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SOPHIA (2015) 54:281–295

DOI 10.1007/s11841-015-0475-z

Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body:

Revisiting Levinas’s Early Conception of the Subject

Jojo Joseph Varakukalayil 1

Published online: 1 July 2015

# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Abstract In Levinas’s early works, the ‘body as subjectivity’ is the focus of research
bearing significant implications for his later philosophy of the body. How this is
achieved becomes the thrust of this article. We analyze how the existent, through
hypostasis, emerges hic et nunc, and explores further its effort to exist is effected in
its relation to existence. In delineating this, we argue that the existent does not emerge
from the il y a as an idealistic subject, but rather is born as a natural subject. This is
arguably the most remarkable aspect of Levinas’s analysis of the dawn of the bodily
subject. However, the subjectivity of the subject is to be found in the inescapable self-
possession of its embodiment. The body, in turn, is a conditional possibility for being a
corporeal subject. We argue that the subject as a being in the flesh is the meaning of the
embodied human subject, and it bears fertile implications for the ethical signification of
the body. In re-conceiving the meaning of the ‘body as subjectivity’ to ‘ethical
signification of the body’ against the odds of the traditional dichotomies, we argue
that Levinas tries to overcome the bio-political understanding of racist conception of
the body subject. Given this ethical meaning beyond materiality we reconsider how the
embodied subject is a radical passivity as a ‘here I am’ (me voici). In suggesting the
implication of this claim with Levinas we find how the ethical subjectivity is beyond
dualistic assertions and racist conceptions.

Keywords Escape . il y a . Enchainment . Body-subject . Substitution . Passivity


The crux of our analysis in this essay is the theme of the ‘body as subjectivity’ as
developed by Levinas in his early writings, both prior to and just following the Second

* Jojo Joseph Varakukalayil;

Husserl-Archives: Centre for Phenomenology and Continental Philosophy at Higher Institute of
Philosophy, KU Leuven, Kardinal Mercierplein 2 - bus 3200, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
282 J.J. Varakukalyil

World War, and the fertility of this theme with regard to his later ethical signification of
the body. This philosophy of the body exhibits a certain strange tension in his early
thinking. The body as discussed by Levinas is not the body of Hitlerism, according to
which the biological determines the spirit and gives rise to society based on consan-
guinity. Hitlerism as a philosophy awakens certain elementary feelings, and it shall not
be taken as certain form of madness, for it questions the inescapable determination of
the body’s identity by its racio-biological characteristics. Levinas, at the same time, also
opposes any materialist glorification of the body that would neglect the spirit (Levinas
1934/1990: 62–65). In another essay, entitled BThe Understanding of Spirituality in
French and German Culture^ (Levinas 1998: 1), Levinas delineates the differences
between German and French ‘spiritual cultures.’ In distinguishing between these
cultures in these ways, he draws attention to their differing conceptions of the body.
One’s adherence to one’s body, he argues, remains a value in itself and from this
adherence ‘one does not escape’ (Levinas 1990: 68).
The reality of the body and the fact of enchainment forms the core of Levinas’s first
thematic work, entitled On Escape (Levinas 1935/2003). There, he describes the
subject as a being riveted to its own being, which arises out of its identity with itself,
i.e., inability to escape the fact of being. Levinas describes this dire need to escape
being as the subject’s concern with transcendence (Levinas 1935/2003: 53). It is in its
effort to escape being, for Levinas, that the subject initially emerges from the undif-
ferentiated sphere of being, the il y a. 1 This emergence is explained through the
analyses of certain existential conditions, such as nausea and insomnia, in his post-
war writings, most notably in Existence and Existents (1947) and Time and the Other
(1948). The self dawns as an existent from the il y a—‘Being in general’ (Levinas
1978: 17). Through ‘hypostasis,’ the existent emerges ‘here’ and ‘now,’ and its effort to
exist is effected by its being contracted to its existence. This is arguably the most
remarkable feature of Levinas’s analysis of the birth of the bodily subject, which he
proposes through a phenomenological analysis of indolence, fatigue, effort, and sleep
in relation to its ‘position’ and ‘present.’
The bodily subject is the ‘natural subject’ and not yet a distinctively human subject.2
Even though questions concerning naturalism and embodiment are of contemporary
philosophical significance—the philosophy of the body and problem of embodiment
remain important throughout Levinas’s philosophy—our discussion here will be lim-
ited itself to revisiting Levinas’s philosophy of the ‘body as subjectivity’ in his early

In using the term il y a within the present text, we mostly retain its French use, but sometimes employ its
English translation, ‘there is.’ We use the two terms interchangeably. In 1946, Levinas published an article
entitled ‘Il y a’ in Deucalion I (Cahiers de Philosophie) which was incorporated into the Introduction and
Chapter 3, section 2 (‘Existence without Existents’) of Existence and Existents. In this work, Levinas uses the
term ‘il y a’ exclusively to speak of ‘Being in general’. For more on this theme, see the sections (‘Existence
without Existents’) (Levinas 1978: 57–64) and ‘Insomnia’ (1978: 65–67). In a later work, Time and the Other,
Levinas employs the term ‘il y a’ under the title ‘Existing without Existents’ (Levinas: 1997a: 44–51). Yet in
another major work, Totality and Infinity, the term il y a appears again where it is called ‘the elemental’ in a
number of sections: ‘Element and Things, Implements’ (Levinas 2007b: 130–134), ‘Sensibility’ (2007b:135–
140), ‘The Mythical Format of the Element’ (2007b: 140–142), ‘The Home and Possession’ (2007b: 156–
158), and ‘Sensibility and the Face’ (2007b: 187–193).
Michael Morgan rightly observes that the subject that first emerges from the il y a and lives in the world is a
self-initiating subject who enjoys the world, and that this is the case for all natural beings as well as the human
subject. Morgan (2009), p. 152.
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 283

