In Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas opposes the Greek interest in aesthetics, luminosity,
and the plastic form to the rejection of the image in Hebraic philosophy and ethics.
Christianity, in making
the Word flesh, repeats the Greek desire for the visible, the artistically manifested need to see God, in
contradistinction to Judaism, in which God is heard rather than seen, manifesting Himself in language, both
aural and written, rather than in form. Levinas thus follows the Hebraic tradition in describing the ethical
relation as taking place in a face-to-face encounter with the other which is nevertheless a "manifestation of
the face over and beyond form," occurring in language rather than in sight (Totality and Infinity 61
). Levinas explains: "Form--incessantly betraying its own
manifestation, congealing into plastic form, for it is adequate to the same--alienates the exteriority of the
other" (Totality and Infinity 61 ). To encounter the other as a face is to encounter her in
her absolute alterity from myself, to be faced by her as unthematizable, escaping all my attempts to understand
and thus to assimilate her. The face makes it impossible for me to reduce the other to myself, to my ideas of
her, to my theories, categories, and knowledge. Since form betrays the other, for Levinas, the face of ethics
is not the face whose form we take in with our eyes. On the contrary, the way we look at (and also touch) faces is said to foreclose ethics: "The face is present in its refusal to be
contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen nor touched--for
in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes
precisely a content" (Totality and Infinity 211 ).
In works such as "Violence and Metaphysics" and "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils," Jacques Derrida, like
Levinas, frequently associates vision with an imposition of sameness on the other, and thus as violent in terms of the philosophy of difference which he
shares with Levinas and feminist writers such as Hélène Cixous. This essay argues that blindness
becomes a trope for Levinasian ethicality in works by Derrida such as Memoirs of the Blind and Specters of Marx. On the one
hand, therefore, this essay explores the ways in which Levinas and Derrida take up a similarly negative understanding of the relationship between
visuality and ethics, giving rise to an ethics of blindness. On the other hand, it argues that
vision is not entirely rejected by either philosopher, but that a recognition of other, less violent ways of seeing, and a more positive conception of
the ethical potential of vision, co-exist with Levinas's and Derrida's more explicit critiques of vision. Finally, this essay expands upon the latter,
more positive conception of vision to be found in the writings of both Levinas and Derrida, or the possibilities of a visionary ethics.
The Violence of Vision
The "face" of ethics, according to Levinas, occurs in discourse rather than in visual form. While seeing the other
entails enveloping her into the same, language "slices" through this knowledge that vision imposes: "Speech cuts
across vision" ("La parole tranche sur la vision") (Totality and Infinity 212 ).
The slicing of language divides or differentiates the other from me. Discourse, like vision, may try
to thematize the other, but while vision succeeds, the other can always evade the categorizations of language,
slip behind the Said, remain a Saying, even in silence: "Words are said, be it only by the silence kept, whose
weight acknowledges this evasion of the Other" (Totality and Infinity 212 ). The other, an
interlocutor, can engage with me in language, while she cannot respond in a similar way to having been seen.
While being seen is simply an absorption of the other to which she cannot answer, she may always avoid similar
absorption in the case of discourse. According to Levinas, in language the self and other enter into a relation
in which difference is established and cannot be overcome, even if only because of the weight of the other's silence
In "Violence and Metaphysics," Derrida focuses on Levinas's critique of the visual metaphor in
Greco-Christian philosophy. Specifically, Derrida draws out the manners in which Levinas describes the
interconnected concepts of vision, sun, light, and truth as functioning to abolish the otherness of the
face-to-face or ethical relation in the works of philosophers from Plato to Heidegger. Derrida describes
Levinas's first book, Théorie de l'intuition dans la phénoménologie de
Husserl, as a first attempt at developing "a philosophical discourse against light" (126 ), and
against the pre-determining gaze which this light allows. In this work, "the imperialism of theoria
already bothered Levinas. More than any other philosophy, phenomenology, in the wake of Plato, was to be struck
with light" (126 ). In phenomenological philosophy, for Levinas, vision pre-determines the other who is
seen, not allowing her to appear in her otherness as she may do in language. As Derrida observes, Levinas raises an even
stronger critique later against Heidegger, who is described as continuing to write within
"a Greco-Platonic tradition under the surveillance of the agency of the glance and the metaphor of light . . .
light, unveiling, comprehension or precomprehension" ("Violence and Metaphysics" 131 ). Vision already
assumes an understanding of the other, for Levinas, and this pre-understanding prior to the visual encounter is
forced onto the other in a violent unveiling within the clearing of light. The critique which Derrida describes
Levinas as directing at the history of philosophy, and at Husserl and Heidegger in particular, is that through
its search for the light of Being and of phenomena, it abolishes difference and imposes the One and the Same on
the other. Greco-phenomenological philosophy creates
In his final summation of Levinas's critique of visuality and of heliological philosophy, Derrida writes
a world of light and of unity, a "philosophy of a world of light, a world without time." In this heliopolitics,
"the social ideal will be sought in an ideal of fusion . . . the subject . . . losing himself in a collective
representation, in a common ideal . . . . It is the collectivity which says "us," and which, turned toward the
intelligible sun, toward the truth, experience, the other at his side and not face to face with him . . . .
Miteinandersein also remains the collectivity of the with." ("Violence and Metaphysics" 134 )
In contrast, in Totality and Infinity, as Derrida describes this work, Levinas theorizes the face
as "appearing" in language and not only to vision, as a "certain non-light" which counteracts the violence of
visuality ("Violence and Metaphysics" 126 ).
therefore, there is a soliloquy of reason and a solitude of light. Incapable of respecting the Being and
meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire
philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the
totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity
between theoretical objectivity and technico-political possession . . . . To see and to know, to have and to will,
unfold only within the oppressive and luminous identity of the same. ("Violence and Metaphysics" 136 [91-2])
In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discuss faces and faciality as
neutralizing and de-individualizing rather than as other and unique: "Faces are
not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability, delimit a field that neutralizes in
advance any expressions or connections unamenable to the appropriate significations" (168). According to
Deleuze and Guattari, the "abstract machine of faciality" produces faces, and these faces are not encountered in
their alterity but are rather always in a dichotomized relation to the same. The face "is White Man himself,
with his broad white cheeks and the black hole of his eyes. The face is Christ. The face is the typical
European" (176). The face, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the face of the average white European man, and this
face is taken as the standard from which to measure deviation within a racist system: "If the face is in fact
Christ, in other words, your average ordinary White Man, then the first deviances, the first divergence-types,
are racial: yellow man, black man, men in the second or third category . . . . They must be Christianized, in
other words, facialized" (178). While for Levinas the face is exteriority and alterity, for Deleuze and
never abides alterity (it's a Jew, it's an Arab, it's a negro, it's a lunatic . . . ). From the viewpoint of
racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside . . . Racism never detects the particles of the
other; it propagates waves of sameness until those who resist identification have been wiped out. (178)
Despite the striking differences in the manners in which Levinas and Deleuze and Guattari understand the face, Levinas might in fact agree with Deleuze and Guattari in so far as the latter are discussing a
visualized face. While Levinas emphasizes that the face of which he is writing is not the
physiognomic or visually encountered face, facialization for Deleuze and Guattari functions through vision: the
Christ-face, for instance, is said to have been "exploited" through visual art, through the paintings of the
Middle Ages and Renaissance. For Deleuze and Guattari, this neutral "Bunker-face," which has been reproduced in
visual media and is encountered with the eyes, must be "destroyed, dismantled" and "escape[d]," and, citing Henry
Miller, this can be done by cutting off vision, shutting the eyes: "I no longer look into the eyes of the woman
I hold in my arms . . . My eyes are useless, for they render back only the image of the known . . .
