Book Symposium: Futurity in Phenomenology–DeRoo Responds to Severson

The following is Neal DeRoo’s response to Eric Severson’s review of Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Derrida and Levinas. With this post we close our latest Book Symposium. We certainly hope you’ve enjoyed this enriching conversation. And we thank all the contributors, not only for their written words, but for the embodied witness their work gives to us. Such deep and committed reflection is indeed a needed and crucial part of ecclesial life. Thanks also to Fordham University Press for sending copies of Neal’s book to the reviewers.

Be sure to take this final chance to interact with the author and reviewer in the comments.

Neal DeRoo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dordt College (Sioux Center, IA). In addition to writing Futurity in Phenomenology, he has co-edited several works in phenomenology and philosophy of religion, including Cross and Khora: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo, The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith’s Critique of Postmodern Religion, Phenomenology and Eschatology: Not Yet in the Now, and Merleau-Ponty at the Limits of Art, Religion and Perception.


Self, Other, and the Time of the Church: A Response to Severson

I have not yet had the chance to read Eric Severson’s new book, Levinas’s Philosophy of Time: Gift, Responsibility, Diachrony, Hope. Hopefully I will have the chance, someday, to engage his work in the same thoughtful manner which he has paid me the privilege of employing in his engagement with my book. For now, I will try, at least, to use that same thoughtfulness in response to his critique, in which he raises an explicit challenge that I will attempt to meet. In doing so, I hope to be able to articulate a second challenge raised by his work, one that is not issued as a challenge, but which strikes me as a point of profound importance for Christian thinking and living in the years to come.

The challenge that Severson explicitly issues to me comes in two parts: 1) to speak to “how it is meaningful to continue to apply the term ‘futurity’ to the work of Levinas after Otherwise than Being,” given that 2) “Otherwise than Being is a critique of the concept of ‘futurity’ and its value for thinking about the relation with the other, and perhaps the relation to phenomena.” On this point, I think the difference between Severson and myself comes from a disagreement about the meaning of the word ‘futurity,’ a disagreement based, perhaps, on the relative importance we accord to the notion of the ‘futuration of the future’ that Levinas discusses in “Diachrony and Representation.” For me, I take that ‘futuration’ to be the key to Levinas’ entire discourse on time, if not his entire philosophical project in total. I use the term ‘futurity,’ then, in regards to that futuration for Levinas, as much (or more) than I employ it in terms of the subject’s relation to a future (present). Futurity in Levinas, I tried to argue, is not just an account of a chronological, directional relation, running from the present toward a future, a direction that ultimately arises from the subject itself, and so something that falls under the control of the ego. Instead—and this is Levinas’s unique contribution to both a phenomenological account of futurity and to the self-understanding of phenomenology itself—Levinas introduces the notion that futurity is also the call of that which lies beyond being, a call that does not happen within being, but which constitutes (to use Heidegger’s language) the being for whom its own being is at question. Futurity, therefore, is not just my projection into a future—it is (also) the fact that that projection can be understood as the essence of my own being only insofar as I recognize that the projection is not my projection, but is the trajectory set for me by the other, by the one who calls me and who assigns me the task of ‘shepherding’ that call, who assigns me precisely as the task of shepherding that call. The notion of futurity in Levinas therefore complicates the distinction between the (constituting) work of the subject (“futurity”) and the work performed on the (constituted) subject by the other (“futuration”). What we get is a picture in which the work of the subject is precisely the work performed on the subject by the other: time is not just my relation to the Other, but the fact that my way of being is as avowed, as devoted (83); ‘my’ futurity is the result of the futuration of the other, and is so necessarily: I can only do what I do because I have been made to do so, called to do so, by the other.

I continue to use the language of futurity to speak of Levinas’ account of time after Otherwise than Being, then, not because I want to downplay the importance of the diachronic constitution of the subject by the Other, but precisely to remember that diachrony resonates within chronological time. In fact, chronological time—the time of the subject—is nothing other than the irruption of diachronic time. As Severson rightly notes, in Otherwise than Being the other no longer interrupts the ego (which would have to be there, as stable, in order to be interrupted); rather, the ego is the irruption of the other as a particular instance of, as a particular response to, the call of the other. The ego is always already substituted for the other insofar as the ego finds itself operating in the place of the other. If we lose this essential connection between the diachronic encounter with the other and the activity of the ego in the time of the subject, we lose the heart of the project of Otherwise than Being—substitution. That is to say, if we lose this essential connection between futuration and futurity, we lose Levinas’ unique contribution to phenomenology (a contribution whose possibility was opened by Husserl, but not pursued at length there, as discussed in chapter 4). This, ultimately, is what makes Levinas more radically phenomenological than Heidegger on issues of futurity; for Heidegger, who seems to abandon the value of the subject in order to honor the call of Being, the subject can no longer help us (“only a god can save us now”), whereas Levinas continues to maintain the importance of the subject and its work: without the “Here I am” of the subject, responsibility is impossible, and respect for the other is lost. Levinas complicates the work of the subject, and complicates our understanding of futurity—but he does not, he cannot, abandon it.

In this regard, I disagree with Severson’s claim that “I am lashed to the time of the other, without futurity to call my own.” While I am clearly ‘lashed to’ the time of the other, this ‘lashing’ reveals itself precisely in and as the futurity that I call my own: my very life itself is my being-lashed-to the other. While this maintains the risk that futurity might be reduced strictly to the discourse of the logos (as Severson puts it), abandoning the notion of futurity entails abandoning the functioning of subjectivity altogether; worse than reducing alterity to the discourse of the logos, this would eliminate the possibility of discourse altogether, and so eliminate the very possibility of relationship to the other. In silence, the Nazis win.[1]

This is significant, I think, because it helps us see the deep challenge inherent in the Church’s position as (to use Severson’s phrase) “bound to a past immemorial and a future eschatological.” What I see happening in Levinas is the attempt to think the connection between these—what is the eschatological element at work in the past immemorial to which we are bound? To translate into the Christian discourse: how is consummation at work in the act of creation itself? As Severson rightly notes, this is a crucial—perhaps the crucial—question for Christian living.

And while I must disagree with Severson’s suggestion that it is appropriate to “forfeit” the notion of futurity itself, he does leave open the possibility of ‘redeeming’ a notion of futurity, as long as it remains “responsible to an anarchic past.” In this regard, I find very intriguing his notion of “a doctrine of time for the church that ponders how the church might embody the logic of the Kingdom of God without pledging allegiance to some manner of bringing it to be,” but also somewhat problematic: I appreciate the concern about equating eschatology with human teleology, but I worry that abandoning the notion of “bringing it to be” risks an outright avoidance of responsibility. Clearly, this is not what Severson has in mind, as he understands the outcome of his proposal to be that “the church would be more concerned with faithfulness than survival, more absorbed with responsibility than with outcomes.” Again, I deeply appreciate this insight, and wonder only if abandoning futurity is the way to best achieve it. While I really love his use of the language of attunement, I think attunement is best achieved, not by abandoning the work of the ego, the subjectivity of the subject, but rather in attuning that subjectivity to a register that transcends it, an attunement that is, perhaps, only possible if the subject is first constituted as the kind of thing that can, in its very subjectivity, be attuned to something else. This is a question of creation, of an anarchic past—but also of the ongoing importance of that creational past in the present, an importance that is only possible, in part, if the eschatological promise is not (merely?) something that calls to us from the future, but resonates within the very core and essence of the church itself. Unless we can align the figures of creation and consummation in the very essence of the church, we seem doomed to misunderstand the ‘time’ of the church, and so misunderstand the life of the church. These figures come together in the Incarnation—but also thereby in the Trinity: creation, crucifixion, consummation; Father, Son, Spirit. Without this Trinitarian essence, the church is doomed to lose its way, either as ‘mere human action’ (teleology, in the bad sense) or as ‘mere divine action’ (escapism and quietism; the Christianized version of “only a god can save us now”).[2]

Attuning the church to this Trinitarian essence is, perhaps, the key to meeting the challenge of the temporality of the church posed by Severson, and inscribed in the formula of the Kingdom of God as already (here) but not yet (fully here). On this point, I think, Severson and I are in agreement. The disagreement comes, perhaps, in something as simple as an ambiguity in the word ‘futurity’: for me, it means merely the subject’s relation to the future, which can move in either direction: from the subject to the future, or from the future (conceived as absolute surprise) to the subject; for Severson, it seems to mean only the movement from the present to the future, a movement wholly circumscribed (it seems) within the control and ability of the subject. While Levinas clearly challenges that understanding of futurity in works like Otherwise than Being, I think to read those works as rejecting that movement makes too simple what is a complicated movement. Rather, I want to argue that what Levinas does in those works is to show that the very movement from the subject to the future is itself predicated upon the movement from the future/other to the subject (‘futuration’, in Levinas’ discourse). Without maintaining this complex movement, we risk leaving ourselves with a stark choice: either pure transcendence (which never contacts us) or pure immanence (which never contacts the transcendent). I think Levinas would reject both options, in favor of an immanence thoroughly shot through with transcendence, of a Same that contains more than it can contain, a finite that contains within itself the infinite as that which is more than it can contain (Totality and Infinity). The Levinasian word for this oddly infused situation is Desire, the urgent awaiting for what cannot appear. The task of the church is learning to live in that Desire, attuned to that Desire, without merely giving ourselves a simple object to want. And perhaps the intellectual opacity of a notion like the Trinity can help stir in us an erotics that does not merely seek completion, but challenges us to live as Desiring, not just some vision of the Kingdom, but to live in Desire for the King who will come, a King who is, in his very nature, the perichoretic dance of love between three persons who together constitute one essence.

