Levinas and after

The following is my response to comments by Sonia Sikka and Kris Sealey at the 23 October book session on my Levinas and the Postcolonial. They commented extensively, raising questions of the future of Levinas studies, philosophical pluralism, and the legacies of colonialism in contemporary thought. This is what I have to say in reply…


First, I want to extend thanks to the SPEP committee that offered this session. It is a privilege, of course, to discuss my book. And a really rare chance. One writes such things and assumes that no one reads. That anything we write will be, as Hume worried his Treatise would, stillborn from the press. And then there’s that peculiar feeling of pleasure and anticipation that someone will be reading what you wrote, which is simultaneous with the fear and dread that someone will be reading what you wrote. I don’t know how I feel about this, but here we are. I will say this much: a scholar’s session at SPEP guarantees that at least two people will have read your work. These two readings are genuinely interesting and much appreciated.

And so a second thanks to Sonia and Kris, both of whom clearly did read it and have given me a lot to think about. A lot to think about, yes, in the sense that now I want to rewrite parts of it and pull it from publication because they ask crucial questions, reshape some of my own ideas of what Levinas and the Postcolonial is up to, and so make me wonder how it can be better. But a book is a book. Once it’s in the world, it’s in the world. Yours, with your name on it. I’m happy to have this occasion to reply to important questions and say a bit more about the work I tried to do in it, as well as the work I hope the book provokes in other scholars.

My own research and writing has turned sharply, if nearly completely, to black Atlantic traditions, particularly the work of Édouard Glissant and the créolité movement, James Baldwin’s non-fiction, and the intellectual roots of the Black Panther Party. I am no longer in a Philosophy department. I teach in Africana studies, which means that, in a certain sense, this book represents a goodbye to my discipline proper. So, on first glance, it’s quite a shift and departure. It surely makes for an odd c.v., and I’ve heard this from evaluating committees over the past decade as I transitioned professionally. My publications begin with work on classical phenomenology and are currently being updated with essays on Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael. But there is continuity, I swear. A word on that, not because I am especially interested in talking about myself (though that is part of the very idea of this session!), but because it goes to the heart of what I think is at stake in my book, and therefore what is at stake in the questions raised by Sonia and Kris.

If I may, then, a word on the place of this book in my own intellectual development and aspirations. I published Sensibility and Singularity in 2001, and the key argument in that book is that phenomenology offers a way of legitimating Levinas’ position as a pure heterology. Through an interrogation of the temporal structure of the senses, I wanted to claim, we can generate a theory of difference as radical and pure difference. A difference without reconciliation and with absolute, irreversible fracture. This is something I hoped could function as a reply to, if not really quite a refutation of, Derrida’s long-standing criticism of Levinas’ conception of difference. I still think that book works and I still think the argument is a good one; time, thought without spatialization, is a language for theorizing and describing difference as pure heterology. How do we articulate that difference? How does the non-spatial language of time get translated into graphic representations that unravel themselves? I’m not sure Levinas has a great answer to that (it’s mostly gestures and hints), but generating and proliferating such answers is our role as scholars and interpreters of his work.

And that is why I wrote Godard Between Identity and Difference, my 2008 book that used Godard’s cinematic work from the early- and mid-1970s as an excuse to restage, again somewhat indirectly, the debate between Levinas and Derrida over the meaning of heterology. Perhaps we can look to Godard’s cinema – which, I argue, does philosophical thinking in sound and image – for a way of absorbing the spatialization of expression into the abyss of temporality? That is, perhaps Godard’s cinematic language functions, like the language Levinas ceaselessly pursued, as internally fractured to the point of swallowing its own expression into itself, into the other in oneself. Films like Ici et ailleurs, Comment ça va?, and Numéro deux try to do something just like that and I continue to think that Godard is one of the later twentieth century’s most important philosophers. We just need to learn to read and think differently. There is a resource there, for sure. As well, and this is a signpost in my own thinking, Godard is at his very best as a filmmaker when he is thinking through radical difference as sexual, racial, and national difference in films like Ici et ailleurs, Histoire(s) du cinéma, and Notre musique.

