Steven DeLay: In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith

In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith Book Cover In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith
Steven DeLay
Christian Alternative Books: John Hunt Publishing
2022
Paperback
173

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College and University of London)

In the Spirit is a short text comprised of nine chapters and a conclusion. Each chapter has a loose thematic centre, which it explores associatively. The author draws out different existential threads in conversation with the Christian scriptures and a range of different works of art. There is a particular journey that the book hopes to take its reader on, although I didn’t fully appreciate this until I got to the end. Starting in darkness, with the soul asleep, journeying through resistance to conversion to a life renewed, the book ends with a vision of perfection and the pattern of a divinely ordered life.

The opening chapter – ‘A Drunkard’s Sleep’ – takes drunkenness as its phenomenological and theological meditation. In this chapter DeLay draws substantially on Adriaen van Ostade’s Drunkards in a Tavern to illuminate his various conceptual forays on this theme. He goes in a number of different directions exploring the image and experience of drunkenness. Intoxication by alcohol is associated variously with sleep, dreaming, lying, illusion, blindness, restlessness, simmering rage, hardness of heart and a failure to be satiated. These different qualities of the drunk and the addict find obvious correlates in the existential and spiritual realm. For DeLay, that which the drunk’s restless thirst longs for is ultimately the living water which Christ offers the Samaritan woman in John 4; the water that is himself. Yet the drunk ‘dulls his sensibility’ (12) to this living water, which is why there is a wakefulness, a ‘sober-mindedness’ (16) needed before it is even possible to drink from that which will satisfy. There is a particularly interesting reflection in the midst of this meandering exploration, on two types of blindness. DeLay takes us to Christ’s diagnosis in Matthew 11:18-19 of those that reject both he and John the Baptist, but for different reasons. John is rejected for his sobriety while Jesus is rejected for his so-called gluttony. As DeLay puts it: ‘Doubt, then, comes in two forms of blindness: with John, an unduly suspicious seeing that does not see what meets the eye, simply because it does not want to see it; with Christ, a self-servingly shallow seeing that sees only enough to be able to remain blind to whatever more it does not want to see.’ (18) DeLay puts the question to us – where else do these two types of blindness show up (or fail to show up) in the reader’s life and experience – the not seeing what is there and the only seeing what is there?

The second chapter – ‘The Strong Wind and a Still Small Voice’ – majors on the theme of dependence. It focuses on the Biblical story in 1 Kings 19 where the prophet Elijah is fed by an angel after waking alone and exhausted in the wilderness. DeLay considers the weakness, fragility of Elijah in his moment, which leads him to a broader reflection on the vulnerability and dependency woven through the human condition, requiring a posture of something like Løgstrup’s ‘basic trust’. He notes the ways we can resist this part of ourselves and try to maintain an illusion of independence. DeLay considers different artist’s impressions of this moment in Elijah’s story (Escalante, Bol, Maggiotto and Moretto.) These different ways of depicting the moment give us, as the reader, a way into imagining different possible postures – both of resistance and of receptivity – in Elijah in this moment, and in ourselves.

The third chapter – ‘On the Broad Way’ – circles around the theme of desire. It considers both desires locked into their own sense of themselves, as well as the possibility of a desire that leads to divine transcendence. DeLay tells us, starkly, that ‘Desire’s transfiguration, from inattentive or feverish, on the one hand, to attentive and judicious, on the other, is an upheaval of everything, that great moment of lucidity marking the fear of God.’ (35) This chapter circles back to themes from the previous two, picking up the narcotising theme from the first chapter. He again uses different pieces of visual art (Rodin and Munch) to invite us to consider different ways of seeing-as-artist, and so different ways of desiring. With echoes of Levinas he identifies the desire which hoovers the world into one’s own totalising artistic project, and an alternative which is receptive to the interruption of God.

Chapter Four is called ‘The Golden Calf.’ As its title suggests, this portion of text riffs on the theme of idolatry. Here DeLay engages with the contemporary prevalence of social media, thinking phenomenologically about the pressure it exerts to keep us preoccupied with images of ourselves. He diagnoses a new very and yet very old phenomenon, traced back to the myth of Narcissus. In an enjoyable pun, he diagnoses: ‘Narcissus, in fact, is the ancient predecessor of what for us has become rampant, a transcendental egoism consisting in the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency from God, a shallow pride leading to the pursuit of self-adoration, thereby culminating in an existence whereby one becomes one’s own idol, one’s own golden calf.’ (54) Taking this pronouncement further, he claims that this narcissism becomes ‘demonic’, because ‘divorced from the goal of becoming wise, the task of being oneself meets with failure. For underestimating evil, it fails to take adequate refuge from it.’ (65)

Chapter Five – ‘Through the Veil of the Word made Flesh’ – is something of a hinge chapter. Here DeLay tells us retrospectively what he has been seeking to do so far, and why: ‘If, then, the preceding chapters have aimed to establish one thing, it is to disclose the stupor in which we grope when we are estranged from God, whatever the particular reason is. Having fought for however long it may be to live apart from God, how will coming to know him be achievable after persisting alone? What form can a reconciliation between God and us take?’ (66) This chapter tries to illuminate the moment of conversion, where the inverted, self-satisfied ego is taken out of itself and transformed. This, then, is the frame with which to read this chapter, and the whole of the second half of the book. The exploration of a phenomenology of the closed-off life becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of conversion becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of the spiritually open and given-over life. DeLay’s orthodox answer to the question of what form divine-human reconciliation might take, is that ‘the incarnation changes everything.’ (66) It is the incarnation of God that ruptures our experience (of drunkenness, independence, feverish desire and idolatry) and addresses us. The recurring image – once again explored through the eyes of various artists, but particularly in this case, Caravaggio – is of St Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. It is Paul’s confrontation with the incarnate and reconciling person of Christ that knocks him (and us) off our horse. DeLay describes it thus: ‘The haze lifts. The riddle dissolves. Life ceases to be a Promethean project of forging an identity by way of the purposes we choose to determine for ourselves. Now, it instead takes on the pure form of a divinely appointed vocation, a task God gives us…Henceforth, the incarnation points the way for us, because Christ, while in earth, dwelling among us, leaves the pattern of life by which reaching eternal life is possible.’ (68) In the second half of this chapter he starts the constructive work of articulating what a phenomenology of this life so patterned involves. He offers a rich description of the ‘spiritual senses’ – what-it-is-like to have spiritual sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands of the heart, as it puts it) awake and attuned.

