Lambert Wiesing: Ich für mich – Phänomenologie des Selbstbewusstseins, Suhrkamp, 2020

Ich für mich - Phänomenologie des Selbstbewusstseins Book Cover Ich für mich - Phänomenologie des Selbstbewusstseins
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2314
Lambert Wiesing
Suhrkamp Verlag
2020
Paperback 20,00 €
250

Thomas Nenon (Ed.): Thomas Seebohm on the Foundations of the Sciences, Springer, 2020

Thomas Seebohm on the Foundations of the Sciences: An Analysis and Critical Appraisal Book Cover Thomas Seebohm on the Foundations of the Sciences: An Analysis and Critical Appraisal
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 105
Thomas Nenon (Ed.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 103,99 €
XVI, 237

Dawne McCance: The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort

The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort Book Cover The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort
Dawne McCance
Fordham University Press
2019
Paperback $28.00
224

Reviewed by: Dong Yang (The University of Georgia)

“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976– “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model–seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.

Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).

Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer–likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:

In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).

Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:

“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).

But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that

“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).

An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution–in the spirit of Nietzsche–is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.

Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).

By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.

The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.

References:

McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Sergio Genovesi: Tracce dell’informe. L’indecostruibile e la filosofia dell’evento in Jacques Derrida

Tracce dell'informe. L'indecostruibile e la filosofia dell'evento in Jacques Derrida Book Cover Tracce dell'informe. L'indecostruibile e la filosofia dell'evento in Jacques Derrida
Eterotopie
Sergio Genovesi
Mimesis
2019
Paperback
160

Reviewed by: Marta Cassina (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

Ogni grande pensatore – molte volte e da più parti è stato già detto e molte volte forse lo si ripeterà ancora – non fa che ritornare nel corso della sua vita sulle medesime questioni, come fosse preda di un’ossessione, quasi non potesse fare a meno di rispondere, esistendo ed insistendo, al richiamo di un solo e tenace appello. Quando capita poi che tale pensatore sia insieme un grande autore, allora tutta la sua opera diventa col tempo testimonianza sempre più inequivocabile e chiara di una vocazione, mostrando infine quella limpidezza rispetto a se stessa che è uno dei tratti sicuri della validità di una proposta speculativa. Questo è il caso di Derrida e dei suoi “movimenti di pensiero”. Sicuramente i testi del filosofo sono molti e difficili da attraversare, perché difficile da attraversare è il “deserto” caotico e abissale di ciò che resta della parola, se la scrittura diventa il luogo della sua assenza e della sua lontananza originarie. Ugualmente, sono molti gli autori e i temi con cui Derrida continua a intrattenersi. Tuttavia, al fondo di una così articolata “disseminazione”, non si può non cogliere l’andamento di una stessa tensione, o di una preoccupazione, il che non equivale certo a dire che è un oggetto a ripetersi, attraverso diversi accenti e modulazioni, tanto meno qualcosa di semplice, tutt’al più il suo contrario, se di contrario si può ancora parlare, perché si tratta qui propriamente di una «legge della complicazione iniziale del semplice», di rimanere fedeli a ciò che fa segno all’assolutamente Altro che viene e che preserva lo spazio vuoto di questo evento, che a sua volta è un esercizio etico e irriducibile.

Tracce dell’informe. L’indecostruibile e la filosofia dell’evento in Jacques Derrida, opera prima di Sergio Genovesi pubblicata recentemente da “Mimesis Edizioni” per la collana Eterotopie, si propone di restituire al lettore una fine ricostruzione del tema dell’indecostruibile e della sua comparsa nella filosofia di Derrida. Genovesi ben argomenta come tale comparsa non corrisponda esattamente a un’appendice tematica rispetto a un corpus di riflessioni preesistenti, e nemmeno a qualcosa come una loro torsione verso una direzione inattesa, come invece hanno avuto modo di sostenere quei critici di Derrida che nella sua opera matura hanno intravisto quasi un ripensamento, se non una contraddizione, dei motivi giovanili della decostruzione. Dire che «c’è l’indecostruibile», secondo Genovesi, non aggiunge né toglie nulla, ma esplicita semplicemente qualcosa che, in forma “spettrale”, riecheggia nel pensiero derridiano fin dall’inizio, e che, se rimane celato tra le sue pieghe, è perché resta da pensare come la sua stessa condizione di possibilità (o di impossibilità) e il suo orizzonte di senso: è «la spaziatura stessa della decostruzione» (113), ovvero quell’esperienza pre-originaria di “differimento” dell’essere e del senso rispetto a se stessi di cui tutta la decostruzione non fa che parlare – mancandola costitutivamente –, perché vi riconosce la condizione paradossale in cui siamo e di cui dobbiamo parlare, perché in fondo non c’è proprio nient’altro di cui parlare.

Rispetto a quanto detto sopra, il saggio di Genovesi può essere considerato allora del tutto esemplare, e la sua ricognizione nel territorio dell’indecostruibile deve essere letta alla maniera di una sintesi perfetta di come la riflessione derridiana sia rimasta sempre leale a se stessa rispetto a questo fine – e anche a una fine –: l’apertura di uno spazio vuoto in margine all’ontologia della presenza, dell’identità, del logos e del fondamento, che permetta l’accadere dell’evento, ovvero di comprendere, per quanto si stia parlando di una comprensione iperbolica, spinta al limite della follia e quindi in realtà incomprensibile, cosa significhi che qualcosa possa accadere in generale. Questa spaziatura, che ha il carattere atopico del non-luogo, e quello raddoppiato del «supplemento d’origine» è, nelle parole del giovane filosofo italiano, indecostruibile, «perché come si può decostruire uno spazio vuoto, un luogo puro?» (130), è «allo stesso tempo presupposto e risultato della decostruzione» (146), ha molti nomi, che tuttavia si sovrappongono tra loro in un gioco di rimandi e scarti infiniti, perché «dare ai vari nomi che sono associati all’indecostruibile […] dei valori a sé stanti e ontologicamente distinti l’uno dall’altro vorrebbe dire farne dei feticci» (141), e coincide nella sua massima espressione con una sorta di «messianismo privato di qualsiasi contenuto positivo» (135), ovvero una forma di “giustizia” che consiste in null’altro se non nel rispondere esponendovisi alla chiamata dell’Altro, senza alcuna pretesa di afferrarlo, di ridurre la sua inesauribile trascendenza. Su questo punto, sui tratti distintivi dell’indecostruibile e sul perché finisca per caratterizzare tutta l’epopea della decostruzione come un’avventura fondamentalmente etica, torneremo in conclusione, dopo aver analizzato nel dettaglio il resto dell’impianto argomentativo attorno al quale Tracce dell’informe è costruito.

