Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 10, May 2002

 

 

Joshua Shaw

Struggling to See the Light

 

 

 

Cathryn Vasseleu

_Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty_

London: Routledge, 1997

ISBN 041514233 (hbk) 0415142741 (pbk)

157 pp.

 

1

Cathryn Vasseleu's _Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty_ is an exciting but frustrating book. Vasseleu's goal is ambitious: she suggests that Luce Irigaray's writings have been significantly underestimated. Irigaray is often lumped together with other French feminist and deconstructionist philosophers. She is read as one of many French theorists who have sought to expose the male biases in Western philosophy and, in particular, to show how metaphors involving light and vision, metaphors with a venerable history in philosophy, have served to perpetuate these biases. Vasseleu argues that this reading of Irigaray underestimates her originality. Irigaray isn't simply an anti-visual theorist; she doesn't merely decry philosophy's complicity in occularcentrism or, to borrow a term from Martin Jay's _Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century_, 'phallogocularcentrism'. [1] She also tries to rethink vision and light in terms of femininity and touch. She not only exposes, that is, how the feminine has been excluded from the light of reason in philosophy; she charts out a new 'feminine investment' of light by showing how vision is dependent on, but not necessarily reducible to, the texture of light or touch of light on the eye.

 

Vasseleu motivates this reading of Irigaray by showing how Irigaray's remarks on vision and illumination both take up and transcend those of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas. Merleau-Ponty and Levinas can be read, she suggests, as seeking to undermine the dominant characterizations of vision and light in Western philosophy. Merleau-Ponty seeks to show how subject-object relations, which have generally been analyzed in terms of vision, can be reduced to modulations of 'flesh'. Levinas also seeks to overturn the centrality of light and vision in philosophy, albeit on the grounds that philosophy's preoccupation with light and vision is symptomatic of its hostility toward the transcendence of the human Other. Levinas develops an account of sensibility, in turn, that links sensibility with passivity -- with vulnerability, exposedness, the potential to be wounded.

 

Vasseleu presents Irigaray as deepening these interventions. Irigarary recognizes, in particular, certain shortcomings in each philosopher's work, moments when their occularcentrism coaxes them to accept the very type of position they seek to reject -- moments when they inadvertently treat touch as if it were a type of vision and thus reduce it to another element in the 'scopic economy'. By contrast, Irigaray clearly distinguishes touch from vision: neither is reducible to the other. She also argues, however, that vision is rooted in touch. Irigaray here focuses on the play of light on the eye, on what Vasseleu calls 'the texture of light' (11). Vision is made possible by the contact of light on the eye; it is a product of the eye being touched by light. Vision, then, flows out of a kind of erotic experience, an experience that is best characterized in terms of penetration, dazzlement, ecstasy, and pain. Vision is founded, as Vasseleu puts it, on 'erotic light' (121). This approach to Irigaray is exciting and worthwhile. As other reviewers have noted, it opens up new possibilities for feminist theorists interested in retaining an appreciation for the significance of light and vision. It invites us, in short, to distinguish feminism from anti-visualism. [2] Vasseleu's approach to Irigaray is also consistent with Irigaray's insistence that her writings be read as philosophic texts. Irigaray's point in insisting on the philosophic status of her work is, presumably, to highlight the way in which the Western philosophic canon shapes the limits of intelligibility. Irigaray's goal has been to intervene in this tradition -- to expose the male biases it perpetuates and chart out forms of intelligibility it has so far eclipsed. Given the venerability of metaphors of light and vision in Western philosophy, it seems appropriate to read Irigaray as trying to return, as it were, to Plato's cave to retrieve a fresh understanding of illumination.