[1] Levinas discusses this in terms of the Holocaust (i.e., if we cannot represent or talk about the Holocaust at all, then the Nazis win), but I think it applies more broadly—where we cannot speak, there tyranny and fascism (the pure reign of the ego) rule absolute and supreme.

[2] A point that hearkens back to Crina Gschwandtner’s foray into liturgy in her response to Futurity in Phenomenology.

Neal DeRoo :
  • Eric Severson

    Thanks for this great response, Neal! I deeply appreciate your book. It’s the sort of text that both makes me feel intimidated as I read it and much smarter having finished it. I hope my review came across as appreciative and my critique as tentative.

    This is a familiar complaint about the apparent evacuation of the ego in Otherwise than Being – that it eliminates “the very possibility of relationship,” or that it ends in “silence.” But this is still mere passivity, the kind of passivity that Levinas attempts to move beyond. If the hyperbolic vulnerability and passivity proposed in Otherwise than Being is just a further obliteration of the subject then you are exactly right – the possibility of discourse is gone and silence reigns (and perhaps the Nazi’s).

    What Levinas proposes, I think, is not the obliteration of the subjectivity but instead the discovery that the dynamics of being a subject should not be structured as either I-meets-other (the Platonic tradition, which for Levinas is perhaps best epitomized by Hegel) or other-meets-me (which Levinas seems to propose in some of his early works). Rather, he comes to suggest in these later works that these ways of thinking about discourse are still too deeply embedded in a philosophy of synchrony.

    What I’m trying to get at when it comes to “futurity” is the question that Levinas seems to suggest about the future in the later works – that “past” and “future” are concepts that belong to being and not being’s otherwise. By referring to the time of the other as “immemorial” or “anarchic” he is trying to say that it is simply not enough to say that the other has priority in the discourse. It’s more accurate to say that we’ve misunderstood discourse altogether. Every first word is already a word from the other. It becomes even more difficult to speak of the future, in this light. He writes some interesting things about senescence – about aging and growing old. It is a puzzling thing to “have” time for Levinas, for the time that I find myself having as I age is not mine. There is a sense in which I move into a “future” as I age, but there is another sense in which my aging is at every moment a giving-up of life, or a readiness to give it up at any moment. So I draw another breath, a gift that is for and from the other, and the gift of this breath gives me the capacity to draw another. But do I have “futurity”? It sounds peculiar to ask about futurity. I come from and give myself to the other.

    Perhaps it would help to hear you say something about what the suffix -ity does to the word “future” as it relates to Levinas. It typically means “quality” or “condition” – but my new breathing and eating and loving and living don’t seem to be the “condition” of a future. They are the renewal of a debt that is both heavy and light, the reverberation of an immemorial past that carries me along.

    I’m not thinking we’re terribly far apart on this point. I certainly enjoy the conversation. Thanks again!

    • Neal DeRoo

      Thanks Eric. Like your original response, this post clearly shows both your deep understanding of and familiarity with the work of Levinas, as well as your obvious appreciation of genuine, respectful dialogue–real, meaningful interaction with other people. So thank you for both of those.
      I agree that we do not seem to be far apart, and perhaps I was (and am) merely making a mountain out of a molehill. Clearly I will have to read your book on Levinas on time before I can answer you meaningfully here because the stuff you mention on senescence sounds very intriguing. My initial response is that we still have to be able to say, even for Levinas, that while time is not (exclusively) ‘my’ time, it remains a time that is, in a significant way, mine. Perhaps it could be framed this way: time is not mine in a possessive sense (where I own time, where I have it as a property or a possession of my ego), but rather time is mine in a responsible (or obsessive) sense–time is ‘mine’ in that it is the very condition of my ability to be responsible to and for the other. This condition does not ‘belong’ to me, but rather constitutes me, or is me: my responsibility is not a property I have, but is the essence of my very being (so to speak). But this very being itself is (also) otherwise than being, precisely insofar as it is not exclusively mine, but is given by the other.
      So, while I might agree that “breathing and eating and loving and living don’t seem to be the ‘conditon’ of a future” (though I’m not entirely sure I’d agree with that), I think it’s also true, for Levinas, that I cannot exist merely as breathing and eating and loving and living. To be an existent, I must take up my existence in a particular way. I don’t know that Levinas ever fully leaves this early impulse behind, even as he greatly complicates it with the move toward being “otherwise than being.” But, as I said earlier, I think I’ll have to read your book carefully before I can respond adequately to what you’ve written here. Thanks for provoking these thoughts in me. Hopefully, I’ll be able to read your book soon.