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Levinas, Sartre, and the Question of Solidarity

From: Levinas Studies
Volume 7, 2012
pp. 147-166

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Precisely what kinds of selves come together in acts of political solidarity? Stated differently, what must we presuppose of ourselves (of the structures that give rise to the phenomena of selves), given the acts of solidarity to which history has been privy? These are questions for which the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Emmanuel Levinas are fruitful resources. Without making the claim that there exist certain “one size fits all” conditions for the possibility of solidarity in general, Levinas’s conception of identity is helpful in understanding how racially embodied selves participate in acts of (racially grounded) solidarity, very much like the kind of which Sartre’s Black Orpheus serves as an exposition. The experience of being racialized (or of having an embodiment that signifies racially) renders particularly pertinent those structures of the Levinasian self, which identify phenomenologies of corporeality (or materiality) and suffering as primordial to the human condition. To be sure, Levinas’s work does not offer explicit insight to the task of navigating questions of race and racial justice. But he does formulate an account of identity whereby the rivetedness to our bodies is pivotal, and quite frankly, central to how we relate to ourselves and each other. Thus, Levinas’s conception of identity may be useful for grounding the possibility of moments of racial solidarity. In so doing, we see the sense in which such moments include a collection of selves in critical stance with respect to themselves, and precisely not in the self-affirmative stance of race-based essentialization. The Levinasian “not being one with oneself ” then produces a genuine “being for the other,” out of which we can locate a political space that, at the very least, comes close to what Levinas means by the ethical.

In an editorial published in the North Star on December 8, 1847, Fredrick Douglass proclaimed, “We are one with you under the ban of prejudice and proscription — one with you under the slander of inferiority . . . when you suffer, we suffer; what you endure, we endure. We are indissolubly united.”1 Endemic to such moments of indissoluble unity is the individual and solitary experience of nonbelonging, disenfranchisement, and being without a home. To be sure, the demand that comes out of such moments is typically for the fullest of social and political autonomy, for belonging in the strongest sense. Nonetheless, we would be amiss to undermine the truth of loss and abandonment upon which racially embodied identities are oftentimes constructed in a sociality that works toward social justice for all.2 This individual loss is crucial for understanding such movements of sociality, insofar as the latter would lose its signification without the former. The Levinasian account of the self is one of such loss and exile, and describes a self that is without a home, insofar as that self is already implicated in an encounter with exteriority. As David Wood writes, “True autonomy [by which I take him to refer to a sense of self that is whole or complete] recognizes its own constitutive relationality.”3 This “constitutive relationality” gestures toward Levinas’s notion of the self, insofar as the self just is a relation of obsessive substitution for the other, across my absolute responsibility for his or her being. Said otherwise, the very (non)ontology of the self denies it the kind of closure that would give the self a home, or that would give the self reprieve from the exile of which racial embodiment is a poignant concretization.

It is important to acknowledge that a Levinasian sense of relationality does not, at least at the outset, lend itself to being in solidarity with the other. This is because, for Levinas, my substitution for the other singularizes me, and situates me in a radical solitude. This is insofar as I find myself more responsible than anyone else, and insofar as the other for whom I substitute myself comes from elsewhere (in the metaphysical sense) such that we are never quite with each other, on the same plane. All of this risks betrayal in that transition into moments of (political) solidarity, whereby it is assumed that I stand with the other, or alongside the other, in his or...



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