Francesco Vitale: The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture

The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture Book Cover The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture
Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory
Francesco Vitale. Mauro Senatore - Translator
SUNY Press
2018
Hardback $80.00
166

Reviewed by: Georgios Tsagdis (University of Westminster)

“For Architecture no longer defines a domain.”

(Derrida)

Opening

To begin with the title. ‘The last fortress of metaphysics’ is for Francesco Vitale architectural; it is indeed, architecture itself—at once protected and encumbered by a manifold of “theoretical, political, institutional, symbolical, and material resistances” (xvi). In its encrusted ‘lastness’ architecture presents thus the litmus test of deconstruction, making the latter’s intervention into the former the measure of deconstruction’s efficacity.

This is because at and from the outset philosophy and architecture have found themselves “in the most essential of cohabitations” (xv). The apparent oblivion to the fraught resonances of the “cohabitation with women” that haunt Rousseau’s supplementarity across the pages of the Grammatology will be partly compensated by the book’s opening two chapters, which will undertake to think habitation in the figure of the oikos. At the outset however the cohabitation of philosophy and architecture is established in the strange, troubled even, generality of the latter.  In a passage of Derrida, which the short book will quote thrice (repetition ringing across the text worse than a stylistic shortcoming) and which must thus appear here in toto, architecture’s generality is contested by logical and material consistency, if not constancy:

“On the one hand, this general architectonic erases or exceeds the sharp specificity of architecture; it is valid for other arts and regions of experience as well. On the other hand, architecture forms its most powerful metonymy; it gives it its most solid consistency, objective substance. By consistency, I do not mean only logical coherence, which implicates all dimensions of human experience in the same network: there is no work of architecture without interpretation, or even economic, religious, political, aesthetic, or philosophical decision. But by consistency I also mean duration, hardness, the monumental, mineral or ligneous subsistence, the hyletics of tradition.” (xiv, 3, 90)

It is at the juncture of this hyletics, upon the rock of its consistency, that Derrida’s confrontation with Peter Eisenman will play out, a confrontation of particular significance for the encounter of deconstruction and architecture. But since the onto-political fate of the latter with philosophy will be from the outset intertwined, so must be the fate of their critique. Accordingly, Derrida destabilises and solicits the significance of the architectural foundation: “Architecture must have a meaning, it must present this meaning, and hence signify. The signifying or symbolic value of this meaning must command the structure and syntax, the form and function of architecture. It must command it from the outside, according to a principle (archē), a grounding or foundation, a transcendence or finality (telos) whose locations are not themselves architectural.” (xviii) With the same stroke, Derrida solicits the significance of the sign itself, a significance always already philosophical. It does so, by exploring the work of spacing that antecedes all given and constituted internal and external spaces.

Law of the Oikos

Vitale’s exploration begins with a return to the ‘law of the oikos’.  The book’s first two chapters deal with the Hellenic legacy that informs the shared fate of philosophy and architecture. For, as Derrida reminds us: “there is an architecture of architecture. Down to its archaic foundation, the most fundamental concept of architecture has been constructed. […] This architecture of architecture has a history.” (1) Vitale locates the significant point of entry to this history in the Greek polis in its intricate relation to the oikos.

The politics of habitation in Athens rests on the myth of king Erichthonius, “who was born directly from earth, not from a woman, but from the soil fecundated by the seed of Hephaestus, dispersed after his clumsy attempt to possess Athena.” (7) In this reading, the soil from which Erichthonius emerges, becomes the mythical foundation of all eco-political foundations. Since no reality will be able to adequate the myth, the latter will continue to haunt the imaginary of the West, producing building and dwelling as much as theoretical and political effects. For Derrida, this ontopology, this “axiomatic linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being (on) to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general,” is today more obsolete than ever. (7) This certainly does not mean overcome.

The Erichthonian soil determines the law of the oikos, a law that “imposes the task of thinking identity (ontological and political identity) in terms that are irreducibly spatial: origin as a place, permanence, stability, being distinguished and protected from difference, alterity, the stranger, and the foreign.” (11) It does so by presenting itself as an immutable, yet indeterminate foundation. This terrestrial foundation bears the name of khōra.

Since khōra “is neither sensible nor ideal, not even a being, it cannot be determined in any way as a being could be. For this reason, to describe it, Timaeus must use a set of analogies (the receptacle, the cast, the sieve, the nursemaid, etc.), assuming that none of them are adequate since they all come from the sensible determined in the khōra. This third remains indeterminate: the indeterminate that prevents itself from any possible determination and makes every determination possible. But, at the same time, in its indeterminateness khōra imposes on us the thought that all that is, is as such because it takes place, has an origin that remains fixed, permanent, and stable, has a proper place, oikēsis idias.” (12)

Derrida explicates the status of the khōra further: “Perhaps, because it can receive everything, one could give it all the names one wants, since it can take any form, ultimately one could give a name different from khōra. As it does not exist under the form of a being identical with itself, of an ideal referent or a thing, one does not see why it would have only one name. But it is precisely because of this that it is always necessary to name it in the same way, since it is paradoxically necessary to keep the sense that it has no sense.” (12) Being the signifier of a signified which is not, the khōra is at the same time a quasi-index, a this, each time unique, yet nonetheless a name, and as such more than a mere this, a cipher eliding indication and signification.