 

My sense, though, is that championing this reading of Irigarary proves to be a little too ambitious. _Textures of Light_ often feels as if it is torn between conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Vasseleu tries to walk her readers through some very dense passages in Merleau-Ponty's and Levinas's notoriously difficult writings. This is ambitious unto itself, especially since many of the topics she discusses (touch, embodiment, vision, illumination) have received relatively little attention in secondary scholarship on these thinkers. (This is the case, I would argue, in scholarship on Levinas.) On the other hand, she also tries to show how Irigaray deepens the reconsiderations of vision, illumination, and touch begun by these thinkers -- to show, in short, how Irigaray's work inaugurates a new understanding of erotic light.

 

It isn't clear to me, however, that she succeeds in either of these tasks. Again, I had the sense that these competing pressures -- to elucidate Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, and to pioneer a new understanding of Irigaray's place in philosophy -- pulled Vasseleu in different directions. The effect, I think, was that she wasn't quite able to pull off either goal. Her exegesis of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas is informative, but it is often only marginally clearer than texts she seeks to explain. At the same time, the bulk of _Textures of Light_ is devoted to this exegesis. It is thus difficult to accept some of her more ambitious claims on behalf of Irigaray's importance in her Introduction, the closing pages of her section on Levinas, and her Conclusion. For she simply has not said enough in the intervening sections, or at least not clearly and forcefully said enough, to make her analysis of Irigaray compelling. (At least not, I think, to someone who doesn't already share her convictions about Irigaray's importance.)

 

2

Vasseleu divides her book into four parts. Parts I and IV, her Introduction and Conclusion, are devoted to her reading of Irigaray. Parts II and III focus on discussions of light, vision, touch, and embodiment in Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. Each of these exegetical sections begins with a general introduction to Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. These introductions are then followed by more focused studies of Merleau-Ponty's and Levinas's remarks on illumination, vision, touch, and embodiment. Let me briefly review what I take to be the key points of Vasseleu's argument. I should preface my remarks, however, by admitting that I found much of Vasseleu's book to be vague, and I may be amplifying on claims she makes in it in ways she might not accept. That said, the following gloss represents, I think, some of her more pivotal claims.

 

Vasseleu's aim in Part I, as I noted above, is to propose that the significance of Irigaray's characterization of touch, vision, and illumination hasn't been appreciated. Metaphors involving light and illumination have played, of course, a vital role in Western philosophy. One thinks of Plato's allegory of the cave, divine illumination in Augustine, Descartes's *lumen naturale*, or the reference to light in terms like enlightenment or *Aufklarung*. Philosophers have often turned to metaphors of light and vision to help them explain the nature, methods, and goals of philosophy. Jacques Derrida has recently argued that these metaphors in fact play a foundational role in philosophy. Metaphors involving light and vision aren't mere rhetorical devices philosophers have used to decorate their prose; light is the suggestive metaphor that launches the very enterprise of philosophy. 'Derrida argues', Vasseleu explains, 'that light is not just one metaphor used in philosophy, but the metaphor which founds the entire system of metaphysics of metaphoric truth' (7).

 

Irigarary deepens this analysis. She accepts Derrida's claim about light as a founding metaphor of philosophy, but she is more concerned with the way this metaphor has served to erase sexual difference. On Irigaray's analysis, it isn't so much that Western philosophy hides its metaphoric origins through its use of light-metaphors. The attraction behind these metaphors is rather that they serve to suppress the 'maternal origin' (7) of philosophy by perpetuating a kind of myth of auto-origination. Irigarary goes beyond deconstructionist theorists, in turn, in that she offers a positive account of light that doesn't exclude the feminine. Again, the real challenge isn't simply to record the fact that femininity has been excluded from light but to sketch out a feminine investment of light.

