- Levinas’s Hegemonic Identity Politics, Radical Philosophy, and the Unfinished Project of Decolonization
It is no secret that Levinas’s work acquired particular value in the global North as a way to infuse poststructuralism and deconstruction with a seemingly irrefutable ethical character in the face of the also irrefutable continued violence, domination, and exploitation that raised questions about the power and reach of poststructuralist and postmodern theses. Initial criticisms about the way in which the “turn to ethics” easily came to signify not much more than an evasion of politics gave way to even stronger criticisms that depicted deconstruction and Levinasian ethics as philosophies that not only failed to critically respond to capitalism, but that actually fomented erroneous discourses and practices.1 These include multiculturalism, identity politics, relativism, and the ethics of difference, all of which are said to be grounded on or fomented by the prime value of the relation with an other.
Leading the charge against Levinas have been post-Marxist philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, both of whom also oppose the politics of multiculturalism, difference, and identity. As the translator of Badiou’s Ethics puts it, “Badiou’s book does nothing [End Page 63] less than evacuate the foundation upon which every deconstructive, ‘multicultural,’ or ‘postcolonial’ ethics is built: the (ethical) category of alterity.”2 And Badiou is explicit that his target is the very idea of the other, rooted of course in Levinas’s philosophy: “The truth is that, in the context of a system of thought that is both a-religious and genuinely contemporary with the truths of our time, the whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned.”3 For his part, Žižek aims to respond “to the burning question of how we are to reformulate a leftist, anti-capitalist political project in our era of global capitalism and its ideological supplement, liberal-democratic multi-culturalism.”4 And for him, the main coordinates are not Judaism or alterity, but Christianity and universality. As he puts it in the Ticklish Subject: “What we need today is the gesture that would undermine capitalist globalization from the standpoint of universal Truth, just as Pauline Christianity did to the Roman global Empire.”5 In The Puppet and the Dwarf he further expands on this point by clarifying that “to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.”6 This position leads Žižek to establish a dialogue with radical orthodoxy, and to claim that true radicalism is closer to orthodoxy than many would want to admit. Referring to G. K. Chesterton’s 1908 book Orthodoxy, Žižek writes: “In a properly Leninist way, [Chesterton] asserts that the search for true orthodoxy, far from being boring, humdrum, and safe, is the most daring and perilous adventure (exactly like Lenin’s search for the authentic Marxist orthodoxy — how much less risk and theoretical effort, how much more passive opportunism and theoretical laziness, is in the easy revisionist conclusion that the changed historical circumstances demand some ‘new paradigm’!).”7 Just as Chesterton was standing in his time against the onslaught of the then “heresies” and new spiritualisms, Žižek stands now against discourses of difference, deconstruction, identity, and multiculturalism.8
From these responses to Levinas’s work and the politics of difference we see how recent European political philosophy has turned [End Page 64] against any ethics grounded on the relation with an other, as well as how this opposition includes multiculturalism and subaltern identity politics — which is significant in a context where Europe confronts an increase in ethno-racial populations and related forms of organizing. It is therefore not surprising that the notion of “being radical” has been changed to correspond more with an “orthodox” response to the problems that we face today. This new orthodoxy asks us to return to Western or Christian sources and delink from deconstruction and from minority politics that seek the recognition of cultural difference. In a sense, since these post-Marxist philosophers attack the centrality of the very category of the Other, any effort to render Levinas’s work relevant for political matters becomes...