Khōra accordingly designates political space, in the primary sense of invested, occupied space. (13) This space is occupied by the ‘dead sons of the polis’, the Erichthonian progeny which returns to rest forever in the originative soil of the city, now the burial ground of the Kerameikos. (8) The soil of the city the dead will share with the heroes, the cult of which is reactivated in the 8th century BC. The Mycenaean constructions, used by the cult are thus reactivated, offering not only the reassurance of a religious a continuity, but also assuming “a civic as well as territorial value,” by gathering the community and rooting it in the soil. In tandem, the acropolis will be “heir of the royal fortress of the Mycenaean age,” circumscribing the unity of the polis. (22) Whereas the fort would guarantee permanence to the city because of the security it afforded, the architectural permanence of acropolis offers a symbolic security. Positioned at the akron, the visible limit of the polis, it determines its whole territory, stabilising the khōra. The ethico-political significance of this stability will lend support to the Socratic indictment of the itinerant sophists, who lack a proper place, an oikos and thus the nomos, the law that pertains to it. (10) The city must exclude the dangerous other: it is a philosophical as much as an architectural function, a function summed up in the designation of an outside against a stable, striated inside. The law of the oikos, coupled with the law of the polis protect this inside, arresting and fixing the fluidity of the khōra.

Politics of Architecture

For Vitale, the significant contribution of deconstruction is precisely the re-articulation of all stability into effects of stabilization and sedentarization (let it be recalled that de-construction determines itself from the outset as de-sedimentation). Thus places lose their mythical-metaphysical origin and identity, appearing as effects of dislocation and localization, whereas the human appears as the effect of a situated self-inscription, placed by default in relation to otherness and the other. (29) Opening up a space in which to think and live this relation, is the contribution of deconstruction. (30) The law of the oikos, which protected the inside from the outside, the familiar from the stranger, and which informed the history of architecture, as well as that of the ‘architecture of architecture’ is here suspended (31). It becomes thus possible to conceive an other end of architecture, decoupled from dwelling. It certainly becomes possible to conceive of a different dwelling. For this “the deconstruction of architecture must in turn become work, it must become architecture.” (33)

The promise of this ‘architecture to come’ is affirmative of its own possibility, yet never positive. It never posits itself in a fortified security, but remains ‘risky, uncertain, improbable’. (34) It thus remains open and assumes the responsibility not only towards its own future, but towards the other to come, the nameless other, whom we do not know, cannot prefigure and imagine, the other that we do not know when, and altogether whether, will arrive. (38) This is a task not only of architecture, but of the polis as a whole. In order to achieve this, a city must strive to remain “indefinitely and structurally non-saturable, open to its own transformation, to additions that come to alter or dislocate as much as possible the memory of the heritage.” (41-2) As prime counterpoint to the acropolis and the funerary sēma, “Derrida conjures up the example of the temple of Ise in Japan, the most remarkable place of worship of Shintoism. The temple has been dismantled and rebuilt with new materials every twenty years for one thousand five hundred years.” (42) If such a thing was ever needed, one has here the most literal and least literary moment of deconstruction. It is all the same a sign.

Mythographies

The following, fourth, chapter undertakes to trace the passage ‘from architecture to writing’ and then ‘from writing to arche-writing’. Derrida, wishes to abandon ‘the envelope of a book’ to seek a different organisation of space—a space, where one does not only read, but also write between the lines. As readers, we are not handed over the model or blueprint of such ‘architectural artifacts’ as Glas or La Carte Postale, but are rather invited to inhabit their text. (47) Neither, because there is no model, nor because the model must be kept secret; we are not presented with the architectonics of architecture, because although the act of writing that has escaped the book, is a spacing akin “to the production of architectural drawing,” (49) this drawing resists its summary, its reduction to a few master-lines. The architecture of deconstructive writing resists the enclosure and subsumption under its own archē.

The book represents for Derrida precisely such a closure or totality, be it finite or infinite, of the signifier, which can only be established, once a totality of the signified has been previously asserted. (50) Although the historic veracity of this assertion is hardly questionable, Vitale could have here explored the necessity of the equivalence: even though no ground or telos might ultimately support totalisation, it appears theoretically possible to de-couple a totality of signifiers from a totality of signifieds. A ‘trans-total’ correspondence, one between a totality and a non-totality, is imaginable.

Architecture offers a paradigmatic possibility of a rupture with totalising writing. Pluri-dimensionality becomes the operative word. In Vitale’s words: “architectural writing is able to articulate geometric and mathematical notation, perspectival drawing and multiple reference systems, computer graphics, diagrams, photography, spectrography (which detects the physical nature of sites and materials as well as the anthropic presence), tridimensional models, and so on.” (51) It contributes thus to the deconstructive programmatic of conceiving “in a manner at once historical and systematic, the organized cohabitation, within the same graphic code, of figurative, symbolic, abstract, and phonetic elements.” (58) The war of linearisation against the originary pluri-dimensionality of writing, a war that reduced the cohabitation of these dimensions to successivity has long appeared won. Derrida, after Leroi-Gourhan, discovers the potentiality of resistance against the dominion of linearity, which marks the promise of a different scriptural future, in the sign of the ‘mythogram’. In the mythogram, “meaning is not subjected to successivity, to the order of a logical time, or to the irreversible temporality of sound. This pluri-dimensionality does not paralyze history within simultaneity.” (59) Mythography grants us access to arche-writing. Leaving this passage to arche-writing underexplored, Vitale follows Derrida, in an open gesture towards writing and reading architecture as mythography.