writings and its fertility in his later writings. Even if this earliest model of the subject
remains incomplete and preparatory (Levinas 1978: 15), we argue that these early
considerations bear specific and significant implications for his ethical redefinition of
the body and of subjectivity more generally in Totality and Infinity (1961) and in
Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974).
We will here investigate Levinas’s argument concerning the subject as a being
riveted to its own being, paying special attention to his earliest reflections on the
question of the body beyond racism. This conception of the body has definite exem-
plification in his later writings. Discussing the dawn of the personal existent from the il
y a in his post-war writings, we will explore his phenomenological analyses of
loneliness, indolence, fatigue, and insomnia and thus present the event of ‘hypostasis.’
Taking a cue from this, we will explicate how the emerged ‘bodily subject’ dawns on
the basis of its ‘position’ and ‘instant.’ Having stated this, we will examine the meaning
of materiality and bodily subjectivity. Finally by revisiting this early understanding of
the ‘body as subjectivity’, the essay makes a modest attempt to highlight and show its
relation to Levinas’s later re-interpretation of the sensibility and proximity of the other
in its relation to the body, thus manifesting the meaning of the ethical fecundity of the
incarnate subject as being-for-the-Other. The ethical signification of the bodily subject
serves to illuminate subjectivity beyond the self-possession of the conatus. The ethical
subject is a being whose body is an expressive body and a being-for-the-other as
bearing the other in one’s skin, as gestation of the other within the same. This is
substitution, ‘a passivity inconvertible into an act’ (Levinas 2004: 117), as a being-for-
the-Other in radical passivity, ‘a passivity more passive than all passivity’. In recapit-
ulating the powerful argument of Levinas, we do not engage particularly the later works
in detail as we cannot do justice to their rich delineation within the scope of this essay.
Hence, we limit the discussion to the significant internal claims made in his early
philosophy of the body, thus signaling its logical fertility for a later philosophy.

Escape and Enchainment—Meditation on the Body3

In Levinas’s first thematic work, De l’evasion, he speaks of the fact that ‘there is being’
(il y a de l’être) and that this ‘very experience of pure being’ (Levinas 2003: 67) is
undeniable fact. The experience of pure being is further characterized in one’s being
riveted to oneself as a kind of bondage or enchainment. Being assaults human freedom
and there is a heaviness of being that weighs upon itself and enchains the self to itself as
the impossibility of fleeing itself. Being irremissibly riveted to one’s being is under-
stood as one’s adherence to one’s body in this early piece of work. Being, as a burden,
is the tragic finitude that must be overcome. It is a kind of malaise of being. The dire
need to escape the pure fact of one’s being is more than a lack; it is the quest for
transcendence (2003: 55–57). In speaking about shame and one’s inability to detach
oneself from one’s body, Levinas argues that ‘the fact of being riveted to oneself, the
radical impossibility of fleeing oneself to hide from oneself, the unalterably binding
presence of the I to itself [du moi à soi-même]’ (2003: 64). Jacques Rolland tellingly
states that all of this is a meditation on the body; that Levinas’s discussions of need,

For a basic explanation of this idea, see Rolland (2003), p. 29–30.
284 J.J. Varakukalyil

malaise, shame-filed nudity, and nausea are all connected to the body, even though this
is not explicitly stated in On Escape (Rolland 2003: 29). The tragic finitude of the being
of the body is traditionally treated as a burden and as an imprisoning reality that one
must escape, and the fatality of the body especially remains a fact to be overcome
(Levinas 1990: 68–69). Another, also powerful early piece of work by Levinas on the
question of self and identity and the issue of race and blood in Hitlerism thus turns to be
of significant, bearing as it does lasting importance for his account of the bodily subject
beyond dualism and racism.

Hitlerism and the Bio-Political Body

In an essay entitled ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’ (1934), Levinas

interrogates both the Marxist and Christian Liberal conceptions of the body. The body,
he argues, is not to be regarded as a happy or unhappy accident (1990: 68), but rather,
one’s feeling of identity and relation to one’s body is to be taken as the very character of
one’s being. ‘Man’s essence no longer lies in freedom, but in a kind of bondage
[enchainement]. To be truly oneself does not mean taking flight once more above
contingent events that always remain foreign to the Self’s freedom; on the contrary it
means becoming aware of the ineluctable original chain that is unique to our bodies,
and above all accepting this chaining’ (1990: 69). Levinas questions Hitlerism with its
radicalization of the identification with one’s body and blood, and at the same time
proposes a philosophy of the body that accepts one’s enchainment to oneself and
regards one’s ‘accepting this chaining’ as a value in itself. One must move beyond
classical interpretations of the body that either suppress it as crude matter or call for an
identification with the body.
In reconsidering Levinas’s early conception of the meaning of having a body, one
could definitely fall back on this earliest essay, where he questions the traditional
understanding of the meaning of having a body and raises the issue of the ‘eternal
strangeness of the body’ (1990: 67). Considering the traditional claim that attachment
to the body obliterates the freedom of the sprit in Greek and Christian liberal thought,
Levinas argues for a certain sentiment or feeling of identity between ourselves and our
bodies. No dualist idea is, here, proposed, for the body is indeed the very event of
being; ‘the event of its position’ (Levinas 1978: 71). This ‘feeling of identity’ (Levinas
1990: 68) does not speak in favor of dualism, such as Cartesian dualism, but rather,
affirms that there is no dualism between the self and the body; as he puts it quite clearly,
‘all dualism between the self and the body must disappear’ (1990: 68). The danger and
difficulty is that such an identity between our body and ourselves might be absolutized
as in the philosophy of Hitlerism, which he reproaches.4 Hitlerism is based upon a racist
bio-political understanding of the human self and the body, whose identity is reduced to
certain elementary feelings. For Levinas, by contrast, one’s enchainment to one’s body
is itself an essential aspect of the ‘humanity of man’ (1990: 71). It might be supposed
from the above discussions that Levinas proposes a radically new and unique account

