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“Difficult Freedom”: Levinas, Language and Politics


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“Difficult Freedom”: Levinas, Language and Politics


Michael Bernard-Donals

University of Wisconsin, Madison

Rhetoric, Politics, Ethics (April 2005)

In Emmanuel Levinas’s major theoretical works, rhetoric – like politics and ontology – is depicted as a system of thought regularizes quotidian elements of being that are most certainly not regular. Rhetoric in the Greco-Roman tradition, for Levinas, fundamentally understood the relation between world and word as one in which notions of language and community were so regularized as to lull citizens into a false consensus and an equally false sense of security. It was no wonder that national systems founded upon traditional notions of democracy often found themselves bound into knots trying to negotiate incommensurable positions – party against party, group against group, individual against individual – positions that led to bothersome and sometimes violent strife.

Instead of epistemology or ontology, Levinas proposed ethics as first philosophy. Understanding how we orient ourselves toward others in both reasonable and unreasonable ways would help us in turn understand how those orientations sometimes conformed with or resisted what we thought of as “essence” or “being” or “truth” in the Greco-Roman tradtion. But Levinas’s position depends on individual relations, and works antisystemically: this is why Alain Badiou and Gayatri Spivak worry that Levinas rejection of traditional notions of rhetoric and politics render his ideas useless for social thought. But this worry ignores his writings, in Difficult Freedom, on politics, Judaism, and the state of Israel, writings on what could only be called realpolitik. Today I’ll explore the relation between Levinas’s understanding of language and politics, and how Israel can be seen as a case in point for such a politics’ successes and failures.
One of Levinas’ principal ideas is that of hospitality and welcoming, one related closely to his notion of proximity. Playing on the double meaning of the French term hôte as both “host” and “guest”, Levinas’ writes that when an individual engages another in discourse, he acts at once as host and as guest. Derrida, apropos of Rosenzweig, explains (in Adieu, for Emmanuel Levinas) that there is a law “that would make of the inhabitant a guest [hôte] received in his own home, that would make of the owner a tenant, of the welcoming host [hôte] a welcomed guest [hôte]” (42). The displacement involved here is not just a conceptual or epistemological one; it’s also, potentially, a physical one. When the individual engages the other, she is both at home and in exile, neither completely apart from, nor completely a part of, the community or the location from which she speaks.

The host is a not only a host or a guest; the host [hôte] is also a hostage [ostage].


[T]he host is a hostage insofar as he is a subject put into question, obsessed (and thus besieged), persecuted, in the very place where he takes place, where, as emigrant, exile, stranger, a guest from the very beginning, he finds himself elected to or taken up by a residence before himself electing or taking one up. (Derrida 56)
In political terms, there is no place the subject can comfortably call home, or domicile, or community, or nation. Though she may speak from a location that is home, or domicile, or nation, her relation to that place, like her relation with the other, isn’t “natural,” a point of origin from which everything else may be understood. The state, not unlike the biblical cities of refuge, should be seen as places for the exile – the individual “put into question” – to find respite and in what is beyond being and the utterance, be redeemed (see Beyond the Verse 38-47).

While the subject’s relation to the other is always fraught and always tenuous, what raises the stakes is the presence of a third party to whom both the speaker and the other are also responsible. The third – “the neighbor and the one far off” (Isaiah 57:19) – introduces the notion of justice and, in turn, politics. Levinas puts it this way: “The third introduces a contradiction in the saying …. A question of conscience, consciousness. Justice is necessary, that is, comparison, coexistence, contemporaneousness, assembling…” (OTB 157). Anything I might do or say will be seen, even only potentially, by the third, and forces me to compare my act with other acts and utterances that might be carried out by someone I do not know. It forces “a weighing, a thinking, a calculation, the comparison of incomparables, and consequently, the neutrality – presence or representation – of being” (“Peace and Proximity” 168). It is this thinking, the comparison of incomparables, that allows the ethical actor to think the radical individuality of his act as something other than solitary or unique, and that makes politics possible.