Writing Space

The fifth chapter explores the theme of spacing as it comes into play in Tschumi’s research and work. Spacing must be understood not only as an empirical necessity of every system of notation, of every scriptural or inscriptive system, but also as an irreducible condition of experience and of the production of meaning. Spacing is already there in every presence, at the heart of its own self-immediacy. (63) Accordingly, spacing is the imprint of the play of the trace, of a movement that produces space in its unfolding. The trace, as “the opening of the first exteriority in general,” (56, 64) spaces by showing the exteriority at the heart of every interiority.

For Vitale, Tschumi’s work follows faithfully the play of the trace. It is thus able to offer a new architectural possibility, a possibility that is “neither architecture nor anarchitecture, [but rather] transarchitecture.” (68) What is particularly significant and particularly topical for Derrida in transarchitecture is that “it comes to terms with the event; it no longer offers its work to users, believers, or dwellers, to contemplators, aesthetes, or consumers. Instead, it calls on the other to invent, in turn, the event, to sign, consign, or countersign: advanced by an advance made to the other—and maintaining architecture, now architecture.” (69) At a given juncture, Tschumi offers for Derrida the inventive now.

In the Manhattan Transcripts Tschumi’s struggle to escape the confines of received architectural writing becomes apparent: “The original purpose of the tripartite mode of notation (events, movement, spaces) was to introduce the order of experience, the order of time—moments, intervals, sequences—for all inevitably intervene in the reading of the city. It also proceeded from a need to question the modes of representation generally used by architects: plans, sections, axonometries, perspectives. However precise and generative they have been, each implies a logical reduction of architectural thought to what can be shown, to the exclusion of the other concerns. They are caught in a sort of prison-house of architectural language, where “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” [Wittgenstein] Any attempt to go beyond such limits, to offer another reading of architecture, demanded the questioning of these conventions.” (71)

It is precisely the function of movement in Tschumi’s work that destabilises calculability and universality, to bring forth the unique now in which a play of differences becomes possible for architectural writing. Again The Manhattan Transcripts: ‘The movements—of crowds, dancers, fighters—recall the inevitable intrusion of bodies into architectural spaces, the intrusion of one order into another. The need to record accurately such confrontations, without falling into functionalist formulas, suggests precise forms of movement notation. An extension of drawing conventions or choreography, this notation attempts to eliminate the preconceived meaning given to particular actions in order to concentrate on their spatial effects: the movement of bodies in space.’” (72)

It is because of this attentiveness to the plasticity that the play of the trace necessitates, that Tschumi appears not to betray the promise of deconstruction for a different architecture. Thus, the “unique existence and logic” that  “books of architecture, as opposed to books about architecture” develop, (70-1) will not be met by Vitale with the suspicion reserved for Eisenman’s attempt to extricate architecture from the exigencies of deconstruction, by establishing a sui generis space for it. Perhaps then the space devoted to the latter’s critique would have been better employed in following much more closely the former’s appraisal, exploring the architectural pathways opened by Tschumi’s practice.

Eisenman the Apostate

The penultimate chapter is then devoted to Eisenman—a cul-de-sac of deconstruction. A certain early rapport of the two men in view of a collaboration on the La Villette park project quickly came to a head. The rupture manifested in dramatic fashion at the 1989 congress in Inrvine, which Derrida decided not to attend. It was precisely this performative absence that dramatised their divergent positioning vis-à-vis the place and function of absence in thought and architecture. Derrida used his physical absence to address on tape a series of questions to Eisenman—a spectral confrontation. (79)

Derrida had proposed his essay Khōra as common ground for their joint exploration, a text and a notion that we saw pose a challenge to territorial foundations of identity. (17) Eisenman retracted in view of this challenge. The concrete materiality of the physical presence of buildings meant for Eisenman that “the term [deconstruction] is too metaphorical and too literal for architecture.” (82) The full scope, however, of the double hyperbole is only made apparent in Eisenman’s attempt to break with the way in which deconstruction engages with oppositionality: “In my view, your deconstruction of the presence/absence dialectic is inadequate for architecture precisely because architecture is not a two-term but a three-term system. In architecture, there is another condition, which I call presentness—that is neither absence nor presence, [neither] form nor function, but rather an excessive condition between sign and being. As long as there is a strong bond between form and function, sign and being, the excess that contains the possibility of presentness will be repressed.” (87)

Presentness as the third term is the wager of the whole dispute and the point on which Vitale will concentrate his vindication of deconstruction. He will do so by means of a theoretico-historical and a logical argument. The former suspects the structure of a transcending-encompassing third of regressing into dialectics and producing dialectical effects. Accordingly, Eisenman will remain haunted by the spectre of an architectural Hegelianism; a spectre he will not even attempt to shake off. (88) The latter argument presents Eisenman’s logic as circular. We are given to read: “Presentness is the possibility of another aura in architecture, one not in the sign or in being, but a third condition of betweenness. […] This excess is not based on the tradition of the plenitude, but rather is the condition of possibility of presentness.” The circle is clear: “Presentness is the condition of possibility of the excess that is the condition of possibility of presentness.” Neither Eisenman, nor Vitale seem to be interested here in a notion such as ‘equi-primordiality’, as an escape from the conundrum.