A questa analisi è bene premettere che, sebbene le tesi di Genovesi incalzino un’interpretazione sicuramente unitaria dell’opera di Derrida, l’importanza di una simile identità qui non cancella, anzi valorizza le diverse declinazioni attraverso le quali essa si è affermata. A questo riguardo, Genovesi non rinuncia a parlare infatti di due momenti o lavori distinti: il primo temporalmente, cui si dà il nome di «decostruzione letteraria», coincide con la pars destruens dell’impresa e si rifà soprattutto all’esercizio di scomposizione del significato dei “vecchi segni”, in altre parole, di tutti gli schemi positivi che reggono la «dogmatica della metafisica della presenza, dell’economia ristretta e del ritorno al medesimo» (88). In questa prima fase, per decostruzione si deve intendere eminentemente una pratica testuale negativa, che mira a destrutturare qualsiasi totalità pensata per ridurre l’evento dell’Altro alla forma di una presenza e di un “appropriabile” all’interno di un sistema ristretto di “scambi” logici tra medesimi. La lezione heideggeriana della «differenza ontologica» e della critica alla «metafisica della presenza» è qui insomma intesa come un’autorizzata celebrazione dell’assenza, del non-fondamento, e della fine del soggetto. Il secondo momento, che Genovesi, per evitare fraintendimenti o sovrapposizioni al pensiero ermeneutico, chiama «decostruzione evenemenziale» (49), corrisponde invece a una pars costruens e a un graduale avvicinamento della decostruzione alla filosofia dell’evento, fino al punto in cui esse sostanzialmente si indeterminano l’una con l’altra nell’espressione di un medesimo richiamo: quello all’idea di una “soggettività” inedita che sappia farsi carico dell’ospitalità e della testimonianza della venuta del nuovo, dell’Altro che arriva, dell’impossibile che ha luogo nell’accadere. Soggettività come puro luogo abitato da un “dono” e da un “segreto” che nessun sapere sarebbe in grado di dominare.

Rispetto a quest’ultima esortazione, ossia in quanto gesto di apertura a una venuta, sarebbe insensato pensare di poter ridurre la decostruzione, come molti dei suoi detrattori o cattivi lettori hanno tentato di fare, a una prestazione nichilistica «di puro rifiuto e sovvertimento» (90). E, tuttavia, questa “venuta” non sarebbe possibile se non perché già preparata dall’operazione negativa e decostruttiva, in senso sia letterale, sia “letterario”, che l’ha preceduta; donde l’invito di Genovesi a immaginare «due facce della stessa medaglia, che non solo coesistono sotto lo stesso nome, ma si complementano anche a vicenda» (50). Quali siano poi i termini di questa vicendevole complementarietà, Genovesi lo esplicita nell’ultima parte della trattazione. Nella sua accezione “positiva” – questo voler dire «Sì!» all’evento, che non è una parola specifica, ma un’«archi-parola», è un «ripetere il proprio assenso alla possibilità di questa venuta» (90) prima ancora che si possa dire alcunché – la decostruzione, «non trattandosi di un atto esercitato su qualcosa» (129), non ha più propriamente un oggetto. Soffermiamoci un secondo su questa affermazione, la cui portata diventa tanto più pregnante, quanto più la ricolleghiamo a quella “genesi dell’indecostruibile” di cui Tracce dell’informe percorre la storia. Che la decostruzione, nella sua formulazione più matura, rappresenti una sorta di invito positivo ad accogliere l’evento, senza però una positività vera e propria cui applicarsi, deriva dal fatto che essa diventa, incarnandolo, quello stesso evento e «un puro accadere» (129), vale a dire qualcosa che per sua stessa natura eccede e precede la dinamica esclusiva in cui la contrapposizione soggetto/oggetto risulta sensata. A questo proposito, allora, se è sempre vero che dove c’è oggetto (costrutto) c’è sempre la possibilità che questo oggetto possa subire una decostruzione stricto sensu, nei termini del lavoro negativo della decostruzione, è anche vero che dove l’oggetto sparisce, o meglio, si complica con l’ingiunzione originaria della sua oggettificazione, del suo “venire alla luce”, non c’è più nulla da decostruire in quanto tale, non c’è mai stato, così come non c’è più nulla di costruito. Ciò che resta è un indecostruibile, che, rispetto al lavorio di svuotamento dell’oggetto è, a seconda di come lo si voglia guardare, sempre anteriore e sempre posteriore: esso presiede e si nutre dell’atto negativo della decostruzione, così come quest’ultimo postula e risulta sempre nel primo. Inseparabilmente e circolarmente, in una temporalità «scardinata, out of joint» (132).

Veniamo dunque all’illustrazione della struttura del lavoro di Genovesi. Il punto di partenza delle analisi del filosofo può essere individuato molto chiaramente nel fitto confronto che il giovane Derrida intrattiene con i motivi e i concetti cardine dello strutturalismo, dell’etica levinassiana, del «pensiero sovrano» in Bataille e, più dettagliatamente, della fenomenologia husserliana, dei quali testi-testamento come La scrittura e la differenza, La voce e il fenomeno e Della grammatologia – facendo lo sforzo di pensare all’ordine in cui li elenchiamo qui come un crescendo, per quanto i tre volumi siano stati pubblicati tutti nel 1967 –, rappresentano prima una rilettura nella forma della “nota a margine” e poi un superamento, nella direzione di quello che diventerà il manifesto tutto personale della decostruzione nel suo stadio embrionale. Il primo capitolo di Tracce dell’informe può essere insomma pensato come l’abbecedario essenziale di una terminologia nascente; e infatti Genovesi studia da vicino la filosofia di Derrida rispetto ai momenti, ai luoghi e soprattutto alle sue scelte lessicali inaugurali: il «supplemento d’origine», l’«economia generale dell’Altro», la «decostruzione», la «scrittura», la «traccia», l’«indecidibile» e la «différance», che Genovesi sceglie di mantenere sempre in francese, perché, come esplicita sin dall’Introduzione, «nessuna delle due traduzioni [in italiano “dif/ferenza” e “differanza”, n.d.r.] riesce però a sortire l’effetto voluto da Derrida, quello di un evento inaudito» (11), l’evento cioè di una sostituzione che tuttavia non può e non deve essere intesa in quanto tale. Di queste parole viene proposta quella che indubbiamente è una spiegazione, ma che Genovesi ci esorta a non scambiare mai per una definizione; piuttosto bisognerà accettarla come l’«approssimazione al limite» (10) di un’incognita che – come appena detto a proposito della différance –, non esprimendo più qualcosa come una “pienezza” o un “senso” metafisicamente intesi, non deve neppure essere compreso pienamente.

