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  • Preface: Approaching Proximity
  • Rei Terada (bio)

Ethics and Politics of Proximity reflects on the contemporary state of thought about proximate others, whether they be like or unlike oneself, neighbors, friends, rivals, or enemies. Coming from disparate disciplines (politics, literary studies, and architecture) and using heterogeneous principles, these essays by Robert Meister, Laura O’Connor, and Dana Cuff show that proximity is a testing ground for struggles between politics and ethics and for models of border cultures and shared space.1 Proximity, the afterlife of approach, also retains the trace of time in spatial relations; no consciousness of proximity exists without at least a hypothesis of how one came to be near, whether one arrived before or after the other. Various discourses of proximity, however, may stress or repress temporal questions. In his essay for this issue, Robert Meister calls the “ethics of the neighbor” “a spatializing discourse within ethics, as distinct from a ‘temporalizing’ discourse that subordinates ethics to political rhetorics associated with memory and identity.”2 Microinvestigations in the ethological field of “proxemics”—the study of such things as how close to one another we like to stand and speak—also reflect the always changing power relations between parties without necessarily offering a historical account of how these came to be, as Dana Cuff points out in her study of suburban architecture. In the uneasy territory of proximity, interactions that are not explicitly political must still be recognized or repressed as ambiguously so because of their place in a sequence of other exchanges.

Contemporary theory has been nervous about proximity. In the 1980s and early 1990s, critical theory and cultural studies often repeated that one should not identify too closely with the other. Too easy identification, by this logic, is said to fantasize harmony and mistranslate or appropriate the other’s communication.3 This seemingly self-critical suspicion of identification, however, may also flatter the self by attributing too much power to it. Arguably, it wishfully aggrandizes the self’s capacities in the mode of restraint. Shielding the autonomy of the other can turn into the comedy of cultural critics’ protecting their objects of study from a totalizing force that these same critics could never actually muster. In a redundant act of magical thinking, cultural theory was sometimes called on to safeguard differences even as those differences were posited as inevitable. Fifteen years later contemporary formulations of the ethics of proximity as opposed to its politics tend to take an even more radically self-subjugating form. Even as the stricture on identification remains largely in place, current schematizations of proximity often underestimate the difficulty of bearing with others, or masochistically embrace it. Contemporary ethics in the lineage of Lévinas figures the other as an overpowering given that makes assymetrical, ultimate demands; the subject endorses the pain of invasion as the very condition of subjectivity. Lévinas’s extreme version of responsibility at least has the merit of stressing the subject’s suffering. In Lacanian formulations, the suffering of self and other can be relegated to the realms of the imaginary. Eric Santner’s Psychotheology of Everyday Life mobilizes Franz Rosenzweig’s accounts of the banal heroism of life among one’s neighbors in order to suggest that each subject must bear the burden of the other’s unconscious. For Alain Badiou, the philosophy of Paul represents the possibility of overcoming the sectarian strife that Badiou attributes to over-attention to differences.4 Badiou and Slavoj Zizek give the Pauline equivalence of self and other a Lacanian twist, arguing that the relation of neighbor to self reflects the strangeness and externality of the self to itself. Nonetheless, Zizek insists, the “common void” in us and between us provides a basis for a reorganization of psycho-social life.5

These forms of proximity—upon me, too close to me, in me more than me—suggest a persistent lack of vocabulary for untraumatic relation.6 Santner’s position in particular is worth examining at greater length, since Santner understands the necessity of working through resistance to proximity. He shows how in The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig comes to view the repeated friction of small acts of communal involvement as the texture...

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