Proximity and Ethics
- Since the fall of communism, there has been a growing literature on the responsibility of the "world
community" to "never again" stand by while neighbors commit atrocities against neighbors (Power, "Never
Again"). This literature has yet to be reformulated as a comprehensive
political theory of the recent fin de siècle, but it is already clear that such a theory would
base a global politics of human rights on an ethical commitment to view local cruelties, and especially the
infliction of physical suffering, as an uncontestable evil, the prevention of which can justify external
intervention in ways that earlier forms of imperialism did not. The interstate system still exists, of
course, and is supported by a United Nations charter that prohibits unilateral invasions of one state by
from the standpoint of the advancing theory of humanitarian intervention this is now merely a practical
obstacle, making it advisable (but not essential) for a state intervening in another on purely ethical
grounds to claim the support of a multilateral coalition as a proxy for the world community itself. At the
level of theory, if not yet of practice, the subject matter of global politics is already focused on humanitarian
intervention to stop atrocities committed at the local level. Thus the primacy of the global over the local
(which was once the basis of political imperialism) is now ostensibly humanized and offset by the primacy of the ethical
over the political: an ethics that concerns the cruelties that groups inflict on others in close proximity, and
a politics surrounding the responsibility of third parties to intervene in response to those cruelties.
- I am not here making the point that such humanitarian interventions can involve violence
committed at a distance, though they often do. The intervention to prevent the proximate violence by
Kosovar Serbs against their Albanian neighbors consisted largely of the NATO bombing of Serbian cities. Both
the ethnic cleansing of neighbors and the aerial bombardment of cities are prima facie violations of modern
humanitarian law, and both are the subject of separate trials now underway in The Hague. These trials
demonstrate the twentieth-century paradox that bombing is both the quintessential means of intervention to
stop barbarity at a local level and the paradigm of barbarity inflicted at a distance (see Lindqvist, A History of Bombing).
- My topic is not whether the "world community" should have (at least) bombed Auschwitz or
Rwanda when the genocides there became known, but rather the conception of ethics and politics that
underlies such dilemmas. According to this conception, bombing (like foreign occupation) can be a justifiable
form of political intervention by third parties when preceded by gross ethical barbarities occurring among
neighbors. The ethical condemnation of atrocity, if not the atrocity itself, must here precede
political intervention. Contemporary humanitarian practice requires such a sequence because it is based on
the premise that, in theory too, ethics comes before politics. The opposing position--putting
politics before ethics--is now commonly derided as the error shared by right and left throughout the
twentieth century, an era of revolution and counterrevolution in which individuals were exquisitely
sensitive to the suffering of their comrades and insensitive to pain inflicted on their foes (see Glover
and Rummel). This is what politics is, Carl Schmitt argues--a selective antidote to humanitarian
pathos that makes it ultimately possible to kill (and die) for the sake of countrymen or comrades (Concept of the Political 71).
The emergent literature on human rights implicitly shares Schmitt's "concept of the political," and for
this very reason gives primacy to the ethical as a refusal to withhold one's empathy selectively on
- The primacy of ethics over politics implicitly presupposes, however, specific limitations on the field
of ethics itself. Viewed broadly, the raw material of ethics concerns languages and bodies in the sense that
these are what matter from the ethical perspective when considering questions of agency and choice. Ethical discussion of languages (and cultural systems that resemble
languages) are now commonly expected to focus on the problem of difference, and to prefer a baseline
cultural relativism to the culturally imperialist danger of false universals. In ethical discussion of
bodies--and especially bodies that suffer--the greater danger is now widely seen to be false relativism
(Lévinas, "Useless Suffering" 99). A principled resistance to moral relativism when it comes to the
suffering of bodies is, thus, the specific ethical view that underlies the present-day politics of human
rights. For proponents of this politics, the suffering body is the ultimate wellspring of moral value, the
response to bodily suffering the ultimate test of moral responsibility. "The supreme ordeal of the will is
not death, but suffering," said the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, who took the primacy of ethics to its extreme by putting it ahead, even, of ontology
and God (the world itself and its Creator) (Totality and
Infinity 239). He argued that the suffering of another is always "useless,"
always unjustified, and that attempting to rationalize "the neighbor's pain is certainly the source of all
immorality"("Useless Suffering" 98-9).
- Lévinas is not here referring primarily to the growing medicalization of humanitarian
invention, although he does regard analgesia as a paradigmatically
ethical response to physical pain (see Kennedy and Rieff). His point is that my ethical responsibility,
which merely begins
with first aid, does not arise from any previous relationship between sufferer and provider, or from a
political history consisting of prior vows or crimes, but from "a past irreducible to a hypothetical present
that it once was . . . . [and] without the remembered present of any past commitment"("Diachrony and
Representation" 170). Our responsibility to alleviate suffering comes
before the past in the sense in which ethics can be said to come before politics. The priority of
ethics arises "from the fear of occupying someone's place in the Da of my Dasein": "My . .
. 'place in the sun,'" he says, "my home--have they not been a usurpation of places which belong to the
others already oppressed or . . . expelled by me into a third world" ("From the One to the Other" 144-5).
Lévinas's point is that in ethics, unlike politics, we do not ask who came first and what we have
already done to (or for) each other. The distinctively ethical question is rather one of proximity--we are
already here and so is the other, cheek-by-jowl with us in the same place. The neighbor is the figure of the
other toward whom our only relationship is that of proximity. For Lévinas, the
global movement to give ethics primacy over politics must be accompanied, within ethics, by the effort to give
primacy to the ethics of the neighbor--the local over the global. In this way, the global primacy of ethics
crystallizes around our horror of the inhuman act (the "gross" violation of human rights) rather than, for
example, around the international distribution of wealth or the effects of global climate change.
- Proximity is, thus, the marker that distinguishes an ethics of the neighbor as a basis for human rights from
global concerns about injustice that might also be considered ethical. Proximity is not itself a merely
spatial concept--both space and time can be proximate or distant--but it is useful to think of the ethics of
the neighbor as a spatializing discourse within ethics, as distinct from a "temporalizing" discourse
that subordinates ethics to political rhetorics associated with memory and identity (Boyarin, "Space" 20).
The latter is held accountable for the atrocities of the twentieth century because it suggests that the
suffering of one's immediate neighbor can be justified through an historical narrative that links it to
redeeming the suffering of someone else, perhaps an ancestor or a comrade, to whom one claims an historical
relationship that is "closer" than relations among neighbors. To regard proximity of place as the
ethical foundation of politics is to resist this tendency from the beginning, and thereby to set the stage
for the fin-de-siècle project of transitional justice, which is both the alternative to human
rights interventions and their professed aim.
- Transitional justice assigns to historical enemies the task of living as neighbors in the same place.
It employs techniques of reconciliation to create new and better relationships between previously
warring groups, but the imperative to reconcile is ultimately ethical in Lévinas's sense.
That imperative is based on no relationship other than proximity and mutual vulnerability--the ever-present
possibility that they will murder each other. If the subjects of transitional justice fail to reconcile, and
mass murders occur, these atrocities are liable to be considered crimes against humanity that justify outside
intervention. In the now-massive literature on transitional justice, gross violations of human rights are
always assumed to be local, occurring between neighbors who occupy common ground, and the responders are
treated as third parties who intervene (or fail to do so) from afar. Even if the responders have an historical
connection to the site of intervention, perhaps as one-time colonizers, they are considered to be driven by
ethics, as distinct from politics, in their willingness to respond on behalf of the world community that should never
again stand by while neighbors murder each other.
- It is implicit in this emerging conception that the site of ethics is the space of the neighbor (or
neighborhood) and that the site of politics is global. Global intervention in the local can be justified in
the name of universal human rights; but violence aimed at global causes of suffering (such as the Seattle
riots against the WTO or the Chiapas rebellion against NAFTA) is not seen as a form of humanitarian direct
action on a par with bombing Belgrade or Baghdad. In the emergent global discourse on human rights, "Nothing
essential to a person's human essence is violated if he or she suffers as a consequence of military action or
of market manipulation from beyond his own state when that is permitted by international law" (Asad,
"Redeeming the 'Human'" 129). A perverse effect of the global "culture" of protecting local human rights is thus to
take the global causes of human suffering off the political agenda. Any direct action taken against
global forces runs the risk of being considered a violation of universal human rights (a violation such as
"terrorism") in the locality where it occurs.
- Although my overarching intent is to show the limitations of the focus of post-Cold War politics on the global and
of ethics on the local, I believe that this conceptual shift rests on the highly
plausible belief that there is nothing worse than genocide, and that global acknowledgement of this
ethical truth is what distinguishes the human from the inhuman. From this it follows that the credible fear
of genocide is the primary source of moral claims that are worthy of global recognition, and that a new
humanitarian order can be founded on protecting these claims, even if we protect no others, from historical
and cultural relativism. If genocide is indeed the prime evil, then politics becomes quite simply the global
question of how to respond.
- I want to confront this belief head-on. I will discuss: (1) what it
means for ethics to treat genocide as the prime evil; (2) the particular conception of politics that makes
genocide originally conceivable; (3) the particular conception of ethics that aims to make it once again unthinkable; (4) the
political implications of genocide, and of its possible repetition, for political rule, political rights, and
political judgment based on the moral status of victimhood; (5) the implications of a genocide-driven ethics
for political values such as justice, peace, and patience; and (6) the reasons, both ethical and political,
for not regarding human suffering as the root of all evil. In discussing these questions, I concentrate heavily on the opposed writings of Emmanuel Lévinas and Alain Badiou, while pointing
toward a view of my own that agrees with neither.
The Prime Evil
- Since late in the twentieth century, political thought has seen a renewed interest in "radical
evil" defined through the paradigm of genocide--often coded simply as "Auschwitz." Theodor Adorno describes this reorientation of ethics as follows:
No one, however, has gone further than Lévinas in dismantling the structure of
pre-Auschwitz thought to articulate such a "new categorical imperative," and to restate the ethical a
priori, what Derrida has called "the Ethics of Ethics" ("Violence and Metaphysics" 111). As Lévinas says,
A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler on unfree mankind; to arrange their thoughts and
actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen. (Qtd. in Cohen, Interrupting Auschwitz 4)
According to Lévinas, "the disproportion between suffering and every theodicy was shown at Auschwitz"
("Useless Suffering" 97). Auschwitz here stands for the proposition that we are all, even (or especially) the
most civilized among us, capable of genocide and that building moral thought around this recognition changes
everything: henceforward, we must never lose our fear of being victims of genocidal violence, but must fear
even more our propensity to commit it. Moral thought since Auschwitz thus starts with the premise that every
encounter with a neighbor carries with it, "despite the innocence of its intentions, . . . [t]he risk of
occupying . . . the place of an other and thus, on the concrete level, of exiling him, of condemning him to a
miserable condition in some 'third' or 'fourth' world, of bringing him
death" (Lévinas, Time
169; see also Totality and Infinity 194-247).
It is . . . attention to the suffering of the other that, through the cruelties of our century (despite these
cruelties, because of these cruelties) can be affirmed as the very nexus of human subjectivity, to the point
of being raised to the level of supreme ethical principle--the only one it is impossible to question. (Qtd.
in Derrida, "Violence and Metaphysics" 94)
- The political context within which genocide became all-too-thinkable within modernity is that of
modern colonialism and the nationalist struggle against it.
The origins of this dialectic may lie in an act of military conquest or in an unopposed claim to possession
of territory that is already inhabited. Its domain is the spatial and
temporal relation between a territory's prior inhabitants, its colonial possessors, and, perhaps, its future
citizens in a future independent state. The dialectic of colonialism allows us to think of occupying a common
territory as either a matter of cohabitation or succession. It enables all sides to imagine the
spatial proximity of indigenous peoples and later arrivals as an eliminable problem, while focusing their
direct attention on who is threatening to eliminate whom in the present or in the near future.
