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The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze

The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze
Hagi Kenaan

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Our world is saturated with images. Overwhelmed by this proliferation of visual stimuli, our gaze becomes increasingly bored and distracted. Do we ever really read and engage with images? Can they ever provide the sense of meaningfulness we crave? French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas confronted and subverted these questions. A superficial reading of his works might indicate an ambivalence if not a wholesale critique of the visual, whose mode of signification remains, for him, objectified, finite and flat. Yet an enigmatic statement - 'Ethics is an optics' - recurred throughout his work. Hagi Kenaan takes this mysterious idea as the starting point for a strikingly original philosophical argument on the place of visuality in Levinas' ethics. The Ethics of Visuality analyses Levinas' philosophy of the human face in order to show how his vision of 'Otherness'(alterity and transcendence) can open up for us a new and surprising kind of optics that is so needed for an ethical living in the contemporary world.

Where other critical approaches have largely undermined Levinas' ambivalence towards the visual, The Ethics of Visuality uncovers the relevance of Levinas' bias against the visual to developing a radical philosophy/theory of visual meaning in which the aesthetic is always already intertwined with the ethical.

Author Info

Hagi Kenaan is Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He works in the areas of continental philosophy, phenomenology, aesthetics and the philosophy of art. He is the author of The Present Personal: Philosophy and the Hidden Face of Language (Columbia University Press, 2005) and co-editor of Philosophy's Moods: The Affective Grounds of Thinking (Springer 2011).


'Kenaan’s brilliant study reveals what Levinas’ 'ethical turn' has to teach us about the ethical potential of the visual. His study offers nothing less than a guide for restoring to us an ethics of vision in our postmodern world. It is an urgent, compelling and, ultimately, hopeful work.'
Martin Berger, Professor and Chair, History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California at Santa Cruz

'Hagi Kenaan questions the manner in which the Other’s face shows itself to us. Reading Levinas in light of the philosophies of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, he analyses with finesse how the face subverts the primacy of consciousness. The face is a reminder of an alterity irreducible to the flow of images that tyrannically occupy our field of vision ... To see a face is not to see a phenomenon, but to hear a call addressing me. It is in this difficult, paradoxical and eminently singular optics that ethics upholds itself. Ethics becomes an optics when the vulnerability of the face is perceived as a call for a conversion of the gaze.'
Catherine Chalier, Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris X – Nanterre

'The Ethics of Visuality is an extraordinary achievement. The author offers a brilliant meditation not only on Levinas’ thought but also through it, engaging and going beyond it, culminating in profound insights. It is a must-read for anyone seriously interested not only in visuality but also in the very condition of what it means to speak with responsibility about appearance.'
Lewis R. Gordon, Professor of Philosophy, African American Studies and Judaic Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, and author of Disciplinary Decadence

Bibliographic Info

Imprint: I.B.Tauris
Publisher: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd.
Series: International Library of Contemporary Philosophy

ISBN: 9781780765167
Publication Date: 29 May 2013
Number of Pages: 192
Height: 216
Width: 138
Illustrations: 5 b&w integrated

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