Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility

The Ethical Significance of Time

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Cynthia D. Coe
Studies in Continental Thought
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Drawing on the full range of Levinas’s writings and on psychoanalytic theory, the first four chapters of Cynthia D. Coe’s beautifully written book, Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility, show us how Levinas’s thought is concerned with what permeates, overflows, disturbs, and runs backwards. She argues compellingly that the “deformalization of time” is central to his thought in several ways, among them that “responsibility … cannot be defined as a series of obligations” like a string of pearls (15), involving instead a reverse intentionality, a diachrony—in short, a traumatic interruption of the linear story that supports the sovereigntyof the subject. Formal time for Coe is linked to sovereignty, theodicy, and narrative. The deformalization of time is linked to alterity, trauma, and interruption. As an anti-storyteller or a story-breaker, Levinas is “undoing the disavowal of trauma” (56). As he deformalizes, he seeks content prior to form, or structures in which form is undone by the other. 

These themes are carried through the book’s final three chapters, which add analyses of Levinas  on maternity, the body, eating, and death to the picture of the porous, wounded, responsible subject. Each of these final chapters also raises a critique of Levinas: Chapter 6 discusses his a-historicity, chapter 7 his androcentrism, and chapter 8 his anthropocentrism. Coe defends Levinas but does so gently, suggesting that are resources in Levinas’s work to help us think through such matters as gender and animality, but that what Levinas actually said on those topics won’t help us much. Thus, for example: “It is elsewhere—not in Levinas’s direct references to femininity but instead in his treatment of how diachrony and embodiment have ethical significance—that we can read in his work the possibilityof overturning the demand for maternal selflessness” (167). Or: “Despite his anthropocentrism what Levinas can contribute to these debates is a reminder about the limits of philosophical discourse in capturing the dynamic of being morally compelled by another” (204). This way of using Levinas, which has been dubbed “Levinas beyond Levinas” by John Drabinski, is increasingly popular. As Coe sees it, using Levinas well means moving with him and beyond him while maintaining the radical skepticism that grounds his ethics. Her focus on time is maintained in these final chapters, while the focus on trauma gradually, and perhaps consolingly, makes way for a focus on creatureliness.

In between these two sections, we have chapter 5, arguably the most original analysis in the book. The argument here is that insofar as Levinas associates the Greeks with the idea that ethical right depends on the subject’s intentions, and thus on the sovereign subject, he is disproved by Oedipus, where responsibility extends beyond intentionality. Coe shows handily that “Sophocles text attests to the diverse understandings of responsibility within the Greek tradition” (121), and her analysis of the play here (like her excellent readings of the Phaedo and the Symposium in chapter 7) shows that she knows her Greek texts well. From my perspective, the chapter falters somewhat as an argument that Levinas was unfair to the Greek tradition, especially where it relies on his critique of the conatus, a Spinozan term which Levinas does not associate with the Greeks. But it is truly dynamic and thought provoking in staging a conversation between Sophocles and Levinas that explores the relationship between Levinas’s ethics and the realm of political legality.

The book is straightforward and trustworthy. It does not engage in obscurantism or speak overmuch Levinasese; it does not misrepresent Levinas’s ideas; and it engages with secondary sources extensively and generously, never quoting scholars to criticize them but only to further the argument. It draws on Levinas’s entire corpus, including some Jewish writings, and the works on which it focuses, particularly “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” are read extremely well. The book will be most useful to readers who have some familiarity with Levinas but who need a fuller picture of his thought and of the critical questions scholars put to him. It should certainly be read by anyone interested in his relationto the Greeks.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Oona Eisenstadt is the Fred Krinsky Professor of Jewish Studies at Pomona College.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cynthia D. Coe is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Central Washington University. She is author (with Matthew C. Altman) of The Fractured Self in Freud and German Philosophy.



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