 

Irigaray achieves this goal, for Vasseleu, by refining our sense of the relation between touch and vision. Philosophers have often singled out vision as the finest sense, and they have employed metaphors involving vision to illustrate logical or epistemological claims. (Thus we say that we 'see' how an argument works, or we struggle to 'shed light' on passages in a philosopher's work so we can 'see' her main argument.) This characterization of vision has influenced, in turn, how philosophers have discussed the other senses. Vision's preeminence has led them to treat touch as if it were a type of vision: feeling the rough texture of sandpaper on the tips of your fingers is thought to be analogous to seeing a shade of color in a painting. More accurately, philosophers have tended to analyze both touch and vision as if they involved a kind of disembodied, cognitive 'seeing'. By contrast, Irigarary tries to show that touch cannot be reduced to a mode of vision, and that a revised, subtler understanding of touch 'invites a reconsideration of the constitution of vision' (17).

 

Vasseleu presents Irigaray as focusing, in turn, on the 'texture or touch of light' in her analysis of vision. Our capacity for sight is, she suggests, founded on the play of light on the eye. Yet this suggests that vision is grounded in tactility. For the eye doesn't so much see light; it feels its brilliance. 'Light is experienced', Vasseleu explains, 'as a non-rational subjection to feelings such as being penetrated, dazzlement, ecstasy, and pain' (12). Irigaray thinks of vision, then, as being distinct from touch but dependent on it. Vision is born of an erotic act of touching, an act in which the distinction between subject and object, viewer and viewed, perceiver and perceived are blurred. 'The indeterminacy of the body in touch', Vasseleu explains, 'is the basis of an erotically constituted threshold of immersion in the visual' (12).

 

3

As I noted before, Vasseleu's strategy for motivating this reading of Irigaray is to show how her work builds upon and transcends that of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. She discusses Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological analysis of 'flesh' in Part II of _Textures of Light_. Vasseleu presents Merleau-Ponty as trying to show how subject-object relations can be understood in terms of touch. Merleau-Ponty uses the example of one hand rubbing another to illustrate his understanding of touch. Suppose I rub my hands together: Does my right hand touch my left hand? Or does my left hand touch my right? Is my right hand touched, or is it the agent doing the touching? It seems as if my skin quivers between these possibilities. Merleau-Ponty suggests that this ambivalence is paradigmatic of touch. To be an embodied being, a being that touches and is touched by the world, is to be a site where this ambivalence occurs. Thus Vasseleu refers to Merleau-Ponty as a 'philosopher of ambiguity' (75). Merleau-Ponty tries to show how subject-object relations, which have generally been analyzed in epistemological terms like 'knower' and 'known', or in visual terms like 'viewer' and 'viewed', are reducible to opposing poles of this primal ambivalence that occurs at the level of 'flesh'.

 

Vasseleu considers a different type of critique of philosophy's obsession with vision and light when she turns to Levinas in Part III of _Textures of Light_. Levinas's remarks on light, vision, and touch are motivated by his concern to honor transcendence of what he calls 'the human Other'. The danger in philosophy's obsession with vision and light, for him, is that it's symptomatic of philosophy's relentless quest to comprehend all of reality, to see all of reality exposed to the light of reason. Philosophy's obsession with light renders it hostile, in turn, to all that resists conceptualization and, consequently, to the transcendence of other men and women. Thus Levinas has an ethical impetus for critiquing the role of light and vision in philosophy, and a major goal of his work, on Vasseleu's reading, is to give an account of sensation that isn't hostile to alterity in this way. Levinas achieves this goal by shifting focus from vision to touch. He critiques the emphasis on intentional, theoretical, quasi-visual consciousness in philosophy, and he emphasizes instead a notion of touch that conceives of sensibility in terms of passivity. To be a sensate being, to be a creature that is capable of sensation, isn't, for Levinas, a matter of being an active agent that sees the world. Sensibility rather consists in being exposed to the world: it consists in vulnerability, the possibility of being wounded.