What emerges in the brevity of this exposition is the introduction of aura as the halo of presentness, which amounts for Eisenman to the “presence of absence.” (90) This is why Derrida will take advantage of his absence to say to Eisenman on tape: “I’m not going to take advantage of my absence, not even to tell you that you perhaps believe in it, absence, too much.” (80) Eisenman believes in absence too much because he believes in the redemptive possibility of its presentification. The implications for Derrida—or what Vitale diagnosed as dialectical effects—are significant: “Whether it has to do with houses, museums, or university research laboratories, what distinguishes your architectural space from that of the temple, indeed of the synagogue (by this word I mean a Greek word expressing a Jewish concept)? Where will the break, the rupture have been in this respect, if there is one, if there was one, for you and other architects of this period with whom you feel yourself associated? I remain very perplexed about this subject; if I had been there, I would have been a difficult interlocutor.” (81)

The difficulty for Derrida amounts to the attempt, both impossible and regressive, to presentify absence. Thus his spectral advise to Eisenman: ‘Well, you can strategically insist on absence as a disruption of the system of presence, but at a certain point you have to leave the theme of absence’.” (93). Derrida who confesses to feeling like an architect when writing, the paradox of architecture cannot be sublimated:

“The paradox, of course, is that on the face of it, architecture seems to have nothing to do with absence, in one of Heidegger’s texts, he says that a temple is a place where God is present, but that implies that the temple is an empty place ready to receive God. It is the ultimate paradox of logocentrism. […] So, because of its unique relationship to representation, architecture is more ‘present’ than any other art, but at the same time, being the most ‘present’, it is also the strongest reference to the opposite of presence, namely absence.” (92)

In the artifacts of the architectural tradition and despite the latter’s claims, the cohabitation of presence and absence remains productively irresolvable. Within this picture Eisenman appears merely to reinscribe a traditional gesture in the architectural matrix.

In order to decide the fate of this gesture Derrida invites Eisenman to position himself with regard to Benjamin’s essay Experience and Poverty, in which a ‘constructive destruction’ of aura is undertaken by the ‘new Barbarians’. (90-1) Benjamin observes the destruction of aura in the glass and steel work of architects such as Loos and Le Corbusier build with steel and glass. The hardness of the former and the (assumed) transparency of the latter preclude auratic effects, such as uniqueness, exclusiveness and mystification. Eisenman, whose attempt to rehabilitate aura is by now clear, will sidestep Benjamin’s essay.

Returning to the challenge of khōra to foundational origins, Derrida shows the need to think the auratic play of presence and absence through the notion of the trace: “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of the retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially [originairement] a trace. The trace is not an attribute; we cannot say that the self of the living present “primordially is” it [l’‘est originairement’]. Being-primordial [l’être-originaire] must be thought on the basis of the trace, and not the reverse. This arche-writing is at work at the origin of the sense.” (85) The difference becomes thus clear: whereas Eisenman’s phenemonological trace enables a reconstitution of presence as retention of absence, Derrida’s deconstruction of this traces shows presence as a transitory effect of the trace’s movement. (87, 93, 95)

Here ends therefore Derrida’s engagement with Eisenman, as well as Vitale’s chapter. It is perhaps unfortunate that the latter did not attempt to identify and extract those intuitions in the latter’s work that originally attracted Derrida, and might still hold the potential of productive effects—intuitions working precisely against Eisenman’s overall gesture. The chapter’s polemic shares thus little of deconstruction’s sense of a fidelity working from within, remaining rather a siege extra muros.

Spacing Architecture

The last chapter of the book functions as a coda to the series of forays of the previous chapters. Vitale returns with Derrida to Saussure, to find a sign both arbitrary and differential (102-3), which will support the renewed call for the displacement of the linearity of architectural and non-architectural writing. The notion of the trace, the fruit of the internal tensions of the two-fold character of the sign, provides the “finite and material element of a composition that takes on the shape of an architectural product,” in order to effect the displacement of linearity. (105) The play of the trace spaces, gives space, opens up the matrix of the khōra.

