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Democracy in CrisisViolence, Alterity, Community$

Stella Gaon

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780719079238

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719079238.001.0001

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Dissensus, ethics and the politics of democracy

Dissensus, ethics and the politics of democracy

(p.262) 12 Dissensus, ethics and the politics of democracy
Democracy in Crisis

Ewa Płonowska Ziarek

Manchester University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter addresses the limitations of contemporary debates on ethics and democracy. It discusses the notion of heteronomous freedom and its relation to ethical obligation, political antagonism and sexual difference. It proposes a feminist democratic praxis and an ethics of dissensus, which opposes the conservative political work performed by privatized moral discourse and is inseparable from transformative praxis which aims to change unjust power relations and to acknowledge infinite responsibility for violence and the oppression of others. This chapter argues that the effectiveness of democratic struggles against racist and sexist oppression depend on an ethical-political understanding of freedom that side-steps the seemingly intractable debate between the two positions available today: the liberal position that seeks normative criteria for the determination of political justice beyond difference and the communitarian position that advocates the continued contestation or negotiation of heterogeneous forces based on an ethical obligation to the other.

Keywords:   ethics, democracy, heteronomous freedom, ethical obligation, political antagonism, ethics of dissensus, freedom, political justice

‘Which ethics for democracy?’, asks Chantal Mouffe, in her article of the same title (2000: 85–94). The numerous answers to this crucial question are mostly characterized by a seemingly irreparable split between obligation and antagonism in political life.1 In fact, responsibility for the Other constitutes one of the main blind spots in most political theories of antagonism, such as Foucault’s, Deleuze’s or Laclau’s and Mouffe’s, whereas most of the ethical theories of obligation, such as Levinas’s, Derrida’s, Irigaray’s and the numerous commentaries they have inspired, are limited by insufficient attention to the political and subjective dimensions of antagonism. If and when political philosophies engage the question of ethics, it is primarily in the context of freedom – implied, for instance, in Foucault’s invention of the new modes of life, Deleuze’s becoming or Laclau’s hegemonic struggle. By contrast, theories of responsibility sooner or later encounter the question of political praxis. Consequently, what are also implied in the disjunction between antagonism and obligation are the antithetical ethical claims of responsibility and freedom. Yet, despite the seemingly intractable divisions between the theories of antagonism and responsibility, most of them share a certain blindness to the racial and sexual dimensions of embodied subjectivity. Foucault, for instance, gives us a brilliant diagnosis of how power works in the constitution of bodies and sexualities, but fails to analyse the way modern regimes of biopower function in the context of race and gender. And Levinas offers an extremely suggestive elaboration of obligation for the Other in terms of sensibility, but fails to radicalize this analysis in terms of eroticism and sexual difference.

(p.263) To address these limitations of the contemporary debates on ethics and democracy, I would like to develop further my theory of an ethics of dissensus and feminist democratic praxis (Ziarek, 2001), by elaborating the notion of heteronomous freedom and its relation to ethical obligation, political antagonism and sexual difference. My approach to an ethics of democracy does not promise a transcendence of antagonisms but aims to articulate a difficult role of responsibility and freedom in democratic struggles against racist and sexist oppression. The ethics I propose opposes the conservative political work performed by privatized moral discourse and is inseparable from transformative praxis, which aims to change unjust power relations and to acknowledge infinite responsibility for violence and oppression of others. Ultimately, I argue that a feminist articulation of the ethical motivation of democratic praxis provides an alternative to the two seemingly mutually exclusive prospects facing feminism today: either a politics of difference without ethical stakes – a politics which risks deteriorating into an indifferent struggle of heterogeneous forces – or its opposite, the search for the normative criteria transcending the antagonisms of race, class, sexuality and gender.

Obligation and the politics of radical democracy

I begin my discussion of the ethics of dissensus with a juxtaposition of the two diametrically opposed models of the ethical dimension of democracy suggested by Emmanuel Levinas and Ernesto Laclau, because their works dramatize, in a nutshell, the seeming incompatibility beween responsibility, antagonism and freedom. The crucial question emerging from this juxtaposition is whether the ethical ‘investment’ of democratic praxis proposed by Laclau does not imply an antecedent responsibility for the freedom of the Other. And conversely, one might ask Levinas whether responsibility requires an engagement in the struggles against multiple forms of domination and, if so, what the relation is between obligation and antagonism.