Lo scopo di questa prima parte del saggio è quello di descrivere il funzionamento di una macchina, quella della decostruzione, rispetto ai propri ingranaggi e ai propri oggetti. Se, da un lato, questa operazione va delineandosi negli scritti di Derrida come un’azione di svuotamento e di desedimentazione del linguaggio, delle tradizioni, della presenza e della voce, è anche vero che, dall’altro, essa «non ha di mira la distruzione dei sistemi su cui opera, altrimenti distruggerebbe anche se stessa» (48). Così dicendo, Genovesi chiarisce con grande immediatezza uno degli aspetti più difficili, ma costitutivi della decostruzione, qualcosa in cui è racchiusa la sua logica esorbitante, quella del doppio, del double bind: essa non può decostruire se non, da un certo punto di vista, conservando, perché l’Altro cui anela, l’alterità che la metafisica della presenza finisce sempre per ricondurre all’Uno, non è una negazione assoluta, non è l’Altro irrelato, ma la complicazione dell’Uno con se stesso, è uno sdoppiamento della totalità lungo la linea di faglia di un cedimento che preme contemporaneamente dall’interno e dall’esterno. Uno sdoppiamento e un differimento – la différance – che non distruggono la totalità, bensì dischiudono lo spazio negativo in cui la stessa struttura della totalità può essere concepita ed esistere in quanto totalità, dicono il suo darsi. Decostruzione non è sinonimo di negazione della presenza, di negazione tout court; anzi, se teniamo presente questo meccanismo fondamentale e lo applichiamo ai vari obiettivi polemici di Derrida di cui Genovesi dà conto nel capitolo, essa ci appare piuttosto come un modo di restituire la verità della presenza, nelle sue molteplici forme e declinazioni, relativamente a quella che è la sua «mancanza originaria a se stessa» (34). Come scompaiono le nozioni di “origine” e “centro” che definivano il canone di struttura, ma solo per lasciare posto a una loro versione paradossale, supplementare, che «si inaugura solo nel momento dell’accadimento di ciò di cui è origine e rimane celata dietro il suo originato» (20), perché il proprio accadimento è esattamente ciò che l’originato manca di afferrare di se stesso; così si infrange il circolo ristretto dell’economia, intesa come la legge della circolazione e della conservazione del Medesimo, ma l’Altro cui si accede attraverso la negazione “sovrana” del circolo non è l’assolutamente trascendente, piuttosto l’inarrivabile cui ci si avvicina attraverso «il fenomeno della sua non-fenomenicità» (24).

Alla luce del double bind devono anche essere letti, a maggior ragione, i passaggi critici in cui Derrida elabora la nozione di “différance” a partire da e contro Husserl: non tanto come demolizione di un impianto teoretico, ma come apertura delle sue maglie verso le forme di uno scarto originario che c’è già nella trattazione husserliana della presenza, ma che vi rimane inespresso, incompatibile com’è con il lessico del “dato”, del donné, attorno al quale si costruisce la fenomenologia. Tra i differimenti, Genovesi rimarca: la discronia rispetto a sé dell’“ora presente” nella ritenzione e la non-coincidenza istitutiva dell’idealità, in ordine al meccanismo della sua infinita ripetibilità. C’è infine una forma di differimento, di supplemento, che si espande fino a fare da cornice a quell’imperativo programmatico della decostruzione di sostituire la “scrittura” alla “voce”: si tratta del rinvio dell’ego alla propria mancanza nell’atto auto-affettivo, di cui la voce è immediatamente un correlato. Il nome di questa ritenzione d’assenza è quello in cui si sovrappongono «la possibilità per il soggetto trascendentale di avere un rapporto con sé differendo da sé» (33), e la possibilità per la parola di avere un “rapporto con sé”, ovvero di realizzarsi nel gioco dei segni con «il loro accadere arbitrario e il corrispondere a un significato differenziandosi l’uno rispetto l’altro» (39); è la «traccia», intesa come trascrizione grafica della parola e struttura vuota di rimando a una “morte”, a ciò che nella parola si trova e deve trovarsi come puro rimando e in stato di assenza: l’origine assoluta del senso.

Passiamo ora al secondo capitolo. Qui Genovesi si occupa di gettare luce sull’“altro” di Derrida, cioè sul tipo di risonanza che le sue opere giovanili hanno avuto negli ambienti filosofici e letterari a lui contemporanei, per arrivare a sostenere che lo spostamento di baricentro nel corpo della decostruzione dalla critica testuale e letteraria all’evento sia in parte motivata dalla reazione di Derrida a una certa mislettura del suo pensiero a opera dei critici del post-moderno e, in particolare, degli studiosi statunitensi meglio noti come “Yale Critics”. Se il primo capitolo di Tracce dell’informe deve essere letto come una sorta di abbecedario, dicevamo, il secondo ha allora invece il carattere definitorio di una “soglia”. Qui con soglia non vogliamo alludere soltanto allo spazio liminare che esiste, ovviamente, tra i testi di Derrida, pensati nella loro autonomia, e le interpretazioni cui essi hanno dato luogo – di cui l’autore discute esaustivamente nel testo. Quello che ci sembra interessante sottolineare – diversione dovuta, perché spezza una lancia in favore all’argomentazione di Genovesi –, è che questo confronto tra il “dentro” e il “fuori” ha posto effettivamente Derrida nella condizione di lasciarsi andare a un’enfasi definitoria e ri-definitoria (per quanto, chiaramente, la parola “definizione” sia sempre da collocare nel contesto di senso della decostruzione) senza precedenti, e che resterà un unicum nel corso della sua opera. Quasi tutte le pseudo-definizioni di “decostruzione” che possediamo appartengono a questa soglia, sia dal punto di vista concettuale, sia da quello temporale: la seconda metà degli anni ’80, rispetto ai testi Memorie per Paul de Man, Come non essere postmoderni e Psyché. Invenzioni dell’altro, che, non a caso, nella trattazione di Genovesi trovano ampio spazio d’analisi. Le vogliamo elencare qui e commentare; il riferimento è motivato dal fatto che, non solo rappresentano un valido supporto a spiegare l’andamento del capitolo, da un lato, ma, in questo specifico ordine, comunicano anche il senso dell’evoluzione del pensiero di Derrida, nella lettura di Genovesi, dall’altro: 1) La decostruzione è l’America; 2) La decostruzione è plus d’une langue; 3) La decostruzione è ciò che accade; 4) La decostruzione è l’impossibile.