In this same vein, Levinas writes about the barbarity of Hitlerism in his essay ‘Being Jewish’. There he states
that ‘[t]he recourse of Hitlerian anti-Semitism to racial myth reminded the Jew of the irremissibility of his
being. Not able to flee one’s condition—for many this was like a vertigo.’ Levinas (2007a), p. 208.
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 285

of bodily subjectivity even here in this early work, one very different from more
traditional accounts, yet this emerges only in the later, mature writings of Levinas.
Overcoming dualism as discussed in Greek philosophy and in Christianity and as
proposed by Descartes, Augustine, and modern liberal culture becomes one of the
key thrusts in Levinas’s re-conception of the ethical signification of the subject in his
later works (Levinas 2004: 195, n. 12).
Although Levinas proposes near the end of On Escape that ‘it is a matter of getting
out of being by a new path’ (Levinas 2003: 73), he limits himself to clarifying how it is
possible that this escaping of being, of this enchainment to one’s being, is a funda-
mental characteristic of human being. Important for our discussion here is that Levinas,
in Existence and Existents and Time and the Other, links being and subjectivity to show
how the subject, and specifically the bodily subject, emerges out of the il y a—or, so to
say, how the personal subject materializes as a self-determining, concrete subjectivity.
In what follows here, we explore Levinas’s phenomenological analysis of the affective
feeling of being attached to one’s body and ‘the radical impossibility of fleeing oneself,
the unalterably binding presence of the I to itself’ (2003: 64).5 The way in which he
carries this out becomes the nerve of his philosophy of the body developed in his post-
war writings.

The Il y a: the Phenomenon of Impersonal Being

Levinas employs the term il y a 6 to speak about the anonymous and impersonal
rumbling of the being that precedes all beings, which is already in the absence, the
nothingness as existence. In Existence and Existents and Time and the Other, Levinas
explains the dawn of the bodily subject, from the anonymous and undifferentiated
existence of the being of the il y a, which he describes as ‘the phenomenon of
impersonal being: Bit^’ (Levinas 1999: 48). The notion of the there is implies a level
of undifferentiated existence at the origin of pre-intentional experience and intentional
consciousness. Rudi Visker argues rightly that the il y a in Levinas is often meant to
stress a kind of inhuman neutrality, and is used under many names in his works (Visker
1999: 236). The il y a, for Levinas, is neither a thing nor a nothingness as such, but
rather being, ‘existing without existents’. Levinas’s descriptions of the il y a and
explanations of its various meanings remain a challenge for the reader, as the il y a
cannot be conceived in the common categories of our thought, and one cannot look for
it in the course of normal human experience. It cannot be known or comprehended by
human reason as no consciousness experiences this impersonal and anonymous

On Escape explores and explains this affective feeling through analyses of the experiences of shame, nausea,
need, and fatigue that tie the subject to its own being as a kind of ontological challenge. In analyzing shame,
Levinas shows that one’s inextricably being tied to oneself and to one’s shame is founded upon the solidarity
of our being and connected primarily to our body (Levinas 2003: 64–65).
This notion of the il y a—meaning the ‘there is’ as ‘an existence without existent’ (un exister sans existant)
(Levinas 1978: 57–64, Levinas 1997a: 44–51), first appears in Levinas’s earliest work, On Escape and is later
developed in Existence and Existent and continued in Time and the Other. Levinas (2007b), pp. 131–132. The
il y a appears in Totality and Infinity as the elemental (2007b: 131–132, 156–157, 140–142). We shall
postpone a detailed discussion of the elemental at this stage, but will offer a more detailed discussion later on
in formulating the notion of enjoyment and living in the world (Levinas 2004: 166), where the il y a reappears
in this work as the il y a of ethics.
286 J.J. Varakukalyil

existence,7 for it does not yield to reason, and one can have neither any pre-conceived
thought about it nor cast upon it any light.
Levinas’s notion of the il y a, accordingly, is based not on philosophical logic or
argumentation, but rather on an imagination of the primordial experience of one’s being
in the world, which is the background out of which the subject emerges (Levinas 1978:
57). Being, for Levinas, is not what it is for Heidegger, for Being does not give itself as
Bes gibt^ (Heidegger 2008:255) in a positive light. This inscrutable concept is, for
Levinas, an abstraction which, in its untainted sagacity, presents the height of the fact of
pure being as an indeterminate reality. The impersonal being is not a void or a kind of
nothingness, but rather ‘Being in general,’ the desertion of individual beings. It is
existence not yet taken up by any individual existent, and so, although there is the
presence of existence in the il y a, there is no particular existent, such as a subject or
anything substantive. It is empty of everything and of individuality. ‘Being is essen-
tially alien and strikes against us,’ Levinas writes (1978: 23). It remains as a foreign
power; a nocturnal chaos or no-‘thing’ (the not-some-‘thing’), no-‘one’ (the not-
some-‘one’) and is, without being, a pure nothingness.

