Ethical Subject: Levinas and Cultural Theory

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of Social Pol Sociology & Social Res


This study is a critical investigation of themes in the work of the Jewish theologian and foremost ethical thinker of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Levinas, from the perspective of their relevance to contemporary cultural inquiry. Its primary focus will be the relationship between the formation of modern ethical subjectivities- the ethical dimension of the way individuals experience their lives- and the cultural determinants of everyday lives as they are lived and characterised by ethical concern in the first place. Specific topics addressed are, for instance, responsibility, violence, hospitality, sexual difference, love, death, justice, value, sacrifice, and religiosity, goodness, evil and suffering.

The study's focus is thus on the relationship between the 'ethical subject matters' as these may be commonly identified in their ordinary cultural contexts, and philosophical ideas about the nature of 'the ethical subject'. The theoretical problem of how these two things, ethical matters and subjectivity, co-emerge and co-articulate each other is what the study as a whole shall address. It will present a philosophical argument to support the thesis that ethics is prima facie always a matter of 'embodiment', and each chapter will illustrate how this thesis is evidenced in relation to the analysis of individual ethical topics.
At the same time, alternative perspectives on embodiment and its ethical significance- derived for instance through critical readings of other thinkers in the European tradition such as Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze- will be introduced and juxtaposed to that of Levinas, thereby illustrating the wider relevance of the ethical aspects of sensate being (or 'sensibility' as Levinas refers to this) to the wider interdisciplinary projects of contemporary cultural theory of modernity and modern life.

The study will thus present a critical account of how ethics and theories of subjectivity revolving around the body, embodiment and sensate life (rather than abstract ideas and transcendental values) have a bearing on and are a feature of the modern European tradition. But it will also aim to demonstrate the relevance of ethical theory to debates about contemporary culture- the arts, representation, ideas of cultural difference and so forth -thereby reconnecting such discussions with ethics. No other study has attempted such a focused investigation of what Levinas scholar Simon Critchley (in his Ethics, Politics Subjectivity, 1999) has called Levinas' 'material phenomenology of subjective life' in a way which situates his approach in the broader contexts of culture.


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