Ethics & Responsibility in a Time of Terror:

Just (An)Other Face?

The United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them. Fathers and mothers in all societies want their children to be educated and to live free from poverty and violence. No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police. [The White House 2002:3]

When most people consider the notion of ethics, it is in a conventional way based on a set of universal principles. There are certain ways that a human being is meant to behave, and ways that a human being is meant to be treated. George Bush relies heavily on these universal ethics to justify his “war on terror”. He speaks of liberty, but of whom and at what price? Do the people of Iraq feel liberated as they gaze upon the pile of rubble that was their home? How about Americans themselves, promised freedom from fear of terrorism yet finding themselves more rigidly policed and losing the right to many privacies. Is this liberty? This humanist notion of ethics is obviously problematic, and capable of justifying and legitimising quite horrific acts of violence. Perhaps a postmodern notion of ethics, such as theorised by Emmanuelle Levinas and Jacques Derrida, can better critique the “war” against terrorism, and provide more insight into the direction we should be taking in terms of international politics.

Rosalyn Diprose suggests that the problem with an ethics based on universal principles is that it assumes “our “being” is a discrete entity separate from the world” (Diprose 1994:19). That our subjectivity is in fact created even before being placed in the world. What Diprose argues is that “one’s character or ethos is inseparable from one’s habitat: that being is inherently ‘worldly’” (Ahmed 1998:58). We cannot but exist in and as part of our world, and an inescapable characteristic of our being-in-the-world is our relationship to the Other, and it is this relationship to the other that forms the basis of a postmodern ethics. In fact, “the other constitutes the very force of the ethical demand” (Ahmed 1998:59). So while a conventional notion of ethics is based around a subjectivity that is “fundamentally constituted through the maintenance of boundaries, both social and spatial” (Popke 2003:302) to keep “them” out and “us” in, “a postmodern ethics would be one that readmits the Other as a neighbour” (Bauman qtd in Ahmed 1998:59). To go further into this concept of the other we need to turn to Levinas and his concept of the “face.”

Judith Butler calls upon the notion of the “face” of the other “to explain how it is that others make moral claims upon us, address moral demands to us, ones that we do not ask for, ones that we are not free to refuse” (Butler 2004:131). This notion of the face is a complicated and somewhat controversial concept, drawing various critical responses from numerous theorists. So what is this face that Levinas talks about? Perhaps Butler’s choice of the term “catachresis” best describes this (mis)representation, for the face, as Levinas reminds us, “is not exclusively a human face” (qtd in Butler 2004:133), and does not “speak” as such, or at least not in ways that can be translated into language. So while in one sense this face acts as a representation of the Other, it is also beyond meaning, we cannot ascribe to it an identity, it is “signification without context” (Levinas qtd in Popke 2003:304). Herein lies a crucial distinction between postmodern and conventional ethics. George Bush clearly identifies who the other is (the Muslim terrorist), and in fact gives the other a human face (Osama Bin Ladin), and in doing so actually dehumanises the other. Levinas argues that the human can only be represented, paradoxically, in the failure to be able to do so, and in fact must show this failure ( Butler 2004:144). Bush however, tries to “capture” the face of Bin Laden, and in doing so asserts a particular commensurability between the face and the evil apparent there (ibid:145). The real problem here is that used in this way, the face “masks the sounds of human suffering and the proximity we might have to the precariousness of life itself” (ibid).

So in what way would Levinas have us treat the face of the other, and how are we responsible to and for this face? Jeffrey Popke suggests that “the other calls forth in us a form of ethical responsibility that would be unconditional, beyond any ‘political position’ and outside of any social or geographical context” (Popke 2003:303). This “unconditional” responsibility also means putting the face of the other before and above our own being, before in fact, our own life. Levinas makes it clear that “self preservation is never a sufficient condition for the ethical justification of violence” ( Butler 2004:136), which might seem somewhat extreme, especially belonging to a society which teaches us that we have a right to defend ourself from harm. However this might be more comprehensible if we consider the idea that our “ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world” ( Butler 2004:132). It is perhaps for this reason that Levinas incites us to put the face of the other before and above us. If nothing else, Butler writes, we should consider this dilemma “as constitutive of the ethical anxiety” (ibid:136).

