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Judith Butler: Ethical Ambivalence
Ethical Ambivalence
(p. 127 – 136)

Judith Butler

Ethical Ambivalence

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In her strongly performative essay, Judith Butler continues her search for an ethics of non-violence. She maps her resistance against the so-called ethical turn in the humanities, holds on to her argument that the return to ethics has constituted an escape from politics, and emphasizes the violence at the heart of any ethical demand. Her central idea is that – especially after the de-Man affair brought deconstruction into disrepute by linking it to a national socialist mindset – it is of paramount importance to show how deconstruction could relate to responsibility, resistance, and antifascist ethics. Keeping an inquiring, non-thetic and very personal tone, Butler offers a virtuoso deconstructive reading of Friedrich Nietzsche by confronting his position with the ethical perspective of Emmanuel Levinas. Qualifying her outright rejection of ethics as moralizing, and as a ground for practices that ignore their own violence and righteousness, Butler suggests a possibility for a non-violent ethics that remains resistant in its constitutive inclusion of the critique of ethics itself, and the challenge to its very value.

I do not have much to say about why there is a return to ethics, if there is one, in recent years, except to say that I have for the most part resisted this return, and that what I have to offer is something like a map of this resistance and its partial overcoming which I hope will be useful for more than biographical purposes.1 I’ve worried that the return to ethics has constituted an escape from politics, and I’ve also worried that it has meant a certain heightening of moralism and this has made me cry out, as Nietzsche cried out about Hegel, “Bad air! Bad air!” I suppose that looking for a space in which to breathe is not the highest ethical aspiration, but it is there, etymologically embedded in aspiration itself, and does seem to constitute something of a precondition for any viable, that is, livable, ethical reflection.

I began my philosophical career within the context of a Jewish education, one that took the ethical dilemmas posed by the mass extermination of the Jews during World War II, including members of my own family, to set the scene for the thinking of ethicality as such. The question endlessly posed, implicitly and explicitly, is what you would have done in those circumstances, whether you would have kept the alliance, whether you would have broken the alliance, whether you would have stayed brave and fierce and agreed to die, whether you would have become cowardly, sold out, tried to live, and betrayed others in the process. The questions posed were rather stark, and it seemed as if they were posed not merely about a hypothetical past action, but of present and future actions as well: Will you live in the mode of that alliance? Will you live in the mode of that betrayal, and will you be desecrating the dead by your actions, will you be killing them again? No, worse, you are, by your present action, effectively killing them again. It was unclear whether any sort of significant action could be dislodged from this framework, and whether any action could be dissociated from the ethical itself: the effect on action was generally paralysis or guilt with occasional moments of hallucinatory heroism.

We know this particular form of ethical thinking from Woody Allen films, the humor of Richard Lewis, and others. And, despite its gravity, or rather because of it, I can barely restrain myself from driving the logic into the sometimes hilarious extremes it achieves in the U.S. ­context (Did you brush your teeth? Are you betraying the Jews?) but I will try not to – and not only from fear of enacting that desecration again. It was with reluctance that I agreed to read Nietzsche, and generally disdained him through most of my undergraduate years at Yale, until a friend of mine brought me to Paul de Man’s class on Beyond Good and Evil and I found myself at once compelled and repelled. As I read further, I saw in Nietzsche a profound critique of the psychic violence performed by impossible and relentless ethical demands, the kind that takes whatever force of life-affirmation that might be available and turns it back upon itself, spawning from that negative reflexivity the panoply of psychic phenomena called “bad conscience,” “guilt,” and even “the soul.” I read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals with difficulty, since what I wanted most from it was his critique of slave morality, and what I hated most in it was his persistent association of slave morality with the Jews and Judaism. It was as if the moment of the text that offered me some release from the hyperethical framework that I derived from a postwar Jewish education was the very one that threatened to implicate me in an alliance with an anti-Semitic text. The bind seemed almost airtight: to go against the hyperethicality of Judaism, I could go with Nietzsche, but to go with Nietzsche meant to go against Judaism, and this was unacceptable. If only he had left the anti-Semitic remarks aside, if only we could read him in such a way that those remarks really didn’t matter!

I read since the age of fourteen a series of Jewish thinkers and writers, and if I am to be honest, I probably know more about them than I know about anything written in queer theory today. They included Maimonides, Spinoza, Buber, Benjamin, Arendt, and Scholem, and especially the work and letters of Kafka, whose ethical dilemmas impressed me as no less than sublime. But I clearly turned away from pursuing Jewish studies formally for fear, no doubt, that somewhere in those texts the crushing force of the unappeasable law would be upon me again. And I was drawn toward those kinds of readings that suspended the law, exposed its illegibility, its internal limits and contradictions, and even found Jewish authorization for those kinds of readings. I was also compelled to show that this kind of reading did not paralyze ethical or political action, to show that the law might be critically interrogated and mobilized at once.