  1. Che il nome stesso della decostruzione sia l’America, ci ricorda Genovesi, è evidentemente un’affermazione provocatoria. A prima vista, essa si pone già come un détournement scherzoso del titolo del volume The Yale Critics: Decostruction in America, alla cui stesura Derrida non volle partecipare, e non solo a causa della «volontà da parte degli editori del libro di parlare degli Stati Uniti come se questi rappresentassero tutto il continente» (71), ma soprattutto perché, per quanto gli Stati Uniti – e, in particolare, il dipartimento di letteratura di Yale – si siano dimostrati lo spazio storicamente più ricettivo e sensibile al primo messaggio della decostruzione, è anche vero che questa sensibilità è sfociata in una sua lettura eccessivamente testualista e in una riappropriazione culturale indebita, che ne ha fatto prevalentemente, nelle parole dell’autore, «una metodologia critica post-strutturalista che dettava un insieme preciso di regole per affrontare un testo» (70)
  2. Se la prima definizione che riportiamo è, al contempo, scherzosa e sintomatica di un disagio, la seconda – che Genovesi nel saggio cita solo in nota (95), ma che, in un certo senso, sembra essere sempre presente in controluce – ha invece un peso filosofico enorme, andrebbe letta come una parola d’ordine, e ci piacerebbe allora pensarla come se avesse un punto esclamativo finale. Definizione ambigua, perché, a sua volta, significa tre imperativi distinti, tre risposte di Derrida al modo in cui, secondo Genovesi, gli Yale Critics avevano addomesticato i contenuti della decostruzione, così come sono tre i sensi in cui plus de ha da essere inteso in francese. Innanzitutto, che la decostruzione sia «plus d’une langue» significa che di essa si abusa quando la si prende alla maniera di un prontuario per la demolizione sistematica del testo, perché semplicemente non la si può forzare in un unico idioma o racconto, in altre parole, in un “-ismo”: «l’atto della totalizzazione può sempre essere visto come un gesto di violenza […], nel caso della decostruzione quest’operazione porta con sé un fraintendimento essenziale del termine» (72). In secondo luogo, «plus de» attesta una malcelata insofferenza a chi vorrebbe fare della decostruzione una mera faccenda linguistica, trascurando così la sua esortazione a rimanere attenti, invece, di fronte a tutto ciò che non può arrivare a farsi lingua: il silenzio, l’illeggibile, la vita. Questo “tutt’altro che lingua” compare infine compiutamente nel terzo senso, quello per cui «plus d’une langue» occhieggia a ciò che nel linguaggio c’è sempre d’eccessivo, al suo plus: l’eccedenza irriducibile del significante sul significato, l’intraducibile che resta tra linguaggi diversi, l’accadere della lingua.
  3. Da qui alla filosofia dell’evento il passo è breve, così come ci ricorda la terza definizione, che invece Genovesi analizza direttamente, e che getta un ponte tra la decostruzione e la stessa natura paradossale dell’accadere. Cosa l’autore intenda per “decostruzione evenemenziale” l’abbiamo già esplicitato, ci limitiamo quindi ad aggiungere che quest’identificazione della decostruzione, nel suo «carattere imprevedibile e sempre aperto» (72), con l’evento, nei suoi tratti di imprevedibilità, assoluta novità, gratuità e incoercibile differimento, conduce Derrida lontano dall’orizzonte della critica in cui la sua filosofia sembrava essere rimasta imprigionata, impone la necessità di una filosofia “nuova”, che si lasci «strutturare dall’alea». Qui la decostruzione può manifestarsi in quella che viene chiamata la sua «portata inaugurale e dirompente» (73).
  4. Il confronto con l’impossibile e le sue figure, tra le quali Genovesi mette in primo piano l’«invenzione», il «dono» e l’«invocazione», è poi presentato dal filosofo italiano come il luogo inabituale in cui lo spazio dell’elaborazione di Derrida si reinventa, facendosi a misura dell’evento dell’Altro che viene, che , che chiama. Assumendo come trópos privilegiato il lavoro su figure specifiche, la cui stessa possibilità incarna il paradosso di qualcosa che non si può tenere od occupare, se non attivandone un continuo debordamento, la decostruzione si prepara infatti all’accoglimento dell’evento, nei termini in cui l’evento dice il paradosso della possibilità del senso e del reale. Il paradosso consiste nel fatto che questa possibilità del possibile, ovvero «il margine all’interno del quale il possibile può situarsi» (86) e che al possibile appartiene intimamente come il proprium più autentico, è, in ragione di ciò, sottratta alla possibilità di essere compresa essa stessa in quanto senso possibile, quindi impossibile. L’evento è impossibile, ma anche evidente; dice Genovesi: «il suo carattere ostico può essere in qualche modo giustificato se si considera che esso […] si verifica e l’evento arriva» (88). L’impossibile «ha luogo», e ha luogo specificamente nel fatto che c’è possibile; il punto è che questo “esserci”, che aziona il circolo dove trovano posto enti e significati, quest’evidenza, che non solo non possiamo denegare, ma che anzi dobbiamo ricercare, fare in modo che si produca, è ciò che il circolo – e la filosofia! – non può che restituire razionalmente, se non come il suo Altro, la sua follia. Evidenza, allora, e follia dell’evento, da cui la necessità per la filosofia di debordare il proprio registro, di farsi “altro” lavoro del pensiero, di dirsi a sua volta impossibile, e non come deriva o punto di fuga, ma come centro stesso della questione che la definisce e destina.

L’ultima sezione di Tracce dell’informe tematizza l’insorgenza e la natura dell’indecostruibile. Torniamo così a ciò da cui abbiamo preso inizialmente le mosse, cercando di chiarirne gli aspetti che erano rimasti più impliciti. Da un certo punto di vista, questo “tornare a…” ha a che vedere con la struttura dell’indecostruibile molto più di quanto accidentalmente potrebbe sembrare, così come non è casuale la scelta di Genovesi di dedicarvi gli ultimi due capitoli del saggio – che vogliamo leggere in maniera unitaria, nel segno del medesimo “avvento” –, avendone però preparato la via, si potrebbe dire, in ogni sua pagina precedente. Decisivo è, a tal proposito, l’intendimento di ciò che Genovesi sostiene, quando presenta l’indecostruibile come un punto d’approdo nella riflessione matura di Derrida, includendo che, pur essendo evidente una certa attenzione mirata soltanto nei testi a partire dalla fine degli anni ’80, la questione dell’indecostruibile fosse già presente in nuce negli scritti degli anni ’60. Il punto è che l’indecostruibile, come abbiamo già fatto notare a proposito di quella dinamica di completamento circolare che descrive e mette in moto la macchina della decostruzione rispetto alla sua pars destruens e alla sua pars costruens, indica, al contempo, ciò che resta della presenza, in ordine allo spazio di vuoto che la macchina in questione ne estrae internamente – e questo spazio, è un affacciarsi sulla venuta dell’Altro, «mai presente e sempre a-venire, nella sua differenza infinita» (146), – e ciò che a quest’opera di svuotamento è sempre presupposto alla maniera di un «quasi-trascendentale» e di un cominciamento. All’indecostruibile, in questo senso, “si torna” sempre come si torna a un’origine, ma quest’origine è a sua volta sempre differita, supplementare – «al posto del fondamento, come supplemento d’origine, troviamo piuttosto l’indeterminatezza radicale e infinita della differenza» (144) –, e quindi, paradossalmente e in virtù di ciò, sempre ancora a venire, sempre ancora mai avvenuta, archi-originaria venuta di e da un futuro impossibile. Tenere a mente queste considerazioni serve a comprendere uno degli aspetti, a nostro avviso, più pregnanti che emergono dalla trattazione di Genovesi: il fatto che per parlare dell’indecostruibile serva parlare anche e soprattutto degli indecostruibili, che a esso si debbano dare dei nomi diversi. Aspetto apparentemente contraddittorio, in quanto qui i nomi rinviano a qualcosa che non possono essere, sono fondamentalmente inadeguati rispetto a ciò che vorrebbero significare, ossia questa archi-origine, questo «abisso senza fondo» (141) della spaziatura, che, come non può essere decostruito, per il semplice fatto che in esso non è rimasto nulla da decostruire, nessun agglomerato di senso da disseminare, così, a rigor di logica, non dovrebbe essere nemmeno nominato; da cui consegue quella singolare vicinanza tra Derrida e la teologia negativa, che Genovesi non manca di approfondire. E, tuttavia, di questo indecostruibile bisogna pur parlare, è importante parlarne affinché qualcosa arrivi, poiché l’evento si dà ogni qualvolta ricomincia l’essere – e il suo racconto –, poiché è insomma inseparabile dall’effettività storico-concreta che esso positivizza nella traccia dell’esperienza. Non solo bisogna parlarne, ma usare anche nomi differenti. I nomi dell’indecostruibile, infatti – nomi che, in ogni caso, possono essere utilizzati solo «in maniera provvisoria, per fini pedagogici e retorici» (140) – sono molteplici, allo stesso modo in cui intrinsecamente molteplice è l’indecostruibile, sempre supplementare a se stesso, indistinzione dell’origine e del punto di approdo, e anche, come si diceva sopra, di passato e futuro nel segno di ciò che non è mai potuto e che quindi aspetta sempre di accadere.

Se c’è una «sconnessione» e una proliferazione dei nomi dell’indecostruibile, è anche perché a essi spetta il compito di dire – certo, frammentandolo, isolandone momenti che nell’evento sono irriducibilmente concomitanti – il tempo disconnesso e plurale della venuta originaria. Ora, questo aspetto, che ci sembra di assoluta rilevanza teoretica, rimane purtroppo nell’interpretazione di Genovesi implicito, se non addirittura trascurabile, in quanto l’autore preferisce concentrarsi sul motivo della coincidenza dei nomi dell’indecostruibile nella comune referenza alla nozione di “spaziatura”. Eppure, come c’è modo di pensare gli indecostruibili in senso unitario rispetto a quello spazio di vuoto che è il «ritrarsi che ogni posizione e ogni manifestazione sottende» (139), così bisognerebbe dar conto della ragione per cui essi debbono differire tra loro, in riferimento invece alle dimensioni del tempo della spaziatura. Qui, d’altronde, non diciamo nemmeno qualcosa di incompatibile con la maniera in cui questi indecostruibili vengono presentati in Tracce dell’informe; si tratta soltanto di portare in primo piano un registro che nella trattazione non riceve troppo peso. A conferma di ciò, basti riflettere brevemente sulla scelta di Genovesi di affrontare l’indecostruibile a partire da «chora» e «giustizia», due figure che, per come vengono descritte e in questo senso, potrebbero essere valorizzate separatamente come due nomi – approssimativi, precari nella loro distinzione, ma funzionali – per due versanti della temporalità scardinata dell’evento. Da un lato, chora, che Genovesi introduce, guarda caso, come il primo nome che Derrida dà all’indecostruibile (113), direbbe soprattutto l’esteriorità e l’anteriorità assoluta dell’evento, per quanto concerne la sede spaziale – il «ricettacolo informe» (142) – della genesi e della collocazione dell’essente. Chiaramente, questa anteriorità non è da intendersi come una legge della precedenza temporale, come se alludesse a qualcosa che non è presente solo perché lo sarebbe stato una volta, ma come un rapporto di vertiginosa indipendenza e di inevitabile differimento all’indietro, tra questo non-luogo – «il luogo indecostruibile che dà luogo al gioco tra Dio e il suo creato» (113), origine più antica dell’origine – e ciò che vi si sistema per essere ricevuto. Dall’altro lato, la giustizia, intesa come «responsabilità dell’Altro» e verso l’Altro, aprendo a quella che Genovesi chiama «la venuta dell’altro come evento singolare senza anticipazione possibile, all’esposizione alla sorpresa assoluta» (140), diventerebbe invece simbolo per la necessità di un trascendimento dell’orizzonte temporale nella direzione di qualcosa che è una chance di accadere soprattutto al futuro, sempre inattuale e ritardata. La giustizia dice infatti dell’evento che esso non verrà mai del tutto, che lascerà sempre qualcosa a venire, dice il suo altrove imminente, ma impresentabile nell’attesa.

Due parole, infine, sono da dedicare a questa formulazione della giustizia e all’etica. «Se quindi la giustizia non è decostruibile,» – scrive Genovesi – «è perché essa si presenta come un gesto decostruttivo, fino al punto di andare a coincidere con la decostruzione stessa, che per converso ci appare adesso come un indecostruibile atto di giustizia» (133). L’ultimo atto della decostruzione è insomma un testamento etico: come emerge da quanto detto a proposito di Derrida in Tracce dell’informe, tutto il senso della decostruzione potrebbe essere infine riassunto nell’imperativo etico fondamentale di “fare spazio” per l’ospitalità dell’Altro assoluto; un incontro che non prevede relazione, o ancora, una relazione senza alcuna reciprocità, senza reciproco riconoscimento, sempre aperta alla sua dissoluzione e al suo sacrifico. In questo senso, bene hanno detto quei lettori di Derrida che in questa forma di non-rapporto hanno intravisto, più che la promessa del «dono dell’altro», soprattutto lo spettro del suo abbandono. E infatti la giustizia è collocata in una dimensione escatologica e messianica, che, come ci ricorda l’autore, da un lato costituisce un potenziale sovversivo immenso, nutrendosi di una costante insoddisfazione nei confronti del presente e dei suoi limiti, dall’altro, vicendevolmente, «non contemplando la venuta finale dell’altro, si presenta come un messianismo privo […] di ogni idea di rivelazione o compimento ultimo (135). Alla stessa maniera, aggiungiamo noi, l’apertura nei confronti dell’Altro, per il fatto stesso che si annulla nel momento in cui entriamo in relazione con quest’alterità nel mondo, nel momento in cui abbiamo presente l’altro, rischia sempre di tramutarsi in una chiusura. Non c’è verso in questi termini, per esempio, di ripopolare il mondo dei volti dell’altro, volti che possano chiamarsi per nome e realmente accogliersi, senza mettere a rischio il valore della loro incolmabile trascendenza.

Eppure un dato innegabilmente “positivo” rimane, e su questo concludiamo; Genovesi ce lo ricorda in chiusura, tra le ultime questioni del testo, che rimangono domande aperte sulla natura dell’evento e su come concepire la sua “irruzione” su piani differenti da quelli tematizzati nell’opera di Derrida (l’estetica, o la fisica, giusto per citarne un paio). Tale positività dell’etica consiste prevalentemente in questo, e questo sicuramente costituisce una consapevolezza preziosa: l’altro (il nostro prossimo, il fratello, lo straniero) rappresenta l’unico «evento dell’Altro» nella nostra quotidianità che possa dirsi tale, e che come tale deve essere rispettato, indipendentemente dal fatto che l’opera del suo avvicinamento e della sua comprensione rimangano necessariamente aporetiche, e spingerci a cambiare la nostra vita; «nel caso del sopraggiungere dell’altro, la rottura avviene sul piano etico del nostro vivere la quotidianità: l’irrompere dell’altro scombussola i nostri piani, è l’elemento incalcolabile che comporta la necessità di una riconfigurazione totale della nostra vita» (148).

