To understand fully Levinas’ metaphorical usage of power and light, one must trace the development of these motifs throughout his work. As John Llywelyn has aptly noted, Levinas’ ideas develop genealogically. His texts reappropriate and reconfigure ideas introduced in previous essays, condensing sustained analyses into succinct formulae and magnifying details into central components of his intellectual framework. It is therefore useful to walk through his corpus to trace the development of certain key elements which can be overlooked in the conceptual architecture of later writings. In one of his very first essays, "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism," Levinas generates certain themes which he readopts in later works. Written in 1934 shortly after Hitler came to power, this essay seems especially important for understanding the urgency of a thinker whose biography "is dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror."
Although one must consider how the ghosts of World War II haunt his work, raising the specter of Nazism and of Nazi violence in a discussion of Heidegger and Levinas requires some preliminary remarks. After enduring so many works which have desired only to "prove" that Heidegger was a Nazi or which have simply attacked him ad hominem for being a Nazi, one must resist the temptation of opposing Heidegger-the-German-fascist against Levinas-the-French-Jew-who-survived-the-Holocaust. The polemical force of each characterization overwhelms the corpus of each writer’s life and thought, telling us too much and too little about both. Worse still, both labels pretend to understand what constitutes the essence of "the Holocaust" and of "Nazism." In his philosophical works, Levinas rarely refers explicitly to the events of 1933-1945 and avoids naming it as "Auschwitz" or "the Holocaust." For him, attaching a name to this horror would reduce the incomparability of human suffering to a quiddity, a describable thing, casting the agony that was expressed in a Saying into something which can be easily stated in a Said. Similarly, simply calling Heidegger "a Nazi" or affecting an understanding of the essence of "Nazism" would be presuming that Nazism was merely a historical phenomenon with a specific set of spatial and temporal co-ordinates. By positing a locus for "Nazism," such descriptions attempt to make it someone else’s problem, a German problem, ignoring what is most disturbing about it: certain forces which animate modern culture and subjectivity already contain Nazism as a possibility.
"Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" [RPH] warns that fascism does not merely represent an aberration, but rather indicates a certain primordial violence within the soul of modern man and the modern state. He states, "Hitlerism is more than a contagion or a madness; it is an awakening of elementary feelings. ... These elementary feelings harbor a philosophy. They express a soul’s principal attitude towards the whole of reality and its own destiny. ... It questions the very principles of a civilization." Levinas explains that, as a possibility of modern culture, National Socialism attempts to destroy liberal society by embracing elementary powers that belie its superficiality. Therefore, fascists urge men to obey the primordial call of their heritage in order to become authentic.
Levinas asserts that the legacy of the past affects man as a "feeling of natural powerlessness." This description seems to echo Heidegger's analyses of thrownness (Geworfenheit) and historicity as ways that one is submissive to the temporality of the past. When swept up by the flow of history, man experiences his initiatives as being the mere continuations of previous events. Because they experience the course of time as being inevitable and inescapable, individuals feel shackled to its laws, incapable of creating their own unique destinies. According to Levinas, the chains of heritage imprison the human soul in a situation forever beyond the reach of its power, determining its unchosen responsibilities, and propelling it towards an unchosen fate.
By using terms such as "enchainment" to describe the "weight" of past, Levinas deliberately correlates historicality with materiality. In a classically metaphysical manner, he confronts this physical problem with a set of spiritual solutions. Judaism reconciles itself with the past through a paradoxical state of passivity, remorse. "Remorse - the painful expression of a radical powerlessness to redeem the irreparable - heralds the repentance that generates the pardon that redeems." Rather than wrestling against the chain of past events, the Jew liberates the past by confessing to his human weakness, his susceptibility to pain. In this analysis, Levinas subverts the fascist adoration of power by describing remorse as a radical powerlessness. For Levinas, Judaism constitutes a religion that already questions the virile self-assertion of subjectivity; that already acknowledges its dependence on an outside source of forgiveness. This state of passivity gives the Jew the paradoxical and holy freedom to bear the weight of the past humbly and to acquire redemption through this very humility
Levinas traces a genealogical development of spiritual releases from historical incumbency that descend from Jewish remorse. Rather than explaining Christianity as the Hegelian synthesis of the two cultures, Levinas deliberately affiliates the Christian worldview with the Jewish and distinguishes it from the Greek. "The burning feeling of natural powerlessness that man experiences in the face of time is what creates the whole tragedy of the Greek Moira, the whole acuteness of the idea of sin and the whole greatness of Christianity’s rebellion. In contrast to the Atrides, who struggle in the grip of a strange and brutal past that afflicts them like a curse, Christianity puts forth a mystical drama." Rather than humbling himself to his powerlessness as a Jew would, the Greek tragic hero grapples against his fate, deriving power from the forces which would render him powerless. This reference to Greek tragedy seems to allude to the German appropriation of tragic motifs, including Heidegger's description of Dasein authentically accepting its fate. Levinas' reference to the hero's "struggle" may also refer obliquely to Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf as well as Heidegger's analysis of conflict (polemoV) in Heraclitus.
