Ethics and political identities

A number of people asked about this today, and we’ll have to revisit it (again and again…it’s that important): what is the relation between a Levinasian ethics and politics? To be sure, Levinas takes our conventional understandings out from under us, moving what seems to be a liberation in political action into the sphere of totalitarianism. Seriously. Totalitarianism, or at least the formal possibility of it.

In response to one of Aminah’s questions, I said what I want to emphasize: there is no basis for choosing between ideological positions other than a self-referential appeal, relying on self-evidence of a position. Or we can talk about the ethical relation of the face-to-face as the measure of politics, which means contesting collectivities and political visions with the demands of the singular Other. How do political identities require us to forget the singularity of the Other? How do we reconcile ethical violence with those political identities, especially if we’re willing to kill and die for them, literally or figuratively? Or is there a way of conceiving political identity that is answerable to the ethical, to singularity? What would that look like?

Again, this is a kind of anarchy on Levinas’ part. He has a critique of humanism, one that is suspicious of humanism’s generalization of the human as such, which, as any study of colonial history will show, is precisely the motif of exclusion and violence. Levinas’ anti-humanism is anarchical, responding to the singular Other without reference to a generality or commonality. It is ethical. But that is tough to translate into a politics we might recognize. In fact, politics might be changed once and for all.

Derrida has so much to say about this, both in writing on Levinas and his own work (I’d love to teach a class on Derrida’s political theory).

But in the Levinas case, there is only little to work with. In general, he is just suspicious of politics, untrusting, preferring instead how ethical life might continually call politics into question (as it does, constantly). Human rights are one of his exceptions. I’ll get his essay converted to eText for interested folks.


~ by John on February 12, 2007.

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