Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Toward an Ethics of Cohabitation—Because we don’t have a choice?

The questions Butler raises in her final lecture are intriguing: What are global obligations near and far? What makes these ethical encounters possible? What does it mean for our ethical obligations when we are joined to those we did not choose?

Butler’s ethics of cohabitation sound deontological (at times theological) and sum up to two points:
1. What happens there happens here.
2. Unchosen cohabitation implies equality but also precarity.

Butler argues that images of distant suffering impose an ethical solicitation on us the viewers by compelling us to negotiate questions of proximity. They make us question, “If I did not make this suffering occur, am I still somehow responsible for it?” Ethical implications span across time and space, according to Butler.  She describes how media brings far away suffering near and how it can make what is proximate appear far away.

Butler references Susan Sontag, who writes in Regarding the Pain of Others that a photograph “has only one language and is destined potentially for all” (2003, 20). Photographs, Sontag suggests, can be “read” by anyone, but she distinguishes who has the right to look: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering … are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be” (2003, 42).

Sontag’s essay suggests that the viewer of an image of suffering wields much power. Butler takes a different stance. She deconstructs the reading of images with the argument that the viewer is “imposed upon.” According to Butler the images have agency, because media “addresses” the viewer, who has not freely chosen to see what she is seeing. Butler states that responsiveness precedes the ego, thus the unchosen force of the image acting on this receptivity indicates an ethical obligation—what Butler deems a “global responsibility.”

Butler then turns to Jewish ethical reflection through dizzying expositions of Levinas and Arendt. Butler maintains Levinas’s notion that we are acted upon ethically, prior to any choice. More important than proximity and sameness in bonding us to one another is the otherness of the other. The other has priority over oneself and ethical relations are asymmetrical. According to Levinas, we are vulnerable to the other and yet simultaneously responsible to the other. Boundaries are a space of adjacency where we are exposed to the other and made precarious. Levinas argues that we are called upon by a claim that cannot be anticipated. Thus, ethical responsibility presupposes an ethical responsiveness, thereby preceding any individual sense of self.

Butler discusses Arendt’s political stance as a Jewish refugee—“We are all the unchosen together.” Arendt upholds an unchosen condition of freedom and plural action. Butler interprets this as “social belonging,” which obligates us to preserve the lives of the global population. She supports Arendt’s criticism of the formation of a Jewish state, which dispossessed the Palestinian people of their land. Butler agrees with Arendt’s claim that Israel’s Law of Return should be coupled with a right to return for the Palestinians.

Butler concludes by returning to her earlier affirmation of interdependency (I’m still trying to make meaning of this).  Butler calls for sustainable interdependency on egalitarian terms, so that we can minimize precarity and uphold our global obligation.

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