 

4

I want to limit myself to Vasseleu's commentary on Levinas in presenting my concerns, which have more to do with Vasseleu's writing style and some overall shortcomings of her book rather than with the accuracy of her claims about Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Irigaray. This distinction between style and content is, of course, a hard one to maintain. Nonetheless, I find it helpful in articulating my dissatisfaction to say that I am less troubled by Vasseleu's arguments, insofar as I understand them, than I am by the way she presents them to her readers. It isn't so much that she says anything wrong, but she simply doesn't say enough to make her reading of Irigaray convincing. Worse, much of what she says is too vague to be helpful. I take these to be general flaws of _Textures of Light_. I am more confident, however, about my grasp of Levinas than Merleau-Ponty, and I will have an easier time presenting my concerns if I restrict myself to those sections of _Textures of Light_ that deal directly with Levinas's work.

 

What I am calling the 'exegetical sections' of _Textures of Light_, the sections devoted to Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, are at times quite informative. Indeed, I found them to be helpful on two levels. Vasseleu prefaces her commentaries on Merleau-Ponty and Levinas with introductions to each philosopher's work. These introductions were quite good; I would recommend them to students who want to know more about Merleau-Ponty and Levinas but who may need guidance approaching their work. Vasseleu also focuses on themes in Levinas that have not received enough attention in secondary scholarship on him. Levinas is remembered for his claims about the priority of ethics. But his writings are extremely rich. He discusses a wide range of topics, and it is refreshing to see someone writing on themes that have been somewhat ignored in secondary scholarship on him.

 

Nonetheless, I often found Vasseleu's remarks on Levinas to be frustrating. Her explanatory remarks were often only marginally less opaque than the passages in Levinas she sought to explain. It also seemed to me that she tended to pass over some of the more challenging passages in Levinas in situating his work in relation to Irigaray's. Let me give an example.

 

A key portion of Vasseleu's discussion of Levinas focuses on Levinas's remarks on eros at the end of _Totality and Infinity_. Vasseleu suggests that Irigaray is right to worry that Levinas here excludes femininity from light and vision by identifying the feminine with the 'dark abyss' (106) that is the object of erotic desire. Levinas prefaces his remarks on eros, however, by warning that in this final part of _Totality and Infinity_ he will go 'beyond the face'. [3] He hopes, that is, to identify areas in our lives that evince the reality of what he calls 'the Other' -- modes of human interaction that are made possible by the transcendence of the Other. Levinas suggests, then, that erotic love evinces the Other, for the phenomenology of eros reveals it to be a curiously conflicted experience. Love is bittersweet: it aims at possessing something transcendent, something that cannot, by definition, be possessed. Eros aims at converting the Other into an object of need. Levinas here equates the role of the Other in erotic desire with femininity. The feminine is the object of eros: the feminine is the object of the yearning caress, a gesture that expresses the erotic longing to grasp after the ungraspable.

 

Vasseleu's worry, which she draws from Irigaray, is that Levinas's analysis of eros leads him to define femininity from the standpoint of male desire. The feminine is depicted by him as, to quote Irigaray, 'the underside or reverse side of man's aspiration toward the light, as its negative' (109). But there is a puzzle as to how Levinas's discussion of eros in _Totality and Infinity_ should be interpreted. Is he recommending that the feminine be viewed in this way? Is he claiming that the feminine just is the abyss that erotic desire hopelessly aims at possessing? Or is he making a quasi-empirical claim? Is he pointing out that erotic desire, in its currently dominant manifestation, has the structure he has described, a structure that is only possible if the feminine is a human Other and, consequently, ultimately addresses us from the position of authority that we experience in the face-to-face encounter? Is Levinas inviting us to question whether our current understanding of femininity in erotic desire is satisfactory? What relation do areas of human life 'beyond the face' bear to the face-to-face encounter itself?