In the end, Godard Between Identity and Difference is my transitional book. Or, more precisely, really a transition into a transition. What I wanted to get from Godard’s work is the imperative to look elsewhere for resources in thinking through the problem of difference, and so that film might be an interesting place to turn. But the urgency of the question of difference, for me, does not lie in Europe’s narcissism, where difference is always the internal differentiation of “the continent” – a differentiation, we should note, that is easily and readily suspended when the forces of empire needed to be gathered, strengthened, and given imperial direction. Don’t get me wrong. The problem of totality in Europe has meant genocidal violence, so there are ultimate stakes in the question and Levinas lays them out for us in fairly stark – though never quite in the starkest – terms.

Godard Between Identity and Difference is a transition to my genuinely transitional book Levinas and the Postcolonial. This book we are discussing today marks, for me, a last sustained engagement with a European thinker as such. That is, what I want to come from a reading of Levinas and the Postcolonial, if I can be extremely ambitious here, is the conviction that it is irresponsible (in both the everyday and Levinasian senses) to read Levinas as he has hitherto been read. Reading Levinas as a European thinker, in which we conceive Europe as a disentangled, autonomous, and a fundamentally white project, is to be complicit with colonial privilege. Not to reify colonialism in a polemic or defense, of course, because few would do that, but reification in the unself-conscious exercise of intellectual privilege; Europe can only be read as it has read itself if we let colonial fantasies of a pure Europe, a racially untouched Europe, win out. In the place of this privilege, Levinas and the Postcolonial offers a theory of entanglement, entangled reading, and the urgent necessity of decolonizing the colonizer. More on that later. But it is enough here to note that such a provocative speaking-back against empire and the decadent habits of imperial reading is, for me, a fundamentally Levinasian project insofar as it presupposes the primacy of heterology. With that, a first response to Sonia’s remarks: I am less concerned with a philosophical pluralism in the book than I am with giving a treatment of Europe as entangled with its histories of violence. Perhaps a pluralism can come from that – an appreciation of alternative ethical vision, and so forth – but only, for me, after coming to terms with the still colonized habits of thinking in a European context.

I wrote Levinas and the Postcolonial because I was (and am) concerned about the future of Levinas scholarship. Levinas scholarship, like most figure-based interpretative micro-traditions, suffers from a lot of insularity. There is of course the Eurocentric insularity, which is barely perceivable as such. Indeed, part of what I wanted to open up in the book is how habitual our Eurocentrism is, how that sort of habit is colonial through and through, an expression of deep and problematic privilege, and how thinking outside that –centrism transforms our thinking. Or, brings us to an awareness of how this whole question of the Other business is a muddy, sometimes dirty affair. A lot of privilege obtains in our prioritizing of the European tradition and its decision to prioritize a very particular sense of alterity. There is rarely a decision about such things; it is largely, if not purely, a habit, and the invisibility of such a decision ought to make our critical self-examination urgent, bold, and, honestly, personal. Not just professional. That privilege was mine for a long time, and perhaps one could say that writing this book represents a certain confessional: that I had, for some time, read too narrowly and so was closed off to what is so very radical about literacy in postcolonial ideas. I am fine with that armchair analysis. It is not entirely wrong.

In the end, the argument of Levinas and the Postcolonial is really about the status of the West and, having reckoned with the harder questions of its debt to mass violence and subjugation, what it means to read responsibly after an honest reckoning. This reading has to take a very fundamental problem seriously: decolonizing the colonizer. Europe’s entanglement in empire was a multi-centuried event, one, we might argue, that is still continuing in ways both terrifying and demoralizing. Colonialism left (and perhaps still leaves) the colonized traumatized, and decolonization – cultural, political, and economic – is crucial for working-through such trauma. Anyone working on black Atlantic traditions knows this story. What about the other story, though – the meaning of so much violence for the perpetrator? That is, why is this not a question for the colonizer? What exempts Europe and the white West from the imperative to decolonize itself? To wit: we did not hesitate to run Germany through quickly devised, yet urgent de-Nazification processes after the Second World War. That made perfect sense. Anti-Semitism was revealed in the genocide to be woven into the heart of the social, political, and cultural life of Germany and Europe more broadly. So, if it were to continue being a nation, it was imperative that Germany examine the presence of eliminationist anti-Semitism in its culture and politics, diagnose it, excise it, and formulate new ways of being-German and being-European after the Holocaust. It says something about the value of brown people’s lives that we have never asked the same of Europe. Millions upon millions murdered. Millions upon millions left to suffer disease and starvation. Millions upon millions enslaved for generation after generation after generation. Why has decolonization not been an issue for the colonizer? Colonialism was a total project. The entirety of the West was gathered to its formulation and defense. And yet, decolonization has largely been tasked out for the formerly colonized. Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia jolted me out of my dogmatic slumber, as it were, by asking just these questions. What I want from Levinas and the Postcolonial, more than anything else, is a sense of the urgency of this aspect of a decolonial project.