The sixth chapter – ‘The Purple Robe’– takes evil as its theme, particularly evil’s resistance to the conversion held up in the previous chapter. Different manifestations of the resistance to conversion are explored, but DeLay’s focus is evil’s pattern of denial of the truth followed by violent attack on the truth. The counter-pattern of the converted life works against this grain of denial-and-attack: ‘Displaying the futility of evil’s will to destroy the truth, Christ’s personal victory over death takes on universal significance. Having passed through suffering unto death, and back to life, his resurrection guarantees the good’s ultimate triumph over evil. Even when evil seemingly has overpowered the truth to the point of putting it to death, it fails, for the truth only rises again. This is the eternal power of the good originating beyond the world, a good having issued its first word with creation, and its last word with the resurrection.’ (102)

Work and rest are the central theme of the seventh chapter, titled ‘Apparitions of the Kingdom’. By implicit contrast to the locked-in desire and restlessness explored in earlier chapters, this is an examination of a work redeemed and a true rest that springs from outside of the self. As we find in all these chapters, DeLay offers a taxonomy of experiences. Of particular interest here is his distinction between different types of restoring rest – rest found through connection with the whole, and rest found in meditation on the dignity of the details, which he demonstrates in his discussions of Turner and Monet respectively. Again, what is offered is a phenomenology of the life spiritual – after the pattern of Christ. Rather than embroiling himself in classic philosophical debates about work and rest (usually cashed out as activity and passivity, or freedom and determinism) he rather points us to the fact that ‘metaphysical questions regarding God’s relation to creation and the relation between divine and human action are resolved simply by imitating Christ.’ (109)

‘Paul and the Philosophers’, DeLay’s eight chapter, takes wisdom as its theme. Paul’s famous sermon to the Greeks at Mars Hill is explored through various painterly depictions (Raphael, Ricco, Fortuny, Pannini and Rothermel.) The wisdom that is the pattern of Christ DeLay describes as ‘a third way’ (120) between the wisdom of the Greek philosophers (both Stoic and Epicurean) and the Jewish wisdom tradition from which Paul himself comes. Most pertinently for the philosophers reading this text, DeLay puts forward the suggestion that intellectualism’s sceptical posture can be destructive not only as a form of idolatry, but also as a form of superstition. For ‘when the truth has been revealed, and one persists in ignorance, what previously had been an admirable attitude of epistemic modesty itself becomes superstition, for it clings to an ignorance that has ceased to be warranted.’ (125) By contrast, Paul preaches obedience to the truth revealed, the person of Christ himself.

Chapter Nine, ‘The World’, considers the theme of overcoming. The Biblical stories paired and explored through artworks here are that of St John’s Revelation on the island of Patmos, and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The connection hangs on Patmos as a site of temptation similar to that of Christ’s wilderness. Drawing on both stories, DeLay gives an account the work and experience of overcoming – overcoming the world, overcoming temptation and (rightly) overcoming oneself. Christ is again the pattern book for this existential task. In refusing Satan’s attempts to get him to use his power in the wilderness he shows us, for example, that real power does not always need to show itself, and this is the kind of overcoming that our more spiritually alive selves are called to.

We come to the Conclusion, which is titled ‘Perfection’. The telos of the journey is held before us to continually elevate us, to remind us of the nobility that is possible and to-be-pursued. ‘Existence assumes the form of faith, for it becomes a stretching forth, a perpetual exodus always in patience seeking after the heavenly city, rather than turning back to idle aimlessly where it had begun.’ (150) And yet lest we forget, we are reminded – ‘nobody begins elsewhere than with mercy.’ (151)

My experience of reading this book was that each chapter was something like a homily – less primarily a piece of conceptual analysis (although this is wound through DeLay’s prose) and more of a moral, spiritual and existential exhortation. Or perhaps the foreground use of artworks makes this book feel like visiting a gallery with someone, attending with them, jointly attending and seeing what they see. I could imagine a sermon or lecture companion series to this text. Knowing now the homiletic quality of the text, I might have chosen to read it differently. I suspect that the best way to approach this book is not to read it too quickly, but to treat each chapter as a meditation, pausing between each. There are strands of connection between the chapters, but similarly, one could easily read each chapter as standalone. As so much of the book involves discussion of unseen works of art, reading in a space where one has access to a high resolution screen to search for the images will probably serve this more tuned-in and contemplative reading. (Learn from this reader’s mistake – don’t read on the London Underground with no Wi-Fi to search for images). In an ideal world this book would have included all the images it refers to, but there are a huge number of artworks engaged, which would no doubt have been a huge cost and headache to compile.

Although I want to say that this is a homiletic piece of work, it is also certainly reads as a primary piece of phenomenology in the tradition of Christian existentialism. DeLay’s energy is not directed towards any secondary analysis of any other thinkers – the text is focused on making its own declarations, analyses and exhortations. The prose has a meandering and associative quality, with themes built on implicitly, and in a non-linear way. The form of the book seems to want to evoke some of the texture of our experiential and existential existence. It has no introduction, no framing, no signposting, no overview. We are dropped straight into the meditation on drunkenness and sleep with the question: ‘Am I in darkness?’ Initially I found this jarring and disorientating, but, in settling in to DeLay’s prose, I take it that this abruptness is intentional, evoking our thrownness and the disoriented sense of waking from sleep, not knowing quite where we are or what it is to find ourselves awake (or are we?)

As a work of phenomenology, the extent to which the reader will find it valuable will be the extent to which the rich phenomenological descriptions that DeLay paints resonate with the lived experience of the reader, or not. For this reader, there were many points at which the text spoke to my lived experience – see above, on blindness and intellectualism particularly. On this point I would be fascinated to speak to others who have also read the text. This text is accessible to the engaged and interested reader of any stripe – no previous expertise in philosophy is needed, although my suspicion is that the book may split a room. This is a book that I wish I had been able to read with others, to find out what did and didn’t resonate with them, what they saw, felt or noticed in reading this book that I didn’t, what rubbed them the wrong way. I am particularly curious as to how the book’s assertions might land with those who do not share the theological commitments that are made foreground. For this reader, immersed in and committed to the Christian faith, the theological assumptions are a familiar landscape in which I live, move and have my being. But how might the non-believer respond to the assertion that ‘the incarnation changes everything?’ This of course raises something of the meta-question of the nature, significance and legitimacy of the theological turn in phenomenology, although I think DeLay is rightly unapologetic in assuming that this kind of theological phenomenology is legitimate. I am interested less here in the meta-philosophical question and more in the interpersonal and experiential one: what-is-it-like for an atheist to read this book? There are many kinds of atheist, of course, so there will not be one answer to this question. My sense is that there are flavours and textures of human experience which DeLay puts words to, in conversation with art and scripture, which make this work the kind of site where theists and atheists can dialogue…but I seek the atheist’s opinion here.

In a similar vein, I am also curious as to how the tone and feel of the book is received by a non-Christian audience. The sermonising quality of DeLay’s writing has a certain severity or heaviness to it. This is a descriptive rather than critical point – again, the quality of a primary existential text (as we find in the likes of Kierkegaard, Levinas and friends) definitionally has a confronting tone. I would love to know for whom else this is a holy confrontation, and whether there are those for whom it leaves cold as moralising. One person’s aphorism is another’s cliché. Maybe all existential writing runs this risk, and there is a boldness to DeLay’s unironic frontal delivery which, in a philosophical landscape typically concerned with caveats and an obsession with narrowing the scope of a set of claims, is refreshing. As I say – I am curious to know where this text leads others.

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Duns Scotus's Doctrine of Categories and Meaning Book Cover Duns Scotus's Doctrine of Categories and Meaning
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Emmanuel Alloa: Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media

Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media Book Cover Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media
Emmanuel Alloa. Translated by Nils F. Schott. Afterword by Andrew Benjamin.
Columbia University Press
2021
Paperback $35.00 £28.00
408

Reviewed by: David Collins (SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford)

Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media is an English translation of Emmanuel Alloa’s Das durchscheinende Bild: Konturen einer medialen Phänomenologie, which was first published in German in 2011 after having been presented as the author’s doctoral thesis in 2009. The range and breadth of Alloa’s knowledge of thinkers and views from different periods in the history of western philosophy is impressive, ranging from Ancient Greece through the early modern period and into the twentieth century, and including thinkers from different philosophical traditions, engaging with analytic philosophers of art such as Nelson Goodman and Richard Wollheim as well as the phenomenological and ‘continental’ philosophers in relation to whose ideas Alloa’s own account is mainly situated. However, due in part to the number and diversity of figures covered and the space required to present even a cursory account of their views, the book’s wide-ranging discussion ultimately fails to come together into a single—or even a coherently conjunctive—focus, with at least three aims being discernable that are never fully realized in a way that fulfills the initial promise of Alloa’s introduction.

