or the Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. These remain matters of political judgment, and in my view, hers are deeply mistaken ones. But there is more than a casual link between her vision of an ethics without normativity and her politics without historicity, andher blaming political Zionism for all the miseries and injustices that befell the Palestinian andJewish peoples since 1948. While I welcome the discursive space that Butler is trying to createby reengaging the critical dialogue about Israel and of politics in the Middle East, I do not believethat we will get very far by repeating the formula that “Zionism is a form of settler colonialism,”(4) or that the struggle for Palestinian rights and self-determination is part of the struggle of the Global Left – whoever that may be. These are not instances of “thinking without banisters,”which Hannah Arendt recommended to us when facing the political challenges of our times,
but of thinking with banisters. Philosophically, the most innovative aspects of Butler’s book areher reading of Levinas against Levinas and her interpellation of Arendt for her own theory of “cohabitation.”
Butler on Levinas
“Levinas remarked on multiple occasions, that ‘the face is what one cannot kill,’” writes Butler.“This remark is, indeed, remarkable,” she continues, “if only because we know quite literallythat the face can be killed, and with it a face of a certain kind. But if Levinas is right.. .then itwould seem to follow that although the body can be killed, the face is not killed along with thebody...Rather, the face carries an interdiction against killing that cannot but bind the one whoencounters the face and becomes subject to the interdiction the face conveys” (54). At first blush,Levinas’s claim is historically, anthropologically, culturally, and even psychologically whollycounterintuitive: when has the face of the other ever prevented the killing, the slaughter, and themurder of the other?
Yet for Levinas ‘the face’ is not simply the physical appearance of theother, but a certain mode of being-with-the-other. Butler observes, “there is no way to separatethe face from that precise encounter with the face to which we are subject, to which we cannothelp but be subject, in the face of which we have, in effect, no choice, bound as we are by theinterdiction imposed upon us” (54). The face of the other, then, subjects us to itself; this momentof
the other is also when the interdiction is imposed upon us.WidelyconsideredoneofLevinas’scentralphilosophicalinsights,thispuzzlingphrasecontainsadevastatingcritiqueofallphilosophiesbasedontheprimacyoftheautonomoussubjectorofthelonely
.Becausethefaceoftheotherspeakstous,callstous,andbecausewearebeholdento it, first philosophy is fundamentally ethics. So, it is not my death that is the culmination of my authenticity but rather, the realization of my own vulnerability in the hands of the otherand of the other’s vulnerability in my own hands that is fundamental. Whether this vulnerabilityis understood literally as the urge to kill or destroy the other in some fashion or whether itis interpreted more psychoanalytically as the wish that the other may disappear and let thesovereign ego reign supreme without vulnerabilities is inconsequential. Levinas’s philosophicalstruggle with the rationalist tradition from Descartes to Kant and Husserl on the one hand, andhis continuous wrangles with Heidegger on the other, are all rolled up into this pithy phrase, that“the face is what one cannot kill.”This is important for Butler precisely because she accepts many of Levinas’s insights. “Onceethics is no longer understood exclusively as disposition or action grounded in a ready-madesubject, but rather as a relational practice that responds to an obligation that originates outsidethe subject,
then ethics contests sovereign notions of the subject and ontological claims of self-identity
. Indeed, ethics comes to signify the act by which place is established for those who are“not-me,” comporting me beyond a sovereign claim in the direction of a challenge to selfhoodthat I receive from elsewhere” (9, my emphasis). Butler uses the phrase “ec-static relationality”in this context (9).There is something deeply compelling about these insights. Following similar intuitions, Ihad named this kind of relationship the perspective of the “concrete other” in contrast to the“generalized other.”
All ethical relations involve this moment of respons-iveness and respons-ibility, in the sense of being able to respond to the suffering as well as joy, pain as well as
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