Levinas’ reason for drawing this distinction between Christian and German-Greek cultures seems to be largely rhetorical. Written for the liberal Catholic journal Esprit, "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" explains that, despite Pope Pius XII's concordat with the Hitler, Nazism still threatens Christian culture. By going back to the "source, to intuition, to the original decision that makes them possible", Levinas hopes to elucidate the logical contradiction between Christian universalism and racist particularism. Locating a source in remorseful Jewish rather than tragic Greek culture will alert European, Christian countries to the danger posed by Hitler’s regime.
Levinas explains how Christianity develops the Judaic notion of a spiritual escape from the burden of temporality. According to Levinas, the Christian model of salvation enables each Christian to choose his own destiny. Despite the inevitable legacy of the past, the Christian retains the supernatural possibility to extricate himself from the contract that he has made with fate. This freedom allows him both to overcome the finality of the past and to recover his independence from the choices he has made. Notably, Levinas describes this Christian capacity for salvation as a power, in contrast to the Judaic experience of powerless remorse. "Throughout the vicissitudes of the world’s real history, the power of renewal gives the soul a noumenal nature that is protected from the attacks launched by a world in which concrete man is placed. This is only apparently a paradox. The soul’s detachment is not an abstract state; it is the concrete and positive power to become detached and abstract." In contrast to Heidegger's ideal of authentic engagement, Christianity highlights man’s concrete power to detach himself from his concrete commitments and to evade the imperatives of the concrete world.
Levinas argues that this Christian model of individual spiritual freedom establishes a universalist, catholic idea that all men, independent of their individual differences, are fundamentally equal. Modern philosophical and political thinkers transform this Judeo-Christian model of freedom into the Enlightenment notion of autonomy. By finding freedom and sovereignty in the light of reason, liberals assert that man has an ultimate power over the contingencies of the material world. "[Liberal thought] creates a gulf between man and the world. It makes it impossible to apply the categories of the physical world to the spirituality of reason, and so locates the ultimate foundation of the spirit outside the brutal world and the implacable history of concrete existence. ... The light of reason was enough to chase away the shadows of irrationality." Against Nietzsche and Heidegger, Levinas praises the breach that liberal thought creates between reason and concrete existence. Reinvoking Descartes' metaphors of vision, Levinas explains that light establishes a medium through which the spiritual individual can separate himself from the material realm. The concrete forces of destiny do not compel humanity's obedience. Instead, reason enables man freely to choose possibilities in the world while still remaining detached from it.
As stated above, Levinas correlates the inevitable chains of the past with the materiality of human existence. For him, the body is composed of elemental forces that form the foundation of human existence. Even while acknowledging the primordial essence of these material powers, European thought has always opposed the idea that individuals are determined entirely by their physical natures. Western philosophy has acknowledged the feeling of identity between the self and the body. However, it has always seen this relationship as a form of bondage which must be overcome in order to achieve spiritual freedom.
Levinas explains that certain physical states make one identify oneself with one’s body. He explains, "Can we not say that analysis reveals in pain the spirit’s opposition to this pain, a rebellion or refusal to remain within it and consequently an attempt to go beyond it? But is it not the case that this attempt is characterized from the very beginning as desperate? Does not the rebelling spirit remain ineluctably locked within pain? And is it not this despair that constitutes the very foundation of pain." This description of the paradoxical, desperate feeling of pain echoes Levinas’ discussion of Jewish remorse as "the painful expression of a radical powerlessness to redeem the irreparable." Like remorse, pain reveals a unique position of opposition in which the spirit confronts something over which it maintains no power. However, this opposition neither overcomes the suffering of materiality nor transforms materiality into a power. As with remorse, this absolute vulnerability constitutes the foundation and pathos of pain.
Levinas argues that, in contrast to Western thought, Nazi ideology develops a conception of humanity which celebrates the elementary bodily forces. "The mysterious urgings of the blood, the appeals of heredity and the past for which the body serves as an enigmatic vehicle, lose the character of being problems that are subject to a solution put forward by a sovereign Self. ... Man’s essence no longer lies in freedom, but in a kind of bondage. ... It means becoming aware of the ineluctable original chain that is unique to our bodies and above all accepting this chaining." In denying any radical distinction between matter and spirit, German thought defines the essence of soul as its material imprisonment. Rather than trying to rid themselves from the bondage which the body imposes upon the spirit, men must authenticate themselves by acknowledging and accepting these fetters. According to Levinas, this adoration of material enchainment gives rise to the racist particularism of Nazism.
According to Levinas, a new type of truth arises from the Germanic spiritualization of the body and embodiment of the spirit. Western thought's mind-body distinction had effectively separated the self from the truth. Because they always asserted that the soul retains the power to detach itself from whatever commitments it makes, enlightenment thinkers proclaimed that men are free to choose or to doubt ideas. No inevitable link connects the self and its ideas, so truth became characterized by universality. An idea can be detached from the person who first proposed it and can be accepted by any other individual. This creates a universal community of equals who can all become masters of a true idea. However, the breach between selfhood and ideas opens up this definition of truth to insecurity. As Descartes recognized, the ambiguous possibility of skepticism shadows every effort of knowing.