Therefore I close my ears, my eyes, my mouth" (A Thousand Plateaus 171). In so far as
this is a material, visually encountered face, and not the face of transcendence, Levinas might agree that it
needs to be escaped since, for Levinas, when it is the eyes which encounter the other's face, Miller is apt in
saying that "they render back only the image of the known," that is a representation of the same, the expected,
the pre-understood, allowing no surprise or alterity. The face which Levinas is describing, in contrast, is a face
which will always allow for surprise. This face is an encounter with the Other as
other, and, as described in Totality and Infinity, it is not discovered through the eyes, and is
not mediated through visuality or through visual art.
Despite this negative account of the role of vision in our meeting the other, Levinas has chosen "the
face" to encapsulate a great deal of his ethical philosophy, and it seems that it functions well for this
purpose precisely because it corresponds to the way we frequently experience faces through vision, encountering with
our eyes the expressiveness and difference of faces, perceiving them not only as objects of our own gazes but as
the site of the other's eyes. Faces strike and evade us, frustrate us with their secrets, are
unthematizably complex, inaccessible beneath our gaze. As Sartre notes in his discussion of the other's gaze,
faces disconcert us, decentralize and alienate the world from us, precisely because they make us recognize the
independence and inaccessibility of the other's subjectivity. Faces make us aware of our inability to grasp the
other, the impossibility of knowing what she thinks of us, of knowing what the familiar--now unfamiliar--world
(and we in it) is for her. Although there have been tragic and violent attempts throughout history to
categorize individuals by facial as well as body types, and although Deleuze and Guattari are correct that the
visually-encountered, physiognomic face is submitted to dichotomizing norms, it is also true that we are
fascinated by looking at faces in their singularity, and it is often the sight of faces that arrests us, haunts
us, moves us to ethical action, pity, compassion, forgiveness, aid, and love. This must at least partly explain
why Levinas chooses the face as the shorthand term for his complex understanding of alterity, and
why it can convince others of his claims. It would seem, then, that Levinas takes advantage of the
compellingness of the visual metaphor of the face, the meaning it holds for us as such, and yet denies that it
functions in vision in fact.
Although I will complexify this reading below, it appears--and has been widely accepted--that Levinas
equates seeing and knowing (sa/voir), "knowledge or vision" (Totality and Infinity 212 ), and,
as Derrida points out, also equates savoir and voir with avoir, with a possessing or
pre-possessing of the other such that she is subsumed within the grasp of the knowing or seeing subject.
According to such a reading, it would follow that for Levinas we never see without knowing, never look in
wonder. We are never spellbound, fascinated, bewildered, paralyzed or surprised by that upon which we gaze. We
are never absorbed by what we look at rather than engaged in the absorption of it. We never respond to what we
see rather than imposing our knowledge on it. We never have our expectations thwarted by sight. We never see
difference, we only see the same, the same as ourselves or the same as our expectations of the other, which is
thus allowed to be no other. It is never the seen, therefore, which is active upon our sight, or sight is never
passive before the one looked upon, who never acts upon our eyes.
With respect to Levinas's alternative to vision, language, it seems that although Levinas is right in
acknowledging silence as discursive, in Totality and Infinity he too readily accepts silence as
response enough, or too hastily assumes that difference will always be able to interrupt the relation between
subject and other through discourse. We may question whether it is sufficient to say that the other can always
respond in such a way that she will be responded to in language, since silence itself is a response that weighs
on her interlocutor, or whether we need more of an account of the functionings of power in discourse, the
distribution of access to language, the effects of this distribution such that certain others can respond in
language proper while others may only respond in silence. There are no forms of discourse explored by Levinas
to which the other cannot respond, to which the possibility of an other response is foreclosed by the
discourse itself. Silence is presumed to be heard, is thought to always
weigh on me as an evasion of my themes, and Levinas does not theorize the manners in which I can all too easily
not hear the other's silence, or can interpret her silence as submission to or agreement with what I have said,
that she may be forgotten in her quietude, and thus that silence may not function as an interruption of the
Said. We may ask, therefore, whether this is enough of an account of the ways that silence may all too easily
be taken as agreement with and adhesion to the same. Indeed, we need an account of how both language and
silence may cut (tranche) to do violence, to silence, and not only to divide into an ethics of
alterity. Levinas appears to have too readily dismissed vision as an imposition of knowledge on the other,
while language has been too hastily accepted as evading such inflictions, as always permitting response. In
fact, both vision and discourse function in some cases as impositions of knowledge, power, and sameness on the
other, but both may function otherwise, as when the other's speech or silence is heard and responded to, or when
sight absorbs, surprises, awes and bewilders the seeing subject, rather than simply absorbing what she sees and
Whatever the limitations of this discussion of language, Levinas's understanding of vision is, at least,
more complex than his most definitive statements on the subject would lead us to believe. In a late interview,
"On Obliteration," Levinas again discusses the face in terms of vision, but now in positive terms. He is
responding to a series of sculptures by Sacha Sosno, several of which represent heads with the faces
"obliterated" by geometrical shapes. Here Levinas says that
It is clear from his example of the line-ups outside the Lubyanka prison that Levinas is here willing to consider the
ethical experience of the face in visual terms--"those napes which still express anguish, anxiety and tears to the
people who see them"--and to acknowledge more than one form of vision. From the example of Rodin's sculpted
hands, it is also clear that, despite his earlier consignment of art to the Said, Levinas is willing to think about
works of visual art as having a face, a face that we see. In a way that is interesting in terms of the
discussion of weeping below, Levinas also describes the face, in this case the nape of the neck, as expressing tears.