Levinas’s answer to the first of these questions is that justice, solidarity and the desire for a better society are (p.264) inconceivable without the ethical ‘relation’ to the Other, who calls the subject to responsibility. Since, for Levinas, the ethical character of politics originates in responsibility for the Other, who is neither an adversary nor the complement of the subject, the ethics of democracy is not primarily a manifestation of political will, decision or agency but already a response to responsibility preceding the initiative of all political agents. For instance, when I find myself obligated for anti-Black racism in the US or anti-Semitism in Poland, this responsibility is not my initiative; rather, it originates as my response to the encounters with others and with the history of oppression – encounters that make claims on my responsibility prior to my capacity to respond to them. Such an ethical encounter, which calls the subject to responsibility, has the status of an ‘anarchic’, disruptive and unforeseeable event, which befalls the subject prior to any decision, communication or understanding on her part. Irreducible to intentionality, obligation ‘traverses consciousness contrariwise inscribing itself there as something foreign, as disequilibrium, as delirium undoing thematization, eluding principle, origin, and will … This movement is … an-archic’ (Levinas, 1996: 81). As an exposure to radical exteriority, responsibility is something foreign to the subject rather than a commitment the subject assumes freely for herself. Manifesting itself as a disequilibrium, or even ‘delirium’, such responsibility reveals the fact that ethical alterity is not a relative term constituted within the differential network of power/knowledge, but rather an excess, or an interruption, of differential relations. Consequently, the ethical ‘relation’ to the Other is not a relation in the usual sense of the word – that is, it is neither a relation between already constituted identities nor constitutive of these identities. On the contrary, it is an ethical encounter that calls these identities into question. An ethical relation is therefore an event, which manifests as rupture rather than as constitution, as a disturbance of both subjective identifications and discursive power relations, as a trace of the call to responsibility that precedes the response of the subject.

It is this disruptive ethical signification of alterity that is missing in the dominant articulations of feminist politics, where the category of the Other, most frequently associated (p.265) with women, people of colour or colonized subjectivities, is treated as an effect of objectification, exclusion or domination. Otherness is either a negative foil for the identity of those who count as political subjects or a fetishistic screen for the projection of social antagonisms. In most cases, therefore, it is a relative alterity, or a political/cultural difference, the meaning of which is determined by its differentiation or exclusion from positions of political power and the subjects who occupy those positions. Associated with either devalorized or idealized difference, rather than with an ethical ‘non-indifference’ to the call of the other, this relative alterity is constituted by discursive power relations – by what Levinas calls the discourse of the same. In this context, the important task of the politics of difference is to transform the institutional conditions of inequality, to demystify idealizations and to demand the status of the subject for those who have been ‘othered’. I argue, however, that to challenge domination it is necessary, not only to reclaim subjecthood for the oppressed, but also to reclaim the ethical signification of alterity that exceeds the differential identities of the subject and the other. Positioning the Other as an interlocutor, as an ethical signification of alterity, avoids what bell hooks calls the reification of the other as a victim (1990: 152), as well as the opposite tendency criticized by Rey Chow, namely, the idealization of the other as ‘essentially good’ (1998: xx–xxi, 41).

Consequently, to formulate a feminist ethics of democracy, we need first of all to rethink the logic of difference and ‘othering’ in the context of anarchic responsibility for others. The ethical signification of alterity dislocates cultural difference because it marks an insurmountable temporal gap between the anarchic encounter with the Other and the articulations of the Other’s socio-political difference: I am always already called or exposed to the Other prior to my knowledge of his or her difference. Constituted within the contingent and antagonist relations of power/knowledge, cultural difference, which manifests the Other in the political, also bears a trace of the antecedent ethical call to responsibility, which disrupts this manifestation: ‘The other is present in a cultural whole and is illuminated by this whole, like a text by its context … His cultural signification is revealed and reveals as it were horizontally, on the basis (p.266) of the historical world to which it belongs … But this mundane signification is found to be disturbed and shaken by another presence, abstract, not integrated into the world … His presence consists in divesting himself of the forms which, however, manifest him’ (Levinas, 1986: 351). In other words, ethical alterity signifies an anarchic call to responsibility prior to ‘my’ awareness of Other’s identity. Such an anarchic call signifies as the undoing of cultural difference, as a disequilibrium within constitution, as a trace of withdrawal from the very identity that manifests the Other in political life. Thus, the implication of Levinas’s work for cultural and political theory is that any construction of the Other’s difference within the network of power/knowledge is split by a non-coincidence between ethical alterity and its political determination, by a disturbance within constitution.2 The crucial point is that ethical alterity not only disturbs the political forms that manifest it but, through this disturbance, calls the subject to responsibility.

Such an ethical disturbance of political difference can be deduced from Levinas’s theory of language, which is based on the incommensurability between two modalities of signification: the ethical ‘saying’, or the call to responsibility, and the political/philosophical ‘said’, or discourse. The ‘said’ represents, for Levinas, the unity and systematicity of philosophical discourse, which aims at synchronizing and determining the relations between different terms. Whereas, on the linguistic level, it can be approximated to the symbolic order, on the political level, the Levinasian ‘said’ will have to be revised in terms of power operating already on the level of signification. By contrast, ethical ‘saying’ signifies the possibility of being addressed by the Other prior to any political act or choice of obligation. Neither a linguistic act nor the split structure of enunciation, the saying underscores the originary receptivity or ‘exposure’ of the subject, and in so doing shifts priority from the nominative ‘I’ of enunciation and agency to the accusative ‘me’ of the addressee. Although the saying is always already mediated by the said, that is, by the historical forms of power and knowledge, it nonetheless exceeds socio-political discourse, preserving in this withdrawal a trace of the ethical signification of alterity. In the context of Levinas’s double theory of discourse, we could say that, although politics (p.267) occurs already on the level of the constitution of subjective identities and social relations, the ethical signification of alterity exceeds or disrupts such a constitution. In other words, the constitution of multiple identities in the oppositional network of power/knowledge represents, in light of Levinas’s work, only one aspect of politics – its ‘said’. For the disturbance of the political logic of difference by ethical alterity calls for the supplementation of discursive constitution by anarchic, ethical saying, which situates political agents as always already addressed by, and obligated to, the Other.

