26 APRIL 06



Protocol: 4/26/06, Derrida’s Le Toucher-Jean-Luc Nancy taught by Prof Hugh Silverman


            Conversation began in the middle of the reading of Arsalan’s protocol—which thoroughly recreated the previous week’s discussion.  The protocol was fairly long, and the idea of inundation through sheer volume was brought up, with the example of large companies, with teams of lawyers, inundating their smaller opponent with documents and information in lawsuits.  Derek mentioned that Arsalan’s recorder was an addiction, and then Hugh steered us toward more serious matters: the seam between the soul and the body.  “For Merleau-Ponty there is no seam.  But, in fact, as soon as you put the soul on the body, it is given a locus, an exactitude.  Though it doesn’t matter which exactitude, it is not a fixed exactitude,” Hughs says, “Similarly, Derrida’s terms, which are criticized for being inexact, are in fact exact; they just don’t have a fixed exactitude.”

            Don asks about the difference between the self and the toucher in self-touching: where does the one end and the other begin? why not think of them as pervading each other?  Hugh says that in the phrase “self-toucher” there is a hyphen between the two words, which Lyotard discusses as the trace of the union.  In the self-touching, the hyphen is already at the place of the hinge.

            Don wonders, “If the purpose of deconstruction is to identify a seam, a hinge, then deconstructionism is not deconstructable, because there is no other.”  Hugh responds with “Ça se deconstruye.  The text deconstructs itself.  Does deconstruction deconstruct deconstructionism? This possibly might lead to an infinite regression issue.”  Don brings up indeconstructables, like justice (which has been mentioned before).  Is deconstruction deconstructable?  Justice is indeconstructable because it has a hinge quality, being the hinge between the binary of injustice/justice.  If there is a notion of deconstruction that doesn’t have a binary pair or has a hinge quality, it might perhaps be indeconstructable.

            We then begin to discuss thinking versus weighing (penser vs. peser), which was the original issue that had started us on this tangent.  It is an unusual binary pair, separated by a hyphen, rather than a slash.  The slash both separates and brings together.  When that which had a union is separated it leaves a trace and it presents a Humpty-Dumpty problem (“All the kings horses and all the kings men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again”) the hyphen is the glue to put them together again.  Thus, the n becomes a hyphen between peser and penser.  Don: “It is interesting that the written word l’impe(n)sable is unsayable as a complete unit, but it can be read.”

            Aaron wonders if Hugh is saying that the slash (in the binary) becomes a hyphen when one deconstructs the binary.  This issue is left unresolved.

            We then finish the up the protocol, and Arsalan suggests we move on to the next chapter (§5 “Tender”).  His suggestion is rejected.

            We begin speaking about Levinas.  Don begins to explain “alterity”: “In the encounter of the Other there is an infinite beyond that confronts us through the idea of the face.  The Other is always this beyond of the physical presentation of the face.  It is a religious moment in a certain sense, a mythical beyond.  At least in one reading of Levinas.”  Hugh says: “In Heidegger, ontology (the Being of beings) has primacy.  Levinas says the ethical is more foundational than the ontological.  If the ethics is more foundational, then ontology comes through this notion of alterity.  The face-to-face conditions all relations with the Other.  The question of alterity is an othering that is absolutely basic and out of that you can speak of Being.  The ethical is always already there before any question of Being.  Heidegger would have a real problem with the Other because the Other has a face.  When the Truth is undisclosed, it has no face.”  Don suggest that the face is effaced, and Hugh says “That is the Derridean reading.”

            We move back to the text, and Aaron asks “What is the ‘world of light’” (on p 77).  Don says it is akin to the world of vision, namely seeing.  The Other can’t be seen.

            Aaron asks about the Levinas quote on p 77 about caress: “The caress is a mode of the subject’s being, where the subject who is in contact with another goes beyond contact.  Contact as sensation is part of the world of light.”  Hugh says: “When the Other caresses me it goes beyond the subjective/objective, and it goes beyond the contact.  The contact goes beyond the two subjects.  Whether it is a caress or a strike, it has the same function.  Something is going on in this relation of alterity.  What is going on?”  He continues to explain that the critique is that the vis-à-vis, the face to face, can’t be in terms of the Other (because it is always in relation to the Self—the Other is defined as the Other of the Self).  If you constitute the Other, then you constitute the Self at the same time.  What Levinas wants is for you to stop thinking of yourself all the time—begin with the Other.  In traditional phenomenology one starts with the Self then constitutes the Other.


            We take a break, mulling around the building in confusion and perpetual questioning.


            Returning, we pick up the issue of the caress, that the Other confronts the Other in the vis-à-vis.  The Other, in contact with the Other goes beyond the contact.  The subject only appears in the context of the relation of the Other to the Other, in the context of alterity and the ethical. 

            Aaron also mentions that the caress is not itself touched.  Hugh says: “In the caress you have this large, warm, greasy hand seeking the caress.  The caress is a not-knowing: it does not know what it is looking for.”  In Sartre, it does know what it is looking for; e.g., when the man’s hand goes out to reach the woman’s hand and he receives a limp, unreciprocating hand  (Hugh demonstrates with his two hand: one anxious and forward, grabbing the other, which remains lifeless and indifferent).  Returning to Levinas, there is no knowledge, no direction in the caress.  This not-knowing is essential.  The caress is not a subject reaching for an object.  The caress is searching, foraging.  The desire is already there in the caress, but it is not directed at anything in particular.