Vitale chooses to close with a framing of Glas, perhaps the most ‘architectural’ of Derrida’s works, and moreover, in Derrida’s words, one replete with traces, “traces of traces without tracing, or, if you wish, tracings that only track and retrace other texts.” (110) For Vitale the two columns in which the text of Glas is arrange, constitute architectural artifacts: “two columns that are erected and stand out on account of a supposed autonomy: the autonomy of the work, of the Book, granted by the signature of the author (subject, consciousness, etc.). In this case, Hegel’s work, on one side, and Genet’s work, on the other side. […] Glas consists in this frame that exposes what makes it possible: between the two columns, the clapper [battant] of another text, of another logic: spacing.” (107)

The implications of the making, the arrangement of scriptural space are catalytic for the ciphering and de-ciphering of the text. Moreover, the text itself will reinforce its architectural space, the way a stalactite becomes the support of the cavernous, mineral space that produced it. Vitale is observant: “Genet’s work, once inscribed within the frame of Glas, can no longer be entirely solved, absolved, detached from the act of absolute self-naming to which it aims. To realize/idealize itself as such, it cannot but go through the erection of a column of writing, and thus it must leave the traces of its finite and contingent passage.” (109) In this, reading Genet is constituted by Derrida as the anarchitecture that opposes Hegelian architectonics; the space between the two becomes the desired space of transarchitecture, a space between two architectures, two idioms, two tongues. If a kulindros designates the round body of a pyramid, an obelisk or a column, as much as a rolled manuscript or a scroll, Glas, working between its two columns, presents itself as a transversal writing, the most literal trans-script.

The integrated collection of essays that comprise The Last Fortress of Metaphysics would be strengthened if, rather than being their object, trans-scripturality was their constitutive mode of articulation. A second language would have to infect that of Derrida’s, the language of “the master of masters,” in Vitale’s acclaim. (viii) Adoration repays badly the master; if the master is to be followed, his performance must be performed anew. To perform anew in this instance would also require heeding the words of Derrida that Vitale is familiar with: “I am not happy with the concept of collage. I never use it as such. It is a traditional concept. Collage implies fragment, and that implies that there is a proper body the fragment belongs to.” (97) The collage that The Last Fortress is, troubles the reader less by the precariousness of its unity or its repetitiveness, as by the tempting promise of a proper textual body, a naked body in which the intricate and far-reaching interweaving of deconstruction and architecture is exposed in its plenitude. All the same, Vitale’s effort is a first step and as such a significant contribution to the labour required in appraising the lure of this promise.

Michael Marder: Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 2018

Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics Book Cover Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics
Michael Marder
University of Minnesota Press
2018
Paperback $25.00
224

Francesco Vitale: The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture, SUNY Press, 2018

The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture Book Cover The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture
Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory
Francesco Vitale
SUNY Press
2018
Hardback $80.00
166

Raoul Moati: Levinas and the Night of Being

Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity Book Cover Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity
Raoul Moati, Translated by Daniel Wyche, Foreword by Jocelyn Benoist
Fordham University Press
2016
Paperback $28.00
240

Reviewed by: Innocenzo Sergio Genovesi (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

From Deleuze to Derrida, from Badiou to Nancy and Marion, the concept of event (évènement) witnessed an important development in the last fifty years of French philosophy and it is present in the most influential authors’ thought. Today, this notion still plays a central role in several attempts to rethink ontology and phenomenology, such as Claude Romano’s evential hermeneutics (hermenéutique événementiale). Even if the ideas of these philosophers substantially differ from each other and cannot be simply grouped together, we can trace at least one common issue in the notion of possibility. Events – with capital E – are happenings inaugurating a new horizon of possibility. They can actualize unforeseeable potentialities or make the impossible possible. For this reason, Events are said to be extraordinary moments and it has been argued that they should be unpredictable (imprévisible) or even impossible (impossible) since they lie beyond the ordinary structure of possibilities in which normal ontological movements take place. It goes without saying that the foundation of the modal structure of Being in such Events attests several theoretical problems If such Events overstep the general structure of Being, how are they supposed to happen? And where should an Event take place and have a place if Being cannot harbor its excess?

Some years before the flourishing of French “event” philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas formulated the notion of nocturnal events (événements nocturnes) in the preface of his masterwork Totalité et Infini. Levinas’ purpose is not to develop a philosophy of events. Indeed, in the whole book the expression “nocturnal event” is no more used and the adjective “nocturnal” appears just a few more times. However, even this parsimonious use of the term is enough to give us an important suggestion. The ultimate events that allow the deployment of new possibilities and which our comprehension of the world is based on are maybe not to be thought as impossible (im-possible), neither as unpredictable (im-pré-visible). They could rather be just invisible (in-visible).

After his impressive book on Derrida and Searle, Raoul Moati keeps deepening his researches about contemporary French philosophy dedicating an entire essay to Levinas and his idea of nocturnal events. What these two works have in common is the great attention given to the concept of intentionality and its Husserlian origins in the phenomenological tradition. Levinas and the Night of Being offers a fine reconstruction of the path undertaken by Levinas in Totalité et Infini to trace the way from the sensible ego to the infinite Other. Moreover, Moati shows us to what extent Levinas takes distance from other phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre as well as what does he own to their ideas. This review will first address which are the ontological and phenomenological involvements of nocturnal events that Moati highlights in his book. We will then retrace the way to the infinite in the context of a nocturnal conception of Being. Finally, we will have an overview of this book and its English translation by Daniel Wyche.

The Night of Being.