there are different ways of being a face. Without mouth, eyes or nose, an arm or a hand by Rodin is already a
face. But the napes of the necks of those people who wait in line at the entrance gate of the Lubyanka prison
in Moscow--in order to deliver letters or packages to parents or friends arrested by the GPU, as we find in
Vasily Grossman's Life and Destiny--those napes which still express anguish, anxiety and tears to
the people who see them, are obliterated faces, though in a very different manner. (38)
David Michael Levin has repeatedly considered Levinas's complex understanding of vision, most exhaustively in
The Philosopher's Gaze. Taking a very different stance towards "blindness" and the narrowing of
our human, lidded eyes than, as shall be seen, Derrida does in Memoirs of the Blind, Levin
dedicates this book to the "remembrance of centuries of victims brought by inhumanity and cultural blindness, by
eyes narrowed in brutal lust, rage, and hate, into depths of pain and suffering--or to even darker cruelties
engraved in dust and ashes." Like Derrida, Levin takes an interest in Diderot's writing on blindness, but cites
a very different passage: while Derrida will focus on Diderot's writing of a love letter blind
(Memoirs 101), Levin cites Diderot's suspicion that those who do not see may consequently
be impaired in their abilities to feel:
However dubious Diderot's generalizations about the capacity for compassion in blind persons, this passage may have something to say to us today, at a moment when we have available to
us ways of killing and enforcing poverty "blindly," or upon vast numbers of sentient beings at a great distance,
thus avoiding looking upon the sufferings that we cause: we now place slaughterhouses outside of our cities, we exploit child and adult laborers in poverty-stricken countries, and we
engage in modern forms of warfare that do not require soldiers to see the people they kill. Violence
today is facilitated by our blindness, by our no longer needing to meet our victims face-to-face.
Significantly, if we resist denying the relevance of visuality in the face-to-face encounter, we can fruitfully
use a Levinasian theory of ethics to consider the grounds of possibility of modern forms of violence.
What difference is there to a blind person between a man urinating and a man bleeding to death without
speaking? Do we ourselves not cease to feel compassion when distance or the smallness of the object produces
the same effect on us as lack of sight does on the blind? Thus do all our virtues depend on our way of
apprehending things and on the degree to which external objects affect us . . . . I feel quite sure that were it not for
fear of punishment, many people would have fewer qualms at killing a man who was far enough away to appear no
larger than a swallow than in butchering a steer with their own hands. And if we feel compassion for a horse in
pain though we can crush an ant without a second thought, are these actions not governed by the same principle?
(Philosopher's Gaze 4-5)
In citing Diderot, and throughout his writings on vision, Levin is arguing for vision's significance to our
humanity and to our capacity for compassion and ethics. If we are to speak of compassion in the philosophy of
Levinas, it is necessary to understand it as a passive suffering for the other without identification, a
substitution which would not entail understanding or being-with, which is not Miteinandersein.
Compassion, for Levinas, must be a response to the other's suffering as other than one's own, a suffering-for
and not a suffering-with, or a passivity which avoids subsuming the other into the same. Levinas writes, "the
extreme passivity of 'incarnation'--being exposed to illness, suffering, to death is to be exposed to
compassion" (Otherwise than Being 139n12 [195n12]). Following Levin, I would thus be arguing that
one may be passively exposed to the other's suffering through the visual encounter, and as such be exposed to
compassion as an encounter with alterity. Compassionate substitution as such would not abolish the other's
otherness, and would not claim to actively grasp that suffering or to understand, but would be a passive
- Levin notes that the philosopher has long been a figure who does not look and who thus avoids this form
of compassionate suffering. The philosopher is one who talks and writes, turns his eyes towards his books and
thoughts, closes his eyes to contemplate, shutting them upon the anguish around him. Even philosophers such as
Plato who have emphasized vision most often spoke of the "eye of the intellect" rather than of the seeing eye, and
Democritus put out the latter to "see" with the former. At first glance, then, Derrida and Levinas, in their
preference for language over and against vision, may not be novel in their philosophical approach to vision,
nor even particularly Hebraic, but rather follow a tradition of philosophers averting their eyes. Yet Levin
finds many passages in which Levinas depends on vision for his understanding of ethics, and argues that
Levinas's understanding that the visuality of his language is merely metaphoric is not, cannot, and should
not be consistently maintained. Noting that Levinas argues that the face "is not a form offered to serene
perception," Levin asks, "why must perception be understood as serene, or contemplative?" and notes that it is
not so in the phenomenologies of Heidegger and of Merleau-Ponty (Philosopher's Gaze 267). Questioning
whether vision must also be active, an imposition upon or absorption of the other, Levin finds moments in Levinas's
philosophy in which vision is understood as "passive" and as "subjection,"
and notes that in the "Preface" to Totality and Infinity ethics is described as an "optics"
(Philosopher's Gaze 50, 259). Levin argues further that the consistent decisions on
Levinas's part to use visual metaphors to describe the encounter with the other--the "shimmer of infinity," for
instance--are diminished if they are not understood visually. Levin asks: "does Levinas risk more than paradox,
more than he supposes, when he withdraws infinity absolutely from the visible--when, for the sake of the ethical
relation, he takes the 'metaphysical' experience of the other entirely out of the visible, out of sight, rather
than extending it from the visible into the invisible?" (Philosopher's Gaze 259). Later he asks: "but
doesn't this withdrawal of the face from visibility and sight also risk withdrawing from ethics all that
might have been gained for it by introducing the face and the face-to-face relation into the discussion?"
Levin suggests that Levinas sometimes recognizes that vision functions ethically, otherwise than as
philosophers, including Levinas himself, have frequently assumed. For Levin, it is these other ways of seeing
that need to be further developed, and not sight that must be rejected tout court. He cites T. S.
Eliot's confession, "I see the eyes but not the tears/ This is my affliction," and it seems that this
distinction may capture for Levin the two manners of seeing in question: a seeing that does not see tears, and
a seeing that sees tears, and that perhaps sees through or in tears as well. Levinas has
most often assumed the seeing eye that does not see tears, and that would not shed
tears in response to what it sees, that imposes and absorbs rather than being passively struck by the other and
her suffering. At other moments, however, and in his consistent use of visual metaphors to describe the ethical
encounter, Levinas is developing new ways of thinking about seeing, and thus new ways of seeing in language and
in history, ones that depend on an understanding of the second way of seeing, an ethically responsive seeing, a
seeing of tears.
Returning to "Violence and Metaphysics," it is important to note that even while drawing out Levinas's
critique of heliological philosophy, Derrida stresses the manner in which vision itself is given to us through
language, and thus that the problematic features of vision are problems not intrinsic to the sense of sight but
rather embedded in metaphysical discourse. It is not so simple a matter, therefore, as positing language as an
ethical alternative to seeing, for sight only comes to us through its discursive constructions. As such, if we
wish to change the violent ways in which we see, we must first change the language of vision. In particular,
Derrida highlights the metaphorical sense in which Levinas is speaking of vision and light, or the manner in
which the seeing that Levinas describes as violent is not characteristic of the sense of sight per se, nor
even of sight as we need necessarily experience it, but is rather the manner in which sight as we practice and
think it has been given to us by the Greek metaphysical tradition. As such, Derrida makes clear that it is "the
heliological metaphor" which is in question (136 ). This metaphor has functioned as an "alibi,"
Derrida argues, or, in so far as we believe in the literalness of the metaphor, we "innocentize" oppression, we
"turn our gazes away" from the violence, and thus, in a sense, the metaphor of light allows us to not see, or
prevents us from seeing otherwise than as the metaphor allows: this light in language blinds us and prevents us from
seeing the other as she is and from responding to her oppression. As such, Derrida argues that Levinas is not really
advocating blindness rather than sight, but is "denouncing the blindness of theoretism" as a
metaphysically constructed way of seeing which does not allow us to see the other ("Violence and Metaphysics"
130 ). Levinas does not describe a natural history of a sensation, but the history of an experience mediated by
Nevertheless, as Derrida goes on to say, there is no history except that which occurs through language,
and Borges is right when he says that "perhaps universal history is but the history of several metaphors,"
metaphors amongst which the example of light is predominant and inescapable. Indeed, Derrida notes
that Levinas himself does not escape the use of this metaphor: "Who will ever dominate it, who will ever
pronounce its meaning without first being pronounced by it? What language will ever escape it? How, for
example, will the metaphysics of the face as the epiphany of the other free itself of light?" ("Violence and
Metaphysics" 137 ). The nudity of the other is itself described by Levinas in terms of visuality and
manifestation, as epiphany, or, as Levin has noted, as the "shimmer of infinity." As Derrida describes it, "the
nudity of the face of the other--this epiphany of a certain non-light before which all violence is to be quieted
and disarmed--will still have to be exposed to a certain enlightenment" ("Violence and Metaphysics" 126 ).
There is hence no escaping the metaphors of vision, light, enlightenment, and
manifestation, and it must therefore be a transformation of that metaphor which Levinas would enact in his
writing, or the first steps towards the theorization of other ways of seeing which he is taking, even if by all
appearances, or in a more self-conscious way, he seems to be rejecting vision and light altogether. As such, on
this more nuanced reading, which may or may not have been Levinas's own, it is not non-vision which would be
sought by Levinas, for, in Derrida's words, "light perhaps has no opposite; if it does, it is certainly not
night" ("Violence and Metaphysics" 137 ). It cannot be darkness and blindness
that Levinas would prefer to vision and light, but, as Derrida stresses, a form of seeing which is other than that which
the Greco-Christian tradition of philosophy has inscribed in language and history, what Levin calls a
While Derrida makes it clear, then, that the vision in question is metaphorical, that it is but a
"technico-political" alibi, as we have seen he suggests that this metaphor is never entirely escapable in its
determination of how we see and understand sight. If this is an inescapable metaphor, the only solution to its
violence is to transform it, "modifying only the same metaphor and choosing the best light." Derrida cites
Borges again: "perhaps universal history is but the history of the diverse intonations of several
metaphors" (137 ). One is tempted to think that a transformed metaphor that rethinks without
escaping light could be moonlight, a gentler, more obscure and mysterious light than the penetrating rays of the
philosopher's sun which expose, burn, and may blind the eyes, preventing real seeing. For Derrida, whatever
form of light this may be, it is
Not escaping the language of light, Levinas, in his use of words such as "epiphany" and "shimmering," is choosing
the best light, is modifying the metaphor to render it less violent and more ethical. For Levinas it is
precisely through language that we can escape the violence of vision as language has produced it, and thus,
according to a Levinasian reading of vision that Levinas himself may or may not have intended, it is through
language that the experience of light will be, not avoided, but transformed.
not a community without light, not a blindfolded synagogue, but a community anterior to Platonic light . . . .
Only the other, the totally other, can be manifested as what it is before the shared truth, within a certain
nonmanifestation and a certain absence. ("Violence and Metaphysics" 135 )
Despite this more nuanced account of vision in Levinas to be found in Levin's work and in Derrida's "Violence and Metaphysics," as shall be seen in the following section, it is the more explicit account of sight
that is most often taken as Levinas's final word on vision, and that, it would seem, has at times "guided" or
at least been repeated by Derrida in his self-avowed blindness. Despite his
careful reading of Levinas, Derrida will at times himself suggest a voluntary blinding, a closing and turning
away of the eyes in order to avoid the vicissitudes of vision that he and Levinas describe. Although in
"Violence and Metaphysics" Derrida argues that the solution to the violence of light cannot be a simple
rejection of vision for language, in later works he states that we need to shut our eyes in order to open
An Ethics of Blindness and an Ethics of Tears
Because the face, for Levinas, at least on the most obvious reading, is not seen, and the face-to-face encounter
occurs otherwise than through the gaze, it is immediately appropriate that Derrida would see the blindman as an
ethical figure, for all of the blindman's encounters with others must occur without seeing their form. In Specters of Marx and Memoirs of
the Blind, Derrida considers positions of blindness in terms that, for Levinas, describe ethical
relations. A particular form of blindness described in Specters of Marx and Echographies of
television is the "visor effect," the situation in which "we do not see who looks
at us" (Specters 7). For Derrida, the most dramatic example of such a scenerio of a-reciprocal
vision occurs in hauntings:
The "right of inspection" ("droit de regard") is described earlier in Echographies as "the
right to control and surveillance" (42 ). This right to see, control, and survey is evoked as a
specifically masculine form of power: "the right to penetrate a 'public' or 'private' space, the right
to 'introduce' the eye and all these optical prostheses . . . into the 'home' of the other [il s'agisse du
droit de pénétrer dans un espace 'public' ou 'privé', d'y faire 'entrer,' dans le
'chez-soi' de l'autre]" (Echographies 42 ). This phallic vision infiltrates into the
intimate spaces of others either through the use of the eye itself or through prosthetic devices such as
surveillance cameras, and, as shall be seen, Derrida describes the feminized, blind, and a-reciprocal submission
to this masculine gaze in ethical terms.
The specter is not simply this visible invisible that I can see, it is someone who watches or concerns me
without any possible reciprocity, and who therefore makes the law when I am blind, blind by situation. The
specter enjoys the right of absolute inspection. He is the right of inspection itself.
(Echographies 137 )
In Specters of Marx Derrida uses the example of the ghost of Hamlet's father to describe the
"visor effect," for the Danish specter wears a helmet through which he can see those whom he haunts without
their being able to see him. The visor
The masculine, a-reciprocal penetration of the "right of inspection" is described by Derrida as paternal,
indicative of the specter's authority, his right to speak and to be heard. Specters are presented by Derrida as
having (and indeed as being) the "droit de regard" in so far as they see us, haunt us, even while we
cannot look back, with an optical right which entails all other rights (Echographies 42).
lets one see nothing of the spectral body, but at the level of the head and beneath the visor, it permits the
so-called-father to see and to speak. Some slits are cut into it and adjusted so as to permit him to see
without being seen, but to speak in order to be heard. The helmet, like the visor, did not merely offer
protection: it topped off the coat of arms and indicated the chief's authority, like the blazon of his nobility.
