Politics Against Ethics

Erin Graff Zivin
University of Southern California

Volume 4, 2013

Politics begins with a major wrong: the gap created by the empty freedom of the people between the arithmetical order and the geometric order. […] It is the introduction of an incommensurable at the heart of the distribution of speaking bodies. This incommensurable breaks not only with the equality of profits and losses; it also ruins in advance the project of the city ordered according to the proportion of the cosmos and based on the arkhê of the community.

—Jacques Rancière, Disagreement

The way [from proximity to justice] leads from responsibility to problems.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being

As a slogan, “against literature” could be read two ways: in the sense of versus, that is, in an antagonistic relation with literature; or, as in a gestalt figure/ground relation, as a performance that has as its necessary condition literature.

—John Beverley, Against Literature

Latinamericanism since 9/11 has proven, to many, somewhat uneventful, in contrast to the contentious (and often painful) debates of the 1990s. A number of the contributors to this special issue, myself included, were graduate students during the 90s and were only just beginning our very first academic positions at the turn of the millennium. For us, there is a sense of Latinamericanism as a potential site for politically-infused, theoretically-grounded intellectual work, but this impression is present only as a trace or specter—not of something that ever was, but of something that might have been, an as-yet unfulfilled demand. We have memories of a possible future of the past that is marked by catastrophe. In my case, I recall the volatile Latin American Cultural Studies panels of the September 2001 LASA congress: I sat on the floor of a packed conference room, not fully grasping the implosion that was happening around me, just days before the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. would obliterate far more than a field of debate. (My generation at NYU is quite literally the 9/11 generation: we watched the towers burn and fall during the very same semester in which we drafted, or attempted to draft, our dissertation prospectuses.)

The decade that followed this moment of rupture has—because or in spite of the reactionary policies implemented by the U.S.—ushered in some intriguing political developments in Latin America. A “pink tide” (marea rosada) has swept Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and—until recently—Chile, while elsewhere, the Arab Spring erupted and the Occupy Movement(s) gathered momentum. John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 is therefore a timely and welcome invitation to discussion, to revisit debates that may have been abandoned prematurely, but also to initiate new conversations at a moment in which the political and cultural landscape—in Latin America as well as more globally—has shifted drastically. I want, here, to take up some of the issues addressed in Latinamericanism—namely, the relationship between ethics, politics and aesthetics—in order to suggest that there might be some broad misunderstandings about what each of these concepts might mean, as well as to propose “disagreement” (in the Rancièrian sense) or “problems” (in the Levinasian sense) as a fruitful point of departure for intellectual engagement in the decades to come.

The title of the present essay is intentionally ambiguous, split between two possible meanings. First, it refers to Beverley’s 1993 book Against Literature, which engages with and takes a position “against” literature: not “literature in general” but rather the historically specific form it takes during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries (viii). As we read in the epigraph to this essay, Against Literature was composed not only in ideological opposition to the institution of literature (dominated by an elite community of letrados), but also against the backdrop of literature, that is, with literature as its very condition of possibility. Beverley thus acknowledges—although perhaps he does not realize the full extent of this disclosure—the necessary interdependence of (or, conversely, the impossibility of isolating) literary and cultural studies, “high” and “low” culture, hegemonic and subaltern. I do not mean to suggest that it’s all the same, but rather that it is only by exploring these thorny, incomprehensible relations that it might be possible to produce thought that could work against what José Rabasa has called “processes of subalternization” (rather than dwelling, for instance, on who is and who is not subaltern). This is not to say that it is possible to completely reverse or erase such systems of domination (as might be the goal of champions of the so-called “decolonial option”, for example), but rather that if we maintain the facile separation between dichotomous (and extremely reductive) categories, we might actually fall into the trap of reproducing such systems. I therefore use “against” to signify the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of isolating the political from the ethical.

Second, “Ethics Against Politics” alludes to the sense shared by many critics in the past decades—both within and outside of Latin American studies—that the ethical has come to substitute, and subsequently annihilate the possibility of, the political. The so-called ethical turn in literary studies and philosophy was greeted with a justified skepticism, principally from the left. What did it mean to posit the ethical as a new position from which to approach the literary, or the question of the subject? Would so-called “politics” be obliterated as a productive locus of criticism, not to mention action? Was the “face-to-face” of the ethical encounter to replace the possibility of collective agency, resistance, or revolution? I am interested in moving beyond the “either/or” of ethics and politics, arguing that the idea of the ethical as always already political and of the political as always already ethical can be fruitfully explored from the space of the literary.[1] Far from proposing aesthetics as an ideal (or exclusive) site of the ethicopolitical, I instead suggest that Tom Cohen’s notion of allography or “other writing” as spectral event might serve as the condition of possibility for an ethics that does not substitute the political, as well as a politics grounded in the ethical.[2]

