One of the pleasures of working in a weekly medium is the opportunity to revise ideas-in-progress. Thus, although I had thought I was more or less finished (for the time being, at least) with a series I had been writing about the “politics of interruption,” I am happy to have been jolted into the realization that at least one more entry is required.
The spur was a recent encounter with Judith Butler’s Parting Ways (2009): a text in many ways organized around the theme of “interruption.”
Although much of the attention to Parting Ways has focused, logically enough, upon Butler’s interventions vis-à-vis the question of what it means to think “Jewishly” about Israel (that is, after all, what the book is “about”), Butler’s text also performs a series of operations that are of great value with or without any directly correlation to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, American foreign policy, or the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. (Although I should say, for the sake of transparency, that on the “hot button” issues, Butler’s views and my own are very close).
In this essay, I wish to look at the work Butler assigns to “interruption” in Parting Ways, and try to establish why it is that Butler thematizes the term. My intention is not so much to read Butler’s “interruptions” critically (I don’t have many criticisms), but rather to get as close as I can to an understanding of Butler’s conceptual work.
The first cluster of “interruptions” occur near the beginning of Parting Ways, and speak to concerns of the ethics of what we might describe as the dramatized inter-subjective encounter: if I am not incorrect, we are, broadly speaking, in the realm of Hegel’s master and slave, Buber’s “I and Thou,” Bakhtin’s dialogical partners.
There are many different ways to talk about ethics: imaginatively managing fantasized populations in a utilitarian fashion, playing around with hypothetical dilemmas, deferring to the authority of old rules (or making up new ones), thinking genealogically about where our moral reflexes came from, etc.
Butler is not thinking about ethics in any of these ways (with the possible exception of the final Nietzschean one). Instead, she draws on a strong Jewish tradition of conjuring the encounter of two dramatic, quasi-allegorical figures as they meet one another’s eyeline: the Jew and the Gentile, the Insider and the Outsider, the Home-dweller and his or her Neighbor, the Self and the Other.
Butler’s primary interlocutor here is Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), the Jewish French philosopher famous for articulating an ethical theory around the notion of the “face.” In extremely simplified form, for Levinas the ethical edict “Thou shalt not kill” corresponds to our experience of bearing witness to the other’s face (which refers not just to the eyes, nose, and mouth, but to indicia of the other’s humanness more generally).
Butler quarrels with Levinas, even as she seeks to keep thinking with him. At a certain point, what is radical about Levinas’s thought–its relationality–seems to settle into something more calcified and dangerous—a fixed ontology of self and other. The danger, here, is that experience of the other’s alterity might clamp us down in our contingent identities and convince us of their authenticity and durability. That is what we would want to avoid.
What Butler seeks in the Jewish tradition (this is what would be threatened by the work of some contemporary intellectuals to collapse “Jewishness” into “Israel” and vice versa), therefore, is a heightening of commitments to relationality and a full repudiation of ontological essentialism of any sort.
This is where “interruption” comes in. Whereas for the ordinary settler colonialist—say, the Englishman in India––the face of the other only serves to reinforce his internal sense of “Englishness”––a ratification of identity––the Jewish nomad confronting the other’s alterity serves as an interruption of identity. This interruption, Butler writes, is the condition of ethical relationality.
The question then becomes (for Butler): is this really a “Jewish” notion. I am not sure that this question can be properly asked, let alone answered; as I understand the reception of Parting Ways by Jewish intellectuals, there is a certain amount of frustration with the way Butler handles this particular “Jewish question.” If anyone knows these debates better than I do and wishes to fill in some of the blanks in the comments, I would be most grateful.*
From Levinas, Butler turns to Edward Said, and in particular to Said’s remarkable late work, Freud and the Non-European. It is in Said’s meditations on belonging and homelessness that Butler seeks an elaboration of what “interruption” as a condition of ethical relationality” might mean. After all, there is something apparently paradoxical about such a notion. “But to know that,” Butler writes, “we have first to consider what such terms mean.” They could mean a lot of different things. Butler is faithful enough to the demands of the disquisition, and to the deconstructive tradition more generally, to keep pushing the question in aporetic directions.
For better or worse, by way of contrast, I’m lazy enough to seize upon the first attractive formulation that catches my eye and stick with it as long as it works. Thus, I think we could get quite a lot of mileage out of this passage:
[t]he kind of relationality at stake is one that ‘interrupts’ or challenges the unitary character of the subject, its self-sameness and its univocity.” In other words, something happens to the “subject” that dislocates it from the center of the world; some demand from elsewhere lays claim to me, presses itself upon me, or even divides me from within, and only through this fissuring of who I am do I stand a chance of relating to another.
Applying this interpretation to the example of traditional settler colonialism, we might say that our presentation above of the ratification of self-identity via the encounter with the other is itself a retroactive imposition of a certain order upon what is inescapably an interruption—this is, I think, Fanon’s argument in Black Skin, White Masks.
If Butler runs a risk here, it is of being read as arguing that the experience of “interruption” is uniquely Jewish, rather than universal; this would be a difficult argument to sustain. Perhaps the more useful frame would be one that looked to Jewish culture as marked by preferences for “staying in” the envelope opened up by the “interruption” for longer periods of time and at greater intensities: thus, the incredible stretches of irony and pessimism in Ashkenazic Jewish badinage, the never-resolved Talmudic debates, all the distinctive features of European Jewish music that drove anti-Semites (from Martin Luther to Richard Wagner) so crazy for so many years. It should be emphasized that if a propensity for the pleasures of interruption might be locatable in the archives of Jewish culture, such an identification would not imply that similar preferences are not at work in other cultures. I have a strong sense that most subaltern and nomadic collectivities develop traditions of “interruptive” ethics and aesthetics.
Butler moves on to consider Walter Benjamin on the “interruption,” ground that we have covered a bit in previous essays. What Butler highlights in this discussion is the messianic/kabbalistic character of Benjamin’s “interruptions”—the resonance of the Benjaminian “flash” that ruptures time’s continuity and provides a glimpse of an alternative present with the Zohar’s mystical vision of flying sparks, chips, and shards “flashing up, or flaming in ways that offer sudden, passing interruptions of present time.” For Benjamin, investments in the figure of the “interruption” that brings about a radical “now-time” signals a departure from Second International visions of linear historical progress.
“In fact,” Butler writes, “Benjamin makes clear in the seventeenth thesis that this flashing up makes possible an interruption of established forms of historical development; it constitutes a ‘cessation of happening,’ and so a calling into question of progressive historiography itself.” It only such a “cessation of happening” that can produce a “revolutionary chance on the fight for the oppressed past.”
Butler concludes this reading of Benjamin and “interruption,” with which I hope to work much more closely, by thinking about parallels between messianic interruption and the question of “translation” (something of an obsession for Benjamin).
Butler’s presentation of Benjamin’s question seems to synthesize perfectly many of the things I have been trying to get at it in my attempts to wrap my head around ‘interruption” (it is thus a good place to end, for now).
“How does another time break into this time, through what vessel, and through what transposition?”
Butler, Judith. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. 2012.
On Levinas, see: Moyn, Samuel. Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Other-Emmanuel-Levinas-Revelation/dp/0801473667
* It goes without saying that if anyone wants to do the usual ad hominem and talking points stuff, from any side and towards any end, this is not the place for that.