The I, The Other, and God: Emmanuel Levinas featuring Kendrick Lamar

The I, The Other, and God: Emmanuel Levinas featuring Kendrick Lamar October 5, 2022

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By Anthony David Vernon

It can be demonstrated that philosopher Emmanuel Levinas can be viewed as having thought that the I could only have a relationship with God through the other. To go about this line of argumentation firstly the terms the I, the other, and God shall be defined. Then, there will be an explanation of why the I cannot have a direct relationship with God (in part making use of Kendrick Lamar’s song How Much A Dollar Cost for the explanation). Finally, it shall be explained how the I can have a relationship with God only through a dynamic with the other.

Levinas says of the I:
The I is not a being that always remains the same, but is the being whose existence consists in identifying itself, in recovering its identity in all that happens to it.[i]

For Levinas the I is always asserting itself, an egoism that confirms itself via its own ego. The I narrativizes itself as a continuous identity in order to maintain itself. Even “the negation of the I by the self is precisely one of the modes of identification of the I.”[ii] The I is always affirming of itself, forming an ego for itself. The I wishes to assert itself as a whole separate subject from all else. However, this is a false notion as “The Other individuates me.”[iii] The I is not actually pure subjectivism but a relational mode dependent on the other: “The pure subjectivism of the I is refuted by war.”[iv] As the I wishes to assert itself solely from the other but cannot exist without the other because: “We are the same and the other.”[v]

“The same is true of the other.”[vi] But what is this other? If the I is in a dependent relationship with the other so is the other in a dependent relationship with the I. “It is in order that alterity be produced in being that a ‘thought’ is needed and that an I is needed.”[vii] Or in other words, for there to be the other there must be an I. But this does not answer the question, what is the other? There are degrees of otherness for Levinas as is made clear by his statement, “The absolutely other is the other.”[viii] The other is a distance, a distance from the I, a distance that cannot be fully closed. “The same and the other can not enter into a cognition that would encompass them.”[ix]

So while a distance between the I and the other will be maintained, “The Other presupposes an infinite separation.”[x] However, just because an infinite separation is presupposed does not mean there is an actual infinite separation. There is only some distance between the I and the other. The I and the other have a relationship in this way, a simultaneous closeness, and distance. But Levinas asks, “But how can the same, produced as egoism, enter into a relationship with an other without immediately divesting it of its alterity?”[xi]

Again, it is that some distance is always kept. The I and the other are built upon distance. The I and the other could not occur without distance, otherwise, they would be the same. Still, in being the closest possible, there is still a distance; there is a distance of the near. If any fusion occurs closeness and distance are destroyed.

If fusing occurs between the I and the other, then the I nor the other could be had, the dependent relationship would be destroyed. The fusing of the I and the other would create something else entirely. Distance and closeness allow for a relationship, as they are a type of relation along with a type of relationship. Therefore, the other is that which is distant from the self-affirming egoism of the ego.

The sense of I is most readily available in a person identifying themselves. In this way, the I can be readily viewed as a personal ego. Meanwhile, the other is most readily available as the other person. This is especially true from the perspective of the I. Henceforth, when referring to the I what is being referred to is a self-person. Concurrently, when referring to the other what is being referred to is the other person.

What is God according to Levinas? “God is not simply the first other but other than the other…God is different from every neighbor.”[xii] Levinas also says of God. “Does not God signify the other of being?…the image of God, the bursting and subversion of being,”[xiii] and: “Does not God signify the beyond being?”[xiv] God is both other to the I and to the other. As both the I and the other possess being, God is something other than being. God is separate from both the I and the other.

Where the I and the other share both a distance so, therefore, a closeness, God is separate from any distance or closeness relations. “God is this, a third person.”[xv] A common conception of the third person is a narrator who does not directly take part in the being of the story at hand but is nonetheless still in the story. This third person is not confronted with but still indirectly takes part in the being at hand. However, God is not exactly a third person, the third person is simply a useful tool for understanding as “God distances himself in the guise of the third person.”[xvi]

In truth God is the most other, absolutely other, “God is the other.”[xvii] But does this not imply that God is the other person? No, God is the other to the other. God has no being and does not exactly take part in being. But how can or could God possess personhood if they are non-being? God possessing personhood is a misunderstanding, without being, one cannot have personhood. How could God take part in being if God does not have any being?