Against the possible insincerity of Western truth, Germanic philosophy defines truth as authenticity. The German ideal locates authenticity within the powers which constitute the human body.  Unable and unwilling to break free from these chains, the spirit identifies its truth as this bondage. Levinas explains, "Chained to his body, man sees himself refusing the power to escape from himself. Truth is no longer for him the contemplation of a foreign spectacle; instead it consists in a drama in which man is himself the actor. It is under the weight of his whole existence, which includes facts on which there is no going back, that man will say his yes or his no." The Germanic -- fascist, Nietzschean, and Heideggerian -- notion of truth refuses the theoretical tradition of Western thought that posits light as a medium of separation. Viewing such distancing as evasion, this ideal of authenticity embraces self-assertive engagement.
Fascist thinking replaces universality with expansion as the necessary condition for truth. Whereas Western thought emphasizes man’s spiritual power as his capacity to accept universal, third person truths, the German emphasis on material power insists that one must violently seize the authentic truths which belong to oneself. Although Levinas does not specifically mention it, Heidegger's definition truth as Dasein's disclosure of itself rather than as publicly verifiable statements also seems to accord with this self-assertive epistemological model. Force, because it is located within the body of the one who has force, does not separate from the one who exerts it nor can it be appropriated by those who are subjected to it. Instead of creating a community of equal masters, this force of truth, this truth-as-force, establishes a unified world of forceful masters and subjugated slaves. Just one year into Hitler's reign, Levinas warns, "Nietzsche’s will to power, which modern Germany is rediscovering and glorifying, is not only a new ideal; it is an ideal that simultaneously brings with it its own form of universalization: war and conquest."
The violence which Levinas warned against in his 1934 essay culminated in the horrors of the World War II. Among other atrocities, his father, his mother, his two brothers, and many of his friends were slaughtered in concentration camps. Whatever personal impact this may have had, it seems to have caused Levinas to make an even more radical and explicit philosophical break with Heidegger’s thinking. In his first major post-war publication, Existence and Existents, he states "If at the beginning our reflections are in large measure inspired by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, where we find the concept of ontology and of the relationship which man sustains with Being, they are also governed by the profound need to leave the climate of that philosophy, and by the conviction that we cannot leave it for a philosophy that would be pre-Heideggerian." Whereas "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism" indicates criticisms of Heidegger within his general attack on German thought, Levinas’ post-war work argues against Heidegger through deliberate, directed attacks against and subversions of key concepts and metaphors in his thinking. For all of its innovations, however, Levinas' post-war writing also regenerates ideas mentioned in his previous essays.
Time and the Other [T&O] updates the critique Levinas made in RPH against the fascist ideology that locates a human essence in elementary material powers. In T&O, he subverts Heidegger's model of authentic self-assertion by freeing the subject from its entrenchment in Being and by severing its ineluctable connection with death. Levinas criticizes Heidegger for figuring the individual person as the "There" [Da] for the occurrence of Being [Sein]. Levinas uses the term "transitivity" to describe the relationship between Being and Dasein. Being is not an eternal, unmoving, self-subsistent substance, but rather something that is produced by relationships articulated through its There. Dasein is also transitive in the way it exists through its possibilities: moving beyond the actual facts into which it has been thrown, Dasein dynamically projects its present situation into the beyond of its future possibilities. Dasein exists as the transiting of Being, a voyage that ends with its death. An authentic confrontation with this finitude not only exposes Dasein to the limits of its being, it also discloses its very power to project possibilities. Only through acknowledging its possible termination can Dasein transit towards the terminus of its possible future.
Against Heidegger, Levinas asserts that solitary existence is not transitive. He contends, "Through sight, touch, sympathy, and cooperative work, we are with others. All these relationships are transitive. I touch the other, I see the other. But I am not the other. I am all alone. It is thus the being in me, the fact that I exist, my existing, that constitutes the absolutely intransitive element, something without intentionality or relations." Levinas explains that the existence of an existent belongs only to itself: this intransitive fact of existing does not relate to any ultimate horizon of Being.
Levinas demonstrates a complete separation between existence and the existent through his descriptions of il y a and hypostasis. He explains, "Let us imagine all things, beings and persons, returning to nothingness. What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something, but the fact that there is [il y a.]"
In contrast to Heidegger's description of Being as a generous field of possibilities, Levinas speaks of the il y a state as something which imposes itself and which, through its negation of all particularity, possesses everything within it. An individual existent does not own existence as its ownmost potentiality-for-Being, but rather, this anonymous flux of existence persists by itself.
Echoing RPH's analysis of the individual's submission to the incumbent past, Levinas describes the il y a as a state of powerlessness. In the il y a, one is compelled to participate anonymously within the flux of Being, denied of any freedom to start out on one’s own accord. Levinas compares this to the state of insomnia. Trapped in wakefulness, one can not retreat to one’s own mental space of peaceful isolation. Similar to the RPH description of heritage, insomnia denies one the freedom to start out from one’s own present moment. Instead, one feels that one merely perpetuates the numbness of an eternal and vacant past.
