Sarah Pessin

Phenomenological / Political

Books in Progress…

Ethics and Embodiment: Early Levinas on Paradox, Pardon, and Pause (book in progress)

This is a study of Levinas’ paradoxical phenomenology of embodiment. In the broadest sense, it provides readers new ways to understand Levinas’ difficult sense of “transcendence-in-immanence.” A curative to religious readings which don’t take the ‘immanence’ part seriously enough, and materialist readings which don’t take the ‘transcendence’ part seriously enough, Ethics and Embodiment exposes a deeply paradoxical logic of “double-grounding” at the heart of Levinas’ notion of embodied life. In the paradoxical logic at hand, ethics grounds embodiment and embodiment grounds ethics–which is in part to say that Levinasian transcendence both grounds and is grounded by immanence. Paradox in this way frames the entirety of Levinas’ project and we arrive at a picture of Levinas–in and through a picture of Levinasian embodiment–that far exceeds any number of overly-simplified and incorrect religious and materialist readings, and with wide-ranging phenomenological and political implications.

Ethics and Embodiment engages Levinas through a brand new lexicon that will help new readers of Levinas get a more intuitive sense of his project while challenging seasoned Levinas readers to think new thoughts. The project takes up a novel four-fold approach to Levinas in terms of “paradox, pardon, pause, and pastness” as it explores excess (i.e. transcendence) in relation to both embodiment and ethics, itself in relation to a four-fold move in Levinas from Birth to Bread, and from Effort to Ethics. In this way, the project explores human subjectivity in and through a constant precarious ‘compresent motion’ from ethics to embodiment and from embodiment to ethics.

In its emphasis on a novel mode of “pastness” in Levinas, the project examines Levinasian phenomenology in productive comparison and contrast with “times before time” in Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger, in productive encounter with Levinas’ earliest Biblically-inflected notions of “Times of Genesis and Exodus” in relation to the curse of labor (Genesis) and the miracle of the burning bush (Exodus). I explore his important 1947 metaphysics of “the instant” in relation to his Neoplatonic emphasis on “hypostasis” alongside his deeply anti-Heideggerian phenomenology of fatigue and toil. And in all of this, I excavate new non-traditionalist, non-conservative, non-deterministic, and non-fatalistic senses of pastness related to a mode of Covenantality in Levinas that reframes embodied human life. (And by offering a novel spin on Works-and-Grace–in short, each grounds the other–we are also given new ways to interrupt supercessionist descriptions of Christianity’s relation to Judaism and new embodied ways of thinking the “Judeo-Christian”).

In its emphasis on “pardon,” Ethics and Embodiment excavates an arresting sense of “hopeless hope”–and in particular, the hopeless hope that our neighbors pardon us–at the heart of human life and at the core of Levinas’ thinking. Moving from Levinas’ earliest 1930s writing on Hitlerism to later Talmudic Readings from the 60s, the project helps us to new ways of reading Levinas’ famously cited claim that it is “difficult to forgive Heidegger,” and it invites us to exceed and defy the more common liberal sense that we ought to “forgive everyone for everything” (and forget the past, while we’re at it). Taken in the context of a more embodied Levinasian worldview (which, among other things, is critical of liberalism), pardon (and in particular, the hopeless hope that we be pardoned) is shown to emerge as a key marker of ethical excess (i.e. transcendence) in Levinas’ work.

The other key marker is “pause.” Not a common term in the study of Levinas, “pause” emerges in early Levinas as a key marker of the self’s non-coincidence with self–and so, is shown to mark a pre-ethical mode of excess/transcendence in Levinas. In particular, “pause” is shown to mark the self’s embodied excess in relation to three grounding past-inflected paradoxes: (1) A self-paradox in which the self precedes the self, (2) a paradox of self/Other at the core of subjectivity: I am myself inasmuch as the Other calls me from a time immemorial (related to my own self-grounding in a hopeless hopes for pardon), and (3) in the spirit of “double-grounding” at the heart of embodiment’s own complex relation to the ethical: each of these two paradoxes grounds the other. It is not merely that I ground myself and the other grounds myself; and it is not merely that I am grounded by being interrupted (prior to myself) by myself and by the Other; it is, rather, that the paradox of self’s self-grounding both grounds and is grounded in the paradox of self’s ground in and from the Other. This, at any rate, is the paradoxical and past-inflected logic of “pausality” at the heart of Levinas’ phenomenology of embodied life, and I speak in this regard of Levinas in terms of a “tripart pausal structure.”

Developing an entirely-new Levinas Lexicon in terms of paradox, pardon, pause, and pastness, and centering our attention on the unusual modalities of “birth and bread,” “effort and ethics,” and the complicated notion of a “time before time,” the project focuses on Levinas’ early work, including Existence and Existents (1947) and the oft-skipped-over section in Totality and Infinity (1961) on embodied joy. And it ends with political takeaways regarding a provocative “covenant-evental” politics of “trembling agency” with anti-Schmittian, anti-Pauline/Badiouan, and anti-Deleuzian senses of the political.

