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My Notes from the "last Butler lecture"

Anne Dalke's picture

Toward an Ethics of Cohabitation

Sharon Ullman's "devastating" introduction:
the claim that "academics don't live in the real world" is a false rhetorical strategy designed to restrain their power
Butler works in "the best part of the Jewish ethical tradition: to insist on the relation to the non-Jew"
intellectuals are under a political obligation
Butler rejected a "courage" prize in Berlin, saying, "I distance myself from racism"
from her Occupy speech: "If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible"
she demonstrates the direct relation between political action and analysis
learning and intellect are devalued in the public square, and cruelty is celebrated
there are those who are "rightly afraid" of thinkers, like Butler, who inspire activism:
she helps to repair the world

Butler: "it will change my thinking and my writing that I have been here"
an ethics that heeds the fragility of life" = we accompany one another
the last two lectures explored "bodies in alliance," with-and-against Hannah Arendt,
in an attempt to enact-and-exemplify alternative forms of living together
various forms of cohabitation are central to the most vexed problems of our time
start in register of ethics, w/ political implications
1) on global obligations, near and far:
what about our capacity to respond to suffering @ a distance?
what is our ethical obligation to those we never choose, in languages we don't understand?
consider the borders of contested states: the "up-againstness"
in most ethical systems, there are presumptions around  fairness and nearness
nearness is valorized as a donation for knowing and valuing the other
proximity imposes demands for honoring…
yet: there are also indignations that are not grounded in proximity--
consider uprisings around the globe, solicited by distant suffering
we do not only consume but are paralyzed by images:
this is an issue of ethical solicitation
something impinges on us, without our being able to prepare for it
these are ethical obligations that demand our consent,
which are not the result of a contract we have entered:
the ethical solicitation of war images requires us to negotiate distance and closeness,
to ask, "am I responsible to suffering I did not make?"
this brings up larger questions about ethical obligation across time and space
the "structural paranoia" of the image is bound up with its ethical address
there is a Levinasian undercurrent here, as we
listen to the one we never chose to hear, watch an image we never elected to see:
we are not prepared for what we see
we are ethically overwhelmed--and it would be a problem if we were not
we are both overwhelmed and animated:
the ethical obligation is working on our sensibilities:
this is the dispossession of the ego-logical
we must be overwhelmed, in order to have the motivation to act
imposing a surfeit on us is a constituent feature of our acting
what is foreclosed, and what is presented, impinges on us
a leap: the unchosen forces an ethical obligation, imposed w/out our consent
consent is not a sufficient ground for delimiting out obligations
obligations are not constituted only by gathered units; their obligations over and against boundaries….
such circuits confound communitarian obligations
media makes suffering @ a distance proximate, and the proximate far away
bonds are wrought through this reversibility
corporeal locatedness  is emphatically not transported via media
something persists, has an obdurate there-ness
social structure of the body means that it is invariably seen from elsewhere
we are born into the care of others whose hands we require
we do not choose/know those responsible for our existence
(or: we only come to know them after we come to depend on them)
mediated ethical relations are an alternative to a bleak, parochial, exclusionary ethics
(this is Hegel in the digital age): what happens here happens there, is registered in several elsewheres

the body cannot be relieved of its finitude through any mediated transport
bodies on the line are not registered elsewhere; some dimension is lost
this makes a provisional form of global connectedness possible
@ UC Davis, after the pepper spray, students moved toward the police w/ their cell phones raised,
reporting and witnessing to others: as bodies and technologies moved together,
every cell phone addressed a spectator, who was thereby also a witness
one of us is prepared for these images, or others
to be unprepared for the image that overwhelms us, is to be motivated to move
this is to reformulate the registration of an ethical demand, one not dependent on consent

