The self is due–to be emptied.
How to read this interrupted sentence? How to read the hyphen that splits it in two? How to determine the status of these two divided parts? Does one command the other? Or do they arrive together? Or do they both state simply the case? But then when? To whom? To what self is this sentence due to arrive? And what does it mean, in this passive formation, “to be emptied”?
The self is due–to be emptied. As if nothing could be simpler than that.
The self is due–to be emptied. On the one hand, it seems to name an event that befalls the self: it empties itself, it is emptied, it’s due to happen, that’s all that happens, nothing could ever prevent it. On the other hand, and at the same time, it seems to name a duty: the self must empty itself or let itself be emptied, this debt to empty falls due, it has already fallen due, it can no longer be postponed. There’s no catching up to it, you’re already too late. Already, the self’s debt–to be emptied–is overdue.
The self is due–to be emptied. This sentence is open from the beginning to a repetition without end. Whatever it means (and at every instant, upon every repetition, it means something different–if it isn’t perhaps even a name for differance itself), it holds true to infinity. It holds the self’s truth–to infinity. For as long as there is a self, somewhere, in some form, in whatever state, it is due–to be emptied. It falls due, infinitely: “to empty” is how the self is itself, how it renders itself. To empty itself or to let itself be emptied: to render what is due. To be emptied: to render what is due to the other: the self itself as that empty space wherein the other might live…
Does this loss have as its term the void, the zero point and the peace of cemeteries, as if the subjectivity of a subject meant nothing? Or do the encumbrance with oneself and the suffering of constriction in one’s skin, better than any metaphor, follow the exact trope of an alteration of essence, which inverts – or is inverted – into a recurrence in which the expulsion of self outside of itself is its substitution for the other – which is what the Self emptying itself of itself would really mean? This recurrence would be the ultimate secret of the incarnation of the subject – prior to all reflection, to all ‘apperception’, beyond every position, an ‘indebtedness’ before any loan, not assumed, anarchical, subjectivity of a bottomless passivity, ‘sown entirely’ out of assignation, like the echo of a sound that would precede the resonance of this sound. –Emmanuel Levinas
What is due for the self, then, is to empty itself, to let itself be emptied, and to remain in this emptied state, all for the sake of something that is not itself: for the sake of the other (life).
Much of religious thought rehearses this claim, injunction, or call, even if the “emptying” it names pulls or pushes religion or religiosity outside itself. Though it would appear to have its origin there, it is not restricted to it or conditioned by it. Yet it would be impossible to leap outside of its vocabulary. One name to designate it is kenosis, the word Paul uses to describe what Jesus did: he emptied himself of his divinity, of his being, of his selfhood, so as to make room in himself for the absolute other, God, absolutely, but also to make room for all others, equally, eternally (“I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:3)) — to become such a zero that he “is” no more than the relation-between, a gift of unconditional grace or space for the other(‘s life). It’s not a question of adhering to the dogmas attached to this conception of the self and “emptying,” but of interrogating the relation between self-emptying and hospitality: how does it stand for the self between self and other (real others and/or the movement of alterity that without fail surprises it)? How is it that the kenosis of the self makes room? How is it that the self lets itself be altered? Or does self-emptying, self-alteration, come to us from the other first of all–from the very other for whom our kenosis sought to make room? Is it that the other we expected to welcome had already come unexpectedly to welcome us?
If we answer in the negative (“no, kenosis is not volitional”), then the entire discourse of “self-emptying” would be disrupted, and all our traditional thoughts of prayer, writing, meditation, and so on, would have to be reworked, reemployed, repracticed. Levinas’ own discourse treads this line with extreme caution: on the one hand, he addresses you in your ipseity, to the heart of yourself, and says: empty yourself, expose yourself, let your speech become entirely for-the-other in substitution. On the other hand, he says: it is already the case, you are already caught up in this exposure, you are already rendered empty by the common trace you leave in the world, you are already nothing, re-placed by the other to the bone, and this disturbance constitutes you as responsibility. He addresses you in your singularity while at the same time saying that you are contested radically by the other before whom you are before you “are”:
To return to oneself is not to establish oneself at home, even if stripped of all one’s acquisitions; it is to be like a stranger, hunted down even in one’s home, contested in one’s own identity and one’s very poverty, which, like a skin still enclosing the self, would set it up in an inwardness, already settled on itself, already a substance: it is always to empty oneself anew of oneself, to absolve oneself, like in a hemophiliac’s hemorrhage, on the hither side of one’s own – still identifiable and protected – nuclear unity, emptied even of the quasi-formal identity of a being someone, but always coram, disturbed in oneself to the point of no longer having any intention, exposed more intensely than the act of self-exposure that responds to this very exposedness – expressing oneself – speaking – and there, an undeclinable One, speaking, that is, exposing one’s very exposedness.
