The former is of course a key trope in Levinas’s phenomenology of absolute alterity, wherein the radical passivity associated with the immemorial trace of the ‘other in me’ is associated with an ‘impossibility of possibility’ which disables intentional apprehension and ekstatic projection.
And in fact, Lyotard’s ‘solar catastrophe’ effectively transposes Levinas’s theologically inflected ‘impossibility of possibility’ into a natural-scientific register, so that it is no longer the death of the Other that usurps the sovereignty of consciousness, but the extinction of the sun. Significantly, this transposition occurs at the historical juncture wherein elements of the scientific image have begun to bleed into those philosophical discourses probing the extremities of the manifest image – which is to say, the discourses of post-Kantian continental philosophy – generating increasingly complex patterns of dissonance within the latter.
For just as the phenomenon of death indexes an anomalous zone in the conceptual fabric of the manifest image – the point at which our everyday concepts and categories begin to break down, which is why it remains a privileged topic for philosophers exploring the outer limits of the manifest image – so, by the same token, the concept of extinction represents an aberration for the phenomenological discourse which sought to transcendentalize the infrastructure of the manifest image precisely in order to safeguard the latter from the incursions of positivism and naturalism.
Yet it is precisely insofar as the concept of extinction expresses a dissonance resulting from the interference between the manifest and scientific images that it could not have been generated from within the latter; it is manufactured by deploying the manifest image’s most sophisticated conceptual resources (in conjunction with elements of scientific discourse) against that image’s own phenomenological self-understanding. At this particular historical juncture, philosophy should resist the temptation to install itself within one of the rival images, just as it should refuse the forced choice between the reactionary authoritarianism of manifest normativism, and the metaphysical conservatism of scientific naturalism.
Rather, it should exploit the mobility that is one of the rare advantages of abstraction in order to shuttle back and forth between images, establishing conditions of transposition, rather than synthesis, between the speculative anomalies thrown up within the order of phenomenal manifestation,and the metaphysical quandaries generated by the sciences’ challenge to the manifest order. In this regard, the concept of extinction is necessarily equivocal precisely insofar as it crystallizes the interference between the two discourses. Thus, the equivalence that obtained between the existential-phenomenological characterization of death, and the natural-scientific phenomenon of extinction, is reiterated in the reversibility between the phenomenology of trauma and the extinction of phenomenology, so that the catastrophic nature of extinction, its overturning of origin and end, empirical and transcendental, follows directly from its being at once a naturalization of eschatology and a theologization of cosmology. Fittingly, it is precisely the discourse of phenomenology that is best suited to registering the trauma that portends the disintegration of the manifest image.
In this regard, Levinas’s hyperbolic phenomenology provides the perfect lexicon with which to describe extinction as a traumatic seizure of phenomenology. The hyperbolic emphasis of Levinas’s discourse is the result of his attempt to excavate the meta-ontological and meta-categorical significance of a transcendence beyond being. Levinas proposes to decipher the latter via a set of signifying tropes, which, he claims, already animate the pre-ontological understanding of being sought for by the early Heidegger:
Emphasis means both a rhetorical figure, a means of self-exaggeration,
and a way of showing oneself. The word is a good one, as is the word
‘hyperbole’: there are hyperboles wherein notions transmute themselves.
To describe this transmutation is also a way of doing phenomenology.
Exasperation as philosophical method!
Thus, Levinas’s phenomenological method is one of emphatic exasperation, and he insists that it alone is capable of articulating the enigmatic and epiphenomenal ‘sense of sense’ harboured by the radically nonontological transcendence he ascribes to the ‘wholly other’. But the only register of phenomenological sense commensurate with the punishing alterity of this infinite transcendence is that of violation. More precisely, Levinas engages in an emphatic exasperation of phenomenology the better to describe the originary ethical sense proper to the phenomenon of trauma. Accordingly, infinite alterity is characterized as a ‘wounding’ and ‘haemorrhaging’ of subjectivity, just as the ethical subject is described as a ‘hostage’ who is ‘traumatized’ and ‘persecuted’ by the Other (indeed, for Levinas, excruciation seems to be the ethical trope par excellence).
