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Fecundity and Natal Alienation: Rethinking Kinship with Levinas and Orlando Patterson
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In his 1934 essay, “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” Levinas raises important questions about the subject’s relation to nature and to history. He argues that Western conceptions of freedom as a liberation from the constraints of the body and from the weight of the past — however powerful and important these conceptions may be — are unable to offer an adequate response to the Nazi appeal to a feeling of being bound to one’s body and to a historical destiny by virtue of one’s “blood” or the biological heritage of one’s “race.” This appeal to the felt dimensions of an embodied historical existence was effective in 1930s Germany not only because of contingent social, economic, and political factors, but also because Hitler was able to mobilize a new philosophical perspective, hitherto unknown in the West: a philosophy that took the feeling of embodiment seriously, not merely as an obstacle to be overcome but as an inescapable weight and even a fate from which consciousness is unable to separate itself without some degree of self-deception or superficiality.

For Hitler and his followers, the body was not merely attached to a person’s spirit or soul, but rather “formed the very foundation of his being” (RPH 67). This foundation was not neutral but constitutive; it imparted a meaning and a direction to the individual’s life, and it connected this life to a destiny shared with others of the same blood. From this perspective, “the whole of the spirit’s essence lies in the fact that it is chained to the body” (68). The adherence of a self to a body “is of value in itself . It is an adherence that one does not escape ” (68). This view of humanity is not based on the freedom to transcend one’s particular situation, but rather on a feeling of inescapable immanence, adherence, and enchainment: a tragic enslavement to the materiality of the body and to the natural-historical past to which it seems to bind each person: “Man’s essence no longer lies in freedom, but in a kind of bondage [enchaînement ]. To be truly oneself does not mean taking flight once more above contingent events that always remain foreign to the Self’s freedom; on the contrary, it means becoming aware of the ineluctable original chain that is unique to our bodies, and above all accepting this chaining . . . . Chained to his body, man sees himself refusing the power to escape from himself” (69, 70). On this reading, it is not Judaism or Christianity that proffer a slave morality, but rather Hitlerism; to embrace Hitler’s philosophy of the body is to renounce both religious and secular narratives of the “sovereignly free Self” and of the community of free and equal “masters” that it promises, in order to accept the chains of biology and history (69, 70). Levinas argues that, as soon as one accepts this account of the enchainment of the subject to its body, a “society based on consanguinity immediately ensues . . . . And then, if race does not exist, one has to invent it!” (69). The philosophy of Hitlerism does not begin with an abstract concept of race, nor even with the passions of racism; rather, it begins with the feeling of being bound to one’s own body, and it invents race as an explanation and justification for this feeling. Racism presumably follows as a mechanism for separating the same from the different, the familiar from the alien, the proper from the improper.

As Levinas makes clear, part of the challenge that Hitlerism issues to philosophers who have inherited the ambivalent legacy of the West is to critically respond to the racist determinism of Nazi ideology, while also resisting the temptation to rely upon a universalist account of the free and sovereign subject who floats above the materiality of the body and keeps a safe distance from the vicissitudes of history. How do we account for the feeling of being one’s body, rather than being merely attached to it, in a way that does not collapse the feeling of embodiment into a biological essence that determines one’s fate and the boundaries of one’s...

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