As Derrida describes it, we sense specters, feel them, feel their gazes, and even to some degree see them
through this sensation of touch, while they remain intangible, ungraspable, and invisible. This "furtive
and ungraspable visibility of the invisible" is presented by Derrida as
In Totality and Infinity, as we have seen, Levinas writes that in the ethical encounter the other is
neither seen nor touched (211). In Derrida's description of being haunted by a specter, of this "blind
submission to his secret," the other is once again neither seen nor touched, although we sense the visual
relation, that we are being seen, not through our own vision but through feeling, "we feel ourselves
seen," even while the other remains ungraspable and intangible. Unable to grasp or to see the other, in the
spectral encounter as in the ethical encounter for Levinas, we respond to the ghost without being able to
abolish his alterity. We realize that the ghost is other without "hasten[ing] to determine" him. We are unable
even to categorize him as a self or as a subject, as a consciousness or person, and as such he remains radically
unthematizable. As with the Levinasian ethical relation, the haunting of a specter is also asymmetrical in
power, for the ghost has the power to penetrate ocularly and bodily into our private spaces, to see and to speak
and to be heard and to command, even as we cannot see or grasp this bodily form, and must answer blindly. We are
thus asymmetrically submitted to the other, we are vulnerable and exposed, and this submission takes place in
language: with specters, according to Derrida, we submit to the other's voice. We must learn to speak to
ghosts, which is not to command them--Derrida notes Horatio's inability to speak to ghosts when he
"imperiously" "charges" and "conjures" the specter of Hamlet's father. Derrida writes, "as theoreticians or
witnesses, spectators, observers, and intellectuals, scholars believe that looking is sufficient. Therefore,
they are not always in the most competent position to do what is necessary: speak to the specter"
(Specters 11). Looking is once more opposed to language or to speaking, and it is the blind
submission to language which is required in the ethical relation, and the absence of sight on the subject's part
which gives rise to its possibility.
the tangible intangibility of a proper body without flesh, but still the body of someone as someone
other. And of someone other that we will not hasten to determine as self, subject, person,
consciousness, spirit, and so forth . . . . This spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves
being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony, even before and beyond any look on our part, according to an
absolute anteriority . . . and asymmetry, according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion . . . . To feel
ourselves seen by a look which it will always be impossible to cross, that is the visor effect . . . .
Since we do not see the one who sees us, and who makes the law, who delivers the injunction . . . we cannot
identify it in all certainty, we must fall back on its voice. An essentially blind submission to his secret.
In multiple ways we have seen that Derrida chooses to explore the haunting of the self in terms that evoke the
ethical relation in Levinas, a relation in which the face-to-face encounter is an a-reciprocal response to an
elevated other whose alterity I cannot subsume or grasp, which I cannot reduce through vision, touch, or
knowledge, and which takes place in language and commands me, in response to which I must listen and speak. The
feminized position of being blind in the presence of masculinized and authoritative other, of being unable to
return a specifically patriarchal and "male gaze," of being forced to respond to another through language even
while the linguistic exchange must take place on the other's terms--which Sartre and a quite a few feminists
might describe as a hell of other people (if we were only able to thematize the ghost as such)--is thus
presented by Derrida as the condition under which an encounter with alterity--a feminized ethics, for
In Memoirs of the Blind Derrida presents an even more sustained discussion of the blindman as an
ethical figure in Levinasian terms. Derrida describes the blindman as necessarily "exposed, naked, offered up to the
gaze and to the hand, indeed to the manipulations of the other--he is also a subject deceived . . . . The other can take
advantage of him [L'autre peut abuser de lui]" (97 ). This emphasis on the blindman's openness to
potential abuse is similar to Levinas's description of the self's exposure, her nudity before the other, and of the
suffering she undergoes at the other's hands. As Levinas acknowledges, "I can be exploited" (Otherwise than
Being 93 ). Similarly, while Levinas describes the self as a prisoner in his own skin, unable to get out of
the skin to identify with the other, Derrida emphasizes the manner in which blindness is experienced as a "walling in"
or being walled [murée] into one's own body, cut off from others and the world (Memoirs
45-6, 120). This is not "the bad solitude of solidity and self-identity" that represses ethical transcendence, or the
solitude that "does not appear to itself to be solitude, because it is the solitude of totality and opacity" of which
Derrida writes in "Violence and Metaphysics" (135 ), but the solitude of unfulfillable obsession for the other, of
substitution without identification, of love without possession or knowledge. Levinas writes of the subject as
strangled within the restriction of its own epidermal barrier as it longs for the other: "accused in its skin, too
tight for its skin," "as it were stuffed with itself, suffocating under itself, insufficiently open,"
suffering "constriction in
one's skin", "backed up against itself, in itself because without any recourse in anything, in itself like in its skin
. . . and obsessed by the others" (Otherwise than Being 106, 110-112). This subject's heart is "beating
dully against the walls of [its own] skin," but unable to break free. For Derrida, the blindman's very eyes, like the
skin for Levinas, become similarly isolating prison walls: "The confinement of the blind man can thus isolate him
behind . . . hard walls," "these leaden walls" (46 ). Derrida cites Rilke's Die Blinde, who says,
"Ich bin von allem verlassen--/ Ich bin eine Insel" and "Ich bin eine Insel und allein," while Derrida's own mother,
dying with cataracts "veiling" her eyes is, like die Blinde, described by Derrida as having "eyes walled up
[vermauerten Augen] [les yeux emmurés]" (Memoirs 45-6 ).
While the blindman's vulnerability and exposure to abuse from the other, as well
as his "walled-in" state which severs him in pain from the other, place him initially in the role (in
Levinasian terms) of the self, Derrida also describes the vulnerability of the blindman in terms that situate
him as the other. He is described, for instance, as evoking an ethical response from the self, in his
imploration for a guiding hand. Derrida writes that "the theme of drawings of the blind is,
before all else, the hand" (Memoirs 12 ). The blindman is almost inevitably represented in art
with arms outstretched, his hand preceding him tentatively, imploringly, as he is obliged to venture in the
world, exposed and at risk. The outstretched hands, Derrida writes, "do not seek
anything in particular; they implore the other, the other hand, the helping or charitable hand, the hand of the
other who promises them sight" (Memoirs 12 ). In the autobiographical essay, "Savoir," upon which
Derrida would comment at length in the co-authored Veils, Hélène Cixous
describes her own "blindness" or myopia in similarly ethical terms. In a manner which Derrida appreciates,
Cixous mourns the loss of her blindness through laser surgery. Like Derrida, who sees the blindman's step as
hesitant, while the seeing person is too sure, too certain, or too knowing, imposing his vision on the world,
Cixous associates myopia or blindness with hesitation--"I shall always hesitate. I shall not leave my people.
I belong to the people of those who do not see" ("Savoir" 13)--and thus relates sight, like Derrida, to an all
too certain step, to an irresponsible knowing.
In the final pages of Memoirs, Derrida describes weeping as a form of blindness which is the
"truth" of the eyes, its most human function. He writes,
Weeping, as opposed to seeing, is the supreme function of human eyes for Derrida because, while other animals
can see, only humans cry with their eyes (of course, while Derrida does not note this, other animals
do cry and respond to the suffering of human and animal others vocally). As Derrida also observes, while not all humans can see, all humans, including the blind,
can weep. Derrida notes that in representation it is most often women who weep, as in the representations of
Mary and other women at the cross, and so exemplary blindness, like
that of the subject encountering the "visor effect" or the a-reciprocal gaze, is thus culturally feminine,
as is ethics for Levinas. In Totality and Infinity, the feminine is related to the receptive or
welcoming domesticity of ethics, while in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence ethics is
associated with maternity. We may think once more of Mary's tears.
now if tears come to the eyes, if they well up in them, and if they can also veil sight,
perhaps they reveal, in the very course of experience, in this coursing of water, an essence of the eye, of
man's eye, in any case, the eye understood in the anthropo-theological space of the sacred allegory. Deep down,
deep down inside, the eye would be destined not to see but to weep. For at the very moment they veil sight,
tears would unveil what is proper to the eye. And what they cause to surge up out of forgetfulness, there where
the gaze or look looks after it, keeps it in reserve, would be nothing less than al_theia, the
truth of the eyes, whose ultimate destination they would thereby reveal: to have imploration rather
than vision in sight, to address prayer, love, joy, or sadness rather than a look or gaze. Even before it
illuminates, revelation is the moment of the "tears of joy."(Memoirs 125 )
Some years before Memoirs of the Blind, in "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of
its Pupils," Derrida compares human eyes to those of animals, recalling Aristotle's distinction between
animals with "hard, dry eyes" and those with eyelids. Hard, dry eyes, can never shut but must
always see, while lidded eyes can blink, close, retreat from vision. In this essay Derrida argues that sight or
knowledge (sa/voir) is insufficient, and that we, and the institute of the university in particular, need to
privilege not (or not only) the eye, but also the ear, and thus to "shut our eyes in order to be better
listeners" (4). As we have seen, Derrida argues in Specters of
Marx that scholars are the least well equipped to speak with specters, because they rely excessively on
seeing/knowing (sa/voir); in "The Principle of Reason" Derrida once more characterizes the university as
predominantly ocular. It is imperative, therefore, that scholars learn to take advantage of being the
sorts of animals with lidded eyes, in order not merely to see and know, but to listen and learn: "Opening the
eyes to know, closing them--or at least listening--in order to know how to learn and to learn how to know"
(5). Derrida asks if, figuratively speaking, the university, that institute of knowledge,
must not "close its eyes or narrow its outlook . . . . Shutting off sight in order to learn," and insists that
the university must not be a dry-eyed or sclerophthalmic animal. Of such animals he writes, "what is terrifying
about an animal with hard eyes and a dry glance is that it always sees" (5). He describes the
sclerophthalmic animal as "endowed" with "hard eyes permanently open to a nature that he
is to dominate, to rape if necessary, by fixing it in front of himself, or by swooping down on it like a bird of
prey" (10). A human being, on the other hand, "can lower the sheath, adjust the diaphragm, narrow his sight, the
better to listen, remember, and learn" (10) Derrida associates knowing with seeing, while learning
requires hearing, and a figurative or literal shutting of the eyes. Here again the assumptions arise that
vision can only be violent and never responsive, can only be about knowledge, an imposition of knowledge on the
other, a swooping down like a bird of prey, a rape, rather than a way to learn, a way in which pre-conceived
knowledge is confounded, and an imposition on us to which we unwillingly respond. We may pause and recall here,
however, Levin's dedication to The Philosopher's Gaze, in which he refers to "eyes narrowed in
brutal lust, rage, and hate" and to "cultural blindness," and thus think twice about Derrida's account of the
virtues of the lids of human eyes.
Strangely, this discussion of hard, dry eyes foreshadows Derrida's own medical experience, a few years
later, as he describes it in Memoirs, in which a facial paralysis prevented him from shutting his
eye, and hence from attending his first scheduled appointment at the Louvre. Derrida suddenly found himself a
sclerophthalmic animal, the terrifying "bird of prey" he had described in his earlier essay. He portrays
himself in this period: "the left side of the face stiffened, the left eye transfixed and horrible to behold in
a mirror . . . the eyelid no longer closing normally: a loss of the 'wink' or 'blink,' therefore, this moment of
blindness that ensures sight its breath" (Memoirs 38 ). It was when Derrida could blink again
that, grateful to have once more the respite of blindness, he went to the Louvre and chose to organize his
exhibition around the theme of the closed eye. Like his friend and sometimes co-author Hélène
Cixous, who has said "I am always trying to write with my eyes closed" ("Appendix" 146), Derrida emphasizes that
he wrote sections of Memoirs of the Blind blindly, in the dark or looking away from the page.
Although he does not raise again the discussion of hard and dry-eyed animals, animals that are never
blind, it is of interest that he now discusses blindness in terms of tears, of eyes wet and soft with sorrow.
Derrida concludes his book on blindness with the citation of Marvell's poem, "Eyes and Tears," the
concluding line of which is "these weeping eyes, those seeing tears." Derrida's interlocutor asks, "tears that
see . . . . Do you believe?" and Derrida answers, "I don't know, one has to believe" (129). Here, Derrida's
"step" is hesitant, like that of the blindman or the myopic Cixous; he does not know, and he considers tears
that see, and wishes to believe in this vision. Yet, unlike Marvell, Derrida's discussion of
tears has not been of tears that see, nor of eyes in tears which see, but of tears which blind, and of other
forms of blindness, of eyes which do not see. It is significant that wet, soft eyes are not
blind eyes, and that we can see through tears, and see tears. We see while in tears, and see others in tears,
and cry because of what we see. Vision is not blinded by tears, but rather may respond in tears, tears which
blur without fully obscuring, veil with transparent matter. Seeing in tears is thus an example of the way in
which sight may be confused, unknowing, and thus not always an imposition of knowledge on the object of the
gaze. Because we cry at what we see, and cry involuntarily, crying is an instance of sight which is passive, a
response to the object of the gaze acting upon the eyes, an example of another way of seeing other than that
which has dominated Western metaphysics.
Derrida illustrates his discussion of tears with an image of a woman at the cross who, weeping, covers her
eyes with her hands in the gesture of the blindman, and yet we may think of ways of weeping in which the eyes
are not covered, closed, or blinded. Levin, in a chapter of The Opening of Vision entitled "Crying
for a Vision," conceives of seeing, and seeing in tears specifically, not as a form of knowing but of
learning. His aim is to "to reintegrate the perceptivity of crying into the larger process of vision, letting
it show itself as a moment of extremely important learning." Unlike Derrida, he sees tears not as blinding the
eyes, but as enabling them to see in an ethical manner. He elaborates: "With the crying, I began to see,
briefly, and with pain. Only with the crying, only then, does vision begin" (Opening of Vision
Like Derrida, Levin notes that only human beings cry with their eyes, and thus that crying may well be what
makes our eyes specifically human. Unlike Derrida, however, for Levin crying is also what makes our
vision human, rather than blinding that vision. Here it is not a matter of "imploration rather than
vision" (Memoirs 125 ), but of vision which implores and responds to imploration. Levin
argues that crying may "ennoble" vision in the human sphere, the sphere of ethics, and that the
absence of the ability to shed tears may be what "marks off the inhuman." This inability describes the Nazi commandant and
his victim, neither of whom could cry, having been dehumanized in very different ways. Levin writes:
our eyes are not only articulate organs of sight; they are also the emotionally expressive organs of crying . .