following the Jewish thinkers Levinas and Arendt on ethics, proximity and distance
the Israel/Palestine division is a departure from the ethnical obligations of Jewish communitarianism
("many will freeze @ this topic; let's see what headway I can make…")
Levinas: ethical appeal/solicitation occurs prior to a clear choice
"the face " acts upon us, we are affected
many things (like the sound of a voice) can function as a face
those who act upon us are clearly other than us, and we are not bound to them
reading him against himself, for the poetical possibilities he opens up, that were unintended
two populations need not share marks of belonging; they have precontractual obligations
in an infamous interview, Levinas said that the "Palestinean had no face"
his ethics were classical Greek; his failure contradicts his call to ethics
how can there be an ethical relation to those who cannot appear?
employing this question against Levinas' ethical assumptions,
we can extend his ethics beyond the communities he saw as its condition and limit
"the other has priority over me"
reciprocity is the not the basis of ethics; it is not a bargain
self preservation cannot be prior to obligation; the ego defeats ethics
there is an intertwinement between other lives and my own
the life of the other is also mine
whatever sense our life has is dependent on sociality
we are constituted in and by a social world
distinct and bound to one another, which is not always a happy experience
boundary, the limit and sign of adjacency, is the condition of our exposure to the other

a precarious, corporeal being is responsible for the life of the other
"precarious" names the essence and difficulty of ethics
all of us are vulnerable to & responsible for what persecutes us
persecution: an ethical demand that imposes itself on us prior to our will
the claims others make on us are part of our receptivity and vulnerability
we are vulnerable to claims for which there is no adequate preparation
we are primarily defined by that ethical openness
prior to any individual sense of self, I am receptive to you in ways I cannot anticipate or control
passivity is ethically impossible
you may frighten me, but my obligation to you must remain firm
when I act ethically, I come apart as a bounded being
prior to the ontology of the ego, we lose our mooring
the "I" is undone in relation to the "you"
if I possess myself too rigidly, I cannot be in ethical relation
susceptibility constitutes me @ most fundamental level, prior to my will

in comparison to Levinas, Hannah Aren't emphasizes the political value of action
like him, she takes issue with individualism
she resists the view that we can chose what part of humanity will cohabit with us
this was her argument w/ Eichmann: freedom is never compatible w/ genocide
cohabitation is a condition of our existence as ethical beings, an unchosen condition of freedom
Eichmann didn't realize the inseparability of his life from that of others,
 the inescapability of the heterogeneity of the earth's population
others are given to us prior to contracts, their existence is a condition of our life as humans
 (this is the theological moment in Arendt's work)
Eichmann's explicit effort was to destroy some of that diverse population
we must devise a politics that affirms an open-ended plurality of cohabitation, of a global population
every inhabitant belongs to the earth, and we must be committed to all of them, and to the earth
we must refuse to separate the Jews from all other persecuted peoples,
and celebrate plurality in all its forms
not to do so is a crime against humanity, not just Jews
unchosen cohabitation means an obligation to safeguard plurality, the equal right of all to cohabit the earth
Arendt took issue with Jewish sovereignty
she refused racial grounds for citizenship, as productive of a new refugee class
thinking about the stateless was crucial to Arendt's critique of the state of Israel
she began w/ the primary rights of refugees
more imperative than creating a sanctuary, w/ Israel's right of return,
was the right of refugees not to be dispossessed of their land
attending to the rights of refugees would guard against the forceable expulsion of Palestineans
a legal imagining must couple both rights:
one set of refugees cannot be protected by producing a new stateless class of others
there needs to be a moratorium on the law of return, until it is coupled with the right to return:
canceling the principle of its legitimation, despite fears of Jews losing a demographic advantage
there are forms of Judaism that would forgo all such subjugation
Arendt's argument for a federated Palestine, made within the context of Zionism,
would now be see as post- or anti-Zionist, since that concept has contracted over time
some Jewish thinkers and activists thought that the lesson of the Nazism was
the need to oppose any state formation that gave priority to any one race or religion,
to bar states from dispossessing those who didn't fit any particular notion of purity
political equality across nationality, etc.
enduring obligation to find a way to link
none of us chose to be born
alternate view maintains that we are all unchosen together
Arendt re: our obligation to belong to the unchosen
Israel is not analogous to Nazi Germany
but, as a state founded on principles of sovereignty, it has allowed Palestinean land to be confiscated,
and --now 5 million--people to be dispossessed, lacking citizenship and full mobility
Levinas: commandments act on us
Arendt: need to refigure thinking about plural conditions for political life
there are racist dimensions in the work of both Levinas and Arendt,
yet there is also resonance, in their limited Euro-American framework, for current global thinking
bodily dependence and need are political, not relegated to the private realm
Levinas doesn't theorize the body
Arendt doesn't struggle for the politics of food, housing, education, etc.
interdependency is not necessarily naive, happy or utopian: it can be a condition for territorial wars
the unmanageability of dependency can lead to domination
difficult to struggle for sustainable, egalitarian dependency --> aggression, hostility, wretch dattachement
ethical obligations emerge from the social conditions of a livable life: preserve lives we do not know or love
supply ideals toward which we must struggle
equality and exposure to precarity: global obligation to minimize it
the world to be achieved, we are making
we live together we because we have no choice
what happens here, happens there: there is always an elsewhere
the transport and constraint of what we might still call ethics

