prima philosophia, ethics cannot itself legislate for society or produce rules of conduct whereby society might be revolutionized or transformed,"j5 which I think means more than the banal claim that ethics as such, which has its own proper

Ibid., pp. 21-22.

4X ~evina;, Totalzty and Infinzty (n. 3 above), pp. 216-17.

Ibid., D. 298.

j0 Ibid., p. 300.

51 Ibid., p. 21.

52 Ibid., p. 298.

j' Ibid., p. 178.

j4 In light of what has been said, Levinas's admission that "we must use the ontological for the sake of the Other" (Cohen, ed., p. 28) sounds rather grudging and hollow, as does his

claim that his moral utopianism does not prevent us from recognizing the relative progress

that can be made in the morality of politics; see Bernasconi and Wood, eds. (n. 9 above),

p. 178. Theodore de Boer's defense of Levinas against the charge that he is paying too little attention to social structures is likewise feeble and beside the point; see de Boer, "An Ethical Transcendental Philosophy," in Cohen, ed., pp. 102-3.

"" The Levinas Reader (n. 1 above), p. 290.
j6Ibid., p. 247 (my emphasis).
j5Cohen, ed. (n. 21 above), p. 29. Similarly, to the question of whether his discourse is

"deficient in concern with concrete reality," Levinas responds: "I am neither a preacher nor the son of a preacher, and it is not my purpose to moralize or to improve the conduct of our generation" (The Levinas Reader, p. 247).

4'

object within the scientific division of labor, cannot do the work of other disciplines such as politics, sociology, and jurisprudence. It conceals the radical claim that it does not want to dirty its hands by getting involved in the concrete process of political transformation. Ethics' critique of history, therefore, remains an abstract, general critique: the world is not what it ought to be. Given the sharp, almost "Manichean" dualism of ethics and history, one wonders why ethics should even bother with history to the point of criticizing it; after all, the world cannot be what it ought to be in any event. Ethics remains "always other than the 'ways of the world."'jx

The only answer Levinas could make, therefore, to his Latin American students when he was asked if he could give actual examples of ethical praxis was, "Yes, indeed-here in this room," a reference to their conver- sation. Another example he cites is the commonplace gesture of saying "after you, sir" when passing through a door.jg These acts of civility, of course, are not to be depreciated, but they also need deconstruction: they presuppose the tranquility of the academic setting and an interpersonal encounter separated from the raging or concealed tensions of the larger society. They prove to be utterly trivial and politically irrelevant when confronted with the bloody confrontations, say, between the Shining Path and the oppressive wealthy in Peru, between the New People's Army and the landed aristocracy in the Philippines, or between the angry African Americans and the local police in Mississippi in the 1960s. Such ex- amples, the best Levinas could muster by way of historical hope, also only demonstrate the extent to which Levinas appreciates-or rather fails to appreciate-the intensity of historical conflicts.

Levinas's devaluation of history is seen not only in his devaluation of politics as such but also in his failure to appreciate the difference between the political and the interhuman as spheres of human existence, each with a distinctive moral requirement. The only distinction Levinas knows of is the pejorative distinction between "the ethical perspective of al- terity" that governs the face-to-face relationship of "one subjectivity to another"" and "the ontological perspective of totality" where "morality" governs the political relationship among citizens, their social behavior, and civic duty. He also reduces the political to the interhuman by trying to "found" political morality on "an ethical responsibility towards the Other"" and then falls into political cynicism when such an attempt does not seem to work.

More fundamentally, Levinas fails to recognize a qualitative difference

jX Cohen, ed., p. 32.
j9 Ibid., pp. 32-33.
60 Ibid., p. 29.
6' Ibid.

between the "public" world of politics and the "private" world of inter- personal relations and tries to judge the former by the norms of the latter. Interhuman relations are face-to-face relations between tu70 individuals. Political relations, in contrast, involve millions of people in their struggle to establish social, not interhuman, conditions for living together, such as institutions, laws, policies, and structures. These conditions are, by na- ture, totalizing and impersonal: they apply to all regardless of individual differences. They can be oppressive when they are imposed on the rest of society in the interest of one group or class; they can also be liberating when they provide the basic economic, political, and cultural needs for all and come closer to the ideal of the common good. To measure the "morality" of political institutions by the "ethics" of interhuman relations and then to fall into cynicism because politics will necessarily be found wanting would be to confuse the categories at best and at worst to remain indifferent to the suffering of millions of Others under so many oppres- sive structures in the world.

One would think that the compelling priority of the starving Other is to find food as such, not to have a face-to-face relationship with millions of people whose taxes pay for the food. It would be more humane, of course, if the Other could also get interpersonal care from as many people as possible. But politics and interpersonal relations remain two different dimensions of human existence: the public dimension of social interdependence for basic conditions of life and the private dimension of individual relations, respectively. The one is not reducible to the other, and each has its own moral requirement based on the respective structure of the two dimensions. Interpersonal "ethics" is not necessarily more compelling than political "morality." In many instances, it may be just the reverse. Levinas's "politics of ethical difference," as Simon Critchley calls it, remains, despite claims to the contrary, profoundly "ap~litical."~"

Levinas, therefore, is more interested in condemning the world for what it is than in offering any historically relevant hope for it becoming what it ought to be, which he could not do precisely because the world, in his view, is fated in any event to be what it is. The only solution he provides is "eschatological" thinking-learning how to "think otherwise than being," attempting to secure isolated beachheads in the permanently occupied territories of ontological consciousness, and hoping thereby to ef- fect a saving "breach" in the otherwise permanently damned continuity of historical reality. Levinas's metaphysical thinking is "critical" only in the sense of negation of ontology and of abstract negation at that, not in the concrete sense of unmasking the historical origin of reified social phe-

S~rnon Critchley, The Ethzcs of Deconstructzon Derrlda and Leumas (Oxford Blackwell, 1992), pp 219-25

nomena, disclosing historical contradictions of a society and the potential of human liberation, and indicating broad outlines of political praxis whereby those contradictions could be sublated into forms of liberation in a concrete negation of negation. Levinas rejects all idealism because of its egolatry, but he too remains an idealist insofar as he seems to blame all the actual violence on the Other in history on the violent thinking of Western logocentric ontology, as though philosophers, as such, had that much power to shape historical actuality.

The basic problem with Levinas, then, is the false dichotomy he poses between ethical irreducibility and ontological, historical mediation, as though mediation necessarily entailed reduction. In order to defend the irreducible transcendence of the Other in the ethical order, he feels com- pelled to deny all mediation of the Other in the ontological. No doubt mediating totality can lead, and has led, to intellectual and political totali- tarianism, and Levinas's prophetic outcry in defense of the irreducible transcedence of the Other serves as an indispensable corrective against all totalitarian temptations. The result of denying all mediation, however, is no less embarrasing. The Other, ontologically isolated from and raised above all sociohistorical relations, is simply not a human Other to whom, therefore, neither the problem of murder nor the salvation from it is rele- vant. Meanwhile the Other continues to be oppressed without any hope of real liberation.

It is often said that Levinas is more a prophetic thinker than a system- atic philosopher and that, as such, he could afford to be one-sided and passionate about the "one thing necessary" and forgo the responsibility of the systematic philosopher for completeness and balance." My argument, thus far, has been that his "one-sided" concern for the infinity of the Other to the exclusion of all historical mediation is too costly precisely for her own historical well-being-the one thing necessary.

TOTkLITY, INFINITY, SOLIDARITY

For all these criticisms, Levinas's challenge remains: How to restore the historical mediations of the Other without reducing his ethical transced- ence? How to engage in totalizing ontology without falling into oppressive totalitarianism? Or, rather more accurately, can reason-dialectical reason-continue to engage in totalizing ontology at all after the shock of Levinas and deconstructionism? Is it possible for reason to sublate, Aufheben, itself into a thinking of the Other in and through history, a thinking of infinity in and through totality?

63 Stephan Strasser, Jenseits won Sein und Zeit: Eine Einfuhmng in Emmanuel Lewinas' Philoso- phie (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1978),pp. 370-73.