. . Is it merely an accidental or contingent fact that the eyes are capable of crying as well as seeing? Or is
crying in the most intimate, most closely touching relationship to seeing? . . . What is the ontological
significance of crying as a mode of visionary being? (PAGE ##?)
by the "inhuman" I mean the monstrous and the inwardly dead: the Nazi
commandant, for example, and his victim, the Jew, locked into a dance of death,
neither one, curiously, able to shed a tear: for different reasons, their eyes are dry,
empty, hollow. What we have seen, we who are alive today, of human cruelty
and evil demands that we give thought to this capacity for crying and examine,
looking into ourselves, the nature--or character--of its relation to vision. What
does this capacity make visible? What is its truth? What is the truth it sees?
What does it know as a "speech" of our nature? How does it guide our vision? (PAGE ##)
The comparison of tears to speech is interesting in that we are able to think of the eyes (and eyes
in tears) as ears, and also as mouths, as speaking to the other in "words" that oral language may not
contain or allow, and as a way of responding, of hearing and answering, which is again both extra-linguistic and
an other form of speech. Levinas, once more, is thus too quick in his opposition of vision and
language, of vision as an imposition of sameness and speech as an opening to alterity, because tears can be
words, words spoken, words responding to, and also, like writing, words seen.
While, unlike Derrida,
Levin does not elaborate on the cultural or stereotypical femininity of tears, he notes that seeing objectively,
objectifyingly, with wide, dry eyes, in the manner which philosophy (and feminism) has almost always conceived
of vision, with the "right of inspection" or "droit de regard," is perhaps to see, and to see vision, through
"masculine" eyes. Arguably this talk of "masculinity" and "femininity"
in Levinas, Derrida, and Levin raises problems from a feminist perspective, but if I am to follow Levinas, Derrida, and Levin for a moment, I would
argue that if there can be a transformation of the metaphor of vision and light, if we can conceive of a more
"feminine" visuality, then it would be a mistake to separate vision from ethics entirely, or to give vision only
to the other in the ethical relation (as in the visor effect). This, however, is what Levinas and Derrida seem
at least frequently to have done. Despite some ambivalence, and some self-consciousness of the metaphorical
status of what is being rejected, they nevertheless hastily accept vision as an exclusively "masculine"
sense organ and deficient as such from the perspective of a "feminine" ethics, rather than explicitly exploring
the possibilities of new light-metaphors, of a "feminine" vision--a "feminine" vision which, in fact, like its
exemplary capacity to cry, is simply human. Ethical vision as I am here theorizing it is not therefore opposed
to the sight of men, but to the hard, dry-eyed sight of Derrida's sclerophthalmic animals. One way of thinking
about this ethical vision is through a consideration of the capacity of human eyes to cry.
Conclusions: Looking Away and Looking Again
In Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida discusses Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait," in which an
artist is so intent on knowing his wife that he keeps her in a room for days to examine her and reproduce
exactly what he sees (Memoirs 41). He grasps her form, captures her image, and hence possesses her
with literally breath-taking lifelikeness on canvas. This intense being gazed-upon causes the sitter to fall
dead at the moment her husband completes her portrait. Indeed, she has been quietly dying with each of her
husband's glances. Despite his intense looking, the artist had not noticed his wife's growing pallor,
the manner in which her face had been slowly robbed of its color as he placed it on canvas. The artist had
gazed upon his wife knowingly, but without visually encountering the alterity of her from his knowledge, of
encroaching death. The wife ceases to exist as a separate person from her husband and his art at the moment he
has known the last detail of her, and thus her alterity is extinguished through his scrutinizing gaze. Although
Derrida does not note this, it is remarkable that when the eyes of the narrator of "The Oval Portrait" first
fall upon this violent picture, his reaction is to close his eyes. Such is the understanding of vision most
often assumed by Levinas and Derrida, in which voir is savoir and avoir, and
s/a/voir is violence, and what we ought to do is shut our eyes. I have suggested, however, that
perhaps this way of seeing is not sa-voir, but son-voir, or rather sans-voir, a
"masculine" seeing which goes without seeing, without allowing to see and to be seen, and without responding to
the seen. An other way of seeing, however, a less culturally "masculine," less active, less violent
seeing, a moonlit-seeing perhaps, is suggested by Derrida's own reading of Levinas's critique of vision when he
suggests that Levinas is not arguing for "a community without light, not a blindfolded synagogue," but for a
non-neutral, non-Platonic light, and a new way of seeing in the light of which "the totally other . . . can be
manifested as what it is" ("Violence and Metaphysics" 135 ). As Levin notes, and as Derrida comes
close to seeing in Memoirs, this would be a culturally "feminine" but in fact specifically
human way of seeing, a seeing in tears.
Interestingly, just as Levinas's explicit rejection of vision from ethical relations
can and has been nuanced to show an understanding of the manners in which vision may in fact respond to the
other, or can give rise to an ethical encounter rather than abolish its possibility, on a few occasions in his
writings, beyond realizing that the language of vision can be transformed, Derrida goes so far as to attribute
to vision as we already experience it a more positive and ethical function, and theorizes "voir et savoir" as
"incommensurables" (Echographies 131). It is with these
moments in Derrida's work that I would like to conclude.
First, it can be noted that in his description of the ethical response to the blindman, Derrida assumes
that I respond to the blindman's outstretched hand because I see the sight of him which moves me, and thus
respond, am responsible for the Other, through vision. Similarly, in Echographies of Television,
Derrida describes another situation in which vision called spectators to ethical and political responsibility,
to respond against the violence done to others, and in which sight was passive. In the passage in question,
Derrida describes the visual witnessing by television spectators of the police brutality against Rodney King.
In this case, Derrida describes the manner in which vision gave rise to an ethical response as language
arguably could not: while Americans knew that there were instances of racial profiling and
brutality against visible minorities by the police force every day--and knew this based on having
heard and read of such cases--they could (and by and large did) avoid responding to this
knowledge, and it was only when confronted with one such scene visually that a collective ethical
response immediately occurred. In this case, both the sight of the beating and the ethical response to which it
gave rise were "imposed" on the viewers, and thus vision, and the spectator's response to what was seen, are
described as passive: a sight is forced upon one's eyes and one cannot help but respond. Although, as
Derrida notes, such scenes as the Rodney King beating occur every day, with the televisation of the filming of
this particular incident "no one could look the other way" ("personne ne pouvait plus détourner les
yeux"). Unlike the narrator's response in "The Oval Portrait," in Derrida's discussion of the Rodney King
video it is ethically crucial that one not turn one's eyes away from the violence one sees.
