The argument in favor of eliminating the subject entirely is a compelling one. Especially when you follow through the problems of coming to a reliant and favorable version of a subject that meets the following criteria:
1. Post-metaphysical. Both Heidegger and Derrida in his stead argued that the development of a subject that depends on metaphysical certainties would prevent the turn to Dasein. Derrida refuses to even go there and remains caught within a linguistic impossibility to articulate a subject, outside of the subject of difference.
2. Responsible to the other prior to structural mediation. For a subject to come after deconstruction, in many ways its emergence must come prior to structural mediation (unconscious, linguistic, socioeconomic, etc.), a mediation that decenters the subject comes before they are decentered. In other words, the subject arises prior – but where?
Levinas argues that it comes at the moment of creation, where the self bears a certain responsibility to the other – a creaturely other that is fragile, decentered, and corporeally dependent on an other.
Levinas’ work can be seen as a defense of subjectivity in many ways. As we see in Humanism and Anarchy and Without Identity (1970), his work offers a material phenomenology of subjective life, where the conscious I of representation is reduced to the sentient I of enjoyment (Pg. 30). Levinas’ I of enjoyment (noted that this subject is strikingly similar to Lacan’s) is capable of being claimed and called into question ethically by the other person.
Ethics, in the Levinasian frame is a calling into question of my own freedom by the other. Ethics is lived in a corporeal obligation to the other, not formalized by an universal maxims, or some appeal to good conscience. For Levinas, unlike Merleau-Ponty, ethics is a movement of desire that tends towards the other and that cannot be reduced to a need that returns to self (Pgs. 31 – 32). In a similar manner to Lacan, the subject of truth occurs when the ego opens itself to the Other, i.e. to the structure of intersubjective communication that takes place at the level of the unconscious.
While Levinas’ work is a defense of subjectivity, and it is ambiguous the extent to which he relies on a metaphysical subject, I argue that his version of the subject is far from desirable and should be challenged, if not entirely discarded.
Here is why:
The Levinasian subject is weak, shattered, and a hostage, hardly a desirable way to emerge as a human. As Dostoveskey’s Underground Man proclaims, “I am not an instance of some general concept or general genus of the human being: an ego; self-consciousness or thinking thing.” Levinas reduces this abstract I to one that undergoes the demand of the other. This is why Levinas refuses the Kantian categorical imperative, which argues that the subject is the result of universal demands, and imperatives that it must face. Rather, the subject is hostage to the other, a sort of hostage that involves a responsibility to the other, which comes prior to autonomy and freedom.
To this loss of a centered autonomous agent who is dependent on prior structures, be they unconscious, ontological, socioeconomic, linguistic, or whatever, Levinas argues that his alterity precedes this antihumanism. If the subject is overwhelmed by an alterity that it cannot master, and also undergoing a sort of decentering from prior structures, then where does this leave the subject? Here we must face the reality that the subject may very well disappear as Foucault said, like sand on the shoreline. Levinas’ subject is that of the creature, caught in an infinite hostage point of responsibility to an other.
this freedom enveloped in a responsibility which it does not succeed in shouldering is the way of the creature, the unlimited passivity of a self, the unconditionality of a self (AE 140).
The creature is the one who is always already caught up in a relation to the other, and is thus responsible for interjecting a passivity in relation to the other. What Levinas does is transforms creation into a non-totalizing concept and brings it into the orbit of alterity. So what Levinas does is takes Derrida’s notion of deconstruction of the theo-logy of creation into a radically new ethical context, where the creature becomes dependent on the creator and visa versa ad infinitum. And this dependence structures all alterity prior to any other intervention for the subject, be it unconscious, socioeconomic, etc.
So Levinas claims that the decentered autonomy of the antihumanist tradition, as we discussed above occurs precisely because the subject posits itself prior to all other interruptions as deposed of its sovereignty.
Critchley argues that is qua alien that the human retains its humanness. It is a subject that exists and persists as an alien, an idiot, and something that seems downright undesirable. As Derrida says, for those that wish to recast a discourse on the subject,
we must go through the experience of a deconstruction, and a concept of responsibility. We have not finished praying for it.
Critchely suggests that Levinas’ hostage subject provides the thinking through of the subject that Derrida argued was required to reach a determination of the subject. It may very well provide the thinking through of the constitution of the subject, but we know all too well that the subject is able to contest its interpellation, embededness, and prior structuration. For example, there are many ways by which the subject of the unconscious can rebel against its constitution aside from going through therapeutic practice.
We must develop theoretical ways to escape this fragile hostage subject and towards a kind of ethical commitment that brings in room for non-sentimentalized relations to the other that don’t forego infinite responsibility as an inherent pre-ontological weakness.
Might the Christian tradition be a way out of this impasse? That may be the subject of a new post (no pun intended!)