Levinasian Responsibility To The Other Should “Trump” All Identity Politics (Joshua Lawrence)

Commentary, Current Events

Donald Trump’s recent appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist and senior counsel to the POTUS has furthered criticism of his election and brought additional attention to the “alt-right,” a rather nebulous term intended to reference a motley crew of predominantly white discontents.

The New York Times has described Trump’s decision as an “ominous sign” and presented Bannon as a perplexing figure, one who made millions investing in Seinfeld and worked as a banker at Goldman Sachs, but who also declared his commitment to destroying the State and mobilizing poor whites in the U.S. The Internet has been flooded with several stories associating both Bannon and Breitbart News—the forum for alt-right discourse—with the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia on display in the posted articles.

The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, suggests that politics would be healthier if racism were reserved for more serious use.  While acknowledging the troubling posts on Breitbart News, it maintains that this represents a fringe group whose positions are not those of the “mainstream right.” And yet, the paper concludes that the “political tendency Mr. Bannon represents—and some of the unsavory customers he isn’t responsible for—deserves a watchful eye.”

Clearly, Bannon is a troubling contradiction for most, and yet, contemporary political discourse often results in such paralyzing confusion wherein one group posits their grievances at the expense of others. The Democratic Party and its supporters fall into similar contradictions when they demand the acknowledgement of various groups’ identities while continuing to support structures that undermine this defense.

In Thomas Nail’s The Figure of the Migrant, the philosopher argues persuasively that the civilizational structure of expansion-by-expulsion requires the production of redundant populations to address the looming crisis named in various places as “scourge,” “event,” and “revolution.” Modern states and their neoliberal economies are managed with an eye towards the prevention of these incalculable occurrences.

And it would seem that we, as a global society forged by market forces, are currently ill-equipped to address the demands of those sacrificed by the dynamics of economic intersubjectivity. So long as calculation functions in place of covenant, the encounter with difference will be effaced, and without difference there is not an ethics worthy of the name.

Yet, we must not only account for a difference of identities. We are compelled likewise to acknowledge the condition for such possibility, which lies in a realm that philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes as “otherwise than being” or “beyond essence.” For Levinas, the Other which cannot be named and escapes the illumination of philosophy or any other totalizing discourse, issues an infinite demand that constitutively binds me.

What grants each person irreplaceability is the call issued by this Other—whom I cannot name or locate. While Levinas articulates this demand as the decalogical “do not kill,” his contemporary Simone Weil saw the unconditional in the command to “feed the hungry.” Of course, these two “bindings” are intimately connected; the latter is arguably the transformation of the abstention into a positive injunction, thereby facilitating passage from the ethical to the political.

While much could be said about this journey, my emphasis in this post is the requirement of universal obligation for the variegated instantiations of human rights. Additionally, I want to suggest that the contemporary employment of the term “identity” to reference a particular configuration of the human being occurs on the same plane as many arguments for human rights. To borrow a phrase from Deleuze, this “plane of immanence” is the pleromatic fecundity that produces “egoisms” in conflict but is never the origin of justice.

But lest we become possessed by genealogical desire, I would note Levinas’s paradoxical description of this repetitive beginning – an-archic origin. To be sure, Levinas was not an anarchist in any classical sense, but in some ways, his anarchism extends beyond the materialism of most dissent. His was a materiality on the hither side of materialism that tarried with the demand placed on “me,” the accused one, by another being.

This constitutive alterity is a universal constraint, a difference insubordinate to identity that accounts for its possibility in a shared world. For Levinas, we are carved out by this demand, displaced by the needs of the Other, the immemorial site of destitution and authority. Again, the “I” is created by the Other’s impossible issuance, and should be understood as the task of responding rather than a self-enclosed substance.

Simone Weil makes this point on the opening page of The Need for Roots. “A right,” she remarks, “is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other [persons] who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards [her]” (1). My right means nothing, and is thus senseless, without an appeal to an ultimate source of respect, which she describes as an unconditional obligation that by definition could not come from the plane of immanence, or being, implicitly assumed by most contemporary political discourse.

By pursuing identity-based campaigns, the supposed left and right constituencies of the United States generate only competing egoisms. They attempt to construct a calculated peace, what Immanuel Kant named—following Rousseau—an unsocial sociality. To some extent, and for different reasons, both refuse to acknowledge the metaphysical/theological foundations of their positions, instead relying on an implicit combination of Hobbes’ “state of nature” and Rousseau’s “amour propre” that has become a commonplace in the dominant political discourse of the West.

As Levinas writes in Otherwise Than Being, this takes “dramatic form in egoisms struggling with one another, each against all, in the multiplicity of allergic egoisms,  which are at war with one another and are thus together” (4). War is always the result of this formulation.

In contrast, Weil and Levinas participate in a “politics of impossibility,” one that is not a resignation but is instead a refusal of resolution. For Weil, this refusal takes the form of an obligation without conditions, while for Levinas, it is a demand that is unceasing and even persists after the death of the Other.

Thus, for both thinkers, we are inescapably responsible, and it is this responsibility that grants the possibility of identities, not vice versa. I want to suggest that an assumption of this immemorial call, or unconditional obligation, grants the irreplaceability of the “I,” and therefore, grounds any pursuit for justice. The recent election attests to the irresponsibility of arguments for identities-without-obligations.

The result of such campaigns is war, competing allergies that are sometimes fatal. In order to truly resist and thereby “midwife” an interstitital emancipatory space, a theology of unavoidable cleavage is required, one that is unconditional and infinite. Levinas and Weil have taken steps towards this end, but it is for us to take seriously their prophetic caution regarding proximate discourses that claim ultimacy.

Joshua Lawrence is pastor of Friedens United Church of Christ in Beasley, Texas as well as a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Denver-Iliff School of Theology.  His research focuses on Levinas, political theology, and literary theory as well as psychoanalysis and religion.

One thought on “Levinasian Responsibility To The Other Should “Trump” All Identity Politics (Joshua Lawrence)

  1. Joshua – I find myself in much agreement with what you have written here, however, there is something about Levinas when it comes to responsibility to the other that concerns me. That something is Levinas’ exchange with Finkielkraut concerning responsibility and innocence. Moreover, his assertion that “in alterity we can find an enemy” Should cause us to rethink, to some degree, the use of Levinas’ work as a source for our responsibility to the innocent and the vulnerable. It seems to me that most attempts to rescue Levinas from this problem are somewhat inadequate and must be deaths with before moving on to discuss his work as a place from which to address political issues. It seems to me that the problem rests firmly behind Levinas’ writings in the biblical stories from which he constructs his ethics. My view suggests that it would do Levinasians good to revisit, for example, the stories of Cain and Abel, on the one hand, and the narrative of the stranger in Gen 18, on the other as a way of articulating a much more thorough expression of our responsibility to the other. — John

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