Sometime in the last ten years I read some Levinas and found upon my first reading a hyperbolic instance of this superegoic law. I read, for instance, about the demand that is imposed upon me by the face of the Other, a demand that is “before all language and mimicry,” a face that is not a representation, a demand that is not open to interpretation.

»I am as it were ordered from the outside, traumatically commanded, without interiorizing by representation and concepts the authority that commands me, without asking myself: what then is he to me? where does he get his right to command?«2

What would it mean to obey such a demand, to acquiesce to such a demand when no critical evaluation of the demand could be made? Would such an acquiescence be any more or less uncritical and unthinking than an acquiescence to an ungrounded authoritarian law? How would one distinguish between a fascist demand and one which somehow affirms the ethical bonds between humans that Levinas understands as constitutive of the ethical subject?3

For the Levinas of Otherwise than Being, the reverse question seems to be paramount: Given that we reflect ethically on the principles and norms that guide our relations to others, are we not, prior to any such reflection, already in relation to others such that that reflection becomes possible – an ethical relation that is, as it were, prior to all reflection? For Levinas, the Other is not always or exclusively elsewhere; it makes its demand on me, but it is also of me: it is the constitutive relation of this subject to the ethical, one that both constitutes and divides the subject from the start. For Levinas, this splitting of the subject, foundationally, by the Other establishes this non-unitary subject as the basis for ethical responsibility.

This subject is, moreover, from the start split by the wound of the Other (not simply the wounds that the Other performs, but a wound that the Other somehow is, prior to any action). The task of this fundamentally wounded subject is to take responsibility for the very other who, in Levinas’ terms, “persecutes” that self. That Other delivers the command to take responsibility for the persecution that the Other inflicts. In effect, I do not take responsibility for the Other who wounds me after the wound has appeared. My openness to the Other is what allows for the wound and what also at the same time commands that I take responsibility for that Other.

When I first encountered this position, I ran in the opposite direction, understanding it as a valorization of self-sacrifice that would make excellent material for a Nietzschean psychological critique. This was clearly the will turned back upon itself, the reflexive rerouting of the conatus against its own strength, possibility for affirmation, and desire, a position that quite literally called into question self-preservation as the basis for ethical reflection. As an exercise, I would ask my students to take the above lines from Levinas and compare them with Nietzsche’s from On the Genealogy of Morals:

»Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction-all turned against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of the ‘bad conscience.’ The man who, from lack of external enemies and resistances and forcibly confined to the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom, impatiently lacerated, persecuted, gnawed at, assaulted, and maltreated himself: […] this deprived creature, racked with homesickness for the wild, who had to turn himself into an adventure, a torture chamber, an uncertain and dangerous wilderness – this fool, this yearning and desperate prisoner became the inventor of the ‘bad conscience.’«4

Thus, it was with some wryness that I became aware of the sudden and enthusiastic turn to Levinas among the deconstructively minded after the Paul de Man affair broke into the public press. If the popular conclusion drawn from de Man’s wartime writings was that something in that mode of deconstruction leads to Nazi sympathizing, then perhaps there is a way to show that deconstruction is on the side of the Jews, that it can be made to serve an ethical demand that would put deconstruction on the side of responsibility, resistance, and antifascist ethics. My sense was that it made no sense to rush to a slave morality to avert the charge of fascism, and that there had to be some other way to navigate these alternatives besides heaping reaction formation upon reaction formation.

I don’t know whether I have arrived at an alternative, or whether that is what I propose to offer you in the final pages of this paper. But I have come to think that the opposition that I saw between Levinas and Nietzsche was, perhaps, not quite as stark as I thought. I was going to write about the consonant meanings of “yielding” in Levinas, and “undergoing” in Nietzsche, but I am only able to clear the ground for a future reflection on the topic. I would like to point to two moments, instead, in which the subordinated becomes identified with the subordinator and where this identification is not simply an identification with the oppressor, but appears to be a paradoxical basis for a different order of commonality that puts the distinction between subordinator and subordinated into a useful crisis.

In the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche introduces the noble to us as someone with the capacity to forget; the noble has “no memory for insults” and his forgetfulness is clearly the condition of his capacity to exercise his will. (As he elaborates in the second essay, forgetfulness makes room for new experience, nourishes the “nobler” faculties, and keeps us from being preoccupied with what has happened to us.5) The slave and the man of ressentiment, we are told, remember every insult perfectly, and develop a clear memory in the service of vengefulness.

