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February 14, 2006

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Alain

Jodi, I have greatly enjoyed your recent discussion of solidarity. Since Adam has brought Levinas into the discussion, I have been thinking about his essay regarding "Cities of Refuge." I ask that you forgive me in advance to what might appear to be a tangential comment but this particular essay has signifcance for me because my father was hidden in such a "city of refuge" during WWII. Le Chambon is a town in southeastern France, in the "heart of hugenot country." During the war this town organized itself (lead by their pastor Andre Trocme) into a city of refuge to hide Jews from the Nazis, particularly children. It has been estimated that nearly 5,000 children were saved as the result of their efforts. In interviews after the war, most of the residents have accounted for ther humain form of solidarity by simply saying that the Jews "were our brothers," and it was the right thing to do.

Now I realize that there were religious influences on their actions, but this still seems to be relevant to the current topic. In his essay on Cities of Refuge, Levinas is analyzing the biblical injunction to form such cities to protect those who kill unintentionally. Levinas believes the talmud spends so much time on this topic because he believes "we are all manslaughterers." The manslaughterer is the one who is both guilty and innocent - guilty because he has killed and innocent because it was an accident.

Within this way of looking at it, all cities are like cities of refuge because we all partake in "structures of oppression" - but we do so unknowingly. Our cities provide sanctuary from violence and, at the same time, perpetuate injustice. This may sound like an apologetics for the status quo but, as Derrida points out, there is also a trangressive aspect to Levinas' politics, which he presents as a "rupture" caused by the suffering of the other.

And I think you are correct to point out that in Levinasian terms, this moment is in some sense "pre-political." But over the years I have looked upon my father's experience, and the solidarity shown by the good people of Chambon, as a "political act" motivated out of a call from the Other in need. The people of this town worked together, communally, for a purpose much larger than themselves. I realize that this was not a political event in terms of being part of a larger movement, but it was clearly a demonstration of solidarity and humanity. To the degree that a Levinasian/Derridean perspective can be brought to bare on this, the ethical imperative of the one can at times lead one toward something like a "Universal Hospitality." And clearly, this can be made very concrete.

I am not sure if this contributes much to the debate but thanks for stimulating my thinking.

Alain

You may also be interested in an essay on this topic that Matt had linked to several months back:

http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_4_52/ai_98539346/print

Jodi

Alain,
This is interesting and challenging. I don't know this essay by Levinas, but your account of it is quite compelling. I have reflexes/reactions in a particular direction. I'm not sure that they are necessarily defensible, or what's at stake in them, but I'll go ahead because I think it's important to try to think through these.

It seems to me that we can distinguish between politics and ethics. So, there is an ethical call to hospitality, to alleviate suffering, to forgiveness; various accounts of ethics tend to agree on these matters on a really general level. In some ways, these ethical calls are responses to the needs of others--of travellers (immigrants, those without homes), victims of illness, crime, misfortune, and, those who have themselves done something wrong.

Now, politics, it seems to me, is better conceived when others are not victims, but are combatants--either with us or against us, either those we stand with or those we oppose. Although your example meant that the townspeople undertook a great deal of risk, it seems to me that their activities were primarily ethical rather than political.

When we speak of solidarity, do we have in mind ethical or political solidarity? I think that your example, and what I'm getting about Levinas from Adam, concerns ethics--not politics. Or, maybe better, the political component (you point to the organized activities of the townspeople) needs to be further elaborated.

Now, why? Well, I think we can agree that there is such a thing as unethical politics; this means, then, that 'ethical' can be understood as qualifying the term politics, not as commensurate with it. It also seems that the term political ethics is substantively different from a notion of ethical politics, it points to a kind of situtational ethics where the situation is the conduct, institutions, terrain of politics. So, all this suggests that there are differences between the ethical and the political and that we do well to retain these differences. (I could have made this briefer simply by invoking Machiavelli).

Alain

Jodi, thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree with you that the political and ethical are distinct, though each can in some sense qualify the other. For myself personally, it is the ethical rupture of the other in need that is the "grounding principle" which informs my politics. As Levinas is fond of repeating "because we were strangers once in a strange land," we have an obligation to those most vulnerable among us. And I do not take this position as some liberal do-gooder who thinks about helping "the poor." A market based economy provides very little security, even to those who seem to benefit from it the most. My own father is a good example. He was in business for himself for most of his life but when he got involved with some unethical associates, he was left with almost nothing. He needed to take his Social Security early (age 62) just in order to have enough income to avoid loosing his house. And I have countless other personal stories that make the same point.

But I think your suggestion is essentially correct - politics is better conceived "when others are not victims, but are combatants--either with us or against us, either those we stand with or those we oppose." The only qualification I would make is that the ethical imperative that Levinas (and Derrida) are discussing gives one something to rally around, a groundless ground if you will. There are always those who choose not to recognize our "common vulnerability," and cynically use it as a negative wedge to divide and conquer. One cannot be hospitable to those who reject the value of hospitality.

Alain

I should have added at the end of the previous comment one "cannot and should not be hospitable to those who reject the value of hospitality." Thanks.

AT

Jodi (and Alain), I have been unavoidably detained elsewhere, otherwise I would have responded already to these very interesting posts/comments, and can't do it now but will ASAP. Very preliminarily, however, I'm not sure Jodi and I disagree quite as much, at least, as she thinks. In particular, I entirely agree politics and ethics (and "political solidarity" and "ethical solidarity") are distinct, and in fact have to be kept distinct; but I would say that political solidarity necessarily presupposes ethical solidarity. Anyway, more on all this sometime soon, probably at Before the Law.

Jodi

Alain, I like the groundless ground idea. What it makes me think of is something like being struck by a truth, being moved or called. Perhaps this is a point of overlap then with fidelity to a Truth--it seems like it. And, if this is the case, then this groundless ground is not simply a choice, it is a choosing and a being chosen. And, if, as Adam suggests, it grounds politics as the ethical solidarity necessary for political solidarity, then it does so in a partisan way; in other words, we will be able to describe political solidarities that are not based in this version of ethical solidarity, but other versions; in fact, we can even think of political alliances that involve no solidarity at all.

Alain

Jodi, thanks. I share your perspective that this ethical solidarity chooses us as much as we choose it. And I agree it definitely grounds a politics in a partisan way. One cannot take this rupture seriously and not advocate for more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Whether this Levinasian/Derridean formulation necessarily means socialism is debatable, but it clearly demarcates what is and is not essential to a just society.

Having come this far, it still seems difficult to reconcile Zizek's position with the one Adam (and myself) are articulating. But thanks again for taking the trip.

Jodi

Alain,
could you be more specific about what you have in mind re Zizek? my guess is that it might have something to do with violence.

Alain

I apologize because I do not have much time at the moment but generally your guess is accurate. Zizek seems to think violence is a mark of authentic revolutionary action, or as is the case with Stalinism, a symptom of the failure of an authentic political rupture. I am not sure what to make of this. Also, there are his many exotic examples of being faithful to one's passion, including the Mary Kay Laturneau incident referenced at the end of The Ticklish Subject (which I know I have mentioned to you before, so I apologize for being redundent - its just the clearest one I can think of on the spot.)

Let me be clear that none of this takes away from his powerful use of psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectic. It is precisely because of his common intellectual heritage that there are points of commonality with Derrida/Levinas.

All that said, you know I have not rigorously studied this stuff in over a decade so I am not really sure if the differences are really any more than rhetorical. I know this is a very un-Derridian thing to say but I was never really a good disciple anyway.:) And it seems that Zizek's sense of dramatic affect is stylistically very different from Derrida - Derrida being more concerned with aporias and ambiguity, Zizek more concerned with drawing out the dialectical paradoxes of neo-liberal globalism. Clearly there is overlap in terms of the areas of concern, but the approaches are rather foreign - even if they both at times seem to present their respective projects as "therapeutic."

Alain

Jodi, I was at a book store today and found Zizek's "The Metastases of Enjoyment." This book was first published in 1994, presumably before Zizek became "Zizek!" I have only started browsing over it but what seems relevant to the current disscussion is the appendix in which Zizek performs a "Self-Interview." There is a section that specifically addresses "the traumatic relationship between Derrida and Lacan..." (Pgs 193-198) I have not read it yet but I would be curious what you(or Adam) might think of it. Thanks.

AT

Jodi, I posted a response at Before the Law.

Nate

hi all,

This is all very great (sorry, it's late and I can't be more articulate than that). Can you expand on the ethical/political distinction more? I think I follow and I think I agree, but I'm not sure. Jodi's sketch - the political is of at least some type of combat - strikes me as reasonable, and a version of politics that I'm in definite agreement with. But it seems to me very important to say the two are rather fuzzy, the border demarcating the two is relatively indeterminate. Or, that there can be a passage between the two rapidly.

I think the phenomenon of file-sharing before the crackdown on Napster is a good example. We might say there was an ethic of sharing material (or, someone more cynical than me might say an appetitive ethic of acquiring more stuff), which became a type of combat without necessarily meaning to. I can think of other examples (feminist health collective that became abortion service providers) but none that unpack quickly.

I'm failing to get across what I'm trying to say, let me try another route.

Schmitt notes somewhere that law requires a regular conditon (something normal) to which it can apply. I read this as follows: the breakdown of that condition provokes the decision on the exception, in order to force social life back into the norm required for law, or to hold social life in check (to force social life to form a new normal condition) in order for new law to come to apply. One might say that the political (the combat) doesn't begin until the norm has broken down and the sovereign has attacked (declared an exception), but it seems to me that it's important to note that the ethical (the pre-political in the sense of pre-combat) can and often does provoke the triggering departure from/eroson of the norm. That is, at least sometimes the ethical (non- or pre-combat) is the condition for the political (combat). I hope that makes sense, if not, I apologize.
best,
Nate

Marc Lombardo

Would it be controversial if I said I see no reason for a distinction between the ethical and the political? Well, I could see how such a distinction might at times prove useful, but I would never give any credence to such a distinction as being anything more than a purely analytic one, i.e. as being made both ad hoc and ex post facto. To insist upon the reality of such a distinction is, I think, to follow Schmitt a bit too closely (recall in The Concept of the Political, Schmitt points out the distinction in Latin between inimicus and hostis, a private enemy and a public foe). If "ethics" supposedly concerns only the performance of good will in situations where such a performance does not upset the over-arching political structure, then I have no use for "ethics" (the exemplification of such an "ethics" would be something like giving money to a homeless person and then voting to shut down the local shelter). On another point, I would argue that Schmitt's essential mistake comes from mistaking the political itself, with merely his "concept" of the political. Must difference inevitably lead to a state of war? Even if the state of war is in many instances prevalent, what are the consequences of in all cases confusing such a state with the mere presence of difference?

Nate

hi again Jodi,
I thought of this conversation today while talking to a friend about a situation in not-to-be-named workplace with an issue. My response in those kinds of conversations is invariably one of frustration when it sounds to me like the comment is "something should be done about X" but the content is "I am venting my unhappiness about X" or "here is my analysis of X." The difference, I think, is organizational - the movement into doing things deliberately with/to other people.
I'm not being clear. How about this - I think politics involves power being at issue in a deliberate way whereas ethics doesn't. Ethics can make power be at issue, what I tried to say about filesharing, but if the - political - response from constituted power doesn't evoke a political response, it's likely that folks will not long be allowed to continue the practices that made power become at issue in that instance. And organization cuts across the two and is the point where the one becomes the other (filesharing as informal organization, say). Hope that makes sense...
best,
Nate

Jodi

To my mind, conceptual distinctions are important. I think they both inform, 'govern,' how we live and experience our lives and provide opportunities of understanding and changing our lives and experiences. In my reading of canonical Western political theory, Machiavelli provides a clean break with an ancient world in which politics and ethics were inseparable, to think politics as a domain separate from ethics, that is, with its own practices, expectations, and criteria.

In thinking about politics, I find it helpful to consider politicization, to make something a matter of politics. Laclau is helpful here as he emphasizes the cut in the particular that lets it represent something beyond itself. This cut is in relation to an outside (of the present circumstances) and involves a division between us and them. Every difference is not political. But differences can be politicized.

So, with Nate, I would agree that it's important politically to move from "unhappiness with X" to "doing something about X."

Marc--I'm not convinced by your discussion of Schmitt's 'mistake.' Why would a political theorist use concepts that they didn't think applied, made sense, specified a key component of the matter at hand? For example, I think that my account of the notion of publicity as the ideological form of communicative capitalism isn't simply my concept--I think that my concept is right, that publicity IS the ideological form of communicative capitalism, etc.

Marc Lombardo

The break I see Machiavelli as having made from the ancient world is in recognizing contingency in a profound way. To me, this recognition (which I very much value) does not in itself demand a division between politics and ethics, but instead demands us to think ethics as being contingently situated, every bit as much as politics.

The point I was trying to make about Schmitt is a Heideggerean one, or perhaps even a Kantian one, of not confusing any particular "concept" with das Ding an sich. Surely, the thing itself is always disclosed to us by a given concept, so much so that our experience with the thing may be said to be governed (if not wholly determined) by that concept... but for me the question is in finding concepts which do not wholly preclude other experiences/concepts of the thing (to me Schmitt's does just that vis a vis the political, therein lies my disagreement). Perhaps you rephrased it better for me in saying "every difference is not political. But differences can be politicized."

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