Art and Impowerment: Levinas, Nietzsche, and the Ethics of Literary Discourse

The European Legacy 15 (4):439-465 (2010)
Abstract
This article draws on the profound affinities between the thought of Levinas and Nietzsche to argue that aesthetics plays a major role in Levinas's ethical philosophy. As in the case of Nietzsche, who called himself “the first tragic philosopher,” aesthetics gives reference to the tragic, yet affirmative content of Levinas's ethics. For both, what Levinas calls the “alterity,” or otherness, of art and literature is located not in an ontological or conceptual “beyond”—in a “spiritual” dimension “which sets itself up as knowledge of the absolute”—but in the “interstices” of language, in the “between times” (entretemps) of its modes of temporality: which can only be accessed by way of “the tragic” in art. Alterity signifies not a privileged, interpersonal dimension freed from the problematics of modernity, but points to the complicity between the West's concept of rationality and its history of barbarism exemplified by the Holocaust. The artwork for Levinas is at once temporally diachronic and spatially diasporic, a region of im powerment that is precisely lacking in the expressive or imaginative em powerment normally attributed to the artwork, but which demonstrates a utopian, emancipatory potential in revealing the fissures and hidden pathways that run through the hegemonic structures and totalizing frameworks of modernity
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