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Difficult Justice

Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics

Asher Horowitz
Gad Horowitz
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Difficult Justice
    Book Description:

    French philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) is best known for his two major, highly original works on ethics,Totality and Infinity(1961) andOtherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence(1974). Among his lesser known works is a short but remarkable essay published in 1934, "Refections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism," in which he considers German conservatism and the Nazi movement, and reflects on Western philosophy's capacity to insure itself against 'elemental evil.'Difficult Justiceuses this essay as an introduction to a collection of papers on Levinas's ethical and political thought.

    In this volume editors Asher and Gad Horowitz bring together contributors from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to explore how Levinas's work relates to a broad range of contemporary philosophical and political questions. In particular, they examine Levinas's challenge to liberalism 'to find another kinship for man ... absolutely opposed to oppression,' and his movement beyond liberalism to embrace 'the claim of the Other.' This thought-provoking collection will not only be invaluable to Levinas scholars, it will also be of interest to those working in the areas of Jewish studies, women's studies, and political theory.

    Contributors:Keith AndersonShannon BellRobert BernasconiMielle ChandlerTina ChanterMarinos DiamantidesRosalyn DiproseEnrique DusselOona EisenstadtRobert GibbsAsher HorowitzGad HorowitzZe'ev LevyJoseph RosenBrian SchroederVictoria Tahmasebi

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7391-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Contributors
    (pp. ix-xii)

    • Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism
      (pp. 3-11)

      The following article appeared inEsprit, a journal representing a progressive, avant-garde Catholicism, in 1934 shortly after Hitler came to power.

      The article stems from the conviction that the source of the bloody barbarism of National Socialism lies not in some contingent anomaly within human reasoning, nor in some accidental ideological misunderstanding. This article expresses the conviction that this source stems from the essential possibility ofelemental Evilinto which we can be led by logic and against which Western philosophy had not sufficiently insured itself. This possibility is inscribed within the ontology of a being concerned with being [de...

    • Is Liberalism All We Need? Prelude via Fascism
      (pp. 12-24)

      In 1934 the twenty-eight-year-old Emmanuel Levinas published a short essay, ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,’ printed above. Unusual as it may seem to introduce a book about a philosopher with a little known essay by him, this remarkable, even astounding essay will serve admirably as a gateway into Levinas’s ethical and political thought, and into its ambiguity as well. Many contributions to this volume will focus in different ways on this ambiguity.

      ‘Reflections’ is important to the development of Levinas’s thought in general. Many have noted its prescient insight into the impending evils of Nazi racialist expansionism. Yet the...


    • Beyond Rational Peace: On the Possibility/Necessity of a Levinasian Hyperpolitics
      (pp. 27-47)

      In its reverberations, perhaps especially with political philosophy, Levinas’s thought leaves one in a situation, it seems, where everything is different than it was before, and yet nothing has changed. Ethics as first philosophy, one could hyperbolically say, simply cancels, as foundations, what that tradition, from the Parmenidean Plato through Hegel, took to be its foundations. It would be evident, after Levinas, that even its greatest critics, despite their finest efforts, would not have done that. All of these critics, in one way or another, will find themselves entrammelled in ‘the gnoseological adventure,’ hence within the snares of the Same,...

    • Hands That Give and Hands That Take: The Politics of the Feminine in Levinas
      (pp. 48-62)

      The underlying continuity of the philosophical discourses of theoria and praxis is a broad problematic that Levinas develops progressively throughout his corpus. Heidegger claims to reorient philosophy by thematizing the hitherto neglected question of Being, thereby dislodging the privilege that the Western tradition of philosophy has presumed for theoretical and reflective thought. Heidegger’s claim is to rethink the tradition by approaching the question of Being by means of Dasein’s practical, affective, lived experience of the world. Incorporating Heidegger’s questioning of the priority of theoria into a reworked notion of the very tradition Heidegger wanted to disrupt, Levinas points to a...