One thing that this work aims to do is to analyze and give a theory of what it is for something to be an image—the ‘image-ness’ of images, as it were; their ‘pictoriality’—which Alloa contends remains largely unexamined in academic discourse despite the recent popularity of image-centric inter-disciplinary fields such as ‘visual studies’ and ‘media studies.’ Connected with this first concern, Alloa is also interested in explaining how images operate, or their distinct place in human experience and their importance within our socio-cultural world, and is guided by a phenomenological approach in investigating both concerns. “Th[e] book is conceived,” he notes upfront, “as a phenomenology of the way we deal with visual media and as a rehabilitation of images as irreplaceable agents of our everyday opening up of world” (3).

In particular, Alloa seeks to present an alternative to the widespread understanding of images as just, or primarily, representations, arguing that although an image is always an image of something, an image’s nature qua image goes beyond anything that could be called its ‘content’, where he calls this transcendence of (re)presentational content “iconic excess” and insists that this excess is itself “genuinely visible or phenomenal” (Ibid.). Rather than subordinating images to what they are images of, as secondary (i.e., ‘re-‘) presentations or copies of an original, and rather than understanding pictorial expression as derivative of verbal expression, which he thinks the currently dominant approaches to theorizing and understanding images are guilty of doing, Alloa wants to attend more to how things are presented in images than to what is presented. This distinction between what an image is of and the image qua image—including how the images presents, or is of, what it is of—might seem at first to mirror the two directions in visual studies that Alloa calls the ‘transparency’ and ‘opacity’ paradigms, respectively. His concern with images qua images rather than what they are of does not take the form of an interest in images as ‘opaque,’ since the latter involves an interest in the thing that bears an image—a painting, a photograph, etc.—qua material object—e.g., as a canvas of a certain size, shape, and weight with coloured pigments applied to it surface, or as a strip of celluloid containing arrangements of grains of silver halide—, and since Alloa takes both this approach and the ‘transparency’ approach, which looks past an image-bearing object’s materiality and pictorial surface to what is depicted therein, to overlook how something exists and operates qua image in the first place.

There are some claims that Alloa makes when introducing the basics of his view of images that seem odd or paradoxical at first glance. For instance, he claims that he takes images not to be phenomena themselves, strictly speaking, but rather to be media in which things appear, writing that a central part of the nature of images is that “they do not themselves appear but in them show something other than what they are” (5). One might wonder how a phenomenological approach can be usefully taken toward something that is not itself a phenomenon, and how what can come to understand by taking such an approach will be the nature or operation of images, if they are not phenomena, instead of the related phenomena that are claimed to be shown through images. One might also wonder whether Alloa is right to say that images “do not … appear,” which seems to entail that we never perceive images, but only what they are of and the objects that bear them. To claim that images are not perceived raises the question of just what is meant by ‘images’ here, since it would seem to go against most ordinary uses of this word.

This apparent difficulty may be resolved by noting that another of Alloa’s aims in the book is not only to apply a phenomenological approach to the study of images but to propose a new kind of phenomenological approach, which he calls ‘medial phenomenology,’ as an alternative to Husserlian ‘transcendental’ or ‘eidetic’ phenomenology. Framed against his claims that all phenomenal appearances are mediated, his own account might be understood as taking images to be media for appearances themselves rather than for independent objects that appear ‘through’ them. However, whether this view of images as media for appearances, rather than appearances themselves, is convincing, and so whether this helps resolve the difficulty, must be seen by considering how Alloa develops his twin concerns with pictoriality and mediation.

The book is divided into five chapters, with each chapter containing ten sections, although the reason for this uniform number of sections is not obvious. The division seems to be arbitrary at best: with some chapters, the inclusion of ten sections feels unnecessary and seems to be done for the sake of symmetry rather than from any organic need; with others, the division of some sections into further sub-sections (e.g., 3.4a–f; 5.7a–j) suggests that more than ten sections may have been warranted given the topics covered in the chapters. Although they follow one another in a thematic progression, for the most part each chapter can be read on its own, with the connections between chapters often being loose or general.

Chapter 1 focuses on the place of images in early Greek philosophy, centring on Plato’s dispute with the Sophists over the ontological status and value of images. Alloa contends that this question of the image has an important place in the ‘foundations’ of western philosophy itself, with the role that Plato’s answer to this question plays in his refutation of the Sophists setting the agenda for the subsequent course of metaphysics and epistemology. Specifically, Alloa sees Plato’s suspicion of images to be at the root of what he claims is philosophy’s ‘iconophobia,’ which explains what Alloa claims is a relative lack of philosophical accounts of, or engagements with questions about, the nature of images qua images. As well as containing a survey and explication of the ancient debate over images and their relation to truth and knowledge—or what we might call their cognitive significance—this is the chapter in which the dual paradigms of transparency and opacity are introduced and the ancient roots of the present forms of these paradigms are traced, with the transparency paradigm being linked to the notion that images make objects present to us so that, for instance, when we see a painted portrait of a family member or public figure, we are given access to something of that person’s essence through a kind of metaphysical ‘participation’ or methexis of the person (or object) in the painting. The opacity paradigm, on the other hand, holds that images are just marked surfaces, so that when one sees, for instance, a painting of some object, what one sees is only a flat material surface bearing an arrangement of coloured pigments that in some way resembles that object, where this resemblance can arouse thoughts of that object but where one does not perceive this object itself in any sense ‘through’ the painting. Early versions of each paradigm can be seen in the debate between Plato and the Sophists with, e.g., sophistical claims for the broad expertise of artists grounded in their ability to represent a wide variety of subjects being linked to the transparency paradigm, and the platonic denial of this expertise, with the reduction of images to ‘copies of copies’ doubly removing them from the proper objects of knowledge, being aligned with the opacity paradigm.

Chapter 2 stays with Ancient Greek thought but shifts in focus to Aristotle and his account of perception as being necessarily mediated, with Alloa reconstructing and attempting to rehabilitate a notion of ‘the diaphanous’ as a general medium of perception through which phenomena of all kinds appear. Chapter 3 looks at how this idea of the diaphanous as a medium for perception was taken up and used by thinkers after Aristotle, presenting a survey that ranges from later Hellenistic and early Medieval philosophers such as Themistius, Plotinus, and Aquinas up to early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Berkeley. Because the book’s initial concern with images takes a back seat in these chapters to a discussion of mediality and of perceptual appearance in general, it is not immediately clear how these chapters are meant to relate. Fortunately, the latter half of the third chapter ties together the central topics of the first two by framing various thinkers’ appeals to the idea of ‘diaphaneity’ in terms of the transparency and opacity paradigms. However, these ideas are still mainly applied here to ideas of a transparent medium, with a discussion of images only coming into play at the end of the chapter. As a result, the relevance or importance of some of the figures discussed in the third chapter is not clear, apart from their being thinkers who make some mention of the diaphanous. To be fair, this may be an artifact of the book’s origin as a doctoral dissertation, a genre for which literature reviews and demonstrations of a broad knowledge in the history of philosophy are expected. Nevertheless, the number of thinkers and ideas covered in this chapter does not allow for the more in-depth explication or analysis that might have helped tie these ideas together and show their relevance for Alloa’s overall project.