In RPH, Levinas described how Christian and Western thought allow individuals the power to detach themselves from the material world and from the past. In T&O, he similarly explains that, through the moment of hypostasis, the existent breaks itself free from this anonymous existence, positing itself as an independent, individuated entity. By exiting this state of complete powerlessness and subjection, the ego produces itself as something which has power. Levinas explains that the ego has power because it has the capacity to exist as an individuated identity: "Existing is [the existent’s] own, and it is precisely through this mastery (whose limits we shall soon see), through this jealous and unshared mastery over existing, that this existent is alone. More exactly, the appearance of an existent is the very constitution of a mastery, of a freedom in an existing that by itself would remain fundamentally anonymous."
Like Heidegger, Levinas locates freedom and mastery in one's ownership of one's own solitary existence. However, he does not consider this to be a dynamic process. For Heidegger, authentic self-mastery attunes Dasein to mobilizing projects and transiting into the future. For Levinas, self-mastery enables the ego to escape the flow of existence by founding a position of stillness. Rather than opening up the field of future possibility, hypostasis imbues the ego with the temporal power of suspending the past and starting out for itself in a present moment. Similarly, consciousness emerges once the self develops its power to withdraw into its own mental space from the eternal vigilance of impersonal insomnia.
Levinas explains that this solitary self-mastery also produces the enchainment of materiality. By producing itself as an entity, the ego (moi) has effectively doubled itself with a self (soi) to which it is identical. Levinas explains that "the relationship with itself is ... the relationship with a double chained to the ego, a viscous, heavy, stupid, double, but one the ego is with precisely because it is me. This with is manifest in the fact that it is necessary to be occupied with oneself." For Levinas, solitary consciousness does not exist as a transcendental subjectivity that hovers over objects. Rather, it is produced as an event through which the ego must relate to itself as a material thing. In order to establish an identity within a realm of anonymity, this identity had to start out from itself and to return to itself. Through hypostasis, the ego has broken free from the il y a and escaped its entrapment in an impersonal state of being. However, it discovers that, within the sovereignty of its reflexive solitude, it can not detach itself from itself. It has become the captive of its own identity. Although the ego has established an independent space, it has no where to go but itself. It has established a present moment for itself, but it has no way to progress into the future.
As in RPH, Levinas analyzes physical existence as a burden the self must overcome. He explains that "everyday life is a preoccupation with salvation" from this materiality. Similarly, Levinas echoes the previous essay's analysis of light as the medium that liberal, enlightenment thought used to detach itself from the concrete world. According to T&O, the ego finds some salvation from its material enchainment through the exteriority produced by light. Light establishes a distance between the self and sensory phenomena. By allowing the ego to enjoy the sensational qualities of external objects, this light provides a detour between the ego’s departure from itself and its inevitable return to itself. Because this interval is finite, however, the ego can never fully escape the concrete position that it had established for itself.
The illuminated world constitutes a region of exteriority through which the ego can diverge from itself. However, the ego’s departures are limited by objects which, because they are ultimately absorbed back into the self, can not take the ego beyond itself. Levinas explains that the light that distinguishes phenomena make them appear as if they were already present within the ego’s consciousness. That is, illumination converts worldly entities into objects that refer back to the self. Because this light can potentially be extended to all phenomena, it enables this consciousness to acquire universal knowledge regarding the world. By establishing the subject as the center of this universe, however, this light consummates its solitude. Levinas explains, "The intentionality of consciousness allows one to distinguish the ego from things, but it does not make solipsism disappear: its element - light - renders us master of the exterior world but is incapable of finding a peer for us there." Therefore, light provides the ego with the ultimate power of solipsism. Through hypostasis, the ego had achieved mastery over the random flux of existence by achieving a mastery over itself. By internalizing all phenomena within the light of its own consciousness, the ego extends this lonely dominion over the entire world.
Whereas Levinas concludes that the attempt to find salvation through the illuminated world buries the ego deeper within its material isolation, he states, "Life could only become the path of redemption if, in its struggle with matter, it encounters an event that stops its everyday transcendence from falling back upon a point that is always the same." Here, Levinas seems to be employing the same distinction between salvation and redemption he introduced in RPH. In that essay, he described the Christian concept of salvation as the power of renewal which allows the soul to detach itself from historical incumbency, enabling it to choose its commitments freely. In contrast, Judaism taught that, by admitting to one’s own radical powerlessness, one could be redeemed from the weight of the past. Levinas had further correlated this Jewish expression of powerlessness with the subject’s experience of pain. These same motifs reverberate within T&O.
Just as the ego’s virile hypostasis reverted back into the incumbency of materiality, its mastery over the illuminated world reverts back into a state of powerlessness. Light discloses a world which, because it seems to have come from the subject, it can therefore dominate. However, the ego still has to exert effort to grasp these phenomena which present themselves at a distance from its immobile position. In order to conquer the external world, the ego must therefore subject itself to the pain necessary for work. As in RPH, Levinas emphasizes that this pain is physical and that it is founded upon the self’s incapacity to escape it. He states, "Physical suffering in all its degrees entails the impossibility of detaching oneself from the instant of existence ... In suffering there is an absence of all refuge. It is the fact of being directly exposed to being. It is made up of the impossibility of fleeing or retreating. The whole acuity of suffering lies in this impossibility of retreat." Levinas describes this pain to which the solitary subject is reduced as a state of complete subjection to the present moment. Like insomnia, suffering is a relentless, inexorable condition. However, insomnia occurred within the depersonalization of the il y a. In contrast, the suffering ego has already individuated itself from this anonymous existence, but the safe refuge it has created has turned into a prison, chaining it even more tightly to this inescapable existence.