What Levinas reproaches to ontology and phenomenology is not, as other philosophers would have it, to be a sort of metaphysics of presence. Moati shows that the main critique that Levinas addresses to ontology and phenomenology is to be in a certain sense a metaphysics of light: they are based on “structures of illumination” (65), such as intuition, intentionality or comprehension. Sight and touch tended to have absolute primacy in the philosophical tradition, where “to be” means thus to be visible and graspable (67). The immediate consequence of this “diurnal sense of being” (XVI), from which Totalité et Infini attempts to liberate ontology, is that there is no more room left for otherness and exteriority: being becomes a totalizing structure and the Other is reduced to the self. A drastic rethinking of ontology, as a nocturnal broadening, is therefore needed in order to establish a place for those events that cannot be understood as being part of Being as a totality. That is to say, the nocturnal events:

There must be an ontology that establishes a place for ultimate events of being. […] Such events will no longer draw their significance from a Hegelian totalization or even from phenomenological constitution (Husserl) or the comprehension of the sense of being (Heidegger). The horizon of their deployment consists in a relation to being that overflows the light of objective evidence and of which all of these cases constitute various avatars (11).

The representation of Being that Moati presents us with is thus not that of a light irradiating the sensible world anymore, nor would it be that of a unique and totalizing illuminated surface. There are actually more than one illuminated surfaces, and we are only able to perceive them because of the dark background that encloses and undergirds them. Being does not correspond to these bright spots, but rather to the infinite night surrounding them. This night can be lightened by our “structures of illumination” and this is what originates diurnal events. However, there will always be a dark part not being seen in which nocturnal events are taking place.

Nocturnal events are “the nocturnal dramas by which being exhaustively produces itself” and amount to “a more originary experience for consciousness than transcendental constitution” (15). Is it possible to find a concrete case of nocturnal events? Moati provides us several examples taken from Levinas’ philosophy to describe these “nocturnal dramas”, among them we find the erotic encounter, fecundity, sociality and messianic peace. All these are for Levinas elements that, on the one hand, ground our primordial openness toward the Other and his or her face and which, on the other hand, constitute the base of an ontology that renounces to contain Being within the unity and recognises rather its plurality, taking up the discontinuity of the same and the other (81).

Even though Levinas affirms the primacy of events that are more primordial than subjective comprehension and transcendental constitution, Moati decisively stresses that this gesture does not correspond to a denial of the fundamental role that subjectivity, sensibility and ego play on the path to infinity. Indeed, without the ego’s sensible rooting in Being, no experience of infinite otherness would be possible: “the metaphysical alterity of the Other requires the precondition of the position of the self, a here-below positioned in relation to an over-there” (30). We will now see how nocturnal events and the sensible ego lead us on the way to infinity.

The Terrestrial Condition.

While in the first and last chapters of Levinas and the Night of Being Moati outlines the idea of a nocturnal ontology and unfolds the ontological involvements of nocturnal events, in the central chapters he deploys Levinas theory of the sensible ego and follows the path to infinity he had already sketched in Totalité et Infini. The book structure self is in this way a good representation of the nocturnal conception of being, where nocturnal events are the dark frame of our illuminated terrestrial experience.

First of all, Moati recalls the Levinasian notions of jouissance and element (élément). As it is known, according to Levinas the pre-objective degree of sensation corresponds to what he calls il y a (there is), that is the undefined existence without the existent, the undifferentiated element in which the self is originally immersed, the starting point of any further experience: “the element is the content from which forms are carved out, but it is not, as such, itself delimited by anything” (52). The first break in the uniformity of the element coincides with the subject’s jouissance, representing “the concrete mark of separation” (41). Enjoyment is “the contact between sensibility and the formless quality of the element” (94). It corresponds to sensation and more precisely to the very moment when the instrumental schema of the sensible is rejected and the subject just perceives his or her distinction and independence from the elemental world. Before having the possibility to be part of an ethical encounter with the Other, the subject should first have an ontic consistency: “enjoyment thus reveals the fundamental priority of the ontic for ontology” (47). This idea of a detachment and a constitution of the subject from and through the element questions the phenomenological distinction between constituent and constituted. Indeed, if on the one hand the ego shapes objectivity starting from the undifferentiated element, it is itself in turn delimited by the element:

Enjoyment reveals the impossibility of reducing the constituted to the position of the intentional correlate of the constitutive acts of transcendental consciousness. Every constituted object reveals itself through enjoyment just as much as it occupies the position of the constituent, which is to say the sensible nourishment of the self (55).

Once subjectivity consolidated, the self is ready for the encounter with the Other. This encounter begins in two other well known topoi of the Levinasian production: the dwelling (demeure), that is “the starting-place of any finalized human activity” (91), and the labor (travail), that consists “in the transformation of elemental nature into a world of identifiable things” (94). In order to encounter the Other, that is to manifest himself or herself to the Other, the subject should first have some possession to share with the Other, something to communicate to him or her. Here lies the fundamental importance of labor. It allows us to substantialize the element and fix it between the dwelling’s walls. Through labor we make the world and its objects identifiable and we start having possessions. At this point, Moati highlights and develops another great Levinasian intuition that, as the idea of a nocturnal ontology does, anticipates and responds to several difficult theoretical issues emerging in later event philosophy, especially the ones related to the possibility of the given and to its ontological status. Labor and possession – says Moati – turn the category of being into the category of having and they do that through a neutralization of being:

The thing is also, therefore, nothing more than the element, because it coincides with an element whose ontological independence has been neutralized and, in other words, whose being has been anesthetized. Put differently, through labor and the possession that results from it, the being (l’être) of the element becomes the having (l’avoir) of the self. […] The element becomes something only through the suspension of its being. Here, the ontological frontiers of the element no longer exceed those of the self, which is to say that we are now dealing with being insofar as it is possessed by someone (the self) (95).