- As a relatively recent moral trope for the murderous encounter with the Other, "Auschwitz" is now
commonly read backwards into the history of colonialism, which it has become possible to describe as a prolonged
Holocaust (see Churchill and Stannard). The colonial and the
anti-colonial mind can conceive of genocide because they both can (and probably must) imagine the same territory without
its current inhabitants. Relations among current occupants appear within the framework of colonialism to be essentially matters of
succession. Thus in the native/settler dialectic everything depends on who came first and who will remain. From the perspective of
colonialism, any present time of simultaneous cohabitation of racialized ethnicities must be seen as historically abnormal,
and perhaps ephemeral. The hortatory claim that genocide is now unthinkable points us toward a postcolonial future in which
current spatial predicaments rather than historical
relations among neighbors come to the foreground. A human rights discourse based on an ethics of
the neighbor aims to bring this about through the technologies of transitional justice that put evil (and
history itself) in the past.
- This form of argument presupposes a radical shift of moral orientation after 1945 in which "the
Holocaust" rather than "the Revolution"--French, Russian, or arguably Haitian--becomes the event that defines the relation between ethics and politics in late modernity.
Before Auschwitz, the argument goes, a distinctive (and ultimately Schmittian)
concept of the "political" allowed us to overcome our natural sensitivity to the suffering of fellow humans when they were
constructed as the intimate "other." This concept of the political produced the Holocaust as a
horrifying endpoint to the genocidal logic of modernity that began in 1492.
- The new human rights discourse that has taken root since Auschwitz aims (when viewed in Schmittian
terms) to depoliticize the distinction between who we are and who we are not (Rorty 128). By the
century's end, the ethics of human rights, which were once the mottos of democratic revolution, became
instruments of global order. They now require that one put the claims of spatial proximity ahead of those of
historical destiny and that one value the virtues of political patience over those of revolutionary struggle. An
"ethics" so conceived puts "politics" based on historical grievance at the root of "radical" evil in the world
and severely limits the pursuit of justice based on backward-looking claims.
- From the perspective of an ethics of proximity, genocide victims (as represented by survivors) are the
quintessential suffering subjects, the ultimate source of ethical value. Naming their plight as (actual or potential) genocide is now the duty of the
rest of us, the first step in human rights intervention which is in turn defined by the ultimate
moral duty to put humanitarianism ahead of all politics. Humanitarianism, thus, arises from a pre-political
relationship between the victim of evil--he or she who suffers--and the spectator capable of discerning evil
and willing to respond.
- Human rights are not an afterthought to ethics in this fin-de-siècle discourse but
rather its very foundation. The essence of human rights discourse is to "infinitize" evil by equating it to
the situation of a hostage population subject to the sovereign power of a
Schmittian state (Rancière 307-8; see also Arendt, Origins, esp. ch. 9). The quintessential subject of human
is the neighbor who is viewed by the state as both an enemy and an alien, but who lacks the protection that
"enemy aliens" enjoy under established international law. These domestic enemies may not only be interned by
the state (arguably for their own protection), they are also subject to being exterminated by the state, and
even by the neighbor next door. At the end of such periods of gross
violations of human rights, the immediate goal of what we now routinely call "transitional justice"
(see Teitel), is to reduce domestic enmity itself to a problem of excessive proximity, the likelihood that
hostile neighbors will kill each other. The excesses of proximity are, of course, what the world market needs
to eliminate, and integration of the local economy into the global--rather than justice as such--becomes a
promised reward of the desired transition. Instead of demanding justice, the subjects of transitional justice
are expected to show patience. Patience, when treated as a virtue, presupposes that the ethical duty of neighbors is to
assure each other that now is not the time for a historical reckoning. As an ideology, it
presupposes that third parties may feel obliged to intervene if these assurances fail. From the perspective
of a watching world, the real point of transitional justice is that it is not justice as such, but
rather closure. Through trials, truth commissions, amnesties, and other techniques, it seeks to
adjourn past history and to make new time. (Now that these
fin-de-siècle techniques of transitional justice can be studied and compared, Germany after
Auschwitz has become another "case," as well as a paradigm of largely successful transition; see
- In the now-massive literature on "transitional justice," fidelity to "Auschwitz" as the touchstone of radical Evil precludes the pursuit of
any higher good through politics.
This view is well-represented by the post-Holocaust restatement of humanitarian liberalism espoused by political
theorists such as Judith Shklar and George Kateb who argue that the political pursuit of a higher good is itself the
source of evil
insofar as it makes us capable of justifying interpersonal cruelty that could eventually produce "an" Auschwitz. The foundation of this view is what Alain Badiou, its leading critic, calls a
"consensual self-evidence of Evil" (58)--that after Auschwitz we know it when we see it. By this he means that the
incontrovertible evil of genocide holds the place of the all-too-contestable notion of the Good on which earlier, and
arguably more innocent, ethical views had been based.
The upholders of ethics make the consensual identification of Evil depend upon the supposition of a radical
Evil. Although the idea of a radical Evil can be traced back at least as far as Kant, its contemporary version is grounded
systematically on . . . the Nazi extermination of the European Jews. . . . [I]t exemplifies radical Evil by pointing to
that whose imitation or repetition must be prevented at all costs--or, more precisely: that whose non-repetition provides
the norm for the judgement of all situations. . . . [T]he Nazi extermination is radical Evil in that it provides for our
time the unique, unrivalled--and in this sense transcendent, or unsayable--measure of Evil pure and simple. . . . As a
result, the extermination and the Nazis are both declared unthinkable, unsayable, without conceivable precedent or
posterity--since they define the absolute form of Evil--yet they are constantly invoked, compared, used to schematize
every circumstance in which one wants to produce, among opinions, an effect of the awareness [conscience] of evil--since
the only way to access Evil in general is under the historical condition of radical Evil. (Badiou, Ethics 62-3)
- Badiou describes the main ethical thesis of post-Auschwitz humanitarianism as follows: "Evil is that from which the
Good is derived. . . . 'Human rights' are rights to non-evil" (Ethics 9; and see Chapter 1 generally). The
human rights that follow from this presumed consensus on what Evil looks like are as follows: "rights not to be offended or
mistreated with respect to one's life (the horrors of murder and execution), one's body (the horrors of torture, cruelty
and famine), or one's cultural identity (the horrors of the humiliation of women, or minorities, etc.)" (9). Our presumed
compassion for those who suffer these specific horrors provides the ethical foundation of a humanitarian politics that is
constantly exposed to the fragility of empathy, indifference, and denial (see Cohen, States of Denial and
- This version of ethics implies, of course, a politics of its own--a politics of victimhood
(on which I have written elsewhere).
Before dealing with the politics of victimhood here, however, we need to address the centrality of genocide
as the prime (irreducible) evil behind all others--the singular thing that must be made unthinkable for
ethics to get underway.
- The imaginability of genocide arises from the moral psychology of place and race within the colonial
project. In the words of Rebecca Solnit:
Race, this identification with an ethnicity also imagined as an origin, has for the last century tended to
generate a kind of ethnic nationalism whose insistency on the inseparability of race and place is itself
mystical. . . . Israel itself was founded on the idea that the legacy of blood entitled the Jews to a legacy
of land . . . I've always been as much appalled as awestruck that a people . . . could remain so attached to
an absent place of origin that everyplace else could be framed as a temporary exile, . . . no matter how long
they stayed. Becoming native is a process of forgetting and embracing where you are. (114-15)
- To understand the phenomenon, we can call upon Melanie Klein's concept of "projective identification."
Klein's idea is that the settler re-experiences his own aggression toward the native as fear of the native's hostility toward him.
In fearing the native's "primitive" racism (which is already a response to colonization), the settler defends
against guilt for displacing the native. By identifying himself as the object of his own feelings
toward the native, the settler re-experiences them as feelings of racial antipathy on the part of the
natives. In the dialectic of race and place, the role of the colonist is to think, "these people hate us
because of our [. . .]." "Race" is the term of art that fills in the political blank: it acquires whatever
biological, religious, linguistic, or cultural content is necessary to describe a difference between the
settler and the native placeholder that precedes the settler's occupation of the native's place (Mamdani,
"Race and Ethnicity" 4-8). The settler perfectly understands the depth of these ascribed feelings of
racialized hatred, for they are merely his own original feelings projected onto others.
- It should be noted that there are two imaginaries of genocide embedded in such an account of
projective identification. The first is the genocide of the native
against the settler--the racially-motivated "massacres" of innocents by savages that are the foundation of
settler colonialist lore. The second is the revolt of the native against the settler. The unconscious moral
logic of the colonial experience bases the settlers' genocide against the native on the settlers' repressed
fear or fantasy of being subjected to genocidal actions by the native. In his now-classic Wretched of the Earth, Frantz
Fanon theorized that in order to
liberate himself from colonialism the (black) native must embrace this projected willingness to exterminate
the (white) settler (see also Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks). Fanon urges the "good native"
to embrace the
"bad" identity that embodies the settler's terror. Jean-Paul Sartre famously read this claim as the next
stage in revolutionary consciousness, and saw the native's will to fight the colonist to the death as a higher
form of the totalizing dialectic of master and slave described by Hegel and Marx (see "Preface" to Fanon,
The Wretched of the Earth).
- Viewed from Lévinas's perspective, as set forth above, however, Fanon's argument is not
that racially-based murder is justified as a condition of self-liberation. Fanon demonstrates, rather, that
colonial subjugation--the problematic Da in the Dasein--is the conceptual root of genocide. For
Lévinas, the "totalizing discourse" of white/black, master/slave, self/other
is itself a formula for murder because, in their quest for mutual recognition, those who struggle do not acknowledge their
prior lack-of-relation as mutually exterior occupants of the same ground (see the Preface to
Totality and Infinity). In this respect, the willingness of the native to exterminate or expel the settler is simply a
return-to-sender of the genocidal message of colonialism itself.
- The point here is emphatically not that racialized citizens of settler colonialist states are
actual or would-be génocidaires. The settler colonialist is not always, and almost never
merely, a ruthless exploiter--and can also be a developer, a civilizer, an educator. To be any or all of
these things, however, is entirely consistent with the possibility of being paranoid about one's own status
as successor to the "Native." The settler's question is, "how can we live among these savages without
civilizing them?" The essence of Fanon's argument is that living without the "savages" is always a
conceivable option within colonial discourse that precedes (and to some extent informs) the project of
"civilization," and thus that living without the settler must also be imaginable for liberation to occur as an outcome
of the totalizing project of colonialism--and presumably of any other totalizing project that focuses on the relations
of race and place (blood and soil).
- Writing both after Auschwitz and during an era of anti-colonial revolutions, Lévinas
argues that all
totalizing projects are grounded in imagining the death of the other--that is, murder. He includes here even the
totalizing project that grounds ethics, as Richard Rorty does, on the shared qualities of all homo sapiens (and
perhaps companion species) capable of conscious suffering. The American
philosopher Hilary Putnam restates
Lévinas's concern as a concern about the vulnerability of the human rights culture to assertions of the
"inhumanity" of other homo sapiens: "the danger in grounding ethics in the idea that we are all 'fundamentally
the same' is that a door is opened for a Holocaust. One only has to believe that some people are not 'really' the same
to destroy all the force of such a grounding" (35). At the pragmatic level, Rorty concedes "that everything turns on who
counts as a fellow human being" (124)-- indeed he stresses it--but the more fundamental claim made by Lévinas
(and Putnam) is against the ethical assumption that arguments appealing to our shared humanity could count at all in ethical
justifications of human rights. The meaning of Auschwitz, they suggest, is that ethics must
now be based, not on a common humanity that we
share, but rather on the mere fact of occupying common ground with those with whom we do not presume any (other)
affinity or relationship. Thus conceived, Auschwitz reveals the limits of the ethical project that teaches us to treat
the other under the aspect of the same. Ethics--the ethics that is not subordinate to politics--must now begin
with the damage that our mere presence causes to others whom we displace, and whom we must treat as genuinely exterior
to the "other" who inhabits our own mind as an outward projection of the "self."
