Escaping Freedom – The Interstitial Politics of Emmanuel Levinas (Joshua Lawrence)

This paper was first delivered at the 2020 Annual Telos-Paul Piccone Institute Conference.         

As conceived in a liberal framework, the subject is primarily rational (or at least rational enough) and thus, capable of self-legislating in accordance with a deontological imperative. To some extent, this implies sovereignty, albeit one guarded by conventional strictures that prevent unproductive clashes. In Kant, this realization is the end of world history— the teleological motivation of human community.

However, as the work of several post-war theorists has demonstrated, the subject thus engendered is at odds with the lived experience of most, if not all, persons in Western nation-states. In the words of Emmanuel Levinas, this subject suffers from an incurable allergy, namely the resistance to an other’s persistence in being, their conatus.

This conative disposition—what Kant describes as an “unsocial sociability”—manifests fully in the drama of war but also in the calculated mediations of a government at peacetime. As participants in a fraught existence, subjects are interested in securing space and resources, as Levinas argues, often at the expense of others similarly engaged (4-5). Within this society, nothing is gratuitous. (Levinas stresses the root of this word, which implies an action undertaken without reason, or without calculation). 

In sharp contrast, Levinas argues for the primacy of an exposure that makes possible sociality—his term for the communal interactions of affected subjects (“On Escape” 63-66, Time and the Other 62-79). Here, the subject is primordially indebted to an-other for her identity. Said differently, it is responsibility for an other that confers identity on subjectivity, not my freedom.

Subjectivity, in other words, precedes identity, which is entrenched and perhaps necessary reification. However, identity cannot explain the energy of responsibility, and it certainly seems ill-equipped to handle the weight of mutual aid.

The individual in Western political thought, consequently, is necessarily divided for Levinas. This reconstituted subjectivity, described by Simon Critchley as the “dividual” is mutuality required by the condition for the recurring crises of global society (Critchley 38).  I contend that Levinas’s anarchic, metapolitical exposure can lead to the emergence of an interstitial politics practiced within the state but escaping its bio-political calculus (See Foucault).  And by transcending the horizonal battlefield of immanence, the demand of proximity makes possible a common good, which is the only one.

Concerning Autonomy and Freedom

In contrast to other thinkers of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant sought to “bring autonomy to the center of philosophy” (Ameriks 139). By turning away from the common sense objects of philosophy, the author of ‘transcendental’ thought relocates these items in the structures of human consciousness. This subjectivist turn allows Kant to bridge the seeming impasse between the necessity entailed by modern science and voluntaristic social reform.

However, in maneuvering out of this bind, he is forced to account for freedom outside of the theoretical claims of the First Critique. And while freedom will thus be the lynchpin of the entire critical philosophy, Kant must also speak to the ‘self’ that autonomously legislates moral laws as well as the pure epistemic ‘subject,’ wherein synthesis of intuition and concept occurs.

Ameriks, for example, suggests that this position is ‘untimely’ because of the dominant humanist readings of Kant that seek to dismiss his preoccupation with metaphysics. He further argues that Kant makes less sense outside of this reading, since he appears so concerned with ‘grounding’ and even refers to his later work as a ‘metaphysics of morals’ (17).

As for freedom, this exists for Kant alongside God and immortality, indispensable ideas. Of course, these are not “things” of which anyone can claim objective knowledge, but instead serve a regulative function in human thought and practice. In particular, for Kant, freedom “constitutes the keystone of the whole structure of a system of pure reason,” and he suggests that freedom “reveals itself through the moral law” (139).

But to establish this firmly, Kant must account for the unresolvable tension between the law of causality—that is, ontological and epistemological necessity—and the transcendental idea of freedom. How does freedom “reveal” itself and to what extent is this sufficient as the keystone of an entire system.

In brief, Kant’s response to the suspicions raised in his time and perhaps our own centers on his famous distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal perspectives. Concerning appearance, the causality of a being is “sensible in its effects.” Viewed as the cause of a thing, “it is intelligible in its action.”

This division of perspective maps onto Kant’s distinction between Intelligibility and Knowability. Freedom is required for a well-governed society, but if accepted, it implies a subject’s participation in a super- sensible nature (autonomy), a nature only known through its direction in the moral law. 

And, if Kant secures freedom, he abandons God. Relegated to a derivative and remotely functional status, God no longer occupies any place worthy of mention. The God of Judeo-Christian tradition seems for Kant the only way to handle the obvious disparities in this life—to place in judgment a guarantor of award. But how might one begin to justify an insertion of this kind, even with the best of intentions?

Here Kant has betrayed the huge effort he has made to accommodate socio-political mores. It is plain enough that in his critical philosophy, rationality has replaced God as both law-giver and essential ground. The room for faith that Kant has allowed with his denial of knowledge is just enough for his basic ingredient — freedom.

And it is precisely this faith in freedom that I find problematic as it relates to a new politics of mutual aid, one that I describe as interstitial. If the conative disposition of humans awakens otherwise dormant capacities, as Kant and others seem to think it does, then does uncontrollable passion become equanimity in time, does war make peace? So long as there is the adequate governmental mediation along the way. In his defense, even Kant was not sure that humans would eventuate the end of history:

It would…be impossible to predict whether the discord which is so natural to our species is not preparing the way for a hell of evils to overtake us, however civilized our condition, in that nature, by barbaric devastation, might perhaps again destroy this civilized state and all the cultural progress hitherto achieved…(Political Writings 48)

To state things a bit more strongly than Kant would, the supposed achievements of civilization have come at a huge cost to most of the world, one not forgotten by those who have borne the lion’s share of the burden.