The ethical relation to the Other suggests that the ethical motivation of political praxis is neither a subjective ‘choice’ nor an expression of collective norms, but always already a response to the Other. In light of Levinas’s work, different forms of political praxis elaborated by contemporary democratic theorists – whether it is a politics of recognition, redistribution or deliberation – are flawed, because they implicitly or explicitly originate in an ethico-political decision of the subject. By contrast, Levinas aims to reconceive politics in the context of the asymmetrical I/Other relation. Such a reconceptualization is based on the concept of the ‘third’. The ‘third’ refers to the multiplicity of others, which necessitates a transition from the singular ethical relation to collective political organization: ‘the extraordinary commitment of the other to the third party calls for control, a search for justice, society and the State’ (Levinas, 1981: 161). With the appearance of other Others, the limitless responsibility for a singular Other gives rise to the concern with political justice, which promises equality for all and in fact turns the asymmetry of the I/Other relation into a symmetrical equivalence: ‘Justice is necessary, that is, comparison, coexistence, contemporaneousness, assembling, order … intelligibility of a system’ (Levinas, 1981: 157).

The crucial contribution of Levinas’s work to democratic theory is thus its stress on the ‘anarchic’, ethical orientation of political praxis, which begins with the asymmetrical encounter with the Other. Yet, in order to recover this ethical orientation for feminist democratic politics, we need not only to supplement the politics of difference with the ethical signification of alterity, but also to contest the limitations of Levinas’s notion of the political. In the context of feminist (p.268) theory, Levinas’s rather abstract and underdeveloped definition of the political as the ‘assembling order’ of totality poses at least three problems. The first problem is that it fails to draw consequences from a peculiar vacillation in the concept of the third, which, on the one hand, refers to the necessary moment of universality and equality for all, and, on the other hand, implies an irreducible plurality, a countless dispersal of others – there is always another Other who makes a claim on my responsibility. Furthermore, this split in the conception of the third is not gender neutral: ultimately, the dispersal is embodied by femininity, whereas the constitution of collectivity is associated with fraternity. By failing to articulate the political implications of this unavoidable tension between universality and multiplicity, Levinas privileges the democratic (fraternal) ideal of equality, while ignoring the other implication of democratic politics, namely, the proliferation of differences that both constitutes social identities and prevents their full actualization. On the very few occasions when Levinas does speak about cultural, historical and political differences, these differences (in contrast to the radical exteriority of the ethical alterity) are articulated as moments of totality: ‘The other is given in the concept of totality to which he is immanent’ (1986: 351). Yet, can the cultural/political ‘context’ and the political modality of the said, which mediates the ethical encounter, be conceptualized in terms of totality? Levinas’s commentators have spent so much time arguing that the ethical signification of alterity exceeds its cultural/political/historical context that this problematic equation of democratic discourse with totality has been left uncontested.

This concept of politics as totality reveals the second limitation of Levinas’s notion of the political, namely the fact that, despite the priority of justice over truth, the political is identical with philosophical knowledge, which assembles differences into a synchronic whole. Levinasian politics is thus associated with a reconciled society of mutual reciprocities, even though it is interrupted by the withdrawal of ethical alterity. Finally, the third problem is that, by associating conflict primarily with violent acts and the will of the subject, Levinas fails to analyse the dispersal of antagonisms and their constitutive function in the formation of political identities. The constitutive function (p.269) of antagonism means not only that conflict happens between the subjects/groups with established identities, but that in fact it forms the very identities of the parties in conflict.

As these limitations of Levinas’s politics suggest, if we want to recover anarchic obligation as the basis of the ethical orientation of feminist democratic praxis, we need to revise, or perhaps even replace, Levinas’s model of political discourse (that is, the political ‘said’). Thus, if the first step in my formulation of a feminist ethics of dissensus consists in the revision of political difference in terms of ethical responsibility, the second step involves a revision of democratic discourse in the context of difference. This task entails nothing more than thinking through the tension between universality and the proliferation of differences implied already in Levinas’s concept of the third. It is precisely at this point that Laclau and Mouffe’s political theory of radical democracy is decisive. In contrast to Levinas’s totalizing view of politics, their theory foregrounds the radical contingency and the proliferation of differences (the logic of difference). Second, it shifts the notion of antagonism from the conflict between agents with already constituted identities (which predominates in Levinas’s work) to the irreducible operations of power in the formation of social identities (the premise of the constitutive antagonism). Finally, it calls for the partial articulation of ‘links of equivalence’ among divergent struggles and identities as a condition of creating coalitions against existing forms of oppression (the logic of equivalence). In light of their work, we could say that Levinas’s notion of the political does not develop the crucial consequences of democratic praxis, namely, the proliferation of differences and the modernization of power operating through multiplication of antagonisms. As a result, notwithstanding the importance of his contribution of the anarchic responsibility, Levinas fails to distinguish between philosophical totality and democratic equivalence.