Furthermore, in the event of the encounter our possessions become gift for the Other (136), and this gift is the content of the fundamental relation of teaching, that is the constitutive relation that marks the Other as such. As someone being my master not because of his or her deeper knowledges, but because of his or her radical otherness (126). Our shared world, that is the object of our ontology, does not follow the logic of being anymore, but that of having and giving. We are here facing a movement from être to il y a, from sein to es gibt.

Nocturnal Events.

Our possessions, shared in the social contest, exceed thus the ontology of light and become constitutive of the nocturnal event of sociality, a feature that marks us as humans. As the last step of the reconstruction, Moati finally points out how such nocturnal events, way far from being transcendent moments indirectly concerning the terrestrial condition, are not to be thought separately from our sensible way of being and how it grounds all other diurnal activities. We will now cite two cases Moati presents us with: sociality and fecundity.

Sociality is the base of our relationship with the Other. Because ofit we always already possess the idea of the infinite (107), which otherwise would be paradoxical and unreachable, for it would be reducible to totality of the self. Through sociality, ultimate event of Being, it is possible to articulate a relationship between the two terms (me and the Other) and at the same time maintain their separation (112). It is remarkable that sociality is an event of Being itself, constitutively belonging to its nocturnal structure. Because of sociality, Being is not a totalized monolithic Eleatic Being but is rather open and plurivocal. Moreover, in reason of this fundamental sociality, subjects can live their ethical relationship with the others expressing themselves through their discourse and interlocutory presence. Discours and teaching are the way in which the Other reveals to us his or her transcendence and allows us to have a relation with the infinite without reducing it to ourselves. Moati stresses one more time that this kind of expression is not to be understood in the context of a structure of illumination: “The one who expresses himself or herself does not draw his or her intelligibility from the light ‘borrowed’ from intentionality and unveiling, from which the same emerges” (115).

If sociality allows a relation without totalising elements of a plurivocal being, fecundity makes possible the production and realization of the infinite becoming of being. Moreover, it also represents a valuable alternative to the Heideggerian Geworfenheit to describe our terrestrial condition and our rooting in the concrete temporal situation. Moati recalls the famous example of the father/son relationship and gives us an account of its ontological meaning:

For the self, to be is also, through fecundity, to be other. The father is his son, in the precise sense in which the father transcends the horizon of his own selfhood in the son. The selfhood of the son, in the form from which the self of the father emerges, no longer coincides with the selfhood of the departure, that of the father. In fecundity, the self is discontinuous, fragmented. This discontinuity is an ultimate event of being itself, insofar as it is social, which is to say, transcendent and plural (172).

Levinas and Phenomenology.

As we mentioned before, together with a detailed development of the concept of nocturnal events and a reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation with the infinite, Moati provides us with illuminating comparisons between Levinas and other prominent phenomenologists throughout this book . These comparisons aim at explaining to what extent he kept following the Husserlian and Heideggerian ideas and what kind of disagreements he had with his contemporaries.

It goes without saying that the greatest dissent with Husserl concerns the ideas of transcendental ego and intentionality. We already saw how Levinas gives up the primacy of intentionality as a mean of objective representation since it is reduced to a structure of illumination, and how the distinction between constituent and constituted is questioned. Besides it, Moati also stresses the fact that Levinas cannot accept Husserl’s notion of transcendental ego for at least two reasons. First of all, the ego is always already sensible and we cannot think of an ego beyond its sensible situation. Second, Levinas reproaches the subjective non determination of the concept of transcendental ego. Indeed, its generality “hinders the possibility of establishing a relation that departs from the concrete immanence, from which only the other may speak — which is to say, deploy its ethical infiniteness” (182). All these remarks could be summed up in the general critic that Husserlian phenomenology brings about a totalization of the other and reduces it to the self.

Concerning Heidegger, Moati highlights that in the eyes of Levinas his historical and temporal conception of Dasein and thrownness (Geworfenheit) surely represent a step forward compared to the Husserlian suprahistorical model of consciousness. However, it would be a mistake to describe the sensible installation of our sensible ego within the element in terms of thrownness. More specifically, the concept of thrownness is linked to a conception of our existence based on the notion of power, that Levinas instead wants to quit: thrownness reveals our limits only in regard to the power that we have over our being. On the contrary, for Levinas our primordial situation is a position that locates consciousness beyond any positive or negative reference to power (78) and corresponds to the nocturnal event of fecundity. While thrownness puts us in the tragic condition of being powerless faced with our historical sensible determination and subject to the given horizon of possibility that is opened up to us with our birth, fecundity frees our terrestrial condition from this tragic connotation. Indeed, fecundity is here situated in the context of an ontology that renounces every claim of totalization and, therefore, renounces the primary role of power in representing our relationship with the Other: “the primacy of sensible happiness over any condition of misfortune becomes intelligible only once the nocturnal event of fecundity is elucidated, which in turn opens up the sensible depth of our being-in-the-world. It is thus fecundity that exhausts the reference to power and allows us to grasp the depth of our foundation in being” (83).

