Levinas, the Feminine, and Maternity
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French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas used rhetorical devices to attempt to overcome the limitations of language. However, his use of the “feminine” as a stand-in for alterity creates such an obstacle. Not only does a lack of inclusivity suggest totalization of the Other, it also deeply frustrates the female-bodied reader’s ability to adopt this ethical behavior in her own life. A woman reading <em>Totality and Infinity</em> cannot understand the feminine as alterity, as Levinas asks her to imagine “otherness” as herself. She does not see her own gender as foreign to her, and alterity as strictly feminine. In trying to envision otherness, she is given only an image of something close to herself. Alterity is an outdated, stereotypical metaphor of what femininity looks like, and an inflexible one. The feminine is a metaphor for many things perceived as female in a patriarchal society, such as household responsibility and sexuality. Levinas’s idea of alterity is highly indicative of a biological woman. The feminine is indicative of exclusion from the world of higher thought. She cannot understand how to recognize the Other and so cannot fully participate in the ethical relationship by Levinas’s definition. Levinas’s use of another gendered metaphor in <em>Otherwise than Being</em> does produce an occasion for intervention: Maternity, in substitution of the feminine alterity, is successfully gender-neutral and allows women back into the world of Levinas’ ethics. Through this metaphor, Levinas concedes that the relationship he describes between the Self and the Other is a perfect one and not easily achieved. Therefore, attempting the task of acting maternal to the Other becomes a matter of capability and not gender.