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Benhabib_Ethics Without Normativity and Politics Without Historicity_2013

Benhabib_Ethics Without Normativity and Politics Without Historicity_2013

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 Review Essay
 Ethics without Normativity and Politics without Historicity
On Judith Butler’s
 Parting Ways. Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism
Seyla Benhabib
The announcement early in the summer of 2012 that Judith Butler was awarded the Adorno Prizeof the city of Frankfurt led to an intense controversy that engulfed officials of the German-Jewishand Israeli communities, members of academia, and the usual pundits, journalists, and publicintellectuals. At issue was whether, given her support of the Israel Global Boycott, Divestmentand Sanctions Movement and statements she allegedly made during a meeting at Berkeley in2006 that Hamas and Hezbollah were parts of the “global left” (statements she has not retractedto this day),
1
Butler should have been honored by a prize in the name of a Jewish-German refugeeand one of the revered founders of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School.The official representative of the Jewish community in Berlin charged Butler with beinga “well-known anti-Semite and enemy of Israel.” Progressive intellectuals with strong ties tothe Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School signed a petition in support of the award, praisingButlersachievementsbutdistancingthemselvesbothfromherboycottofIsraelandherstatementsregarding Hamas and Hezbollah. I am a signatory to this petition.Yet this controversy hardly focused on Butler’s major statement about Israeli politics andthe ethical-spiritual legacy of Jewishness in her recent book,
 Parting Ways. Jewishness and theCritique of Zionism
 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). In eight penetrating essays,some of which I found deeply moving (such as the chapter on Primo Levi and the lecture onEdward Said), Butler outlines a vision of politics for Israel-Palestine that she summarizes withthe odd term of “cohabitation” (176). This is a vision inspired by a radical democratic politicsof binationalism, not in the narrow sense of “one state, two peoples,” but in the much deepersense of acknowledging the ethical interdependence of the narratives of Jewish, Arab, and Pales-tinian peoples. Unfortunately, “cohabitation” is a misleading term that suffers from Victorianconnotations of living or residing together out of wedlock. A more felicitous term would havebeen preferable. Nonetheless, Butler’s achievement in this book is to retrieve Jewish ethicalimperatives towards a vision of cohabitation by reviving Jewish memories of exile and persecu-tion, and by reexamining long-forgotten distinctions such as those between cultural and politicalZionism. Thinkers considered include Edward Said, Primo Levi, Walter Benjamin, Martin Bu-ber, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Sholem, and above all, Emmanuel Levinas, to whom Butler isdeeply indebted, and against whose Zionist politics she finds herself struggling throughout thisbook.These essays continue “the ethical turn” that has been evident in Butler’s work since writingssuch as
 Antigone’s Claim. Kinship Between Life and Death
 and
 Precarious Life. The Powersof Mourning and Violence
.
2
Much like the evolution in the work of Jacques Derrida, movingaway from a wholly ambivalent and at times nihilistic relationship to ethical subjectivity and thelegacy of democratic revolutions toward a more open embrace of the ethical – and, at least inDerrida’s case, of radical democracy
3
– Butler too, distances herself from her earlier conceptionsof subjectivity and her skepticism toward the project of democracy. Yet her ethics still remainwithoutnormativityandherpoliticswithouthistoricity.LetmestateclearlythatIseenonecessaryconnection between her ethical and political vision and her
 parti pris
 for Hamas and Hezbollah
Constellations Volume 20, No 1, 2013.
C
2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
 
 Review Essay
 151
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,
4
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?
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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 
 beholding
 the other is also when the interdiction is imposed upon us.WidelyconsideredoneofLevinas’scentralphilosophicalinsights,thispuzzlingphrasecontainsadevastatingcritiqueofallphilosophiesbasedontheprimacyoftheautonomoussubjectorofthelonely
 Dasein
.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.”
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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
C
2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
 
152
 Constellations Volume 20, Number 1, 2013
ecstasy of the other. To learn to
 read 
 faces is part of how we become human beings. Yet surely,this alone cannot be the essence of the ethical, even though it may well be its foundation, bothphilosophically and psychogenetically.Consider how this “ec-static relational practice” can go normatively wrong: the circle of thosetoward whom I feel such responsiveness and responsibility will inevitably be narrow. How orwhy can I extend natural human sympathies beyond those to whose claims I am subject in somespecial way and toward whom I feel special responsiveness? Furthermore, what does radicalrelationality entail? Do you and I share a common understanding of moral responsibility? Do weneed to debate it among ourselves or do we simply know what it entails? And if I get caught up in“ec-static relationality” and cannot judge for myself whether this is indeed the correct way to actor the proper responsibility to assume, will I not be subject to the myriad demands and wishes of others and lose my own ethical individuality in the process? This vision of ethics dissolves intothree alternatives: ethical particularism, including various forms of familialism and tribalism;ethical intuitionism; and/or loss of ethical agency.Ethics is not social ontology.
7
Social ontology, even one that is as sophisticated andpsychoanalytically-inspired as is Butler’s, can help disclose the permutations of self-other re-lations as well as uncover the necessary bases for the formations of receptivity that enable theself to become an ethical person, but it cannot lead us to normativity. In the course of the devel-opment of a child’s moral experience, a decentering occurs, such that the self-other relationshipis increasingly subjected to more and more abstract criteria of rightness and wrongness. Leavingbehind the “good boy, good girl” orientation, the young person begins to experience conflictboth with the proximate others and within herself. Such ethical conflict can only be resolved bymoving to a more abstract level at which society’s own moral injunctions are subject to a criticalperspective in the light of more abstract moral precepts. Moral autonomy emerges out of suchattempts to resolve conflicting claims of relationality and by learning how to balance abstractmoral injunctions with the concrete situations and obligations that one faces.
8
For some time now, much discussion around an ethics of autonomy as distinguished froman ethics of relationality has been caught in false binarisms: if moral universalists insist on thenecessity of a normativity that goes beyond familalism, tribalism, and intuitionism, they areaccused of accepting a false view of a sovereign subject, supposedly guided only by formalisticconstraints and unaware of the real substance of the ethical. Universalists, in turn, are deeplysuspicious of the language of “ec-static relationality,” and see such concepts as paving the wayfor moral particularism, and perhaps even, political conservativism.
9
Butler is aware of thesebinarisms but she leaves her own position tantalizingly unclear: “The face of the Other thusdisrupts all formalisms, since a formalism would have me treat each and every other of 
 equal
concern and thus no other would ever have a singular claim upon me. But can we, really, dowithout all formalisms? And if we cannot do without all formalisms – including the principle of radical equality – then how do we think about the face in relation to such political norms? Mustthe face always be singular, or can it extend to plurality?” (57).The force of this rhetorical question is clear: no, we cannot do without all formalism eventhough there are limits to formalism. Indeed, a good ethical theory or a good account of theethical must be able to do justice to the singular as well as the universal, or in my terms, to thestandpoint of the concrete as well as generalized other. Yet Butler does not tell us how.Why, then, even while citing Levinas’s acknowledgment that “the ethical relation required bythefaceisnotthesameasthedomainofthepolitical,(55)wouldButlerresorttoLevinastothincritically about “Jewishness” and “Zionism”? In Levinas’s work, Jewishness and/or Judaism (andthey are not so clearly distinguished), emerges as a
 philosophical
 category and forms the basis of his critique of European thought as such. For Levinas, Judaism is not in the first place a politicalbut an ontological project.In an illuminating essay, “Levinas and Judaism,” Hilary Putnam throws light on the tensionsbetween universalism and particularism in Levinas’s work by pointing out that for Levinas, “onehas to understand the paradoxical claim implicit in his writing that, in essence, all human beingsare Jews.”
10
Putnam parses this puzzling claim through an etymology of the Hebrew word
 hineni
.
 Hine
 is often translated as “behold” and “...performs the speech-act of calling attention to, or
C
2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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