Israel, from its inception, functioned something like a biblical city of refuge in the aftermath of the Shoah for the wave upon wave of immigrants from abroad that would eventually form its citizenry. In it Levinas saw a testing ground for the ethics and politics he lays out in the philosophical works. Nearly everything Levinas writes comes against the backdrop of those events -- the destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe in the Final Solution, and the war of 1947-8 that led to the creation of the Jewish state. “My biography,” he writes at the conclusion to Difficult Freedom, “is dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror” (291). Levinas is actively working against a notion of politics in which the name of the individual is subsumed – and in the case of the Final Solution, erased – by the name of the universal, where the “we” of nation, or community, or race eliminates that which resists naming. Levinas works from the opposite assumption: all action produces a surplus, all action and utterance resists the name. What should be eliminated is a politics which reduces the excess to a repetition of the same.

Israel, as both domicile and as nation, makes room for both the individual – the host (hôte) – and the universal; it aspires to provide a refuge for all comers. Because Israel was founded essentially by strangers – by those who had arrived from Europe in the generations before the UN Partition Plan and by those who had arrived immediately after the war – and by fellow-Jews, it is Judaism, rather than national community, that establishes the “universality” of the nation. And yet that Judaism is itself not exactly universal: the Jew, because he is “exiled on this earth,” discovers his fellows “before discovering landscapes and towns” (DF 22). Individuals matter more than geography, the unity of a “we”. If Israel is to become a political entity, it must see itself as “non-original, stripped of all local colour”. Such a country must lose its “’curiosity’ value, [and thus it becomes] increasingly difficult to define [itself].”

Though Israel’s residents may be able to conceive of what he calls a “supernatural order,” they see themselves as residents and usurpers; Israel is a home to aliens and an instigator of exile. “What is signified by the advent of conscience, and even the first spark of spirit, if not the discovery of corpses beside me and my horror of existing by assassination?” (100). To act ethically and politically at once is to understand one’s actions as both radically individual and, through justice, universal: Israel and the Bible both understand the founding of an ethical community must take place “inside [the situations of wars and slavery and sacrifices and priests] which it must assume in order to overcome them” (101). As such, the citizen of such a state “uproot[s himself] from his recent past … and seeks his authenticity” (164). This doesn’t mean ignoring wars and slavery, sacrifices and priests; it means that the citizen has to act ethically in the face of all this – uprooting himself from the context in which he finds himself mired – in order to act justly in his encounters with his fellow citizens, one by one. It is only in such a particularism – in such a notion of authenticity found in justice – that the citizen of any state, let alone the state of Israel, might also become a member of a broader community.

In what may be his most important essay on contemporary Judaism and politics – “Judaism and the Present” – Levinas writes that “Judaism, disdaining false enternity, has always wished to be a simultaneous engagement and disengagement” (213). He has in mind here Sartre’s notion of engagement, in which the one who is politically engaged is separatge from – disengaged – from the consensually-built community in which he otherwise resides. The tension that results creates what Levinas calls a “negation” of human essence, and it’s just this negation that Levinas sees as foundational for Judaism and an Israeli state. It must be “a non-coincidence with its time, within conincidence: in the radical sense of the term it is an anachronism, the simultaneous presence of a youth that is attentive to reality and impatient to change it, and an old age that has seen it all and is returning to the origin of things” (212). The most obvious sign that such a politics is possible is in Israel’s understanding of the law and of its foundational text, the Torah. In the study the law there is the potential for a “permanent revision and updating of the content of the Revelation where every situation within the human adventure can be judged” (213). The law, the text, and the utterance aren’t static but are constantly subject to revision, to non-coincidence, in every utterance or iteration. The law doesn’t warrant the state and its politics, but interrupts it. “To love the Torah more than God,” a phrase Levinas uses as the title for one of his more curious essays, means that though we may see the law as foundational, that very law denotes an absence: in the case of the Torah it is the absence of God; in the case of the law, it is the absence of a point of origin. Such a law requires constant negotiation. To love the Torah more than God is a “protection against the madness of a direct contact with the Sacred that is unmediated by reason” and “a confidence that does not rely on the triumph of any institution,” the triumph of politics for itself. It’s only through engagement with individuals in all the vulnerability that it implies that those individuals might engage one another with a view toward justice.


