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Judith Butler “Precarious Life”

Butler, Judith 2004. Precarious Life. – Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London; New York: Verso Books, 128-152.

[Levinas]: “The celebrated “right to existence” that Spinoza called the conatus essendi and defined as the basic principle of all intelligibility is challenged by the relation to the face. Accordingly, my duty to respond to the other suspends mu natural right to self-survival, le droit vitale. My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world.” (132)

Thus the face, the name for the face, and the words by which we are to understand its meaning – “Thou shalt not kill” – do not quite deliver the meaning of the face, since at the end of the line, it seems, it is precisely the wordless vocalization of suffering that marks the limits of linguistic translation here. The face, if we are to put words to its meaning, will be that for which no words really work; the face seems to be a kind of sound, the sound of language evacuating its sense, the sonorous substratum of vocalization that precedes and limits the delivery of any semantic sense. (134)

[Levinas]: “The Other is the sole being I can wish to kill. I can wish. And yet this power is quite the contrary of power. The triumph of this power is its defeat as power. At the very moment when my power to kill realizes itself, the other has escaped me … I have not looked at him in the face, I have not encountered his face. The temptation of total negation … this is the presence of the face. To be in relation with the other face to face is to be unable to kill. It is also the situation of discourse.” (138)

Levinas explains in one interview that “face and discourse are tied. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins alls discourse.” (138)

[…] it is only on the condition that we are addressed that we are able to make use of language. It is in this sense that the Other is the condition of discourse. If the Other is obliterated, so too is language, since language cannot survive outside of the conditions of address. (138-139)

The situation of discourse is not the same as what is said or, indeed, what is sayable. For Levinas, the situation of discourse consists in the fact that language arrives as an address we do not will, and by which we are, in an original sense, captured, if not, in Levinas’s terms, held hostage. (139)

Spinoza writes in The Ethics that the desire to live the right life requires the desire to live, to persist in one’s own being, suggesting that ethics must always marshal some life drives, even if, as a super-egoic state, ethics threatens to become a pure culture of the death drive. It is possible, even easy, to read Levinas as an elevated masochist and it does not help us to avert that conclusion when we consider that, when asked what he thought of psychoanalysis, he is said to have responded, is that not a form of pornography? (140)

It is important to distinguish among kinds of unrepresentability. In the first instance, there is the Levinasian view according to which there is a “face which no face can fully exhaust, the face understood as human suffering, as the cry of human suffering, which can take no direct representation. Here the “face” is always a figure for something that is not literally a face. Other human expressions, however, seem to be figurable as a “face” even though they are not faces, but sounds or emissions of another order. The cry that is represented through the figure of the face is one that confounds the senses and produces a clearly improper comparison: that cannot be right, for the face is not a sound. And yet, the face can stand for the sound precisely because it is not the sound. In this sense, the figure underscores the incommensurability of the face with whatever it represents. Strictly speaking, then, the face does not represent anything, in the sense that it fails to capture and deliver that to which it refers. (144)

[…] the human is not identified with what is represented but neither is it identified with the unrepresentable; it is, rather, that which limits the success of any representational practice. The face is not “effaced” in this failure of representation, but is constituted in that very possibility. Something altogether different happens, however, when the face operates in the service of a personification that claims to “capture” the human being in question. For Levinas, the human cannot be captured through the representation, and we can see that some loss of the human takes place when it is “captured” by the image. (144-145)

These are two distinct forms of normative power: one operates through producing a symbolic identification of the face with the inhuman, foreclosing our apprehension of the human in the scene; the other works through radical effacement, so that there never was a human, there never was a life, and no murder has, therefore, ever taken place. In the first instance, something that has already emerged into the realm of appearance needs to be disputed as recognizably human; in the second instance, the public realm of appearance is itself constituted on the basis of the exclusion of that image. (147)

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