The pathos of suffering evokes the proximity of death. According to Heidegger, the confrontation with death fills Dasein with anxiety towards its future, giving it the power to authentically project its possibilities. Conversely, for Levinas, one’s unhappiness about one's everyday suffering and one's preoccupation with salvation are more salient than the anxiety one feels towards one's ultimate ending. The concrete realities of physical pain take priority over this ontological agony. Subverting Heidegger’s analysis of Being-towards-Death, Levinas insists that "the man condemned to die straightens out his uniform before his last walk, accepts a final cigarette, and finds an eloquent word before the salvo." Even in the face of the very real possibility of factical death, individuals are still primarily concerned about their material dignity rather than about authenticity.
In opposition to Heidegger’s description of an assertive confrontation with death, Levinas contends that death imposes itself upon a passive ego. Levinas denies Heidegger’s heroic image of death by refusing to equate it with nothingness. "Nothingness is impossible. It is nothingness that would have left humankind the possibility of assuming death and snatching a supreme mastery from out of the servitude of existence." As in RPH, Levinas refutes the attempt to locate a power in a condition of bondage. He does not define death as a nothingness, but rather seems to equate it with dissolution back into the anonymity of the il y a. Death does not allow one to seize the Being which is one's ownmost; instead, one is seized by an existence which belongs to no one. Levinas explains, "Death in Heidegger is an event of freedom, whereas for me the subject seems to reach the limit of the possible in suffering. It finds itself enchained, overwhelmed, and in some way passive." Death absolutely terminates the ego's quest to project its possibilities, neutralizing the mastery achieved through hypostasis and vision.
Along with overturning Heidegger's association of death with power, he also subverts its link to vision. He explains, "Being towards death, in Heidegger’s authentic existence, is a supreme lucidity and hence a supreme virility." By looking deeply into the nothingness of death, Dasein illuminates its need to master its ownership of Being. When Dasein elucidates the fact that this nothingness represents the uttermost possibility of its impossibility, it achieves the possibility of seizing authentic possibilities. In contrast, Levinas insists upon the absolute obscurity of mortality. Because it would eradicate the subject who relates to the world through light, death is manifested as completely unknowable, a mystery that inspires terror in the suffering ego.
Unable to master death through the medium of light, the ego comes to recognize its ultimate passivity. "Death does not announce a reality against which nothing can be done, against which our power is insufficient -- realities exceeding our strength already arise in the world of light. What is important about the approach of death is that at a certain moment we are no longer able to be able." In this statement, Levinas refutes the idea of mastering death as a category error: death is not merely an obstacle in the ego’s attempt to dominate the world, but rather the event which denies the ego the opportunity of even making an initial effort. Instead, death absolutely overwhelms the ego. It imposes itself as something which did not originate within the ego and which can not be absorbed back into the self.
Unlike the anxiety which is one’s ownmost, the ego’s suffering indicates that it does not exist by itself. Suffering exposes the solitary existent to the Other of death, a state over which the ego has no power and which can not occur in the present moment secured by hypostasis. Even though this event surpasses its consciousness, however, the ego can still maintain a relationship with death. That is, the ego is not totally absorbed into death as it was in the il y a, but can still relate to it as an individuated identity. This capacity to relate to the termination of one’s present is granted by the ego’s relationship with the human, futural Other.
Levinas describes the ego’s capacity to relate to this termination of itself through futurity as a "vanquishing of death." For him, this does not constitute another power. He explains, "Is there another mastery in the human other than the virility of grasping the possible, the power to be able? If we find it, it is in ... the relationship with the Other." Like the Jew who finds redemption by admitting to his powerlessness, the ego's capacity to persist does not emanate from its own sovereignty, but from the interval granted to it by the Other. Through this relationship with the Other, the ego can welcome an event that lies outside of its power to grasp or view.
The relationship with the Other depends on a paradoxical type of visual interaction. This encounter displays something that lies before the ego’s eyes yet whose alterity evades its horizons. Levinas explains that one does not usually recognize the alterity of the Other because "one has encountered the Other already veiled by decency." One generally views the Other as merely a semblance. Reducing the Other to something that sight can appropriate, an appearance hides the true visual manifestation of the Other. However, a closer look at the Other’s face (visage) reveals someone who exists beyond the sensible, illuminated world given to the subject.
The visual interaction with the Other disrupts the self's mastery more profoundly than the confrontation with death. Levinas observes that "one is unable in [the Other’s] regard." Being subjected to the Other's viewpoint arrests the ego’s solitary effort to dominate the world. The very presence of the Other indicates an absence which the ego can never appropriate as its own. However the Other’s alterity does not consist of a power which is qualitatively greater than the ego’s domination. Levinas explains, "The Other is, for example, weak, poor, ‘the widow and the orphan’, whereas I am the rich or the powerful." The Other does not struggle with the ego as another virile individual, but rather the Other’s weakness disrupts the ego’s impulse towards mastery.
