“Levinas’s Barbarisms: Africana/Latino-a Influence on Talmudic Decolonizations”

Santiago Slabodsky


January 27, 2011

Santiago Slabodsky, Assistant Professor at Claremont School of Theology, California, spoke on the topic, “Levinas’s Barbarisms: Africana/Latino-a Influence on Talmudic Decolonizations.” According to Slabodsky, a shift in the registry of “empire” in Emmanuel Levinas’s (1906-1995) thought was the result of Levinas’s interactions with critical perspectives from African and Latino/a contexts.

Two key modes of inquiry help locate some of Levinas’s assumptions. On the one hand, a hermeneutics of charity shows Levinas as a clear liberal social democrat who offers certain kind of ideas that can be used both in domestic and international affairs. On the other hand, a hermeneutics of suspicion conjures a Levinas who endorsed the state of Israel and espoused Judeo-Christian identity as necessarily superior to intra-European barbarism.
According to Professor Santiago, Levinas’s meeting with Enrique Dussel, who was not only doing theoretical similar work but was involved in geopolitical issues in Latin America, was significant in Levinas’s significations of barbaric philosophy. By verbalizing his fascination for “barbarism,” he gradually departed from: his Eurocentric Christian apologetics of the 1930s; his notion in the 1950s about the formerly unrecognizable Afro-Asiatic masses that are foreign to Sacred History; and a totalizing Eurocentric worldview in the exotic dance of the rest, the Other (1960s). Moving from these earlier positions, Levinas started exploring a wholly other geopolitical decolonizing rhetoric in the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, he devotes his second major work, Otherwise and Being, or, Beyond Essence (1974), to challenge the stronghold of empire by opining that: “the only possibility of recovering some transcendence for philosophy, the only possibility for acknowledging the face of the other is to introduce some barbarism in the language of philosophy.”

Barbarism as conceptual and analytical category is effective as it is applied to the conquered margins of the west. This is the case because the histories of Eurocentric conquests have to acknowledge not only the Jews who experienced total dereliction in Europe’s history but also the Indians slaughtered during the conquest of America, and the millions of Africans wrenched into slavery.

Santiago believes a tricontinental barbarism was reflected in Cesaire, Dussel and Levinas. Interplaying notions of negritude with his Talmudic readings, Levinas reconfigures barbarism so as to question the constitution and politics of empire seen through Talmudic figurations of Rome. Santiago applies these critical postures in reading America’s global dominant hegemony, and argues that Rome–as shorthand for empire–will not extinguish itself but becomes modern humanity, the fraternal west, a metastasization of empires. Levinas’s problematic prayer for annihilation of empire is apt. He further argues that there is no possibility for assimilation of empire to the new world, construing empire’s conversion as only “facsimile for hypocritical pretext of the colonizers.”

In Prof. Santiago’s reading of Levinas, there is a certain finesse in the inversion of “barbarism” to engage the problematic of empire. What makes this reading more compelling is its applicability and relevance for intervention in the geopolitics of today.

Questions for reflection:
1.    Using the Talmudic readings as bases, how do cultural landslides represent scriptural reservoirs for different peoples and different deployments?
2.    What might be the influences on identity formation, and alignment of consciousness—continental, geopolitical, or cosmopolitan?
3.    To what extent have we engaged or gone beyond Levinas’s hermeneutics of charity and suspicion, and the rhetoric of decolonization?
4.    And what does Santiago’s “hermeneutic of decolonization” suggest about the politics of barbarism?
Submitted by :
David Olali
Research Assistant

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