Let us first turn to a (mis)reading of ethical philosophy that has dominated certain genealogies of thought (both within and outside of Latinamericanism), by critics and disciples alike. This strain, which has been characterized as an “ethics of the other,” is identified most closely with the work of Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In perhaps the most common characterization of Levinas’s work, which corresponds directly to his 1961 Totalité et infini [Totality and Infinity], ethics is understood as responsibility for the other, here a highly anthropomorphized version of the other.[3] The other therefore refers to the other person, but also takes on a decidedly geopolitical meaning in its appropriation by postcolonial theory and liberation philosophy: Enrique Dussel, for example, asks whether the other might be “the fifteen million Indians slaughtered during the conquest of Latin America, and the thirteen millions of Africans who were made slaves”.[4] Simply put, we know precisely who the other is (because she is defined by her economic, ethnic, sexual and geographical coordinates), we just need to respond to her suffering (which we presumably know how to do). Beverley associates the turn to ethics with what he calls a neoconservative wave in Latin American literary studies.[5] It is probably more accurate to say, however, that this reading of ethical philosophy is most compatible (structurally if not also thematically) with the decolonial turn (most explicitly in the work of Dussel, but also in Walter Mignolo and others), an important tendency within post-9/11 Latinamericanism that goes virtually unmentioned in Beverley’s book.

What we see in the later Levinas (in particular, in his 1974 Autrement qu’être [Otherwise than Being]) is a retreat from anthropomorphism, and a subsequent emphasis upon the other within the same: “[T]here is a claim laid on the same by the other in the core of myself, the extreme tension of the command exercised by the other in me over me, a traumatic hold of the other on the same […]. It is an undoing of the substantial nucleus of the ego that is formed in the same” (141).[6] Here, ethics is characterized as an experience of radical interruption (44); the ethical subject is constituted in response to this violent rupture or break, by acting upon a decision that carries with it no guarantee that one has chosen correctly. This is because the demand of the other is unreadable—we cannot know what the other desires—which is rendered even more unbearable by the fact that we can never properly identify the other.

To be sure, Beverley raises an important point when he argues that the problem of ethics has to do with its reliance upon the decision of an individual. Levinas himself gestures in this direction when he describes the difficult passage from the ethical to the political, from the relation to the other to the appearance of the third party: “[t]he way [from proximity to justice] leads from responsibility to problems” (161). At the same time, a Levinasian ethics renders obsolete the very notion of the individual: the autonomous, Cartesian subject around which modernity and capitalism have been structured does not appear in Levinas, or rather it is precisely the “being” that this mode of thought aims to displace. Instead, the subject comes into existence in relation to heteronomy, the law of the other, which is why the third party will always have to have appeared alongside the other. The way from ethics to politics, for Levinas, is a difficult but necessary problem; the political demand haunts the ethical demand.

I would therefore define the dilemma of ethics and politics differently. Ethics, or a thinking of the ethical, encounters its limit when it is defined as an ethics of the other: this is the main critique advanced by Peter Hallward and Bruno Bosteels, among others.[7] What I am suggesting here is not only that Levinas’s (and Badiou’s, as I discuss below) notion of ethics is first and foremost concerned with the subject (not the other person), but also that ethical interruption moves beyond any opposition between self and other: it simply does away with identitarian logic altogether, a logic in which the same and the other are but opposite sides of the same coin. But the same could be said of politics, or a thinking of the political. Latinamericanism provides an excellent example of such an approach.

For Beverley (and if it could be said that the roots of this thinking are already present in his earlier work, it is most salient in his recent book) we know who the subaltern is.[8] In Bolivia, it is the “indigenous communities, retirees, coca-growing peasants, unemployed miners or relocalizados” that unite under the banner of the Movimiento al Socialismo (119). In Venezuela, it is the various social movements “crystallized” in the service of Chavismo (114). And because we can identify the subaltern, we can (or Beverley can) suggest that the subaltern has (finally) entered the realm of the state. This was of course the goal all along: “what is asked for in identity politics,” he explains, “is not so much the recognition of difference as the inscription of that difference into the identity of the nation and its history” (83). The subaltern has become hegemonic, and it is now the task of the intellectual (whether Latin American Latinamericanist or non-Latin American Latinamericanist) to pledge her support, without critique, to this “postsubalternist” state. What’s more, as Beverley indicated in a recent LASA panel in San Francisco, this state will have no future, as-yet undefined form (I believe his exact words were “no habrá segunda etapa”). This somewhat surprising declaration echoes Laclau’s embracing of Kirschnerismo in Argentina; as Patrick Dove reminds us in his contribution to this special issue, Laclau has affirmed that “una democracia real en Latinoamérica se basa en la reelección indefinida”. Such a thinking of the political, in my mind, carries with it the same pitfalls of an “ethics of the other”; simply put, in this version of politics, we know who the other is, we just need to get her into power, and the rest will fall into place (a sort of reverse trickle-down approach, if you like).