Rather than attempting to conquer the Other, the ego relates to the Other erotically in a manner that respects its vulnerability. This relationship renders the self susceptible to the Other's touch, invading and wounding the ego, disrupting its sovereignty. The intercourse between the self and the Other gives birth to a child posited in a new spatial location and a new temporal moment. Through the futurity produced by this fecundity, the relationship with the Other grants the ego powers and visual capabilities which it did not possess in the present.
The ego’s relationship with the Other opens it up to death and rebirth. The self renounces the powers of its present incarnation so that it can be reproduced as an Other in the future. Levinas explains that the erotic relationship "opens up new perspectives on the ungraspable" and that the Other constitutes an "absence in a horizon of the future, an absence that is time. This is the horizon where a personal life can be constituted in the heart of a transcendental event, what I called before ‘the victory over death’." The ego exists beyond death because, through the relationship with the Other, it is reborn into a new moment and a new light beyond its present circumstances. Instead of mastering its future through authentic self-projection, the ego relates to this future rebirth as a father does to a son, recreated in a new person who is both the other and the same as itself.
Levinas’ post-war critique of Heidegger culminates in his sharpest and most direct attack, "Is Ontology Fundamental?" [IOF] Through a deepening of his analysis of light, Levinas determines a new path for uprooting the primacy of ontology and for transcending "the climate of Heideggerian philosophy." T&O described an impersonal existence, the il y a, as a foil against the intimacy which Heidegger establishes between Being and Dasein. In IOF, Levinas explains that Heidegger articulates this primordial connection as the lighting of Being’s unconcealment through Dasein. By questioning the primacy of vision and light and by showing how these relationships exclude the Other, Levinas demonstrates why dialogically relating to the Other is better than ontology.
Elaborating his previous remarks on transitivity, Levinas explains that, for Heidegger, "the transitive character of the verb ‘to know’ is attached to the verb ‘to exist.’" Despite all of his innovations, Heidegger still retains the traditional view that all relations in Being can be described in terms of the light of knowledge and the gnosis of vision. Levinas commends fundamental ontology for uprooting the detached viewpoint of classical theoretical philosophy. "This possibility of conceiving contingency and facticity, not as facts open to intellection, but as the act of intellection, this possibility of making visible in the brutality of given contents and facts the transitiveness of comprehending and a 'signifying intention' ... constitutes the great novelty of contemporary ontology." Heidegger challenges both the Platonic model of a soul that co-exists with eternal ideas and the Cartesian notion of a mental substance detached from empirical facts. For him, each individual exists as a Dasein which is always and already involved in a temporal world. Therefore, Dasein does not merely sit back as a spectator who observes objects. Instead, Dasein's visual modalities commit it towards its world, defining its affectivity and its involvement.
By questioning the classical visual paradigm, fundamental ontology limits the power of spectatorship. "To relate oneself to a being inasmuch as it is a being, means for Heidegger to let the being be, to comprehend it as independent of the perception which discovers and grasps it." Not only does Heidegger’s analysis of engaged existence demonstrates the limits of theoretical mastery over the world, it also shows that Dasein does not even exert complete control over its own being. "Our consciousness, and therefore our mastery of reality, does not exhaust our relation with reality, in which we are always present with the full gravity of our being. Or again, consciousness of reality does not coincide with our habitation in the world." Dasein does not inhabit a detached position hovering over phenomena. Therefore, it can never manipulate existence enough to guarantee its absolute mastery. At best, Dasein, as a Being-in-the-World, must authentically accept that temporality, as the forces of heritage and fate, render it unable either to be-a-basis of itself or to control the consequences of the possibilities it projects.
Although Heidegger's analysis effectively demonstrates the limits of human vision and mastery, his fundamental ontology still remains a philosophy of lucidity. Heidegger defines Dasein’s existence as a "there", a location within a horizon of Being and a site for Being’s unconcealment. Not only does the lighting of anonymous Being determine human existence, Heidegger describes Dasein’s particular relationships with the world in terms of sight. That is, all of Dasein's temporal engagements are determined by the way it visually comprehends the world through the light of Being. Circumspection (umsicht), for example, discovers ready-to-hand things that already refer to how Dasein can use them. Levinas asserts, "It is thus that Heidegger describes in their most formal structure, the articulations of vision where the relation of the subject with the object is subordinated to the relation of the object with the light, which is not an object. The understanding of a being will thus consist in going beyond the being, into the openness, and in perceiving it within the horizon of being." Despite all of his philosophical innovations, Heidegger follows a traditional optical model that subordinates the particular to the universal. Even though Dasein does not internalize an object within its consciousness as a classical subject would, it still views beings by going beyond their specificity in order to envision them in the luminous horizon of Being.
The ontological model goes beyond the individual being to the Being of the being. Because Being exists through Dasein, Dasein finds all of its potentialities within this light. However, Levinas asserts that this viewpoint ignores the exceptional position of the Other. The general horizon of Being only illuminates certain ways of knowing the Other. The Other’s alterity, his existence as a separate being, remains entirely refractory to vision and possession. I can not acquire a total comprehension of the Other because, in the face to face encounter with the Other, the visual relationship becomes doubled up with and ultimately conditioned by a prior linguistic relationship.
