De-onto-theologizing Otherness

Emanuel Levinas is hailed as a thinker of otherness. He developed his thought though a creative critique of Martin Heidegger. Due to the work of Levinas, Heidegger appears to be a thinker of sameness that desires to eliminate all shades of otherness. But is that really so? Is Levinas thinking the other within onto-theology that Heidegger wishes to overcome? Does his ethics first position also becomes a way of return to onto-theology? At least his phenomenology of the face does not seem to indicate so. Although, Levinas moves beyond onto-theological traps of our thinking, yet he does not seem to remain open to Heidegger’s struggle to rise beyond onto-theological thinking as regard the other. Fortunately, Jean-luc Nancy’s return to Heidegger appears to opens us to the realm beyond onto-theology in Heideggerian thinking of the other.

This return to Heidegger in the work of Nancy opens the possibility of reopening the questions of Levinas from within Heidegger again. Levinas, However, shifts the focus from being to that of the other. Nancy on the other hand appears to emphasize the importance of both being and the other and situates them at the same level. Perhaps, Levinas relates being and otherness in an relation of opposition (you may disagree on this point) while Nancy positions them in a relation of hyphenation. While we may disagree or agree with me as regards may take about Levinas or Nancy the best thing we kay do is to ask what is otherness after onto-theology? Otherness after onto-theology might illuminate us to the thinking of Nancy visa vis Levinas. Staying beyond onto-theology, Nancy does not absolutize or onto-theologize otherness. Nancy , therefore, thinks that being and being-with belong together. Being, therefore, is also being-with. This, thus, opens the question of otherness within being and brings it to the heart of existence. This is why Nancy’s work is seen as an attempt to disarticulate Heideggerian thinking of sociality which of course has been hailed as the weakest part of his thinking.

From Heidegger’s point of view existence shows itself as a disclosure of possibilities of being with reference to the sense of the world that each of us bring to bear on existence. Within this perspective, otherness becomes the question of infinite reopening of finite existence. Thus, Nancy seems to be de-onto-theologizing otherness and opens its infinite play/lila (much in the manner Jacques Derrida does to meaning) without reaching a substantive closure of an entity. Thus, otherness remains open and un-decideable and refuses to close into a framed sameness. It appears that Nancy summons Heideggerian thinking of being and turns it upon itself to think the question of being but differently from that of Levinas. In doing so Nancy successfully frees Heidegger from the burden of onto-theological thinking of the other. Nancy, thus, seems to reveal that from Heideggerian thinking itself, we cannot think otherness in terms of essences but is terms of Heidegger’s disclosiveness that dynamically gives and withdraws at the same time. Otherness is a play that does not close to a point or even a curve. It remains in play or dance and therefore, remains incommensurable. Otherness, therefore, cannot be appropriated by our language and understanding. Language that wraps otherness has to be surpassed. There is undecideabilty at the very core of otherness.

Since Nancy refused to onto-theologize/ absolutize otherness , I think that he can see openness to otherness in Heideggerian being- with. While we have encountered a kind of disenchantment of world, we still can view with Heidegger, that humans are beings-in-the-world. Humans, therefore, are always open and alert to the question as to what is happening between them. The site of happening is between us humans, cosmos and God. We have a sense of the world that opens us to this in- between space. This sense of the world is given to (acquired by) us and remains open to be given again (acquired again). It is a horizon that illumines the world as well as us to us. Thus, the relation to the world is not that of the subject and object but one that remains as other horizon where one encounters the otherness of oneself and the otherness of the other. Therefore, we have to agree that the originary otherness is in the self and its other. Thus, we think of self and the other not in oppositional terms but in relations of hypenation. There is no self and its other. There is an other (self) and its other. Being-with is being-with the other.

This is the way we are enabled to think otherness de-onto-theologically. Both self and its other cannot be reduced to substantive closures. They remain dynamic and stay in the flow and refuse to close or end around a center or even a curve. Thus, we can see that Nancy disarticulates not just Heidegger but also Levinas. Our thinking and language can only catch the traces of being-other. It is a dance of coming of the other and separating from it that remains within and above language and understanding. It is a kind of closed openness aptly described by Heidegger as disclosiveness. Thus, the other is not there to be subdued and conquered. The other is already in the self. There is a hyphenated relation between the self and the other. This thinking of the other that stays beyond onto-theology is needed today where the other is unfortunately constructed in opposition to the self. In our thinking, the other is not therefore, the other of the self that marks the boundaries between the self and the other. The other is in many ways the self of the self. Self is the other alongside other others. The othered self of the self is always entangled with the other. This thinking of the other and the self is an anti-dote to the identity politics that is brewing as a politics of othering minorities, women, Dalits, tribals, laborers, children, etc., in our country. Therefore, de-onto-theologizing otherness is indeed emancipative and the need of the hour.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao