13 SES 11 A, Educational Theory, politics, and encounters with radicalised bodies
"… every ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized society. It would seem that this fact has not been given sufficient attention by those who have discussed the question." (Fanon, 1952/1986, p. 109)
It would be impossible, catching glimpses of the flat affect of the officers kneeling on his body, not to ask: Did they see George Floyd as human? Working through Levinas’s writing (1969, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1990), one is reminded that the ethical moment is brought into being in the moment of encounter between two people. The face-to-face interaction calls me into question and I am vulnerable to the ritual of rupture that will eventually extend my patrol of consciousness toward the horizon. But what happens if your embodiment renders you, in the moment of encounter, less than human? Levinas argues that the responsibility for the other is pre-ontological, and that the ethical is only really possible in the interstitial spaces/time of sensibility between faces (or bodies). And yet the purity and liberation of appearing without the pre-figuration of narrative or history is a luxury that is, perhaps, afforded only to the homogenous majority. For racialised bodies, the promise of appearing in singularity is repeatedly denied. It is this denial that renders Levinas’s theorization of the ethical possibility of the relational moment crucial.
This tension brings to mind Ciccariello-Maher's (2014) description of Fanon’s work in Black Skin, White Masks:
[Fanon’s writing] is initially marked by a profound yearning for the universal accomplishment of truly ethical relations. Despite such yearning, however, Fanon was repeatedly rebuffed from such universal aspirations, and the internal development of Black Skin charts in many ways the disabusal of his universalist pretensions and his dawning realization of just how stubbornly divided his ‘reality’ was. (p. 5)
There is no universality for the black man, just as there was no humanity for George Floyd. As Fanon (1952/1986) notes “if it is true that consciousness is a process of transcendence, we have to see too that this transcendence is haunted by the problems of love and understanding” (p. 10). How then, can we bring the imperative of pre-ontological responsibility to bear on the present moment, fractured as we are in our understandings of embodiment and the hauntings of history?
In this paper, I hope to respond to the previous question by articulating the problems and possibilities of Levinas’s thought in conversation with some of the urgent considerations of racially-bodied Others. To begin, I briefly explore the critiques of Levinas’s writing as limited within the totality of Eurocentric thought. The next two sections can be thought of as movements. First, in an exploration of the difficulties of a loss of singularity, of the skin thematized as “seen,” I seek to engage Levinas’s thought with the tensions of being a racialised body. This effort is undertaken, not simply in recognition of the racial tensions ubiquitous in the current moment, but as a responsibility for racialized scholars to raise their voices and levy their respective tools in support of change. In the following section, I recast arguments previously made for recognition and distinction. Here, with Levinas’s writing in Otherwise than Being, I elaborate the prospects for how diachrony is the most complete, and maybe utopic, understanding of responsibility. While it might not reflect this moment, it is nonetheless the construct that begets hope of liberation from the tyranny of being “seen.” Finally, in consideration of both the present and the (im)possible utopic, I contemplate pedagogies that might answer the question: How can education make the ethical encounter more possible for racialised people?