As Laclau and Mouffe argue against Hegel, once we take the proliferation of differences and antagonisms into account, equivalence has to be thought as a contingent articulation of similarities among different oppressions – such as gender, race and class – rather than a dialectical mediation that absorbs them into a totality (the totality of the State, (p.270) according to Hegel, or the totality of communist society without exploitation, according to Marx). This articulation of equivalence is negative: it establishes links between different identities or struggles, between anti-sexist and anti-racist struggles, for instance, not by exposing their underlying similarity, but by referring them to what they are not (say, patriarchal white supremacy). Even though equivalence tends to unify the political, it never achieves totality because it is limited by the irreducible remainder of differences and antagonisms on which it depends. As Laclau and Mouffe argue, ‘two terms, to be equivalent, must be different – otherwise, there would be a simple identity’ (1985: 128). Operating in conjunction with difference, democratic equivalence is partial, contingent and thus open to alternative hegemonic articulations. The crucial importance of this formulation of equivalence for feminist politics is that it allows us to move beyond the ongoing debate between a feminism of difference and a feminism of equality (see Scott, 2001: 254–70). Instead of the false choice between difference and equality, the emphasis here is on the mutual coimplication and subversion of equivalence and difference. Consequently, a feminist discourse of political democracy would be characterized by the non-sublatable aporia between two incompatible logics: between difference and equivalence, freedom and equality. This enabling aporia reveals the impossibility of the final closure of the political, and the necessity of the ongoing negotiation of provisional links of equivalence.

In the context of Laclau and Mouffe’s work, it becomes clear that Levinas’s notion of the political/philosophical discourse (the ‘said’), insofar as it is based on synchronization and universality, fails to articulate democratic politics. Consequently, what Levinas presents as politics can be more productively interpreted either as philosophy or as yet another ethical dimension of political praxis. Following Laclau, we can call this dimension an ethical ideal of egalitarian justice, an ideal that exceeds its political realization. As Laclau argues, particular political demands always aim at something other than their realization, at something that transcends them; they ultimately aim at the impossible ethical ideal of a reconciled society: ‘Only if I live an action as incarnating an impossible fullness transcending it does (p.271) the investment become an ethical investment’ (2000, 84). The ethical orientation of democratic politics invoked by Laclau is characterized by the disjunction between the ethical ideal of the reconciled community – an impossible universalization and totalization – and the particular historical agents aiming to realize it. Since ethical investment can never be fully embodied, it uproots the particular identities of political agents by orienting them towards the impossible universal. The task of democratic ethics in Laclau’s formulation consists in maintaining both disjunction and conjunction between reconciliation and antagonism, universality and particularity. By confusing the two, Levinas in fact closes the gap between the ethical investment in egalitarian justice and its realization in political life. Yet it is precisely this gap that sustains democratic pluralism by keeping political justice open to conflicting renegotiations.

Antagonism and freedom

The disjunction between the ethical investment in a reconciled society and the political aporia between equivalence and difference does not merely free democracy from the notion of totality. Ultimately, what is at stake in keeping this gap open is a different notion of freedom, irreducible to the will or agency of the subject. Despite the fact that freedom is held suspect by Levinas because it is associated with the initiative of the subject and implicated in the erasure of alterity, I, like other feminist critics, want to affirm the centrality of freedom for feminist ethics and politics.3 Yet, rather than opposing freedom to obligation, I argue that feminist ethics has to negotiate between the seemingly incompatible ethical claims of freedom and responsibility by redefining the relation between them on an entirely new basis: the disruptive yet transformative encounters with different forms of alterity. This approach to ethics shifts from moral law to the event, from normative criteria to political transformation. It locates responsibility in the asymmetrical, embodied relation to the Other and proposes a heteronomous notion of freedom that is not only not opposed to, but in fact depends on, the encounter with alterity. Such a heteronomous freedom beyond the agency of the subject (p.272) stems from a productive tension between the response to the rupture of the event and the engagement in political praxis aiming to create new modes of life.

To articulate heteronomous freedom exceeding the agency of the subject, we need first of all to radicalize antagonism, and not seek its transcendence through normative criteria. Second, we need to stress the irreducible relation of freedom to embodiment and alterity. Thus, if the notion of responsibility in political life provokes an ethical radicalization of political difference, the question of freedom calls for supplementing the constitutive role of power by what Laclau calls the ‘dislocating’ effects of antagonism. Consequently, both responsibility and antagonism dramatize the limits of the determination of power/knowledge, the interruption of subjective identities and initiatives. This productive tension between determination and disruption, agency and event, in the very concept of antagonism is implied in many theories of modern power, but it is never sufficiently developed. On the one hand, antagonism is conceived in terms of historical relations of power/knowledge and is said to constitute political identities, discourses and historical objectivity; on the other hand, antagonism is understood as a disruptive event that reveals the limits of such constitution. Stemming from the relational character of discourse and power, and reflecting the radical contingency of social relations in democracy, antagonism, as Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault, Judith Butler and most of the social construction theorists argue, does not take place between agents with already established identities. Rather, it constitutes political identities and the interlocking mechanism of oppression based on race, gender and class. At the same time, antagonism conceived as a disruptive event – for instance, Laclau’s dislocation (1990) or Fanon’s ‘leap’ (1967: 229) – disrupts existing power relations and thereby blocks the full constitution of historical objectivity and subjective identities. The unpredictable emergence of antagonisms disrupts the sedimented power structures and reveals their contingent character. It is precisely this twofold character of antagonism – one that reveals the contingent constitution of social reality and subjective identities of race and gender, and their vulnerability in the face of new conflicts – that opens a possibility of freedom and political change.

(p.273) Insofar as this twofold conception of antagonism emphasizes both the formative effects of power and the limits of constitution, it reveals not only the contingency of power but also another form of alterity in political life. Specifically, since a disruptive force of antagonism cannot be integrated into discursive formations, it forms an outside of history. According to Laclau, ‘the crucial point is that antagonism is the limit of all objectivity’ (1990: 17). Consequently, it is not only ethical alterity that exceeds the determination of social relations, but antagonism itself. As the ambiguity between constitution and dislocation demonstrates, neither conflict nor democratic politics can be thought on the model of totality. More importantly, the alterity manifesting itself through the dislocating effects of antagonism allows us to formulate a heteronomous notion of freedom exceeding the agency of the subject. For what emerges from the tension between rupture and determination in history is the insight that freedom is neither an attribute nor a manifestation of the unencumbered will of the subject. To give an example of the tension between rupture and determination, I would like to refer, all too briefly, to the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. The irruption and the rapid spread of occupational strikes all over the country and the eventual overthrow of the communist regime surpassed all the expectations and organizational efforts of the participants in that movement. As this example suggests, ‘freedom’ signifies the modality of a subjective and collective response to the unexpected emergence of antagonisms that disrupt the sedimented power structures and thus enable their transformation. Insofar as the rupture of the event transcends the historical forms of power/knowledge in which it nonetheless occurs, the political response to it neither occurs ex nihilo nor is predetermined by historical conditions; rather, it involves a strong element of unpredictability and creativity. Such an approach to freedom redefines political agency, not only by foregrounding the contextualization of decision and the contingency of historical power, but also by stressing the subject’s exposure to the unpredictability of the event. Consequently, freedom emerges from the unresolvable yet productive tension between the receptivity and the agency of the subject, between the constitutive role of power and the alterity of the event. What this tension emphasizes is (p.274) both the indebtedness of freedom to alterity and the possibility of political transformation.

The heteronomy of freedom is extended further beyond the initiative of the subject by the traumatic impact of the dislocating event. Although I cannot do justice, in this chapter, to the complex problematic of trauma and the enormous secondary literature it has produced, I do want to stress that trauma emphasizes most starkly the heteronomous and inassimilable aspects of freedom, which divides the subject from within and exposes her to what exceeds subjective experience, and yet enables the subject to move beyond the habitual and often defensive parameters of that experience.4 As Zˇizˇek suggests, Lacanian psychoanalysis redefines the dislocating effects of antagonism as encounters with the ‘traumatic kernel’ of the ‘real’, that is, with what exceeds and troubles signification. The most paradoxical consequence of such a psychoanalytic redefinition of the dislocating character of antagonism is that it reveals not only the traumatic impact of racial terror and sexual violence, but also the traumatic effects of liberation itself. For, on the one hand, the encounter with the real reveals the traumatic consequences of racial and sexual violence, which, at their most extreme, shatter the symbolic position of the subject. If unacknowledged and untreated, such traumatic violence can destroy the very possibility of becoming. As bell hooks powerfully argues, ‘until African Americans, and everybody else in the United States, are able to acknowledge the psychic trauma inflicted upon black folk by racist aggression and assault, there will be no collective cultural understanding of the reality that these wrongs cannot be redressed simply by programs for economic reparation, equal opportunity … or attempts to create social equality between the races’ (1995: 137–8). On the other hand, however, a traumatic encounter with the real can also open a possibility of transformation insofar as it dislocates hegemonic structures of domination and their hold on the subject. According to Alenka Zupancˇicˇ, ‘the Real … turns our symbolic universe upside down and leads to the reconfiguration of this universe’ (2000: 235).

For a powerful political analysis of such a ‘real’ event that ‘turns our symbolic universe upside down and leads to the reconfiguration of this universe’, we can refer to Frantz (p.275) Fanon’s discussion of the Algerian revolution. Fanon confronts the ambiguous relation between the real and revolutionary struggle in his diagnosis of the bodily effects of racial oppression and liberation. In Fanon’s theory of revolutionary violence, the rupture of antagonism that shatters imaginary, bodily coherence is not only a traumatic effect of domination – which he famously diagnosed as the ‘epidermalization’ of the colonial oppression on the surface of the black skin – but an equally traumatic condition of contestation and freedom. Thus, if, in White Masks, Black Skin, he focuses primarily on the traumatic effects of racial oppression, in The Wretched of the Earth, he analyses the traumatic aspect of the struggle for liberation (1963; 1967). What is most difficult and controversial in Fanon’s work is his claim that liberation depends on a confrontation with ‘real hell’ of the body, ‘where the categories of sense and non-sense are not yet invoked’ (1967: 9). Fanon’s rethinking of the rupture of antagonism reveals the extimacy of the ‘violence just under the skin’ (1963: 71), which suggests a traumatic confrontation with the real. Enabling a symbolic resignification of the colonized black body, which Fanon associates with the creation of the new skin, the rupture of the antagonism in the body confronts the revolutionary subject with ‘a zone of nonbeing … where an authentic upheaval can be born’ (1967: 8).