Now, it goes without saying that this political and cultural programme is too large, too wide, and too complex for me to do anything more than sketch. Like most of us here, I am a philosopher, so I have to ask about this decolonization work in the context of doing philosophy, which, for me, means textual and intertextual analysis (for others, philosophy might mean something less like literary criticism). If we put this sort of work at the center of Levinas studies, then, I think, we will have to take Levinas’ casual racism and xenophobia seriously. Sonia asks what I have in mind when, in my book’s Introduction, I voice some skepticism about how seriously folks (most, but not all) have taken that racism and xenophobia as scholars (and so not just as people). This is it: rather than furrow our brows in disappointment and condemn or decry the statement, let us ask what makes such a statement possible, what sort of intellectual lifeworld makes such an utterance commonplace, and so what kind of philosophical disposition closes one off to the other such that Levinas, the great thinker of The Ethical, can deride a few billion others without hesitation. That is taking it seriously. I think that has been rare in our scholarly world. Not absent, but really an exception rather than a rule.

Kris asks a very good pair of questions, one of which I believe I have answered. At least in part. She wants to know the status of my claims in the book. That is, am I simply making a series of observations about scholarly and philosophical parallels, tensions, and how they produce interesting insights that then alter a version or make new sense of Levinas’ work? Or is there something more like a normative claim in the book, a claim that we ought to read with the aim and deconstructive sensibility called decolonization? The answer is the latter, as Kris herself suspects, and that is a difficult answer to give. It is a difficult answer to give because any normative claim strikes at the heart of our hearts. When we are at our best and most happy, we write about what we love. Hopefully we also love what we write. To question that in another, as well as to question it in myself (having written exclusively on European theory for a good number of years), is to question the integrity of passion by, as I put it earlier, implicating a whole tradition in the repetition of colonial sensibilities. I would hope that the problem of race, nation, and the Other, when we find it carving out part of the center of Levinas studies, is a shock and surprise, but, like any ethical shock and surprise, that it jolts us out of our philosophical habits. Sometimes those habits take on the purely professional chauvinism of, say, the Gourmet Report, which consigns whole regions to tertiary, at best, concerns in the discipline. This is the habit of anti-pluralism. Sometimes those philosophical habits inhibit our ability to see how gender, sexuality, race, and ability norms function as foundational in the language and argumentation of philosophy and philosophers. This is the habit susceptible to deconstruction and decolonization. The truth is, those philosophical habits inevitably recur, both in the individual thinker and in a profession or movement, so decolonizing thought or a thinker is forever a project, not a place; it is about engagement and transformation, then retransformation after the critique of critique. We will never be saints as readers. But we can do better, I know that.

Doing better means exposure in the Levinasian sense, to catch sight of how, despite our comforts of home, we are vulnerable to the other Other, not just the Other. In anti- and post-colonial contexts, that vulnerability exposes us to what is often visceral critique. What’s that Sartre said in the opening of “Black Orpheus” about the voice of the colonized? “When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises?” In that way, I do not think reading Levinas after the postcolonial (let’s remember that the anti- and post-colonial movements are over three quarters of a century old) makes sense except as a project of decolonization, then thinking from what remains. In this moment, I’m grateful for Sonia’s formulation in her final sentence, when she notes that “allowing those beliefs that form the very core of one’s identity to be interrupted by the other, well, that may be harder still.” We have to learn to live with the harder still; in fact, when I write this book on decolonizing the colonizer, that is now the last chapter’s title: “Learning to Live with the Harder Still.” As humans and citizens, yes, we know that, we know that we have to be open to the partiality of our own worldview and make space for the Other’s view. I would like to see the same obtain for our sense of self as scholars. Learning to live with the harder still is no easy piece and requires everything from our thinking, because it moves us (horizontally) from the problem of philosophical pluralism toward the problem of colonial and decolonial violence inside of European thought itself.

For that reason, Levinas and the Postcolonial is not intended to be a final word on Levinas’ legacy, nor is it intended to be a guidebook for reading and thinking with Levinas after decolonization. It is a programmatic work. I hope the effect is a shift in discourse, away from the Eurocentrism of textual study and back into what, for me, is the animating feature of his thought: put the Other first, then reckon with the ruins that remain. And that brings me right to Kris’ second question: why do with Levinas at all?

