Separate different tags with a comma. To include a comma in your tag, surround the tag with double quotes. Please enable cookies in your browser to get the full Trove experience. Skip to content Skip to search. Staehler, Tanja. Published New York ; London : Routledge, Language English View all editions Prev Next edition 4 of 7. Author Staehler, Tanja. Contents 1. Preliminary reflections on the self 2. Dimensions of corporeality 3.
Enjoyment or suffering? Origins of speech 5. The ambiguity of eros 6. The ethical relationship 7. The universality of the good 8. Communities, politics, laws 9. The critique of writing The ambiguity of the aesthetic History and culture Concluding remarks on ethics and ambiguity Postscript. Derrida on hospitality. Notes Formerly CIP. Includes bibliographical references p.
View online Borrow Buy Freely available Show 0 more links Set up My libraries How do I set up "My libraries"? Australian National University Library. In Simone de Beauvoir's introduction to The Second Sex , Emmanuel Levinas's understanding of otherness and alterity is presented and quickly dismissed.
Perhaps this happens unconsciously, nonconsciously, nonrationally, irrationally, or in a way that is perpetually misunderstood. Levinas scandalously proceeds to call the feminine event in existence a way of hiding, or modesty, different from the spatial transcendence contained in social, political, or even intelligible realms. However, more than just pitting one phenomenologist against the other and defending one as more or less feminist than the other, as do the insightful articles in Feminist Interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas , the goal of this article is to find converging ideas between Beauvoir and Levinas.
For this I will investigate the transhistorical notion of alterity, the historical abuses of certain terms like mystery and modesty , and the importance of ambiguity in ethics. Even after considering the differences between Beauvoir's and Levinas's reflections on these central concepts, both authors are shown to make use of an ambivalent subjectivity. I argue that Levinas more fully develops ambivalence in the alterity of ethical subjectivity that prioritizes the other, ultimately aligning with Beauvoir's goal of exposing the tradition of violence in moral discourses and providing a useful praxis for Beauvoir's moral theory.
As such, woman was relegated to a realm beyond the social and political spheres. She was then precluded from acquiring power of her own in the messy but vital social and political spheres. Society has always been male, political power has always been in the hands of men. For the male it is always another male who is a fellow being, the other who is also the same, with whom reciprocal relations are established …. Women constitute a part of the property which each of these groups possess and which is a medium of exchange between them.
Woman contains this otherness, or alterity, which in many societies was a disquieting mystery. More than just the apolitical social position, other purifying rites, ceremonies, and links with Nature beyond human comprehension also aligned her with evil forces for which cleansing was needed As abject, woman is not an object in her own right but demarcates normative boundaries of what is good, holy, proper, and acceptable from what is evil, profane, and perverse. Woman holds the place most fearful for man, which is a border that can disrupt his normative social order, rules, and laws. The power of this nexus in ambivalence will return in the final section of this paper.
Beauvoir continues to condemn those whom she calls antifeminists who accept the essence of woman as mystery, where her alterity is absolute. When she is assimilated to Nature, the myth of woman justifies man's privileges and authorizes certain kinds of abuse. After all, Nature is meant to be cultivated, controlled, and eventually utilized for the multiplication and enhancement of man's power. Man is set up as the essential, assertive, social subject that can transcend human relations through his manipulation of natural forces in a community with other men.
He views himself in this way. Woman also views him in this way, just as she views herself as inessential. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. An example of her inessential status is illustrated in at least one version of the myth of creation.
Adam is created first through divine intervention, then she is created from this secondary creature to prevent man's loneliness. Her sole purpose is to serve a function for man. Now that I have surveyed some of the ways in which Beauvoir found that these categories of the other, alterity, and mysterious are pernicious for the cultural status of women, we may look at passages where she says that the existential ideal of freedom is one of transcending mere being, and being valued as a subject in one's own right Mahon states this as a fact of Beauvoir's existential work, but does not focus as in the next section on Beauvoir's more subversive use of terms like the Other and alterity that shifts the traditional hierarchy of the sexes.