The Ever Awake Il y a and Being Oneself (soi même)

Levinas chooses the image of night to explain the impersonality of the there is. In the
darkness of night, one experiences a kind of nothingness; one cannot identify or make
out what one is feeling or undergoing. In the experience of night, if suffering from
insomnia and unable to sleep, one may hear something, yet the something one hears is
not determinate. It is pure ‘nothingness.’ Yet this fearful experience of the night is not
strictly the same as the experience of horror and anxiety in the Heideggerian sense, for
‘the Heideggerian nothingness still has a sort of activity and being’ (Levinas 1997a:
49). At the center of Levinas’s analysis of insomnia is the idea of the inability of the one
to escape from the il y a; the claim that one is inextricably tied to and irremissibly
enchained to one’s being in one’s body. Again, here, one finds that in analyzing the
experience of the night and the mode of responding to this nocturnal space with a kind
of horror, as one also responds to the il y a, there is a reaching back to the theme of
inescapability as a feeling of identity, yet this feeling of identity, in Levinas, is unlike
the classical understanding of feeling something inferior which must necessarily be
overcome. One cannot get out of this experience of insomnia or flee oneself. One is
overcome by the weight of being and feels fatigued by the sheer fact of being oneself.
This burden of being oneself implies materiality. This notion accords with Levinas’s
earliest discussion in On Escape, where the fact of pure being is described as one’s
For Adriaan Peperzak, Being in Levinas is not an abstract categorical structure such as one finds in Hegelian
(onto)-logic. Conceiving this idea of the il y a in Levinas, he comments, ‘[t]he phrase there is points to the
dimension of a completely contourless and dangerous protoworld, the anonymous underworld of faceless
monstrosity, a chaos in which there are no facts, no data, no givens, a neuter without any giving, the contrary
of generosity. The il y a burdens and bothers us, but at the same time it seduces us by the magic of its
invitations to self-abandonment and dispersion’ Peperzak (1999), p. 196. For Davis notes that ;[i]t would be
difficult to attempt to assess the notion of the il y a in terms of its truth or persuasiveness. Levinas does not
offer anything that could easily be qualified as an argument for preferring the anonymity of the il y a to the
generosity of the es gibt. Since the il y a precedes and presupposes anything that can be known by reason, its
appeal is to intuitive recognition rather than philosophical investigation.’ Davis (1996), p. 23.
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 287

being riveted to oneself in the ‘most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact
that the I [moi] is oneself [soi même]’ (Levinas 2003: 55). To be caught up with oneself
in this way is a nauseating moment of experience for being. One cannot escape the
impersonal vigilance and insomnia that engulfs one, and it is in relation to this
overwhelming il y a that Levinas considers the effort to exist as an existent, particularly
as an individual existent. This affective feeling of being attached to one’s body is not a
kind of racial rootedness, as in the case of Hitlerism, but for Levinas an ontological
This rivetedness manifests the moi; one is oneself. One becomes conscious of being
held by being and thus moves away from its impersonal presence. What is to emerge
out of this impersonal il y a is the ‘I’ as existent, and more specifically the self
(Wyschogrod 2000: 10). It is the personal existent which dawns from the anonymous
il y a; the rupture of being and separation from the ever-awake il y a, via consciousness.
In showing this ontological relation, it could be stated that the existent that is to dawn
from the ebbing away of the anonymous existence of the il y a is the bodily subject.
This ontological relation can be further investigated in the experience of indolence and
fatigue, both of which are cited by Levinas as ways of relating to one’s existence.

Indolence and Fatigue: the Onto-Genesis of the Body Subject

Indolence and fatigue characterize the existent’s effort to be the subject of its own
existence. Indolence, as the impossibility of beginning, reveals on the one hand an
unwillingness to take up one’s existence, while on the other, it also manifests a kind of
enchainment to its own being. What is revealed through indolence is being’s irresistible
urge to begin anew. It shows the feeling one has for one’s body and one’s enchainment
to oneself. In it there is existing, where the existent is related to existence. Yet one also
finds a bond of materiality that ties the subject to its materiality as enchainment to its
being. This idea foreshadows Levinas’s account of the corporeal subject, in Totality and
Infinity, as an egoistic subject who lives in enjoyment of the non-Is. There, he writes,
‘[c]orporeity is the mode of existence of a being whose presence is postponed at the
very moment of his presence’ (Levinas 2007b: 225). Another dimension analyzed in
Levinas’s discussion of indolence is the ‘site of the beginning’ or commencement of an
action, revealing the fact of the existent’s ‘inescapable self-possession of embodiment’
(Cohen 1979: 523). The ‘site of the beginning’ is where the existent is located, and at
this site there also appears its ‘material gravity’ (1979: 523).
The phenomenon of fatigue, ‘presents itself first as a stiffening, a numbness, a way
of curling up into oneself’ (Levinas 1978: 30), and this confirms the being’s sensible
bond with its existence. Its tiredness manifests, and results from, its being in the world
and its corporeal condition as materiality. This is the instant at which the existent makes
an effort to start anew despite its world-weariness, an effort to differentiate itself from
the il y a. In the act of existing, it experiences weariness, and yet it is precisely in this
moment of boredom, experienced in the modes of lethargy and exhaustion, that the
subject is fastened to its materiality. Thus, what is revealed in the analysis of the
ontological modes of indolence and fatigue is the fact of one’s being tied to a course of
action of one’s body, or more precisely, the fact that the subject relates itself to its being.
For Levinas, ‘[t]his manner of being occupied with itself is the subject’s materiality’
288 J.J. Varakukalyil

(Levinas 1997a: 55). One thus comes to see that Levinas’s analyses of indolence and
fatigue are undertaken in the service of his later account of the birth of subjectivity as a
bodily subject. Evasion and indolence are characterized as efforts of the ego to escape
its being, and it is shown that both are doomed to failure. The themes of evasion,
insomnia, indolence, and fatigue are states of the subject’s existence, and all illustrate
different levels of the existent’s relation to its existence, which are, namely, its bodily
feelings and acceptance of their inscription in its being (Cohen 1979: 523). The advent
of the bodily subject—recoiling from the anonymous being of the il y a strives to affirm
itself as an existent through a process of hypostasis.