Such is the paradox of an ethical thought of the self-in-kenosis: simultaneously, it has to call you to self-emptying while also proclaiming that the self is emptied, before and beyond any act of self–that it is hunted down in its home, more exposed than it could ever expose itself. Everything plays out as if the return-to-self were an unavoidable yet false recoil: product of an incomplete emptying of a self that is, on the other hand, utterly empty. And yet this incompleteness is precisely what calls the self to responsibility in self-emptying: “The more I return to Me, the more I scrutinize myself, strip myself of myself, denude myself.” A hallucination that buries into itself, so as to respect the other that saves the self from being nothing but a hallucination. A love of self that loves you in emptying itself of its love, in order to love itself in you and nowhere else.
For one could start all over and ask: isn’t the self just a effect of a play of differences, without any stable point and in fact signaling the destabilization of any stable point? Why ascribe to the self a substance to be emptied when it is neither substantial nor empty, not even a “point”? One can always claim, or rather testify, that in the economy of writing something else entirely is taking place. I’m not addressing myself from a self to a self. There’s no emptying here, no more than there’s a filling. Neither an injunction (empty yourself!) nor an existential characteristic (you’re already empty!) would be at stake here. Which shows how the other (it could be anything) is already unchaining the chain and unleashing a play; and you, who have let yourself get caught up in it, can only surrender yourself to a thinking that can’t be located on either side of you or me. A play as great as time: the eternal turning in/to the other, recurring in/to emptying…
“Emptying” begs for re-expression and re-enactment, to be “fleshed out” once again, again and again; but this must inevitably be both an invention and a repetition. What we try to name in vain with words like embodiment, incarnation, implementation, or simply responsibility all retain two contradictory injunctions: to be an example while addressing the universal. Such an example claims universality only to the extent that it undoes its exemplarity. To ask that the universal claim (“The self is due–to be emptied”) be heard singularly–intimately, secretly, inaccessibly–means that any example of this experience is open from the beginning to repetition, translation, and interpretation. This is the risk that must be run if any universal claim is to be advanced. It means that any advancement of such claims is forever haunted by the possibility that they’re nothing more than empty repetitions. For who can prove that what we’re talking about here has anything to do with self-emptying? Who could prove that it is not mere coquetry, a regurgitation of mysticism by less elegant means? Such is why what is at stake in our sentence lies beyond knowledge claims. It refers itself to the unrepeatable event of a hearing, but without manifesting anything of it–save for the possibility of its repeated and repeatable hearing. Beyond proof, beyond what is said, then, there is a plea and a promise.
In the direction of the unrepeatable, then, we repeat: “The self is due–to be emptied.” It both intimates and implores, a plea and a promise simultaneously. It pleads its addressee to empty themselves, if not cursing them to it. But while it asks that they swear to it, at the same time it curses itself to the same and swears to it. I promise to empty myself (for you, for all others) but part of this promise (which I make to myself, you, and the absolute other in the same promise) is to pass along the plea (which I received from elsewhere, perhaps even from you) to the other. This plea never exonerates me from my own debt, no more than my promise lets me take for granted its present, past, or eventual fulfillment. What we have to think is a beyond of exoneration and compensation along with a beyond of reliance and expectation. There’s no counting up what’s at stake, and there’s no one to count on regarding it. On the contrary: the non-fulfillment of the promise not only gives it over to an infinite circulation and communication between selves; it is also the only way to think that promise that can measure up to the gravity of the plea.
The fact that “emptiness” never comes is both our burden and our chance. It speaks to the finitude of the self and the infinity of the promise. It renders it valid for all time, at every hearing, in that there’s no validating that it’s been heard. That does not mean that its meaning is clear to those who hear it, nor that it gives a program. For the verb “to empty” is not a determined activity, and in a sense only defines itself negatively against notions of substance, fullness, and presence, against knowledge, intervention, and action; its truth is revealed in a passion more passive than passivity. The non-fulfillment of the promise holds open the possibilities for “to empty,” and it holds them open to the other. It is to be heard each time anew: nothing accustoms us to it, it never comes to mean the same thing. Nor does it ever mean the same thing for different selves. Nor at any of the different times of different selves. “To empty”–where it slips toward interruption, attention, waiting, or hesitance before the other–may just mean “to differ.” A difference, an “emptying,” that may even come before temporality, that is not due to the self in any way. A differance that would come to name a falling due, the difference of self-emptying to the point of none. For what is also at stake here is the question of the none — the no-self, no-one. To what does self-emptying lead? Why call for it? Why this plea and promise? Why this phrase, this trace of it–made, it would seem, by no one?