Ever since Kierkegaard, "totality" has been an unremittingly bad word, especially among the existentialists, pragmatists, and deconstructions. It has been a symbol of human hubris to be exorcised, the source of all intellectual and political imperialisms in the modern world. Without go- ing into the thought of Hegel and Marx, the two thinkers of totality, I would like to offer the following brief reflections on totality, infinity, and the role of dialectical reason in the contemporary

I begin with a fundamental agreement with Levinas. It is not possible to construct an ontology in the absolute sense of a comprehensive, ex- haustive grasp of totality, that is, all beings, including God, in the totality of their own intrinsic being and their mutual relations. Such an ontology is indeed reductionist and oppressive, as Levinas rightly insists. To all beings, especially human beings, and eminently God, there is a certain interiority and transcendence which no finite human being can grasp, certainly not from without. This is true even of nature, an area in which Levinas was not particularly interested. All beings have their own subjec- tivity, interiority, and transcendence, which endows each being with a cer- tain "metaphysical" uniqueness by virtue of which "each being declines the concept and withstands t~talization."~~

To grasp them as a totality theoretically would be to subordinate them to a system of human reason and deny them their interiority and transcendence. They are reduced to projections of a finite and ideologically tainted human reason, and such an ontology is readily abused as a theoretical weapon of an oppressive totalitariani~m.~~

However, an ontology in the sense of a relative grasp of totality is both possible and necessary. While denying the possibility of an exhaustive, final knowledge of all reality, a relative ontology would seek to grasp all reality as an at least externally interconnected and interdependent total- ity or system insofar as this totality is accessible to human reason, thus to affirm the ultimate intelligibility of being in a relative way and to dare to explore the mystery of being ever more deeply on the basis of hope in that intelligibility. A relative totality provides the enabling horizon of finite reason. It limits itself to the external, interrelational aspects of being and recognizes thereby the ultimate otherness of being as such by appre- ciating the existence of a dimension of being irreducible to categories of human reason. An absolute totality is a product of indiscriminate, imperi-

"For a rather pessimistic account of the concept of totality since Georg Lukacs, see Mar- tin Jay, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984).

65 Levinas, Totalzty and Injnity (n. 3 above), p. 57.

66 For a trenchant critique of universalist logocentrism, see Raimundo Panikkar, "The Invisible Harmony: A Crniversal Theory of Religion or a Cosmic Confidence in Reality?" in Toward a Universal Theolog)! of Religion, ed. Leonard Swidler (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987), pp. 119-24.

alist reason; a relative totality is a product of critical reason aware of its own limits.

A relative totality, however, is a product of critical reason that is not only aware of its own limits but is also committed to its own historical responsibility. Looking for absolute totalities in history is both impossible and dangerous, but this does not mean we should leave history alone in its possibilities of oppression and liberation. The interest of human liberation and solidarity makes it increasingly compelling today to grasp economic, political, and cultural events, policies, and trends not in iso- lation but in their mutual relations-that is, as a relative totality-and assess their respective and total impacts on human well-being. The con- temporary world is becoming intimately interdependent because of the globalization of capitalism, communication, and transportation, gradu- ally but surely forming a single system of identity in economics, politics, and culture. This system of identity, however, is turning into an oppres- sive totality in many instances owing to neoimperialism, neocolonialism, and the many contradictions among nations and classes. This is the cen- tral fact of our time that sets the fundamental limit and condition for contemporary life.6' In such an oppressive totality, the transcendent dig- nity of hundreds of millions of Others is being violated and most often simply "reduced." It is imperative, therefore, to grasp global capitalism as a totality, assess its systemic possibilities of oppression, and explore the possibilities of constructing a liberating system of identity as the histori- cal condition that would recognize and protect the dignity of Others actu- ally, not only ideally, thereby avoiding such violation and reduction.

To live in history is to subject oneself to economic, political, and cul- tural systems of identity or totalities. However different and Other we are to one another, as long as we have to live in common social space with some degree of interdependence, we remain under the imperative of cre- ating laws, economic structures, political systems, and cultural customs that would keep our interdependence from becoming an occasion and system of mutual exploitation. Maintaining such laws, structures, systems,

67 For analyses of global capitalism and its trends and contradictions, see Richard J. Bar- nett and John Cavanagh, Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the ,Veal World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Robert N. Bellah, "Changing Themes in Society: Implica- tions for Human Services: Social Change and the Fate of Human Services" (speech to Lu- theran Social Services, San Francisco, April 28, 1995); Robert Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 364-408; Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the 7iijenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 1993), pp. 329-49; the whole issue of "v'ation, entitled, "It's The Global Economy, Stupid: The Corporatization of the LVorld" (July 15122, 1996); William Pfaff, The Wrath of Nations: Civzli- zation and the Furies of h'ationalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993); Robert L\luthnow, Christianity in the Tilenty-First Century: Rejections on the Challenges Ahead (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

and customs, however, necessarily entails subjecting and "reducing" our- selves to systems of identity. We cannot, while living in a cornmon political space, follow different laws, different currencies, or different administra- tive systems, one for Hispanics, another for blacks, a third for Anglos, a fourth for Asian Americans. A basic condition of living together in com- munity is to establish a minimum system of identity.