God simply cannot be fully grasped, as it is absolutely other. Therefore, any understanding of God can at best be hinted at, only a likeness of God can be somewhat attained but not any actuality of God. God takes part in being by being hinted at within being similar to Descartes’ understanding that the very conception of the infinite means the infinite exists.[xviii]

Since God is the absolute other this is why the I cannot have a direct relationship with God. But also, Levinas provides another explanation as to why the I and God cannot have a direct relationship.

I and God in turn with merging them, revealing them as two distinct moments of evidence mutually founding one another, characterizes the very meaning of separation…

The distance between me and God, radical and necessary, is produced in being itself.[xix]

If there is to be being for the I the I cannot be merged with God. God’s non-being would negate the I’s being and the being of the I cannot bring God into being. If merged with God, the I could not be at all. Because the I cannot be without being. Thus, a direct relationship with God would destroy the I. However, Levinas does assert, “There can be a relationship with God.”[xx] So, therefore, the I must be able to have an indirect relationship with God.

There can be no ‘knowledge’ of God separated from the relationship with me. The Other is very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relation with God.[xxi]

It is only through the other that the I is able to have an indirect relationship with God. But how does the other allow for this to occur if God is even other to the other person? The other person has a face, a visage, and the face.[xxii]

The face, visage, and face of the other person begins with their eyes than extending afterwards to all other facial features. The physical features of a face are the phenomenal points of entry for the I into the face and visage. The face and visage are non-localized;  “the face is present in its refusal to be confined.”[xxiii]

The face, face, and visage is not actually located in the physical features of a face, but can be most readily confronted in the physical face. Because a the physical face most resembles the absolute otherness of God.

This is explained by Levinas,  The face has no form added to it, but does not present itself as the formless, as matter that lacks and calls for form.[xxiv]

The face is that which hints at the nature of God. However, God is not in the visage, the face, a face, nor in the other.

The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely by his face, in which he is disincarnate, is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed.[xxv]

Nonetheless, the other’s face is what allows for the I to gain a hint of God, to have a relationship with God in knowing what God is even sort of like, “The Other resembles God.”[xxvi] So when the I speaks to the other they are not and cannot be speaking to God.

God is not in the correlation where a gaze would come to look for him. As Illeity, God is in-finite, outside of the structure.[xxvii]

“In the situation of the face to face, there is no third party that thematizes what occurs between the one and the other.”[xxviii] What occurs between the I and the other is only between them. The face-to-face confrontation between the I and the other person does not include God because God cannot be there because God cannot be at all. No matter how close a face to face gets, God cannot be there once again because God cannot be at all. The I or the other may think that God is there, but this is a false conception; only a likeness of God could be there. For the I, the face of the other is the closest relationship one can have with God. As the other begins to show a glimpse of the distance the I has from God. However, this sense of distance is still far too close to match the separation from God.

American rapper Kendrick Lamar on the track How Much A Dollar Cost, is at a gas station in South Africa pumping gas into what he refers to as a “luxury car.”[xxix] A homeless man approaches Kendrick asking for “a single bill from you nothin’ less, nothin’ more.”[xxx]

Kendrick refuses to give this homeless man any money citing, “I knew he was smokin’” and “I smell Grandpa’s old medicine, reekin’ from your skin, moonshine and gin.”[xxxi] Kendrick locks into a face to face with this South African homeless man, “He’s starin’ at me, I notice that his stare is contagious, cause now I’m starin’ back at him.”[xxxii]

Even in the face to face Kendrick still refuses to give money to the South African homeless man. The track climaxes with the homeless revealing.

Know the truth, it’ll set you free. You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power. The nerve of Nazareth…I am God.[xxxiii]

Why has this Kendrick track been brought into the fold of this essay? Because this song exemplifies qualitatively more Levinasian themes than perhaps any other existing track. The song embodies how an interaction with God could play out according to Levinas’ understanding. Even with the ending revelation on How Much A Dollar Cost there can be no certainty if the homeless South African man is God. However, Levinas would assert that this man could not be God, but only embody God in a way. Yes, for Levinas the hinting of God is not typically as dramatic as claiming to be Christ. But for Levinas, an insight into God can be found in any other person.

Kendrick like Levinas finds God in the other person, in another person that they are confronted by face to face. The other comes face to face with us and God watches.

