ABSTRACT

The encounter with alterity is central to Levinas’s thought. To begin simply: the other whom I encounter is always radically in excess of what my ego, cognitive powers, consciousness or intuitions would make of her or him. The other always and definitively overflows the frame in which I would seek to enclose the other. But that means that the frame itself is broken or disintegrates. Levinas often writes of the delusion of the possibility of possession of the other. As I fail to ‘capture’ or ‘possess’ the other, so the mechanisms by which I have sought possession come into question. They reveal themselves to be always modes of reduction. The more or less stable structure of my frames for the world appears as a function of my will to identity, of my will to persist in my being or, in a phrase of Pascal’s that Levinas is fond of using, my conviction of my right to a place in the sun. My selfassertiveness – my confident trust in my terms of reference – amounts to an imposition of force and, as such, is unethical. What lies outside me neither asks for, requires nor justifies such an imposition. As I fail to ‘capture’ the other, too, the encounter with the other becomes an occasion to which I must rise again. In this instance, however, I no longer seek to bring the other to terms. Rather, I offer myself to the other, with a gesture that Levinas expresses in the phrase ‘Here I Am’. The will to know the other or to approach the other in terms of knowledge becomes responsiveness to and responsibility for the other. The ego is deposed, gives up its drive to sovereignty and enters into ethics, into social relationship, dialogue, disinterestedness. Ethics is constituted as what Levinas refers to as an ‘incessant dégrisement [disenchantment] du Même enivré de soi’ (MT, p. 25). But

what concerns him is not a disenchantment with a world that fails to correspond to the subject’s expectations, but a disenchantment of the self that seeks to contain the world within its perspectives. Levinas’s ethics might partly be described as a disenchantment of subjectivity.