The ‘impossibility of possibility’, which is the signature of the wholly other in Levinas’s work, is both an impossibility of being and an impossibility in being. Dying as the impossibility of death is an impossibility of being, insofar as the latter is conceived as the interminable and anonymous rumble of the ‘il y a’ – Levinas’s mischievous subreption of Heidegger’s Es gibt (‘there is’) – from which there is no escape.
But it is simultaneously an impossibility in being, insofar as it points to the intolerable excess of passive suffering whereby the self is accused in responsibility by the infinitely Other. It is this traumatic accusation that prevents the self from being able to persist in its own being. For Levinas, the two senses of impossibility – the impossibility of ceasing to be and the impossibility of beginning to be – are absolutely different yet indissociable.
Thus absolute alterity is traumatic precisely insofar as it combines the horror of sense and the horror of non-sense: it means at once the horror of non-sense as eternal persistence in being, with no possibility of escape (the il y a); and the horror of sense, understood as the infinite ethical interruption of being, which indefinitely postpones our ability to be (the wounding transcendence of illeity). As a result, the anterior posteriority concomitant with the impossibility of possibility gives rise to a traumatic double bind: we can neither begin to be, nor cease to be. Subjectivity is paralysed by an alterity that has ‘always already’ dispossessed it of its own substance, an alterity embedded ‘in its skin’, but which thereby renders it ‘ill at ease in its own skin’:
as though encumbered and blocked by itself, suffocating beneath
itself, insufficiently open, forced to unburden itself of itself, to
breathe in more deeply, to the limit of its breath; forced to dis-possess
itself until it loses itself. Does this loss have the void, the zero-point
and quiet of the grave, as its term, as if the subjectivity of the subject
Levinas’s question is supposed to highlight the enigmatic character of the meaning of alterity. Were we in possession of a criterion allowing us to distinguish the ethical sense of our dispossession ‘for the Other’ from the ontological non-sense of our dispossession ‘for nothing’ (insofar aswe remain trapped by the anonymous persistence of the il y a), then the ‘anarchy’ which Levinas ascribes to ethical significance – the enigma of the trace – would be betrayed. The ethical meaning of the ‘for the Other’ is kept open precisely insofar as it remains ontologically indistinguishable from the ‘for nothing’: the non-sense of being. Without this ambiguity, the excess which Levinas ascribes to ethical sense vis-à-vis the ontological economy of meaning would be cancelled and its alterity reinscribed within the theodicy of the logos. Consequently, the difference between the ‘for the other’ and the ‘for nothing’, or between the Other and the Same, must ‘come to the same’ (revenir au même) within being precisely in order to ensure the possibility – or what Levinas calls ‘chance’ – that the difference between ethical sense and ontological non-sense may not ‘return to the Same’, but rather point beyond being.
However, given that Levinas’s entire project proceeds from the prior stipulation that the transcendence of the infinitely Other means the ‘good beyond being’, it is difficult to see how this purported ambiguity could be anything more than a sham. Levinas has already answered his own question in the negative: subjectivity will not have the zero-point and quiet of the grave as its term, precisely because the subjectivity of the subject does mean something, and that something is ‘the good beyond being’. Contra Levinas then, it is necessary to insist that the phenomenology of trauma also entails a trauma for phenomenology: subjectivity as understood by the latter has already been terminated, italready means nothing.
The necessary obverse of Levinas’s insistence onthe inherently equivocal sense of trauma is the claim that the latter itself entails the extinction of phenomenological sense (and a fortiori of the ethical sense to which Levinas would subordinate it). It is in this regard that extinction is a transcendental trauma: it is the conceptual transposition of a physical phenomenon which undoes the phenomenological resources through which the manifest image would make sense of it. Moreover, by overturning the hierarchy of empirical and a priori, along with the phenomenological complicity between sense and nonsense, the catastrophe of extinction reiterates the trauma at the origin of life, which Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle construes in terms of the scission between the organic and inorganic.