Edmund Husserl: Normativité et déconstruction, Vrin, 2020

Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 Book Cover Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920
Bibliothèque des Textes Philosophiques
Edmund Husserl. Présentation et traduction de Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges
Vrin
2020
Paperback
202

Matthew Sharpe, Maciej Kałuża, Peter Francev (Eds.): Brill’s Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers, Brill, 2020

Brill's Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers Book Cover Brill's Companion to Camus: Camus among the Philosophers
Brill's Companions to Philosophy, Volume: 5
Matthew Sharpe, Maciej Kałuża, Peter Francev (Eds.)
Brill
2020
Hardback €150.00 $180.00
488

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Book Cover The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
256

Reviewed by: Françoise Monnoyeur (Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris)

The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.

The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.

In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.

Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.

In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy  to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.

The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.

The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.

The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.

Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament.  His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.

In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.

In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.

Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?

Conclusion

Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital.  If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.

Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.

References

Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.

Kirsch, A. 2014. “Technology Is Taking Over English: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, Article 117428.

Kracauer, S. 1969. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford Univ Press.

Monnoyeur, F. 2011. Infini des philosophes, infini des astronomes. Paris: Belin.

Monnoyeur, F. 2013. “Nicholas of Cusa’s methodology of the Infinite.” Proc. Conference on History & Philosophy of Infinity, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1595.0881

Scholem, G. 2014. “On Lament and Lamentation.” In Ferber I. & Schwebel P. (Eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, 313-320. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Roland Breeur: L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity, Jonas ir Jokūbas, 2019

L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity Book Cover L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity
Margins
Roland Breeur
Jonas ir Jokūbas
2019
Paperback 9.00€
100

Richard I. Sugarman: Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach Book Cover Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach
SUNY series in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Richard I. Sugarman
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
426

Reviewed by: Hannah Bacon (Stony Brook University)

The eminent French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) has garnered recent renewed interest, both in terms of his philosophy and his reflection on Judaism. Sugarman contributes to this emergent scholarship in his extensive analysis Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach (published by SUNY Press in 2019), which extends and deepens his own body of work on Levinas.[1]

Sugarman’s extant Levinas scholarship includes the articles “Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‘Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn” in Phenomenology World-Wide; “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas” in Recherches Levinassiennes; and “Toward a Rationality of Transcendence: The Importance of Emmanuel Levinas to Contemporary Jewish Thought” published in A Perennial Spring.[2] Sugarman, with H.A. Stephenson, translated Levinas’s Talmudic text “To Love the Torah More Than God.” Pertinent to this project is the collection of John Wild’s work that Sugarman edited with R.B. Duncan entitled Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild.[3] John Wild (1902-1972), an influential phenomenologist, was Sugarman’s former teacher and mentor at Yale. Sugarman credits Wild with introducing Sugarman to the work of Levinas. As a result of his association with Wild, Sugarman personally met with Levinas in 1973.

Levinas and the Torah, an approachable but extensive text, begins with Sugarman’s own introduction and study of Levinas’s work, including a short, but relevant, biography of Levinas. This biographical framing includes three events pertinent to his philosophical work: the political horror that served as the backdrop of Levinas’s early life, including World War I; the Russian October Revolution which precipitated his family’s exile and relocation as Lithuanian Jews to the Ukraine; and, most saliently, World War II, during which he was imprisoned in a labor camp, his wife and daughter went into hiding, and most of his extended family was murdered. He dedicates Otherwise than Being: Beyond Essence to these family members murdered during the Holocaust of World War II. Sugarman’s biography also highlights his lifelong Jewish education in Talmudic Studies, his early philosophical immersion in phenomenology as a student of Edmund Husserl, and the trajectory of his work and the anxiety over influence as a colleague, admirer, and eventual critic of Martin Heidegger.

The guiding principle of Dr. Sugarman’s study is that, “The approach of Levinas to both Talmudic texts and philosophy is governed by the discipline of phenomenology.”[4] That said, Sugarman is a professor of religion: the book leans more towards religious studies than philosophy. To wit, there are more than twice as many commentators cited on the rabbinical texts as there are commentators on Levinas. Despite this focus, one need not be a religious scholar. The book is accessible and provides contexts and historical interpretations for the texts cited (such as the differences between the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, and the Bible).

Levinas and the Torah is decidedly focused on Levinas’s religious hermeneutics. The five main books of the Torah is the organizing taxonomy of the book (Genesis: Bereishis, Exodus: Shemos, Leviticus: Vayikra, Numbers: Bamidbar, and Deuteronomy: Devarim). These five sections are further divided down into the weekly readings portion of the Pentateuch. Sugarman pairs these readings with an equally diverse array of Levinasian concepts and interpretations of the underlying topics. Needless to say, this rich and multifaceted text covers a lot of ground, making it a difficult book to summarize.

One drawback to this structure is that the Levinasian philosophical concepts are spread across different sections. For example, the Talmudic concept of the Hineini, or the “Here I am,” that Levinas employs in his philosophical writings is discussed not in Genesis and the story of Abraham where one might expect it. Instead, it is treated in the section on proper names and Exodus 1:1-1:6 and then again in more depth in the section devoted to Prophetism: Inspiration and Prophecy, Numbers 22:2-25:9. These sections are almost two hundred pages apart and there is no indexical entry for this concept despite the centrality to Levinasian thought. For a Levinasian neophyte it is difficult to trace certain Levinasian specific concepts or ideas that are treated in multiple sections, but also to have a view of how specific leitmotifs fit together to form in his overarching philosophy. Similarly, Sugarman fails to attend to the nuanced way in which specific Levinasian concepts shift over time.[5]

In addition to the Jewish inflection that one can find in Levinas’s’ straightforward philosophical texts, Levinas also produced scholarship specifically on Jewish religious texts. Levinas lectured on the weekly Torah portions at École Normale Israelite Orientale. These lectures have no transcripts as recording and note-taken is forbidden during Shabbat. Levinas published two notable collections of essays specifically on Judaism: in 1963 with a book translated as Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism) and in 1968 with Nine Talmudic Readings. New Talmudic Readings was published posthumously in 1996. Sugarman draws on both the Talmudic texts and the philosophical texts. Sugarman puts Levinas’s Talmudic readings in dialogue with other Jewish scholars such as Mordechai Shoshani, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rashi, Maimonides, Abrham Ibn Eza, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, and others.

Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach yokes Levinas’s conceptual framework to Talmudic passages and hermeneutical religious scholarship. Beginning with Genesis, Sugarman lays out Rashi’s, Erwin Straus’s, and Abraham Ibn Ezra’s readings of Genesis, drawing out the passages that pertain to Levinasian philosophy. In the first of fourteen subsections on Genesis, Sugarman gives an in-depth reading of Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious Levinasian response to this is affirmative: Responsibility to and for the other is one of Levinas’s central underlying ethical tenets. The Levinas that is juxtaposed is not always the most obvious. For instance, I assumed a discussion of fraternity in Levinas and its role in justice would ensue, but instead Sugarman focuses on God withdrawing his face as a form of grave punishment. The face and its appeal, specifically its appeal in terms of its unspoken command, is another central concept for Levinas. From there, Sugarman moves on to a discussion of responsibility to the future, and whether Cain is guilty not just of fratricide but guilty of the violence against Abel’s future bloodline in what he terms generational responsibility. Levinas argues one has a responsibility to the other not just in the current moment, but a responsibility to the other in ensuring their future. One is infinitely responsible to the other. Sugarman’s treatment of Levinas’s theories of fraternity and justice did come later. By highlighting minor or less overworked aspects both in the Torah and in Levinas, Sugarman opens room for the reader to pursue lines of thought that are not already so established and exhaustively treated as to be clichéd.