I must admit that my answer to this question is tentative, unsure, and a bit undecided. If I may, two anecdotes that put Kris’ generously formulated question in less inquisitive terms. First: after my book came out, I received an email from Gayatri Spivak (who blurbs the book on the back). Yes, that was a huge thrill, as I consider her one of the most important living intellectuals. The subject heading said “Congrats on book,” and the message read simply “Dearest John, When are you going to be done with Levinas. Best, gs.” I have always thought that the period, and not a question-mark, was an intentional mis-type intended to push me to declare myself done. Or maybe it was just a mistype and perceiving it as intention actually says everything about my own desires, projecting and displacing them in her punctuation marks. Second: I sent my book to Homi Bhabha, then tracked him down on the Harvard campus when I was a fellow last year at the Du Bois Institute. He thanked me for the gratis copy (even fancy people like free books, especially hardcover), for the generous reading of his work, and then simply said “I trust you’ve moved well-beyond this Levinas character, correct?” That is of course a leading question. So, there you have it: three intellectuals I quite admire – Spivak, Sealey, Bhabha – asking me if it is time to be done with Levinas, because that might in fact be the message of my book.

And yet here I am, still, having this I can’t quit you thing with Levinasian thinking. For me, that’s the key: Levinasian thinking. A thinking that puts the Other first and thinks from the ruins, yes, but also a thinking that, as Derrida argues in one of the essays in Rogues, actively seeks out the alterity that repeats, with crucial differences, all sorts of ruin-making. I think at some point that has to exceed, maybe even to the point of leaving behind, the figure and publishing event that has been “Levinas,” the man and proper name whose work is so deeply connected to forms of privilege, violence, insularity, and delusion that, yes indeed, it is probably best to not follow his lead. I also know that that is not so possible, as an effect; as Sonia puts it, and I share this sentiment absolutely, I have been “repeatedly struck – sometimes in depressingly new and fresh ways – by the depth of Eurocentrism within the practice of Western philosophy, even in circles where one might have expected that people would know better.” And when Sonia writes about how “before any conversation this gesture of dismissal, denigration, belittling, waving away as marginal – gestures which, I would venture to say, are sadly familiar to those of us who are in some manner engaged with non-Western traditions of thought,” I think of many Levinasian friends who comfortably sounded off about postcolonial and racially different traditions. People who should know better.

A last note. Kris’ remarks center, at least initially, on my appeal to ambivalence in Levinas and the Postcolonial. And this is a good catch that brings me, somewhat traumatically, back to the final edits on the manuscript. Formulations like “while A and B, there is perhaps also C and D” were everywhere. All of these hesitations and simultaneities caused me to abuse the word perhaps. I could not help it because, yes, for me, Levinasian thinking takes place in ambivalent space. Ambivalence is built into the very idea of exposure precisely because I do not pre- or pro-scribe the terms of my exposure. Perhaps (yes, that word) the historical character of my exposure is neutralized by the moment in which the encounter happens, or perhaps the encounter itself only makes sense in terms of our incarnation of historical meaning and grievance. Incarnate historiography is the event of radical difference. This is an event that has ontological, epistemological, ethical, aesthetic, cultural, and political resonance and deconstructive effect and affect. And yet, because it is history written on the body and histories have their vicissitudes, we cannot know the structural dynamics of those effects and affects in advance. The event is concrete. Perhaps we are obligated and called to a sense of fraternity. Perhaps we are obligated and called to a sense of solidarity. Perhaps we are obligated and called to a sense of abolitionist theory and practice. I think Levinas, as a theorist of difference, has something to say in all of these moments. I also think that Levinas is in way over his head when it comes to theorizing, for example, the historical and political economy of whiteness and racism. And those economies are as pressing as any philosophical issue.

Where does this leave us with Levinas? If we are unsure, I would venture that is because of Levinas’ own insights. The more radically we develop a theory of difference – and radicalization is the Levinasian imperative, I think – the more difficult is becomes to keep a particular thinker and his or her prerogative afloat, relevant, or even just particularly helpful. And this is why at a certain point in writing Levinas and the Postcolonial I wondered, and am now wondering again: perhaps the end of Levinasian thinking is the surpassing of itself, exceeding itself, and, thus, practicing a certain kind of self-abolition. For the Other, of course.