Central to Sealey's book is a provocation to the prevailing wisdom which says that one is either a Sartrean or a Levinasian - either for freedom or for ethics. She shows not only that these thinkers can be read together but that when they are so read the picture of Sartre's early work as offering little in the way of an account of ethical subjectivity must be significantly revised.

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Moments of Disruption Review

Review by: Diane Perpich
Sartre Studies International
Vol. 22, No. 2 (2016), pp. 123-125

Kris Sealey’s Moments of Disruption reads Levinas and Sartre for their points of proximity despite seemingly fundamental differences in their conceptions of subjectivity, transcendence, and the relation to the other. The argument relies importantly and interestingly on teas­ ing apart the formal theory each thinker offers and the concrete examples used to unpack and expand that theoretical point of view. Sealey argues,”When Sartre’s concrete analyses are placed alongside Levinas’s, they not only reveal a ‘subject in disruption’ similar to Levinas’s, but they also exist in tension with a formal account of transcendence that prioritizes freedom at the expense of passivity” (3). On Sealey’s reading, then, Sartre is not only more like Levinas than standard readings allow, he is less committed to the primacy of freedom than traditional readings of Being and Nothingness insist. Central to Sealey’s book is a provocation to the prevailing wisdom which says that one is either a Sartrean or a Levinasian-either for freedom or for ethics. She shows not only that thesethinkers can be read together but that when they are so read the picture of Sartre’s early work as offering little in the way of anaccount of ethical sub­ jectivity must be significantly revised.

The book begins with Sartre’s early conception of subjectivity as articulated in The Transcendence of the Ego and Being and Nothing­ ness. The subject that emerges from Sealey’s reading of the formal analysis of these texts is the familiar Sartrean subject conceived as a pure nothingness, a freedom able to transcend all particularities of its situation. Indeed,  the  subject’s  situation-understood,  for  example, in terms of its socially ascribed racial or gender identity-is far from being a limit on the freedom. It is thanks to its situation that the free­ dom arises as freedom (39). This Sartrean conception of the subject, also described in chapter 1 in terms of “transcendence-as-intentional­ ity,” is contrasted with the early Levinasian notion of the subject as simultaneously riveted to being and achieving a certain distance from that being-dubbed “transcendence-as-excendence” in chapter 2.

By providing these accounts of transcendence side by side, Sealey sets the reader up to appreciate the central moves of her overall argu­ ment. First, already in the early chapters of the book she  points out the striking overlap in the concrete phenomena treated by Sartre and Levinas. While it cannot have escaped readers that both philosophers offer treatments of shame, nausea, or insomnia, the overlap is rarely remarked and has never, to my knowledge, been given the kind of extensive treatment that Sealey devotes to it. This in itself should pro­ vide much food for thought for readers interested in a particular post­ Heideggerian account of human facticity. Moreover, not only does Sealey show that Sartre and Levinas describe these limit phenomena in similar ways, she argues persuasively that when we attend to the concrete analyses of the early Sartre, it seems as if he ought to have developed a formal conception of subjectivity much closer to Lev­ inas’s notion of an ethical subject disrupted or divided from itself.

This observation is hammered home over the next two chapters as Sealey deftly reads Sartre’s Nausea as providing an illustration of exactly the sort of subjectivity Levinas describes. Roquentin’s “nau­ sea is a revelation of a more primordial positioned and affected soli­ tude, on which free subjectivity then stands” (92). On Sealey’s reading, the Roquentin who cannot shake off orsufficiently separate himself in any way from his experience is anterior to the Roquentin who is the intending subject of experience. The novel’s phenome­ nology thus exposes “an aspect of identity that is precisely not free to engage in a reflective exercise” of the famous Sartrean freedom. And although this other form of subjectivity, or this  recognition  of another dimension to subjectivity, “is not part of Sartre’s formal ontology, his concrete description of nausea clearly resonates with this idea of a passivity underlying the work of freedom” (92).

For Sealey, the subject peeping through a keyhole, the woman let­ ting her hand be held in the cafe, the homosexual, or the hiker before a rock face, are further examples of concrete descriptions that do more and other than what Sartre would have them do. All of them significantly undermine the picture of freedom in relation to existence that dominates the first half of Being andNothingness. The Sartrean subject turns out to be riveted to its own existence in much the way that Levinas describes in early workssuch as From Existence to the Existent and Time and the Other. The subject surges up on the ground of existing, claims a kind of distance from that ground, but ultimately cannot free itself entirely.

In the descriptions of nausea and shame, in particular, Sealey gives life to the possibility of a Sartrean understanding of subjectivity that is more nuanced and attentive to embodiment. This also suggests to Sealey the possibility of a subjectivity disrupted by alterity and poten­ tially responsible in a manner closer to Levinas’s famous analyses. It is this “concrete” Sartre-or the concrete Sartrean subject that emerges through the examples-that resonates with Levinas’s picture  of ethi­ cal subjectivity. The final chapter of the book turns more explicitly to the question of each philosopher’s reading of “the Other” and to the ethical ramifications to be drawn from their respective philosophies.

Moments of Disruption tellingly disrupts the usual ways in which Sartre and Levinas are read (or, more precisely, not read) together. Equally, Sealey’s book serves up a view of subjectivity interesting in its own right and deserving of consideration beyond its origination in any particular figure or text. Whether this particular conception of subjec­ tivity is grounded uniquely in the phenomenological-existential tradi­ tion is a larger question that remains to be answered, and it would have been interesting to see Sealey tackle a broader contextualization of her ideas alongside a decidedly welcome contribution to the under­ standing of two important twentieth-century French philosophers.