Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy, Photography and Film

cropped-Header-Emmanuel-Levinas3Emmanuel Levinas is among the least obvious of twentieth-century philosophers to feature in a volume devoted to philosophy of film. From a philosophical grounding in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger that remained an important influence throughout his career, Levinas‘s work traverses the fields of religion, aesthetics, politics and, most crucially, ethics. Levinas articulates his ethics in dialogue with the Western philosophical tradition principally in his two major works: Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Western philosophy, for Levinas, has for the most part been an ontology,  by which he means that otherness has been reduced perpetually to a system of selfsameness in which nothing other than being can appear (Levinas 2007:43). Although the phenomenological undertakings of Husserl and Heidegger remain a key point of reference for him, Levinas aims to create a space of transcendence from within the realm of light and appearance crucial to phenomenology (ibid.: 27). Apparently turning his back in his ethics on the conditions for seeing and being in the visible world, he questions two of the key senses fundamental to the production and reception of film.

His main concepts in outlining the possibility of an ethical encounter in Totality and Infinity are the visage (face) and the caresse (caress), both of which are theorized as giving rise to a relation to alterity never fully to be encompassed by any of the senses, least of all sight and touch. These sensory connections are totalizing gestures, for Levinas, which reduce alterity to our experience of it alone and thus shrink otherness to self-sameness, rather than creating a possibility for its emergence in and on its own terms. It is language, for Levinas, that allows such gestures to be transcended. It is for this reason that the visage is first and foremost a speaking face. The first words that the face utters are those of the commandment “you shall not commit murder” (ibid.: 199). This ethical injunction that the face speaks, and that cuts through the phenomenological world, has long prompted scholars to ask how his ethics comes into being. More recently, literary and film scholars have joined this debate and taken his work into the aesthetic dimension, moving from the being of life to that of art.

Such a Levinasian move within film scholarship is not without its problems. Not only does his thinking bear a persistently interrogative relation to images, but his early work on aesthetics distances all art forms from his conception of ethics. Furthermore, his brief occasional references to film are made to support a philosophical argument rather than constituting a reflection on film per se. In two books, for example, Levinas draws on the films of Charlie Chaplin: he refers to The Gold Rush (1925) in Entre Nous and City Lights (1931) in De levasion, showing how film can furnish philosophy with illustrations of its arguments similarly to the way in which literature does. Yet recent scholarship has begun nonetheless to explore more enabling and complex points of contact between central concepts in his work and film, as well as film theory. Film-makers have also engaged with his work, either by featuring references to his books in their films, or in their writings on their filmmaking. In Jean-Luc Godard‘s Notre musique (2004), for example, an Israeli journalist leafs through a copy of Entre Nous, and this occasions Levinasian-inspired thoughts on the reconstruction of the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia-Herzegovina that will link the Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians who live on opposite sides of the River Neretva. And Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne indicate their debt to Levinas in their writings, suggesting how their films work through his ethical themes, in terms of both how the films are made and the subjects they treat.

p35223_d_v7_aaLevinas marks a clear debt to Bergson throughout his career and refers to his work frequently. In the preface to the German edition of his 1961 text Totality and Infinity (written in 1987), he signals the importance of Bergsons work to his own. In “L’Autre, Utopie et Justice” (The other, Utopia and justice; 1988), he says that he feels close to certain Bergsonian themes (1998:193). And in “Diachronie et representation” (Diachrony and representation), a lecture given originally in 1985, Levinas turns to a later text (Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion [The Two Sources of Morality and Religion]; Bergson [1932] 1948) in order to show how compatible his ethical thinking is with that of Bergson (Levinas 1998: 153). Although Levinas is critical of Bergson, and he parts company with the earlier philosopher in his positing of ethics as first philosophy, this has not stopped prominent readers of Levinas from seeing his notion of alterity as “an ethical duree” (Critchley 1992: 175). Levinass two texts on time that will be the focal point here are those in which he engages explicitly with Bergsons writings on duree (duration): Time and the Other and “La Mort et le temps” (Death and Time; in Levinas 2000).

In film theory, the association between immobility, death and the image appears most frequently in discussions of the photographic, rather than the cinematic, dimension. The difference between photography and cinema is set out on the basis of their contrasting relations to movement and time. Through his interest in the immobility of the artwork in the entre temps and his work on time elsewhere, Levinas allows us to rethink the relation between the photographic and the cinematic differently, without returning to a Bazinian conception of the emergence of the latter from the former, or a Deleuzian conception of the ontology of cinema in which the image is always already moving. Levinass observations on time, both with regard to the artwork and mortal life, provide another way of conceiving the ontology of cinema, and it is the relationship between death and time that is at stake.