Hypostasis: The Dawning of the Personal Existent

In Existence and Existents, Levinas elaborates the problem of embodiment in relation to

hypostasis. Hypostasizing is the way in which an ‘I’ becomes a unique self out of the il
y a: ‘The event by which the existent contracts its existing I call, hypostasis’ (Levinas
1997a: 43). This would suggest that hypostasis is ‘the passage going from being to a
something, from the state of verb to the state of thing’ (Levinas 1999: 51). It is a
deliverance from the anonymous rumbling of being; a drawing back from the anonym-
ity of the il y a to become the subject of one’s existence by entering into relation with
being and with one’s materiality as an embodied subject, and thus also by becoming
one’s own master and by suspending anonymity. This hypostasis as ‘becoming inde-
pendent’ (De Boer 1997: 121), is the means by which an existent emerges from the
clutches of the anonymous and indeterminate being of the il y a to become a bodily
subject. It is through the body, therefore, that the self is constituted as a hypostasis in a
victory over the grip which the il y a has theretofore had over its own existing (Levinas
1997a: 53–54).
The meaning of being a subject, then, is that one is placed ‘in’ oneself through one’s
mode of being in one’s body. The idea of the existent, as a subject erected out of the il y
a, stands at the center of Levinas’s thinking about subjectivity and materiality. The
meaning of materiality here must be conceived in terms of the subject’s relation to the il
y a, which is hypostasis, rather than in any biological sense. Levinas, in explaining the
meaning of hypostasis, writes that, ‘[t]o designate this apparition we have taken up the
term hypostasis, which in the history of philosophy, designated the event by which the
act expressed by the verb a being designated by a substantive’ (Levinas 1978: 82). The
hypostatized subject, unlike the anonymous and indeterminate il y a, is a corporeal
subject. ‘The existent par excellence is man’ (Levinas 2007b: 119). Out of an unframed
there is, the human subject emerges as a being that exists on a basis of retraction; this is
the manner of the existent’s identity. It is the natural subject, where, accordingly, the ‘I’
remains an ‘I’ which has not yet entered into a time in terms of past and future, but is
merely in ‘a hypostatized time, a time that is’ (Levinas 1997a: 54). In the work of
establishing oneself as enchainment to oneself—a positive enchainment—the existent
becomes, so to say, a virile subject. Thus, the meaning of hypostasis is a folding back
upon oneself, a recoiling, a beginning from oneself in the instant and retreat to a base,
and it is the unique materiality of the instant where the unnamable verb is explicitly
transformed into substantives, namely, into bodily human subjects—a being that has
been localized as ‘here and now’.
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 289

Position and Present (hic et nunc)—Dawning of the Corporeal Subject

The existent exists as a subject by beginning from itself in relation to a base, implying
that its existence as being is positioned somewhere. This somewhere is the ‘here,’ as
‘position’ (hic) and ‘present’ (nunc) (Levinas 1978: 67–82). Being placed, positioned,
located, and situated—in short, existing in a ‘here’, and no longer anonymously—
makes room for the embodied, concrete, and material subject. The fact of existing as a
subject in a specific and concrete place 8 signifies materiality as a condition for the
bodily existence of the subject, a point which clearly has implications for Levinas’s
conception of bodily subjectivity beyond the amorphous il y a. The idea of being ‘here,’
in Levinas, is the privileged mode of the subject, where the subject dawns out of the
anonymous and indeterminate il y a. This localization of consciousness Levinas calls
‘the subjectivization of the subject’ (1978: 69). Yet likewise, Levinas’s talk of the
subject’s positing is not meant to indicate a situation in objective space, but rather
points to ‘the very contrary of objectivity’ (1978: 69). The existent, at this juncture,
‘refers only to itself’ implying—‘the beginning of the very notion of beginning’ (1978:
Central to the work of existing as an existent and so of emerging as ‘I’ is what
Levinas calls the event of consciousness. This event is the point of the beginning of the
‘I,’ which is considered not as a substance or entity but rather as a subjective mode of
existing. This becoming of the ‘I’ always starts from somewhere, and proceeds by
means of a localization of itself. It is through my materiality, my bodiliness—and so my
body—that ‘I’ can say ‘here I am’. The ‘here I am’ as in one’s bodily presence, is
rediscovered in Levinas’s later great work Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence
where he redefines this ‘here I am’ as one’s singularity and identity in an ethical
election as incarnating responsibility in and through one’s body (Levinas 2004: 145).
One learns too that the ‘hereness’ is, at this early stage, also a point of departure,
whereby the subject takes a distance from the overwhelming power of the il y a.
By adopting a certain basis in this way, consciousness emerges to itself as an
incarnated consciousness related to itself; a kind of reflexive consciousness, as already
noted in the analyses of fatigue, indolence and effort, where the existent is not
something separated from these phenomena but is rather intrinsically tied to them.
These analyses manifest the ego’s situatedness—its ‘location’. The body is the dawn of
consciousness, for only the body is localized. This idea of the subject as a material
being is further explained in an analysis of sleep where Levinas makes it clear that one
sleeps where one is, namely in a certain place. Through sleep, one establishes a relation
to a place, ‘a basis for existence as sleep’ (Wyschogrod 2000: 9). In the sleeping state,
the existent is located in a place which is a ‘condition,’ rather than just being a
‘somewhere,’ for it is in this condition that the existent is removed from the anonymous
vigilance of insomnia. The reality of the body, in Levinas’s conception, confirms or

