Interpretation and Interruption: Reading and Identity Formation in Levinas and Nancy

Below is an excerpt from an article about how Chang-Rae Lee’s first two novels help us examine the differences between theories of identity construction advanced by philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy and Emmanuel Levinas.

This paper seeks to mediate the differences between Levinas and Nancy with a reading of Chang-rae Lee’s first two novels, 1995’s Native Speaker and 1999’s A Gesture Life.  Both books feature first-person narrators who perform particular identities, which require recognition from the other characters and the reader.  While Native Speaker‘s narrator Henry Park treats his reader as a sort of confessor and lays himself bare before the audience, A Gesture Life‘s Franklin “Doc” Hata tries to maintain his performance as a simple grandfatherly Asian man for both the characters and the reader, thereby covering over a troubled past.  Despite their opposition, the claims of Levinas and Nancy could each be supported by a reading of Lee’s novels: a reader could be shocked and surprised by the narrators just as easily as he or she could tacitly gloss over them.  The difference relies on the reader’s desire to interact with a text, a phenomenon made easier when the text advances a direct challenge to the reader’s assumptions.  As I will demonstrate, both theorists under-emphasize the ability of the reader to choose to participate in the potential interruption, which is necessary for the identity-forming process offered by a literary work.

Before fully examining Lee’s novels, I’d like to further articulate the claims for literature made by Nancy and Levinas.  Levinas devoted most of his writing to exploring the ethical problems created by totalities, the phenomenological situation when an individual reduces everything he or she senses into an object according to his or her understanding.  This object is defined by that individual’s perspective, not the intrinsic qualities of the perceived, resulting in an amalgamation of the perceiving self and the objectified world that Levinas calls “the Same.”[i]  Nothing exists outside of this totalitiy, and everything within it is knowable and ready for use by the Same, who proclaims, “Everything is here, everything belongs to me; […] everything is com-prehended” (Totality 37-38).  The Same’s totality becomes disrupted by an encounter with the face, which is the sensible manifestation of the Other.   The face serves as an object[ii] for the Same to recognize, while also suggesting an infinite interiority; it is “[t]he way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me” (Totality 50).  Although the face indicates the Other, it does not fully represent him or her.  The pure infinity of the Other makes him or her impossible to completely know or comprehend, and “at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image” of the face (Totality 50-51).

If Levinas is primarily concerned with describing the Other’s infinity against a domineering self, then Nancy could be said to focus on the role of the self in that equation.  Like his aforementioned contemporaries, Nancy explores the singular form of community, in which its members are not prescribed into predetermined identities, but rather assume roles in the distinct moment of their interaction.  As he explains in his essay “Being Singular Plural,” there is no “prior substance” of being (or “identity,” for the purpose of this argument): “Being does not preexist its singular plural.  To be more precise, Being absolutely does not preexist; nothing preexists; only what exists exists” (“Being” 29).  Not only is there no sense of Being or identity before an encounter with the Other, Nancy claims that there is no knowledge at all before that, which he calls the “with:”

The “self,” of the “self” in general, takes place with before taking place as itself and/or as the other.  This “aseity” of the self is anterior to the same and to the other and, therefore, anterior to the distinction between a consciousness and its world.  Before phenomenological intentionality and the constitution of the ego, but also before the thinglike consistency as such, there is co-originarity according to the with.  Properly speaking, then, there is no anteriority: co-originality is the most general structure of all con-sistency, all constitution, and all con-sciousness.              (“Being” 40-41)

Like Levinas’s claim that the face of the Other shatters the perceiver’s perception of the world and heightens awareness of that world, Nancy argues that the Other’s reaction to a performance shatters the actor’s perception of self and thereby makes the individual more aware of his or her self.  Although an individual certainly may claim particular beliefs and associations, including group identities formed before a singularity, that individual’s performance shifts according to the Other’s responses, recognitions, and rejections.  By interrupting assumptions given to the previously determined identities, real meaning – how an identity is perceived by the community – is ascribed within the performance.

For Levinas, these interruptions can only occur in the face-to-face encounter with the Other and explicitly cannot occur with literature.  This aversion to literature appears most prominently in his 1948 essay, “Reality and Its Shadow,” in which he describes aesthetic representation as neither an accurate image of the “real” world, nor the pure expression of an individual, but rather something separate which belongs to the world of the sensible:

Resemblance is not a participation of a being in an idea […]; it is the very structure of the sensible as such.  The sensible is being insofar as it resembles itself, insofar as, outside of its triumphed work of being, it casts a shadow, emits that obscure and elusive essence, that phantom essence which cannot be identified with the essence revealed in truth.  There is not first an image— a neutralized vision of the object which then differs from a sign or a symbol because of its resemblance with the original: the neutralization of position in an image is precisely this resemblance.                                                                (“Reality” 137)