As with Time and the Other, Levinass later work on death and time is also a series of lectures, given at the Sorbonne in 1975-6, and published in 1993. “La Mort et le temps” is essentially a course on temporal duration. Levinas enters into detailed dialogue with Heidegger, Kant, Hegel, Aristotle, Bergson and Bloch. Contrary to Heidegger, though, it is not a being-towards-death that concerns him, and it is not the experience of death through which he will address the subject, but the way in which the death of the other concerns me more than my own death. Rather than use this death to think about our relation to time, Levinas reverses the philosophical logic of priority and uses time to think about death. In this, he locates himself closer to Ernst Bloch than any of the other philosophers he discusses (Levinas 2000: 92-106). Yet he also brings out a further relation to Bergson here. Although, as in the earlier work, he distances himself from Bergsons understanding of the elan vital, arguing that the equation of duration with this life-force excludes death, he refers to Bergsons later work and glimpses a relation to the other that is closer to his own sense of the bond between time and the other:

But the vital impulse is not the ultimate signification of the time of Bergsonian duration. In Two Sources of Morality and Religion, the duration that Creative Evolution considered as vital impulse becomes interhuman life. Duration becomes the fact that a man can appeal to the interiority of the other man. {Ibid.: 55-6)

This glimpse of an opening to the other in time is excluded from the thinking of time in relation to a single subject. Building on his previous works, Levinas conceives time as a relation to infinity rather than the limitation of being. The relation to death comes to us through our relation to the other, differently from in Time and the Other, even though the terminology and thinking are similar. Instead of my encounter with death-the-unknowable being traced in the face-to-face encounters with other people, death enters life through the loss of others and constitutes the self as a responsible survivor. Levinas asks: “Can one understand time as a relationship with the Other, rather than seeing in it the relationship with the end?” {ibid:. 106). Rather than characterize his sense of duration as the mobile image of immobile eternity, flux or being-towards-death, duration troubles us, in Levinas’s view, by what is still to come, and what has yet to be accomplished {ibid.: 114). The relation to time is described ultimately as the responsibility that one mortal has for another {ibid.: 117). A connection can be made to both the photographic and the cinematic dimensions through this focus on mortality.

Films repeatedly engage issues of mortality, both thematically and formally Death is fundamental to Bazin’s pioneering essay “Ontologie de Fimage photographique” (The Ontology of the Photographic Image; 2002b): the photograph prevents the second spiritual death of its captured subject and film mummifies change. In contrasting ways, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag also make the association between photography and mortal fragility (Barthes 1980a; Sontag 1979). Locating Levinas’s philosophy between a vision of the emergence of cinematic time from the presumed eternal temporal stasis of the photograph, and a desire to read vital forces in relation to any emergence of immobility, a different ontological vision becomes apparent here, fissured by Levinasian ethics. By enabling us to look beyond the Bergsonian equation of the elan vital with duration and its connection to cinema, this reading of Levinas suggests a connection between death and cinematic time.

Levinas argues that art replaces its object with an image rather than a concept, and both movement and time come to a halt in the process. In this, the image neutralizes the real relationship that we have with objects through action, and as Reni Celeste (2007) suggests, the cinematic screen is “frozen” regardless of how fast-paced the action is that we watch on it. Lacking a future, Levinas s characterization of the artwork, cinema included, resembles Barthes’ description of the photograph in Camera Lucida, which he deems to be “sans avenif (without a future), unlike cinema, which he compares to the flow of life (Barthes 1980a: 140). Levinas s definition of the artwork contrasts  with this description of the photograph, nonetheless, in so far as the artwork keeps its figures suspended between life and death: an eternal limbo, an instant that can stop. The entre temps, as we have seen, lies between death and life, and, as also observed, the space between these two extremes in theoretical discourse to date has tended predominantly to be mapped on to the distance between photography and film. In contrast, the levelling gesture of the Levinasian entre temps suggests that we might contest the life and mobility of the latter, as well as the fully fledged death of the former, thus bringing the two closer to one another than the varied theoretical distinctions of Bazin, Barthes and Deleuze have hitherto made possible. A Levinasian-inspired intervention in this debate is thus aligned, rather, with more recent discussions in photographic theory, which have sought to question any strict mapping of the binary of cinema-photography onto that of life-death. As the presence of photography in film suggests more insistently than any theory – and the oeuvre of Chris Marker performs this brilliantly, not only through his three photo-films (La Jetee [The jetty; 1962]; Si favais quatre dromadaires [If I had Four Dromedaries; 1966]; Le Souvenir d’un avenir [with Y. Bellon, Remembrance of Things to Come; 2001]), but also in the presence of photographs in almost all of his other films – the life and death of the photographic and the filmic image are intimately interwoven and do not allow the photograph always to signify death, or the film image life. Yet there is still a difference between the two, as other theoretical positions also make clear.

