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Woman as Vulnerable Self: The Trope of Maternity in Levinas's Otherwise Than Being




Much due criticism has been directed at Levinas's images of the feminine and “the Woman” in Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity, but less attention has been paid to the metaphor of maternity and the maternal body that Levinas employs in Otherwise Than Being. This metaphor should be of interest, however, because here we find an instance in which Levinas uses a female image without in any way seeming to exclude women from full ethical selfhood.

In the first three sections of this paper I explain how maternity functions in Otherwise Than Being. I argue that maternity is used as (1) an image of the vulnerability or passive sensibility that characterizes the relation with the Other, as well as (2) a metaphor for Levinas's account of ethical responsibility as substitution. In the final section of the paper, I defend the claim that Levinas's maternal metaphors are not disparaging to real, empirical women. I also discuss a remaining worry that feminists may have about the metaphor: namely, that it characterizes pregnancy and motherhood in ways that challenge some pro-choice assumptions.