Uncomfortable Virtues: Seven Paths to Better Coexistence (book in progress)

In this book, I invite us to challenge our assumption that when it comes to politics, our only options are “rancor” or “rainbows”: Either we wish each other to hell (and worse), or we dance our way to the happy/warm friendship pole. Drawing on a widely interdisciplinary and intercultural range of texts and traditions in ways that defy any number of “Right” and “Left” expectations, I invite us to instead consider seven “responsible and risky” approaches to living with our neighbors and with ourselves towards better–in the sense of more ethical, more equitable, and more effective–coexistence outcomes. Read more here.

Hope/less Pardon (book in progress)

Written in accessible prose for a general readership, this study invites readers to explore a sense of pardon that is far more vulnerable than the more confident approach to pardon that dominates contemporary culture. Where we often find ourselves certain that others should forgive us and even that we can, if we so desire, forgive others, Hope/less Pardon draws on a wide range of traditions to help readers to a more fragile point of view: Ethical life is about living with the reminder that we are not the kind of creatures who can forgive at will and (relatedly) we are precisely the kinds of creatures who can often not be forgiven. Drawing on figures from Kierkegaard to Martin Luther King, Jr., Gloria Anzaldua to Judith Butler, Franz Kafka to Franz Rosenzweig to Frantz Fanon, and Martin Buber to Emmanuel Levinas, Hope/less Pardon reminds us that real hope is a kind of fragile hope-in-hopelesness, not an upbeat sense of bright-eyed optimism that can often make our relationships with our neighbors worse not better.

Some forthcoming publications

“Compresence: On the Paradox of Body and Bread in Levinas,” Divine Contradictions, edited by Benham Zolghadr and Graham Priest

“Bonomythy in a Greco-Jewish Key: Pause, Prayer, and Paradox in Plotinus and Levinas,” special issue of Modern Theology journal, “Constructive Jewish Theology,” ed. Stephen Kepnes

“Liturgical Politics: Racism, Antisemitism, and the Drama of Word-Wounds,” Special Issue of Religions journal, “Jewish Thought in Times of Crisis,” eds. Elias Sacks and Andrea Dara Cooper

“A Trace of Levinas: Wolfson’s Phenomenology of Vulnerable Learning,” Festschrift for Elliot R. Wolfson, eds. Susannah Heschel, Glenn Dynner, and Shaul Magid.

Some recent publications

“Redemption Without Blue Skies: Racialized Exception, Exclusion, and Exile in Fanon, Wilderson, Moten, and Rosenzweig, Political Theology 22(8): 744-752; DOI: 10.1080/1462317X.2021.2002519

“Rosenzweig for the Contemporary Moment,” co-authored with Elias Sacks, Political Theology 22(8), November 2021

“Kenosis, Emancipation, Pastness: Reflections from a Jew,” The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (JCRT) (Spring 2019) 18:2: 214-223 /

“America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness),” Political Theology Network, Love and Politics Colloquium (August 2018) []

“Kenosis, Charity, Love: On the Mystical Element in Greco-Judeo-Islamic Thought,” English Language Notes (special issue on mysticism, ed. Nan Goodman), 56 (1), April 2018: 139-152.

“Khoric Apophasis: Matter and Messianicity in Islamo-Judeo-Greek Neoplatonism,” in Negative Theology as Jewish Modernity, ed. Michael Fagenblat, 180-197. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.

“From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity: Agono-Pluralistic Ethics in Connolly v. Levinas (& the Possibilities for Atheist-Theist Respect),” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Nov. 2016 / DOI: 10.1080/09672559.2016.1248128: / Also published in: Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn: Contemporary Debates on the ‘Return of Religion’, eds. Michael Staudigl and Jason W. Alvis, 171-94 (Routledge, 2018)

Click to see Sarah present on Levinas’ “covenant-evental pausality” as part of a conversation with Ben Noys on “Pausal Politics” for The New Polis series Critical Conversations (10.27.20) / [24:15-53:16]
Hear Sarah’s 4 minute clip on Levinas

Also underway:

The Miracle Option in Interfaith: From Literacy to Liturgy (website, guide-book, and webinar/workshop; in progress)

In this project–aimed primarily at religious and spiritual practitioners, though ending with a chapter for atheists, agnostics, and others who don’t identify as religious/spiritual–I reframe interfaith work by highlighting the mysterious and miraculous element that is often overlooked. Doing so involves a practical shift from interfaith work to INTRAfaith work, and from work primarily centered on (1) improving literacy and (2) meeting as many people from other religions as possible to: liturgy.

I speak of ‘liturgy’ in two senses: (1) Prayer: I call on congregations to engage in INTRAfaith prayers and sermons that highlight the miraculous nature of interfaith encounter by using resources strictly from within their own thought/action traditions. (2) Works: Focusing on the etymology of “liturgy” (lit. people-work), I connect The Miracle Option to doing concrete works together in the world. While this second point (albeit not under the header of ‘liturgy as people work’) is much more common in existing interfaith frameworks, MANY important differences emerge when the spirit of working together is recast within the context of prayer itself understood as the main appropriate response to an inter-human miracle.

In the end, while I think there is a place for increased religious literacy, I recommend giving new (and higher) priority to approaching interfaith relations under the primary sign of the miracle. Our work in interfaith in this way becomes more intra-group focused as we embark on the delicate and risky (and uncomfortable) task of precipitating, fostering, and revering the miracle of encounter with someone whose form of life is nothing like our own.

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