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Levinas Studies

Volume 3, 2008

Rudi Visker
Pages 171-191
DOI: 10.5840/levinas2008310

In Praise of Visibility

Those who are familiar with the development of contemporary philosophy and in particular of phenomenology, may have frowned at the prospect of having to sit through a praise of visibility. Indeed, if there is any praise to be sung, it is not the visible but the invisible that should be its subject. The realm of the visible suffers from an intrinsic defect: it lacks the depth to resist the movement of appropriation implied in seeing, or more generally in perceiving. It does not dispose of what Levinas would call the infinity that could help it withstand the gaze that catches it and helps it contest the subject of that gaze its power. There is not enough of the event in it to “summon the subject outside of its autarky.” “The flat phenomenon and the subject to which nothing ever happens form a pair,” Rudolf Bernet writes in a paper with the telling title “Le phénomène et l’invisible (le regard).” It seems indeed left to the invisible to remediate the shortcomings of the eye that sees. Its task is to divest the subject who sees of a handicap it cannot compensate for on its own, — of a kind of Midas complex: whatever it encounters in the light that it throws on things, is fatally robbed of its alterity, leaving the seeing or perceiving subject alone in a solitude that is but the reverse side of the power by which it subjects whatever crosses its way. “The exteriority of light,” Levinas writes in this vein, “does not suffice for the liberation of the I that is its own prisoner.”

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