Nietzsche then starts the second essay by introducing the animal who is bred with the right to make promises, and this animal turns out to be the noble in new form. What is paradoxical, and Nietzsche marks this, is that to make a promise means to have a memory, indeed, to have a continuous memory that lasts through time. If I say that I promise at one time, then my promise fails to remain a promise if, at another time, I forget what it is I have said. A promise is the sustained memory of an utterance, a memory that becomes instilled in the will, so that I not only say what it is I promise to do, but I also do precisely what I said I would do. The temporality of the utterance must, in the case of the promise, exceed the time and occasion of its enunciation. The linguistic deed of promising is “discharged” into the nonlinguistic deed precisely by virtue of this memory that becomes the resolution of the will.

Thus, this animal who requires forgetting also breeds in itself a capacity to make and sustain a memory. Forgetfulness is thus “abrogated” – Nietzsche’s term – in those cases in which the need to sustain a memory of a promise emerges. He will tell us that within slave morality, a mnemonics of the will is prepared, that a memory is burned into the will, and that this burning is not only violent, but bloody (thus, Nietzsche’s famous quip that Kant’s categorical imperative is steeped in blood). The way in which this memory is burned in the will, however, is precisely through a reflexive venting of the will against itself. In other words, morality for the one within slave morality requires a self-inflicted violence. But is this actually different from the kind of memory of the will that the noble crafts for himself?

At the moment in which the noble seeks to have a memory, a continuous memory through time, is the noble acting like those who belong to the sphere of ressentiment? Can the noble keep his promise without remembering an injury, even if the injury that he remembers is one that he inflicts on himself?

The result of this self-infliction is a continuous and trustworthy will:

»[…] between the original “I will,” “I shall do this” and the actual discharge of the will, its act, a world of strange new things, circumstances, even acts of will may be interposed without breaking this long chain of will.«6

The will of the promising animal is one that is extended through time, figured as “a long chain of will,” suggesting that there are different interlocking links of the will which remain unbroken by new things and circumstances or other acts of will. Whatever it is I promise, I do. And I renew that promise in different circumstances, and keep that promise despite all circumstances.

Of course, the figure of a chain with discontinuous links is an odd one to stand for this putatively “continuous” will. Indeed, pages later, Nietzsche reinvokes the figure of the chain to support a contradictory conclusion. Writing of the law, he argues that it makes no sense to determine the function of the law in terms of the origins of the law, the original reasons why the law was made, the original purposes it sought to serve.7 As a social convention, the meanings and purposes of law change through time, they come to take on purposes that were never intended for them, and they no longer serve the original purposes for which they were devised. Nietzsche writes,

»the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured […]«.8

What happens if we return to the question of the status of the promise, if we understand the promise as one of the conventions that Nietzsche mentions above? Can it be said that the cause and origin of a promise lie worlds apart, if promising is understood as a custom, and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes are in no necessary way linked to the act of promising itself? What does promising become if it is understood as one way to exercise a superior power, in Nietzsche’s view, to reinterpret the promise to new ends, take it over, transform and redirect it? Or are we to conclude that promising as a customary act cannot exercise or manifest this superior power?

According to the above quotation, it seems that the “masterful” and “noble” thing to do is precisely to revise the meaning and purpose of a thing, an organ, or a custom according to new circumstances. And this power to reinterpret a convention to new ends not only requires becoming forgetful about the past, but characterizes the noble exercise of will.

The quotation continues:

»the entire history of a “thing,” an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign-chain [Zeichenkette] of ever new interpretations and adaptations [suggesting an adaptation to new circumstances] whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in a purely chance fashion.«9

This second use of the “chain” (Kette) seems to reverse the first, figuring the will as a chain of signs, a long sign-chain of the will, that indicates its uneven history. When the text makes this shift, the will, still called noble, not only adapts to new circumstances, but endows its customary utterances, including promises, with new meaning, divorcing it from its original and animating intention. Indeed, therefore, to be a noble is precisely not to keep one’s promise regardless of circumstance.

But here Nietzsche wants the noble to elude the self-terrorizing practice of the slave at the same time that he elevates the promise as the right and entitlement of the noble. What remains unclear, however, is whether the promise can be kept without some measure of self-terrorization. Nietzsche proposes that “something of the terror that formerly attended all promises, pledges, and vows on earth is still effective.”10 If the noble‘s promise does not elude that terror, is it a result of a certain self-terrorization, a terrorization of the will? And if so, is the conscience that is said to belong to the noble any different from the conscience that is said to belong to the slave? Can the noble, in other words, forget his terror and still sustain his promise?