* "Thank you for coming. I am very glad I came myself...I am a very judgmental person…."
"I am not sure that judgment should be @ the center of ethics; it is not the primary concern."
more fundamental is the question "Who are you?"
keep that question permanently open;
if I judge you, I already occupy some position with relation to you
if there is no possibility of capturing that other--then questioning becomes a mode of relationship:
for ex: why do people hold passionately to certain questions and issues?
constructing an airtight argument, we can't see the other: so, step back, ask, reorient conversation

* what are the ethics of cohabitation @ a women's college?
sex is not its own self-identical thing; there are strong differences among those who are assigned as women
women's colleges are important; this is an opportunity to work through the problems of cohabitation,
the unanticipated dimensions of people here
any community you are in has to be porous
cohabitation is about who enters and leaves: porosity

* you have written about photos as crafted reality,
but ethical solicitation can be very biased
there are all kinds of ways to exploit images of suffering
under what conditions can such images operate as ethical solicitations?
(cf.  our outrage/objection to their operating as market targets)
looking for a larger sense of the frame

* how apply your theory to exponential population growth,
to the green revolution, hybridizing wheat w/ severe environment consequences,
to rapid growth on a finite earth?
"those are the biggest questions"
precarity is differentially distributed, various populations are perceived as dispensable
what forms of power are organized to fund cultivation, distribution, etc. ?
"sustainability" has a bad history: I want to take it back!
large questions about equality emerge from our embodied lives
a real mistake to try and manage a problem of that magnitude by personal ethics
to understand global problems requires dislocation from individual morality to broader poetical mobilization

*what about the need for autonomy, in social movements organized against forms of violence,
looking to generate sovereignty and spaces of self government?
how do you see interdependency and cohabitation operating in the desire for spaces of autonomy (from the state)?
the occupy movement expresses the popular will: who are the people/ who is the demos? how are political inequalities registered in ordinary life?
this is seeking autonomy from state-controlled ideas of representation
while trying to build forms of cohabitation, making efforts to enact interdependency
these are local experiences in interdependent sociality, while working toward autonomy from the state

* what about violence among marginal peoples?
how practical is cohabitation in the face of violence?
this is a big question; here are two examples:
** the checkpoints going in & out of the West Bank are v. violent sites of intimidation, harassment, injury
and yet there is solidarity there between the Israelis who come to witness this,
and the vendors who are there to make sales
this is incipient binationalism and cohabitation
**in the illegal settlements, where right-wing Israelis have seized Palestinean land,
dispossessed Palestineans can get menial work
called "a wretched form of binationalism," this could also be seen as
a mode of cohabitation based on violent dispossession--
an odd form of community emerges even there
cohabitation of a strange, wretched, minimally hopeful sort emerges unexpectedly….