    • Levinas in the Key of the Political
      (pp. 63-77)

      They turned their faces towards Mount Gerizim and opened with the blessing etc. Our rabbis taught [abaraitha]: There was a benediction in general and a benediction in particular, likewise a curse in general and a curse in particular. (Scripture states):to learn, to teach, to observe[to keep], andto do; consequently there are four (duties associated with each commandment). Twice four are eight and twice eight are sixteen. It was similar at Sinai and at the plains of Moab; as it was said,These are the words of the covenant which the Lord has commanded Moses[to make...

    • ‘The Politics’ by Levinas: Towards a ‘Critical’ Political Philosophy
      (pp. 78-96)

      We want to establish a dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas about ‘politics.’ Covering ideas fromTotality and Infinityup to a more recent article, we depart from a necessary critique of politics understood as totalized strategic domination. This dialogue shows the difficulties involved in constructing a positive and creative political concept that is liberating in the perspective of exteriority.

      Levinas accurately situates the negative sense of politics when it becomes a permanent ‘war state,’ that is, a tautological self-reference of the heroic and public action of the State as Totality. Departing from ‘ethics,’ Levinas deconstructs politics. His politics isnegativeand,...

    • Hemorrhage and Filiality: Towards a Fecundation of the Political
      (pp. 97-110)

      Women survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, emotionally and physically scarred, having lost limbs, having had their families decimated, living with the illness and pending death brought about by AIDS, and with the hardships of poverty, nonetheless continue to care for the children. These women not only mother the children to whom they are biologically related, but also ‘adopt’ and care for children who have been orphaned or whose mothers have become too ill to cope.¹ And it is with full awareness of the circumstances that these women take in children infected with AIDS, children suffering from trauma, and...

    • Levinas and Alterity Politics
      (pp. 111-126)

      Enrique Dussel, inPhilosophy of Liberation, says that ‘philosophy when it is really ... philosophy ... ponders the nonphilosophical; the reality.’¹ ‘Levinas has many names for this “non-philosophical” encounter’² – proximity, substitution, saying, face-to-face.

      Levinas’s ethics of responsibility for the other before oneself indicates a way to act, to live, that is a way to do non-philosophy. Levinasian ethics is a performative response, the action/doing of saying ‘Here I am’ to the call from an other. From Levinas’s ethics one can develop a pragmatics of acting, interacting. Levinasian pragmatics can be derived from Levinas’s privileging of the other, his formulations of...

    • Public Transgressions: Levinas and Arendt
      (pp. 127-147)

      Both Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas envision a politics that rescues human uniqueness and singularity from the disasters that have befallen it in history: Arendt, through a recovery of public-political life, and Levinas, more tentatively, through apre-original ethics and justice. Despite certain points of contact in their thought, they do not keep easy company. Arendt would likely refuse any company with Levinas at all. She would not welcome him in herpolis. He is obsessed too much by orphans, widows, and strangers; his voice is too much the prophet’s. Yet it is just this voice, we argue, that exposes...

    • Can Fig Trees Grow on Mountains? Reversing the Question of Great Politics
      (pp. 148-171)

      Levinas’s importance with respect to the questions of politics and the political lies in his radical reassessment of the historically troublesome relation between ethics and politics and his invocation of the third (le tiers) as the instantiating moment of justice. He propels thinking forward with a simultaneous reversal, a turn back to the history of philosophy. With respect to the notion of subjectivity, particularly ethical and political subjectivity, the philosophies of Plato, Nietzsche, and Levinas constitute major turning points in the history of ideas, while at the same time advancing a continuous line of thought of which a common thread...

    • Levinas, Nietzsche, and Benjamin’s ‘Divine Violence’
      (pp. 172-190)

      In an article published in 1973, Emmanuel Levinas claims: ‘[R]ebellion against an unjust society expresses the spirit of our age.’ And he immediately adds: ‘Spirit itself is expressed by rebellion against an unjust society’ (II, 242).¹ In this paper, I want to ask what kind of rebellion Levinas is talking about. To address this rather large question, I will explore the traces of a saying that are, in my opinion, manifested in Levinas’s scattered comments on Friedrich Nietzsche. Here my intention is not so much to explore the conjunction and/or disjunction of Levinas and Nietzsche, as to situate Levinas’s comments...

