- Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics
The French philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas belonged to that rare group of public intellectuals – which would include Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Umberto Eco, and a few others – whose work not only demands responses from specialists in their respective academic fields, but also from critics and disciples spanning the spectrum of public discourse. To their credit, the editors of Difficult Justice, Asher and Gad Horowitz, have assembled authors from diverse academic backgrounds to engage Levinas on issues relating to politics, ethics, and justice. The result, somewhat surprisingly for a book with so many perspectives, is a thought-provoking and original collection of sixteen essays that will likely spark even further debate about the limits and place of Levinas's ethics in contemporary political thought and practice.
The point of departure for this collection is a little-known essay by Levinas entitled 'Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,' which was originally published in 1934 and is reprinted here from a 1990 English translation. In 'Reflections,' Levinas exposes the ambiguity between liberalism's emphasis on freedom, especially individual freedom, and the German right's notion of unlimited obligation to the Volk, which functions as an embodied, singular nation in Nazi ideology. As the editors argue in their introduction, 'Is Liberalism All We Need? Prelude via Fascism,' Levinas was not suggesting that liberalism needed to be strengthened in the face of Nazi pathology; rather, he was making the case that 'Hitlerism,' with its focus on the body of a single Volk, was rooted in the Western tradition and its ontological preoccupation with 'being' and the subject 'being free.'
Even though the contributors provide various perspectives on Levinas's work, there are overlapping themes that provide some [End Page 363] unexpected cohesion. Among these are the relationship between ethics and politics, the role of the body in concepts of justice, the nature of public space, as well as the inevitability of the modern state, revelation, and messianism. This thematic overlapping does not, however, indicate that the contributors are attempting to develop a particular Levinasian interpretation or establish a Levinas cult. On the contrary, the editors have apparently taken great pains to ensure that contributors critically engage both Levinas and others in the collection. One good example of this exchange occurs in the two essays by Tina Chanter, who highlights the importance of the 'feminine' in Levinas's ethics, and Rosalyn Diprose, who examines the ethics and politics of the handshake. And while there are a few essays, such as Robert Gibbs's attempt at textual hermeneutics, that will likely baffle a wider audience, readers will not be inundated with references to obscure Levinas passages or with naive defences of Levinas's ethics and politics. Instead, they will likely discover themselves involved in a rich conversation about the current state of affairs and, interestingly, how to advance the causes of justice.
Indeed, many contributors in this collection attempt to think constructively, if not prescriptively, in relation to Levinas's ethic of responsibility. While the essays by two doctoral candidates, Keith Anderson and Mielle Chandler, show tremendous promise in this regard, the essays by two senior scholars, Enrique Dussel and Robert Bernasconi, truly stand out. Dussel, the liberation philosopher, argues that, in spite of the revolutionary inclinations in Levinas's ethic of responsibility for the Other, the ethical demand of the Other on us to 'do justice' is ultimately insufficient as either a political or ethical imperative. To Dussel, Levinas is unable to answer the 'how' question – how to feed the hungry, how to do justice to the widow, and so on. Despite great admiration for Levinas, Dussel concludes that Levinas's ethic of responsibility remains paralyzed by a reluctance to engage in the dialectical activity of encountering a negative (injustice) with a positive practice (justice). Bernasconi pushes the limits of Levinas's thinking even further, when he takes up Levinas's famous tepid response to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila. To Bernasconi, interpreters of Levinas...