Across three sections, I work closely with Levinas’s writing to examine the tensions and possibilities for ethical encounter for racialised bodies. I begin with the necessary task of addressing the concern of Levinas’s Eurocentrism. In this section, I explore suggestions that “Levinas hesitates before too much difference, preferring instead… the capacity of European thinking … to make of the other sorts of otherness a proper Other” (Drabinski, 2011, p. 5) and what this might mean in the modern context of a Europe shaped by postcolonialism and globalization. I contrast these criticisms with the recognition that Levinas’s writing is a critique of Western epistemology and philosophy as a false totality that is at the heart of decolonisation (Drabinski, 2011; Eaglestone, 1998, 2010). In the following section, I articulate the ways in which the skin becomes thematised as “seen.” Working largely with Levinas’s (1934/1990) early piece, “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” I note tensions between Levinas’s arguments and the pain of racialised otherness described in Fanon’s (1952/1986) Black Skin, White Masks. I argue that, as in the case of police brutality and neo-colonialism, racialised bodies are often rendered inhuman. I contend that if the Levinasian ideal is the perfection of recognising the Other without the safety of certainty, without the grasping gesture of claim, then one must pause to note that the path to this utopic intersubjectivity is confronted by an additional obstruction. Before words are spoken, the skin tells its own stories and is shadowed by history’s ghosts. To that end, I introduce Drabinski’s (2011) exploration of Levinas for the postcolonial context as he poses questions about singularity and worldliness, and introduces the idea of incarnate historiography. According to Drabinski, while Levinasian thought is significant for the postcolonial context, it requires some adjustments to account for embodiment. In the third section, I ask the question of ethical encounter for racialised bodies slightly differently. I suggest that even as incarnate historiography offers a way of thinking about the relationship between racialised bodies, history and the ethical encounter, there remains a question of permanence and stasis in the notion of something written on the body. Here, I engage with Levinas’s shifting understanding of time, from “Time and the Other” and “There is: Existence and Existents” (1989), to Otherwise than Being (1974/1981) to suggest that diachrony, and the distinctions between stasis and movement, can furnish a useful way forward.
Finally, I consider the demands such complexity makes on education and offer three pedagogical possibilities through necessary aporia: I. Singularity and Totality One pedagogically productive tension to explore is the distinction between singularity and totality. Here, pedagogy would focus on the intersubjective relation so that the preservation of alterity is the unambivalent ideal. It would recognise that no alterity is possible without singularity. Otherwise, a knowledge claim has already been made that occludes seeing by turning it into the seen. The twin aim of this pedagogy is to expose the high risk of violence when singularity is lost. The risk is not simply violence against a person but the risk of slipping outside of the realm of what counts in an ethical encounter by rendering someone a non-human. II. Stasis and Movement A second pedagogical tension invites us to think through the problematic of fixity. It isn’t enough to cultivate a language of hidden or unconscious bias; time itself needs to be considered as an impossible yet necessary problem for ethical encounter. How can anything be new if it is tethered to an uncompromising claim from the past? What will afford us a translation into the new? The claim of knowledge that categorizes you before words are spoken is the painful realization of a broken ethical encounter, alterity unfulfilled. This pedagogy examines the responsibility of the self for movement over stasis. III. Responsibility and Performance Lastly, pedagogy could consider the distinction between responsibility and performance. Put another way, pedagogy could explore the difference between authentic responsibility, radical passivity, and the “game of thought” that is performed in its stead. This third pedagogical goal takes aim at the insincerity of a performative inclusive pedagogy, one that only introduces stories of difference prescriptively or in complement to an existing and affirming discourse.
Ciccariello-Maher, G. (2014). Decolonial realism: Ethics, politics and dialectics in Fanon and Dussel. Contemporary Political Theory, 13(1), 2-22. Drabinski, J.E. (2011). Levinas and the postcolonial: Race, nation, other. Edinburgh UP. Eaglestone, R. (1998). The ‘fine risk’of history: Post-structuralism, the past and the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Rethinking History, 2(3), 313-320. Eaglestone, R. (2010). Postcolonial thought and Levinas’s double vision. In P. Atterton & M. Calarco (Eds.), Radicalizing Levinas, pp. 57-68. SUNY Press Albany. Fanon, F. (1986). Black skin, white masks (C. L. Markmann, Trans.). Pluto Press. (Original work published in 1952) Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority (A. Lingis, Trans.). Duquesne UP. (Original work published in 1961) Levinas, E. (1981). Otherwise than being or beyond Essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Martinus Nijhoff. (Original work published in 1974) Levinas, E. (1985). Ethics and infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (R. A. Cohen, Trans.). Duquesne UP. (Original work published in 1982) Levinas, E. (1989). The Levinas reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Levinas, E. (1990). Reflections on the philosophy of Hitlerism (S. Hand, Trans.). Critical Inquiry 17(1), 62-71. (Original work published in 1934)
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