Chasm, 2

The Element

Ever to the child in man, night neighbours the stars. —Heidegger1

The element I inhabit is at the frontier of a night. —Levinas2

I read Totality and Infinity in the summer of 2017 and was struck, in particular, by Levinas’s concept of the element, a concept that rises to great me in my meditation on the chasm.

The element is the “ever-new depth of absence, an existence without existent, the impersonal par excellance” (142). Such is being “without revealing,” a “way of existing” that precedes the light of Heideggerian clearing [Lichtung] (142). For Levinas, this existential night necessarily precedes Heidegger’s workshop, the referential network of intentionality that constitutes the being-in-the-world of Dasein. Levinas makes this argument directly in section II.D of Totality and Infinity:

The doctrine that interprets the world as a horizon from which things are presented as implements, the equipment of an existence concerned for its being, fails to recognize the being established at the threshold of an interiority the dwelling makes possible. Every manipulation of a system of tools and implements, every labor, presupposes a primordial hold3 on the things, possession, whose latent birth is marked by the home, at the frontier of interiority. The world is a possible possession, and every transformation of the world by industry is a variation of the regime of property. Proceeding from the dwelling, possession, accomplished by the quasi-miraculous grasp of a thing in the night, in the apeiron [boundlessness, infinity, abundance] of prime matter, discovers a world. The grasp of a thing illuminates the very night of the apeiron; it is not the world that makes things possible. On the other hand, the intellectualist conception of a world as a spectacle given to impassive contemplation likewise fails to recognize the recollection of the dwelling, without which the incessant buzzing of the element cannot present itself to the hand that grasps, for without the recollection of the dwelling the hand qua hand cannot arise in the body immersed in the element. Contemplation is not the suspension of the activity of man; it comes after the suspension of the chaotic and thus independent being of the element, and after the encounter of the Other who calls in question possession itself. Contemplation in any case presupposes the very mobilization of the thing, grasped by the hand. (163)

The grasp of the hand, the projects of Dasein, come after—after the element, after the dwelling.

Heidegger, however, is not lost in his workshop; he comes, in his later work (and at a similar point in time to Levinas), to a kindred understanding with his critic. In Being and Time, the structure of Dasein is care [Sorge], but in Discourse on Thinking, the structure of Dasein is “in-dwelling releasement to that-which-regions” (87). Care fixes the world in objects and implements and concepts—and productively so! But “in-dwelling releasement” allows us to go beyond this “traditional” model of thought as “re-presenting” (62), to go beyond the “horizon” (64) of the world and, by doing “nothing but wait[ing]” (62), come (back) into contact with that “openness which surrounds us” and makes possible representation in the first place: the “region” [Gegnet] (64-65). This openness is not the clearing, but the possibility of clearing, the “night” that “without forcing compels concentration,” the night that necessarily precedes the dawn (60).

To be in thought in this way is to be in the manner of “αγχιβασιη” [anxiety], which Heidegger draws from Heraclitus and translates as “going toward” (88). Representational thought is intentional thought, thought mobilized by will, thought concerned with substantial objects; but, thought as going toward, or even better, nearing, is a movement before intentional directedness, a movement that lets-be the “open expanse” (66) of the region as the space in which “everything belonging there returns to that in which it rests” (65).4 In this “enchanted region” (65), this “nocturnal prolongation of the element” (Levinas 142), the objects of representational thought recede into the vibrant releasement of the night.

“Regioning is a gathering and re-sheltering for an expanded resting in an abiding … That-which-regions [die Gegnet] is an abiding expanse which, gathering all, opens itself, so that in its openness is halted and held, letting everything merge in its own resting.” All things “rest in the return to the abiding of the expanse of their self-belonging” (Heidegger 66-67).

Representational thought finds no purchase here, sees its radiant spears dissolved in black. “I can’t quite re-present in my mind all that you say about region, expanse and abiding, and about return and resting … Probably it can’t be re-presented at all, in so far as in re-presenting everything has become an object that stands opposite us within a horizon” (67).

So, we find ourselves here, with Heidegger, with Levinas, on the doorstep before the boundless element, confronted with the “primordial hold” that precedes all other contact and folds every horizon back upon itself, the double sensation5 or hapticality6 of exisiting, which is to say, the originary intimacy of our belonging with being.7

“Ever to the child in man, night neighbors the stars. She binds together without seam or edge or thread. She neighbors; because she works only with nearness” (89-90).


  1. Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking: A Translation of Gelassenheit, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966). 

  2. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969). 

  3. See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Fantasy in the Hold,” in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, pp. 84-99 (Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013). 

  4. See Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 149, for this sense of rest as containing movement or rhythm: “Rhythm is what is at rest, what forms the movement of dance and song, and thus lets it rest within itself.” 

  5. I tracked down this missing citation from my previous post in Dermot Moran’s “Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on Embodiment, Touch and the ‘Double Sensation,’” in Sartre on the Body, ed. Katherine J. Morris, pp. 41-66 (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010). Husserl first uses the concept of “double sensation” in Ideas II (Moran 53), and Merleau-Ponty goes on to discuss “double sensations” in his Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 95. 

  6. See Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 98: “a way of feeling through others, a feel for feeling others feeling you. This is modernity’s insurgent feel, its inherited caress, its skin talk, tongue touch, breath speech, hand laugh. This is the feel that no individual can stand, and no state abide. This is the feel we might call hapticality.” 

  7. See my Fiction in the Integrated Circuit, unpublished, 2018, p. 90, pdf

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