Lévinas's critique of totalization is an ethical complement to Klein's psychoanalytic account of projective
identification, although he did not to my knowledge address this connection. Klein interpreted the moralized feelings
that connect us with fellow humans as projections of our feelings toward the good and bad parts of ourselves: she showed
how "bad" (demonized) others are also the threatening parts of the self that we externalize, and that "good" (idealized)
others are also the parts of the self that we seek to protect from such internal threats of persecution. From this
perspective, the phenomenology of interpsychic struggle--for example, the Hegelian struggle between Master and
Slave--is also inextricably intrapsychic. Human rights idealism after Auschwitz would thus appear as a symptom
of human rights paranoia after Auschwitz, an overidentification with our common humanity as a defense against the fear
of being persecuted as inhuman. Klein believed that an authentic humanitarian ethics must begin with the acknowledgement
of others as genuinely external to the "internal objects" that we project and introject as split-off parts of the
self. What makes these proximate others exterior (we might say
extrapsychic) is that they survive the damage caused by our presence and call forth from us a concern
for the other that is experienced as a primary duty of repair (see Klein, Love 306-69 and
Hinshelwood, Entry 10). Donald Winnicott goes further in defining the ethical "separation" necessary to distinguish the
real externality of others from the internal objects whom we fantasmatically destroy or rescue through our "projective
mechanisms" (90). He argues that the internal object
An ethics based on the reality of separation (proximity as exteriority in Lévinas's sense) would, thus, be inherently more stable
than an ethics that
relies on mechanisms of interpersonal identification, which are always fantasmatic and implicitly paranoid. Eric Santner
takes this ethical view to what is, perhaps, its limit by describing it as "my answerability to
my-neighbor-with-an-unconscious" who is, thus, "a stranger not only to me but also to him- or herself."
If this is, indeed, the basis of an ethics founded on separation, rather than on identification, then "the very
opposition between 'neighbor' and 'stranger' begins to lose its force" (9, and see 23, 82).
is always being destroyed. This destruction becomes the unconscious backcloth for love of a real object; that is, an
object outside the area of the subject's omnipotent control. . . . The destructiveness, plus the object's survival of
the destruction, places the object outside the area of objects set up by the subject's projective mental mechanisms. (94)
To prevent the repetition of Auschwitz, according to Lévinas, we must face up to the mechanisms that Klein would
call projective identification: "I am [unconsciously, Klein would say] responsible for the persecutions I undergo . . .
since I am responsible for the responsibility of the other" (Lévinas, "Responsibility" 99). Although this ethical
claim can be found throughout his work, Lévinas eventually grounds it on the observation that a desire to commit
murder or genocide is intelligible only because we see ourselves either as its subject or as its object. The imaginable
reversibility of subject and object (active or passive) has an ethical significance that Lévinas comes to call
"substitution." "The ego," he says, "is a substitution" ("Substitution" 127). By this he means that "subjectivity no
longer belongs to the order where the alternative of passivity and activity retains its meaning"; it follows that "the
self, a hostage, is already substituted for the others" (118). On this view, every evil that we are capable of
fearing--and now we must include even radical evil--is also something for which we are capable of wishing. We must
ground ethics not in affinity or reciprocity, but in our prior responsibility toward those to whom we will relate only
as neighbors--and whom we must treat as though our feelings toward them were merely projective. In a Lévinasian
ethics of the neighbor, my responsibility not to kill is based on proximity alone.
It can thus be argued that the ethics of human rights "after Auschwitz" presupposes the simultaneous existence and
repression of genocidal thoughts. This kind of argument is nothing new. Freud himself grounds mass (or group) psychology
both on the wish to kill the father and on the repression of the memory of having already done so in one's mind (that is, in
unconscious fantasy). He
argues that the foundation of the group is a memory that lies outside the realm of permissible thoughts in the form of a
taboo. Subsequent Freudian interpretations of the social contract have
evoked real and fantasmatic scenarios of
regicide and fratricide (Brown 3-31). The question is whether the imagery of Auschwitz--which is also and
indubitably something real--now also functions on a fantasmatic level within the global rhetoric of human
rights in the way that the imagery of regicide functioned in discourses on the Rights of Man that followed the
French Revolution (see Walzer and Hunt).
- My general claim about the function of genocide in the global ethic of the neighbor is that it
functions like Freud's argument about the role of parricide in the ethics of the family. In the new global
ethics of "never again," however, the collectivity is not seen as a type of family, but as a type of neighborhood in which spatial
rather than generational relations predominate. Like all foundational acts, genocide is constitutively
outside the sovereign power that (from time to time) calls a group, even a "world community," into being. The
génocidaire is the quintessential criminal against humanity as such, the inhuman monster to
"terrorists," for example, must now be compared; genocide has become the morally incomparable act that is
constantly subject to repetition. In fin-de-siècle human rights discourse, genocide
becomes the wish that an imaginary sovereign power makes taboo--unthinkable because it is repressed, and
for that very reason at the root of all our conscious fears.
- The presumed unthinkability of genocide--the repression, not the absence, of the wish--is
thus both the founding premise of the fin-de-siècle Human Rights Discourse and the stated
goal of most human rights advocacy. The recollection of
experiences from the victims' standpoint, however, is the overt subject matter of many histories and of much science fiction. On its surface, this
literature claims to warn us of the dangers of genocide so that we will fear and avoid them at all costs. At a deeper level, however, the fear of genocidal victimhood and our
enhanced imagination of it are also troubling. What does it really mean, after all, to imagine genocide, to
fear it, and to avoid it at all costs? Is it not ultimately this political mindset that has made "thinkable" in
the twentieth century the genocides of which some otherwise civilized nations have become capable? For them,
the thinkability of ethnic cleansings and extermination has been a defense (by projection) against their
heightened ability to imagine themselves as the objects of genocidal intent. As the world embarks on the twenty-first century, genocide has never been more
thinkable--especially the genocide of which we may be victims. It has now become almost conventional to argue for the existence of genocide, for
example in Darfur, by publishing photographs of dead bodies and daring the viewer to refuse empathy.
- The thinkability of genocide as a defense against the fear of genocide is a disturbing point to
acknowledge. To say that genocide is morally intelligible is not to say that it is now, or ever could have
been, morally right; instead, it is to note that most genocides are not mere acts of inadvertence or
insensitivity, but rather moments of intense moral concentration invoking high concepts like human rights and
democracy. If we cannot imagine the logic of genocide (and how that logic employs our moral
concepts), we will never understand how a human rights discourse (which may, for a period of time, seem
well-established in places like Sarajevo) can dissolve into what commentators glibly describe as "primordial
group hatreds," and how that same discourse can later re-emerge as a self-conscious return to civilized
Democracy and Human Rights
- With Hegelian hindsight, we should not be surprised that "never again" became the dominant ethical
imperative of the fin de siècle. Much of the twentieth century was taken up with the claim
that majority rule is really just a way to protect human rights in the usual case in which the majority
legitimately fears being victimized by the minority. It appeared that a more general form of
democratic theory would actually favor the principle of self-rule by potentially victimized people over the
principle of majority rule in the abstract. According to this argument, it is the legitimate fear of
victimization on the basis of ethno-national identity, rather than the relative number of people in the
potentially-victimized group, that justifies the right of that group to the territorial rule of a "homeland."
- Although many twentieth-century thinkers held this view, it is most widely associated with Woodrow
Wilson. Unlike other heirs to Jefferson who stress the relation between popular sovereignty and individual
rights, Wilson focused on the relation between the state and the nation. States were created by sovereign
"peoples," he believed, who decided thereafter to impose limitations on the powers of the governments thus
created. Liberalism might define the relation of ruler and ruled within a people, but nationalism--in this
case ethno-nationalism--would create that people and define its boundaries. If all nation-states functioned in world politics as the virtual representatives of their own
"peoples" in diaspora, so Wilson's logic goes, then each national state would protect its permanent
minorities out of fear that members of its own "people" might suffer retaliation while living as minorities
elsewhere. As Wilson conceives it, the post-imperial relation between
national and international politics is in effect a kind of hostage arrangement based on the tacit
acknowledgment that the "peoples" of the world are already dispersed, and that their potential ingathering is
a legal fiction needed to protect their rights wherever they might be.
- At the level of political psychology, however, the "ingathering" of the group is far from
fictitious--it is a necessary form of self-idealization that can be an effective defense against well-founded
fears of persecution. In Wilson's terms, groups asserting protected
minority status anywhere have to imagine themselves both as potential victims where they are and as
potentially hegemonic somewhere else. To their current oppressors they thus become hypothetical threats
(people who could do the same to "us"), thereby also allowing their continuing oppression to be rationalized
on the grounds of self-defense.
- Within a Wilsonian framework, the danger of ethno-national violence is, thus, an unavoidable
structural feature of the interstate system itself. On the one hand, this danger is the national majority's
excuse for the repression of outsiders who live under the regime; on the other hand, that repression becomes a further reason
for insurrection. Adding to these internal conflicts, nation-states based on victimhood feel entitled to use
their sovereign status in the international community to protect co-nationals who live as minorities
elsewhere. That is often what it means to say "Never Again."
- The obvious problem here is that any state created to allow a previously subjugated minority to rule
in the name of former victims almost inevitably has permanent minorities of its own. Therefore, the claim of victimhood to nationhood is as much a cause of victimization
as it is a remedy. But if the point of demanding nationhood is to protect a people from further
victimization, it follows that a state based on the promise of "never again" does not violate Wilsonian
principles by resisting, at least up to a point, attempts at self-help by separatist minority groups that
threaten to "strand" members of the present "majority" within a smaller state in which the present "minority"
- In a Wilsonian world in which international military interventions would be prohibited by agreement of
the great powers, civil strife on both sides of an international border becomes the dominant and permissible
form of permanent conflict. This was to be the price (if not the meaning) of "world peace." From here, we can
trace the roots of the racialized conception of democracy that characterizes post-imperial states: a
conception of democracy in which the elimination of bodies--ethnic cleansing--becomes an alternative to the
conversion of minds. It is such a world that the current politics of humanitarian intervention seeks to transcend using
legal arguments that are still basically Wilsonian and ethical arguments that resound with the gravity of
Auschwitz. It is, however, the Wilsonian system that presupposes and reproduces the very horrors that
humanitarian intervention seeks to stop. This fundamental contradiction is not addressed by merely asserting,
as many do today, that the ethical has priority over the political.
- Democratic theory has never really traversed the difference between (1) democracy as a truth procedure
(like the scientific method) in which individual minds are changed by the result, and (2) democracy as a form of rule in which no minds are expected to change through
the process itself. In this second conception of democracy, majority and minority identities are not
produced by the actual vote; they pre-exist the vote, and are merely affirmed by it. This second
conception of democracy has been thoroughly described by social scientists, but it is not well-theorized. To
fill this theoretical gap, we must turn not to the forms of political thought modeled on interest aggregation
in the market but rather to those specifically concerned with the moral psychology of victimhood. When the
moral psychology of victimhood dominates the political sphere, the addition or subtraction of bodies becomes
the essence of the democratic project. This addition and subtraction can take place by expelling bodies, by
ignoring them or, in the worst case, by killing them.
- There is little theoretical justification for abstract majority rule when we're no longer in the
business of persuading each other--when our votes are rooted in the fear of being victimized on the basis
of a pre-existing identity. In these circumstances it becomes plausible to argue that doing justice to
former victims is a more fundamental legitimation of political power after evil than majority rule itself.
If this is true, the underlying justification for majority rule assumes that much of history consists of
the victimization of large majorities by small (and originally feudal) minorities. According to this
argument, the foundational principle of majority rule would not be popular sovereignty, but "never again."
In the aftermath of the genocide, so the argument goes, a guilty oppressor, whether it is the majority or
not, can no longer assert its own interests as before. Henceforward, and for the indefinite future, it has
no right not to have its interests subordinated to those of surviving victims. To have one's interest
subordinated to the interests of others is part of what it means to be ruled by them (see Elster).
