I'm currently reading through Levinas's Ethics and Infinity, one of my summer reading books. I've still got a few chapters to go, but so far I appreciate Levinas's concision. I like this book for the same reason that I like Walter Ong's late essay "Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought": its rare that a great thinker gives a survey of their entire career in a digestible (if reductive) form. This post focuses on Cohen's introduction and his attempt to define ethics and yet avoid essentialism. I'll put up a post Monday on how Cohen, Nemo, and Levinas each discuss the saying and the said (the transitive and substantive dimensions of being).
Cohen's translator's preface to the work is noteworthy, particularly this attempt at defining what isn't:
Ethics, in Levinas's view, occurs "prior" to essence and being, conditioning them. Not, however, because the good is installed in a Heaven above or an identity behind identities, for this would just take the ontological move one step back, would again fall into onto-theo-logy, once more confusing ethics with ontology, as if what "ought to be" somehow "is." What ethics is does not survive the end of metaphysics--but only because ethics never was anything. Ethics does not have an essence, its "essence," so to speak, is precisely not to have an essence, to unsettle essences. Its "identity" is precisely not to have an identity, to undo identities. Its "being" is not to be but to be better than being. Ethics is precisely ethics by disturbing the complacency of being (or of non-being, being's correlate). "To be or not to be," Levinas insists, is not the question. (9-10)
How does one designate what resists designation? Is it possible? Those familiar with Levinas know that these are the questions that haunt his first major work, Totality and Infinity. I really appreciate Cohen's grace and concision here. I think the framing of ethics as a disturbing shows up in many places in Totality and Infinity--particularly in the lines that I think best summarize the entire book: "we name this calling into the question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics" (T&I 43) and "the presence of the Other is equivalent to this calling into question of my joyous possession of the world" (T&I 75-76). The joyous possession here is in terms of essentialism, to reduce the world to substantive rather than transitive being--noun rather than verb--and to synthesize the alterity of the other into a similitude with the same. Being is/as to settle things. Ethics unsettles (note: Levinas's rejection of the later Heidegger can be reduced to the simple statement: it takes more than one to ask a question).
I also feel that Cohen risks under-reading (is that a thing?) Levinas's rejection of Hamlet. The question is not "to be or not to be" because we have no choice but to be. Being is the price all manifestation demands. And we cannot simply choose to abandon being or become otherwise or whatever wish we would will to the potential terror of the Il y a. There is not only no easy answer, or even no carefully concealed essential answer, there's no answer at all. Being, all the way down.