Chapter 4 puts the focus back on images and traces a different history involving a different period in philosophy: that of the place of images and the idea of a perceptual medium in the phenomenological tradition, running from Brentano and Husserl up through Sartre to Fink, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida. This chapter helps to connect the initially disparate ideas discussed in the previous chapters, with the first six of the ten sections focusing more on images—especially in relation to Husserl and Sartre—and sections seven to ten discussing the idea of perception as being mediated, and sets the stage for the last chapter by leading us to see Alloa’s proposed medial phenomenology and its application to an analysis of images’ pictoriality as both part of a strand of thinking running through the phenomenological tradition and a continuation of the twentieth century development of these ideas. The discussions in this chapter of image-consciousness in Husserl and Sartre, and of Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology of ‘flesh’ (chair) as itself offering a kind of medial account of perception and experience, are particularly interesting and are worth the consideration of students and authors who are working on these topics.

These discussions, however, are not given enough space to do more than scratch the surface of the elements of these phenomenologists’ theories that are relevant to Alloa’s project—e.g., the discussion of Merleau-Ponty is only given a six-and-a-half page section at the end of the chapter—, where expanded discussions of all three thinkers would have been more valuable and would have helped to flesh out, and add depth to, the original positions that Alloa develops in his next and final chapter. The feeling that this chapter’s discussion of phenomenological thinkers has been given ‘short shrift’ to some degree increases when one notices that the thinkers and ideas discussed in the first three chapters do not directly tie into or set up the views in this chapter, leading to a feeling that the book’s chapters remain somewhat disconnected, despite each dealing with one or both of the two central topics. Because the discussions in the first three chapters, interesting though they are, are not strictly necessary to lead up to the discussion of twentieth century phenomenologists in this chapter, it is difficult not to think that an expansion of this chapter into two, or even three, chapters, along with the final chapter—possibly also expanded—would have worked better as a self-contained book, or at least if accompanied by a shorter discussion of the historical background in Plato and Aristotle in a single opening chapter. (Again, one wonders if this is largely an artifact of the book’s origins as a doctoral dissertation.)

Chapter 5 is the core of the book in both its length and substance: here, Alloa presents his original positions on the topics that have been discussed in the previous chapters. These primarily consist in (i) a medial phenomenology (or ‘diaphenomenology,’ as he also calls it) that is meant to offer an alternative to existing approaches to phenomenology—especially the eidetic and transcendental phenomenology of Husserl and those influenced by him—and (ii) an account of iconicity—i.e., of what it is for something to be an image—that is framed, after Nelson Goodman, as a ‘symptomatology’ rather than a definition framed in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. With respect to the latter, Alloa’s account features ten ‘symptoms’ that paradigmatically characterize images, viz.:

(a) ellipsis, by which Alloa means that images are always of a fixed aspect of an object and never the whole object, and are always specific rather than general;

(b) synopticity, which involves the simultaneous rather than sequential presentation of an image’s components as well as a phenomenal, if not always a literal, two-dimensionality or flatness;

(c) framing, as a way of both structuring the visual space of an image and marking it out from the rest of the phenomenal world;

(d) presentativity, meaning just that an image presents something to view by showing it rather than by ‘telling’ us about it or presenting it discursively;

(e) figurality, where exactly what this is is not entirely clear, but which Alloa ties to the evidentiary potential of images as well as to the idea that an image is always more than a sum of its individualizable ‘parts;’

(f) deixis, or depiction, which Alloa differentiates from both reference and representation;

(g) ostensivity, which has three forms: exemplification—where there is no distinction between the surface or bearer of an image and what the image shows—ostension—involving presenting something by pointing to it—and bareness—which refers to the possibility of an image not showing anything other than what it is as a material object, and which Alloa explains by talking of images “externalizing themselves” (262);

(h) variation sensitivity, which combines what Goodman calls ‘syntactic density’ and ‘relative repleteness,’ and, briefly put, is a matter of any change to one part of an image also making a change to the image as a whole;

(i) chiasmic gazes, which involves the image being a locus or meeting-place for two points of view, with the image both standing out to the viewer and drawing the viewer’s gaze inwards, where this is expressed in the metaphor of an image ‘looking back’ at those who look at it;

(j) seeing-with, which is Alloa’s addition to the categories of seeing-in and seeing-as that are familiar in philosophical discussions of images, whereby images are taken to mediate our seeing of their objects rather than our literally see images as what they are of or our being limited to seeing the object in the image.

It is understandable that Alloa should want to avoid formulating an essence of pictoriality by giving necessary and sufficient conditions for something being an image due to current suspicions of this kind of definition. However, it is not clear how gathering together these ten ‘symptoms’—i.e., features or characteristics that images of various kinds often have—adds to existing understandings of the nature of images since, with the exception of ‘seeing-with,’ each symptom picks out an already familiar feature of many types of image. If the claim were that all of these symptoms together, or some majority of them, is sufficient for something to count as an image, bringing together these otherwise independent features might be useful. Alternately, if more than the last symptom were novel, it would more clearly enhance our understanding of what it is to be an image. But with it being possible to be an image without having any of these features or symptoms (because none is necessary), or to have any number of them without being an image (because none is sufficient), this list does not obviously help us understand the nature and function of images as such, or what in virtue of which something is and functions as an image. In contrast, the symptom-based account of art that is found in Nelson Goodman’s aesthetics, which Alloa takes as the model for his own symptomatology, gives us insight into the nature and function of artworks qua art by highlighting features of art that had not often been thematized as such, and by letting us treat possession of all of the features or symptoms as being practically sufficient for something to count as art, and possession of at least one symptom as practically necessary for arthood, without any strictly logical entailment.

Aside from this worry about these symptoms giving us a useful account of pictoriality, there are further questions that can be raised about the individual symptoms on the list. For one thing, the difference between the three symptoms that Alloa calls ‘figurality,’ ‘presentativity,’ and ‘deixis’ is not made clear and could likely be presented as one symptom. For another, the second symptom, ‘synopticity,’ seems to contain elements that are distinct from one another and so would be better if presented as two symptoms, viz., the simultaneous rather than sequential presentation of an images ‘parts,’ and an image’s flatness. It is not only unclear what these features have to do with one another (consider: a large mural might be flat, but its flatness does not allow a viewer to take in its components in one glance), but it is not clear that the parts of an image are not commonly—or even perhaps necessarily—experienced in some sequence or other by the percipient, even if no sequence is specified by the image itself (but, then again, techniques of composition typically allow for a painter or photographer to lead viewers to attend to various parts of an image in a certain order). Further worries might be raised about the three characteristics that Alloa brings together under ‘ostensivity:’ one might wonder whether objects that exemplify certain properties are properly considered images (e,g., paint samples are not ‘images’ of the colour they exemplify); what Alloa calls ‘ostension’ seems, from his examples, to be more a matter of an image depicting an act of pointing than of an image itself pointing; and what he calls ‘bareness’ is, like exemplification, not clearly a characteristic of images per se, but rather would seem to apply to anything that appears—and one might wonder where the medium is through which the appearance appears when the appearance is a ‘bare’ one in Alloa’s terms. (It is also not clear how ‘bareness’ is a case of ostensivity, unless one takes every visible object to be ‘pointing to’ itself—but if one does, the notion of ‘pointing’ would need to be revised at risk of becoming otiose.)