Levinas opposes the philosophical motif of visuality and the correlated notion of comprehensive reason by asserting that language -- an irreducible "judicious language" -- conditions the possibility of sight. As in T&O, Levinas explains that vision finds its limit during the encounter with the visage of the Other. I can not appropriate or exercise power over the Other as if he were either an object internalized by a subject or a revelation of Being. "Here perception is not projected towards a horizon, which as the field of my liberty, power, and property presents itself as the familiar basis upon which to grasp the individual. It refers to the pure individual." Levinas explains that I can not grasp the particular Other against a background of universality because of the manner in which the Other manifests himself: I view the Other in his "depth" as an independent being who can see me looking at him. "My comprehension of this being as such is already the expression I offer him of this very comprehension. " The vision of the Other coincides with an invocation of the Other; I can not know him without already acknowledging him. In this face-to-face confrontation, my visual orientation towards the Other doubles as a linguistic relationship between us. Because I must speak to the individual Other whom I encounter, I can not detach him from his particularity by locating him in a universal horizon. Therefore, the interlocutory Other always remains outside of my comprehension and beyond my power.
Levinas explains why it is inappropriate, if not impossible, to try to relate to the Other through the mediation of the light. By viewing the Other in the context of Being rather than directly confronting his visage, I violate his alterity. I do not encounter an individual human Other, but rather a being that offers itself for my possession. However, this attempt to dominate the Other through vision ultimately fails. Although one can acquire categorical knowledge pertaining to the Other through sight and consciousness, the Other’s living presence remains refractory to this power. Whereas T&O described the termination of the solitary existent’s power as death, IOF contends that the possession of the Other is only possible as complete negation, as murder. However, even murder can not provide me with an absolute power over the Other. Although a man does possess the actual power to kill another man, this does not make the other man his possession. I can only grasp the Other in the horizon of Being as a set of dead qualities, but can never appropriate his living being. Because even this ultimate attempt of negation never exercises any complete domination over the Other, Levinas states that the Other presents himself as an infinite resistance to my power and my murderous will.
After interrogating the primacy of vision and power in classical ontological thought, Levinas proposes that reason should be secondary to language in philosophical discourse. He questions whether previous notions of rationality have lent themselves to justifying domination and violence; he wonders whether these characterizations have done it justice. 
Is the rational reducible to power over an object? Is reason domination where the resistance of a being as such is surmounted, not in an appeal to this very resistance, but as a ruse of the hunter who ensnares all that a being contains of strength and irreducibility on the basis of its weaknesses, its place in the horizon of the universal? Does understanding as ruse, understanding belonging to struggle and violence over things, extend to the constitution of the human order?
This statement seem to comprise Levinas' doubts towards ontological, both classical and Heideggerian, models of comprehension. Ontological thought has understood understanding through metaphors of vision. By doing so, philosophers have described thinking as the power which enables an autonomous subject or an authentic Dasein to reduce the multiplicity of exteriority into universal categories, subsuming the totality into a consciousness. By exercising its domination over worldly contingencies, the subject or Dasein has thereby acquired its freedom.
As in his 1934
essay "Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism", Levinas fears the
implications of equating the quest for truth with force and dramatic struggle.
According to Levinas, both the classical and Heidegger's models of thought as
domination and possession have ultimately led to an ontological elevation of
war, struggle, and violence. Levinas continues his interrogations, wondering
"Are we not accustomed, albeit paradoxically, to seeking in struggle the
very manifestation of spirit and its reality?"  Refuting
these conceptions of reasons, Levinas answers his rhetorical questions,
"Is not the order of reason constituted rather in a situation where 'one
chats,' where the resistance of a being as a being is not broken, but
Levinas responds to the violence of ontology, to philosophy as violence, by
founding reason on the social relation of speech. According to him, peace can
only develop from a conversation with an Other human being who can express his
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 To my knowledge, Levinas’ only explicit usage of these names in a philosophical work occurs in his essay “Useless Suffering” when discussing the Jewish post-Holocaust philosopher Emil Fackenheim. See Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, The Provocation of Levinas (New York : Routledge, 1988), 156 - 167.
 The usage of genders and pronouns changes significantly at key moments in this thesis. Because modern philosophy has typically constructed the subject as a masculine, I will use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to it. That is, I will not attempt to masquerade this inherent sexism by alternating gendered pronouns. In contrast, Dasein for Heidegger does not signify a sexed human being, but rather the historical space for Being’s unconcealment. Therefore, I will use the pronoun “it” to refer to this phenomenon. In his earliest works, Levinas seems to echo Heidegger’s ontological tone, so I will also use the pronoun “it” to refer to the ego. In later works, however, he insists that the relationship with the Other starts with me. To indicate this shift, I will begin writing in the first-person-singular. Levinas’ usage of gender is quite complicated. Levinas founds his opposition to totalizing philosophy upon the bedrock of gendered distinctions. He states, “The difference between the sexes is a formal structure, but one that carves up reality in another sense and conditions the very possibility of reality as multiple, against the unity of being proclaimed by Parmenides.” Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other (trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquense University Press, 1987), 85. I will be arguing in a forthcoming paper that the gender identity of both the Self and the Other changes at different moments in their relationship. See my “Author’s Note” to this thesis at (http://www.waste.org/~roadrunner/writing/thesis.htm) for a more detailed discussion of these issues.