Another important disagreement drawn by Moati concerns Sartre. It is true that for both Levinas and Sartre the Other cannot be the object of a phenomenological reduction because of his or her transcendence and the encounter with the other takes the form of a dispossession of the world. But in this disagreement, Sartre understands this dispossession as a kind of alienation from the world, while for Levinas it actually corresponds to the “real becoming an objective world” (135). Indeed, Levinas sees a world that is only possessed and not shared, a silent world without discourse, as a contradictory world that remains subjective and relative. Since sociality grounds our being in the world, sharing our possessions with the other becomes the realization of our humanity and does not imply for us any kind of loss. The world is always a common world.

The last comparison that Moati presents us with is the one with Derrida and focuses especially on Derrida’s essay Violence et métaphysique. First of all, Moati points out a misunderstanding concerning the concept of “transcendental violence” in Derrida’s reading of Totalité et Infini. This misunderstanding is caused by the different grasping of the concept of intentionality and egoity that the two authors have: while Derrida thinks about the ego in the ethical relation as a transcendental ego (even if, as we all know, he strongly criticizes the Husserlian idea of transcendental), Levinas is instead talking about a sensible ego. The critique Derrida addresses to Levinas on “transcendental violence” thus misses its addressee, since Levinas refuses to problematize the subject’s relation with the other in transcendental terms (181). Moreover, the most stimulating remark that is formulated by Moati in this comparison is for sure the one concerning their two different conceptions of eschatology, for this thematic directly relates to event philosophy. Roughly, the greatest difference between the two authors lies in the fact that Derrida thinks the infinite in eschatology as a negativity, an endless process of spacing produced by the infinite waiting for an Other that never comes. In other words, as an infinite différance. For Derrida history designates “the ever-unachieved work of transcendental constitution” and is to be understood as “opening up to a nonpresence at the heart of phenomenality” (186). On the other hand, eschatology “lies in history as the movement of overflowing the closure of finite sameness” (187). Quite the opposite, Levinas sees eschatology as a relation to positive infinity. The Other manifests his or her infinite transcendence to us in a positive way, without a negative withdrawing. For Levinas eschatology is not contained within history but rather suspends it, “not only in that the transcendent passage from finite totality to the positivity of the infinite happens through it, but also in that eschatology suspends any recourse to our constituent powers to deduce the event of the revelation of the infinite” (187).

I would like to underline this final remark. In his late works, starting with Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Derrida explicitly mentions the event of the coming of the Other as a fundamental – even quasi-transcendental – element of our experience and the human condition. Nevertheless, for Derrida the Other never comes and should never come in order to keep open the empty space needed to welcome him or her. This is why the event is impossible for Derrida; its conditions of possibility are its condition of impossibility. Levinas’ nocturnal events, and above all the event of sociality allowing our relationship with the infinite transcendence of the Other, free us from the paradox of an impossible foundation of our experience and knowledge. Indeed, both in Derrida and Levinas, our theoretical openness is based on the previous ethical striving for the Other. But while the Levinasian ethics finds its foundation in the nocturnal event of sociality, Derrida always misses the fundamental encounter with the Other.

In the night of Being, the Derridean spectre of the impossible could be chased by invisible ghostbusters: the nocturnal events.

Conclusion.

Levinas and the Night of Being is an outstanding work of research in which Raoul Moati fully develops the ontological and phenomenological consequences of the notion of “nocturnal event” – on which very few was previously written – and properly contextualizes Levinas production in the phenomenological frame. Moati’s reading of Levinas thus provides us with new conceptual instruments to understand the key concept of ethics and otherness, theoretical core of Totalité et Infini. Inlight of his knowledge of phenomenology and French philosophy, Moati manages to explain with a remarkable clarity what is Levinas’ relation toward Husserlian phenomenology and how it is developed in contemporary philosophy, while also presenting critical readings of his work, such as the Derridean argument. Even though the chapters dedicated to the reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation to infinity give us a general glimpse of Levinasian main concepts, I would not suggest reading this book to first approach Levinas’ philosophy because of its complex critique of ontology and phenomenology. I would rather warmly suggest this reading to anyone who is already familiar with Levinasian ideas in general and with Totalité et Infini in particular. Indeed, Moati’s book not only helps us understanding his work by giving us a rigorous phenomenological context but it also prevents us from misreading Levinas as an anti-metaphysical or anti-ontological author. On the contrary, Moati shows us that an ontology is definitively possible insofar as we accept to also consider its nocturnal component.

Last but not least, I would like to spend a few words about Daniel Wyche’s translation as conclusion. Translating such a book is for sure not an easy task. Beyond the difficulties caused by philosophical jargon and complex argumentative structures there are several expressions in French, untranslatable in English, that should be rendered with neologism or directly rewritten in French. The most complex paragraphs may therefore prove more difficult to understand in the English version. It is maybe for this reason that the author chose to completely rewrite several passages exclusively for the English version. Overall, Wyche’s realized an elegant translation and managed to render in English concepts that are so idiosyncratically French. However, I would suggest to francophone readers to check also the original version, at least the least clear passages.