The final symptom, ‘seeing-with,’ links Alloa’s account of pictoriality to his concern with mediation since it positions images as media for seeing things ‘through,’ i.e., via, them, and thereby with the theory of medial phenomenology that he aims to develop as this chapter’s other main focus. However, how exactly Alloa conceives of this medial phenomenology qua phenomenology or method, and why it should be accepted or seen as preferable to other approaches to phenomenological investigation or analysis, is unfortunately not made clear. The main idea seems to be that every appearance is an appearing-through something else, which is to say that every appearance is mediated by that through which it appears, but a case is not made for why this claim should be accepted. At one point (223-24), Alloa seems to be arguing that Husserl’s insistence that we only perceive an adumbration or aspect of an object at any one time entails that our perception of things is mediated through these adumbrations or partial views. However, this is not a case of our perceiving one thing through another thing, since the adumbration is an aspect of the object that we perceive and not a separate object: we perceive a table, for example, by seeing one side of it or one angle on it at a time, where any perception of a side or an angle just is a perception of that table, and where each side or angle—i.e., each adumbration—is not itself an entity distinct from the table and so cannot sensibly be said to be one thing that the table, as another thing, is seen ‘through.’ In Husserlian terms, what seems to be going on here is something akin to a confusion of part of an experience’s noetic content with an additional object over and above the object intended in the experience (i.e., the noema). However, a way of experiencing something is not itself a ‘thing,’ or at least not a thing in the same ontological sense in which the thing experienced is, and so it is not clear how any conclusion about the mediated nature of all appearing follows from this, or why this apparent ontological doubling is warranted.

Without making a case for why one should accept that every appearance appears through something other than itself, the grounds and motivation for adopting a medial phenomenology as one’s approach to studying all phenomenal appearances, or experience more broadly, would seem to be lacking; and this is in addition to what exactly ‘medial phenomenology’ involves not being outlined clearly. Alloa does state that “[t]he research domain of medial phenomenology would … concern above all the medial difference between that which appears and that through which it appears” (224), but little indication is given of how this difference between medium and appearance is to be investigated. If this chapter’s discussion of images as one type of appearance is meant to demonstrate how this medial phenomenology will work when applied to some other type of appearance or phenomenon, more could be said to make the methodological principles in this discussion more explicit, and to address the question of whether these principles would apply beyond a particular concern with images. More could also be said to clarify how what Alloa is proposing is distinct from, and why it is preferable to, existing approaches in phenomenology that might also be called ‘medial,’ especially Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy of ‘flesh’ which positions what he calls flesh as a kind of medium in and through which perception occurs, with flesh mediating our access to and awareness of objects.

Aside from the question of just what medial phenomenology involves as a phenomenology, one might think that an approach to investigating phenomena in terms of their mediation and the medium through which they are mediated would make sense—or at least be more plausible—when applied to images rather than to all phenomena that ‘appear.’ Still, there is some confusion over what exactly the medium is here. In most places, Alloa explicitly takes the image itself to be the medium (see again the remarks from p. 5 quoted at the beginning of this review), but in other places it seems more plausible to interpret his remarks as taking the image-bearing object, or ‘image-surface,’ to be the medium. On the first understanding, taking an image itself to be a medium raises the question of what it is mediating or allowing us to encounter through it. Images, in general and as such, are not plausibly media for the perception or appearing of what is referred to as the ‘image-subject,’ i.e., the thing in the world that an image is an image of, since it is not, for example, the person herself who appears in a painted portrait of her—although, arguably, the subject of a photograph is seen through the photograph as per Kendall Walton’s photographic transparency thesis, which gets a passing mention on p. 149. Moreover, in some cases—e.g., drawings of unicorns—what an image is ‘of’ does not exist and so cannot be itself perceived or appear, whether through the image or in any other way. On the other hand, if it is the ‘image-object,’ i.e., the phenomenal figure encountered an image that may or may not represent a subject or depict some kind of thing by having a certain shape or appearance, that is what appears through a medium, this would seem to make the image-surface the medium. It is unclear what else, apart from these candidates, could be the medium here, and the second interpretation seems more plausible with the image-bearing object—a paint-covered canvas, paper marked with ink, etc.—being the medium through which the image-object appears. It is, after all, most natural (at least in English) to talk of the image-object as an appearance, where this is a way of appearing of the image-bearing object, not in the sense that it is what makes the image-bearing object visible but in the sense that it is a ‘look’ that this object ‘has’ when marked, arranged, or otherwise organized in a certain way. However, more needs to be said to show why this could not be explained adequately with the notions of ‘seeing-in’ and ‘seeing-as,’ and why it is necessary to appeal to the further notion of ‘seeing-with’ that Alloa introduces.

Although the last several considerations have been largely critical in tone, I do not want to give the impression of having a wholly negative assessment of Alloa’s book. The breadth and scope of Alloa’s knowledge of different thinkers, eras, and philosophical traditions, and of the range of views on images that are discussed, is impressive, and there is much to interest scholars working on theories of perception or visual aesthetics in one the thinkers, traditions, or the time periods—e.g., Ancient Greece—that are covered here. Also, many of Alloa’s individual points about the nature and function of images are insightful and worth engaging with, especially the points he makes in connection with the many examples he discusses, and to the ten ‘illuminations’ that he intersperses throughout the main text which are extended analyses of specific examples that touch on or are tangentially related to, but do not always directly tie into, what is being discussed in the sections in which they occur. Nevertheless, there are some significant issues that detract from the value that this book might have had, most notably the lack of a clear focus or aim throughout. Is the main aim of the book to give a theory of the nature and function of images, or to develop a medial phenomenology, or to give a genealogical account of the concepts that still feature prominently in our thinking about images? The chapters and sections jump back and forth between each of these three aims, resulting in not enough space or attention being devoted to any one of them to fully and clearly develop a novel theory of pictoriality, or a medial phenomenology, or a comprehensive history of ideas about images and visual appearance in western philosophy. The genealogical aim is the most successfully realized, although certain thinkers whom one would expect to find included in such a history, such as Spinoza, Hume, and Kant, or Bergson and Deleuze, are conspicuously absent. This gives the book an unfocused, somewhat disjointed feel that never quite gets resolved by having these strands of inquiry get tied together in the final chapter, where this leaves some intriguing and promising ideas underdeveloped. While a longer book that had space for a fuller development of each focus and an ending that brings them all together would not have been ideal, simply due to considerations of length, all of this might have been accomplished better in two books, one being a history of thinking about images leading to an original ‘symptomatological’ account of image-ness or pictoriality, and the other being a history of thinking about perception as mediated, leading to a novel—and a more clearly explained and defended—form of medial phenomenology.

Nils Baratella, Johanna Hueck, Kirstin Zeyer (Hg.): Existenz und Freiheit, Schwabe, 2022

Existenz und Freiheit: Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt und Heinrich Barth zur Freiheitslehre Augustins Book Cover Existenz und Freiheit: Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt und Heinrich Barth zur Freiheitslehre Augustins
Forschungen zu Karl Jaspers und zur Existenzphilosophie
Nils Baratella, Johanna Hueck, Kirstin Zeyer (Hg.)
Schwabe
2022
Paperback 52.00 CHF
246

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Book Cover Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Cultural Memory in the Present
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
2021
Paperback $28.00
248

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg
(Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

Reading Dialectically

1. Content and Structure

To begin, and with consideration for the nature of the journal in which this review appears, it should be acknowledged what this book is not: the work is weakest when it comes to philosophical analysis, for the most part providing descriptions of Levinas’ thought rather than interactions with it (although the latter is not entirely absent). I had expected otherwise and so this was somewhat disappointing, but – to slightly alter the old saying – perhaps we should not judge the book by the subtitle on its cover. The biographical information listed for the author tells us that Ethan Kleinberg is “the Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University” (this is also what is given on his institution’s faculty page), and a social media profile (for what such is worth, ours being the digital age) cites his PhD as being in History and Critical Theory. Thus, we should gear ourselves for history, and on that account the work is highly interesting and the reader does indeed gain much insight into Levinas the man from a careful reading of the text. This precisely – the act of careful reading – is the theme which I drew most from Kleinberg’s engaging and enjoyable presentation of Levinas’ Talmudic lectures as I journeyed alongside and through them, and the same shall become our concern in what follows.

A word or two must be given on the unique format that the book employs. Composed of six sections it is divided into four chapters that are flanked naturally enough by an introduction and a conclusion; the chapters, however, are “doubled” in the sense that each contains two separate columns of text which run parallel to each other: picture a single page with prose X on the left side and an entirely disconnected prose Y on the right; turn the page and X continues on as it had been still on the left with Y too carrying forwards on the right. In each of the chapters the right handed Y column ends before the left handed X, and therefore the final few pages simply have that side of the paper blank. It is admittedly not perfectly accurate to describe these two portions as “disconnected” however, for there is a thematic crossover between them which is related to Levinas’ life and personal educational mission. The left side sections offer biographical and institutional narratives connected to Levinas’ series of lectures on passages from the (Babylonian) Talmud delivered to the Colloque des intellectual juifs de langue française in Paris from 1960 to 1989, with an emphasis on what Kleinberg calls the “braid” of Levinas’ influences from and emphases on the trio of Western philosophy, French Enlightenment Universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition. (See p. 12; Levinas had learned Talmud study under the mentorship of the well-known but perhaps mysterious Lithuanian master Shushani, being originally of Lithuanian stock himself although his family was forced to flee there for Ukraine after the German invasion of Lithuania in 1915, returning finally in 1920, only for Levinas to decide to leave again to attend university in France in 1923; these and other fascinating details are given in Chapter 1.) The right side sections relate to the content of the lectures themselves, titled respectively: “The Temptation of Temptation” (Shabbath, 88a and 88b); “Old as the World” (Sanhedrin, 36b-37a); “Beyond Memory” (Berakhot, 12b-13a); and “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Sanhedrin, 99a and 99b; note that the transliteration for these tractate names varies slightly from source to source, here I am simply following the spelling given in Kleinberg’s book).

The biographical (left) portion is further categorized as “Our Side” and the Talmudic (right) as “The Other Side” at the opening of each chapter, and these divisions are references to what Kleinberg outlines in the introduction as Levinas’ formulae – after Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, founder of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva – of “God on our side” and “God on God’s own side”: that is, for the “God as revealed in our finite and imperfect world and as such limited by that which we can conceive or imagine” and “the infinite and absolutely transcendent qualities of God that lie beyond our finite abilities to define, conceive, or even name God” (p. 5). We are additionally warned that we must take care (this from Levinas’ thinking) not to presume that what we know from “our side” can be understood as “the essence of God or we reduce God to a mere product of our imagination” (also p. 5). Clearly this makes for a healthy alert prior to any approach for or about the numinous, but there is also a methodological risk here in that these alignments could become useless if taken too seriously, such that the attempt to query and seek God on “God’s side” – however tentatively – is thereby perfunctorily given up; we must have some tools to work with, and moreover the courage to so work. We will therefore try; initially by taking Kleinberg’s “our side” texts before shifting to his “other side”, and finally offering some general summative remarks.

2. “Our Side”

Levinas is probably best remembered for his ethics, and as Kleinberg relates it this in part formed the impetus for Levinas’ pre-war move from Husserl to Heidegger, that it was “through the realization that there was no place for ‘others’ in Husserl’s phenomenological program” and hence the shift to a Heideggerean perspective (one thinks here of Heidegger’s emphases on embedded “world” issues, on Dasein as entering a historical trajectory already “in progress”, and on the necessity of a subject-bound hermeneutics as opposed to (the illusion of) objectivity) which provided Levinas with “themes [that] returned in Levinas’s later writing and in his Talmudic readings when they were recast in relation to his renewed emphasis on Jewish thought” (p. 29). After the war, in the dreadful awakening to the horrors of what came to be called HaShoah (The Catastrophe: the Holocaust) which confronted every thinking and feeling person, but of course most forcefully Europe’s surviving Jews, Levinas re-situated his own commitments to begin to place “his philosophy in terms of his Judaism: ‘My philosophy [this is a quote from Levinas found in the collection Carnets de la captivité (Notebooks from Captivity) published in 1946; he was a prisoner of war] is a philosophy of the face to face. The relation with the other without an intermediary. This is Judaism.’” Hereafter he also withdrew from Heidegger, and he enacted “the substitution of ‘Being-Jewish’ for Dasein” (p. 36).

This particularization and un-finitizing (this blurring) of the self and its place in the cosmos moreover entailed for Jewish identity a necessary tie to the past (election, and therefrom responsibility) within the still-not-yet of the promised messianic future, and it is this orientation to time that distinguishes “Being-Jewish” from, for example, the present focuses of Christianity with its “born anew”, or science with its discovery, or politics with its revolution. Therein lies “the fundamental difference between the ontological meaning of the everyday modern world and the ontological meaning of Being-Jewish” (p. 50). It might be objected at this point that Christianity, science, and politics do each clearly look to their own futures – and in the instances of “new birth”, discovery, and revolution especially so – but perhaps the idea here is that the stresses are on something akin to “May we have it now (new birth, discovery, revolution)” rather than the “split” “Being-Jewish” mindset which always has one eye over its shoulder, as it were, gazing both to the was-then and simultaneously the will-be.

On this issue of identity Kleinberg also locates what he describes as a “blind spot” for Levinas, a level at which he “conserves aspects of the authentic/inauthentic distinction inherited from the philosophy of Heidegger”; evidently this is through the relating of an assimilation into the broader culture with an inauthentic mode of “Being-Jewish” (p. 52). There is an interesting argument here in the sense of assimilated life as less “validly Jewish”, and therefore as juxtaposing with Heidegger’s inauthenticity as less philosophically realized, but for Heidegger inauthenticity was the “thrown” and default condition of the “they” (i.e. everyone) and Dasein needs to make (great) efforts to achieve authenticity, whereas the opposite is the case if one is born into the Jewish lineage: there the efforts required are for assimilation (moving out of one’s heritage, and having to try to be accepted as having so moved out by the “mainstream”), and hence the conceptual matching that Kleinberg asserts is not a perfect fit. Then too we might ask how thin the line is (or should be) between embrace and exclude when it comes to matters of identity, a question that ethically and existentially matters tremendously. Concern for the other is certainly at the core of Judaism, but if each other is always viewed in terms of “Being-Jewish” and vis-à-vis the kind of ranking system thereby implied, then that concern must become colored or even tainted; yet again, if we place ourselves historically in post-war Europe we find our sympathies are unreservedly extended to this manner of thought. It might be that the us/them aspect of any identity simply cannot be rid of the paradoxes and double-edges that adhere: that to ever assert any version of “we” is always and necessarily to negate it in a “they”. Whatever the case may be, this is a critique that Kleinberg returns to in his fourth chapter wherein he cites scholars who have been critical of what they label a hierarchy of people and cultures within Levinas’ writings and, as Kleinberg illustrates, his Talmudic lectures.