The idea of place has ethical implications, as one finds claimed in a much later text, Difficult Freedom, in a
section entitled ‘Place and Utopia.’ There, Levinas describes space as a ‘here-below’ where one is responsible
for the other. This space is the location where oneself is held responsible for the other and thus provides the
concrete conditions for ethical action. Place is conceived of in terms of the relationship to the other. This idea
is not yet apparent in Levinas’s early conceptions of the subject; in those early writings, place is primarily a
condition that makes the emergence of the subject possible, and the self is directed to itself just as it is riveted
to Being. The self is solitary and wholly for itself. Levinas (1997b), p. 99–102.
290 J.J. Varakukalyil

rather affirms oneself and is the way in which one posits oneself. ‘The materiality of the
body remains an experience of materiality. […] that I do not only have a body, but am a
body? But even then the body is still being taken to be a being, a substantive,
eventually a means of localization, but not the way a man engages in existence, the
way he posits himself’ (Levinas 1978: 71–72). His claim, here, is not just that I have a
body that is identical with my pain or hunger and so on, but that I am my body and the
materiality of the body remains an experience of materiality (1978: 71–72). To affirm
this materiality, therefore, is not just to claim that one has a body identical with one’s
pain or hunger and so on, but that one is one’s body as such. The possibility of a duality
of self and body is thus ruled out by Levinas. Nevertheless, this conception of
materiality is essential to Levinas’s understanding of the embodied subject, not only
in his early works but all the more powerfully in his later major writings, where the
body is redefined and given an ethical signification.
Without a bodily base, consciousness cannot arise, and this is why thought, for
Levinas, always commences from a particular place. Levinas’s appreciation of the
Cartesian cogito as substance shows that thought as a substance is significantly related
to both body and place. He maintains, therefore, that Descartes’s cogito must arise quite
concretely from the head as its primary location. It is located not anywhere in general
but at a particular ‘somewhere’ and ‘here.’ The cogito does not originate as a kind of
bolt from the blue as ‘an indifferent Bsomewhere^’ (Levinas 1978: 69), but rather
springs from the one who thinks it and ‘emerges from [the] material density’ of a
corporeal being (1978: 68). In the act of thought, the cogito is placed ‘somewhere,’ by
contrast with the idealist’s belief that the cogito is located somehow out-side of space
(1978: 68). This interpretation of the Cartesian cogito, according to Levinas, as
something that thinks, yields a conception of thought as a substance and as something
locally posited. For Descartes, as he writes, ‘I am a thinking thing’ (Descartes 1990:
54). Levinas continues, recasting this standard claim in his own words as follows, ‘[t]he
body excluded by the Cartesian doubt is the body object. The cogito does not lead to
the impersonal position: Bthere is thought,^ but to the first person in the present: BI am
something that thinks.^’ [The] ‘Cartesian cogito consists in discovering thought as a
substance, that is, as something that is posited. Thought has a point of departure. There
is not only a consciousness of localization, but a localization of consciousness’
(Levinas 1978: 68).
Levinas’s interpretation of the Cartesian cogito, then, is a claim that our bodies
conform to the localization of thought, to thought residing in a particular body. Thus,
substantiality and materiality are not seen as referring exclusively to the biological or
physical aspects of the subject or as somehow opposed to thought. It bears significant
implications for a new understanding of the human subject beyond racist deterministic
conceptions of the body as blood and biological essence. One finds here a relocation of
the meaning of the body not in its bio-political character but rather in its embodied
sensibility and ethical fecundity. In this relocation, more light is shed on the meaning of
materiality as vulnerability and traumatized subjectivity, both themes that the later
Levinas will explore.
Significantly, one learns that Levinas’s account of the embodied subject is opposed
both to the racist deterministic bodily subject of Hitlerism and, at the same time, to the
universalistic idea of the sovereign human subject of a liberalism that glorifies the spirit
and thereby rejects outright the significance of the body. The bodily subject exceeds the
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 291

categories of a thing or matter. Levinas is able to achieve this double opposition by

conceiving of the body as expressive, as sensible, for it has the power of expression and
is neither a thing nor just the expression of an event, but rather the event itself. The
body, in Levinas, has the power to express itself and indeed ‘is itself this event’
(Levinas 1978: 72). Bernasconi masterfully remarked on this localization of being as
pointing to the body as an event. 9 Thus considered the body already here has the
fecundity that the later Levinas will describe as signifying the ‘here I am’ radical
passivity as ethical signification. The body as an event of being becomes the expressive
body ‘as exposure to trauma and vulnerability’ as the ‘saying’ (le Dire), a sensing, not
only as self-sensing and self-enjoying interiority immersed in the non-Is (Levinas
2007b: 116), but as ethical ‘exposure to another’ as ‘non-indifference’ (Levinas
2004: 48). This is finding oneself having been already unalterably placed before the
Other in one’s flesh as a kind of corporeal generosity. Revisiting this concep-
tion of the body in Levinas has implications, I argue, for the signification of
the body in his later works as well as for his conception of the ethical incarnate
subject (Levinas 2004: 93–97).

