Monday, January 16, 2012

Levinas, Marion and the Same

In the comments to my previous post West asks: "with regard to Marion: would you say, in his phenomenological reduction of the Other, that Marion posits some new totality? some new Same? Your conclusion makes it sound as if you think so, but what is this Same?"

As I state in my brief response, I find this to be an exceptionally difficult question and I am not sure there is an adequate answer to it. I hope in this post, however, to be able to at least say something on the subject.

In my previous post my engagement with Marion was very brief. I think I should start here by explaining a bit more of what I understand Marion to be up to. Marion is offering a phenomenology of givenness in which he attempts to demonstrate that the characteristic of givenness is the decisive characteristic of phenomena in general. To experience givenness itself we must bracket the giver, given and givee and, likewise, it will be phenomena which fail to be conceptualizable in terms of giver, given and givee that most exemplify the nature of phenomena in general. These phenomena are called "saturated phenomena" which overturn Kant's requirements for something to be an object for the understanding. Thus they are non-objects. These phenomena arise in intuitions which overflow the bounds of any conceptualization. They are invisible, though we recognize them through the disturbance they make in the more straightforwardly intuitable, they are unbearable, they are absolute and unconditioned in the sense of not being limited by any horizon (the phenomenological horizon of time or Being for example) and they are irreducible in the sense of not depending upon any constituting activity of the "I". This last point is particularly interesting, as saturated phenomena invert the constituting relationship such that, in the face of saturated phenomena, the I is constituted anew as "witness" and loses its transcendental priority. "The I loses its anteriority as egoic pole (polar I) and cannot yet identify itself, except by admitting the precedence of such an unconstitutable phenomenon. This reversal leaves him stupefied and taken aback, essentially surprised by the more original event, which takes him away from himself... and finally lets himself be judged (said, determined) by what he himself cannot say or think adequately." (Being Given p. 217) This point gives rise to Marion's overturning of the priority of the subject within modern philosophy. The final picture of what givenness teaches us in general looks like this: we have an event ontology in which phenomena arise as events without being reducible to cause or ground and, in appearing, make demands upon those to whom they appear. It is through these demands that the self is constituted. Phenomena are fundamentally understood as contingent and without overarching structure beyond the diverse structure they themselves reveal in their appearing. Marion is firm in rejecting here the principle of sufficient reason (which, as a side note, opens up some interesting connections with Meillassoux who was no doubt influenced by Marion). To the extent that phenomena's appearing constitute the self, the self too is decentered in the sense of being at the mercy of the unpredictable and untotalizable "call" of the phenomena which arise for it.

If you hear echoes here of Kant's sublime or Levinas' face of the Other you would be on the right track. Amongst examples of saturated phenomena Marion includes the sublime, the face of the Other, Descartes idea of the infinite and several other interesting examples.

So, back to the question. Does Marion posit a new totality? The immediate answer seems to be that he does not. His understanding of givenness would, in fact, seem to make totality impossible. The dependence of the "I" upon phenomena for its constitution and the contingent irreducibility and unconstituted nature of these phenomena deflates the possibility of any transcendental totalization. We see this strikingly in Marion's Heidegger-inspired description of the possibility of the saturated phenomenon as the "possibility of impossibility". When it comes to addressing our relation to, for example, the face of the Other Marion seems to fare just as well as Levinas. One is tempted to suspect that everything Levinas wants we can still get from Marion including and especially the untotalizable alterity of the Other. Indeed, part of Marion's point in discussing the reduction of the Other to givenness is that Levinas already does this without noticing it. If we have an experience of the Other, whether in passion or a face to face engagement, or if we have an idea of the infinite, each of these phenomena must have been given to us in some manner. What Levinas wants to insist upon is that they are not given as objects, and Marion provides a rich explanation of how this can be so and what this would mean.

But, I do not think Levinas would be happy with what Marion offers. In fact I suspect he would find some totality here and, beyond Levinas' possible concerns (and indeed in opposition to them) I too find some totalizing assumptions. First let's engage with Levinas. Notice he does not just reject any object nature of the Other, he also rejects its subsumption into phenomenology at all. We see this in his assertion that consciousness consists "in accomplishing events whose ultimate significance (contrary to the Heideggerian conception) does not lie in disclosing... The welcoming of the face and the work of justice - which condition the birth of truth itself - are not interpretable in terms of disclosure. Phenomenology is a method for philosophy, but phenomenology - the comprehension effected through a bringing to light - does not constitute the ultimate event of being itself. The relation between the same and the other is not always reducible to knowledge of the other by the same, nor even to the revelation of the other to the same, which is already fundamentally different from disclosure." (Totality and Infinity p. 27-28)
We might, in relation to the quotation above, suggest that Marion has shifted from a phenomenology of disclosure to a phenomenology of revelation (a not entirely unjustified suggestion as Marion himself includes revelation as a particularly important form of saturated phenomena) but Levinas seems to think this does not go far enough. Marion is still doing phenomenology and, in this sense, is still understanding the relation to the Other on a model which misses that it is ethics, the Desire for the Other and this Other's call, which is first philosophy and not the givenness of this desire or call. So, in reducing the Other to givenness, even when givenness is understood to offer phenomena which are not limited to any totalizing horizon, Marion has still failed to see the relation to the Other as something which exists primarily in the realm of action and not in the realm of consciousness. In other words, oddly enough it is the responsibility, the act of response or failure to respond, to the Other which comes before any givenness of the Other. This may be why Levinas states of the relation to the Other "We know this relation only in the measure that we effect it; this is what is distinctive about it. Alterity is possible only starting from me." (Totality and Infinity p. 40) We could make this point as well by noting that the relation Levinas suggests between the same and the Other is that of language in the mode of conversation and not primarily that of experience or knowledge (p. 39). For Marion, the conversation partner must first be given for the conversation to begin, even if it is given as a saturated phenomena with all its paradoxes, while Levinas seems to suggest the conversation comes first before the givenness of the Other as phenomena.