Moreover, one cannot turn away from this sight or shut one's eyes to it, for vision is already
passively captivated by what has "been put right before his eyes," to which one responds "all of a sudden": one
is already responding to what has been taken in before one has the choice to look away. Response, the
realization that an intolerable situation is occurring and must be responded to, happens all of a sudden
through vision, as may not be the case with language. In this discussion we see that, contrary to
the other instances in which vision is theorized as active and violent in Derrida's writing, here vision is
theorized as the passive imposition of ethical responsibility upon a subject.
for the scene was, unfortunately, banal. Other, much worse scenes happen, alas, here and there, every day.
Only there it was, this scene was filmed and shown to the entire nation. No one could look the other way, away
from what had, as it were, been put right before his eyes, and even forced into his consciousness or onto his
conscience, apparently without intervention, without mediator. And all of a sudden this became intolerable, the
scene seemed unbearable, the collective or delegated responsibility proved to be too much.
(Echographies 105 [91-2])
What these examples show is that, as Derrida argues in "Violence and Metaphysics," the theory of vision and
light as violent is but a metaphor, even if it is one of the fundamental metaphors which has shaped our history,
experience, and thought, and which has served too often as an alibi for real violence. Nonetheless, I have
argued that Levinas's persistent use of visual metaphors throughout his work despite his own critique of
visuality shows not only that this metaphor is, as Derrida says, inescapable, but also that it can be
transformed to describe other ways of seeing that we already experience. Derrida
notes that there is no alternative to the metaphor of light, and certainly night and blindfolded
synagogues are not such alternatives, and yet we can think of options other than the binding and blinding of eyes, and of other
forms of light than the penetrating gaze of the sun. As such, we can develop new metaphors of light and seeing, moonlit
metaphors of bewildered and responsive vision. One such image of vision I have developed in this essay is that of seeing tears
and of seeing in tears, an image that, as seen, occurs briefly in Levinas's
discussion of the sculptures of Sacha Sosno, and equally briefly in the conclusion of Derrida's Memoirs of
the Blind. As Derrida concludes Memoirs, so I would like to conclude here with the
suggestion that we need to believe in "these weeping eyes, those seeing tears," and in a visionary ethics.
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto
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Matthias Fritsch, Robert Gibbs, Iain MacDonald, and the reviewers at Postmodern Culture have given me helpful and
encouraging comments on this paper, for which I give many thanks.
1. On Levinas's discussion of vision and its
relation to Judaism, see Jay 543 ff.
2. For a discussion of vision and touch in Levinas's philosophy, see
3. For a discussion of the shared critiques of the phallogocentrism
of vision in Derrida and Cixous, see Jay 493-542.
4. I am thinking for instance of Lyotard's discussion of the
5. A disability critique of Diderot's discussion of blindness and of the way in which
blindness functions as a trope for inethicality and ethicality respectively in the
works of Levin and Derrida could be warranted, although it is beyond the scope of the current paper.
6. For a discussion of whether "other animals" can be considered to
be others whom we encounter in ethical, face-to-face relations on Levinasian terms, see Llewelyn.
7. Levin is discussing Levinas's "Language and Proximity"; see his
Collected Philosophical Papers 118.
8. See Levin, "Keeping Foucault and Derrida in Sight" 398.
9. Derrida refers to his writing of Memoirs of the
Blind as the confessions of a blindman. He also claims to be struck by "a double infirmity: to this
day, I still think that I will never know either how to draw or to look at a drawing" (37). For a critical
discussion of Derrida's blindness and anti-ocularism in the curatorship of the Louvre exhibition and
Memoirs of the Blind, see Kelly 108-120). For a more positive discussion of Derrida's writings
on art, see Krell. For Krell's discussion of the Louvre exhibition and Memoirs of the Blind in
particular, see 50-81.
10. Derrida uses the term "blindman" rather than "blind person"
because he notes that most blind persons represented in art (other than those blinded by tears) are men. The
point that the blind must encounter the other through language rather than through form is qualified by the manner in
which the blind may encounter the other's form through touch, which, for Levinas, is also not a manner in
which the face may be encountered.
11. For a discussion of tears in Derrida, see Caputo.
12. Marvell writes, "For others too can see, or sleep/ But only
human eyes can weep" (qtd. in Derrida, Mémoires 130).
13. The last image reproduced in Mémoires is
of a woman weeping at the cross.
14. In The Opening of Vision (282), Levin cites Carol
Gilligan's observation as to "how accustomed we have become to seeing life through men's eyes," from In
a Different Voice.
15. Levinas himself notes the "archaic" and merely cultural status
of these gendered terms, and says in an interview: "Perhaps . . . all these allusions to the ontological
differences between the masculine and the feminine would appear less archaic if, instead of dividing humanity
into two species (or into two genres [also meaning "two genders" in French]), they would signify
that the participation in the masculine and the feminine were the attributes of every human being"
(Ethics and Infinity 68 ). Levinasian feminist philosophers such as Leora Batnitzky have
argued that Levinas's use of gendered terminology, although it revalorizes traditionally feminine values and
activities, does more harm than good, for it undermines the philosophical value of Levinas's claims about the
human, and reinscribes care as the domain and responsibility of women. See for instance Batnitzky 23. For
further discussion of these points, see my "Levinasian Ethics and Feminist Ethics of Care."
16. I say that Derrida comes close to seeing this, because though
he recognizes that tears are "feminine," he does not recognize them as a "feminine" form of seeing, but only
as a "feminine" form of blindness.
17. In "Keeping Foucault and Derrida in Sight," Levin also argues
that Derrida has a positive as well as a negative account of vision. Levin claims that Derrida, like
Foucault, sees modernity as ocularcentric, and resists this ocularcentricity, but that neither philosopher
entirely rejects vision. Rather, both are critiquing and employing vision strategically in order to theorize
and bring about a "postmetaphysical vision" (398). Levin thus writes that Derrida and Foucault "make use of
vision in a critique of vision. Thus we must see that there is a potential in our vision that is opposed to
the potential that our modern age has tended for the most part to realize. Our vision also has an
emancipatory, or utopian, potential" (404).
In an example, Levin notes that Derrida prioritizes
graphe (writing) over phone (sound), and thus prioritizes something visible (written words)
over something invisible (voice); however phone may be more inscribed than graphe in
the desire to see, for one hears the other's voice when in her presence, and thus is able to look at the one
who speaks. In contrast, one reads, and sees, the other's writing in her absence. Preferring the visible
graphe to the invisible phone thus uses vision to subvert the ocularcentric metaphysics of
presence (412). It is not simply that Derrida rejects vision, but rather that he chooses strategically certain forms of vision in order to subvert the dominant visual metaphysics.
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Cixous, Hélène. "Appendix: An Exchange with Hélène Cixous." Verena Andermatt
Conley. Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. 129-61.
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Bennington. Stanford, Stanford UP, 2001. 1-16.
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