Recalling de Man’s claim that texts only refer to textual worlds[iii], Levinas emphasizes the phenomenology of the work – the chips of paint on the frame or the coffee stains on the page – which calls attention to the separateness of any aesthetic piece.  Because they draw attention to themselves as objects and not to a real world, Levians claims that aesthetic objects are neutral, unaffecting and unaffected by the exterior world.  Levinas contrasts this neutralized nature of an image to the direct openness of the naked face, stressing that when the face appears to the Same, it expresses itself and appears without context; the face does not need an interpreter to make sense of it.  Not only does art then stand neutralized and separate from the real world, it also acts in the same way as rhetoric, in which the Same does not meet the Other in a face to face relation, but rather in a manipulative relationship; the Same “approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely […] solicits his yes” (Totality 70). For Levinas, the reader becomes enchanted by the rhythms and structure of aesthetic art and “is caught up and carried away by it,” inviting a “fundamental passivity” (“Reality” 132).  Literary art, then, does not represent the plain and naked Other, who compels the same into responsibility by virtue of his or her nakedness, but rather its neutrality and aesthetic charms allows the viewer to “evade” the real world:

Art brings into the world the obscurity of fate, but it especially brings the irresponsibility that charms as a lightness and grace. […] We find an appeasement when, beyond the invitations to comprehend and act, we throw ourselves into the rhythm of a reality which solicits only its admission into a book or a painting […] There is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment.  There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.                                   (“Reality” 141-142)

Although much work has been done to reconcile literary criticism with Levinas’s ethics, most notably by Jill Robbins[iv], this distrust of literature remains constant throughout his work, and critics like Colin Davis and Kuisma Korhonen[v] continue to claim that his work is simply inapplicable to literature.

By emphasizing the role of the self in the relation with the Other, Nancy approaches the act of reading from the end opposite of Levinas and finds a use for literature in disrupting totalities.  Describing his notion of “literary communism,” Nancy argues that literary works are the modern myths and meaning comes not from outside forces – such as a priest or a lawgiver – but from individuals in a singularity: “Not only is literature the beneficiary (or the echo) of myth, literature has itself in a sense been thought and no doubt should be thought as myth – as the myth of the mythless society” (Community 63).  Through the act of reading, Nancy claims, an individual encounters a view of the world from outside his or her own perspective, which serves as the important interruption of the Other.  Interpretation requires more knowledge than a reader possesses when encountering a text, and therefore he or she must go beyond prior assumptions to give it meaning.  As a result, the text exposes the reader to the limits of these assumptions and creates a uniquely communal event, in which the reader forms a relationship not only with the text, but also with the community that provides the context for giving it meaning, including social norms, communal beliefs, and definitions of identity:

The text stems from, or is this relationship [between reader and community]; it renders its ontological vein: being as being in common is (the) being (of) literature.  This does not imply a being of literature: it is neither a narrative nor a theoretical fiction.  On the contrary, what this means is that literature, at least from the moment we understand this word as the interruption of myth, has as being (as essence, if you will, or again, as transcendental constitution) the common exposure of singular beings, their compearance.  The most solitary of writers writes only for the other.  (Anyone who writes for the same, for himself, or for the anonymity of the crowd is not a writer). (Community 66)

This sharing between text and individual, or “singular being” in Nancy’s terms, forces the reader to not only face concepts and perspectives outside of him or herself, but also to draw on them and use them to interpret the text.  The reader, therefore, is exposed by his or her limit –  limits of perception, limits of understanding, limits of knowledge and experience –  and called into question by the text.  This calling into question prompts a new performance and helps the individual avoid static and disconnected identities.

The difference between the approaches of Levinas and Nancy stems from the text’s ability to surprise the reader and interrupt expectations: for Levinas, the reader always interprets a text according to a preformed perspective, reducing the work to an extension of the self that avoids alterity; for Nancy, the text surprises the reader, exposes his or her limits, and forces the reader to move beyond the self.  Many of the classic reader-response theories seem to advance Levinas’s argument over that of Nancy: for Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and Louise Rosenblatt, the materials available for interpreting a text – whether that interpretive project involves filling textual gaps, relating a work to one’s cultural milieu, or responding to the prompts of a poem – stems from the subjectivity of the reader.  This emphasis on the reader’s perspective remains in more recent reader-response theories, such as Ansgar Nünning’s cognitive narratology, which describes the reading process as a movement between the text and a series of interpretive frames (ie, a emotional frame, a historical frame, a textual frame).[vi]  As narrative theorists like Adam Zachary Newton have observed, this emphasis on individual subjectivity allows the reader to dominate over the text, in much the same way Levinas describes: the text becomes not an unthematizable Other who remains beyond interpretation, but an object put to use for the reader’s enjoyment.[vii]  To be more than an insensible object and to interrupt the reader’s perception, a text must go beyond the models advanced by these critics and contain an element that cannot be accounted for by the reader’s personal frames.  It must exceed interpretation to expose a limit.

