I didn’t expect to find Levinas writing about industrial waste. Levinas writes that “the nakedness of the face that turns to me and the disclosure of the thing illuminated by its form” are radically different. The difference arises partly because things cannot be reduced merely to their form, their function. In reality, I gather, things saturate their conceptual form, spill over. So, to portray the transcendent reality of the face, Levinas reaches for a metaphor by alluding to industry’s inevitable waste and entropy:
The things are naked, by metaphor, only when they are without adornments: bare walls, naked landscapes. They have no need of adornment when they are absorbed in the accomplishment of the function for which they are made: when they are subordinated to their own finality so radically that they disappear in it. They disappear beneath their form. The perception of individual things is the fact that they are not entirely absorbed in their forms; they then stand out in themselves, breaking through, rending their forms, are not resolved into the relations that link them up to the totality. They are always in some respect like those industrial cities where everything is adapted to a goal of production, but which, full of smoke, full of wastes and sadness, exist also for themselves. For a thing nudity is the surplus of its being over its finality. It is its absurdity, its uselessness, which appears only relative to the form against which it contrasts and of which it is deficient. The thing is always an opacity, a resistance, an ugliness.
My opening paragraph (above) is at best an “unreading” because I cannot claim to be qualified to proffer a reading of Levinas. But I’m not surprised to find him critical of the technological ideal. Or am I over-interpreting this text?
Source: Totality and Infinity, p.74, emphasis added