The promise in Nietzsche seems to arise, then, from a necessary self-affliction, a terrorizing which was originally directed against the other which now preserves the Other, one might say in a Kleinian vein, precisely through a certain kind of sustainable damage to the self. Levinas’ explanation clearly differs insofar as the wound is not to be understood as the reflexive form that aggression toward the Other takes, but constitutes something of the primary violence that marks our vulnerable, passive, and necessary relation to that Other. Indeed, for Levinas, the “I” is split from the start precisely by this yielding to the Other which is its primary mode of being and its irreducible relationality. Nietzsche‘s noble at first appears as an individuated figure, distinct from the slave, but are these figures actually distinct from one another? Indeed, does the one figure interrupt the other in much the same way that the Levinasian subject is fundamentally interrupted by its Other? Is Nietzsche’s wounded relation to the promise which is, after all, invariably a promise to the Other any different from Levinas’ wounded relation to alterity?

Just as, for Nietzsche, the injury to and by the other is “burned in the will,” so Levinas writes that “The Other is in me and in the midst of my very identification.”11 The Levinasian subject, we might say, also bears no grudges, assumes responsibility without ressentiment: “In suffering by the fault of the Other dawns suffering for the fault of Others.” Indeed, this self is “accused by the Other to the point of persecution” and this very persecution implies a responsibility for the persecutor.12 Thus, to be persecuted and to be accused for this subject are that for which one takes responsibility: “[…] the position of the subject […] is […] a substitution by a hostage expiating for the violence of the persecution itself.”13 Importantly, there is no self prior to its persecution by the Other. It is that persecution that establishes the Other at the heart of the self, and establishes that “heart” as an ethical relation of responsibility. To claim the self-identity of the subject is thus an act of irresponsibility, an effort to close off one‘s fundamental vulnerability to the Other, the primary accusation that the Other bears. This is “an accusation I cannot answer, but for which I cannot decline responsibility.”14 This primary responsibility for the persecutor establishes the basis for ethical responsibility.

Levinas dedicated Otherwise than Being “to the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions and millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other (la même haine de l’autre homme], the same anti-Semitism.” And just when it appears that Levinas has installed the Jew as the paradigm of all victimization, he warns on the next page against Zionist persecution, citing the precautionary words of Pascal: “‘That is my place in the sun.’ That is how the usurpation of the whole world began.”15 And if it were not enough that the Jew figured here is both victim and persecutor, Levinas cites from Ezekiel the direct address of a God who bears the same double status, requiring violence and repentance at once: “if a righteous man turn from his righteousness […] his blood will I require at your hands,” and then, “pass through the city – through Jerusalem – and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst of it.” But then, of course, God commits an abomination himself, instructing another man to follow the man he just instructed: “pass through the city after him and slay without mercy or pity. Old men, young men and maidens, little children and women – strike them all dead! But touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary!” Thus, God endeavors to save from destruction those who bemoan the abominations, but he commits an abomination precisely in the act of providing salvation. Thus, God cannot condemn abomination without that condemnation becoming an abomination itself. Even with God, good and evil are less than distinct.

The subject who might seek to become righteous according to the ways of such a God will be one who is not only accused and persecuted from the start, but one who is also accusing and persecuting. In this view, there is no innocence, only the navigations of ambivalence, since it seems to be impossible to be persecuted without at once being or becoming the persecutor as well. What remains to be considered is how this scene of ethical inversion nevertheless leads to a responsibility that is, by definition it seems, constantly confounded by self-preservation and its attendant aggressions. If there is no becoming ethical save through a certain violence, then how are we to gauge the value of such an ethics? Is it the only mode for ethics, and what becomes of an ethics of nonviolence? And how often does the violence of ethics, seen most clearly when in the act of righteous denunciation,16 pose the question of the value of the ethical relation itself? Certain kinds of values, such as generosity and forgiveness, may only be possible through a suspension of this mode of ethicality and, indeed, by calling into question the value of ethics itself.

Levinas recognizes that it is not always possible to live or love well under such conditions. He refers to this primary ethical relation to alterity as “breathless,” as if the Other is what is breathed in and preserved within the hollow of the self, as if this very preservation puts the life of the ethical subject at risk. I don’t know whether air that is not exhaled comes close to becoming “bad air,” but certainly the ethical bearing in this instance degrades the biological conditions of life. Given that the Levinasian subject also rehearses an “insomniac vigilance” in relation to the Other, it may still be necessary to continue to call for “good air” and to find a place for the value of self-preservation, if one wants, for instance, to breathe and to sleep.


1 First published in Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., The Turn to Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 15–28.

2 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Boston: Kluwer, 1978), p. 87.

