Levinas, vision, speech, and the face-to-face (skip this post if you are not interested in obscure French phenomenologists)

I know this is extremely pedantic, but I just have to get it out of my system. I've been irritated lately at all the people I see in visual arts fields trying to press Emmanuel Levinas into service for a visually-oriented ethics because of his emphasis on what he called the "face to face." Levinas was actually a fairly anti-visual philosopher. He used the term "face" mainly as a metaphor for speech. Why he chose that metaphor is odd and interesting and worth discussing, but you can't just claim that he was in favor of a visual encounter as the ground for ethics. That may be your idea, but it wasn't his: for him the responsibility for others is about speech and reason, not vision. So here are some quotes from Levinas's Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (you can tell where he got his own writing style from!), Duquesne University Press, 1969. Maybe someone somewhere will google Levinas and find this and find it useful.

"The calling in question of the I, coextensive with the manifestation of the Other in the face, we call language." (171)

"Transcendence is not a vision of the Other, but a primordial donation...The 'vision' of the face is inseparable from this offering language is. To see the face is to speak of the world. Transcendence is not an optics, but the first ethical gesture." (174)

"The face, preeminently expression, formulates the first word..." (178)

"the welcome of the face which language presupposes" to be distinguished from "the look" (189)

"It is art that endows things with something like a facade -- that by which objects are not only seen, but as as objects on exhibition...But in it is constituted the beautiful, whose essence is indifference, cold splendor, and silence....[The transcendant] is the face; its revelation is speech." (193)

"Inasmuch as the access to beings concerns vision, it dominates those beings, exercises a power over them. A thing is given, offers itself to me. In gaining access to it I maintain myself within the same. The face is present in its refusal to be contained...It is neither seen nor touched -- for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object..." (194)

"The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation..." (201)

"This attestation of oneself is possible only as a face, that is, as speech." (201)

"Meaning is the face of the Other, and all recourse to words takes place already within the primordial face to face of language." (206)

"If the face to face founds language, if the face brings the first signification, establishes signification itself in being, then language does not only serve reason, but is reason." (207)


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