The Ethical Role of Aesthetic Experience in Levinas

Vander Zaag, James
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University of Guelph

Emmanuel Levinas concedes an ethical role for art to play in its secondary, discursive and conceptual form but denies that the primary, immersive and essential experience of art has any ethical significance whatsoever. This thesis seeks to find an ethical sense in the first hand experience of the work of art, an ethical sense that would satisfy Levinas’ own ethical thinking. I begin by formulating what would count as an ethical resource in Levinas’ own terms, and then reconstruct Levinas’ aesthetic account to locate its disengagement. Then I use Maurice Blanchot’s account of aesthetic experience, which is also a phenomenology of the work, to respond to Levinas. Blanchot describes a moment in aesthetic experience, what he calls the original experience, that is a genuine encounter with alterity, that calls me into question and displaces the ego from its sovereignty within subjectivity. This moment must be accepted as part of Levinas’ aesthetic account because it describes a prior condition to the aesthetic experience that Levinas describes. The original experience then provides a way of seeing an ethical role in the experience of the work of art, that of pushing back my tendency for totalization and opening me up to an encounter with alterity.

Ethics, Aesthetics, Phenomenology, Levinas, Blanchot