Otherwise Constituted

Returning to Levinas, I want to argue that the subject of this system of reason and governance will always usurp the sun of another (to borrow from Pascal) unless there be a binding that fundamentally precedes volition and cognition. In “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” Levinas opines that Western philosophy treats humans as ahistorical.

He goes on to argue that while liberalism evades certain dramatic aspects of the human adventure, it does retain one, namely the sovereign freedom of reason. Modern philosophy, then, is inherently idealist insofar as it expresses the belief in a freedom detached from the world’s vicissitudes.

According to Levinas, it is only Marx that seeks to break the harmonious curve of modern political and cultural development. But even with Marxism, consciousness is the key to breaking the chains of capitalist exploitation, and so, the power of free reason emerges once again as the instrument of emancipation (“Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism” 62-71).

Already at an early stage in his thought, Levinas is very aware of the difficulties one has in escaping the sovereignty of freedom, but he also knows the urgency to do so, since Hitlerism had demonstrated the impotence of such thought. It had awakened “elementary feelings” understood by liberalism to have been transcended.

Building on this insight, Levinas proposes that we prioritize eschatology over teleology when describing subjectivity. Instead of perpetuating a philosophy of the historically comfortable and destined, he argues for a critique that emerges from the afflicted.

In essence, what Levinas demands is an account that freedom and reason cannot offer, a diachronic intervention that will break up the consummating flow of immanent history (See Totality and Infinity 21-30). For this, he will need to exposit from the hither side of reason, or as he prefers, from otherwise than being.

Such a description will resemble an approach, perhaps a salutation. And the language here is “anterior to the enunciation of propositions communicating information and accounts,” since it is precisely the Other that is not known to whom we are invited to respond. The Other about which all that can be said is “she calls,” “she commands,” “she beseeches.” Proximity precedes identity, as does responsibility.

In what appears to be a primordial sociality, Levinas’s subjectivity is constituted by the ability to respond in relation to the asymmetrical space of intersubjective life. The Other commands from on high but also beseeches from below. Thus, I am never equal to the one to whom I am beholden and for whom I am responsible, as liberal theory suggests.

To be clear, this self, announced in response, is separate from, not enmeshed in the subjectivity of another. Thus, there is room for a citizen, a community member, a person not swallowed by a state or doctrine. But unlike the citizen of a modern political frame, the self is not primarily free or rational, but rather receptive and responsible.

As Simon Critchley suggests, this urgently tends to the motivational deficit of modern democracies, where life is often viewed as a choice between active nihilism and passive nihilism, a distinction taken from Nietzsche (39).  Without a motivating theory of the subject, like the one Levinas proposes, any suggestion of mutual aid will fall victim to the interminable and ultimately ineffective mediations of various governmentalities.

While the subject in Levinas is not ontologically entangled, she is split between the demand made by the Other and the response to this demand. Hence, the term “dividual.” In sharp contrast to Kant and his successors, the subject’s autonomy in Levinas is called into question and ultimately exists only as a pragmatic motility on the way to a task.

Further, this demand is infinite, and it increases in proportion to the responsiveness. One is never allowed to “lay it down,” as one would other burdens, without consequently abandoning one’s own subjectivity—which Levinas emphasizes is only conferred by responsibility. And since responsibility grows, and call can never be placed with finality, the subjectivity in Levinas is inherently dynamic and participates forever in what is impossible from the perspective of freedom.

This metapolitical anarchy leads to what I have described as interstitial politics. What I intend with this phrase is a certain refusal, namely of freedom conferred by a state on recognized citizens. Positively, it is the suturing of split subjects into a network of responsibility within the boundaries of the state but not constructed in relation to it. Thus, subjectivities framed by infinite responsibility live in interdependent relation to one another, acknowledge the asymmetry of intersubjective space, and promote the agility required by contemporary practices of life.

These spaces between state recognition and formal exile constitute possibilities for emancipatory praxis and acknowledge the necessary interval between responsibility and freedom.

When Levinas speaks of politics, he speaks of justice. But he always saw politics as a compromise, a betrayal—albeit a necessary betrayal. By invoking a politics of mutual aid outside of the possibilities present in nation-state politics, I have tried to approach the relation between ethics and politics in a way less resigned than Levinas himself.

I do not accept that all politics is an irreparable betrayal of my responsibility to an-other. However, I admit that my suggestion refers more to a network of micro-political economies than a centralized government. As it concerns a politics of interstices, I take a cue from David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:

Counterpower, at least in the most elementary sense, actually exists where the states and markets are not even present; that in such cases, rather than being embodied in popular institutions which pose themselves against the power of lords, or kings, or plutocrats, they are embodied in institutions which ensure such types of person never come about. (25)

The space between state and market, citizenry and exile, is precisely a space an-archically situated in relation to an ever-growing, and thus infinite responsibility. It is here where mutual aid is discovered as constitutive of human community and fundamentally connected to the subject as one who is always called. 


Joshua Lawrence is an ABD graduate student in the Joint Program in the Study of Religion at The University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. He is completing a dissertation titled Witness and Infinite Responsibility: The Martyr’s Desire in Emmanuel Levinas.

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