chapter  7
15 Pages

Politics

Politics lies at the heart of all Levinas’s work, whether as the traumatic background or as the changing context of his intellectual development. But it is often viewed as what his work is not, namely the failure to achieve a transcending ethics. Yet as the revelation of infinity in the ethical relation is unavoidably human in Levinas, and as the position of a third party becomes essential to his ethical presentation of justice, so there is actually an inherent relation in Levinas between the ethical and the political. But this is still a view that implicitly regards the political as a passage towards ethics which inevitably involves compromise. This slightly stiff and even unreal dichotomy sometimes produces an unstable dynamic of human guilt and bleakness versus messianic hope, or absolute assertion versus absolute scepticism. This is partly the case since the universality that Levinas’s writings look to retrieve or prophesy can depend paradoxically on pointing out political and metaphysical shortcomings in a rather apocalyptic tone, rather than noting an altogether more banal politics that just needs to be negotiated. This chapter traces the development of some of Levinas’s most interesting and often overlooked post-war writings against key elements of their political background. In so doing, it spells out the implications for the political of the Levinasian ethical, but it also focuses on key texts by Levinas which at certain remarkable points demonstrate that there are political limitations even within Levinas’s aspirations.