The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation.— Emmanuel Levinas
“Is Levinas Use-less?”
The concept of the other is pivotal to postcolonial studies. If its original function, as Edward Said demonstrated in Orientalism, was to circulate as a domesticated object of knowledge in the discourse of the hegemonic same, the field of postcolonial studies — at least in its more discursive, poststructuralist orientation — derives its raison d’être to no small degree from an impulse to critique and overcome such a limited and stereotyped sense of cultural otherness. And yet, in spite of rigorous postcolonial critique over the past few decades, the other persists — and persists precisely as an ethical and political touchstone in the field.1 Given this persistence, it is perhaps surprising that the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas — who so often, if somewhat reductively and misleadingly, is referred to as “the philosopher of the other”2 — has only recently been receiving greater attention by postcolonial scholars.3 In fact, the uptake of Levinasian philosophy in postcolonial studies has been extremely sluggish and less than enthusiastic; one would not be far off the mark to call it — with a nod [End Page 21] to Levinas — an allergic relation, for if, as Levinas says, the “relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation” (TI 51), then, by inverse implication, the virtual nonrelation and nonconversation we have been witnessing to date between Levinas and the postcolonial cannot but testify to the reverse. This allergic relation is based on a suspicion, perhaps, that Levinas has little to offer to postcolonial studies: a suspicion pinpointed in the provocative question Gayatri Spivak, a postcolonial thinker who herself is not averse to exploring questions of ethics (albeit not necessarily in a Levinasian vein), posed for a 2004 seminar: “Is Levinas use-less?”4
As a postcolonial scholar with an investment in Levinasian ethics, this is a haunting question — so haunting, in fact, that I want to use it here as a guiding thread throughout my discussion of the potential conversation that might be had between Levinasian philosophy and postcolonial studies. To that end, I imagine an encounter between two very different others: the Levinasian other and the postcolonial other. Bringing the Levinasian other face to face with the postcolonial other in conversation reveals that there is great potential — but also some serious obstacles — to making Levinas’s ethics productive for a postcolonial transformation of the violent colonial self-other relationship. Of immediate interest here is how Levinas’s vision of ethical subjectivity may impact a postcolonial politics of representation and, ultimately, how it may affect the political position of the postcolonial other.
Despite Levinas’s growing reception across a wide range of humanities disciplines, a concern frequently raised by a number of critics is that Levinas’s idea of ethical subjectivity lends itself all-too-readily to being read as a form of sacrificial masochism.5 In an extension of this general line of critique in relation to political questions of power and domination, Sonia Sikka warns that Levinas’s “account of the ethical relation does not work well when presented to those who are disem-powered.” She elaborates: “To suggest that an oppressing, subjugating class should be for the other, to say to it, ‘I am never finished with emptying myself of myself,’ is to oppose subjugation. To put forward [End Page 22] representations that elevate the submission, the being for another, of a class that has already been for the other far too long is to promote subjugation.”6 Sikka’s position would have obvious implications for a postcolonial reading of Levinas — if it was not, in fact, based on a very skewed understanding of Levinas’s work. Sikka’s main point in this essay is that Levinas’s vision of ethical subjectivity lends itself more readily to a subjugating self than a subjugated other. It is a point that, superficially, is hard to argue with, for it suggests that it makes more sense for a violating than a violated subject to be called to account. Since the very idea of a “bad conscience” implies regrettable...