Yet, under what conditions does the traumatic rupture of antagonism merely intensify destructive injury inflicted by white domination, and under what conditions does it enable revolutionary struggle? This difficult question leads Fanon to conceptualize the struggle for decolonization in a new way, by confronting the traumatic impact of revolutionary struggle and its relation to embodiment. As Fanon’s analysis of the mental disorders created by revolution suggests, the separation between liberation and the traumatic shattering of identity is always uncertain. Nonetheless, if the traumatic rupture of the real antagonism is to have a liberating effect, it has to be accompanied by political organization. Consequently, Fanon’s emphasis on the insufficiency of spontaneous revolutionary violence and his focus on the organization of revolutionary movement point not only to the traumatic exposure to the real, but also to hegemonic articulation as a necessary element of freedom. It is the (p.276) symbolic, institutional aspect of revolutionary practice that redirects the negativity of ‘that violence which is just under the skin’ (1963, 71) from the shattering of the oppressive colonial world to the creation of the new forms of life. By exposing both the traumatic and the liberating effects of the revolutionary restructuring of the world, Fanon presents a heteronomous notion of embodied freedom, one which goes beyond any simple notion of the agency of the subject. Irreducible to voluntarism, such a heteronomous freedom emerges from an uncertain and often unpredictable negotiation between the rupture of revolutionary antagonism and the organization of revolutionary movement. Fanon’s revolutionary practice neither represses the traumatic event nor repeats it in the form of acting out, but emerges from the gap between the rupture of event and the subsequent (re-)symbolization and organization of revolutionary coalitions. Thus, what Fanon contributes to the theory of heteronomous freedom is the fact that freedom emerges from the collective, organized response to traumatizing bodily effects of the revolutionary event.

In order to contest the binary opposition between freedom and responsibility, I have redefined both concepts in relation to traumatizing encounters with alterity and have stressed their heteronomous character, irreducible to the voluntarism of the subject. The remaining question, however, is how to distinguish and negotiate between different notions of alterity – in particular, between the ethical signification of the other person and the impersonal alterity of the event of the real. In response to this question, let us turn to a vacillating distinction in Levinas’s texts between the face of the Other and the anonymous alterity of il y a (there is), which is precisely what signifies the horrifying indeterminateness of the event without an agent – the ‘it happens’. Exceeding the categories of interiority and exteriority, ‘there is’, like the real, can be experienced only retrospectively as a threat of depersonalization, as the ‘mute menace’ of the anonymous foreignness of existence without a subject. Although both forms of alterity – the Other and the event – interrupt individual and collective identifications, Levinas nonetheless stresses two differences between them. First, unlike the pure rupture of the anonymous event, the faceto-face encounter involves a minimal linguistic element of (p.277) ethical saying. Because of this linguistic element, some commentators on Levinas suggest that the face of the Other is already a sublimation of the real (see, for instance, Assoun, 1998: 97). Thanks to this relation to language, ethical alterity is not an impersonal event but a call to responsibility. Second, the event of ‘there is’ (the real) and ‘face to face’ represent interrelated but different modalities of trauma. Unlike the depersonalizing threat of the real, the traumatic relation to the Other constitutes the singularity of the subject – not in the sense of identity but in the sense of the irreplaceability of responsibility, which no one can assume in ‘my’ place.

Despite these differences, Levinas suggests that the threatening anonymity of ‘there is’ is a precondition of ethical experience. Levinas posits a double ‘relation’ between the rupture of ‘there is’ and the ethical encounter with the Other: the interruption of the ego by the real opens the possibility of an ethical relation, while the ethical encounter ‘rescues’ the subject from the vacillation between sense and nonsense into which the event of ‘there is’ deteriorates. In Otherwise than being, Levinas argues that the recurrence of ‘there is’ shakes the ego from its ‘imperialism’, ex-posing the subject to the Other (1981: 162–5). Thus, the relation to ‘there is’ (the real) might be described as the ‘original traumatism’, which, as Simon Critchley argues, constitutes a precondition of ethical relation (1999: 183–97). Indeed, it is the traumatic threat of the real that prevents responsibility from collapsing into voluntarism. Although I agree with Levinas that the exposure to the rupture of event is a precondition of responsibility, I do not share his existentialist anguish about senselessness and the suffocating void. On the contrary, the event character of ‘there is’ and its relation to dislocating antagonism, I argue, are also conditions of heteronomous freedom. Consequently, the relation between the ‘there is’ and ‘the face’ of the Other is not about ‘saving’ the subject from the suffocating absurdity of the real, but about the necessary co-implication of freedom and obligation.

What are the implications of this intersection between freedom and obligation for politics? As we have seen, what turns the encounter with the real into a possibility of freedom is the necessity of hegemonic articulation of (p.278) antagonism and the creation of new forms of life. Yet, since democratic praxis is necessarily intersubjective, implicated in multiple relations to others, we can say that hegemonic praxis is always already marked by the ethical saying, by the exposure of political agents to the traumatic accusation and obligation coming from the Other. Thus, if the event of ‘there is’ (or the rupture of the real) is an ontological precondition of both obligation and heteronomous freedom, on the political level, the intersection between freedom and responsibility occurs at the moment of democratic practice.