I find that Beauvoir uses a second notion of alterity and mystery that is ontologically available to both man and woman. Being more profoundly beside herself than man because her whole body is moved by desire and excitement, she retains her subjectivity only through union with her partner; giving and receiving must be combined for both. Reciprocal recognition between them is required to realize her alterity. Reciprocity characterizes these two subjects, but not when erotic pleasure is reduced to immanent and separately felt sensations. Though each individual is contained as a separate embodied consciousness, each is substantially identical in their freedom from the facts of their lives.
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Affirming woman's alterity signifies a positive condition of thinking, and being thought of, as a subject along with her partner in a reciprocal exchange. In this relation, each does not recognize they are equal in their inequality since these can repeat the old and limiting archetypes for any sex or gender. Instead a generative freedom can undo, outdo, and redo identity since at bottom subjectivity is its withdrawal from the facticity of its mere being.
However, instead of living out, and living in relation to these projections of oneself on the other, or living only up to introjected social ideals, Beauvoir writes of another sense of mystery in subjectivity. Her position comes into closer proximity to Levinas when she writes that mystery in subjectivity, as such, makes the condition of reciprocity difficult, but possible. Each is subject only for himself; each can grasp in immanence only himself, alone: from this point of view the other is always a mystery ….
Even if man grants himself the sole privilege of transcending social evaluations, mystery also ensures his capacity to enter a reciprocal relation with woman. For that which is nothing but what is created in its actions and existence, and which cannot clarify itself completely at any time, ambiguity is its fundamental position The mystery in both creates an abyss in oneself and between two.
Similarities in experiences and ontological sameness can help bridge this abyss between different subjects so that they can transcend toward an open future. Men have built communities with other men based on this sameness. A given mystery in every subject, however, can be utilized as an antidote to fossilized categories, ideals, and relations of sameness that deem one side essential and the other not. Just as heat melts marbleized fat from raw meat, I find that the reminder of a basic mystery, or ambiguity, in all meaning can similarly melt the apparent rigidity of social and moral norms.
Beauvoir uses the term modesty here, similar to Levinas's use, as an opening toward any other. An existential attitude of modesty enables the other to challenge identifications that are often held passionately and in violence. Similar to more careful uses of mystery, embodiment regardless of sex or gender is another condition of subjectivity that clarifies Beauvoir's understanding of ethical ambiguity.
The condition of having a body creates particular perceptions, leading to its perspectives, and finally to its knowledge claims. These conflicting demands are made from any sex, for example, of flesh and spirit, finitude and transcendence, while always experiencing the ambivalence of living in the constant dread of death.
Both also have an essential need for the other. At the same time that free subjectivity guarantees the possible withdrawal from pure immanence, its embodiment also always makes it situated with others. The other body serves to disrupt the possible fixation one can have on oneself. Anybody who shares this ontological status, among the demands of flesh, history, and an individual perspective that is made among others, experiences the ambivalence and resulting ambiguity of situations particular to their lives.
Beauvoir's existentialist ethic goes further than others in her time that focused on subjectivity as the abstract, transcendental freedom of an individuated self. Embodied relations of flesh, and further reflections on these, create new configurations in sentiment and thought. Her use of terms like relations and between the sexes anticipate a libertarian future where each has autonomy.
These terms also anticipate discourses in relational ethics. Although Beauvoir rejects mere individuated immanence as a way of understanding embodied subjectivity, in her view the alterity of the other is still only instrumental for disrupting the self and producing freedom for the isolated subject. An important difference regarding the possibility of moral praxis separates Beauvoir from Levinas after she rejects individualized immanence and values transcendence in relations between two.
For her, the alterity of the other is incidental to the importance of finding one's own. Instead, Levinas moves ethical subjectivity through the ambiguity of its embodiment, to the height of an ambivalent self that searches for alterity with a particular other. However, the free existence of another is an instrument, a mere means that guarantees my own freedom. By focusing on the ambiguity that is created for the individuated self in the exercise of its freedom, the paradoxical truth and mutual dependence of finding one in the other and the other in oneself is not taken to its full conclusions in her work.
