This essay brings together Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emmanuel Levinas, two thinkers who are almost never paired, to examine their shared interest in the political implications of astonishment. The two have in common a way of inviting readers, persistently but enigmatically, to understand the political significance and performative force of their philosophical writing. The essay attends to the resonance generated when each thinker's words become the circumstances for reading the other's. In the disarming experience of astonishment Levinas and Emerson seek alternatives to conceptions of politics that celebrate the “virile virtues” of fixture, resistance, and comprehension. The essay focuses on three points of resonance: figures of imperiled but resilient selfhood, meditations on the power of thinking to astonish, and the use of figures of the hand to rethink established political concepts. Centrally, both Emerson and Levinas cast virility as a firmness or “fixture” that desirable political labor would relax. Fixture does not account for a kind of power so mobile, flexible, or fluid that it cannot even be said to resist that over which it exerts power. Reading Emerson and Levinas side by side allows a fresh approach to vexing aspects of their work, including the tension between Emerson's political activism and philosophical thought, and the dearth of Levinas's reflections on the transitive force of his own writing.
Dominic Mastroianni; Astonishing Politics: Emerson, Levinas, and Thinking Beyond Virility. Comparative Literature 1 September 2014; 66 (3): 301–321. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-2764068
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