One of the more compelling and interesting moments is the discussion of Levinas’s 1935 text On Escape with relation to the Talmudic account of Abraham and Sarah (also found in Genesis). The Abrahamic story begins with the command Lech Lecha, which is often translated as meaning ‘go for yourself.’ Sugarman however, proposes an alternate reading of “go out from yourself” (19). This interpretation is then put in conversation with Levinas’s phenomenological description of embodiment as being trapped in the self and under the thumb of various affects such as hunger, exhaustion, restlessness, and malaise. In other places the most dynamic insights come from these close hermeneutical alternative readings.

In Levinas, the self becomes a self by sacrificing for the other. Egoism, or putting the self before the other, is a grave ethical failure and a form of spiritual death. Abraham becomes the father of faith by being willing to make the most profound sacrifice for the divine. Sugarman is a close reader: he reminds the reader of details that are often forgotten because they do not seem relevant, but they become significant because of the Levinasian framing.  In his reading, Sugarman returns us to the less sanitized version of Biblical stories, although he does not say as much. I, for one, had forgotten that Jacob had children with four women and that Sarah convinces Abraham to sleep with their slave/servant (depending on your reading) Hagar, an act that Sugarman characterizes as ‘selfless’ of Sarah.  Sarah then casts Hagar out when Ishmael (Hagar’s and Abraham’s son) and Isaac, (Sarah’s and Abraham’s son) get into a verbal altercation. The return to the original text opens us up to the possibility of less cemented hermeneutical readings, and raises questions as to what we forget or exclude when we tell the story of Abraham. This incident could be an interesting counter-example of Abraham and Sarah as “exemplars of hospitality.”[6] Sugarman does not go this far, and in fact does not have a critical reading of either Levinas or the Talmudic sections. By bringing in the actual text, however, the reader can take the task of critical reading upon herself.

One powerful aspect of the Talmudic stories that Sugarman highlights is that these are not stories in which one returns home in the end, but instead lives in exile. Sugarman argues that this narrative arc essentially differs from the hero’s journey of Greek myths such as Odysseus, or the teleological structure of human nature put forth by Aristotle. Odysseus and Abraham are fundamentally different cultural narratives: when a person leaves without the guarantee of returning or even the hope of returning, this is the basis of an essentially different kind of narrative and thus an essentially different kind of subject. Pointing out the resonance between the story of Abraham and the centrality of responsibility to the other in Levinas’s construction of the subject is not a fresh or new idea. Sugarman provides a compelling hermeneutical argument that, in its most successful passages, makes the reader newly aware of how uncommon specific narratives and arguments are in present-day culture and contemporary intellectual thought. By sharing the joyful ruminations gleaned from a close hermeneutical reading practice, this book is a successful argument for the importance of revisiting the Torah. Sugarman reminds the reader of what a radical shift it is to think of the self or the subject as inherently for the other, and he also demonstrates how against the grain Levinasian thought is in relation to the prevailing intellectual history of the subject or ego.

In the sections devoted to “Exodus: Shemos,” Sugarman outlines experiences of exile, revolution, tyranny, oppression and the duty towards social justice. Sugarman relates these concepts and narratives to the consequences they have for identity, morality, and temporality in the Talmudic text. These passages on temporality include a clarifying distinction between nostalgia and tradition. This constellation of ideas is related to Levinas’s conceptual framework of responsibility, freedom, law, and development of the moral subject. The most interesting aspect of this section is an account of the moral importance of the act of promising and the essential role it plays in intersubjective relationships. In order to promise one must have hope for a future. The discussion of promising emerges in Exodus in form of the promise G’d makes to the enslaved Jewish people. One consequence of slavery is the loss of individual identity evinced in the loss of proper names (Shemos the Hebrew for Exodus means names).[7] For Levinas, to be a subject, one must be responsible to the other. Sugarman shows, through his reading, how enslavement inhibits one’s ability to be a Levinasian ethical subject, in that one cannot make a promise to the other, nor can one respond to the needs of the other, or take responsibility for the future of the other. Exodus contains the command to protect ‘the widow, the orphan, and the stranger’ a phrase that regularly appears in Levinas’s ethical philosophy, suggesting that these Talmudic passages are immensely pertinent for Levinas in terms of our ethical duty to others.

Sugarman’s analysis of Leviticus: Vayikra focuses on holiness, religious law, the duty to study, and the atonement or repentance of Yom Kippur for transgressions against each other and against G’d. Leviticus is often considered the most esoteric and least well-known book of the Torah. Sugarman draws on Levinas’s discussion of holiness, the importance of language and dialogue, further analysis of diachrony (the time of the other), the difference between holiness and sacredness, and the phenomenology of human suffering to enliven this section successfully. In it Sugarman returns to his analysis of Nietzschean ressentiment.[8] Levinas is attentive to the ritual of Yom Kippur and how forgiveness and pardon can only be enacted after genuine action is taken to repair or alleviate the ongoing suffering that one’s actions have caused. Levinas also cautions against the rationalization of evil and suffering with relation to the Holocaust, which he argues was wholly inexplicable and unjustifiable. This section also puts forth a reading of the environmentalism inherent in Talmudic laws around agriculture.

The Book of Numbers: Bamidbar gives account of the period from the teachings on Sinai to the journey to the Promised Land. It begins with two censuses, which Sugarman juxtaposes with insights gleaned from Levinas’s book Proper Names. It then moves to a discussion of peace, prophecy, and most saliently Israel, which is central to the complicated issue of the relationship between ethics, politics, and Judaism in Levinas. Other topics discussed include fanaticism and obsession, infinity, and justice as it relates to cities of refuge for those who have committed involuntary manslaughter. Each of these sections, although often only a few pages long, are filled with provocative readings raising rich philosophical and religious questions.

Deuteronomy: Devarim, the last of the five books, mostly hinges on Moses’s dictum on how life ought to be lived in the Promised Land and what can be learned or what needs to be reiterated from the journey there. These sermons, Sugarman notes, contain a sense of urgency in that they would have been given in the last 37 days of Moses life.[9] This form of reflection aligns with Levinas’s notion of the past as trace, and the importance of facing that past in order to open a new future. Sugarman discusses topics that include prayer, profundity in the prosaic, whether it is righteous to exist, the responsibility to pursue and enact justice, and revolution. In his Nine Talmudic Readings, Levinas emphasizes the Talmudic basis for social justice and workers rights. Sugarman points out that Levinas’s text was written immediately following the 1968 Paris uprising. Here, and elsewhere, Sugarman indicates the lessons we may still need to learn or the concepts that may be pertinent in securing a more open future today. The book closes with an epilogue, two appendices—a useful and compact glossary of Talmudic and Biblical Terms, along with a glossary of Levinas’s terminology—and a brief but descriptive list of the Talmudic scholars or commentators that Sugarman is employing.

