Authority : Avital Ronell

The conversation of Blanchot and Levinas with Arendt and Kojève may help us to clarify a significant dissension among them at the very place where they appear to meet and which Kant may be seen to leverage. Every member in this group sets some store in the quality of asymmetry, yet it is not the same asymmetry that comes into play. In fact, the very nearness that they exhibit on this point sets them apart and makes them split off toward differing destinations of thought.

Uncanny proximity and shared terrain serve to disclose nearly opposing dispositions and altogether different measures in terms of relatedness: The nostalgic impulses running through Arendt’s elaboration and the restricted economy of Kojève’s speculations on authority show that, despite a shared vocabulary aligning them with pivotal moments in the itineraries of Levinas and Blanchot, they come out at another place, with a different ear for the beat of inequality. Kantian respect seems to survive with some dents and a new face in the considerations of Blanchot and Levinas, where distance is now disturbingly bridged and the other can make persecutory gains on one, turning you into a human shield—if we are still in the realm of the human. Neither respect nor awe, nor even remote features of sublime trembling, appear to survive in the reflections on authority proposed by Arendt and Kojève, who keep their figures very human, if at times inhumane.

Levinas stresses a different tact, another tempo, as he unfolds his thought anarchically, receding as he approaches the other both destitute and majestic, difficult to size up or command—a speck and the immeasurably spectacular (though without the spectacle). Arendtian authority goes admittedly elsewhere, preferring to not meet the majestic escalade of the absolute other. Averting her gaze from those debilitated or impoverished facets under authority, her concerns, along with those of Kojève, remain largely tactical, if not unduly intact, by which I mean that structures and strictures pertaining to Rome, humanism, and patriarchy serve as the unquestioned basis for these reflections, even as they are directed by the destruction of the world.

This by no means implies that Levinas and Blanchot have cleared the abysses to which their provisional counterparts adhere—only that they have acknowledged the hits taken by their complicit histories of thought. Being in some essential ways flattened out and dented by the free run of metaphysic’s patriarchy, they have had to let go of the presumptions, to some degree ensnaring, of humanism. I am not insane: It would be fairly outrageous to say that Levinas has run down patriarchy; but the points he makes are differently scored and may assert the deliberations of another exposition of patriarchy, also problematic but somehow neutralized, “weakened,” to use a term of endearment.

Perhaps the encounter with Levinas and Blanchot has created too harsh a contest for Arendt and Kojève, for the expression of their largely congruent anxieties over the disappearance of authority. Maybe this failure to stick calls for another look, urging an even closer encounter with the terms we have introduced thus far. Until we get there I’d like to propose that a scene be recalled: Having narrowly escaped internment—she had already been rounded up and subjected to the misery of deportation—Arendt, momentarily in Paris, attends Kojève’s course in the company of Albert Camus. In the same class Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, seated nearby, are also taking notes.


Avital Ronell is Professor of German, Comparative Literature and English, and Acting Chair of the Department of German at New York University.


Published on September 1, 2013

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