 

I raise these questions not to excuse Levinas's claims about femininity in _Totality and Infinity_ (I personally find them troubling), but simply to highlight that his writings are studded with interpretive riddles. What is wanted in interpreting someone like Levinas, someone whose work is so challenging, is a more cautious, line-by-line exposition of specific texts. My sense is that Vasseleu passes over too much that is in need of thoughtful exposition in Levinas (and Merleau-Ponty and Irigaray). One sees this in her tendency to blur together texts from different phases of Levinas's career. Levinas's thinking underwent an important shift after the publication of Derrida's 'Violence and Metaphysics'. Levinas sought to substantially revise his thinking in light of Derrida's criticisms, a task that culminated in his second major work _Otherwise than Being_. Vasseleu attends to the differences between Levinas's earlier and later work (see pages 81, 90, and 108), but she often quotes indiscriminately from these earlier and later texts (see pages 88-89, 102-103, and 104-105).

 

Yet this is precisely the sort of interpretive dilemma we are faced with. How should we compare Levinas's earlier and later remarks on themes like vision, light, touch, the caress, sensibility, the erotic, femininity, etc., that would, I take it, attract readers to Vasseleu's book? How does Levinas's view of the caress change, for example, from an early essay like _Time and the Other_, to _Totality and Infinity_, to some of his later essays? The caress seems to be linked to his account of the feminine. Does this mean that Levinas develops different models of touch as he modifies his view of femininity? Why does the notion of sensibility loom so large in _Otherwise than Being_, whereas enjoyment is more prominent in _Totality and Infinity_? Are these differences indicative of a deep shift in his understanding of embodiment? Someone familiar with Levinas's writings will, I think, be attracted to a book like _Textures of Light_ in the hope that it will (excuse the pun) shed light on the answers to these types of questions. But Vasseleu moves through Levinas's writings far too quickly, without sufficient regard for the interpretative challenges one needs to confront in order to make sense of them. I am not a Merleau-Ponty scholar. But I imagine that someone sympathetic to his work would raise comparable criticisms about her commentary on him.

 

My sense, too, is that someone familiar with Levinas will find some of Vasseleu's remarks to be a little sloppy. Vasseleu claims at one point in passing that the 'there is' refers to the same thing in Levinas as 'alterity', 'illeity', and 'the trace of the Other' (85). Yet Levinas carefully distinguishes these terms. The notion of the 'there is' figures primarily in his early work as part of his critique of Heidegger, where he uses it to challenge Heidegger's characterization of Being in _Being and Time_. Heidegger is struck, of course, by the link between Being and the idea of a gift suggested by the German 'es gibt'. Levinas uses the notion of the 'there is' to suggest that he is too sanguine: Being's plentitude, which Levinas identifies with the 'there is', is not a gift but a source of horror. Being is an impersonal, suffocating presence. The 'there is' is by no means identical, then, with the alterity of the Other. In fact, the Other, as Levinas explains in _Ethics and Infinity_, is precisely what rescues us from the 'anonymous and senseless rumbling' of the 'there is'. [4] The terms 'illeity' and 'trace' emerge in Levinas's later work, where he uses them, as I understand him, to specify different dimensions of the presence of the Other. 'Illeity' refers to a certain third-personal dimension that can be discerned in the presence of the Other, whereas the 'trace' gets associated with increasing frequency in Levinas's later writings with a divine presence that is latent yet irremediably hidden in the encounter with the Other.

 

These may sound like nitpicky criticisms. Yet these kinds of flaws are apt to cause readers familiar with the texts Vasseleu discusses to second-guess her scholarship. They foster the suspicion that she is more concerned with advancing a certain sense of Irigaray's place in philosophy than with arduous task of piecing together a coherent account of illumination, touch, and vision from Merleau-Ponty's or Levinas's works. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to champion Irigaray. But Irigaray's understanding of light tends to get lost in Vasseleu's commentaries on Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. (This problem is only exacerbated by her tendency to draw somewhat hasty comparisons between the three figures she discusses and other figures in continental philosophy, like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille.) The result is dissatisfying. As I noted above, someone familiar with Merleau-Ponty and Levinas will probably find Vasseleu's commentaries to be superficial, and they distract her, I think, from clearly elaborating on her reading of Irigaray.