This has probably gone on long enough, but I do want to mention briefly my own concerns which probably do not line up with Levinas to the extent that Levinas understands his work as a type of defense of the subject. While there is a lot in Marion I find thrilling, not least of all the de trope (to steal a phrase from Sartre) nature of what I have called his event ontology, he still remains very Husserlian. Despite his decentering of the subject and his locating the origin of the subject in phenomena, the medium of phenomena remains consciousness. He seems to under-appreciate Heidegger's conception of Being-in-the-World and although he does offer his own critique of the theoretical attitude he still seems to work against the background of something like a arena of consciousness which is constituted by what is given in it. In the end, it seems to me, the reduction to givenness remains a type of reduction to consciousness in which many of the mistakes of the subject/object centered epistemology are repeated. I want to look more closely at his conception of the saturated phenomena and his new understanding of the witnessing subject, after which I may have more to say about this.


  1. Great post, Bill. I love what Marion is *trying* to do but I couldn't agree with you more regarding Marion's limitations --which are never more apparnet than in his convoluted critiques of Heidegger's Ereignis in"God without Being" Being Given" and in his later work and its turn toward Aquinas. If I were to state in concisely my own characterization of these unpurged Huserlian prejudices in Marion would be summed as follows: Marion's misunderstanding of Heidegger's requirement that giveness be epochal, and that it indeed hss always already been a giving of epochality --all of this is born from his failure to see or performatively admit Heidegger's critique of intuition --a critique which lies at the heart of the magic that he and not Husserl found in so-called categorial intuition. This critique can be summed up in the following statement: language precedes and determines the so-called immediacy intuition --indeed, it grants this very immediacy as such.

    That being said, I would like to redierct my thoughts towars a question regarding your characterization of Levinas' rejection of Marion. You write:

    "Marion is still doing phenomenology and, in this sense, is still understanding the relation to the Other on a model which misses that it is ethics, the Desire for the Other and this Other's call, which is first philosophy and not the givenness of this desire or call. So, in reducing the Other to givenness, even when givenness is understood to offer phenomena which are not limited to any totalizing horizon, Marion has still failed to see the relation to the Other as something which exists primarily in the realm of action and not in the realm of consciousness."

    My question is as follows: Marion certainly borrowed a lot from Heidegger and one of these things is his recognition that response enable the call to first be heard. Nothing could be more Heidegger, and Marion takes it over, albeit without understanding its full implications. How would you reconcile this precedent of responsibility with the accusations of Levinas?

  2. ps sorry for the massive amount of typo's ---from my android

  3. Sean,

    Great to hear from you! I absolutely agree with your reading of Marion's Husserlian dependence on immediate intuition and the reasons this would be unacceptable to Heidegger and I am happy to see we understand what Heidegger does with Husserlian categorial intuition in very similar ways. I was particularly struck by Marion's reliance on Husserl's founding/founded distinction, one which I believe Heidegger reverses.

    As for my would-be Levinasian critique of Marion, you are certainly right that I am assuming that for Marion the response does not enable the call first to be heard while for Levinas and Heidegger this is important. My engagement with Marion is very recent and incomplete. I have only read, so far, his "Being Given" so take my comments, both here and in my posts, as tentative at best. As you point out my assumption about Marion is either overstated or flat out wrong. I can certainly see elements of the priority of the response in his idea of anamorphosis, i.e. the manner in which the phenomena requires action on our part in order to be given in the first place. This can, indeed, endanger my criticism of Marion. But it does seem much can be made of the extent to which Marion doesn't "understand its full implications" as you say.

    I think there are two things I can say about this. First, Marion's aim still remains phenomenological which I still believe would be a problem for Levinas. It seems to me that for Levinas the work of Justice is not primarily to be thought in terms of preparing the way for a givenness. To already understand the necessity of response prior to call in terms of preparing for a call seems a distortion. It is interesting that you bring up Marion's turn to Aquinas because it seems this point can be understood in terms of the philosophical clash between the Dominicans and Franciscans in the medieval context. It seems to me that for Marion the goal is knowledge, even if incomplete, on something like the model of Knowledge of God. For Levinas the goal seems more Franciscan, the goal is the love of the Other manifested through actions in service to the Other not aimed at knowing, or having given to oneself, the Other.

    Secondly, the role played by anamorphosis or something like the priority of the response in Marion seems in tension with other elements of his project. Many of the saturated phenomena have the characteristic of befalling us, and constituting us, without our necessarily preparing their way. The givenness of the Other seems to fit into this category for Marion at many times. Levinas, on the other hand, seems to think he is able to say that we always already have a relationship to the Other and the infinite without their necessarily being given in Marion's sense. It seems to me that in Levinas we are called to Justice in the very constitution of our being. We should be committed to Justice not because of the phenomenological givenness of the idea of the infinite or experience of the face of the Other (or not just because of these) but because of a transcendental constitutive connection to these.

    Hope these suggestions make some sense and perhaps make more nuanced my previous presentation of Marion.