- Dirty Consciences and Runaway Selves: A Levinasian Response to Monahan
There have been many attempts to legitimize the employment of a racialized identity alongside the delegitimization of racist practices, social mores, and institutions. Mike Monahan’s The Creolizing Subject reads as one of the most noteworthy of such attempts because of his account of what he names “the politics of purity.” Monahan relies on the notion of a politics of purity to make the case that we do not (and indeed, should not) advocate the absence of race in the name of antiracism. Within the parameters of purity (which, as I read it, is sufficiently pervasive so as to encompass the political, metaphysical, and all else in between), a clarity of boundaries that rigidly demarcate categories of sameness and difference are valued at the expense of blurriness, ambiguity, and plasticity. To be sure, the political purist understands ambiguity not in terms of a productive and truth-bearing nuance, but rather as an obstacle in her striving for systems of knowledge. This is insofar as those systems are reified and nonchanging intelligibilities toward which a rational mind moves. As such, the epistemic reference [End Page 219] points in a politics of purity are “being” and “non-being.” The implication of this, Monahan notes, is that those dynamic processes of becoming/shifting that litter our human condition are lost to the degree that they appear solely in terms of either being what they will be, or no longer being what they were.
Monahan’s analysis seeks to replace this valorization of purity with a more nuanced appreciation for fluidity, indeterminacy and open-endedness. He names the idea of the subject that would support this shift a creolizing subjectivity. This review identifies significant resonance between this account and what one reads in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Though the pages of The Creolizing Subject make no reference to this work, it is easy to recognize that Monahan’s creolizing subjectivity is much like the Levinasian conception of identity insofar as they both call into question the assumptions of closure and wholeness. Both accounts understand the boundaries of the self as very much open onto that which is Other, and read, in that openness, significant ethical and political implications. To be clear, Monahan’s creolizing subjectivity is specifically targeted to perform the work of racial justice in ways that are simply absent in Levinas. But this would seem to position Monahan’s analysis as one that might open up a new avenue for Levinasian scholarship, namely, one that addresses questions of race and racialized identities. This can be but one of the many ways in which Monahan’s account of a creolizing subject adds value to the philosophical canon.
The Creolizing Subject engages the ontologies of race that are employed in the abolitionist and eliminativist positions, and shows that both ultimately rely on a politics of racial purity. Monahan’s advocacy of the creolizing subject is a critique of these positions. To put this differently, his analysis works to replace the conception of “the human” around which a politics of purity is centered, and which subsequently makes certain binary and rigid forms of racialization feasible. In its place, The Creolizing Subject sketches another possibility, a conception of selfhood that rests squarely on de-centering and fragmentation. Though the stakes of Monahan’s project are not, in any way, Levinasian, the reformulation included in his notion of “creolizing” is quite reminiscent of a Levinasian conception of the self as “without identity” torn asunder under its indebtedness to the Other.
The purist’s conception of identity has it that what is internal to the subject is capable of being clearly separated from what is external to the subject. There is an inner coherence or wholeness to the human subject, who is pitted over and against the external world (the object of her contemplation, knowledge and action). There is what is “purely” myself [End Page 220] and then there is what is “purely” other. Monahan points out that this is the understanding around which the politics...