Let us though transition from ethics as point of view into ethics within/by/as text (scripture and exegesis), mindful of our stated theme of a “careful reading”. The Talmud came to be central to Levinas for his project of an ethical humanism – the responsibility for the other, facing the other and the taking on of accountability beyond the mere confines of one’s own acts – and that, “For Levinas, ‘the Bible clarified and accentuated by the commentaries of the great age that precedes and follows the destruction of the Second Temple, when an ancient and uninterrupted tradition finally blossoms, is a book that leads us not towards the mystery of God, but towards the human tasks of man’” (p. 73; emphasis in the original). It is the reading of the book (Bible) and the reading of the writings on the book (Mishnah, Talmud, et cetera) that properly conditions one to become a creature who can care, and this understanding both motivated Levinas in his pedagogical objectives and in his – shall we say – seizing of the Talmud away from its customary place in the yeshiva and thrusting it into the academy. Levinas, Kleinberg informs us, “wanted to take control of the chain of transmission, to prolong the spirit of Shushani, and thus to fulfil the call to transmit what has been heard. In essence, Levinas sought to start a new tradition, a new chain of transmission, in keeping with his goals for Jewish education, his reformulation of Judaism as a humanism” (p. 83). This then places us back at the beginning, and the Talmudic lectures themselves.

The initial 1959 lecture that Levinas delivered to the series of colloquia (given at the second commencement, he did not speak at the inaugural meeting) was on the influential philosopher and theologian – or maybe more properly: philotheologian, or theophilosopher – Franz Rosenzweig, but at the third event he presented a Talmud lesson opposite another’s biblical lesson (André Neher; see p. 94). At the time this was quite remarkable; Ady Steg, who would become the president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle from 1985 to 2011, recalled that: “The Bible was familiar to the intellectual world, to the non-Jewish world as well. But the Talmud was something totally ignored, reserved for those good Jews with long beards from Poland to Morocco. The idea that the Talmud could be studied in French, in public, and in the same manner that it was studied by Jews from eastern Europe or from Maghreb [northwest Africa] was extraordinary” (pp. 94-95). This was to become the motif for the years that followed. To Levinas, who accepted the being of God/“God” (I add the scare quotes to allow this concept some attitudinal flexibility), and the subsequent central position God/“God” attains through recognition, an associating with and/or orienting towards the divine was not to be done in the kind of non- (or anti-)rationalist ways that are typical of traditional religion, but instead via the same critical and reason-based thinking which is common in scholarship (p. 112). At numerous points Kleinberg refers to this as Levinas’ “religion for adults”, and the notion seems to have been one that was both dismissive and upholding vis-à-vis faith: denigrating “feeling” faith while lauding “thinking” faith would perhaps be one way to put it. Thus, for Levinas the sacred books were that – sacred – and were moreover of greater value than their interpreters and the schools of interpretation which history has granted alongside them; it is “the text that serves as the conduit or pathway to God on God’s own side” (p. 111). Kleinberg, commenting in general but also specifically about Levinas, remarks that we as readers should not depend upon “the genius of the reader or the writer” but rather “we should look to the transcendent meaning of the text, the opening to the Other that always retains the potential to say more than it says” (p. 126).

There is surely much wisdom in this, but it should also be noted the way that such an approach leaves the door ajar for relativism; Levinas did, it appears, insist on a proper training for taking from the Talmud (adhering to and promoting the method he learned from Shushani), but to bequeath the text (any text) with a “something beyond” is to give it a mysticism that supersedes its actual content (such as is signaled by “conduit”, “pathway”, “opening”, et cetera), and this is a facet of reading that both Levinas and Kleinberg seem comfortable with. Thereby the word can be made to “say” anything, and thusly to actually mean nothing. Yet there is, I think, another possibility here, and that is not to be bothered by this relativism so much as to embrace it in a particular way, to adopt a hermeneutics of the moment, and in this phenomenological reading to take care for the written meaning that one finds from within one’s place at one’s present, without making the additional move of affixing definitiveness to that. We are all, I suppose, postmoderns in this denial of a single, permanent interpretation, but in this latter now-construct just offered it is not a case of everything being there because no-“thing” is “there”, rather that what is there is indeed there but its instantiation rests within a spectrum of potentialities. The text is rooted, what it offers is limited, but even so with a depth that the surface might mask.

These thoughts call to mind Levinas’ concern for dissociating oneself from the prejudices of time, and as we suggested that a reading can be repetitious without ever being repeated (returned and returned to for re- and re-readings without ever finding the same set of results), Levinas advised that we leave aside “what we might call the bias of the modern that includes the presumption that we now know more and better than those who came before us” (p. 161). We do not of course, we merely know differently (as regards the humanities at least, for empirical matters the case is naturally distinct). In such a way Levinas was prepared to let the Talmud, through his “religion for adults”, speak its archaic words to contemporary readers and hearers, and in this he found too (the idea of) God/“God” as the “ethical ground or backstop that keeps reason from devolving into sophistry or the will to power…as the inspiration for good, for Ethics” (p. 138). It will be recognized how close this is to God/“God” as the “call” of writers like John D. Caputo, although on my understanding I suspect that Levinas would give a “meatier” rendering to God/“God” than Caputo might. On this note of the other, then, let us now turn to Kleinberg’s second (the right hand side) column of text – his “The Other Side” – in order to better explore the Talmudic lectures themselves.

3. “The Other Side”

The talk which Kleinberg chooses to begin with concerns itself with what Levinas calls “the temptation of temptation”, namely “the need to make the determination and offer an answer [which then] ascribes that meaning and, in doing so, wrests the event and the possibilities latent in its occurrence away from the Other…creating a closure instead of an opening” (p. 18). As we have here been contemplating, this is quite deleterious to a reading (now-constructed or not) that would be able to take – and be enabling of – an ancient source and apply its voice to the present. Whatever the participants whose discussions are recorded in the Talmud may have had to offer on this or that, the instant we affix Correct Interpretation M to such data then A through L along with N through Z disappear into the aether, leaving us not only the poorer for it but the text itself too greatly reduced. The passage on the page might “be” M now, but we must by all means resist the urge to make it ever-M; and, we may add, the related prompting to make my M forcefully become yours (after all, you could be reading N or O or P, and then let us talk about that and see if we do not in the end arrive at Q, or L). Such dialogical/dialectical proceedings (we will have more to add on this below) are of course not only in accord with the way of the Talmud, they are the way of the Talmud, and as Kleinberg writes, “Levinas instructs us to ‘enter into the Talmud’s game, which is concerned with the spirit beyond the letter, and is, for this reason, very wonderful’” (p. 64).

