“The idea of being overflowing history makes possible existents both involved in being and personal, called upon to answer at their trial and consequently already adult—but, for that very reason, existents that can speak rather than lending their lips to an anonymous utterance of history.” (p.23)
Levinas is making the following claim. History is often perceived as a narrative. Moreover since Marx and Hegel, for different reasons, history is seen as an explanatory tool of events. (Hence, the overused saying: history will prove me right (or wrong).) In this understanding, each moment is only a bit of history and it only makes sense once we get to the end. It is only in the arc of the historical narrative that each individual moment has significance. This is the claim that Levinas is denying.
“Being,” that is the whole infinite realm of existing which in and of itself does not have a narrative, Levinas writes, overwhelms “history.” When we grant “each instant its full signification in that instant”—that is, when we allow each moment of existing to have its own significance without having to be part of a narrative—the historical narrative is undone. This is a good thing. When it is the historical narrative which grants significance to the individual, the individual is melded into the collective and does not have a specific and unique personhood. When, on the other hand, each moment is allowed to flower in its own specificity, in its own relationship with being, then each person achieves a unique identity, an adult identity—that is an identity as a person with a name who is responsible (and should be held responsible) for their choices and their interactions with other persons.
Now, here is the kicker. As a result of the deconstruction of the (Hegelian? Marxist?) narrative arc of history by the significance that individual moments have, people are able to speak as individuals rather than “lending their lips to an anonymous utterance of history”—i.e. merely being in the chorus line of this or that “world-historical” movement.
As my hevruta and I were learning today, it struck me that this was one of Zionism’s claims—that any individual’s actions are only significant in relation to the national narrative. That each moment only has significance when understood through the lens of the “ends” of history. That the return to Zion was/is the return to history. In this Levinasian sense this is all true. Zionism was/is another call for the Jewish people to “lend their lips to an anonymous utterance of history.” On the other hand, as Levinas continues, “Peace is produced as this aptitude for speech.” The ability to speak as an individual and unique person undermines the collective utterance and allows the engagement with another person as a face to face encounter rather than a historical narrative to historical narrative encounter.