    • From Escape to Hostage
      (pp. 191-220)

      In what follows, I first retrospectively explain Levinas’s mature ideas on the ethical relation in the light of his youthful ideas on being’s nauseating experience of plenitude. The attempt is to salvage the description of ethical subjectivity as ‘hostage,’ in Levinas’s mature work, from being thought of as life-denying morality, by making explicit the theoretical link between the ‘ethical freedom’ of compassion, on the one hand, and the subject’s capacity to ‘escape’ the enchainment to its bodywithoutcompromising its enjoyment, on the other. The quotes above capture the essence of this link: Levinas’s trajectory began by simultaneously acknowledging and...

    • The Ethics and Politics of the Handshake: Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and Nancy
      (pp. 221-245)

      Emmanuel Levinas’s idea of the transcendence of the ethical relation as that which initiates sociality warns against a disturbing trend in democratic politics toward a national politics of exclusion (of refugees and asylum seekers, for example), and of pre-emptive strikes against strangers.¹ Both practices are justified with reference to an ideal of a national community of shared meanings and values (democratic, egalitarian, humanitarian, non-violent) that are said to require protection from a threat from the foreign. In contrast, Levinas’s formula of the ethical relation to alterity implies that community is only possible through the hand that extends a welcome to...

    • Strangers and Slaves in the Land of Egypt: Levinas and the Politics of Otherness
      (pp. 246-261)

      There is a widespread view that the Other in Levinas is pre-eminently the stranger in the sense of a foreigner, someone who comes from elsewhere, someone different from me, someone against whom I define myself. In this sense the Palestinian is the Other to the Israeli Jew; and, in the United States, the African American is the Other to the European American, as Black to White, and so on. The examples can readily be multiplied indefinitely depending on the context and they can be compounded, particularly if one introduces gender as another form of difference: the African American woman is...

    • Levinas’s Reflections on State, Revolution, and Utopia from a Jewish Perspective
      (pp. 262-270)
      ZE’EV LEVY

      Certain left and revolutionary thinkers in South America drew much of their inspiration from Levinas’s philosophy of the other, and designated their thought as ‘philosophy of liberation.’ Levinas was well aware of these trends and referred to them sympathetically. One of his Talmudic lectures even has as its title ‘Judaism and revolution.’¹ It deals with a problem, discussed in the TractateBaba Metziah(83a–b), concerning the wages of salaried workers, and Levinas underscores, on the one hand, its relevance to present-day syndicalist issues and, on the other, its salient humanist implications. He even mentions the Polish Marxist philosopher Adam...

    • Levinas, the Messianic, and the Question of History
      (pp. 271-284)

      I have decided to make of this moment a disturbing challenge – to address the violence of the political as it appears in the Bible. My method will be my habitual one, to comment on a set of texts. But I should underscore here that commentary is the very topic at issue – for in the citation and interpretation of texts we question both politics and history. In an appendix are found the texts to which I will be referring. I include them because commentary is not like reading – it is a doubledreading that alerts the reader both to the task of...

    • From a Memory beyond Memory to a State beyond the State
      (pp. 285-306)

      The political significance of Emmanuel Levinas’s thought is profoundly indebted to thememory of violence. While not explicitly thematized, a particular memory of violence pervasively haunts and informs his writings. This dimension of Levinas’s thought is increasingly relevant in the present, where ‘memory’ has become a cultural obsession – and a profitable media industry. Consumer culture has created an entire ‘memorial’ economy in response to past violence. What Andreas Huyssen calls ‘a globalization of memory discourses’ contains contradictory possibilities. On the one hand, the memory of past violence can be mobilized to address present injustices. But memory discourses can also be...

    • Aporia and Messiah in Derrida and Levinas
      (pp. 307-330)

      (a) Deconstruction is aporetography: aporetic thinking, the thinking of aporia, of the bind and double bind, pervade Derrida’s writing: the thinking of the outside of thought in the inside of thought; of that which (not being any ‘that’) cannot be (re)cognized or straightened out into a continuum or line ... Deconstruction is an ‘aporetology’ or an ‘aporetography.’¹

      I approach a discussion of Derrida’s ‘messianicity’ with a long introduction (which may be helpful to some: its assembling was helpful to me) consisting of a few attempts to indicate what one might permit oneself to think of as the central decentring aporia...