The conclusion made here is too neat, too totalizing for the often open ended and multifaceted nature of Levinas’ philosophy. We shall start again with a different line of interpretation still reaching a conclusion that can be argued for within Levinas’ philosophy. Once more there shall be a defining of the I, the other, and God followed by how the relationship between these three dynamics plays out (once again making use of Kendrick’s song How Much A Dollar Cost for this secondary interpretation).

“The egoism of the I pulsates.”[xxxiv] The I is centered around its very egoism, not just in the sense of maintaining its sense of ego or maintaining the having of an ego but also being focused upon the ego. For Levinas, “happiness, essentially egoist,”[xxxv] “enjoyment, happiness, or unhappiness is isolation itself,”[xxxvi] or “Enjoyment, the satisfaction and egoism of the I.” To Levinas the I begins in a state of happiness and enjoyment, “happiness, which is the original pattern of all independence.”[xxxvii] The I is enjoyment and happiness inherent within one’s ego. This makes the I essentially the state of happiness and enjoyment if its independence can be maintained.

The independence of the I cannot be maintained. The inherent happiness and enjoyment of the I is interrupted by the look of the other, “the Other will call in[to] question this egoism.”[xxxviii] The other comes into direct contact with the I, bringing suffering to the I, adding suffering to the I’s sole state of happiness and enjoyment. The other challenges the egoism of the I, thus bringing into light things outside of happiness and enjoyment for the I. And for Levinas, “enjoyment impeded would by itself engender no signification but only suffering,”[xxxix] or in other words, the look of judgement causes the interruption of enjoyment which is suffering.

However, the other in this case scenario cannot just be defined as that which brings suffering to the I. We can return to an earlier mentioned quote and take it literally this time around, “God is the other.”[xl] In this case scenario, when you come to face (or face to face with) the other, as the other person, the other person you are facing is God. In this interpretation the face has also been redefined as, “the ‘resemblance’ of man and God.”[xli] The face is the direct face of God, which shatters the ego, so, therefore, shatters enjoyment.

In this interpretation, the other person “is” God. In this interpretation, God can be and has being. Also, different from the previous interpretation, God is not just a battlefield watcher but taking part in war as Levinas writes, “‘other’ (cause for war).”[xlii] This is because one tries to kill the other in an act of war to remove their look of judgement. But this only leads to a murder of the other but does not eliminate judgement as judgment cannot be eliminated. One is also driven to murder the other as God cannot be killed, this is why Cain kills Abel as oppose to trying to murder God.

Ultimately, Cain wanted to kill God’s judgement but this could not be done, so Abel was murdered as Abel was the closest correspondent to God. In the same way Kendrick Lamar wants to kill the judgement of the homeless South African man. It is also notable for Levinas,

War presupposes peace, the antecedent and non-allergic presence of the Other; it does not represent the first event of the encounter.[xliii]

In differing words, the interaction with God begins with suffering. As the look of God is interruption of not only pleasure but also peace. The interaction between the I and God refuses the totality of enjoyment which is suffering itself. Only after this refusal via war, the look of judgement, can the shattering of enjoyment occur and then suffering can come about. Before war, the ongoing look of judgement, there is only enjoyment, pleasure, and peace. But since God brings war to the I and the I engages God in war the relationship between the I and God is mutually confrontational, “War does not refuse relationship, since in war the adversaries seek out one another.”[xliv]

The American rapper Kendrick Lamar finds himself at a South African gas station with his, “luxury car, hopping out feeling big as Mutombo.”[xlv] Kendrick representing the I is feeling nothing but enjoyment and happiness with himself. However, this enjoyment is sharply interrupted by a South African homeless man representing the other.

The other makes the I question its own enjoyment and happiness: “My selfishness is what got me here, who the fuck I’m kiddin’?”[xlvi] It is as Kendrick’s sense of ego has been shattered that the other reveals, “You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power. The nerve of Nazareth.” It is only when our ego is shattered via the look of the other according to both Levinas and Kendrick that we can realize that the other before us is indeed God.

The homeless South African man is initially in a state of wanting peace with the boastful Kendrick. However, the South African homeless man is still an adversary with Kendrick so seeks him out. A powerful adversary, because the homeless South African man is deserving of peace giving power to his judgmental look. In this confrontation between the homeless South African man and Kendrick, the homeless man is the other and so is literally God. By being God, the homeless South African man is able to not only confront Kendrick’s ego of enjoyment but impede it and thusly bring suffering to Kendrick.