- Accepting as legitimate the subordination of one's interests, and renouncing all pride in one's
national identity, is what it means, constitutionally, to live in a state of disgrace (Dalrymple). What,
then, is the meaning of democracy where a formerly ruling group, perhaps a majority, has been disgraced by
its role in prior injustice? Could the arguments that normally support majority rule here be used to justify
specific forms of minority rule instead? These are the unanswered constitutional questions posed by an ethics
of human rights that is also a politics of victimhood.
Victimhood and the Right to Rule
- In the aftermath of radical evil, what does victimhood lack, and what should it want? Can a national
self-rule be the sublimation of victimhood? And is overcoming victimhood what nations want?
The problem of Tutsi minority rule in post-genocide Rwanda illustrates the unresolved conflict between the Wilsonian theory of democratic rule and
fidelity to the ethical meaning of Auschwitz. Even before becoming victims of genocide, Tutsis were frequently described as the Jews of
Central Africa. Originally a pastoralist caste, they were dispersed throughout the region--unlike the
cultivators (Hutus), who had customary roots in a tribal homeland. In the pre-colonial regime of Rwanda's
mwami (king), those who intermediated between the kingdom and the tribes were considered to be
Tutsis, but these same individuals might have been considered Hutus if they acquired customary
rights in a particular homeland. Prior to colonialism, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was not binary
(either/or), and not totalizing in Lévinas's sense.
- It was not until Belgian colonial rule that the caste distinction between pastoralists and cultivators
was redescribed as a colonial distinction between "natives" and "settlers." The natives' identity is based on
place (they preceded the settlers as occupants the territory to be settled). In contrast, the
settlers' identity, insofar as it is translocal, can be said to be based on race. A race, unlike a
tribe, was conceived by colonial rulers to be essentially migratory--it becomes aware of having origins
because it also has a destination (see Mamdani, "Race and Ethnicity" and Solnit). The Belgian rulers of Rwanda thus
described Tutsis as a migratory race of "Hamites," a migratory race of "white" negroes, who had earlier
settled on Hutu tribal lands Tutsi identity was thus racialized at the same time Hutu identity was
ethnicized--the difference between the two indigenous groups was analogized to that between colonial settlers
and native tribes, and Tutsis were, thus, conceived to be appropriate agents (and minor beneficiaries) of
Belgian rule over Hutus. When Belgium's rule of Rwanda was about to end, its plan to turn power over to the
Tutsi race was blocked by a Hutu Revolution demanding majority rule. The ideology of "Hutu Power" embraced
the Belgian view of Tutsis as a stateless race of settlers, and now sought to expel them as an alien elite that
had always been parasitical on the Hutu majority and had become, more recently, the principal collaborator in colonial
rule. At this point, an individual was considered to be either Tutsi or Hutu--once the distinction had been
politicized (in Schmitt's sense) one could not be both.
- The genocide committed against Rwanda's remaining Tutsis in 1994 occurred at the same time as an invasion by
an army of Tutsi expellees who had lived as refugees in Uganda (see
Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers chs. 6-7). Commentators
differ about the extent to which the genocide was provoked
by the invasion, and the extent to which the invasion was justified (at least in retrospect) by the need to
rescue the Rwandan Tutsis who remained from the near certainty of genocidal massacre. With the benefit of
hindsight, it is clear that no one else would have rescued the Tutsis who remained had the army of Tutsi
refugees been held back at the Ugandan border, and also that fewer people would have been killed had no invasion been threatened. These facts can be used to argue that the Tutsi invasion was a failed Wilsonian strategy for protecting Tutsis within Rwanda or
that it was an ethically required intervention to "interrupt Auschwitz."
- Both arguments support the self-description of Tutsi-ruled post-genocide Rwanda as a victim-state, consciously modeled
on the state that might have been created for the Jews after the Holocaust if it had been carved out of
Germany rather than developed in Palestine (see Mamdani, ch. 8). To grasp the meaning of this, imagine that the fears that Goebbels
invoked as propaganda during World War II had been descriptively correct--that Germany faced invasion by a militarized form of international Jewry seeking to reverse the
historic course of German nativism. This hypothetical scenario for understanding the Holocaust as a
reaction by German "natives" against Jewish (and other) "settlers," already adumbrated in Mein Kampf, comes close to the actual
scenario in Rwanda on the eve of genocide. Assuming that this rationalization for a Holocaust
must "never again" be condoned, the invasion of Tutsi exiles that
triggered the genocide was justified as a humanitarian intervention to rescue Tutsi survivors using means that are supported, if not
required, by international law. Thereafter, the history of genocide (and the fear of its repetition) becomes an ideology of
post-traumatic rule, purporting to justify the suspension of the normal criteria of political judgment in the successor
state. Tutsi minority rule in Rwanda is thus not justified as a form of racialized oppression any more than
Jewish rule of post-War Germany would have been so justified. Why? Because the basis of the rule is not
racial per se; rather it occurs through the transformation of racial identities into those of victim and
perpetrator, a transformation that occurs in the foundational moment of the genocide itself.
- This is analogous to arguing that surviving German Jewish victims of the Holocaust
deserved to rule a
defeated and disgraced Germany and that returning Jewish exiles were entitled to share that
rule--perhaps in the name of the victims who did not survive or else in the name of the rescuers. The
analogy with Rwanda brings out the pragmatic difficulty of basing claims for justice on Daniel Jonah
Goldhagen's broad (but contested) description of ordinary Germans as "Hitler's willing executioners." In
Rwanda, a country of six million, an estimated three to four million Hutus did in fact directly participate
in the murder of perhaps 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu resisters. The appellation "willing executioners" could plausibly be
applied to much of the surviving adult Hutu population of the country. A Nuremberg-style punishment of all
Rwandans who were personally responsible for genocidal actions would come so close in its effect to another,
legally sanctioned, genocide that it would be difficult to distinguish from collective vengeance.
- What victimhood demanded, instead, is the right to rule--or, at least, the right to have the state
ruled in the victims' name. The argument for victims' rule, even if they were to rule as a minority, is that a state cannot live
on after genocide as though the distribution of bodies within the majority and the minority were an untainted fact
of biopolitics. In Rwanda today "justice" is the code-word for Tutsi minority rule, legitimated by the
disgrace of the Hutu majority.
The dilemma of postgenocide Rwanda lies in the chasm that divides Hutu as a political majority from Tutsi as
a political minority. While the minority demands justice, the majority calls for democracy. The two demands
appear as irreconcilable, for the minority sees democracy as an agenda for completing the genocide, and the
majority sees justice as a self-serving mask for fortifying minority power. (Mamdani 273)
- In Mamdani's account, however, the deeper choice is between a presumption of forgiveness
on the one hand, and victims' rule on the other. Rather than make this choice, post-genocide Rwanda claims to be an example of both. The journalist
Philip Gourevitch describes the return of "a certain Girumuhatse" to share a house with the surviving members of the family he butchered during the 1994
Behind this pragmatic avoidance of confrontation, however, lies the assumption that where everyone has sinned in either deed or wish, the
only way forward is through an ethics of the neighbor.
But why should survivors be asked to live next door to killers--or even, as happened in Girumuhatse's house,
under the same roof? Why put off confronting the problem? To keep things calm, General Kagame told me.
To invoke an ethics of the neighbor in the aftermath of sin, outside commentators sometimes describe Rwanda in the terms used
by St. Paul to describe the world. Rwanda is a place in which the difference between sins actually committed
and sins of the heart is merely the difference between "could have" and "would have." Some have argued that
Rwanda is an ideal case for the Pauline solution of confession, forgiveness, and rebirth.
Forgiveness in Rwanda would, presumably, be based on recognizing that the fear of genocide makes committing
genocide thinkable, and that in wish, if not in deed, all are sinners. In a Christian context, however, the
sinners are already potentially forgiven. This is why they struggled then, and can now stop sinning.
- But what could it possibly mean in a secular, constitutional context to believe that one is already
potentially forgiven? It means, presumably, that one has not yet been judged, and may never be--that the resumption of
useless suffering has been postponed. Unlike the Christian sinner who can be reborn, the secular
survivor of radical evil--Auschwitz, Rwanda--is simply not yet dead. The "postponement" of death, as
Lévinas calls it, is the gift of time (Totality and Infinity 224). Secular survivorship after Auschwitz does not
make past suffering meaningful in the Pauline way, the way of theodicy, where the sinner is forgiven and the sin is,
thus, redeemed (felix culpa). What Lévinasian survivors get is
time that is always more time, an aftermath--time to apologize, to "correct the instant" and still
be conscious of "the pain that is yet to come" (238). "To be temporal," according to Lévinas, "is both
to be for death and to still have time, to be against death" (235).
- This describes the ethics of "Never Again," which is, quite literally, a stand against repeating the
past in the time that remains. It is the crime (and not the forgiveness) that has always already happened,
and it is the repetition of violence/murder/genocide that makes it ethically traumatic. But what
does it mean to fear the repetition of genocide (or of lesser traumatic events)? If the aftermath of sin is a state of grace, the aftermath of evil is a state of disgrace. At its best (if
such a term can apply) the survivors' state described by Lévinas would be one of constant wakefulness
based on the awareness that humanitarian responses almost always come too late, but are required
nonetheless (see Cohen, Interrupting Auschwitz ch. 3). The same state of disgrace, however, can be more neutrally
one of depressive hypervigilance, in which survivors in a common space spend the time they still have defending against their persecutory
anxieties and well-founded fears.
Virtual Rule and the Right to Judge
- In many ways post-genocide Rwanda is a prototypical state of disgrace in which it is also true that a
sullen majority is ruled by returning exiles in the name of victorious victims. They rule, as we have seen, in the name of justice--or perhaps in its stead. But what would it mean for
former victims to rule justly over those who once oppressed them? This question is neither inherently
unanswerable nor merely rhetorical--it is, and must be, addressed whenever courts or legislative bodies create
institutions designed to remedy past injustice within a democratic framework. Only after radical evil,
however, is it conceivable that a dominant group, even if it is a majority, has so grossly abused its right
to rule that it must legitimately subordinate its interests to those of the former victims who now rule them.
To say that this is conceivable, however, does not exempt victims' rule from requirements of justice. In this
case, we must ask whether forms of virtual rule, which are often attenuated cases of victim's rule, could in
principle be better suited to redressing bad history without reproducing it.
- The post-slavery United States did not become Liberia--a country ruled by former slaves. Instead, its
history of slavery resulted (eventually) in a body of anti-discrimination law. The constitutional origins of
anti-discrimination law lie in the rights of U.S. citizens living out-of-state to be treated as well under
the law as the in-state majority treats itself, and, hence, better than it is obliged to treat the
federally unprotected local minority that lost out in the democratic process. Thus described, the individual
protected by anti-discrimination law is virtually represented by the local majority--that individual has no
rights that the local majority does not grant to itself, but can be denied no rights that the local
majority does grant to itself. Extending the concepts of anti-discrimination law to the descendants
of slaves limits the extent to which a white majority in America (while there is a white majority) may
take only its own interests into account. The limitation arises because anti-discrimination law will treat the ruling majority as if it were
the virtual representative of the now constitutionally protected groups--"discrete and insular minorities"
that do not rule, and yet may not be treated as ordinary electoral minorities in disregard of their
particular histories of victimhood (see Ely, Brilmayer, and Shapiro).
- Anti-discrimination law, a scheme that limits how majorities may rule the permanent minorities they
once oppressed, is one end of a continuum of constitutional schemes that subject democratic processes to the
claims of victimhood. Along this continuum lie schemes to adjust voting procedures and electoral
constituencies in order to give constitutionally protected groups enhanced representation in the legislative
process (see Guinier). Consociational Democracy (separate electorates) is another step toward political
autonomy (see Lijphart), which would grant groups that fear victimization the right to rule themselves (and others?) through the
territorial partition of an existing state. Then there is the type of right asserted in Rwanda: a group that
fears future victimization asserts the right to rule directly over those who have perpetrated atrocity in the
past. Another possibility, of course, would be the expulsion (repatriation? resettlement? extermination?) of
the traumatized victim group--which suggests that our spectrum of possibilities may in fact come full circle
in making the foundational atrocity conceivable once again.
- Having come full circle, why not create a new national homeland for the victimized group? In the case
of Israel, this could be viewed as a humane Wilsonian solution to the post-Holocaust refugee problem, or as a
belated endorsement of the SS's "Emigration Policy" that preceded the "Final Solution to the Jewish
Question" and that led Adolf Eichmann to meet with an agent of the Haganah in Cairo. (On the Zionist side, it
was at least clear that the pre-war persecution of German Jews could potentially accelerate their emigration
to Palestine.) If the creation of Israel mooted the question of
whether Jewish survivors of the Holocaust deserved to
rule Germany, the new Jewish state itself raised the question of whether it was entitled to judge Germans for
their crimes against Jews. Hannah Arendt's treatment of the Eichmann trial focuses fundamentally on the issue
of whether victims who do not seek the right to rule can nevertheless claim the right to judge. The capture and trial of Eichmann, she argued, was not merely the prosecution of an individual who had
special responsibility for the Final Solution; it was a constitutive moment in the creation of Israel. Israel
here asserted that a people that had overcome its victimhood with nationhood is uniquely entitled to judge
the crime of genocide committed against it. Israel now stood, and stood alone, for the survival of all Jews
as a people. It represented the victim as survivor, the victim as judge, the victim as avenger, the victim as
- Israel thus claimed the right to judge Eichmann from the standpoint of his victims themselves. The
post-Holocaust sense of justice on which the trial was based proclaimed itself to be different from justice
as impartiality. It was, rather, to be
a form of justice based on the premise of "Never Again." As Eichmann's prosecutor, Israel stood as "The Seventh Million." It spoke not for neutrality, but for
the Six Million dead; it spoke as the remnant of world Jewry.
The trial aimed to transform the meaning of Nuremberg retrospectively from a victors' justice, which was
troubling enough to liberal legalists,
to a victims' justice, which was more troubling still to a diasporic intellectual like Arendt, who came of age
at a time that made her alert to the dangerous consequences of the Wilsonian view that, within an
international system, nationhood was the answer to collective fears of victimhood.
Before departing to cover the trial, however, she also acknowledged to Karl Jaspers that "it was for the
sake of these victims that Palestine became Israel" (415).
- Arendt's great work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, had been about how stateless
peoples could subsequently be persecuted everywhere because they were sovereign nowhere. In the interwar
period, she argued, blacks and Jews were principal victims of "racism" precisely because they represented
stateless diasporas rather than localizable ethnic claims to self-determination. Arendt saw clearly that
describing stateless peoples (Jews/Tutsis) as "races" had made genocide conceivable to movements and
parties advocating the expulsion or direct elimination of natives by settlers or vice versa. The
problem posed by the Eichmann trial, as Arendt describes it, is that the very logic under which Zionism
was a fitting response to the Holocaust is based on the conceptual framework that had made
genocide thinkable (see Arendt, Origins, Part II).
- While Arendt believes that, ultimately, there is a legal and moral rationale for convicting Eichmann
(Eichmann 278-9), she finds the project of building nationhood on the notion of the righteous
victim to be essentially antithetical to the ideal of democratic citizenship as a way to produce a
legitimately ruling majority through persuasion and cooperation. Once nationality becomes the
dominant trope of victimhood, every group that claims to be a victim may use the term "nation" to claim
virtual sovereignty, at least to the extent that it has immunity from being judged by its "other" and that it has a privileged
right to judge itself. In Arendt's view, Zionism now epitomized such claims: what had begun as a
political critique of a cult of victimhood in religious Judaism had become the secular equivalent
of such a cult--a nation grounded on survivorship in a place of refuge.
Justice, Peace, and Patience
- It has become part of the moral history of the twentieth century that Jews, the paradigmatic victims
of the Holocaust, can also be said to claim an ethic of the neighbor as their distinctive contribution to world
political thought. The post-Holocaust thought of Lévinas, for example, articulates this ethic as a relation to a "face" rather than to a place.
One's implementation in a landscape, one's attachment to Place . . . is the very splitting of
humanity into natives and strangers. . . . Technology does away with the privileges of this enrootedness and
the related sense of exile. It . . . wrenches us out of . . . the superstitions surrounding Place.
From this point on, an opportunity appears to us: to perceive men outside the situation in which they are
placed, and let the human face shine in all its nudity. Socrates preferred the town, in which one meets
people, to the countryside and trees. Judaism is the brother of the Socratic message. . . . It remained
faithful in this way to the highest value. The Bible knows only a Holy Land, a fabulous land that spews forth
the unjust, a land in which one does not put down roots without certain conditions. (Difficult
- Without belaboring the obvious tension suggested here between the message of Judaism, thus
described, and political Zionism, it is clear that this quote privileges the position of the refugee over
the claims of both settler and native, and treats the territory as a place of refuge harboring potential
neighbors for whom bad history is always yet to come. The space of the neighbor (the neighborhood) is no
longer a "situation" for which we share attachments; it is here mystified as a pure relationship of being
in the presence of, and answerable to, another face. What makes this relationship quintessentially
ethical, according to Lévinas, is that the neighbor does not approach us first with the political
identify of friend or foe, and with the claim to be recognized accordingly. Rather, the neighbor's first
demand is placed upon us by pure proximity--not because we feel closer to our neighbor than to
someone else, but because his proximity makes us answer for our responsibility to the more distant
stranger for whom he also substitutes (see "Substitution"). In Lévinas's ethic of the neighbor,
"The proximity of the neighbor--the peace of proximity--is the responsibility of the ego for an other"
("Peace and Proximity" 167).
- Proximity thus functions for Lévinas as a special case of distance--the case in which we must address our lack of
any relationship to another human except the ethical one, which is exposure and nothing more. Not only is the neighbor someone whom we cannot really know: Lévinas believes (here following Frantz
Rosensweig) that the neighbor comes before us as a stranger to himself in just the same sense that, in
his presence, we
too can no longer presume to know ourselves. Some Lacanians use the term "extimacy" to describe this
non-relationship of humanitarian ethics, and distinguish the demands of pure proximity from the relations of
closeness we call intimate.
In this respect, Lévinas anticipates the recent thought of Giorgio Agamben, who asks us to "imagine
two political communities insisting on the same region and in a condition of mutual exodus from each other."
In such an "aterritorial . . . space," "the being-in-exodus of the citizen" would oppose itself to the
limitations of the nation-state (Agamben, "Beyond Human Rights" 24-5). "The political survival of
humankind is today thinkable," Agamben goes on to say, "only in a world in which the spaces of states
thus perforated and topologically deformed and in which the citizen has been able to recognize the refugee
that he or she is" (26).
- If Agamben now directly seizes on the ethical figure of the neighbor as refugee, it is still
Lévinas who insists that in responding to each other as beings-in-exodus, our respective "stories"
must not matter. The ethical point--for Lévinas the whole point--is that the neighbor is someone to
whom we must respond merely because he is there. Our response, therefore, must not be to reproduce
an historical narrative of our interaction: Which of us arrived first? Who must leave first? Which of us is
"allergic," and which is the allergen? We must, rather, respond to the neighbor's need outside of history--we
must, unavoidably, answer to his presence itself, even before deciding what to do.
The face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness is for me at once the temptation to kill and
the call to peace, the "You shall not kill." The face which already accuses me makes me suspicious but
already claims me and demands me. (167)
- Precariousness and defenselessness are, of course, typical of the plight of refugees, but even more
fundamentally they are the source of the dogma of the "sacredness" of human life on which human rights
interventionism rests. As Agamben demonstrates, homo sacer in Roman Law refers originally to an
exception from the prohibition on murder, the life that may be taken with impunity by either ruler
or neighbor without having the religious significance of a sacrifice or a sacrilege:
Agamben here suggests that the asserted priority of ethics over politics, which is the kernel of the
fin-de-siècle ideology of human rights interventionism, is itself symptomatic of a political
condition in which precariousness and defenselessness are presupposed--and which humanitarian interventions
themselves both mitigate and reproduce.
Subtracting itself from the sanctioned form of both human and divine law . . . homo sacer . . .
preserves the memory of the originary exclusion through which the political dimension was first constituted.
. . . The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and
sacred life . . . is the life that has been captured in this sphere . . . . [T]he production of bare
life is the originary activity of sovereignty. The sacredness of life, which is invoked today as an
absolutely fundamental right in opposition to sovereign power, in fact originally expresses precisely both
life's subjection to a power over death and life's irreparable exposure in the relation of abandonment. . . .
[T]he sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures that have the same structure and are
correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri,
and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns. . . . Life is sacred only
insofar as it is taken into the . . . originary exception in which human life is included in the political
order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed. (Homo Sacer 82-85)
- I believe that when ethics opposes itself to politics in this way (especially when
it claims to be humanitarian) it should be seen politically as
well. Politically, the humanitarian move in ethics constitutes a deliberate attempt to dehistoricize and decontextualize what may be a structural
problem, so as to focus on the quality of interpersonal encounters occurring in relatively close proximity. Ethically, it is a refusal to mythologize
human suffering by reconnecting it to religious sacrifice--or its modern secular equivalent, suffering on behalf of others. When suffering becomes morally meaningful in this way, or must be made so through future
action, then ethics may call for a
continuation, or even a recommencement, of political struggle, and so we are back to politics once more.
- I suggested early in this essay that the post-Cold-War assertions of the primacy of humanitarian
ethics have effectively functioned as a spatializing move within global politics; our present discussion
allows me to say more about how this occurs and what it means for aspirations of justice. The type of
proximity that has ethical significance, according to Lévinas, is not spatial proximity alone, but
rather what he calls the encounter with "exteriority." His most important work, Totality and
Infinity, is subtitled "an essay on exteriority," and here and elsewhere, he makes clear that
proximity as exteriority is not reducible to spatial contiguity. There must also be what he calls
"non-coincidence," which is modeled on the relationship of different moments in time. "Time signifies this
always of non-coincidence, but also the always of the relationship . . . It is a distance
that is also a proximity" (Time and the Other 32). The ethical move against politics, according
to Lévinas, amounts to a "deformalization" of the dominant metaphor of time in which the past is
"irreducible to a hypothetical present that it once was" and is replaced by "an immemorial past, signified
without ever having been present" ("Diachrony and Representation" 170, 172). The past is essentially not
present, both in the ordinary sense and because it signifies non-presence. Lévinas says that, in
focusing on the present, as opposed to the "re-presentation" of the past, ethics effectively "leaves
time" for devotion to the other (173, 175).
Time is the mode of reality of a separated being that has entered into relation with the Other. The space of
time has to be taken as a point of departure. . . . The being, thus defined has its time at its disposal
because it postpones violence. . . [it] seizes upon the time left it by its being against death. . . .
Consciousness is resistance to violence. Human freedom resides in . . . the prevision of the violence
imminent in the time that still remains. To be conscious is to have time. . . . To be free is to have time to
forestall one's own abdication under the threat of violence. (Totality and Infinity 232-7)
- Late in life, Lévinas described his "essential theme" as the replacement of a formal conception of
time (in which past, present, and future are separate, continuous and essentially alike) with an examination
of the conditions under which the past disappears and the future becomes imminent. What constitutes, he asks,
"the passation of the past, the presentification of the present, and the futurition of the future?" ("The
Other" 233). From this question we can discern what relation his ethics of the neighbor has to the experience of space and
time as understood, for example, by Kant. Instead of being an a priori background (or matrix) within which
ethical experience becomes possible, time for Lévinas is created by ethics. The ultimate
product of ethics is more time, the postponement of death and suffering for the sake of others, and
not right action for its own sake. For Lévinas, the highest aim is peace, not justice in any sense that
might require breaching peace in the neighborhood.