The question with which to conclude is how such a politics can be made possible. There are three fundamental hurdles to such a politics, in Israel or any other national community. Israel, as a state that is inescapably religious (and in Levinas’s writing it’s hard to separate “Judaism” from “Israel”), might serve as a model for other national entities with a religious character: the Islamic states in the middle east, particularly Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia; the Catholic countries of Europe, particularly Ireland, Poland, and Italy; and,, increasingly, the United States with its conservative politics heavily inflected with a religious fundamentalism of its own. The difficulty is to separate the “universalism” implied by religious belief – regardless of the exclusionary character of their belief systems – and the particularity of an ethical social law. Cleary, looking at the state of parliamentary politics in Israel today, this hasn’t happened yet.

One reason why it hasn’t is that the state hasn’t reconciled itself to being both host and guest, host and hostage. Israel is not the only nation having trouble dealing with this issue: recent work in diaspora studies and on the influence of emigration on world culture and politics has suggested that this century more than any other might be seen as one of both cosmopolitanism and of exile. And it is fundamentally difficult to understand oneself as both a stranger and a host, which is precisely what the state of Israel has become: torn between establishing a city of refuge for Jews around the world and erecting barriers to the stranger, Israel’s policy for the Palestinians has become abhorrent in the eyes of many of its own citizens. Repulsed by Paul Claudel’s question – “What does all this Bedouin caper matter to us?” -- Levinas warns that we are perhaps prisoners of “outmoded sociological categories” (131). The way out of the conundrum is to understand that the problem of suffering is what each individual faces and thus has in common. To approach the other is to become exceptionally vulnerable, and to do so exposes the individual to the possibility that she will be rebuffed, in some cases violently. This was, in fact, the horror of the Shoah, which haunts Levinas and Israel: the individual was crushed by the “we” of National Socialism. But this same horror also haunts Israel. While he recognizes that “the Arab peoples would not have to answer for German atrocities, or cede their lands to the victims of Hitler” (131), Levinas also recognizes that Arabs have ceded their land, often involuntarily, and also suffer. Though the right to a birthplace is important, the “local colour” of the landscape is less important than engagement. “Every survivor of the Hitlerian massacres – whether or not a Jew – is Other in relation to martyrs. [Each one] is consequently responsible and unable to remain silent” (132; emphasis in original). Suffering, non-coincidence, and survival require engagement on the part of each individual, regardless of their location of origin or their personal or national affiliation with the dead.

To obey the obligation to speak and act, both ethically and politically, one may have to find another language. Lyotard and Blanchot suggest something similar, that after Auschwitz, the disaster which has ruined everything, the language of history and of politics may not do justice to the future. It is only in such a language that a reality may be written which, if it doesn’t establish a foundation for political thought, clearly establishes the ethical ground on which such a politics might he enacted. It remains to be seen whether, in the language of displacement and of patient and painful encounters with individual others, a politics will emerge that will abandon claims to the land, or to language -- in Hebrew terms to yad v’shem – in favor of claims on individuals as hosts, hostages, and guests. The problems of nation states, and in particular the problems of Israel and its Palestinian neighbors, seem intractable. But if Levinas is right, it is in squarely facing the neighbor as the person who demands justice that gives a politics of hope a chance.

Works Cited


Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. Trans.

Ann Smock. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. Adieu: to Emmanuel Levinas. Trans.

Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, CA:

Stanford U P, 1999.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. Getting it Right: Language, Literature,

and Ethics. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1992.
__________. Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society.

Durham, NC: Duke U P, 1999.


Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise than Being; or Beyond Essence.

Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne U P,

1981/1998.
__________. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.

Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne U P, 1969.


__________. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Trans.

Sean Hand. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins U P, 1990.


__________. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures.

Trans. Gary D. Mole. London: Athlone Press, 1994.


__________. “Peace and Proximity.” Trans. Peter Atterton and

Simon Critchley. Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical



Writings. Ed. Adrian Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington: U Indiana P, 1996.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute.

Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: U Minnesota



P, 1988.


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