The Ethics of the Face in Art: On the Margins of Levinas’s Theory of Ethical Signification in Art
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In ‘Reality and Its Shadow’, Levinas dismisses knowledge as a whole from art. This has deep implications for the ethical. The aesthetic event has nothing to do with the ethical event – art does not seem to hold a place for ethical knowledge. This situation is problematic with respect to the conflicting phenomenological evidence (as beholders or readers we have extensive ethical experience) as well as with respect to Levinas himself, who occasionally relies on works of art in his ethical phenomenological analyses. My article aims to fill in the blank spaces by finding a place for the ethical in Levinas’s model of ethical signification in art. To start with, I elaborate on the notion of ethical experience (falling short of the ethical event) by way of László Tengelyi’s work on time-art and his conversation with Levinas. Next, I turn to Levinas’s portrayal of the insomnia of art, where the traces of such an experience can be located in the ebb and flow of consciousness, in the vicinity of the anonymous event, and on the way to the critical articulation of this event. In the second part of the article, I try to capitalize on this genetic model of ethical knowledge with reference to the faces of art. I attempt to show how in the in-depth experience provided by film (for example, in Herbert Ross’s classic, Play It Again, Sam) faces come alive and signify. Rather than tying them in with the sublime, I argue for a limited yet undeniable presence of exteriority in the faces of the movie.
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