One possible criticism of Levinas and the Torah is that in order to make Levinas’s philosophy accessible, complex concepts are occasionally given superficial treatment. It is debatable whether necessary nuance and complexity were sacrificed. Sugarman seemingly makes these choices for the sake of clarity. For example, when Levinas speaks of the face of the other, at times it seems he is in truth speaking of an actual face or visage; at other times the face is clearly a metaphor, the face of the other is language or expressivity, or the face is meant in terms of orientation but not the literal sense of face. Other concepts developed and shifted over the course of his work: for instance Levinas’s descriptions of role of justice or politics shift in significant ways from his early texts to his later texts.

These conflicting meanings and connotations are often left unsaid in Sugarman’s hermeneutic reading, whether for the sake of clarity, efficiency, or simplification. There are passages in Levinas and the Torah where the move from the specific and singular other to multiple others, or the transition from ethics to justice, is more fluid and neat than it is in Levinas. Debates about what the face means in Levinas and what a Levinasian politics is are live and contentious, but these competing readings are not brought in. The narrowness of Sugarman’s reading could lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations if the reader has not already read Levinas, or is not reading the original Levinasian texts in concert with Levinas and the Torah.

In the most successful exegetical analysis, Sugarman does not shy away from the complexities in Levinasian philosophy. This attention to nuance is shown in his careful and persuasive account of substitution and Levinas’s claim that one must take responsibility even for one’s persecutors. Arguably, with these lean arguments, there is more room for other types of rumination. When one is not reading and re-reading dense and convoluted Levinasian texts one can see the simplicity of this assertion. The reader can instead focus on an argument for radical responsibility for one’s persecutors that was made by someone who was held in a labor camp and whose family was murdered during the Shoah. For Sugarman this room for rumination is more important than making sure his reader understands all the subtle tonalities of the face in Levinasian philosophy.

Readers will most likely not always agree with Sugarman’s readings of either the Torah or Levinas. Additionally, some of the specific resonances between the Talmud and Levinasian philosophy feel more tenuous than other. By Sugarman’s reading it seems that anytime one leaves one’s house is an example of the Levinasian passage from the self to alterity and radical exteriority. Hopefully, any reader will be motivated to return to the original texts in order to ground productive disagreements and participate in the rich tradition of Jewish argument.

In this way the book is doing something different. There is already a wealth of scholarship that interrogates Levinas’s use of the concept of fraternity or whether or not one can use Levinas to move from an ethics to a robust account of justice or politics. While not every book needs to be critical of Levinas—and if criticism is what one wants there are plenty of resources for a more measured reading of Levinas outside of this book—there are instances where it would have opened a more nuanced or rich reading. The author recommends reading Levinas and the Torah alongside of the Talmudic readings. I would advise to read it alongside the wealth of contemporary Levinas scholarship that analyzes both the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

There are three main aspects of Levinas that are usually the focus of criticism. First, he tends to employ an overly masculine account of ethics in his reliance of concepts such as fraternity, and the son rather than the child (This is central to Derrida’s criticism and is all the more striking in that Levinas had two daughters, although one did not survive) and his equivocating femininity with the domestic sphere and with alterity. Second, Levinas’s actual political statements occasionally verge on nationalism in the case of France and Israel. Perhaps Levinas’s most controversial opinion was given during a 1982 radio interview weeks after the Sabra and Shalita massacre of between 700-3,000 Palestinian men, women and children in which Israeli courts later deemed the IDF complicit. When repeatedly pressed by the interviewer Levinas avoided finding fault in this behavior, and implied that these victims perhaps did not rise to the level of being an ethical other. Last, Levinas has been accused of Euro-centrism in his championing of Europe and European culture through his claim that Greek culture and the Bible were the pinnacle of civilization and societal achievements, and that other cultures were non-serious or lesser. These issues raise crucial questions of who can be an ethical other, of whether or not hospitality has its limits, and whether Levinas makes exception to his own dictums. This sometimes overly laudatory account of Levinas’s work does not even footnote the criticisms that Levinas has received, let alone place them in conversation.

Although clearly rooted in intense Talmudic scholarship, this text does not provide a critical lens for Levinas’s religious readings. A generous reading would state that Sugarman is not concerned with these debates and that they are well documented elsewhere. A more critical reader may see this as a missed opportunity to provide a more robust discussion and also a chance to respond to these criticisms and defend Levinas’s positions. In the tradition of questioning within the Jewish intellectual tradition, it would benefit the readers of Levinas and the Talmud to have this same hermeneutical precision trained on the full range of readings and scholarship.

Levinas and the Torah is a rich and compelling text that provides the reader with a general overview and the necessary exegesis and hermeneutic tools for further inquiry. Through persuasive and spirited analysis, Sugarman makes clear a generous intention for his reader. I would recommend Levinas and the Torah for those who are curious or towards the beginning of their study but feel overwhelmed by the jargon and complexity of other exegetical readings of Levinas’s Jewish thought or to those with familiarity with either the Talmudic texts or Levinas and have a thirst for knowledge for the other. Moreover, this seems to be a book conscious of the zeitgeist of our time, with its pertinence to questions of apocalypse, exile, revolution, suffering, political uncertainty, and futurity. Levinas and the Torah is rich without being exhaustive; it is penetrating without being abstruse and esoteric.  In Levinasian terms we have an infinite responsibility to the future. Sugarman argues compellingly for the importance of learning the narratives and ideas of the deep past in order to enact a more ethical and just future for the coming generations.


[1] Sugarman, Richard I. 2019. Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach. Albany: State University of New York.

[2] Sugarman, Richard I. 2003. “Emmanuel Levinas: The Ethics of ‘Face to Face’/ The Religious Turn.” In Phenomenology World-Wide, ed. Anna Teresa Tymieniecka (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers), published in Analecta Husserliana 80: 409-430; Sugarman, Richard I. 2012. “Messianic Temporality: Preliminary Reflections on Ethical Messianism and the Deformalization of Time in Levinas.” Recherches Levinassiennes, ed. R. Burrggreave et al. Series Bibliotheque Philosophique de Louvain 82, 421-436, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, Belgium; Sugarman, Richard I. 2013. “Toward A Rationality Of Transcendence: The Importance Of Emmanuel Levinas To Contemporary Jewish Thought.” In As A Perennial Spring: A Festschrift honoring Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, 473-493.

[3] Wild, John. 2006. Speaking Philosophy: The Posthumous papers of John Wild,ed. Richard I. Sugarmn & R.B. Duncan; Phenomenological Inquiry 24 (2000): 205-292.

[4] Sugarman, Ibid. 8.

[5] For instance, the face-to-face, the neighbor, and the trace are omitted from the index but are treated in multiple sections. Incomplete Indices is a common problem in academic books.

[6] Sugarman, Ibid. 32.

[7] Sugarman, Ibid. 96. Curiously, this section on Proper Names does not make reference or use of Levinas’s book Proper Names in this section, but in the beginning of The Book of Numbers.

[8] This was the topic of his book Rancor Against Time: The Phenomenology of Ressentiment (Felix Meiner, 1980)

[9] Sugarman, Levinas and the Torah, 303.