 Ibid, 65. In later essays, Levinas develops this notion of pardon. The relationship between French infinitives pardonner and donner mirrors the relationship between the English infinitives to forgive and to give. Levinas seems to use the notion of a pardon to counter Heidegger’s analysis of Being as es gibt. Because the world is given through conversation rather than by Being, the Other’s pardon preexists and conditions Being giving itself over to the Self.
The notion of a contract also recurs in Levinas’ later works. In addition to notion of a legal contract as the instantiation of a bond, Levinas might also be suggesting another meaning of this word. “Contract” means to become smaller, to fold up within oneself. In Existence and Existents, for example, Levinas analyzes the moment of hypostasis as the contraction of existence and the production of an individuated existent. This signification of “contract” as shrinking also resonates with the notions of excendence / transcendence and the description of the Other as the Most High. Levinas might also be referring to Isaac Luria’s theology of a God who contracts within himself in order to make space for the world. See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1959), 240 -282.
 Levinas’ 1935 essay “De L’evasion” addresses the pressing need to escape from the domination of Being. Because no translation was available until 2003 and even the original French was not readily available until the 1998 Livre de Poche edition, I was unable to consult this work when I wrote my undergraduate thesis in 1996.
In the haunting preface to Existence and Existents, Levinas apologizes, saying “These studies begun before the war were continued and written for the most part in captivity. The stalag is evoked here not as a guarantee of profundity, nor as a claim to indulgence, but as an explanation for the absence of any consideration of those philosophical works published, with so much impact, between 1940 and 1945.” [Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents (trans. Alphonso Lingis. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), 15.] In the same spirit, these facts are cited not to give Levinas’ voice the authority of a martyr, but rather to locate historically the urgent tone of Levinas’ post-war writings.
 Ibid, 46. Levinas consistently chooses the word “imagine” to describe this process of approaching the il y a, and, to my knowledge, does not use this word in any other context. Descartes analyzes imagination as the visual faculty through which the self apprehends sensual appearances. Perhaps Levinas intends to suggest that the il y a constitutes the neutral realm in which the materiality or the “sensible” aspect of an entity can be objectively represented. Furthermore, in a work which seeks to affirm the I-Other conjuncture over the sociality of a “we,” Levinas states “Let us imagine.” Perhaps this implies that the il y a constitutes an impersonal space for public visibility.
 The literal translation of il y a is “it has there.” This seems to connote that this anonymous state maintains its ownership over everything within it. Additionally, Levinas also seems to be parodying Heidegger’s description of Being as es gibt (there is, literally, it gives) to demonstrate the fundamental lack of generosity in bare existence.
 The term “hypostasis” seems to refer to Heidegger’s critique of the Aristotelian and Latin reductions of Being to ousia and substance, words connoting permanent presence, the nominalization of the process of Being. Levinas preserves the word hypostasis as a verbal event, but, through it, a nominal term, a material existent with a proper name, is posited.
 Levinas’ interest in materiality as an enchainment remains remarkably consistent with his descriptions in “Reflections on the Philosophy with Hitlerism.” However, his five year imprisonment in a German labor camp seems to have added an additional dimension of pathos to this analysis. In Existents and Existence, he states, “When one has to eat, drink, and warm oneself in order not to die, when nourishment becomes fuel, as in certain kinds of hard labor, the world also seems to be at an end, turned upside down and absurd, needing to be renewed. Time becomes unhinged.” Levinas, Existents and Existence, 45.
 Levinas, Time and the Other, 56. Levinas deliberately uses the preposition “with” in the phrase “to be occupied with” to parody Dasein’s social relationship as Being-With-Others. Levinas states, “The Other in Heidegger appears in the essential situation of Miteinandersein, reciprocally being with one another... The preposition mit [with] describes with the relationship. ... I hope to show, for my part, that it is not the preposition mit that should describe the original relationship with the Other.” (Levinas, Time and the Other, 40-41.) Therefore, by using the phrase “to be occupied with,” Levinas seems to indicate that the ego can only relate to itself, not to an Other, as an equal but external entity.
 Written mostly during his period of captivity in a German labor camp for Jewish prisoners of war, Existents and Existence first introduces the theme of work - and the pain necessary for work - into Levinas’ philosophy.
 As mentioned before in footnote 4, Levinas' later work seems to stress the personal relationship of the relation to the Other. As Levinas states, “The face to face is established starting with a point separated from exteriority so radically that it maintains itself of itself, is me.” [Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquense University Press, 1969), 290.] Therefore, this thesis will use the first person singular to refer to this member of their dialogue.
 Levinas uses this phrase to highlight his own critical judgment of Heidegger. Also, it indicates that the self’s dialogical relationship with the Other already subjects it to the Other’s judgment.
 Ibid, 125-126 The English translator tries to mask the difficult problem of gender in Levinas by using “he or she” and “his or her” to translate Levinas’ reference to the Other as “il” and “lui.” However, I doubt that Levinas would subscribe to this practice. As I will discuss in chapter 5, because Levinas consistently opposes a neutral substrate of Being, he also avoids the gender of the neuter. See the Author’s Note for a further discussion.