- These differences between Lévinas and Kant are, I believe, prototypical of the difference
between human rights discourse that purports to come "after Auschwitz" and earlier accounts of the Rights of
Man. The metaphor of pastness is necessary to propagate the belief that genocide is now unthinkable, but for
Lévinas, unlike for Kant, genocide could not become unthinkable in exactly
the way that moving backward in time is unthinkable. Evil, in Lévinas, refers to a temporality of
fearing others--a time of political and social struggle--that is adjourned by peace with one's neighbor,
which is a different kind of time (see Peace and Proximity 220-53 and Totality and
- Peace, according to Lévinas, is the paradigmatic ethical relation between One and an Other in proximity--between Two. In a sense
well-illustrated by the story of Girumuhatse's return to the dwelling of his victims, "proximity is a disturbance of rememberable time" ("Substitution"
89). As a relationship of pure exteriority between two neighbors, each of whom can never
know the other's inner life, peace is entirely different in its
origin and demands from the political pursuit of justice:
Lévinas's answer is to acknowledge that politics (or any scene of the Three) involves comparison, reciprocity, and equality that lie outside of
ethics--which is always about peace rather than
justice, and presumes human incommensurability. By openly removing questions of justice that do not involve
interpersonal cruelty from the field of ethics, Lévinas provides a substantive account of what
remains. His ethic of the neighbor can thus be considered a necessary complement to the
politics-without-redistribution which today's humanitarian ethic largely presupposes. Although Lévinas
himself was not opposed to economic or other aid that may relieve
useless suffering, for him the duty to rescue comes first. His view remains the only positive ethical
account we have of what it could mean
to treat the Holocaust as prime evil that does not refer us back to a story about who did what to whom in
some previous moment like the present.
Responsibility for the other human being is . . . anterior to every question. But how does responsibility
obligate if a third party troubles this exteriority of the two where my subjection of the subject is
subjection to the neighbor? The third party is other than the neighbor but also another neighbor, and also
the neighbor of the other, and not simply their fellow. What am I to do? What have they already done to one
another? . . . What, then, are the other and the third party with respect to one another? Birth of the question.
("Peace and Proximity" 168)
- It is, of course, possible to attack Lévinas using Carl Schmitt's argument against the
discourse of humanitarian intervention following the Treaty of Versailles: that it creates a casus
belli against the forces of "inhumanity," especially when they claim to be pursuing historical justice
in ways that disturb the peace by treating the "other" as the "same" (Schmitt, The Concept of the
Political 71). Suicide bombings would seem to be a paradigmatic example of this: encountering the
other as a disguised human bomb would suggest that fear of her and fear for her are not as
fundamentally distinct as Lévinas himself claims.
When we rescue the suicide bomber are we saving her or ourselves? And if we murder her instead, what becomes
of us? Do we reveal ourselves, like those whom Lévinas condemns, to be more afraid of dying than of
killing? What does it mean for her to be equally unafraid of both? And does her self-chosen death qualify her
as a martyr or a monster, whether or not she succeeds in bringing innocent others to their deaths along with her? In certain
political "neighborhoods," Lévinas's concept of the ultimately unknowable human face can be both ethical
and awful in ways that reopen the possibility of a horrifying response.
- The ethical temptation to treat suicide bombers as "inhumans" in human disguise applies a
fortiori to the politics of third-party intervention raised at the beginning of this essay: when
neighbors kill neighbors, whom do we rescue and whom do we attack? Is the third party in this situation
just another neighbor? It is not clear that Lévinas would condone humanitarian intervention by
force as what Ignatieff would call a "lesser evil," but it is clear that for Lévinas suffering and
for others have ethical value for the person who undergoes them in a way that no other suffering does
("Useless Suffering" 94; see also Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil). He calls this value
"patience," a kind of morally valuable suffering that is the exception to his ethical condemnation of
suffering in general.
This ultimate passivity which nonetheless turns into action and into hope, is patience--the
passivity of undergoing, and yet mastery itself. In patience disengagement within engagement is effected. . .
. Extreme passivity becomes extreme mastery. . . . thus alone does violence remain endurable in patience. It
is produced only in a world where I can die as a result of someone and for someone.
(Totality and Infinity 238-9)
- Lévinas here speaks of patience in a sense that is more than narrowly philosophical. It is for
him what makes otherwise useless suffering meaningful for a humanitarian intervener. For the intervener the
ethical question is always one of patience: how long? Lévinas thus calls "the time of patience itself
. . . the dimension of the political." He says this because "in patience . . . the will is transported to a
life against someone and for someone" (Totality and Infinity 240).
Lévinas's abhorrence of human suffering becomes ambiguous when it is undergone for moral reasons, such
as rescuing the victims of atrocity or disaster or bringing suicide bombings to an end. The lesson that human
rights discourse has drawn from its understanding of the Holocaust is both that suffering is
meaningless when it is not for anyone and that sacrifices of those who rescue (at least to the
extent of providing humanitarian aid) represents the "high-mindedness that is the honor of a still uncertain,
still vacillating modernity, emerging at the end of a century of unutterable suffering." Lévinas goes
on to say,
The just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the other, opens suffering to the ethical
perspective of the inter-human. In this perspective there is a radical difference between the suffering
in the other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and suffering in
me. ("Useless Suffering" 94)
- It would here seem that for Lévinas the commitment to treat suffering as useless (and, thus, to
reject any theodicy that justifies evil) is limited to the suffering of the second-person, the one whom we
encounter face-to-face. Pain that is undergone in the first person can be ethically meaningful when
it is experienced as a compassionate response to the call for aid, thus bridging the gap that might otherwise
exist between patience and ethics. Ironically (or not), this ethically significant suffering for
others also describes the interiority of a Lévinasian third party (the peacekeeper) who intervenes
between the two in order to stop the repetition of history and to create (ex nihilo) more time. For "the world community," patience is what it means to put ethics ahead of
- Although few, if any, contemporary political actors are directly influenced by him, Lévinas
provides the most experientially accurate description of liberal humanitarian politics after Auschwitz. This
politics represents itself as a morally useful way of feeling bad because one always comes too late to help
and it is always too soon to make a final judgment. This is in practice what it means to put ethics first
after Auschwitz, and still engage in politics. It also, however, reveals the incoherence of an ethical view
that puts the condemnation of cruelty before all else, an ethics grounded in the seemingly "incontestable"
condemnation of human suffering as self-evident evil. This incoherence, as I have already suggested, arises from the extraction of the neighborhood as a
space for humanitarian ethics out of a prior conception of sovereignty that is both political and
theological. Schmitt understood implicitly that politics is not simply a matter of one's own life or
death; it is also the imperative to protect friends and countrymen from the enemies
that endanger them, an imperative that gives meaning to one's own patriotic suffering, even if it ends in death. The
politically driven individual, according to Schmitt, is ultimately
willing both to die and to kill for
others--he is, thus, potentially both rescuer and murderer. For Schmitt, the essential truth of
politics is that the ethical duty to rescue one who is in danger presupposes that there is another who can be
legitimately attacked for endangerment. He thus famously declares it is "the Sovereign . . .who decides on
the exception," and this includes, he takes pains to stress, the
exceptions to our compassion for the suffering of others (Political Theology 5). For Schmitt, there is always an enemy (real
or imagined) when one comes to the aid of a friend; and always a friend (real or imagined) when one does violence
to an enemy. Because my relations to a sovereign third are always prior to my direct relations of hospitality
with or hostility for another, politics is presumed to come before ethics.
- There is no one whom Lévinasian ethics opposes more than Schmitt--we have here the refugee
versus the Nazi--yet their two views are structurally homologous. Both Schmitt and Lévinas would
agree that politics arises in the space of
the three, and ethics in the space of the two. Lévinas, however, merely suggests that the introduction of a third
into the ethical space gives birth to new political questions about justice that do not in themselves eclipse
the ethical problem of cruelty face-to-face. Schmitt, in his stress on the constitutive role of enmity in
creating the space of friendship, never speaks to the face-to-face responsibilities friends have to each
other--a topic stressed by his younger contemporary, Hannah Arendt, who was also primarily concerned with the
- What is fundamentally common to Schmitt and Lévinas is their replacement of an Hegelian
view of politics as a struggle for recognition arising from an originary battle-to-the-death with the view that the originary relationship is, rather,
between rescuer and victim, always in the presumed presence of some third whose ethical position is unknowable. This is the
core conceptual structure of humanitarian ethics (as opposed to both revolutionary and totalitarian ethics).
It explains why the duty to rescue and the right to wage war are born together in the sovereign act that
distinguishes the space of ethics from the purely political. At the end of a century dominated by the
dialectic of revolution and counter-revolution, a turn to Lévinas and/or Schmitt can help us
understand the post-Cold War linkage between the global and the local as at once a humanitarian
relation between rescuers and victims and a political doctrine of pre-emptive third party intervention.
Fidelity, Justice, and the Value of Suffering
- We have seen that in humanitarian ethics after Auschwitz, the duty of rescuers toward victims receives
primacy over all claims based on a political good that purports to supersede such a duty. No one has gone
further than Lévinas in exploring the implications of this shift for pre-existing notions of
ethical responsibility in relation to the political, and no one has attacked humanitarian ethics for its
implicitly Lévinasian core more pointedly than Badiou.
- The essence of Badiou's attack is that humanitarian ethics is nothing other than a politics--in fact,
the politics of victimhood.
Badiou's critique of the politics of victimhood is, first, that it implicitly reproduces the evils of
imperialism in a humanitarian guise.
[This] . . . ethics subordinates the identification of [the universal human Subject] to the universal
recognition of the evil that is done to him. Ethics thus defines man as a victim. It will be objected: 'No!
You are forgetting the active subject, the one that intervenes against barbarism! So let us be precise: man
is the being who is capable of recognizing himself as a victim. (Ethics 10)
Two further objections, Badiou says, follow from this: one is that an ethics grounded in our direct recognition
of evil through atrocity stories and the like tends to dismiss any positive conception of the Good as
merely desensitizing us to the cruelties committed in its name; the other is that, by attributing Evil to our
general insensitivity to the pain of others, humanitarian ethics "prevents itself from thinking the
singularity of situations as such" (13-14). Beyond these criticisms, however, is a more profound point that
goes to the heart of the Lévinasian view: Badiou argues that humanitarian ethics is "nihilist because
its underlying conviction is that the only thing that can really happen to someone is death" (35).
Humanitarian ethics thus oscillates, according to Badiou, between the implicit conservatism of Western
beliefs about "the victimary essence of man" and a nearly pornographic fascination with the power to decide
about seemingly exotic victims (because "we" can always intervene) who will die and who will not (34-9).
Who cannot see that this ethics which rests on the misery of the world hides, behind its victim-Man, the
good-Man, the white-Man? Since the barbarity of the situation is considered only in terms of "human
rights"--whereas in fact we are always dealing with a political situation. . . . Every intervention in the
name of a civilization requires an initial contempt for the situation as a whole, including its
victims. And this is why the reign of "ethics" coincides, after decades of courageous critiques of
colonialism and imperialism, with today's sordid self-satisfaction in the "West," with the insistent argument
according to which the misery of the Third World is the result of its own incompetence, its own inanity--in
short, of its subhumanity. (13)
- As a political critic of Lévinasian ethics, Badiou is in my opinion on the right track, but his
ethical argument depends upon the claim that "something can really happen to someone" that matters more than
death. He calls this ethically transformative happening within a "situation" an "event." But
Badiou's formal definition of the "event" is not in itself illuminating, and may even be circular. What matters for his argument against humanitarian
ethics is his substantive assertion that human suffering and death are not "events" in the ethically
relevant sense of demanding a life lived in fidelity to their universal "truth." Badiou's point is
partially correct insofar as my death is not an event in my life in this or any other sense--but there is no good reason why my own intense suffering or my
exposure to the suffering or mass murder of others may not be an event that is ethically transformative of my life. Indeed, humanitarian ethics is based on
the proposition that Auschwitz was precisely this kind of transformative event, and that nothing can be the same for humanity thereafter.