So what is left, now that the subaltern has become hegemonic (and thus ceased to “be” subaltern)? What possible future can be pursued in politics, beyond infinite re-election? I want to consider Alain Badiou’s description of ethical and political subjectivity to suggest that the true field of antagonism might lie not between ethics and politics but within each of them. Despite the fact that Badiou’s book on ethics is (as Bosteels convincingly argues) but a footnote to his political philosophy, the formal structure of the ethical in Badiou has a great deal to do with his conception of the political.[9] Both are described as the fidelity of the subject to an event of truth, understood as a radical break from the status quo of the situation.[10] In Ethics, Badiou names politics as one of the four potential “fields of truth” of which a truth-event might consist, so that one possible instance of ethical subjectivity would be the militant who remains faithful to the ‘truth event’ of the Cultural Revolution.[11]

Even if we are to acknowledge Hallward and Bosteels’ claim that politics (represented metonymically by Badiou) and ethics (represented metonymically by Levinas) are incompatible, we can read these philosophers against themselves (Badiou in his anti-Levinasianism, and Levinas in his anti-aestheticism) to identify at least one point in common: the centrality of the event as radical break or interruption. It is through a response or fidelity to this event that one becomes an (ethical or political) subject. If there is a limit to Badiou’s thinking, it has to do with the possible reification of the event (the naming of the unnameable), which may be precisely the dangerous terrain upon which Beverley and Laclau currently tread. This impasse is addressed best not by Levinas but by Jacques Rancière, whose reading of the political as disagreement seeks to preserve the gap at the heart of the political, or by Roberto Esposito, for whom the impossibility of representation resides at the heart of revolution:

Hay algo más, que compromete en lo no expresado, en su imposibilidad de ser expresado, a toda forma política. Se refiere al centro, al fuego originario, de la irrepresentabilidad revolucionaria, es decir a aquella coincidencia de inicio y principio en que se libera la pluralidad de lo político, lo político como pluralidad. Es esa esencia plural lo que resulta del todo impronunciable para el lenguaje representativo. Impronunciable en dos aspectos: porque este último unifica lo que es plural y separa lo que es coincidente. O, mejor dicho, unifica los sujetos representados justamente separándolos de su representante.

(Esposito, 117)

The plurality to which Esposito refers is the difference between and—more importantly—within groups of indigenous communities, retirees, coca-growing peasants, unemployed miners and relocalizados, the difference that must be suppressed or annihilated not only to make an initial political demand, but also to take (and maintain) power. It is the residue, or remainder, to which Jon Beasley-Murray refers in Posthegemony, the impossibility of representation that haunts every political moment because “something always escapes” (132). This “something” is vital: as Beasley-Murray and Benjamin Arditi would argue, it might actually constitute the (non)ground for another kind of politics.[12]

What language do we possess that could begin to trace such impossibility? If unrepresentability is not the failure of the political but constitutive of the political, if we agree with Rancière that the political subject is necessarily a speaking subject so that all we have at our disposal to confront the unpronounceable is language itself, where does this leave us?[13] I want to suggest that literary, or aesthetic, discourse that refuses the mimetic in favor of what, again, Tom Cohen has called allography or “other writing” might provide a possible point of departure: in Hitchcock’s Cryptonymies, Cohen links the allegorical to the spectral, arguing that “the allographic may be thought to produce the figure of a spectral event” (280). But I do not want to imply that the literary serves as a privileged site—or as the only privileged site—within which the conditions of possibility for an event might be found.[14] It could mean, however, that the task of the critic is to be relentless in her pursuit of such an impossible event. Such a notion of intellectual labor would not abandon the political in favor of the apolitical or the antipolitical (whether understood as ethical individualism or aesthetic isolationism): an intellectual in the service of such a politics would merely refuse to give way on one’s desire. I am imagining, here, a critical endeavor that would clear the space for the incalculable leap that resides at the heart of every political moment.[15]


01. See Moreiras (2007, 2010) on the idea of infrapolitical literature.

02. I am indebted to Kate Jenckes’ Reading Borges after Benjamin for this reference.

03. In Totality and Infinity one can find sentences such as the following: “[God’s] very epiphany consists in soliciting us by his destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow, and the orphan” (78).

04. This is Dussel’s response to the French dedication of Autrement qu’être, which is dedicated “A la mémoire des êtres les plus proches parmi les six millions d’assassinés par les nationaux-socialistes, à côté des millions et des millions d’humains de toutes confessions et de toutes nations, victimes de la même haine de l’autre homme, du même antisémitisme”. Below the French, however, is a dedication in Hebrew to the actual relatives and friends who were closest of the millions of millions: that is, Levinas enacts a necessary but improper translation of the proper name, which is then (mis)read by Dussel. When Dussel asks Levinas: “So, what about our victims?” Levinas responds, “That’s something for you to think about.” This is a brilliant response, which I read not as “That’s your problem!” but “That is an unanswerable question which should serve as the birth, not the death, of thought”.

