Trigg, Levinas, Harman

I find that my position on speculative realism is close to that of Dylan Trigg, in his article in Speculations 4. Trigg seeks to expand phenomenology beyond the human — to devise an unhuman phenomenology, through recourse to early Levinas (Existence and Existents, and Time and the Other). There is something in experience that is not “mine,” and that extends beyond the limits of the body/world correlation in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Trigg also suggests, rightly to my mind, a different take on Levinas’s “there is” (il y a) than the one offered by that other admirer of Levinas, Graham Harman. For Harman, in Levinas’ il y a “there is a single formless element from which the things of our lives emerge” — this is an “undermining” of objects to which Harman objects. Harman’s reading is not wrong, but for Trigg it only gives part of the story. In Trigg’s analysis of the il y a, “Levinas is assigning a reality to existence that is not dependent on there being a world in the first place. Rather, existence precedes the birth of the world, marking a constant presence that is at once immersed in the world of things but at the same resistant to being identified with those things.” This means that, “far from the mere disappearance of things, the Levinasian il y a retains a presence, which cannot be tied down to appearances despite having an indirect relation to those appearances.” In other words, any entity (not just a human being) can experience the il y a, and the il y a is precisely an experience of what Harman calls “withdrawal” — the withdrawal, not just of things from me, but even (or especially) of what I myself am from me. This is where my own experience of the world becomes, as Trigg says, “unhuman.” While I suspect that Harman will not accept this as a defense against the charge of undermining, I actually find that Trigg’s reading of Levinas makes it easier for me to accept, or come to terms with, what Harman means by withdrawal.

Trigg’s reading resonates with my own Blanchotian sense of Levinas (which I came to via Joseph Libertson’s Proximity). It it not the “undermining” of the object that is at stake here, but rather what I can only call a défaillance of the subject (I cannot think of a good enough English equivalent for the French word). The supposed “subject” doesn’t disappear into nothingness; there is no negativity at work here. And yet this subject finds itself unable to relate intentionally to the world or to objects in the world. This deficit of intentionality dissolves what Harman calls the “sensual” realm, without for all that allowing any access to “real” objects.

My difference from Trigg (and also from other SR thinkers interested in the horror of Lovecraft and Ligotti) is this. Where they see immersion in the il y a as a form of deprivation, a wound to the narcissistic ego — which is probably the only way a constituted human subject can feel about it (I myself find few things more dreadful than insomnia), I think that the same process can also be understood as what Whitehead would call a “constructive functioning” (Process and Reality 156). Rather than descend from full human intentional consciousness into the il y a, we should start from the “vagueness” (again, Whitehead’s term) that lies behind conscious perception, that is much broader than that perception, and out of which consciousness only fitfully emerges, if at all. From this point of view, we have a story of emergence instead of one of dissolution into horror. The vague sentience of the slime mold (my favorite biological organism) is not in the least horrific for the slime mold; it is a kind of thought, and also a kind of contact with the world that is devoid of phenomenological intentionality; in other words, a form of “contact” that is not a “relation” in the sense Harman criticizes, but rather the experience of what Trigg rightly describes as Levinas’ “non-relational account of existence.”

For me, this means the point is not to develop (as Trigg wishes) an “unhuman phenomenology’; nor what Ian Bogost calls an “alien phenomenology” or what Thomas Nagel calls an “objective phenomenology”; but rather what I would like to call (imitating Laruelle, perhaps?) a non-phenomenology.

Leave a Reply