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February 13, 2006


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Arghh, Jodi, I have to go to work but you keep posting these fantastic comments . . . . OK. I resist the slippage of the Levinasian model from the "forfeiting of one's subjective position to another" to the "forfeiting of one's subjective position in fidelity to a cause, to a Truth," because I think it is the latter that inevitably involves a sacrifice and not the former. (The genius of and at the same time most difficult thing (for me, anyway) to grasp in Levinas is his (abstract) personalization of philosophical categories.) What I think you're saying, to paraphrase Emma Goldman, is who would want to join your struggle if I have to immolate myself rather than dance? But I don't think that Levinas's notion of substitution has to be read as self-sacrifice (although it also certainly can be, and in fact the way he describes it sure does sound that way a lot of the time). This may be stretching Levinas himself beyond the limits of his own text (I'm not sure about that, would have to go back and read it again, it's been a while), but I think the best interpretation is rather something along the lines of the way John Donne, Andrew Marvell and some of those other metaphysical poets have written about sex and love, as an experience of self-loss. Or to be more specific, an experience of genuine self-discovery through an encounter with another that is indistinguishable from an experience of self-loss. Remember, in the Levinasian paradigm there is no "self" to sacrifice to an other; that self is constituted in the first instance by the debt to the Other. The notion that this debt constitutes a "sacrifice" thus has to be interpreted at an entirely different level (which I think fundamentally changes its meaning) than the usual sense of the word. In any event, on this view a person's decision to join a picket line (or a party) is ideally a (re-)discovery of herself, or something about herself, not a sacrifice, and (like sex and love) is more like a personal experience of self-discovery through an encounter with (one's constitutive debt to) another than "sacrifice" in the usual sense. But it seems to me that the same cannot be said for a (genuninely self-sacrificial) commitment to an abstract Cause (particularly if it's identified with "Truth"); isn't the 20th century littered with corpses from that kind of (sacrificial) political commitment? At least that's how I would respond on my way out the door . . .


This is a great discussion, particularly helpful to me because I am writing a paper for the upcoming ISA conference in San Diego on Lacan, Levinas and the ethics of protest. It is always hard to translate the lack-of-paper into this post, so bear with me if I seem all over the place.

The links between Levinas and the face-to-face encounter in a place like the picket line inevitably comes back to the ontologization of the political in the application of the ethical call of the Other. I agree with Jodi that the sacrifice can’t be a subjective destitution because of the retention of some form of selfhood, I find it useful to link Lacan’s split subjectivity with Levinas ethical call. In other words, Levinas’ ethical imperative towards Alterity could be seen as the one side of spilt subjectivity, or the foundation of the Other’s desire in myself. As I am working my way through Ecrits now, I really fall back to Aleka Zupancic’s Ethics of the Real in thinking about the subject’s ethical call to truth. As I understand this ‘Truth’ in Lacan, stems directly from the relationship of the subject to their desire, possibly in a way that avoids Adam’s concerns about the sacrifices of the 20th century. So the ethical call is the motivation of act of solidarity, but the Truth of that act develops from a place that retains the ethical direction towards the Other without the incalculable politics. I am still working this out, but it seems that Levinas’ provides us with an ethics that becomes complicated by the ontologization of the political space, but it is a Lacanian emphasis on fidelity to truth that develops the space for political solidarity.

My own work is attempting to develop this within the framework of anti-capitalist protest (very loosely defined), in both that it is a hysterical and impossible demand, but also a radically negative claim that can provide an element of Truth to the ethical act. A Levinasian ethics provides the irreversible call to Alterity, but Lacan develops a foundation for the subject’s relation to truth in a way that supplements the ethical call.


hi Adam, Jodi,
Jodi, this is a fantastic discussion. I'll have to read Adam's post in its entirety. This may sound insulting (if so I apologize, I mean it as a compliment), but this is the most seriously I've ever felt I should take Levinas. Fascinating treatment.
That said, I have a worry. As much as I like the formulation of solidarity as an event between those who don't (or don't need to? that seems an important difference, somehow, and I'm not clear on which you mean) have anything in common... there's also the matter that there are points and places where solidarity should not be extended, or should be only in the most limited of senses (such that extension or full extension of solidarity would be something of a mockery of the word). At a basic level, I mean solidarity with bosses. Class struggle involves hurting people at least emotionally (and more so if we look at a number of historical examples - I hope I don't sound like I'm romanticizing violence against people, I think that's actually quite ill advised). Picket lines hurt bosses profits, and some frontline managers almost always get fired in a successful union drive, in retaliation for not busting the union and because managers don't have (m)any protect labor rights so they make good sacrifices to appease upper management's anger. Of course, you could say that no schema of solidarity (certainly not one I can indicate) contains a decision procedure for who solidarity happens to/between and who it doesn't happen to/between, and I'd have to agree. But solidarity with some minimal limits of belonging does provide at least a very rudimentary compass for that, which the sort of infinite/limitless solidarity with those whom one has nothing in common with doesn't seem to offer or even really to allow the existence of.
take care,


Nate, my response to this got so long that I'm going to post it separately at Before the Law.

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