Consider, for instance, the growing opposition in the US against the war in Iraq. Emerging in response to the shameful events of escalating violence in Iraq, destruction, torture in American prisons and the violations of human rights by the American government, and strengthened by each new occurrence of anti-war protest and rally, this coalition of divergent, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, liberal or simply anti-Republican forces is arguably a belated manifestation of heteronomous freedom. Yet, the forming of this democratic coalition is not merely a collective expression of will but also a taking of responsibility for the freedom of others, a response to the mute call of the tortured or dead bodies of the victims of this war. Such an intersection between freedom and responsibility emphasizes, on the one hand, the political inflection of obligation by making it inseparable from action and the accountability for social wrongs and, on the other hand, the ethical inflection of heteronomous freedom by showing that the engagement in political struggles against racism, sexual discrimination or economic inequalities is motivated by responsibility. Furthermore, the intersection between obligation and freedom complicates the very form of hegemonic articulation by introducing to the aporia of equivalence and difference the anarchic trace of ethical saying, or the call to responsibility, as the source of the ethical aspiration for a just society. By situating the conflicting relations between difference and equivalence, the particular and universal, within the ethical disturbance of the Other, such a revision of hegemonic articulation shifts the basis of political coalitions from identification with others to ethical accountability and the response to alterity. That is to say, what holds the political coalition together is not primarily (p.279) an identification with the agent claiming for itself the task of universal emancipation, as Laclau argues, but a shared accountability for the multiple forms of the exploitations of others. Consequently, the articulation of the partial equivalence on which the tenuous coherence of the coalition is based – such as the opposition to the war in Iraq – emerges not from the negotiations between incompatible, narcissistic demands of various groups, but from the negotiation between incompatible responsibilities. Because coalitions and ethical aspirations are both motivated by accountability for the suffering and exploitation of others, democratic politics draws its ethical ‘dignity’ not merely from the ideals of equality and freedom for all, but from infinite responsibility. In this way, the ethical limits of articulation do not bear solely a negative signification of disruption; on the contrary, it is precisely these limits that link democratic politics to anarchic responsibility, to the discourse of desire and to the antagonistic negotiations of justice.

And sexual difference?

The final claim I want to make in this proposal of a feminist ethics of democracy is that the multiple intersections between antagonism, freedom and alterity are inseparable from sexuality and sexual difference. However, given the justifiable and often devastating criticisms of white solipsism, the disregard of race, and the ‘hetero-pathos’ that implicitly or explicitly characterize most theories of sexual difference, is it still possible to maintain that feminist ethics depends on a category of sexual difference? And, if so, in what way? I have argued elsewhere that these important criticisms should not compel us to abandon the concept of sexual difference but, on the contrary, should motivate us to reformulate it, so that it becomes more dynamic, more ethical and more democratic (2001: 152). In other words, feminist ethics needs a theory of sexual difference that can underscore a possibility of social change and ethical respect for alterity, while at the same time accounting for the differences and antagonisms among women. Perhaps such a theory is incomplete, but let me try to suggest some of its parameters.5 As Lacan’s emphasis on the antinomies of (p.280) sexuation (see Copjec, 1994: 201–36) and Irigaray’s stress on the ‘impossible labor of the negative’ (see Deutscher, 2002: 107–20) suggest, sexual difference reveals the internal division and limitation of the sexed subject – that is, it points to the limits of the symbolic positions rather than to an identification with a positive identity. What blocks the full constitution of individual or collective identities is the ‘disappropriating’ character of sexuation. As Irigaray puts it, ‘The mine of the subject is always already marked by disappropriation … Being a man or a woman means not being the whole of the subject or of the community or of spirit, as well as not being entirely one’s self’ (1996: 106). In the psychoanalytic context, this formulation of sexual difference as the impossible suggests once again a relation to the register of the real, but this time what precipitates such an encounter is not the traumatic effect of sexist or racist violence, but the ontological disappropriation of sexuate being. As Zˇizˇek similarly writes, ‘the claim that sexual difference is “real” equals the claim that it is “impossible” – impossible to symbolize, to formulate as a symbolic norm’ (1999: 273).

To develop the implications of the limit of symbolization disclosed through sexual difference we have to consider, nonetheless, its dislocating effects in the context of the historical determinations of gender and racial identities. We have reached an impasse in the discussions of sexual difference because it is always reduced to only one side of the dislocation/determination divide: if we emphasize only dislocation or the limit of meaning, as psychoanalytic theories tend to do, we end up with a certain overvaluation of failure. If, on the contrary, we stress only the historical determination of sexuality, we tend to collapse sexual difference with gender and thus to foreclose its eccentric aspect. Therefore, just as I stress the dual aspect of political antagonism – rupture and symbolization – so too do I argue for a reconsideration of sexual difference in the context of both dislocation and the determination of power/knowledge. By exposing the contradictions and incompletion of historically constituted identities, this approach to sexual difference prevents the reification of existing gender and racial stereotypes as political or ‘natural’ norms. Furthermore, it emphasizes the transformative effects of sexual (p.281) dislocation, by interpreting the ‘disappropriating’ character of sexual difference in temporal terms as a possibility of becoming, desire, indeed, as the opening of freedom. However, such a dynamic interpretation of sexual difference is inextricably linked to antagonism, since the transformation of sedimented gender and racial norms is intertwined with a struggle against the multiple forms of exploitation that constitute these norms. The labour of the negative in this context cannot be just an abstract acknowledgement of racial and class differences among women, as is the case in Irigaray’s work but, first of all, a contestation of the hegemonic universality of whiteness, class privilege and other types of domination. Only then can sexual difference be seen as a condition of social transformation of the sedimented power structures shaping differences and inequalities among women and, thus, a condition of heteronomous freedom. Consequently, even though the limit disclosed through sexual difference is not an effect of political struggle, when it is considered in the context of racialized, gendered determination of power/knowledge, it becomes intertwined with antagonism. This is the political dimension of sexual difference that neither Irigaray nor Lacan sufficiently address.