 

4

I worry that some of my criticisms of Kathryn Vasseleu may sound unduly harsh, and so I should perhaps say something about the biases I bring to her book as a reviewer. My area of specialization is continental philosophy. Much of my training, however, has been in analytic philosophy. I am certain this shapes how I read _Textures of Light_. I don't necessarily esteem the writing style of analytic philosophy more than continental philosophy. Indeed, I find the distinction between the two traditions to be unhelpful -- one whose real attraction lies in its ability to promote sectarianism by allowing philosophers to pigeonhole one another. Nonetheless, I find that I value ostensibly 'analytic' traits in certain types of philosophic prose. I don't think that things like clarity, careful argumentation, and distinction-making make certain texts truer or more insightful than others. But I do think they have a certain value insofar as texts that possess these qualities make more of an effort to extend themselves to new readers. There is a certain value to be had in clearly laying out one's reasoning when one is writing for audience that may not be familiar with one's discourse position. My sense is that this sort of generosity is especially crucial when one's task is exegetical, even more so when one's object of exegesis are writings as obscure as those of Irigaray, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas.

 

My main concern with _Textures of Light_ is that it doesn't extend itself to new readers in this way, thought I am sure that many others will find Vasseleu's book rewarding. In particular, readers familiar with recent feminist critiques of occularcentrism will find her reading of Irigaray to be innovative -- one that opens up new possibilities for feminist re-conceptualizations of vision and light. But my sense is that many readers will also be put off by the obscurity of her prose. I want to be careful here since it is so common in analytic circles to dismiss obscure continental writing. (A web-search reveals that Vasseleu's name appears on at least one website devoted to mocking postmodern jargon.) Let me just add, then, that my own reaction was to feel frustrated by _Textures of Light_, not because I didn't agree with Vasseleu's reading of Irigaray but because I didn't feel as if enough work had been done to help me reach the point where I could agree or disagree with her. I felt as if I had been invited to see something exciting in Irigaray's conception of light, but I also felt frustrated that I had been left ill-prepared to articulate what I had been asked to see.

 

It would have been interesting, on this point, to have seen Vasseleu use her reading of Irigaray to study some particular film, painting, or other object of visual culture. Vasseleu invites us to distinguish feminism from anti-visualism, and she develops a novel analysis of vision through her reading of Irigaray. I'm sure her book has important implications, then, for film studies and the broader study of visual culture. For example, it has often been suggested by feminist theorists that films model acts of gazing -- usually fundamentally male or masculinist gazing. An exciting implication of Vasseleu's book is that it invites us to rethink what it might mean to associate film with gazing. My main complaint about _Textures of Light_ is that I found it obscure. Perhaps one way in which the author could clarify her ideas would be to use her reading of Irigaray to analyze the visual experience of watching a particular film or staring at a particular painting. If vision is a kind of erotic, tactile experience, then what should we think about, say, the experience of staring at one of Vermeer's paintings of light-drenched rooms? What should we make of the blinding close-ups of starlets' faces that pepper Hollywood melodramas? It would have been interesting to see what sort of new, feminist analysis of such scenes Vasseleu might have developed on the basis of her analysis of vision as a tactile experience.

 

Indiana University, Bloomington, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Martin Jay's _Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

 

2. For more on this point see Kelly Oliver, 'Review of _Textures of Light_ by Cathryn Vasseleu', _Hypatia_, vol. 16 no. 1, Winter 2001 <http://iupjournals.org/hypatia/hyptoc16.html>.

 

3. See Emmanuel Levinas, _Totality and Infinity_, translated by Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), pp. 249-253.

 

4. Emmanuel Levinas, _Ethics and Infinity_, trans. Richard A. Cohen, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 52.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Joshua Shaw, 'Struggling to See the Light', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 10, May 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n10shaw>.

 

 

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