Similarly to Beauvoir, Levinas shows the ambivalence that constitutes subjectivity; however, an infinite alterity creates in each a demanding bind to prioritize the other. Exteriority and transcendence for ethical subjectivity become the space and possibility to preserve the particular alterity and personal liberty of the other over one's own. The paradox of finding oneself in the face of the other and vice versa leads to a notion of proximity, for example, that emphasizes forgotten histories and the relational distances between two rather than emphasizing the autonomy of each individuated subjectivity.
I find similar paradoxes of a relational subjectivity in Beauvoir and will show how these can motivate her ethics of ambiguity, but first it will help to clarify Levinas's development of mystery in ambivalent alterity where the other is necessary for the self. Nemo asks Levinas about the passage Beauvoir used in her introduction. Regret is noted for his systemic use of a term like the feminine that can be easily reduced to an ontology of subservient woman or, worse, an occluded ontology altogether for her sexual difference.
How far his use of these terms and images traditionally associated with these bodies is metaphorical, literal, or ironic remains a question that feminist readers of Levinas must continually interpret across his texts. The pairing in his ethics between a privileged alterity and the feminine, however, arguably provides a resource for overturning a patriarchal tradition that values only systematized and abstract knowledge presumably unavailable to woman Chanter , She misses that they both aimed at exposing the biases and violence that result from this tradition of essentializing identities in its goal of systematizing knowledge.
Even if the traditional perspective has privileged the power of rational knowledge embodied in man, the reading is contrary to the rest of Levinas's work. The face expresses a nonempirical trace of what he called an infinitude that becomes present in an ethical relation with the other. Challenging traditional philosophy, Totality and Infinity argues that the principal modality of existence in the world is of embodiment. All meaning commences after a confrontation with the face of the other realized in relations of radical dependency between particular, ontological bodies.
Any sensible reactions from these relations are posterior to a necessary condition that obsesses each individual with another, like a persecution. There is first a demanding relation between the self and its others that affect it, before the following possibility of choosing individual liberty. An alterity that is not confined to anyone provides the space for prioritizing the other. Levinas's philosophy of the other walks a difficult line between conflicting demands, on the one hand claiming to be based on preserving difference, while on the other remaining indifferent to empirical differences.
Any particular differences can be transcended by the demand the other makes that comes prior to the recognition of their empirical qualities. Although this may be true of Levinas's earlier writings, by the time he writes Otherwise Than Being he comes to reflect on the specificity of living after the Holocaust as a male Jewish philosopher, a specificity that is admittedly limiting but serves as a paradigmatic phenomenology of the difficulty of being a particular existent that is responsible for the other Levinas As such, his continued work on the infinitude of a nonempirical face and the immediacy of proximate relations amongst radically different and particular individuals sidesteps any essentialism based on sex, gender, and in his personal case, religion.
Ambivalence arises for individuated ethical subjectivity that comes undone in welcoming and hosting traces of the other who is always found in an embodied subject. Levinas's infinite other appears in an embodied face, but as a nonempirical site that overflows consciousness and its objects. The face expresses vulnerability, where no propositional knowledge is necessary for its judgment.
The face as visage is only loosely associated with the empirical front of one's head since a hunched shoulder can express this vulnerability just as well. By finding resources for knowledge that exceed rational and empirical reasoning, Levinas opens the door for any subjectivity's engagement in ethical discourse. Both representations of woman as divine and profane are disincarnated either beyond or below being, and her body is deemed abject—an absent object.
The more rigidly social and historical designations are held, the more the possibility for an ethical relation is reduced. Alterity uniquely signifies the ability to break any chain of discourse and signification. One can say then that, for Levinas, mystery lies in any self that returns from its relations to the other, since the self cannot know how it will be changed and generated anew through them.
For the ethical encounter, the ego bows in modesty for a free exchange. The encounter brings about a change in subjectivity by the exteriority of the other. For the philosopher who argued that ethics is first philosophy, time is a movement between the presence of a being and a responsible preservation of the alterity in any human other in its many particular forms.
Levinas calls this a loving relation that is not based on the romantic idea of love, but on an asymmetrical relation that conditions an ethical response. Reading Levinas, Claire Katz finds that the feminine does not merely facilitate an ethical relation while it remains absent. Rather, characteristics of the ethical relation open the possibility for woman's engagement.
