Adriana Cavarero is a contemporary Italian feminist thinker and an Honorary Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Verona. Emerging as a feminist scholar in the 1980s, she was among the founders of the Diotima philosophical community in Verona, which is considered one of the most important Italian political expressions of the philosophy of sexual difference. The feminist communities in which she took part sought not to be included in existing man-dominated institutions but to form their own spaces. Thus, in addition to establishing Diotima in Verona, they created the Women’s Bookstore Collective in Milan and founded the journal DonnaWomanFemme in Rome.
Her voluminous body of work mostly ignored religion, until she wrote an essay entitled “The Archeology of Homicide,” which was published in English in 2015 as part of her political and theological dialogue with Angelo Scola, Thou Shalt Not Kill. This essay is the most obvious point of entry into her work if you are interested in political theology, and I certainly plan to get there in this essay. But I also want to find the kind of advice, or critical theoretical tools, she might give theopolitical thinkers in other writings, that are not explicitly about religion.
A Political Theology of Bad Intentions
Cavarero’s critique of philosophy, or of theory more broadly, begins with her reading of the philosophical canon as too masculine and too passive. Political theory is an oxymoron, she tells us in an article entitled “Politicizing Theory,” because politics calls us to action while theory calls for mere contemplation. However, if in the 1980s Cavarero and her feminist collaborators sought to separate themselves from political spaces dominated by men, in her academic career she remained part of the philosophical disciplinary world (perhaps because Italian universities do not have gender, women, and sexuality studies departments), and she has spent this career trying to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. In a 2008 interview she says she treats the traditional terms of philosophy – ontology, essence, and substance – ironically, or “with bad intentions.” This is the only way, she says, to liberate ontology from the sacred truth that has been imposed on it by traditional philosophical perspectives. If one merely questions or deconstructs ontology, seeking in this way to avoid it, then ontology itself has not been transformed.
In a recent essay Cavarero elaborates on this project: “rather than in the undoing of critical theory – whatever this label could mean – I am interested in the positive task of redirecting the questions of ontology, politics, and ethics toward a framework of altruism and peace capable of capturing our imagination and mobilizing our actions” (Toward a Feminist Ethics of Nonviolence, 179). Liberating ontology from the sacred truth that has been imposed on it, so it seems, has to do with redirecting ontology toward altruism and peace.
What can Cavarero help us find when we are looking for critical theoretical tools for political theology? How can we be inspired by her bad intentions, by her irony, when we think about the sacred cows of political theology – sovereignty, for example? And how can bad intentions redirect our political theology toward altruism and peace?
A Plurality of Voices
How can we liberate sovereignty from the sacred truth that has been imposed on it by Carl Schmitt and his disciples? How can we redirect it toward peace? What alternative can Cavarero offer us to the sovereign who decides on the exception?
Western philosophy and politics respond to universals, not to unique personalities, and Cavarero, following Hannah Arendt, wants to do theory that would respond to the unique person, a theory that would care who someone is. She finds such theory in the “feminine art” of narration, and, instead of partaking in Levinas’ obsession with the face, she asks to center the voice. Cavarero’s interest in the uniqueness of the person (in the “who” instead of the “what”) does not mean she is interested in individualistic politics. Such politics flattens the uniqueness of each person and makes us all into individuals who are bearing universal, equal rights. The most important thing about the “unique existent” at the center of Cavarero’s philosophy is that it is in a constitutive relation with others. In Judith Butler’s reading of Cavarero, the only question that is truly nonviolent is “who are you?”: “This question assumes that there is an other before us whom we do not know and cannot fully apprehend, one whose uniqueness and nonsubstitutability set a limit to the [Hegelian] model of reciprocal recognition” (Giving an Account of Oneself, 31). Once I stop asking “who are you?”, once I assume I know you, I am violent toward you.
The voice is political because we are constitutively exposed to each other through our bodily senses. This is an Arendtian sentiment, but Cavarero adds that we are narratable by the other, that we are dependent on others for the narration of our life-stories. The narratable self is defined by a desire for the story of her own birth from the mouth of another. The voice expresses the uniqueness of the speaker regardless of the content of the speaker’s words. “A voice means this: there is a living person, throat, chest, feelings, who sends into the air this voice, different from all other voices,” she quotes Italo Calvino. And her fascination with literature is not limited to Calvino. Engaging with literature that ranges from Greek mythology, through Gertrude Stein and Karen Blixen, and all the way to Elena Ferrante, Cavarero insists that “symptomatically only literature, only narration can show us this concreteness of the relationship to the other” (“Storytelling Philosophy,” 240). And so if Cavarero’s first piece of advice to us was that we approach our sacred concepts – sovereignty – with bad intentions, her second must be that we do it while reading and listening to stories. In this way, the sovereign can become relational, vulnerable, dependent on another. Maybe then the sovereign won’t have to declare war; maybe we’ll get closer to the peaceful world Cavarero envisions.
A Feminist Philosophy of Nonviolence
We are finally arriving at Though Shalt Not Kill. Cavarero opens her essay with the question whether the sixth commandment, you shall not kill, is “an unconditional principle that holds forever and in every circumstance” (49), as Levinas interpreted it. History makes this interpretation seem absurd, Cavarero writes. In fact, the opposite interpretation seems true: in some cases, such as legitimate defense, punishment of murder, or in war – all those states of emergency our sovereign may declare – “killing is just and necessary” (50). Cavarero’s feminist theory of nonviolence takes as its starting point a biblical commandment, one that is ethical (it is about one’s relationships with others) and religious (it is about one’s relationship with God), but it is also political (without it, political communities cannot exist).
An interpretation of the sixth commandment as meaning “you shall never kill” is exemplified in the Roman Catholic thesis that “the destruction of frozen embryos constitutes homicide” (52), or, perhaps, in the recent Texan ban on abortion. And so Cavarero asks what conception of the human is invoked in these examples. What she concludes is that the object of the prohibition is not the individual person, but life itself (the “what” rather than the “who,” if you will). When we look at modern politics – in Auschwitz, New York, Afghanistan – the inconsistency of “you shall not kill” is obvious. But Cavarero tells us that “[a]ccording to the purest style of philosophy, however, the challenge is precisely to problematize the obvious” (60). We understand “thou shall not kill” to prohibit homicide (the original Hebrew is best translated into “you shall not murder”), and homicide is understood as a private crime. The category does not include war, or killing that is geographically distant from us. We are still outraged by the former, but we are mostly indifferent to the latter, and this is what Cavarero asks to problematize. Why is homicide, and even abortion, more troubling than distant killings?
One possible explanation might take us back to Levinas and his focus on the face as the foundation of ethics. In an earlier work, Inclination: A Critique of Rectitude, Cavarero embraced Levinas’ face-to-face ethics, writing that “in the ‘face-to-face’ encounter … there is no longer an I characterized by the conatus essendi, a selfish and possessive I, but an I, a me, that already has been dispossessed by the ‘thou shalt not kill’ that is expressed by the face of the other, which precisely constitutes me through this ‘thou’” (163). But then what do we do when the killing is distant and the defenseless face of the other is not right there to dispossess me of my selfish, possessive I? “Precisely when butchery spreads on the global scene on a large scale,” Cavarero writes in “The Archeology of Homicide,” “the commandment ‘you shall not kill’ discovers old and new reasons to suspend itself” (65). Going back to Schmitt, we may say that homicide is more troubling than war precisely because the latter is in the realm of the exceptional state declared by the sovereign and suspending the rule to never kill.
Cavarero goes in a different direction, and this direction is not surprising if you know her work. Her answer has to do with sexual difference and gender stereotypes. “To a real man, at least in certain circumstances, ‘You shall not kill’ sounds unvirile, womanish, false” (107). But for women, Cavarero writes, the sixth commandment is almost trivial. “Experts in the drama of birth rather than of death, women know that no one arrives in the world alone and that existence is structurally dependent, often off balance, and in need of care” (109). And so, perhaps Antigone (who makes earlier appearances in Cavarero’s work, most notably in Stately Bodies) is a better model for us than Cain. The problem that even Levinas has not escaped is that murder – or the temptation to murder – is at the center of our origin stories. Instead, what if the infant is the “you” who constitutes the “I” and strips it of its narcissism? I’d say this is Cavarero’s third piece of advice to us.
