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Ethics in the Absence of Reference: Levinas and the (Aesthetic) Value of Diversity

From: Levinas Studies
Volume 7, 2012
pp. 95-125

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Some years ago, in a study focused on the reverberations of globalization in contemporary literature, I probed the possible intersection of a Levinasian ethics as first philosophy and a Glissantian poetics of cultural diversity. This study was based on a comparative reading of two bodies of work: firstly, a series of essays on the poetics of cultural diversity by the Caribbean author, Édouard Glissant; secondly, the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, famous for affirming the primacy and the priority of ethics not just over ontology, but also over poetics.1 In the year that saw the passing of Édouard Glissant, this essay returns to the scene of that question, and to similar scriptural and cultural terrain, but with an adjusted focus and purpose. Here, I build on my previous effort, which might be further elucidated with reference to one of the principal impensés or “represseds” (along with gender) of both Levinas’s and Glissant’s thinking, namely the notion of “race.” The inclusion of the tautological notion of racial difference within the frame may help to compare and to situate further the thinking of these two authors. In its putative embeddedness in nature or bio-reality, race as a category has been — more than culture, language, or nationality — a matter of life or death (as in genocide or in what are called in French délits au faciès — i.e., appearance-based, or racist, crime). Certainly race is, as Henry Louis Gates observes, “a text (an array of discursive practices) and not an essence.”2 And Homi Bhabha assimilates it as such, along with “sexuality, class location, generational or geographical specification,” under the banner of “cultural difference.”3 Yet the durable if unfounded idea of the biological determinism of racial difference raises considerably the discursive stakes of approaches to the value of human diversity. More specifically, it underscores the extent to which a poetic and an ethical approach to the meaning of human diversity are divergent yet complementary.

Both Glissant and Levinas stake everything on an absence of reference. It is in this absence that Glissant locates the value of poet(h)ics and Levinas that of ethics. For the latter, ethics is explicitly founded on the “suspension of all reference,” whereas Glissant’s poet(h)ics of relation involves the implicitly self-defeating or self-canceling exacerbation of reference inherent in intercultural and multilocational concatenation. Their work thus presents two distinct ways of countering or transcending the kind of thinking that underwrites human oppression. Glissant values the way that contemporary consciousness of multicultural complexity and intercultural crossings renders it impossible to label a human being in relation to just one culture, language, nation, place of origin, or “race.” He argues, furthermore, that (an aesthetic) recognition of this impossibility renders it less likely that human beings will be victimized (on account of their perceived identification with a single specific culture or race). Levinas, for his part, values the culture-blind approach that sees every human being as a naked face, stripped of all reference to any system of differences. Glissant’s poetics involves, then, an exponential overwriting or overdetermination which cancels or neutralizes reference, or which actually undoes the referential function, making cognition and classification impossible, whereas Levinas’s ethics eshews all determination right from the start, in favor of a face-to-face where the face of the other is assigned no label. Despite this fundamental disparity in their thinking, both authors locate ethics in the defeat or transcendence of identitarian reflexes or regimes of human classification.

The Question of Race and The Creole Problematic

My approach to the question of Levinas and race is informed by two crucial predispositions, formed first of all through my work as a long-time student of twentieth century writing in French from the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe; and secondly, through my own historical and cultural conditioning with reference to Irish history. Both predispositions are mapped to a certain extent by the dynamics and forces discussed by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism .4 Said accords particular importance in that book to the case of Ireland and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the case of the French Caribbean. He makes...

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