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Vernacular Solidarity: On Gilroy and Levinas

From: Levinas Studies
Volume 7, 2012
pp. 167-196

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And of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.

— Emmanuel Levinas

Levinas’s opening dedication of Otherwise than Being is well known and, perhaps, too familiar to readers. Our familiarity with his dedication is important because it suggests a prominent role for the memory of the Shoah in Levinas’s work, a role that, if taken seriously, could radically transform our understanding of his thinking. In that sense, I wonder if we have thought enough about the evocation of memory that opens a text dedicated to the failure of memory and the force of the immemorial. What would it mean to recast Levinas’s thought as a theorizing after the disaster? Or, if we focus attention on the term “hatred,” the dedication suggests a recasting of Levinas as an antiracist thinker, allowing us to theorize singularity and the like as responses to the history of racial persecution. What would it mean to place Levinas in the antiracist moment of European thinking?

For the interests of the present essay, I interrogate a key word, one that qualifies hatred (and so racism, racial terror, and racist subjugation) as “the same,” one that also links hate to anti-Semitism as a foundational form of racism, and so asks critical questions about the most neglected aspect of the close of the dedication: Levinas’s globalizing moment. Have we properly theorized the complexity of Levinas’s evocation of the same hatred, an assertion of commonality between forms of racial persecution and terror, but also one gathered here in a turn of phrase that ought to move us to consider what it means to move Levinasian thinking across borders? Levinas already makes that move here in the language of the same: the same hatred, the same anti-Semitism. That is, for Levinas, it would seem, Otherwise than Being aims not just at the possibility of saving Western culture from totality and totalitarianism but also at an understanding of the conditions for the possibility of racism as such — racism, it is crucial to add, in a global context. What, then, does Levinas mean by racism and racial terror, such that he could diagnose not only the fate of European Jews, but also the fate of all on the racial margin? Levinas’s texts give us very little by way of an answer, so if we are to take the dedication seriously, we need to raise and retheorize these questions in the spirit of Levinas through his texts and enigmatic conceptual schemes and explore the limitations of those texts and concepts.

The suggestiveness of the dedication aside, raising questions of race and racism in Levinas’s work is immediately confronted with a cluster of prerogatives, all of which threaten to stall inquiry. First and foremost amongst these prerogatives is the singularity of ethical experience. If ethics is first philosophy and the experience of the ethical, whether phrased as excess, dephasing, or diachrony, pulls us out of history, then appeals to cultural and historical formations of identity are ever precarious, perhaps even outright untenable. Race is certainly one of those identity formations. Racial difference, it is worth reminding, is all but culturally and historically constructed; genomic science has made it plainly clear that race and racial difference is a matter of fantasy, not biology. Levinas’s early essay on Hitlerism makes this point clearly and, in retrospect, with so much force and foresight. So without the scientific trump card, as it were, and with cultural and historical experience rendered secondary and even violent interventions against the fragility of the ethical, questions of race would seem to stall before they begin. And yet, there is racism. There is hatred of the other as anti-Semitism and all other anti-Semitisms, hatred as cruelty and suffering. That is, there is the question of justice.

Let me start with a minor and hopefully uncontroversial assertion: the experience of racism places specific imperatives and particular urgency on the question of justice. For Levinas, the question of justice is itself a fraught question, caught as it is between being (the plane of obligation) and the otherwise than being...



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