Life and death come together in Laura Mulvey‘s view of cinema to generate an alternative description of Godard s definition of cinema as truth twenty-four frames per second (at its conventional celluloid projection speed). Mulvey speaks of death, rather than truth, at twenty-four frames per second (Mulvey 2006: 15). Following Bergson, who – as Deleuze reminds us – teaches us not to confuse movement with the space covered, if we select either life or death when designating film or photography, we reconstitute the mobility of the interval as two immobile sections labelled either “life” or “death”. The more enabling possibility here, then, would be to ask how we live a relation to the interval as we view film, while thinking its connection to the opening that death provides in Levinas’s philosophy more generally. In keeping with this, work to date on Levinas and cinema has asked implicitly how the entre temps is brought back to the questions that Levinas asks with reference to being, or his challenge to ontology, as certain films have been explored in terms of the Levinasian themes that they feature. Celeste (2007) is closest to preserving film as an exemplification of the interval. Levinas s philosophy gives us pause if we are thinking film as a mobile life-force of duration, not only through his work on aesthetics, but also through his broader work on time.

As we have seen, in Levinas s work on death and time, death enters life through contact with others: in the face-to-face relation in Time and the Other, and through the death of others in “La Mort et le temps”. This contact gives rise to a new subjectivity – a rebirth of the subject – in a time instituted and propelled by the relation to alterity: these are the terms of Levinas s ethics. As he writes in Totality and Infinity, there are ruptures in the continuity of time, but there is also continuation through these breaks (2007: 284). Death is rethought on the basis of time, not as an end, but as an encounter with uncertainty, with a future. To bring such Levinasian thinking to film is to bring life to the interval, and to bring the interval to life. What is born through this encounter is another way of thinking about time. This is not to deny the properties of the entre temps, since these are precisely what have allowed me here to mark out a difference between life and death in their conventional association with the filmic and the photographic dimensions, respectively, along with the possibility of seeing more than relentless mobility and duration in film, even when it is at rest. For Levinas, in the artwork, death is never really ever dead enough and it is the inability to connect with the time of life that prevents film, among other arts, from entering the ethical dimension. But the interval, while located outside time in one respect, also contains the time of life in and through its images. L. B. Jefferiess relations to the others he watches and has more direct contact with in his flat may never change, however many times we view Rear Window, but these encounters in the aesthetic dimension are not entirely separated from similar ones that might take place beyond this realm.

To introduce Levinass broader thinking on temporality to film, then, is to think  time differently from within – rather than opposing it to – the interval that locates it between life and death. Levinass philosophy opens discussions of the filmic and the photographic to a different future, in which temporality is born of an encounter with alterity, the model for which is the Levinasian conception of death. Death brings uncertainty, rather than immobility or temporal stasis, and makes duration thinkable. This duration does not head towards death or override it, but encounters it as uncertainty within life. Thought through in these Levinasian terms, death lies at the heart of cinematic duration, and time is not solely a function of movement or its absence. Time enters cinematic images from the outside: the life and death from which Levinas separates it. By introducing his broader thinking on time to cinema it is possible to reintroduce the temporality of life and death to film, and to stage an encounter between the Levinasian entre temps and ethics. This philosophical encounter with film realizes the paradox of locating the time of alterity within the instant that can stop. To think about cinema with Levinas is to be alive to temporal duration while marking time, and thus to participate in one of the many bloodstreams that circulate between art and life.

Categories: Philosophy

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies


  1. Narrative Theory – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  2. The Philosophy of Rene Descartes – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  3. Spectral Criticism Literary Theory – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  4. The Other,The Big Other, and Othering – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  5. Key Theories of Maurice Blanchot – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: