- Levinas, Race, and Racism
And we would not here have ventured to recall the beyond essence if this history of the West did not bear, in its margins, the trace of events carrying another signification, and if the victims of the triumphs which entitle the eras of history could be separate from its meaning.— Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being
The essays gathered in this volume engage a hitherto marginal or even neglected topic in the study of Levinas’s work: the intertwining of race and racism with questions of alterity, history, and responsibility. What does Levinas’s thought have to say about the lived experience of race and racism? How is his work transformed — perhaps even to the point of radical critique — by questions of race, racial identity, and multiple senses of the outrage of racism? How do Levinas’s writings embody the last moments of colonialism in his world, and how do they transcend those moments and open upon other ethical, cultural, and political possibilities?
A dialectic of sorts to begin.
The problematic of race and racism is in some sense inherent in Levinas’s own work. Perhaps no other force in world history has created a sense of “other” in local, national, regional, and global contexts than racism. Indeed, it has become all but standard to claim that national identities are formed, not on the basis of an inherent meaning and value of a people, but instead in relation to an other [End Page vii] who, in its persecution and marginalization, comes to define a people by establishing what that people is only in contrast (or contradiction) to what it is not. Rome had Carthage, Germany had the Jews, the Americas had (or have) the Africans and people of African descent, Amerindians, and the (always shifting) immigrant-as-other, and so on. The imperialism of everyday life is carried by this social process. To become a part of a people, one learns and practices hatred of the political other. This social process thereby establishes a moral or even metaphysical sense of otherness and, in rendering the political meaning of this otherness, defines (or wants to define) one’s collective and individual self as something that endures across time and history. The racial other makes an identity of the people beyond the moment, inscribing the individual in a larger narrative of what it means to belong, sure, but also what it means to be as such. Racism, we could say, produces its own particular form of conatus essendi. When Levinas says that politics left to itself is tyranny, we should hear the echo of exactly this social process. Politics enters or even just is the plane of being, the play of identities; racism calcifies identities at the very moment it makes them possible as political realities. What does Levinas’s work have to say to this social process and the questions of justice it raises?
At this very moment, Levinas’s work resists the question of race and racism. Levinas’s work is famously, from the outset, concerned with the question of singularity and the critique of calcified, calcifying social identities. Who am I in relation to the other? How does the other obligate me? These are questions of relation, no doubt. But they are questions of relation that name subjectivity in the accusative and as the relation of responsibility. I am responsible to this one other here, fragile and accusing before me. The other accuses me and me alone, never a generalized class or group. The event of responsibility is the founding event of subjective life. Subjectivity is brought into being — Levinas will often tell an origin story, even as that origin vanishes into traces and lapses in time — as unique and irreplaceable. On both sides, as the one who calls into responsibility and as [End Page viii] the one called to responsibility, unicity structures the language of the ethical. Singularity therefore swirls around subjectivity, marking both the other who calls me into question and the Moi of subjectivity with irrevocable uniqueness. Of course, Levinas is not marking out uniqueness in order to smuggle in a sense of ontology. It is not the case...