Lévinas on Work

With a friend, I’m reading through Lévinas’ Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. In the section on “Interiority and Economy,” Lévinas writes this about work:

Work can overcome the poverty that not need, but the uncertainty of the future, brings to being.

The nothingness of the future, we will see, changes in a moment of time when possession and work are inserted. The passage from instantaneous joy to the fabrication of things refers to habitation, to the economy, which assumes the welcome of the other (l’accueil de l’autrui). The pessimism of dereliction is therefore not irremediable–a person holds between their hands the remedy of his evils and the remedies preexist the evils.

But work itself, thanks to which I live freely, assuring me against the uncertainty of life, does not bring to life its final meaning. It becomes in this way that from which I live. I live out of all the contents of my life–even out of the work which assures the future. I live out of my work as I live out of air, light and bread. This fact limits where need imposes itself beyond joy, the proletarian condition condemns one to cursed work, and where the poverty of bodily existence finds neither refuge nor leisure at home, there is the absurd world of thrownness (Geworfenheit).

Le travail peut surmonter l’indigence qu’apporte à l’être non pas le besoin, mais l’incertitude de l’avenir.

Le néant de l’avenir, nous le verrons, vire en intervalle du temps où s’insèrent la possession et le travail. Le passage de la jouissance instantanée à la fabrication des choses, se réfère à l’habitation, à l’économie, laquelle, suppose l’accueil d’autrui. Le pessimisme de la déréliction n’est donc pas irrémédiable – l’homme tient entre ses mains le remède de ses maux et les remèdes préexistent aux maux.

Mais le travail lui-même, grâce auquel je vis librement, m’assurant contre l’incertitude de la vie, n’apporte pas à la vie sa dernière signification. Il devient aussi ce dont je vis. Je vis de tout contenu de la vie – même du travail qui assure l’avenir. Je vis de mon travail comme je vis d’air, de lumière et de pain. Le cas limite où le besoin s’impose par-delà la jouissance, la condition prolétarienne condamnant au travail maudit et où l’indigence de l’existence corporelle ne trouve ni refuge, ni loisir chez soi, c’est là le monde absurde de la Geworfenheit. (156)

Lévinas, in the pages leading up to this passage, continually makes the interesting comment that we live from all the contents of our world: air, bread, shelter. Here he adds also work, as that which tames the uncertainty of the future and its seeming nothingness (néant). Work enables us to find “refuge” and “leisure at home,” ensuring that we are not really living in the “absurd world of thrownness.” But is perhaps Lévinas granting too much to the utility of work here? Is it too much to say that, “A person holds between their hands the remedy of his evils”? Is not for too many in our world work the very thing that makes the future so uncertain?

Derrida’s Interpretive Police

Derrida is amazingly difficult to understand at points, at others less so. What has become clear (!) to me is that Derrida is not for an unconstrained, undetermined free-play of meanings, but simply has a more-complicated-than-usual view of the context of meaning-making. An important role is played by what he calls the language police:

But there are, first of all, several ways of invoking or of specifying the rules. There are ‘theoretical’ grammarians, linguists, and jurists who state, describe, explain the norm without insisting upon its application, at least is immediate application, by force (physical or symbolic). Other functions consist in eliciting respect for the law and in disposing of a force deemed legitimate to this end. These two types of function, these two ways of ‘fixing’ rules and also, to take up your expression again, of ‘fixing’ the ‘contexts of utterances,’ bring together in a single person the theoretician of right [droit], the legislator (the inventor or first signatory of a constitution himself, or those in whose name he claims to act), and the executive power. (Limited Inc, 134-135)

There are, thus, interpretive police for all language, constraining its meaning. Derrida even goes on to provide a concrete example!

But every institution destined to enforce the law is a police. An academy is a police, whether in the sense of a university of the Académie Française, whose essential task is to enforce respect for and obedience to [faire respecter] the French language, to decide what ought to be considered ‘good’ French, etc. (135)

So at last, I continue to be persuaded that Derrida is not an obscurantist terrorist, but simply a critical idealist of a deeply Enlightenment sort, even where or especially when he is calling this tradition into question.

Reading Derrida as a Critical Realist

I am becoming increasingly convinced that Derrida must be read as a critical realist, not as some pernicious denier of truth or purveyor of “creative anti-realism” or “cheerful nihilism.” Derrida himself bluntly denies the claim: “I am shocked by the debate around this question of relativism [….] If I want to pay attention to the singularity of the other, the singularity of the situation, the singularity of language, is that relativism? If I say that there is the English and the French language and I have to pay attention to these differences, is the attention paid to these differences relativism? [….] I take into account differences, but I am no relativist” (Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility, 78, 79). Perhaps there is a better way to read him, to read him closely, as Derrida himself would wish?: “So this charge against me amounts to obscurantism, and is issued by people who don’t read” (79).

à Dieu

Starting a little work on Jacques Derrida, I’ve just read his moving funeral oration for fellow philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, titled “Adieu.” Derrida’s reflections are too profound to do them justice, but I’ll provide a little snippet here:

One day, on the rue Michel Ange, during one of those conversations whose memory I hold so dear, one of those conversations illuminated by the radiance of his thought, the goodness of his smile, the gracious humor of his ellipses, he said to me: “You know, one often speaks of ethics to describe what I do, but what really interests me in the end is not ethics, not ethics alone, but the holy, the holiness of the holy.” And I then thought of a singular separation, the unique separation of the curtain or veil that is given, ordered and ordained, by God, the veil entrusted by Moses to an inventor or an artist rather than to an embroiderer, the veil that would separate the holy of holies in the sanctuary. And I also thought of how other Talmudic Lessons sharpen the necessary distinction between sacredness and holiness, that is, the holiness of the other, the holiness of the person, who is, as Emmanuel Lévinas said elsewhere, “more holy than a land, even a holy land, since, faced with an affront made to a person, this holy land appears in its nakedness to be but stone and wood.”

Jacques Derrida and the Apostle Paul

Here’s an interesting blog post on Derrida’s deconstruction of justice and how it relates to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. It’s heavily academic—as that last sentence shows—but if you can bear it, it’s very interesting. This presents another possible route to bypassing ways of talking about justification that abstract it from the transformation (or sanctification) of the individual.