The last point I want to make is that, contra Levinas, sexual difference is not only intertwined with antagonism, heteronomous freedom and the possibility of becoming, but also with the ethical respect for alterity in erotic relations.6 To articulate an ethical encounter with alterity, the impossible and negative aspect of sexual difference has to be considered specifically in the context of eroticism, which obviously cannot be reduced to normative heterosexuality. Again, feminist and psychoanalytic theories have reached an impasse in this respect by confusing sexual difference, that is, an internal limitation and disappropriation of the subject’s position, with erotic relations, which in turn have been all too often conceptualized on the model of a heterosexual couple. Responding to this confusion of sexual difference and heteronormativity in Irigaray’s work, Butler argues that an ethics of sexual difference makes ‘heterosexuality into the privileged locus of ethics, as if heterosexual relations, because they putatively crossed this alterity, which is the alterity of sexual difference, were somehow more (p.282) ethical, more other-directed’ (1998: 28). To avoid such heteronormativity, I stress the distinction between sexual difference, which foregrounds the disappropriation, limitation and incompleteness of any sexual identity, and sexual relation, which refers to multiple forms of eroticism beyond homosexual/heterosexual binary (see Ziarek, 2001: 152–72). Insofar as the labour of the negative accomplished through sexual difference negates either projections of the negative on the Other or the reduction of the Other to the complement of the subject, it enables the respect for the alterity of the Other in erotic relations. In other words, the singularity of the Other in sexual relation cannot be equated with the other sex. As Elizabeth Grosz and Pheng Cheah claim, ‘neither respect for the other sex nor fidelity to one’s sex necessarily implies an obligatory desire for the other sex’ (1998: 13). The impossibility of sexual difference reveals the fact that it is not only the hostile other, not only the irruption of antagonism, which blocks the full constitution of identities, but the very condition of sexuate being. This impossibility enables an erotic relation to the Other that is irreducible to the political structures of domination or to the narcissistic relations of complementarity. In this context, taking the negative upon oneself implies acknowledging the limitation and disappropriation of the sexed subject for the sake of the Other’s becoming.

The consideration of sexual difference in the context of a feminist ethics of democracy not only enables us to contest the binary opposition of freedom and responsibility by exposing their disembodied, desexualized character. More importantly, the disappropriating character of sexual difference poses the question of whether the investment in unified society without antagonism is not in fact a compensation for the loss of being and the lack of complementarity in sexual relations. By dramatizing, in Irigaray’s words, ‘not being the whole of the subject or of the community’, the disappropriating character of sexual difference undercuts the fantasmatic, imaginary constructions of ‘all’ at the basis of the compensatory function of the social bond. Consequently, the disappropriation of sexual difference, like the disturbing withdrawal of alterity from political identifications, is what widens the gap between political praxis and the imaginary unity of a reconciled society. By keeping this gap open, by (p.283) insisting on the impossibility of wholeness in collective life, we can cultivate a necessary sobriety in politics and ethics in order to disengage the ethical aspiration to freedom of all from the recuperation of the loss of enjoyment. Only then can ethical motivation of political praxis remain ethical and prevent a deterioration of postmodern politics into an ethical indifference to the injustices and suffering of others.



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(1) For diverse mediations between ethics and politics, see for example, Rey Chow (1998), Drucilla Cornell (1991), Simon Critchley (1999), Jacques Derrida (1997), Janet R. Jacobsen (1998), Rosalyn Diprose (2002), Iris Marion Young (1997) and Mark Dooley (ed.) (1999).

(2) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak stresses the ‘gap between the historical-political’ and the impossibility of the ethical experience (2001: 215–36).

(3) For different examples of feminist reformulations of freedom, see Drucilla Cornell (1998) and Wendy Brown (1995: 3–30). Judith Butler’s notion of performative reinscription (1993: 15) can be read as another instance of a contextualized freedom beyond subjective voluntarism.

(4) For the diverse approaches to trauma, history and psychoanalysis, see, for instance, Dominick LaCapra (1994), Cathy Caruth (1996), Linda Belau and Petar Ramadanovic (eds) (2002) and Kelly Oliver (2001). For the analysis of trauma in the context of Levinas’s work, see Critchley (1999: 183–98).

(5) I develop such a theory elsewhere through critical engagements with Irigaray, Lacan and Levinas (2001: 151–82).

(6) For a feminist critique of Levinas in the context of eroticism and reproduction, see Guenther (2006).