3 The ethical relation is that of a passivity beyond passivity, one that escapes from the binary opposition of passive and active; it is an “effacement,” a “bad conscience,” a primordial exposure to the Other, to the face of the Other, to the demand that is made by the face of the Other. “To have to respond to [the Other’s] right to be−not by reference to the abstraction of some anonymous law, some juridical entity, but in fear of the Other. My ‘in the world’ [alluding to Heidegger], my ‘place in the sun’: my at homeness, have they not been the usurpation of the places belonging to the other man already oppressed and starved by me?” Emmanuel Levinas, “Bad Conscience and the Inexorable,” Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 38.

4 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 85. In German: “Die Feindschaft, die Grausamkeit, die Lust an der Verfolgung, am Überfall, am Wechsel, an der Zerstörung – alles das gegen die Inhaber solcher Instinkte sich wendend: das ist der Ursprung des ‘schlechten Gewissens.’” Werke in drei Bänden, vol. 2 (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1966), p. 799. 

5 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, pp. 58–59.

6 Ibid., p. 58. In German: “[…] so daß zwischen das ursprüngliche ‘ich will’, ‘ich werde tun’ und die eigentliche Entladung des Willens, seinen Akt, unbedenklich eine Welt von neuen fremden Dingen, Umständen, selbst Willensakten dazwischengelegt werden darf, ohne daß diese lange Kette des Willens springt” (Nietzsche, Werke in drei Bänden, p. 800).

7 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 77.

8 Ibid.; in German: “[…] die Ursache der Entstehung eines Dinges und dessen schließliche Nützlichkeit, dessen tatsächliche Verwendung und Einordnung in ein System von Zwecken toto coelo auseinander liegen; daß etwas Vorhandenes, irgendwie Zustande/Gekommenes immer wieder von einer ihm überlegnen Macht auf neue Absichten ausgelegt, neu in Beschlag genommen, zu einem neuen Nutzen umgebildet und umgerichtet wird; daß alles Geschehen in der organischen Welt ein Überwältigen, Herr-werden und daß wiederum alles Überwältigen und Herr-werden ein Neu-Interpretieren, ein Zurechtmachen ist, bei dem der bisherige ‘Sinn’ und ‘Zweck’ notwendig verdunkelt oder ganz ausgelöscht werden muß” (Nietzsche, Werke in drei Bänden, pp. 817–818.).

9 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, p. 77.

10 Ibid., p. 61.

11 Ibid., p. 125.

12 Ibid., p. 126.

13 Ibid., p. 127.

14 “Accusation, en ce sens persécutrice, à laquelle le persécuté ne peut pas répondre – ou plus exactement – accusation à laquelle je ne peux répondre – mais dont je ne peux décliner la responsibilité.” Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence, 2nd edition (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1978), p. 127.

15 “Voilà le commencement et l’image de l’usurpation de toute la terre.” Ibid., p. 202.

16 See various acts of moral denunciation of late delivered against critical theorists working with the resources of the continental philosophical tradition.

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Judith Butler

Judith Butler

is an American post-structuralist philosopher and philologist, renowned for her contributions to gender studies and feminism. She is a professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at Berkeley University, California, and also teaches at the European Graduate School, Saas-Fee. Her research interests include continental philosophy and critical theory, gender and sexuality, literary and cultural studies, race and ethnicity, as well as political and social thought.

Other texts by Judith Butler for DIAPHANES
Anneka Esch-van Kan (ed.), Stephan Packard (ed.), ...: Thinking – Resisting – Reading the Political

This volume contrasts a number of recently suggested concepts of the political – each of which connects to certain instances of art and literature in its discourse – with questions concerning the rigidity of those connections: How strongly do such claims to politics depend on their specific examples, what is the scope of their validity to understand art with regard to politics, and how can they help us grasp the political within other pieces of art? In each case, manners of thinking concepts of the political, the mutual resistance of such concepts and their academic treatment, and the turn towards specific readings informed by those concepts converge.

The essays collected in “Thinking Resistances. Current Perspectives on Politics, Community, and Art“ engage with political phenomena in their interrelations with arts as well as with recent theoretical and philosophical perspectives on the very meaning of politics, the political, and community.

With contributions by Armen Avanessian, Friedrich Balke, Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, Anneka Esch-van Kan, Josef Früchtl, Andreas Hetzel, Jon McKenzie, Dieter Mersch, Chantal Mouffe, Maria Muhle, Nikolaus Müller-Schöll, Stephan Packard, Wim Peeters, Jacques Rancière, Juliane Rebentisch, Gabriel Rockhill, Frank Ruda and Philipp Schulte.


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