Towards an Ethics of Precariousness

Judith Butler is a Jewish philosopher working on an ethics of precariousness that goes back to the original project of Marx, at least as she described it to me after her lecture. While I had encountered Zizek on this precise topic of ethics a few months ago at the University of Penn lecture series, I was already reading into her argument through a lens of doubt. Doubt precisely about the use and invocation of Levinasian “face of the other” alterity as the founding basis for an ethics. In my Lacanian readings, a notion of structural misrecognition occurs prior to the ego relation which presents what Zizek refers to as a monstrous confrontation with the other. This monstrosity of ones desire and dependence on an other that is rooted along an imaginary and fantastical axis seems to be a different ground by which to formulate a possible ethical position.

More specifically, might the other come to not exist through the void of the real that it passes through? Or are the boundaries of Judith Butler’s reading of Levinas such that the traumatic encounter of precariousness and interdependence such that a Lacanian ground of alterity be included within it, or non-problematized by it? This was my question to her, and to which she responded that she was not going in a Lacanian direction because she was not interested in articulating a theory of the subject, but rather she had a specific social and political project.

Upon thinking more about this I wonder if her project precludes an idea of struggle, or might perhaps be formulated to fit within a specific social and institutional context? In other words, might an ethics of precariousness be able to fit a theory of struggle?

Butler’s work has been intimately tied to questions of Jewish identity and a searching for and desire to reformulate an ethics that might change the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and broaden Jewish conceptions of statehood and possession, plurality, and their relation to the Palestinians. What makes our ethical encounter possible? She argues that we engaged in a unconsensual type of ethics. Through a reading of the philosopher of alterity (I – other relations and ontology) Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt on global citizenship, Butler put together a quite solid argument for a precarious ethics.

What the Image Demands of Us

We are compelled by distant suffering. As such, we do not merely receive information from the media passively, but we are affronted by something beyond our will and this presents us with an ethical demand. Ethical demands that stem from the image do not require our consent – nor are they rooted in social contracts. There is something unchosen in the image of suffering that articulates something on us without our consent, which makes all responsibility implicated in the realm of the nonconsensual.

All ethical demands depend on a limited reversibility of proximity and distance – Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia and his image became the face of a revolution. The image of his face, a simple headshot, figured him outside of the same horrific and direct image of the Buddhists in flames during Vietnam. Yet it was this image that transported a proximate ethical action which set the dominoes in movement from Tunisia to Egypt and so on.

Ethical relations are mediated in the midst of the digital, for which Hegel’s notion ethics fits in the context of a global ethical arrangement where what happens there also happens here. The ethical claim takes place in a here and a there that are reversible. Such a response shows a global connectedness – to be unprepared for the media image that overwhelms requires an ability to negotiate the ethical in a global context.

No longer is it entirely possible to claim that what is happening so far from me does not somehow make me responsible for it. Yet it often seems that we have to be overwhelmed to act. One might argue that media images in and of themselves of distant or proximate suffering do not present ethical demands in and of themselves because of the foreclosure inherent in the media image – what is left in and what is left out must continuously be negotiated.

Levinas and the ‘Face of the Other’ and Arendt’s ‘Unchosen Co-Habitation’

Levinas refers to a responsibility; a disposition towards a face that precedes the intervention of my ego. Our proximity to others based on a communitarian interest delimits the field of ethical action prior to choice. A Levinasian alterity shows that indeed, it is sameness that ties us to the ethical commitment. Ethical values by which one population is bound to another does not have to be based on those things we have in common – these obligations are pre-contractural.

Ethical relations are assymetrical precisely because the other has priority over me. There is an intertwinement between my life and others – the life that is not our own is also ours (sociality). Here Butler proposes a circularity of precarious obligation to the other. When I am enmeshed in a sociality I am preceded in my ethical obligation to the other ontologically prior to my subjectivation in a social order, and my ontological responsibility to the other situates me in the social.

Ones life becomes a sort of boundedness, and this is the condition of being exposed to the other – in ways that can destroy or sustain. We are thrown into a situation of commitment as precarious bodies. This responsibility is not easy – people who critique Levinas argue that his ethics overrides our will. Others’ claims are a part of our responsibility.

Hannah Arendt speaks of a kind of freedom that is unchosen. Concrete modes of ethical action are justified so long as those outside of the community are subordinate to a non-communitarian position. This gives her ethics a global citizenship – what she refers to as an “unchosen co-habitation.” This idea led her to conceive of a Palestinian federation based on a notion of unwilled proximity which are the preconditions for a theory of nationalism and equality in pluralism.

The idea of precarity for Arendt is relegated to the private realm as it only works for individuals, making a sexual politics and a politics of the body impossible. It is precisely in this space of the body that Levinas and Arendt were unable to create an ethical ground.

Generalized Precariousness

Butler makes an existential claim that we are enmeshed in precarious commitments, but that each time we enter into the social, that precariousness becomes linked to economic sociality it loses its existential commitment. The question that remains is in this passage from the ethical to the political out of the pre-subjectivation. Since Levinas failed to link precariousness to an ethics of the body, and Arendt failed to link the body to politics outside of actual events, Butler proposes a “generalized precarity.”

Population exclusions, the emergence of bare life and excluded populations, and an entire range of other situations leads to an inability to manage dependence, and relations of interdependence.

In a commentary on Butlers lecture, Bracha Ettinger, feminist psychoanalyst suggests developing an ethical praxis based on vulnerability. We must re-think on the affective level the role of compassion in any conception of an ethics of vulnerability or precariousness. What remained for me missing of course is an articulation of the movement from the ethical to the political.

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