By way of concluding, I’d like to demonstrate how Cavarero herself is following the advice I find in her work. The book For More than One Voice opens with a chapter on the voice of Jacob. Even though Cavarero begins her exploration of “the primacy of voice with respect to speech” (19) with a biblical story, her epigraph for this chapter comes from Grace Paley (advice #2: listen to stories; use literature). Here it is: “the word which comes out of the mouth is a sound made in the echo of God” (19). She goes on to tell us that in the Hebrew Bible, both creation and revelation are associated with God’s voice, rather than with the content of his words. It was the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that misled us to believe that logos is what matters. Instead of abandoning the sovereign, Cavarero liberates it from the sacred truth imposed on it by Christianity (advice #1: approach theopolitical concepts with bad intentions). Finally, the book may open with Jacob, but it ends with the mother-child dyad (advice #3): “The voice is always for the ear, it is always relational; but it is never as relational as it is in the first cry of the infant – an invoking life that unknowingly entrusts itself to a voice that responds” (169). Cavarero’s move is a feminist one because traditionally, man has been equated with the mind, while woman has been “represented under the sign of a body that only comes to speech through idle chatter” (207). Yet, for Cavarero, the mother-child relationship is the foundation of the political. What might our political theology look like if we take Cavarero’s advice seriously?
Surging Democracy: Notes on Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought (tr. Matthew Gervase, Stanford UP, 2021)
Cavarero, in conversation with Arendt, but also with Judith Butler, Émil Zola, and Elias Canetti, proposes a new view of democracy, based on the spontaneous experience of a plurality of bodies coming together in public, in contemporary social movements, from Tahrir Square to Black Lives Matter.
Toward a Feminist Philosophy of Nonviolence (with Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig, and others, ed. Timothy J. Huzar and Clare Woodford, Fordham UP, 2021)
This volume brings together essays by Cavarero, Butler, and Honig, with responses by other scholars, centered on Cavarero’s philosophy of nonviolence, drawing on queer theory, post-Marxism, and Italian philosophy.
Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude (tr. Amanda Minervini and Adam Sitze, Stanford UP, 2016)
Cavarero asks here to rethink subjectivity in opposition to the classical figure of Homo Erectus. Cavarero’s alternative subject is inclined toward others: she is altruistic and open. Cavarero is in conversation here with philosophers such as Plato and Hobbes, with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, and with authors such as Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf.
Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Political and Theological Dialogue (with Angelo Scola, tr. Margaret Adams Groesbeck and Adam Sitze, Fordham UP, 2015)
This is a meditation on the sixth commandment, you shall not kill, in conversation with Levinas, Arendt, Adorno, but also with art and literature, and of course, the bible.
Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence (tr. William McCuaig, Columbia UP, 2008)
Cavarero looks at violence from the perspective of the victim rather than the warrior, and reconsiders the decapitation of Medusa, the murder of Medea’s children, and Nazi concentration camps, in conversation with Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, and Georges Bataille.
For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (tr. Paul A. Kottman, Stanford UP, 2005)
Cavarero offers us here a political theory that gives primacy to the voice over speech, to the body over the mind, to the relational over the rational. She engages linguistics, music, and political theory, the Sirens and Medusa, and the mother-infant dyad, to center the speaker (and listener) rather than the content of a given discourse.
Stately Bodies: Literature, Philosophy, and the Question of Gender (tr. Robert de Lucca and Deanna Shemek, University of Michigan Press, 2002)
Cavarero examines bodily metaphor in political discourse and in fictional depictions of politics, including Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato’s Timaeus, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Hobbes’ Leviathan. She then turns to a reading of texts by women (Maria Zambrano’s Tomb of Antigone and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Undine Goes) to reveal the paradox that characterizes the notions of the “body politic” of Western political philosophy.
Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (tr. Paul A. Kottman, Routledge, 2000)
Cavarero presents here her theory of the “narratable self,” and shows how narrative models in philosophy and literature can open new ways of thinking about the formation of human identities, not in relation to discursive norms but between unique existents.
In Spite of Plato: A Feminist rewriting of Ancient Philosophy (tr. Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio and Áine O’Healy, Routledge, 1995)
Here Cavarero introduces her philosophy of sexual difference to liberate Penelope, Diotima, and other women figures from the patriarchal discourse of the ancient Greeks.