- Contrary to Badiou's assertion, Auschwitz as a trope of inhumanity can, and does, demand
fidelity to the truth of what happened there. A subsequent "Politics of Memory" means
nothing if it is not grounded on the ethical virtue of fidelity to that event. Auschwitz would not qualify as an "event" for Badiou because he thinks
that (unlike the storming of the Bastille or the October Revolution) the "truth" of Auschwitz is not universal--it does not have the same significance for
This argument, however, rests on the assumption--ultimately empirical--that fidelity to Auschwitz gives
special significance to the death of
Jews (or any other victim group, such as Christian Poles and Roma who are also commemorated). Humanitarian
ethics claims, rather, that the Holocaust now has the "universal" meaning embodied in
the 1948 Genocide
Convention, that genocide as such (the extermination of particular groups) should "never again" occur
(see Lemkin and Power, "A Problem from Hell," chs. 1-4). We have here, in
other words, a
standard Hegelian claim about the universal manifesting itself through the particular that is an
apparent a counterexample to Badiou's formal assertion that particular atrocities cannot attain the
universal significance of ethical truth.
- Badiou's rejection of humanitarian ethics is, thus, implausible if it rests only on the claim
that atrocity-events cannot take the form of universal ethical truths without the further distinction
he draws between an ethical truth and what he regards as its "simulacrum" or "corruption." For
Badiou, Nazi genocide was no more an event than Nazism itself, which, he says, was merely a reaction to
the genuine event of the Russian Revolution, and hence a simulacrum. Fidelity to a simulacrum, according to Badiou, produces a singularity of
terror, as opposed to the desirable militancy of universal truth.
- Badiou concedes, however, that "Nazi
politics was not a truth process, but it was only in so far as it could be represented as such that it
'seized' the German situation" (66). He then goes on to concede that
the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 was "formally indistinguishable from an
event" (73, 117). In contrast to Nazi terror, Badiou regards Stalinist and Jacobin terror as
"corruptions" of the genuine events of 1917 and
1789, respectively--a bit better than simulacra, but not much.
- In resting his argument against humanitarian ethics on our ability (or his) to
directly the difference between a truth and simulacra or corruption, Badiou deliberately opens
himself to the charge that a politics of fidelity to truth, now common to both Left and Right, was
responsible for the cruelties of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Badiou's principal expositor,
Peter Hallward, presents this as a virtue: Badiou deliberately opens
himself to the charge that a politics of fidelity to truth, now common to both Left and Right, was responsible
for the cruelties of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Badiou's principal expositor, Peter Hallward, presents this as a
Badiou is one of the very few contemporary thinkers prepared to accept the certainty of violence and the risk
of disaster implicit in all genuine thought. . . . Since evil is something that happens to a truth or in
proximity to truth, there can be no fail-safe defense against evil that does not foreclose the possibility of
truth. (257, 264)
- The essence of Badiou's position is that, even after Auschwitz, there can be genuine
events--revolutionary openings--and that serious political thought must allow for this possibility by
placing political militancy ahead of all other ethical claims that the event calls forth. Yet
Badiou's formal definition of an "event" makes him no less dependent on subjective
consensus than are his humanitarian opponents, who ground ethics on our ability to know an atrocity when we see it. Badiou's account of fidelity
to events as the ethics of political action adds little to what we ordinarily mean by "revolution," as
distinguishable, for example, from a reaction or a counterrevolution. To "keep on acting in fidelity to an
is, thus, indistinguishable from conforming oneself to the possibility that revolution can occur, and thus
militantly opposing the forces of reaction and counterrevolution by naming them as such (see Bensaid 94-105). This being said,
Badiou's conceptions of the "event" and of "truth" add nothing but a level of abstraction to our understanding
of revolution, reaction and counterrevolution--and are not readily intelligible without relying on these
- Badiou's particular notion of "fidelity" is, however, a genuine contribution to the ethics of
revolutionary thought. Fidelity is typically dismissed by secularists ethics as the virtue that a
convert (or "true believer") claims instead of personal empathy or compassion. Badiou agrees
with Lacan, however, that fidelity can be a virtue nonetheless, and that questions of fidelity, perseverance, and betrayal lie at the core of
ethics. For Lacan this ethical fidelity is to the Real of one's
desire, and thus involves a relation to others that exceeds the imagery and
symbols through which conscious feelings, like compassion, are experienced. For Badiou the object of
fidelity is not a desire but an event, which is not just a
memory but rather something more like a revelation--a temporal interruption of logical relationships
that binds the subject through belief (Badiou, "Eight
Theses" 150). It seems to me undeniable, however, that some who practice the ethics of "Never Again"
(and the associated "Politics of Memory ") do in fact claim the virtues associated with fidelity
to an event so defined. So Badiou's account of fidelity is not
in itself a reason to reject the Ethic of No-Evil in favor of the militant revolutionary ethics for
which he calls. "Fidelity, " as Badiou understands it, is the internal ethic associated with any
militant politics, including the politics of rescuing victims from their foes under the humanitarian
banner of putting ethics first.
- The kernel of Badiou's objection to humanitarian ethics lies neither in his formal account of what
ethics is nor his embrace of fidelity as a virtue, but rather in his substantive claim that the
suffering/martyrdom of the flesh is not an
independent source of ethical value. The most sustained presentation of Badiou's view occurs in his book
on Saint Paul. Paul is here presented as the paradigm of ethical militancy based on a conversion event and
faithful adherence to its truth. I am less concerned, however, with Badiou's account of what fidelity to
Christ meant for Paul, than with his account of the Christian event itself. The burden of Badiou's
argument is that, according to Paul, it was the resurrection and not the crucifixion that
constitutes the universal "event" to which Christians maintain fidelity (see Badiou, Saint
Paul, ch. 6). Why? Because death and suffering were old hat for mankind, but rebirth and eternal
life were something new in the world and are now promised to all who believe:
One sees what Badiou means about Paul--he was no Mel Gibson--and his fidelity to Christ has
characteristics in common with Lenin's fidelity to Marx in 1917 (7; see also Zizek, "Afterword: Lenin's
Choice"). Badiou, however, gives no good argument against
interpreting Paul's Christianity as the faith that Christ's suffering and death atoned for the sins of
mankind, an article of Christian faith which can be held quite separately from a belief in Christ's bodily
For Paul himself . . . the event is not death, it is resurrection. . . . Suffering plays no role in Paul's
apologetic, not even in the case of Christ's death. The weak, abject character of that death is certainly
important for him, insofar as the treasure of the event . . . has to reside in an earthen vessel. But for
Paul . . . the share of suffering is inevitable. . . . [I]n Paul there is certainly the Cross, but no path of
the Cross. There is Calvary, but no ascent to Calvary . . . Paul's preaching includes no masochistic
propaganda extolling the virtues of suffering, no pathos of the crown of thorns, flagellations, oozing blood,
or the gall-soaked sponge. . . . What constitutes the event in Christ is exclusively the Resurrection.
(Saint Paul 66-8)
- Although Badiou fails to demonstrate convincingly that Christ's Passion, or, for that matter,
Auschwitz, could not
qualify (for purely formal reasons) as an event to which fidelity is possible, he does reopen the possibility
that mass atrocities are not the only events that qualify, and that political revolutions (even or
especially those that failed) might also be ethically transformative--not because of those who died, but
because of the hopes for justice that were raised.
- Does this mean that we must leave the argument here--as a choice between martyrdom and revolution,
between an ethics of fear that Auschwitz will be repeated and one of hope for a future justice? Are we stuck at the present moment between the
humanitarianism of Lévinas and Badiou's radicalism, rooted in an extreme claim for the autonomy
and primacy of politics?
- If I thought this were our choice, I would reluctantly side with Badiou: my general preference is
for action rather than patience; justice rather than peace; politics rather than ethics; and, perhaps,
also for truth rather than feeling. But the most serious arguments that Badiou gives for his alternative to
Lévinasian ethics are not themselves ethical, but rather mathematical. They concern the way that
set theory represents the truth of the exception ("what happens") within the ontological set of
(see Badiou, "The Event as Trans-Being"). The ethical relevance Badiou draws from set theory is
that truths of this kind can be added to languages and
bodies as the raw subject matter of ethics. If ethics were concerned only with languages and
pain--then ethics would be a matter of understanding others' minds while rescuing their bodies;
but because there are also truths, Badiou argues, ethics opens the possibility of fidelity to something more
real than our present situation, and something that is constitutively outside it. This, of course, assumes
that both ontology and politics precede ethics--that "what there is" is affected by "what
happens" through subjective fidelity to the hope that there can be something more.
- But Lévinas makes an ethical argument against all of these assumptions: What if Badiou's
fidelity to the event were to cause pain in the sense of useless suffering for the other? If insensitivity to
that pain is the ultimate evil, then is this not an ethical argument against actions thought be consistent
with the truth of an event such as the Russian Revolution, or May '68? Is it ethically wrong to place the
ontological truth of what happened then ahead of the feelings of others now?
Why, ethically speaking, must we seek anything more?
- A Lévinasian objection to Badiou would hold, I think, if physical suffering is the worst evil, save for the willingness to condone such
suffering in others. We can, however, question the conception of
ethics and human agency that presupposes, even after Auschwitz, that bodily pain and physical cruelty are the
two worst things, unconditionally, and that ethics is about nothing more. What do suffering subjects lack
and want that politics (and its
accompanying fantasies) supply? How do we expect them to feel about themselves, and the rest of us, when
these political fantasies take hold--and what are we, and they, permitted to do with such expectations? What
are the specific ethical views of suffering and human agency that lie behind present-day humanitarian
discourse, and what forms of politics do they allow and disallow? Answering these questions will allow
us to say more
about what is wrong with the moral psychology of victimhood, beyond observing that the pursuit of justice is
missing from it at any level but that of face-to-face interactions.
- 91. First, however, we must question the generality of the core assumption behind all humanitarian
ethics: that pain has no moral meaning for those who suffer it. In a brilliant article, the political
anthropologist Talal Asad challenges the claim that,
after Auschwitz, our primary ethical responsibility
must be to alleviate pain and to avoid causing it. This view, he argues, denies agency to those who
suffer pain--it assumes they do not suffer willingly--and invests agency in those who aid them. It denies the intelligibility and efficacy of a moral view
in which pain (of certain kinds and at certain times) is actively sought as a way of achieving or representing moral virtue:
Christian and Islamic traditions have, in their different way, regarded suffering as the working through of
worldly evil. For the suffering subject, not all pain is to be avoided; some pain must be
actively endured if evil is to be transcended. ("Thinking" 92)
- Asad's point here brings us back to the moral imperative of "Never Again." The humanitarian ethics
that took root a half-century after Auschwitz repudiates, above all, the belief that human suffering has
moral significance for those who undergo it, and therefore argues that we must not turn away. Although there
are many other compelling reasons not to turn away when atrocities occur, the view that human suffering is
the ultimate evil is not the right one. Moral agency, Asad suggests, is psychosomatic, in potentially good ways: it can induce states of bodily agony that
saints, martyrs, and their acolytes regard as valuable achievements, and also (we might add) states of
happiness (eudaimonia) that are at once mental
and physical in a strong Socratic sense that removes the agony of death (see Vlastos
200-35). Even Lévinas acknowledges, as we have seen,
the distinction between useless suffering and morally valuable suffering--between pain that is inflicted and pain that is actively sought on behalf of
others, or as a way to improve or expiate one's soul. The former can be understood through the post-Freudian
concept of trauma--pain that may or may not be conscious when first suffered, and that may
be repeated even when it is not remembered. It is primarily trauma (with its tendency to repetition) that is consciously
experienced as happening again, and is, thus, the appropriate target of the imperative "Never
- Morally significant pain--the pain of love, sacrifice, and even martyrdom--is better designated by the
word "agony." Agony may be no less intense than trauma, but it is never suffered unconsciously. Agony, moreover,
is not something that is generally experienced by the sufferer or by bystanders to be happening again,
but is something to be remembered and even honored as a moral singularity. Suffering agony (or
religious passion) is generally considered to be morally transformative, and is sometimes actively sought.