What can be made of these two vastly different interpretations of Levinas’ philosophy in regards to the relationship between the I, the other, and God? The I as an ego assertion whose ego cannot be maintained due to being confronted the other that is the gate to God. Versus the I as happiness, a happiness which is crushed by the other who is both the other person and God. It is interpretively clear to Levinas that the I cannot reach God alone. Trapped in pure egoism, the I will never be able to get to God. It is likely for Levinas that it is only through the other that the possibility of the I getting at God can even occur. The I needs the other as a gate to God. That gate to God is indirect, only giving the I the possibility of a somewhat sort of glimmer of God. Or, the gate can be absolutely direct opening the I up to the direct presence of God. With the face being in both interpretations the gate to God. Either way, the argument has been made that for Levinas (via interpretation) the I can only have a relationship with God only through a dynamic with the other. “The relation with the [o]ther alone introduces a dimension of transcendence.”[xlvii] There is no God without the other. Still, even this is far too totalizing for Levinas’ philosophical tendencies, with myself being another person to Levinas trying violently to bring Levinas to my own interpretation of reaching God via assaulting the words of Levinas. I have brought war to Levinas, in the same manner Kendrick Lamar warred with the homeless South African man.

Wrapped too tightly in my own egoism, I have not allowed the other to bring me to God but have tried to reach God on my own which has been an inevitable failing.

Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques, and Alan Bass. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of  Emmanuel Levinas.” Essay. In Writing and Difference, 79–153.

University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Edited by Pascale-Ann Brault and Michael Naas.

Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Levinas, Emmanuel. God, Death, and Time. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford, California:

Stanford University Press, 2000.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh,

Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 2007.

Lamar, Kendrick. “How Much a Dollar Cost?” Released March 15, 2015, https://genius.com/

Kendrick-lamar-how-much-a-dollar-cost-lyrics

Schechtman, Anat. “Descartes’s Argument for the Existence of the Idea of an Infinite Being.”

Journal of the History of Philosophy, 52, no. 3 (July 2014): 487–517. https://doi.org/

https://doi.org/10.1353/hph.2014.0061.

[i] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne

University Press, 2007), 36.

[ii] Ibid 37.

[iii] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time. trans. Bettina Bergo, (Stanford, California: Stanford

University Press, 2000), 12.

[iv] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 25.

War can be best understood as the refusal of totality.

[v] Ibid 39.

[vi] Ibid 14.

[vii] Ibid 39.

[viii] Ibid 39.

[ix] Ibid 80.

[x] Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Ann Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 206.

[xi] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 38.

[xii] Levinas, God, Death, and Time, 224.

[xiii] Ibid 124.

[xiv] Ibid 126.

[xv] Ibid 203.

[xvi] Ibid 207.

[xvii] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 211.

[xviii] Anat Schechtman, “Descartes’s Argument for the Existence of the Idea of an Infinite Being,”

Journal of the History of Philosophy, 52, no. 3 (July 2014): 487–517.

[xix] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 48.

[xx] Levinas, God, Death, and Time, 199.

[xxi] Levinas, Totality and Infinity 78.

[xxii] On page 142 of Totality of Infinity Levinas states, “the name of face [visage].” So these terms face, the

face and visage appear quite interchangeable.

[xxiii] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 194.

[xxiv] Ibid 142.

[xxv] Ibid 79.

[xxvi] Jacques Derrida and Alan Bass, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel

Levinas.” Essay. In Writing and Difference, 79–153. (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 142.

[xxvii] Levinas, God, Death, and Time, 203.

[xxviii] Ibid 161.

[xxix] Kendrick Lamar, “How Much a Dollar Cost?” Released March 15, 2015, https://genius.com/

Kendrick-lamar-how-much-a-dollar-cost-lyrics.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 135.

[xxxv] Ibid 114.

[xxxvi] Ibid 117.

[xxxvii] Ibid 110.

[xxxviii] Ibid 119.

[xxxix] Ibid 97.

[xl] Ibid 211.

[xli] Jacques Derrida and Alan Bass, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel

Levinas.” Essay. In Writing and Difference, 79–153. (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 102.

[xlii] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 52.

[xliii] Ibid 199.

[xliv] Ibid 223.

[xlv] Lamar, “How Much a Dollar Cost?”

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 193.

About Anthony David Vernon
Anthony David Vernon is a Cuban-American literary writer and master's level philosophy student at the University of New Mexico. He has a published book entitled The Assumption of Death published by Alien Buddha Press. You can read more about the author here.

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