This exceedance can occur when a narrator employs second person address, which positions the real reader as the narratee, thereby making the narrator’s attempts to manipulate the audience also attempts to manipulate the external reader.  Narrative theorist Brian Richardson identifies these types of address as “the autotelic form,” which is “the direct address to a ‘you’ that is at times the actual reader of the text and whose story is juxtaposed to and can merge with the characters of the fictions” (30).  Pointing to the narrators of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Italo Calvino’s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, Richardson describes this narrator as one who recognizes the presence of a reader and, at times, shifts the tense and perspective of the address to speak directly to that reader.  With an autotelic second-person address, “the narrative ‘you’ is alternately opposed to and fused with the reader – both the constructed and the actual reader” (Richardson 33), therefore implicating the reader in the actions and descriptions he or she reads.  This implication calls the reader into a narrative world outside of his or her preformed frames and prompts a response – some form of acceptance or denial – thereby providing the surprising, unthematizable element that Nancy finds so important and Levinas finds so wanting in literature.

Although they rarely refer directly to a “you,” the narrators of Chang-rae Lee’s first two novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, perform this autotelic implication by calling on the narratee/reader to recognize the identities they attempt to perform.  Both of these novels feature highly focalized accounts told by first person narrators undergoing crises of identity.  These narrators each have unique goals for their stories: Doc Hata works to present himself as a kind and upstanding member of his community, while Henry Park confesses his inauthenticity toward his wife, his friends, and his co-workers.  By reading these novels together and focusing on the narrative acts they perform, we can see how a text engages with the reader and interrupts his or her assumptions.

[i]      “To be I is, over and beyond any individuation that can be derived from a system of references, to have identity as one’s content.  The I is not a being that always remains the same, but is the being whose existing consists in identifying itself, in recovering its identity throughout all that happens to it.  It is the primal identity, the primordial work of identification.” (Levinas 36)


[ii]    My use of the word “object” may be a poor one, and reflects the often contradictory nature of Levinas’ philosophy.  Hilary Putman’s introductory discussion to Levinas’ debt to Judaism may help explain the manifestation of the face by reminding the reader that Levinas tends to speak of the Other in terms usually ascribed to God.  With that in mind, the face for Levinas is more a “trace,” not an actual physical object: “Just as we never see God, but at best traces of God’s presence in the world, so we never see the ‘face’ of the other, but only its ‘trace.” (45).


[iii]   “Levinas and de Man share certain perhaps not altogether surprising resemblances (call them unelective affinities)– a severity, a prophetic kind of tone and conviction, and finally a shared skepticism about graven images that, given the cultural gulf that separates them, has some potentially fascinating implications” (Newton 39-40).


[iv]   Robbins offers a thorough examination of Levinas’s relationship with literature, not only reviewing the argument in “Reality and It’s Shadow,” but noting the allusions to literature that appear in his work, such as his use of Proust, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky.  This study leads Robbins to surmise that Levinas’s “antifigural discourse is not only antiprefigural but, ultimately, is directed against the figurative or rhetorical dimension of language as well” (50).  By making this distinction between a mistrust of literature and a mistrust of rhetorical language in general, Robbins suggests that Levinas worked with a limited understanding of the act of reading.  Robbins then suggests that if “figure, rhetoric, mimesis, and the literary were not what Levinas takes them to be, then it might be necessary not to turn away from [the literary] figure, as Levinas does, but to face the figure otherwise, as language’s ownmost figurative potential, as that which is most distinctive to language, that is, to face language as ethical possibility” (54).  Furthermore, Robbins identifies Levinas’s interpretation of Derrida’s notion of “the trace” as a way to allow the perceiver to see a real and infinite person finitely manifested in language, and therefore “to face language as ethical possibility” (Robbins 54). By recognizing the trace of the other in the story, the reader/listener can respond to the characters not as inconsequential imagined figures, but as temporary manifestations of an infinite other.  The trace mirrors the face, then, in its function as a sign for the perceiving Same to know and recognize.

For similar arguments related to Levinas and Literature, see also Greisch, Jean. “The Face and Reading: Immediacy and Mediation” and Simone, R. Thomas. “Reflections on Levinas and Literature.”


[v]    Korhonen then uses this to advance a post-Levinasian narratology, which “fails or refuses to produce a coherent narrative [that opens up] the horizon of otherness for Levinas” (466).


[vi]   Further articulation of these theories can be found the following works: Iser, Wolfgang, The Act of Reading; Rosenblatt, Louise, The Reader, the Text, the Poem; Fish, Stanley Eugene, Is There A Text in this Class?; Nünning, Ansgar. “Reconceptionalizing the Theory and Generic Scope of Unreliable Narration.”


[vii]   See Newton, Adam Zachary. Narrative Ethics.  In particular, Newton’s book is an introduction to the field of Narrative Ethics, a critical approach that uses much of Levinas’s philosophy to emphasize contingent interpretations, figural discourse, and readers being open to surprise.


Read the rest in the Spring 2011 issue of Diesis: Footnotes on Literary Identity.

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