Materiality and the Body as Subjectivity

Levinas conceives of the ego as the ‘me’ turned in upon itself; as the ‘I’ riveted to itself.
This ‘I’ of hypostasis is the natural subject and not yet a full human subject; it is free,
though not yet morally free. In this freedom of beginning, the heaviness that ties the
ego to its being is its identity, for the ‘the ego is irremissibly itself’ (Levinas 1997a: 56)
and the ‘relationship with a double chained to the ego, a viscous, heavy, stupid double,
but one the ego [le moi] is with precisely because it is me [moi]’ (1997a: 56). Didier
Franck calls this freedom of the ego, which is freedom only in a certain sense, a
‘conditioned freedom’ (Franck 2000: 23). At this stage, the existent is occupied with
itself, and this occupation is the existent’s materiality. In this way, the material burden
of the self in her flesh reveals the embodied dimension of the subject.
Subjectivity as me—the ‘I’ as me—is where I am turned upon myself neither as a
tautology nor as a doubling up, but rather turned upon the self as me; ‘s’occuper de soi’
(1997a: 55). To be incumbent upon oneself is to be occupied with oneself, and here
there is no doubling up of oneself; rather, one is enchained to one’s being as such in a
positive enchainment. In the question of identity as being one and the same, and in this
question of being oneself, all that one does the sum of all of one’s acts both is oneself
and is with oneself. In this vein, Levinas continues, ‘[t]o understand the body starting
with its materiality—the concrete event of the relationship between Ego [Moi] and Self
[Soi]—is to reduce it to an ontological event. Ontological relationships are not
disembodied ties. The relationship between Ego and Self is not an inoffensive reflection
of the spirit upon itself. It is the whole of human materiality’ (1997a: 56–57).

In his foreword to Existence and Existents, Bernasconi writes, ‘[b]y Bposition^ Levinas meant that condition
or basis from which the subject posits itself: it refers to the body as an event and not as a substantive. However,
position is not a site within being, but the arising of the human being in impersonal Being. It represents a
transformation of the event into an existent.’ In referring to this foreword, I am making use of the Duquesne
University Press edition of Existence and Existent. It is in absent from the Martinus Nijhoff edition of 1978.
See Bernasconi (2001), p. xii.
292 J.J. Varakukalyil

The account of materiality, thus, remains important to his affirmation of the meaning
of materiality, as is well-presented in his phenomenological analysis of the embodied
being and the advent of the subject from ‘the inescapable self-possession of embodi-
ment’ (cited above Cohen 1979: 523) and made clear in his analysis of materiality in
Time and the Other. Indeed, this account is systematically linked to the dire need to
escape being for ‘the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même]’ (Levinas 2003: 55) and thus to free
oneself from the snare of the il y a. This being, as we have seen, is the onto-genesis of
the subject through hypostasis. In becoming a self-identical being, I free myself from
the there is and become occupied with myself. Originally, the human subject is a kind
of retraction, spatially connected to its body as its ‘here.’ As soon as the existent
emerges from the il y a, however, it finds itself chained to itself and responsible for
itself both initially and primarily. My materiality is therefore both my body and my way
of being-in-the-world, and it is through my body that I am in the world. The ‘I’ of
hypostasis is liberated only through ‘time and the other,’ a theme which, though raised
towards the end of Existence and Existents (Levinas 1978: 85–96), finds its most robust
expression in Time and the Other and much later in his magnum opus Totality and
Infinity. In these works, the liberation of the ‘I’ through time and the other is an ethical
event of the encounter with the absolute alterity who alters the subject’s conatus, a
being-for-the-other despite oneself.10
This basic conception of the body and the human condition in Levinas’s early works
is tailored to show a positive claim central to his later philosophical meditations on the
body. The meaning of transcendence as excendence, ‘getting out of being by a new
path’ (Rolland 2003: 3–48), announced by Levinas at the beginning of his work On
Escape (Levinas 2003: 51), becomes more obvious and focused in his affirmation of
the ethical concretization of the bodily subject in his later work and of the ethically
fecund character of subjectivity. This remains the core of our own argument in this

The Ethical Signification of the Body as ‘here I am’ (me voici)

Against the background of our analysis so far of Levinas’s early works, we must now
discuss one of his later works Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, where the
theme of escape from being, inaugurated in his early work On Escape, finds forceful
expression in the new notion of the subject’s becoming hostage to the other. 11 The
‘subject of enjoyment’ (Levinas 2007b: 109–121), Levinas claims, does not find a
radical liberation in enjoying, for in enjoying it is threatened by the il y a in the menace
and insecurity of the elemental enjoyment (2007b: 131). Only in face-to-face encounter,
rather, is one awakened to the fact of one’s radical responsibility for ‘the imperative of
the alterity’ (Levinas 2001: 109) of the absolute Other. This interruption effected by the

In Time and the Other, Levinas analyses the event of the Other in relation to death, face, eros, the feminine
and paternity, arguing that the questions of embodiment, of the meaning of bodily subjectivity, and of the self-
other relation all preserve both duality and separation. In the limited scope of this paper, we limit our focus to
considering some key elements of the later works Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being or Beyond
Essence to pin point how Levinas’s early understanding of bodily subjectivity informs and foreshadows his
later account of the ethical incarnate subject in her flesh.
For a detailed discussion of this idea, see Rolland (2003), pp. 33–48; Diamantides (2006), pp. 191–230.
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 293