For this reason, stories of agony, the agony of saints and martyrs in particular, are considered to be
exemplary, and sometimes (as in the passion of Christ) to serve as redemptive sacrifices on behalf of the
community as a whole (pace Badiou's interpretation of Paul).
- Humanitarian ethics after Auschwitz reflects a cultural tendency to respond to all agony (whether
moral or not) as though it were psychological trauma that becomes worse through the experience of repetition.
This tendency severely truncates our own moral vocabulary in dealing with our feelings towards those
whom we do and don't aid, and makes us less and less capable of grasping the moral psychology of those who
are capable of killing and dying for reasons of political theology. To make this point, however, we need not
deny (with Lévinas) that events are morally compelling along with languages and bodies; nor need we
deny (along with Badiou) that historical trauma can constitute events of a morally compelling kind, alongside
revolutions. It is enough to say that physical suffering, the body in pain, is not an ethical absolute that
renders moot political analysis and politically motivated action.
- Once we stop using ethics as an evasion of politics, the ways in which the ethics of the
neighbor are also a politics come into clear view. Thinking politically, we can decide when and
whether to dehistoricize, to spatialize, and to localize broader problems--and when to rely on the compassion
of the television-viewing public by presenting images of pain. We can also see once again that there is ethical virtue
in struggle and not only in reconciliation; in action and not simply in patience; in justice and not only in
peace. Finally, we can focus our appropriate concern with human suffering as much on the global forces that
operate at a distance as on cruelties committed face-to-face.
Department of Politics
University of California, Santa Cruz
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Kenneth Reinhard for convening the group, and
for the exceptionally helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper (as well as the larger project of which it is a
part) by the subgroup on "The Ethics and Politics of Proximity": Rei Terada, Dana Cuff, and Eleanor Kaufman.
1. For distinguished recent contributions
see Power, "A Problem From Hell," and Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry.
2. I here adapt a formulation from Badiou's Languages of
3. For recent examples see Card; Neiman; Glover; Copjec; Nino;
Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz; Cohen, Interrupting Auschwitz; and, most notably, Adorno.
4. The claim here is not that genocide arises only in periods
of colonialism, but rather that the framework in which genocide becomes thinkable derives from the moral
logic of colonialism.
5. For the relation between these two points of origin, see Seed.
6. For a recent discussion of the Haitian paradigm in the work
of C.L.R. James, see Scott.
7. See Todorov, who puts the conquest of the New World in the
context of the Reconquista of Spain and the Inquisition.
8. See Agamben, Homo Sacer for a critical
genealogy of the present-day conception of the sacredness of life as the foundation of human rights. For
the political implications of this development, see Rancière.
9. See Gross, Gourevitch, and Lindqvist, Exterminate the Brutes. On "exterminism" as
both a policy and a fantasy, see Goldhagen, esp. parts I and VI.
10. See Hesse and Post. For a discussion of transitional justice
following the U.S. Civil War, see Meister, "Forgiving and Forgetting."
11. See Kateb. See also Shklar, "The Liberalism of Fear" and
"Putting Cruelty First." For a further discussion of Shklar's argument, see Meister, "The Liberalism of
Fear and the Counterrevolutionary Project."
12. Cf. Badiou, Ethics 10ff and Meister, "Human
Rights and the Politics of Victimhood."
13. See Klein, "Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive
States" and "Some Reflections on the Oresteia." See also Segal.
14. See Klein's "Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms," and "A
Contribution to the Psycho-genesis of Manic-Depressive States." See also entries 9, 11, and 13 in
15. See Rorty for arguments grounding human rights on our subjectively contingent capacity to
"feel for each other."
16. "My awareness of my ethical obligation must not depend on any 'gesture' of claiming (literally or
figuratively) to 'comprehend' the other" (Putnam 55, and see 41, 54).
17. Freud, Totem and Taboo 161; Group Psychology
57-146; Moses and Monotheism 1-138.
18. See Glover, Rummel, and Power, "Never Again" and "A
Problem From Hell". The concept of "genocide" itself was invented by legal scholar Raphaël
Lemkin immediately after World War II, based on his seminal study of Nazi policies toward the populations
of occupied countries.
19. Zizek, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real,
discusses 9/11 in the context of such films as "Independence Day" and "The Matrix," which prepared us at
the level of fantasy to experience ourselves as the objects of destructive desire when the attacks
actually occurred. His psychoanalytic point, not fully spelled out, is that "terror" is what we expected
ourselves to feel in these circumstances--it was not the real trauma, but rather its fantasmatic symptom.
20. Certain genres of pornography also take a position of moral
revulsion toward what is being shown. See Dean, ch. 1.
21. I leave aside the question of how widely political leaders
who invoke such dangers are believed, or how openly they acknowledge the genocidal acts that are
rationalized on such grounds.
22. On these conventions, see Sontag and Dean, ch. 3.
23. For a dissection of press accounts of ex-Yugoslavia in the
1990s, see Feher.
24. The Wilsonian antidote to a history of political
victimization was nationhood--the right to be sovereign somewhere, even if it was somewhere else. His
internationalism describes a system for protecting the sovereign coequality of self-determining "peoples."
"All peoples and nationalities" have a right, he said, "to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with
one another, whether they be strong or weak" (Wilson 445f.).
25. Wilson's view of the protection of minority rights in the
international system is a variant of Marshallian federalism in which the local majority in a state becomes
the virtual representatives of resident out-of-state minorities, thereby respecting on an equal basis
their right to rule, albeit elsewhere. In Wilsonian internationalism, as distinct from Marshallian
federalism, the main mechanisms for protecting individual human rights are political rather than judicial.
Therefore, the principle of virtual representation has to be reversed. Instead of saying that foreign
minorities are to be treated as well as the local majority treated itself, the implicit standard is the
treatment that foreign majorities accord to their minorities. The link between Marshallian federalism and
Wilsonian internationalism is further developed in Meister, "Sojourners and Survivors." See also Meister,
"The Logic and Legacy of Dred Scott."
26. For discussions of the implementation of these ideas in the
interwar period, see Claude and Maier.
27. "Well-founded fear of persecution" is the threshold condition
for claims to political asylum under international law.
28. In the words of one scholar, "the effort of the state to
become a nation aroused the determination of the nation to become a state" (Claude 9).
29. This view has been recently restated as a comprehensive
theory of "deliberative democracy," as distinguished from "aggregative democracy." See Gutmann and
Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? and Democracy and Disagreement. See also
Koh and Slye. The standard rationale for
majority rule as a technique of aggregative democracy is given in Sen, chs. 5 and 5*. For a balanced
critique of both aggregative and deliberative conceptions of the common good, see Shapiro, chs. 1-2.
30. My account of Rwanda follows Mamdani's. For a schematic
version of his argument, see "Race and Ethnicity."
31. For a discussion of the Clinton administration's failure to
act see Power's "Bystanders to Genocide" and A Problem from Hell, ch. 10. The failures of the
UN mission are described by its commander on the ground in Dallaire.
32. In the end, the policy of extermination did not involve popular
mobilization. In the context of our overall argument, we should note that the techniques and concepts of
the Holocaust were originally developed by German settler colonialism in Southwest Africa to exterminate
the Herero natives. See Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers 10-13 and the sources cited therein.
33. See Tutu, ch. 11; for a secular version of this argument, see
Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers 270-282. Mamdani points out that in Rwanda there was not the problem of ongoing beneficiaries
that both South Africa and the U.S. faced, and so forgiveness would not stand in the way of redistribution.
(Kagame, who commanded the invading Tutsi army, was then Vice-President of Tutsi-ruled Rwanda, and is now
34. Are the murderous thoughts on which the politics of victimhood
rests unconsciously directed, as Freud's theory of depression suggests, against those who died the first
time? And is the politics of "never again" really a way of saying "not yet" to their deaths? See Freud's
"Mourning and Melancholia."
35. Was this outcome forestalled in South Africa just in the nick of
time? In the 1980s a dystopic literature was produced by liberal white South Africans imagining what it
would be like for disgraced whites to live in a post-revolutionary, black-ruled, country. See Gordimer. For a parable
reflecting the actual experience of white South Africans in the post-apartheid 1990s, see
Coetzee's Disgrace, which confronts the possibility of confession without atonement.
36. For further development of these points, see Meister, "Sojourners
37. See Höhne, chs. 13-14, esp. 333-9. This period in
Eichmann's life is well-described in Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem 58-64.
38. These were the words of Eichmann's prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. See
Segev, ch. 6. For an account of how the trial and Arendt's critique of it were received by Diaspora Jewry,
see Novick, ch. 7.
39. See Shklar, Legalism 143-179, Kirchheimer, Bass
(chs. 1 and 5), and Douglas.
40. The concerns are directly and clearly expressed in Arendt's
correspondence with Jaspers before, during, and after the trial. See Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers
Correspondence. The most relevant letters are scattered over pp. 400-500.
41. This secularized description of the Jewish ethics of the neighbor
really does make Jews responsible for all the suffering of humanity--but in a good way, and not because
they have somehow benefited from the injustice done to other groups.
42. This conception of alterity as a relation with the other's
unconscious is proposed by Santner; see 9, 82. Santner does not, however, refer to the condition he
describes as "extimacy."
43. See Rieff, Part I, and Kennedy 13-35 and 296-316. The humanitarian
response tends to be "lesser evil ethics." See Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil.
44. "The wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the
Jews by means of the term 'Holocaust' was from this perspective an irresponsible historiographical
blindness. The Jew living under Nazism is . . . a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a
life that may be killed but not sacrificed. . . .The truth--which is difficult for victims to face, but
which we must have the courage not to cover with sacrificial veils--is that the Jews were exterminated not
in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, 'as lice,' which is to say, as bare
life" (Agamben, Homo Sacer 114).
45. The paradoxes in our ethical responses to suicide bombings are
explored by Rose.
46. It is not entirely clear, by the time one comes to the following
page, whether Lévinas is endorsing or caricaturing this view of the moral pain of third
parties--the two interpretations are, perhaps, not mutually exclusive. In the footnote to this passage he
explains: "This suffering in me is so radically mine that it cannot become the subject of any preaching.
It is as suffering in me and not as suffering in general that welcome
suffering--attested to in the spiritual tradition of humanity--can signify a true idea: the expiatory
suffering of the just who suffers for others."
47. In Lévinas's secular theology, time is always created: it
arises out of the ethically anterior relationship between the two and a Third who stands outside and
suffers for their cruelty, but not from it.
48. See Arendt, The Human Condition 28-58; "Some Questions of Moral
Philosophy"; and "Thinking and Moral Considerations." Derrida fills the ethical lacunae
in Schmitt's concept of "friend" in The Politics of Friendship, chs. 4-6.
49. See Badiou, Ethics 72-77. Badiou's alternative to "Ethics as
non-Evil" is to define evils as the series of ordinary horrors that follow from pursuing with fidelity a non-truth as though it were a truth.
50. For Badiou's discussions in English of the political "event" see
Ethics, chs. 4-5. See also "The Event as Trans-Being" in Theoretical Writings
97-102, and Manifesto for Philosophy, ch. 8. See also Hallward, ch. 5.
51. This analysis is suggested in Badiou's
forthcoming Logics of Worlds.
52. For Badiou's critique of the attempt to "radicalize" the evil of
Hitler, see 62-7. His description of Marx as "an event for political thought" is on 69. He also
describes the Cultural Revolution and May 1968 as events the fidelity to which produces "a truth"
(42). In the unpublished manuscript of Logics of Worlds, he makes similar statements about
Russia in 1917, German Spartacism, and even Spartacus himself.
53. "The only thing of which one can be guilty is having given ground
relative to one's desire" (Lacan 319).
54. See Power, "A Hero of Our Time." Power here praises the ethics of
Gen. Roméo Dallaire; her own unflinching reports on genocide display similar virtues.
55. Stress on the relation of Christ's death to Jewish concepts of
atonement is, in contrast, fundamental to Taubes.
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