Ruth is the first Jewish convert, taking an oath of loyalty to Naomi, her place of dwelling, her people, and her God. Ruth's vow is an ethical and political obligation to care for particular people. Her creative work illustrates the transcendence of oneself for another who remains other, and in a relation that is not characterized by erotic desire.
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By mining this story, Katz finds traces of Levinas's ethic that involve actions performed by woman. Even if in Time and the Other Levinas equates the feminine with an absolute and radical alterity, by the time he wrote Totality and Infinity , the feminine is not the absolute other and empirical woman has the potential for the ethical relation. Alterity then develops for Levinas into something that more closely resembles what Beauvoir describes in her Ethics of Ambiguity. Both insist that otherness and sameness are the basis of ontological thinking, but subjectivity characterized in its ambiguity requires a dose of modesty using these terms.
Without the mystery of alterity, prioritizing social asymmetries becomes more difficult because of their reduction to determinate ontological relations of same—other, such as the free transcendental subject or unfree object. The historical and social specificity of differences is not as important as one's post facto attunement to them after the relation. Experientially, however, can this indifference to difference arise without a mediating concept, such as an infinite alterity, for an ethical response? Without the transhistorical notion of alterity between two unequal subjects that appears in an embodied face, negotiating past terms of resentment seems impossible Irigaray , , Remembering a state of ambiguity and ambivalence can quiet the strength of private convictions that often turn violent.
Beauvoir falls on the side of valuing existential freedom in action for each individual, albeit with a keen awareness of immanent social relations that inscribe limits on the body. One difficult question for those continuing to engage Beauvoir's work is how to develop an ethic for the second sex that will go beyond recapitulating identifications in experience that are already socially constructed under patriarchal terms. Using a hermeneutical lens but with a focus on ambivalence, Chanter uses ambivalent abjection to read Beauvoir's work and her reception by other feminists Chanter , Abjection is used to describe the historically ambivalent status of woman who sustains an image of both the profane whore and the mythical virgin.
Each can choose between repeating and disrupting these archetypes that have been historically projected by man onto woman after reflecting on this state of ambivalence. Similar to Chanter's development of an abject ambivalence for the possibility of creating a new identity for woman, I would like to develop the ambivalence inherent in subjectivity that Levinas used to motivate a dynamic and dialectical ethical subjectivity.
There are a few ways to understand, in practical terms, the theoretical power of reflecting on a radical alterity that arises between two.
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First, alterity challenges the priority of unity over difference, which Beauvoir may not have realized to the fullest in her own work. Today the debate rages about whether one who values freedom can ethically punch, or silence, the Nazi.
A radical distance between subjects leads to acknowledging irremovable differences among all. On the other hand, these differences can be altered as each individual subject stands only in an unassumable proximity to the other. An encounter can then be staged, for example between the liberal minded individual and a particular Nazi sympathizer. Appreciating an unassumable alterity as the condition for ethical subjectivity and the paradox of proximity also permits relations that are free of the possible tyranny of any identification.
Like concentric circles going out toward past or present objects that make up identity, relations arise with an unimpeachable assignation. In this radical dependency on the other for having a self, embodiment then exceeds the isolated individual body and its privatized history. Their relation is evident in the incapacity to be indifferent to the other, and the bridge between them is language. Beauvoir's ethics of ambiguity also guarantees a subject that is assured the correctness of any moral action, but she does not abandon the absolute value of a transcendental ego.
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She prioritizes freedom and universalizes individual free choice over relatedness. In distinction from Beauvoir's reading, exteriority or alterity for Levinas cannot be a subjective position of freedom authentically chosen by one, or intentionally held between two. If this were the case, then alterity would be converted into the same, a doubled ego or identity as freedom, which Beauvoir argues is the positive goal for woman. Freedom, however, remains under the panorama of masculine privilege. Woman is animated by the masculine desire of attaining transcendence through individual choice.
When the other is an alter ego , a doubled identity, then it must be asked how much freedom is possible to create an ego for woman that is not in the image of man, which is what Beauvoir has condemned in the historical valuation of woman to date. Making the transcendental ego absolute and freedom its moral demand occludes the space of exteriority, which for Levinas remains without ego.