Crikey’s Guy Rundle has weighed in heavily on the question of intervention in Libya in the past week. The piece of his I found most interesting was his first extended blog post on the matter, Revolutions, Intervention and Solidarity – Libya and the ‘anti-Imperialist’ left. Aside from being an incisive critique of the dogmatic orientation of some on the left, I found an aspect of the post particularly interesting philosophically.
Thus the question has never been about invasion, or intervention. It has been about a request for support, from the most prominent representatives of an uprising that most of us have no trouble believing in. So an entirely different situation has to be reasoned through.
What is distinctive about a request for support above all is that it reverses the presumption of agency from that which is presumed in the nature of an ‘intervention’. The request presumes solidarity and shared aims, and it demands that one respond to it, either positively or negatively. The distinctive thing about a request is that there is no possibility of a non-response, for even silence is a form of response, a refusal.
I was immediately struck by the distinctly Levinasian way in which this passage could be read. I’m interested as to whether Rundle has read Levinas, or whether he is picking up this idea from elsewhere. I’m not particularly interested in international relations so the idea of a “request for intervention” framing the decision-making process might be quite common. It doesn’t matter, I’m going to run with my Levinasian interpretation of the passage because I think it opens up an interesting (and elucidating) application of Levinas’s unapologetically obtuse ethical philosophy. My feeling is that Rundle may have picked it up from Derrida, a philosopher clearly indebted to Levinasian philosophy. I’d like to find out.
Levinas’s ethical philosophy, in my opinion, can be surmised as a re-imagining of Peter Singer’s question, ‘why should we act morally?’ Levinas externalises the question and shifts the space in which it is asked. That we ask our selves this question from the beginning of ethical consciousness, is, for Levinas, indicative of the problems with Western philosophy. Ethical responsibility, to the contrary, originates as a demand from the other person, not an enlightened decision to be ethical. The Other is a concept used frequently across the spectrum of philosophy nowadays, but I think has been most artfully constructed in Levinas’s work. That is a post for another day. For now, what is important is that ethics arises as a demand from that Other, not an internal decision to be moral.
This, ostensibly, seems an unimportant distinction. An example of philosophers and dodgy students like myself disappearing up their deepest orifices. That’s partly true. Continental philosophy as a whole has a wonderful tradition of orificating. But the distinction is definitely important to ethics. As the centre of the Western tradition of ethics is the subject. You or me as self-conscious. Levinas de-centres the subject and instead talks of a relational subjectivity that is inherently attached to the Other. Levinas describes it as a shift in the grounds of subjectivity from being “for-itself” to being “for-the-Other”. I haven’t worked out how to add citations yet, but John Llewelyn and Theodore de Boer have made this point previously.
Why is this important to ethics? It destabilises the subject’s position of privilege and dominance over the ethical relation. Levinas terms this dynamic “height” – a complex but poetic way of conceiving the metaphysical inequality between self and Other. What Levinas’s philosophy does is instead conceive the Other as being in that position of height. In other words, the ethical relation is now dominated by the Other. It is important to remember this is an ethics of sacrifice. It is not an ethics of what I ought to do, but an ethics of what I can do, how I can respond.
The subject does not determine the limit and nature of ethical obligation. Instead, the revelation of the Other’s existence commences the ethical relation with the self. I do not decide, ‘I ought to do x to y’. The Other pronounces ‘Here I am’ and the self is obliged to respond. Ethics is a response, an eternal and infinite response to the Other’s call. I will flesh out why this is at a later date in other blogs. It is complex, and I acknowledge, not immediately persuasive. What is important to this post, though, is that ethics starts as a demand from the Other. Not an internal decision-making process or an internal experience of morality, but a demand, a request, a cry for help from the Other.
The Levinasian potentialities of Rundle’s passage are now clear. Humanitarian intervention as a response. As Rundle says, even to ignore is to respond. To turn away from the Other’s gaze is to nevertheless acknowledge their existence and their cry for help. It is in these moments that true ethics exists. Our impulse is to conceptualise, rationalise, internalise the decision-making process in response to the cry for help. We need to understand the Other’s demand by making them like ourselves and our worldview. Ethics is the precariousness of this position. The demand to do something impossible. To act without deciding. To sense obligation without dominating the relationship.
To argue that the impetus for humanitarian intervention begins with a request is a fundamental re-imagining of our responsibilities to other peoples. A truly imperialist attitude is one that decides internally, and one that manipulates the world around them into their own worldview. This is the failing of the Marxists. Rather than hearing the Other’s call, they hear only their internal philosophical commitments. They see the Other only through such a prism. And, consequentially, they dominate the relationship. The decide which Others are worthy of their protection. Which Others have lived up to the ideals of Marxist revolution. Most of all, they determine the existence and extent of our obligations themselves.
If anti-imperialism were, in this case, inaction, then it would be an ironic sort of anti-imperialism. An anti-imperialistic attitude towards real power, but an imperialistic philosophy of ideas. What is imperialism is the removal of the impetus for action from the rebels back to your self. Back to your armchair in a comfortable western country. I’m on the armchair as well, well, I’m actually lying in bed, but metaphorically speaking, I am. I am not, however, so arrogant as to suggest that my, or others like myself’s, decisions ought to supplant the demand for action from the Libyan rebels. Of course, we cannot respond to every request demanded of us, but ethics is fundamentally an exploration of this tension. It is not a closure or a resolution of this tension where we determine, for ourselves and in lieu of the Others, what ought to happen. Ethics begins as a request for assistance.
I have to thank Rundle for intentionally or unintentionally prompting me to apply Levinas’s philosophy in this way. It’s fraught and complex, and I’d need ten times the words to describe it adequately. But, I hope that was has come across in this blog post is that we need to challenge our impulse in the Western to define and determine ethical situations. Ethics is about tension. It is about making impossible decisions. As Derrida explains, decision is inexorably founded on a moment of indecision. In other words, what is deciding if the decision wasn’t impossible? True ethics is a challenge. It is not easy and it is most certainly not easily encapsulated by a worldview. Imperialism is the dominance of ethical decisions. It is the retrieval of the impetus to act from an external Other to an internal system of ideas. I have much time for the Marxists, and others, and their unflinching concern for the subaltern and the powerless. I, however, must depart at the moment they insist upon applying their worldview and their principles to all those peoples. They dominate the decision and they further entrench their position of dominance over the frail, the weak and the ones crying for help.