(Art) Existence Without a World (Levinas)

Schlemiel Theory has a great interest in the work of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (especially his work on the aesthetics, ethics, and idolatry). The tension between Levinas’ two takes on art should be of great importance to anyone working in Jewish philosophy, aesthetics, and ethics and should be explored in depth. Take a look at this blog post by Professor Zachary Breiterman which takes a step in that direction. What is the relationship of art to the world. Does it enhance it? What is world for Levinas?

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Reading Existence and Existents by Emmanuel Levinas, I stumbled across this neat little bit about art in the chapter on “Existence without a World.” This is a 1947 text, written right after the war, and before, it seems, the turn by the philosopher to more systematic conceptualizations of  alterity and ethics, and before what might be construed as a flat and programmatic iconoclasm (i.e. the stereotypical blather about “idolatry”). The chapter starts out with the statement, “In our relationship with  the world we are able to withdraw from the world” (p.45). Paintings, statues, books, cinema are all objects of “our world, but through them the things represented are extracted from our world.” Colors detach from things. The particular is allowed to exist apart (pp.46,-8 emphasis in the original).

The particular has a unique status in modern art (at the time of writing, he calls it “contemporary”). “From a space without…

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2 thoughts on “(Art) Existence Without a World (Levinas)

  1. This passage from Levinas seems truly confused! What on earth is he talking about? He really seems to have his wires crossed. Matter is an abscess? An abscess on what? Does he think there is some kind of healthy skin underneath the abscess? If not what could it possibly mean to call matter an abscess?

    • Levinas has an interesting reading of materiality in terms of what is called the il y a. There is a lot to discuss here because it is a part of a larger framework in these books. One is thrown into one’s materiality. We are tight in our physicality, but that is not the end of the story. Levinas relates this to the exposure to the other. Our materiality is exposed, vulnerable. Lot’s to discuss – more than one comment can resolve. But one would have to explain all of this within Levinas’s larger work (and that would take time and proper elaboration).

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