What is the limit of kenosis? Is there a limit? It is hard to imagine, for example, a glass that would be emptied of its contents but that would then continue to empty itself. But the same would logically apply to a fully present self that emptied itself entirely of its presence: it is as absurd as it is necessary to ask, what would come next? Are we dealing here with a version of Xeno’s paradox according to which I could never truly reach a zero point, but could only approach the Zero via a kind of infinite division or halving of the distance between me and nothingness, presence and absence, life and death? Then one would have to admit that the subtraction is never incomplete, that the interruption is never as strong as it seems, that the “enucleation” of the self always leaves a residue of self to cast doubt on the success of the entire operation.
It is here that we are right to ask if kenosis constitutes an operation at all. Just as we are right to ask if the model of the emptying glass corresponds to the self – if the self really begins by marking a point of full presence that would only subsequently empty itself. What’s at stake is to think the verb “to empty,” not according to the logic of the glass that empties, but as a kind of acceptance or accession to an emptiness in the self that was, in a sense, already there, waiting for it to be accepted and worked through: an emptying called for by the other who installed it in us like a destiny. It will signify us at our most singular and responsible point, where we return to ourselves ever more denuded of self yet thrust into our ownmost calling — obsessed, restless, and haunted by what ejects us outside 0f meaning, visibility, and Being — by what cinders us into traces of Infinity…
How else are we to make sense of the stark phenomenological evidence of “zeroing-out,” which hit us like a revelation and an ancient truth at once? Moments when we felt like we had dissolved, when we were nothing but felt ourselves so… hollow, permeable, receptive? moments interpreted as eternal, as a break in time, a collapse of space? moments when we felt filled with goodness, blessed and connected with all? or on the contrary, when we felt truly empty, hopeless, bottomed out, but no less “open,” hollow, or receptive? Who could ever prove – or prove otherwise – that such a zeroing-out had or had not taken place, that it was not or had not been absolute when it happened? What skepticism or critique could be brought against such phenomena? Yet it would seem one can only testify to them, as so many writers, mystics, poets, philosophers, and saints have done (it could all be a fiction). This empty “point” is the blackhole of inspiration inspiring the very testimony of it, word by word:
Consciousness of having something to say as consciousness of nothing, consciousness that is not indigent but the most oppressed of all. Consciousness of nothing, from which all consciousness of something can enrich itself, take on sense and shape. From which every word can surge up. –Derrida
And why so many words? The zeroing- or bottoming-out takes place, it happens, and it may even feel absolute when it happens: total drop out of time, subtraction from being, interruption, rupture, breakage, shattering, enucleation, consumption–kenosis. And yet it repeats. It would seem to love to do nothing more than to repeat the same equal dead step. As if “to be emptied” had not yet fallen due, death’s appeal says it falls due already again: the first time is already the second. But then this second is not yet even the first. We await it as that which has already immemorially come, as that which will have come since forever. This cosmos without-me doesn’t wait to the end. Or rather the end doesn’t wait. The without-me is already there, right here. While we are awaiting it. Where we trace it.
How to continue to empty out what’s been emptied? How does kenosis repeat itself, when it in itself would imply an absolute moment? Perhaps Xeno’s paradox is in effect, and we only confuse the experience of total erasure with the illusion of an absolute zeroing-out. For in the absolute sense, zeroing-out would mean death. “To empty” is essentially a question of approaching death. But is there one? is there a closer or farther? does it tolerate an intentional movement? isn’t death a total surprise? like “to be emptied,” like what falls due? But then what happens to the plea and the promise?
Does self-emptying tolerate an intentional movement? “Who” does the emptying and with what urgency? What sort of movement can we ascribe to it? What are its markers? Does it leave evidence? Is it within the capacity of the self? Does it ever really make sense to say one “does” self-emptying? Couldn’t one on the contrary say that it is not volitional at all, and couldn’t be? That it must be due to the other? –But then, wouldn’t the entire question of ethics be dissolved, and with it every religious injunction to empty oneself? What if one already had this empty space in one in which the other(‘s life) can live? Then ethics would be a matter of making explicit an implicit empty as unavoidable occurrence–unavoidable as this death-to-self that doesn’t come “at the end” but insinuates itself into the very heart of life, each second: kenosis as the very movement of time, irruption of the infinite in the finite, now, beyond knowing: the gift of emptying recurrence.
1. Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise than Being; or, Beyond Essence. p. 110-111. [trans. modified] / p. 175 [in the French]
2. In juridical language, the term coram is used in phrases that refer to the appearance of a person before another individual or a group. Coram Deo would mean “in the presence of God.” Levinas is emphasizing how, before being someone, I am in the presence of the other. It is the call of the other who precedes me that leads me to respond, “Here I am.”
3. ibid., p. 92. [trans. modified] / p. 147 [in the French].
4. Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference.