If I had the Ring of Gyges, I would enjoy . . .

 Arthur Sabatini's PRL blog 11 July, 2011  

Of course, it did not take the postmodern conceptions of referentiality, nor, to draw on Bakhtin’s formulation, intertextuality, to realize that whenever one reads, one reads in relation to what one has read. (I suppose that is inevitable when curricula from high school through graduate degree programs are more or less proscribed.)  Reading Levinas, as I noted above, resonates with philosophical vectors to be found in the work of Bakhtin.  Both Levinas and Bakhtin draw on Husserl’s ideas and the neo-Kantian thought of Hermann Cohen. Levinas, writing in mid-century France, has absorbed the linguistic framework of Saussure; Bakhtin, who wrote a book, with V.N. Voloshinov, rejecting  Saussure’s structuralist theory of signification (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) is, nevertheless, invested in thinking through language, which he approaches through what he calls translinguistics. Curiously, both explore religious traditions (for Levinas is it Judaic; for Bakhtin it is Russian Orthodoxy), yet, in general, their ideas can be read as being far more concerned with secular philosophy and philosophical histories than religious ones.  Bakhtin, who, after being arrested around 1930, spent decades in internal exile in Russia, functioned apart from the intellectual developments of the West; Levinas, who briefly studied with Heidegger, was a figure in French thought in the post war years until his death in 1995. 

So, when I read, in Levinas’ Totality and Infiinity, a suspicion of spectacle, I think of Bakhtin’s elaborate conception carnivalization.  Levinas brings up the idea of 

spectacle in order to address ‘seeing the world’ without participating in it (this is derived from his previous references to the myth of Gyges, a shepherd who finds a magic ring that allows him to become invisible). The person who is invisible, – or a non-participant in human affairs – has freedom and a position that is uncontested, for Levinas. Furthermore, to see the world as “pure spectacle” is to also recognize it as silent and, possibly accessible to “true knowledge.”

Intriguingly, Levinas rejects this notion because the world of “pure spectacle” would, as he conceives it, also be anarchic and silent, i.e., without speech. As representation, he states, it would be something from an “evil genius,” (which is an odd characterization).  The evil lies in the fact that without speech, this Otherness is mocking and produces a “laughter that seeks to destroy language.” This is because in refusing language nothing is articulated or given or, more particularly, “thematized” by the Other.

Bakhtin says, famously, in Rabelais and His World, ‘certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only though laughter.’  The book actually begins with a history of laughter and it is the consummate study not only of laughter but of spectacle, carnival, transgressive performance, food and an array of lower bodily functions, and the excesses of language. To be sure, for Bakhtin, speech is always rampantly and explosively present, but the extravagances of carnival can suggest a realm of ‘pure spectacle’ and great, mocking laughter. Bakhtin would reassure Levinas that in spectacle, there will always be forms and genres of social speech that, quite intentionally, are mocking official language

From another perspective, Bakhtin might agree with Levinas in that there is ‘evil’ in human silence and spectacle, in so far as it is asserted by dominating Others. Or, that there is a necessary negation.  In refusing to speak, or obscuring speech, or through laughter, the discourses of power are countered.  Would Levinas accept derision or silence in the face of treacherous others who define power and the law?

This is to say that it is not possible to read Bakhtin without a recognition that nearly all he wrote is infused with the historical politics of his life in Russian throughout the 20th  century.  His very conception of carnival can be seen as a proposal for the masses to revolt; or, conversely, as a warning of the consequences of revolt. After the misrule of carnival, authority will be restored – and, perhaps, be more repressive. 

What, then, I ask are the political implications of Levinas’ text? It turns out that my question is fleeting in the context of the section I am reading because, after commenting on silence and spectacle, Levinas unexpectedly proposes a characterization? definition? explanation? of language and speech: “Speech consists of explaining oneself with respect to speech; it is a teaching.” (98)

He continues: “Teaching does not simply transmit an abstract and general content… Speech first founds community by giving, by presenting phenomenon as given; and it gives by thematizing.” 

As a teacher this is gratifying, but it also implies responsibility.  More on that in the next blog…

Arthur Sabatini's previous PRL blog from 1 July, 2011 1 July, 2011

AJ Sabatini is an arts writer and academician who lives and teaches in Philadelphia and Arizona. For a list of art blogs and articles click here   See also Broad Street Review

Arthur J. Sabatini, associate professor of performance studies and member of Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Literature research cluster and program, is one of Lincoln New College Ethics Teaching Fellows. In Fall 2011, he will be developing an undergraduate course, Language, Culture and Performance. The study of dialogue, performance and ethics is interdisciplinary and unifies ideas in philosophy, communications and the arts. This course explores language in performance in forms of verbal art and orality, speaking and listening, dialogue and storytelling, and in other discourse genres, with an emphasis on ethics and ethical issues. The subjects and themes in the readings focus broadly on personal and cultural memory, place(s) and historical legacies, war and recollection, social conflict and language.


“For decades I wrote and worked in the arts in Philadelphia. I taught at Drexel University and The University of the Arts, worked with Relâche and The Yellow Springs Institute, wrote for the Inquirer and a bunch of publications that are no longer around. I live in both in Philadelphia and Arizona and am associate professor of performance studies in interdisciplinary arts and performance at Arizona State University. Most of my writing is academic and focuses on the avant-garde and experimental artists. I also perform, have written a play and keep working on other projects. Nearly everything I know can be traced to some conversation in or related to Philadelphia.”  More at




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