05. “The appeal to Levinas is itself symptomatic of one aspect of what I am calling the neoconservative turn. That is because it reduces the problem of difference or subalternity, which is both a political and cultural problem, to an ethical one, a question of exercising choice” (83).

06. In her book Altered Reading, Jill Robbins suggests “misreading” Levinas’s examples of the ethical encounter with the other as metaphorical, arguing that the figurative nature of Levinas’s characterization of ethical experience is more compatible with aesthetic discourse than Levinas himself would have it.

07. Hallward forcefully argues for an abandonment of any ethics predicated on the other, quoting Badiou: “‘All ethical predication based on recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned.’ Why? Because the real practical and philosophical question concerns the status of the Same” (xv). Also see Bosteels (2007).

08. While he has always acknowledged a reading of the subaltern as that which escapes all representation (Spivak’s position, among others), he is never fully convinced, dismissing it instead as too rooted in deconstruction.

09. “Almost nothing major is lost in Badiou’s overall philosophy if we take away his tiny book Ethics, which in any case was written over the time span of barely a few weeks for an audience of mostly high school students” (Bosteels, 15).

10. “Events are irreducible singularities, the ‘beyond-the-law’ of situations” (Ethics, 44).

11. Badiou lists “love, art, science and politics” as the four categories of truth within which, and against which, an event could potentially erupt: “an evental fidelity is a real break (both thought and practised) in the specific order within which the event took place (be it political, loving, artistic or scientific…)” (42).

12. See José Rabasa on Zapatismo and Benjamin Arditi on the Arab Spring and student movements in Chile.

13. “At the heart of politics lies a double wrong, a fundamental conflict, never conducted as such, over the relationship between the capacity of the speaking being who is without qualification and political capacity” (Disagreement, 22).

14. I do not have time, here, to explore Beverley’s indictment of literature, represented metonymically by Borges. Suffice it to say that it follows the identitarian logic of his discussion of ethics and politics, specifically, that a writer’s ideological affiliation (if it can be determined) determines the disruptive potential of their work. It seems to me to be a mistake to discount or disregard all texts that, while hailing from writers who could be identified as “elite” or “letrado” (in Rama’s sense) or “reactionary” (in Borges’s case), might offer the possibility of radical interruption. Isn’t the author dead anymore?

15. Here I refer to Steven Corcoran’s argument, in his discussion of Rancière, that “every political moment involves the incalculable leap of those who decide to demonstrate their equality and organize their refusal against the injustices that promote the status quo” (10). Pursuing a similar line, Gareth Williams and Jon Beasley-Murray (following Williams) elegantly argue in favor of the Derridean “perhaps.”

Works Cited

  • Arditi, Benjamin. “Insurgencies don’t have a plan—they are the plan: Political performatives and vanishing mediators in 2011.” JOMEC Journal: Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies 1 (2012). http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/jomecjournal/1-june2012/arditi_insurgencies.pdf. Web. [accessed 9 September 2012].
  • Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London: Verso, 2002.
  • Beasley-Murray, Jon. Posthegemony. Political Theory and Latin America. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010.
  • Beverley, John. Against Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
  • —-. Latinamericanism After 9/11. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.
  • Bosteels, Bruno. “The Ethical Superstition.” The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise. Ed. Erin Graff Zivin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 11-23.
  • Corcoran, Steven. “Editor’s Introduction.” In Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed. and Trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010. 1-24.
  • Dussel, Enrique. “‘Sensibility’ and ‘Otherness’ in Emmanuel Levinas.” Trans. John Browning and Joyce Bellous. Philosophy Today (1999). 125-133.
  • Esposito, Roberto. Categorías de lo impolítico. Trans. Roberto Raschella. Buenos Aires: Katz Editores, 2006.
  • Hallward, Peter. “Translator’s Introduction.” In Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. London: Verso, 2002: vii-xlvii.
  • Jenckes, Kate. Reading Borges after Benjamin: Allegory, Afterlife, and the Writing of History. Albany: State U of New York P, 2008.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1998.
  • —-. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.
  • Moreiras, Alberto. “Infrapolitical Literature: Hispanism and the Border.” CR: The New Centennial Review 10.2 (2010): 183-203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/ncr.2010.0022
  • —-. “Infrapolitics and the Thriller: A Prolegomenon to Every Possible Form of Antimoralist Literary Criticism. On Héctor Aguilar Camín’s La guerra de Galio and Morir en el golfo.” The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise. Ed. Erin Graff Zivin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9780230607385
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  • Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
  • Williams, Gareth. The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/9780822384328