Such a system of identity is not, as Levinas fears, intrinsically evil. It can be liberating or oppressive. The challenge of social life is precisely to create a liberating system of identity, which is also the meaning and task of "politics" in the classical, critical sense of the term. A system is liberat- ing insofar as it provides the historical conditions for the solidarity of Others in their transcendent dignity by creating a social order that con- cretely ensures basic human rights of all in economics, politics, and cul- ture; protects legitimate differences among constituent groups; and pro- motes harmony and community among them. It is oppressive insofar as it violates the transcendent dignity of Others by promoting social disor- der or antiorder that oppresses basic human rights, stifles legitimate dif- ferences, and alienates groups against one another. Our historical choice is not between accepting a system of identity and transcending it alto- gether. It is neither possible nor desirable to transcend it altogether be- cause this w~ould deny the basic sociality of human existence in history. Our choice is limited to either building a liberating system of identity or promoting an oppressive one.

What we need for this purpose is neither "transcendental" reason in- terested only in the a priori, transcendental conditions of knowledge but indifferent to the historical conditions of praxis nor "empirical" reason interested only in the investigation of minute regions of reality but utterly negligent of the larger interconnections of things in their historical pro- cess. Again, we need something different both from "existential" reason, which is interested only in the ultimate problems of the individual in isolation from the historical conditions of individual existence, and from the "antireason" of Levinas and Barth, which regards history itself as original sin and insists only on eschatological thinking.

The urgent intellectual need of our time is rather a reason that is capa- ble of grasping the world as a "concrete totality" of differentiated mo- ments in the process of change and grasping this totality not from a neutral point of view but precisely from the perspective of liberation, sen- sitive to the possibilities of oppression and liberation in every social change, and ready to promote the concrete praxis of liberation. That is, we need dialectical reason. As finite reason, dialectical reason guards itself against the temptation to pursue absolute totalities. As responsible reason, however, it does not escape from history by rising above the cri- tique of oppressive historical systems of identity altogether or engaging only in a negative critique of history as such. Its overriding concern re- mains that of building liberating systems as relative totalities. The difficult task and burden of dialectical reason today is precisely to live this tension of finitude and responsibility, of committing itself to history without fall- ing into totalitarianism, of avoiding transcendental irresponsibility with- out committing the horrors of political fanaticism.

Human existence means interdependence among Others, each with a dignity ethically transcendent and irreducible to egocentric categories, or solidarity of Others, as Levinas duly insists. It depends on the triple dia- lectic of totality, infinity, and solidarity. Authentic existence becomes his- torically actual only through a totality, a system of identity that provides the economic, political, and cultural conditions of infinity and solidarity. Without a liberating totality, infinity remains merely ideal and exhausts itself in unrelieved negation. Without it, solidarity too becomes mere talk of "community" and lapses into an ideology. Our existence also depends on infinity, which alone provides both moral encouragement for positive political praxis and moral critique for oppressive politics. Without infin- ity, totality indeed becomes totalitarian, and solidarity mere collectivism. Our existence likewise depends on solidarity, conscious recognition and praxis of our mutual dependence for both the appreciation of our respec- tive ethical infinity and the establishment of a liberating totality. Without solidarity, infinity becomes egoism absolutized, and totality a war of all against all.

Authentic human existence thus depends on the triple dialectic of to- tality as the actualizing, infinity as the idealizing, and solidarity as the socializing principles. Only through this dialectic can the Levinasian es- chatological community of radical Others become a possibility. The great challenge of human existence is to constructively maintain the tension and dialectic between totality, infinity, and solidarity, between history, transcendence, and sociality, and create, through a politics of solidarity, totalities that liberate us for our mutual infinity. And it is precisely the task of dialectical reason to illuminate and promote such a politics.

Comments
  • Recommend Us