This article addresses the common concern that Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics amounts to a life-denying, moral masochism. To the contrary, I demonstrate close resonances between Levinas’ project and that of the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, for whom the purpose of therapy is to feel alive. In the first section, I trace the Levinasian subject’s coming to be out of the impersonal Il y a. Exploiting the object-relations undertones, I emphasize that the Levinasian subject comes to be as fastened, riveted, or bound to existence, and thereafter seeks to loosen its bond to its existence. In the second section, I discuss Winnicott’s own account of the subject’s coming to be: a movement from unintegration to integration. In the third section, I discuss Winnicott’s treatment of schizoid patients, and I propose that the schizoid patient’s refusal of alive subjectivity in Winnicott’s sense is equally a refusal of ethical subjection in Levinas’s sense. I analyze the schizoid false self as a retreat from an original vulnerability to the other that is constitutive of the alive subject. Hence, schizoid phenomena can be understood as defenses organized against alive subjectivity as well as ethical subjection in Levinas’ sense. I argue that healing for Winnicott entails a breakdown of the ego – akin to Levinas’s notion of substitution – which births a new subject. Far from presenting Levinas’s ethics as life-denying or masochistic, this paper affirms the intimate intertwinement of ethical responsibility and affective responsivity in Levinas’ thought.
Devine, M. J. (2022). Ethics in the breakdown: Levinas, Winnicott, and schizoid phenomena. Middle Voices, 2 (1). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/middle_voices/vol2/iss1/3