other is the ethical event of the face-to-face, where the subject is no longer a subject of
the conatus, but rather finds itself anarchically placed as ‘unique’ and ‘as the elected’
(Levinas 2001: 108). This ethical redefinition of subjectivity and the body is a
prominent theme in both Totality and Infinity and in Otherwise than Being or
Beyond Essence, and in the later of these works, it is the subject of a quite original
discussion. The imperative of the face, a Byou shall not commit murder^ (Levinas
2007b: 216), turns out to be a moment of separation and identity, of language and
discourse wherein one is at the same time both commanded and called to respond, and
from which one cannot escape.
Being-for-itself, in Levinas’s later works, is redefined as being-for-the-other and as
ethical subjectivity, for ‘the very node of the subjective is knotted in ethics understood
as responsibility’ (Levinas 1999: 95). The ethical signification of the face, ‘signification
without context’ (1999: 86), radicalizes the subject into a passivity such that it is
delivered from its-being-for-itself for the ‘unnarratable other’ (Levinas 2004: 166).
This is central to Levinas’s argument for the signification of the other in proximity.
‘Signification’ he writes, ‘is the ethical deliverance of the self through substitution for
the other. It is consumed as an expiation for the other. The Self before any initiative,
before any beginning, signifies anarchically, before any present’ (2004: 164). The
subject is reinterpreted in relation to the other such that the ‘I’ is bound to the other
by its proximity. The subject is already placed before the other in her flesh as ‘saying’
in its most expressive way. Addressed by the Other, the self is radically altered to
become a being-for-the-other, and is caught up in a situation where it remains as a ‘here
I am,’ as a ‘me voici’ in the accusative rather than the nominative sense (2004: 145–
146, 149, 152, 185; Levinas 1999: 97). This, new and innocently accused self, becomes
the meaning of the ethical responsibility as substitution for-the-other which is not a
commitment voluntarily chosen but rather one is already been created into from her
immemorial past. This accursed subject is thus placed in relationship of incarnating
responsibility for-the-other, or rather is situated in it initially, as a hostage to/for the
Other. The self thus is fundamentally in its body as a being who accounts and atones for
the well-being of the miserable other in the nudity of her face. This identity of being-
for-the-other ‘is pre-original, anarchic, older than every beginning’ (Levinas 2004:
The body is therefore, non-reductively, the locus of the ethical encounter with the
other; skin, Levinas writes, serves as the privileged figure of this ethical exposure and
signification to the other in proximity. Bearing the other within me, or so to say having
the other under my skin, is thus a mode of ethical sensibility and fecundity whereby
‘the whole gravity of the body [is] extirpated from its conatus’ (2004: 72). The meaning
of the body as subjectivity in Levinas’s early writings is in this way overturned in re-
conceiving of bodylines as the ethical sensibility of having the other-in-the-same. The
vulnerability of the body becomes the site of relationship to and engagement with the
Other in proximity wherein one becomes concretely present before the other as being-
for-the-Other. It is a passivity that is possible only in giving, and this sensibility has
‘meaning only as a Btaking care of the other’s need,^ of his misfortunes and his faults,
that is, as a giving. But giving has meaning only as tearing from oneself despite oneself
[….] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and
blood’ (2004: 74). Being obsessed by the Other, the subject is in a state of accusation
without guilt, a unique vocation of the self with a unique corporeality. To be torn out of
294 J.J. Varakukalyil

oneself by this obsession with the Other within oneself is ‘maternity, a gestation of the
other in the same’ (2004: 75). To-be-for-the-other is to be materially for the other, to be-
for-the-other in one’s flesh and blood; it is to be an incarnate being and be ‘bound to
others before being tied to my body’ (2004: 76). To be an incarnate subject implies that
one is exposed to others, for one’s body is the locus of one’s exposure to the other and
the subject, of flesh and blood, is capable even of giving the bread out of its own
mouth. The ethical signification of the body thus becomes the subject’s embodied
atonement for the Other. A truly bodily subject then, as conceived in Levinas’s later
work, is a subject who chews food, who eschews pain, and who gives to the other even
her skin.


The ‘body as subjectivity’, as we have seen, is as an overriding concern not only in

Levinas’s early works but also in his later works, throughout his philosophy of
subjectivity. Beginning from his essay of the early 1930s, Levinas does much to
establish this understanding of the body and maintains it as ‘value in itself’ (Levinas
1990: 68). In On Escape, he analyses the fact of being miserably riveted to oneself and
one’s felt need to escape from one’s being. Analyzing this ontological fact of being
riveted to oneself through the experiences of need, pain, nausea, and shame, Levinas
demonstrates the fact of one’s enchainment to one’s body and the significance of this
for his conception of embodiment. This project reaches a much clearer expression in his
works Existence and Existents and Time and the Other, where he describes the very
dawn of the subject from the fact of the il y a as occurring by means of the body. That it
is through the body that the self is constituted, as the ‘here I am,’ is evident from his
analyses of the phenomena of fatigue and indolence. The existent’s enchaining mate-
riality is its identity. Materiality is thus understood not in its traditional sense, as a
prison of the spirit, but rather as the very event of our being. In emphasizing this point,
Levinas signals an overcoming of the strange tension of the various traditional dualistic
conceptions of body and soul.
By revisiting this early model of the ‘body as subjectivity,’ or of the expressive body,
we are led to an ethical redefinition of the subject. The strange tension is to be found
between Levinas’s philosophy of the body and of the problem of embodiment on the
one hand, and both the racist and liberalist conceptions of the body on the other. As we
have seen, Levinas seeks to rise above both of these by maintaining a philosophy of the
body and of embodiment in its encounter with the other through her expressive body,
according to which the subject is inescapably in a situation of being awakened by the
proximity of the other who has indeed already within the subject that is me. The bodily
subject of the conatus is thus thoroughly reversed and ‘torn up from oneself for
another’ (Levinas 2004: 145), by the interruption of the face, as the imperative of the
face radically alters the self, making it a being beyond itself. The vulnerability of the
face-to-face happens in the very locus of the face, an event from which one cannot
escape, and in this ‘approach [to] a face the flesh becomes word,’ a word that speaks
‘here see me I am’ (Levinas 2004: 94). In this way, one is made a hostage to the other.
Sensibility takes on new meaning, as the self is both itself an affective being and a
being who is affected by the other, yet in both cases, it is a body through and through.
Body as Subjectivity to Ethical Signification of the Body 295

The ethical signification of the body and self-identity thus remains both beyond
dualistic assertions and beyond racist conceptions.


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