Graham Harman on Levinas's response
to objects' enslavement in the global tool-system.
Surely Heidegger must have realized that we deal with individual cigarettes and loaves of bread, and that such objects are not entirely used up in a totality of meaning. But this “surely” is irrelevant in judging any philosopher—Parmenides must surely have realized that our perceptions are filled with entities in motion, yet this did not prevent him from treating them dismissively. The question is not what philosophers “must have known,” but only what they openly honored and welcomed into their thinking. And it is Levinas, not Heidegger, who makes sufficient room in philosophy for individual beings such as wood, silk, or apples. In his own words, “the handling and utilization of tools, the recourse to all the instrumental gear of a life, whether to fabricate tools or to render things accessible, concludes in enjoyment . . . the lighter to the cigarette one smokes, the fork to the food, the cup to the lips.” Our world is not a unified totality of objects plugged into other objects, and so forth without end. Instead, we live amidst a carnival of independent zones, districts, and termini, and explore a world without fissures or gaps, where the meaningless hum of insects and the feel of cotton garments on our skin is not dissolved into some global empire of references. We live in a milieu or medium, not in a tool system. In this sense, the things are partly separated from totality, but also partly immersed in it. Levinas has no wish to return to an old fashioned theory of natural lumps of substance whose relations would only be accidental. He does not deny the system of tools; he merely insists that the tool-system is riddled with gaps and tropical islands where individual things take shape for our enjoyment.