            Aaron returns us to Derrida, p 75: “In the sexual caress there is both a giving and a taking in the caress, a dissolving of subject/object.  I had fun thinking about this.” (There is laughter) “I did some case studies.  Is the caress coming from one or the other, such as a hug, which neither gives nor receives?”  Hugh says: “Even in the giving and receiving you suppose a subject.  The caress gives or takes, in this case”(referring to p 77). 

            Don interjects: “The caress is not being spoken of positively in Levinas; it is a return to animality; it is not a face-to-face; it is on the contact side.”  Hugh continues: “What happens when the Other touches the Other: sparks fly and it transcends beyond the contact, and there is a transcending.  Here Levinas brings in the beyond, the divine, God.”  Don continues to note that the caress isn’t so positive, since it’s a beyond of the visible, it’s a descent into the animal, infantile.

            Aaron asks about the messianic, where it comes in.  Hugh notes that it is “quasi-messianic” (p 78), “The Messiah, for Christians and Muslims has already come, but for the Jews the Messiah hasn’t come.  In this case, the quasi-messianic is a future that hasn’t come, but will come.”  Don clarifies: “As quasi-messianic, it is pure anticipation without the decidability of something definitely coming, similar to the foraging after the caress, where the seeking hand doesn’t know if it will contact with something.”  Hugh continues: “It is a wrinkle in temporality, in that it may not actually happen.”

            Don then asks us to look at p81, to the “Equivocation of the caress.”  Hugh, explains: “The caress goes beyond the face.  The ethical is threatened in the equivocation of the caress.  In the ethical you would think of the touching of the touchable and the violation of the violable, but here you have the touching of the untouchable and the violation of the inviolable.”  Hugh notes that Levinas is the most Catholic non-Catholic philosopher because there is so much Catholicism in his works: of the ascent beyond the human and into the divine.  The caress reaches out to the nudity, and sparks fly and you ascend to the divine.  Hugh explains: “Derrida is here thinking about the exorbitant.  Orbit is a circumscribed path or border.  The exorbitant goes beyond the path or border.  The carnal caress in Nancy becomes exorbitant, hyperbolic.  The caress does not just stay where it happens.  It becomes exorbitant and ascends beyond the happening.  It goes beyond itself, it exceeds itself.  When two objects touch, there are no sparks,” (Hugh illustrates this with two plastic bottles), “But when two people touch, especially a nude person, then sparks fly” (Hugh does not illustrate this) “In the caress something incredible is going on.”

            Hugh continues: “Derrida wants to take the going-beyond and show that it threatens the ethical.  For Levinas the ethical can’t be threatened because it is always already there.  Thus, this threat could threaten Levinas’ whole project.”  Don amplifies: “The caress is beyond the face-to-face, and that puts Levinas’ project at risk because the caress is this blind searching, unlike the face-to-face.” 

            The 11 o’clock hour is arriving, but, amidst such revelations and with such momentum, our conversation goes on, dogged and unfatigued.

            Hugh continues: “When Levinas goes beyond the face-to-face, then he goes beyond the ethical.  That’s what Derrida is saying.  The risk is that the exorbitant threaten his ideas.  The idea that you can’t get outside the ethical (which is supposed to be always already there) is threatened when you want to have the religious (namely, the transcendent).  There is a hinge between the ethical and the religious.”

            Derek ventures to ask: “Does the caress undermine the ethical system or does it merely disrespect it?  Do we ever become completely animal in the caress?  If the profanation still presupposes the face, as a turning away from it, are we still getting outside the ethical?”

            Hugh directs us to p 88, where murder is mentioned, and which Levinas needs to deal with: “When one murders another is that still ethical?  The profanation of basic prohibition (‘Thou shalt not kill’) does that undermine the ethical?  Is that exorbitant in the same sense as going to the beyond, the transcendent?  Derrida would say ‘oui’ and would use that to deconstruct Levinas.  Is the Other relating to the Other in an ethical way when the Other murders the Other.  If the ethical is a fundamental human condition (it is there before there is isness) then is the essential transgression still ethical?  Is the ethical still in play?  It must be, by Levinas’ system.  Has the ethical been threatened when the Other murders the Other?”

            Hugh continues to explain that in Heidegger, he has a philosophy which makes it irrelevant whether you kill people in concentration camps or not because it doesn’t affect the Being of beings.  All the ontic stuff—atom bombs, space ships, tanks, human bodies—are not fundamental.  Thus, if in Levinas, the ethical is not affected by murder, then it has the same status as Heidegger, of being fundamentally indifferent to murder.  In other words, the ethical, as a fundamental basis for the system existing on the ontico-ontological plain, may not be tainted by actual acts.  For Levinas, in the realm of the ethical, it is not possible to conceive even of the possibility of murder (though such possibility and motive can be imagined within the political realm) let alone to advocate it, but, if the ethical has to do with basic person-to-person relations, does it remain fundamentally disparate from activity, which occurs as individual acts?

            Aaron: “It is also relevant to think back to the beginning of the chapter [§4, “The Untouchable, or the Vow of Abstinence]—that the prohibition invites the violation of the prohibition.”  Hugh responds: “For Levinas, the ethical is very similar to the ontological in Heidegger, and thus is not touched when one murders another.  And what happens when the caress is a murderous caress?”

            With that unanswered question, approaching midnight, well past our normal adjournment, we left with more than a few other unresolved issues still on the table: does the transcendence of the religious threaten Levinas? can one get outside the ethical in Levinas? is deconstruction deconstructable? will the warm, greasy hand ever find the object of its caress?