As an example of this, Kleinberg remarks that for Levinas the history of an institution such as the Sanhedrin “is unimportant, even its historical existence. What is important are the lessons that have been drawn from the Sanhedrin” (p. 55); and by reflecting on this once again we may find our now-construct reading with its rooted but broad word-trees, its textual branches. It does not matter one bit if the Sanhedrin sat in deliberation as is described, nor if its hallowed judges ever lived, what does are the manners by which these stories have been taken and applied to the lived situations of those who read and heard them. This is how the book attains (or is given) timelessness, how it instructs from its own side the reader as hearer as interpreter who then must do something with it today, irrespective of the “when” of its contents. However, in thinking thus we need to also recall the above caution about the inherent spectrums within the words and passages, the caveat that whatever the beauty and the intuited or claimed transcendence of a text, such will never be capable of fully standing outside history (arguably nothing can) and therefore will always be connected to the era of its production and the subsequent recorded interactions of the person(s)/community(ies) with the word. Again, Levinas’ “Being-Jewish” (we might substitute “reading-Jewish(ly)” here) that is at once backwards and forwards-facing. Kleinberg summarizes this aspect with: “the memory need not correlate to an ‘actual’ historical event. This is to say that the ‘memory’ of the exodus from Egypt need not be a memory of something that actually happened but instead the memory must be such that it carries the future within it. The promise for the future is more important than the fidelity to the past” (p. 96). This, I think, is not only indicative of the value a perspective can have but also of that for narratives, for myths and storytelling, for those repeated and beloved tales whose truths are in the virtues they (seek to) impart rather than the information they present. Superman, for instance, never “happened”, but his call for social justice and the championing of the weak (incidentally, highly biblical qualities) are as relevant today as they were when the comic first appeared in 1938; Levinas would no doubt make a very similar remark about the more complex and venerable biblical and extra-biblical incidents with which the Talmud concerns itself (not to compare the two!).

Within this very aspect of the text as having value and being loved, however, lies another danger which Kleinberg introduces in the final lecture he considers: “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Chapter 4). This is to take the Torah as itself an item due veneration, and Levinas counters this tendency (or temptation) by advising that – as Kleinberg puts it – “The general or universal rule is never enough and must be brought into contact with the actualities of the day [i.e. the reader’s time and place]. Invariable conceptual entities are to be avoided, perhaps, as one resists an idol” (pp. 130-131). For Levinas, a Jewishness which is based on a book (Torah) is that in which one is perforce a student, a reader, and it seems transparent enough that this is the kind of “Being-Jewish” that Levinas wishes to promote. The way, then, to avoid crossing the identity-based matter of “reader” with the commingled risk of an excessive reverence for the object of study is to seek to always read through what might be called a properly dialectical procedure, to move beyond mere dialogue with the words (itself already an improvement on a simple imbibing of the words) and into a realm where the text becomes an Other both affirmed and negated in a synthesis which produces something ever-ongoing: Kleinberg explains, “It is not the context in which the Torah was given that is important nor its status as a religious object. It is the act of reading and interpreting the Torah that brings Revelation to life” (p. 146), and therefore the “right and productive way [to engage the Torah] sees that the Torah must be studied, argued, and debated to be maintained. The wrong way is to take the Torah as a finished product worthy of worship in itself” (p. 148). A good reader, a non-idolatrous reader, will be someone who takes the pages as partners for interaction, who finds in them promptings that are always new and timeless precisely because they are timely, because they are connected to and responsive towards the needs of the moment: unlocked, unshackled from the past which birthed them and which must still nevertheless be known yet without allowing that information to circumspect their potential today. Kleinberg very colorfully describes the opposite of the dynamic approach just outlined as a version of “dogmatism” that “results in a harvest that cannot be consumed because the sowing has ceased” (p. 150). The message – its meaning, exercise, possibly even assessment – must be queried, argued, and found from what thereby emerges: again and again, world without end. The summary Kleinberg gives for Levinas’ focus is that, “Studying must not be a devotion in the sense of piety to an immobile code or rote memorization but a motion forward that reveals the way that such a self is always a work in process, a construction, an other me that can be a better me. As such, it is also an opening to the other” (p. 151).

It will be realized that the “self” of these concerns – for Levinas – is naturally connected to “Being-Jewish”, and Kleinberg transitions in his conclusion to contemplate some critics of Levinas’ work on these matters who find a (perhaps unbeknownst) favoritism or elitism within them that promotes his own in-group above all others. This is a matter of deep gravity for any system that would orient itself ethically, as both Levinas and the Talmud itself does, and moreover for one also dedicated to the legacies of Western philosophy and French Enlightenment Universalism (as Levinas was, outlined above), but it is also one terribly complicated by the “facts on the ground” of Jewish existence that at least in its Diaspora but possibly – in this globalized world – even in Eretz Yisrael faces regular threat and pressure to “be” elsewise. Levinas had lived through the Second World War, he had lost his family to the horrors of its pogroms, and he took it upon himself to struggle to assert a Jewish identity that could be proud and noble without retreating into either what he viewed to be a naïve form of Orthodoxy or a self-negating assimilation in the wider European (or other) culture: both of which would be a disappearance. Kleinberg wonders if these longings might not be extended further than the default exemplarism that comes part and parcel with membership-by-birth, reasoning that it is perhaps via a personal approach wherein such could be found: “He [Levinas] sought to make the past present for the future by blowing on the coals and reigniting the fire that he believed lives within the sacred texts of Judaism. It is in the relationship that we each can have with the text and not through the institutions that guard them” (p. 179). I sympathize with these thoughts, and certainly agree that almost limitless wisdom can be mined from the vast catalogue of writings that Judaism in its many formations has produced over the millennia, but I judge that too much structuring of self and personhood occurs from inside a belonging to permit a similarity of (let alone an equality of) reception to take place. “Being-Jewish” is something one cannot have without the constructive accoutrements that affix from the multitudinous angles of a people and a culture. Levinas wished to help his half-assimilated and/or “hidden” cohorts embrace themselves through his “religion for adults”; and with that as goal, and seen from inside that mindset, I think the preferentialism we can find in these lectures is probably inevitable. For the purposes they serve, moreover, that might not be a negative point.

4. A (Re-)Return to (Re-)Reading

In his turn to Talmud we find in Levinas a “return”, and thus we must invoke the concept of teshuvah, the “turning back” from having “gone astray” or – more colloquially – from “missing the mark”. We have not done what we ought to; we have not been as much as we could have; we have not lived up to our potential, or our calling. The challenge, the beckon, is always there: do (be) better, more. Levinas’ was a mission of education and encouragement, to go back and back and back to the text to seek from it what one may need in the moment for that moment, knowing full well that there can never be a mastery and that each re-reading is a confrontation anew. Kleinberg has given us an excellent snapshot of this facet of the great philosopher, of this piece of time within the man’s life, the concerns that enshrouded it and the motivations that animated it. The “stacked” or “doubled” nature of the four chapters that each contain biographical narratives alongside excerpts from and comments on the Talmudic lectures compel the reader to decide which he will engage with first (a strategy Kleinberg outrightly states in his introduction: this is the point of his arranging the book this way), and the choice may be self-revelatory in one way or another. Whether that is the case or not though, the opposite tack can thereafter be taken upon a second reading (“Our Side”/“The Other Side”: “The Other Side/“Our Side”; or vice versa), a notion one suspects Levinas would agree with (and probably Kleinberg be pleased by). The issue is a fittingly Jacobean one of “wrestling with God” (Genesis 32), of trying and trying and trying, of never giving up despite openly recognizing that there can be neither a completion nor finality. Kleinberg demonstrates how the Talmudic talks can be placed into Levinas’ broader oeuvre, and thereby how the treatments given in their contents might be matched with our own era and struggles for identity, purpose, and meaning. Levinas, along with his earlier contemporary and fellow imaginatively thinking European Jew Martin Buber, was an intellect of the other, of ethics, of relation. This too is a journey that does not end, but through our constant revisiting – and re-pondering – of the texts that help us on the way, may it be we find companions as provocative as these.

Waller R. Newell: Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger, Cambridge University Press, 2022

Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger Book Cover Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger
Waller R. Newell
Cambridge University Press
2022
Hardback £ 29.99
372