Despite the apparent passivity of Levinasian logic, there is an underlying tension and an inescapable violence that exists within our relationship to the other. This violence can be found to exist before even the creation our own identity, or as Levinas himself puts it, it is “as if I had to answer for the other’s death even before being” (qtd in Campbell 1994:460). This responsibility, according to Levinas, is at the same time both guiltless and accusatory (ibid), for the very act of being in itself constitutes a form of violence, for has it not also involved “the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed (Levinas qtd in Popke 2003:304)? (This is a particularly pertinent point in the context of Western societies and colonial histories.) But of course there remains that instinct to protect oneself, so right from the start the other presents us with a situation in which there is a constant tension between the need to protect oneself and the anxiety at hurting (an)other. However given our current social and political conditions, the tug of war between these two conflicting anxieties has become dangerously unbalanced. It is easy to ignore our responsibility to the other when we live in a world where fear has become our primary motivation. The United States in particular seems to capitalise on the fear of the individual, a fear of an illusive enemy, even, dare I say, a non-existent one. In a context such as this the answer is disturbingly all too easy: “I could put an end to my fear of my own death by obliterating the other, although I would have to keep obliterating” ( Butler 2004:137). This is exactly why the ‘war on terrorism’ is so problematic, as there can be no end to the violence. Once you see the other as enemy, there can be no return to hospitality. Once you have justified violence such as this (by one of any number of excuses) you need to continue to do so in order to keep, as Butler describes, “the anxiety about becoming a murderer” ( Butler 2004:137) at bay.

This circular logic is produced and continually reproduced by the media. “The tendency of our media society, so prone to hysteria, is to anathematize anything that is unfamiliar as “evil.” The other thus becomes the alien, the stranger the scapegoat, the dissenter the devil” ( Kearney 2001:103). We are already aware that what is presented by the media is often somewhat disjointed from the truth, but we need to question these images that represent the war on terror, in terms of the narrative function in which they are mobilised (Butler 2004:143). Further, what do these images conceal from us? What, or who, is precisely not represented? Butler makes the point that it seems “they either represent American triumph, or provide an incitement for American military triumph in the future” (ibid). The images might well be of the destruction of Iraq and the devastation of the Iraqi people, yet they serve an American narrative, and in fact fail to represent the very others presented in the images. Does the media in fact become “entranced by the sublimity of destruction” (ibid:149) as Butler suggests? It is a terrifying idea, and one that can only be fought through challenge to this representation in an effort “to create a sense of the public where oppositional voices are not feared, degraded or dismissed” (ibid:151).

As is inevitable and necessary I have moved on from an intersubjective ethics to a political ethics, and it is here that Levinas seems to falter, according to Popke, as his answer to the question of political ethics is “ultimately unsatisfying” (Popke 2003:305). While Levinas provides a reconstruction of subjectivity that offers us a new approach to ethics in dealing with the relationship between oneself and an(other), when it comes to politics he seems to resort to “an essentially Kantian conception of the State as guarantor of rights and justice” (ibid). Likewise, David Campbell feels that the work of Levinas needs to be augmented, to in fact make it “more Levinasian” (Campbell 1994:468). Both these theorists turn to Derrida to provide a more complete and conceivably satisfying answer. Popke makes the claim that “deconstruction, by destabilizing the grounds of authority for international politics, opens the terrain to a new definition of the political, which would move beyond the metaphysics of sovereignty” (Popke 2003:307). This new definition of the political would be based on openness and a certain undecidability, stemming from the lack of a normative foundation. This inevitable undecidability does not mean we are not able to make decisions, conversely, it forces us to do so, but “in the context of an event that is conditioned by our inexhaustible responsibility to the other” (ibid). Moreover it is this undecidable decision that actually provides the space for politics. If the realm of politics was based on knowable and stable notions, there would not exist any political debate, the answer being already pre-decided, and the event of the decision “divested of its political content” (ibid). In fact, this pre-programmed notion of politics of what Levinas fears for our future: “a world where everything is regulated in advance ... [where] what is going to pass has in a sense already passed” (Levinas qtd in Popke 2003:312). We can already see this happening in today’s international political environment. Responses to the other (in this case specifically Muslims) are preconditioned by a (mis)use of the face of the other by media and political institutions, leaving no room for even the question of hospitality. Without this ethical dilemma of responsibility, there is nothing to counter the threat felt from the other, leaving the relationship vulnerable to a perhaps unlimited potential for violence.

Not everyone however, believes in the power of these poststructuralist theories to actually affect change at an international political level, but rather see them as somewhat passive or nihilistic. For example Chris Norris proposes that postmodernism “fails to provide any critical challenge to the rise of new forms of conservative thinking” (Ahmed 1998:46). In other cases, these theories are thought of as an elimination of ethics altogether, creating “a position where individual expression is all that matters, and a view of society in which anything is accepted” (Unwin qtd in Popke 2003:301). I would disagree with these critiques, as even by providing spaces in which to think about alterity means that our responsibility to the other can be considered. Like Popke I read “the passivity of ethical responsibility differently, as a form of opening to limitless possibility in the absence of hubris” (Popke 2003:308). For at present the paths of communication between ourself and the other are cut off by both social and spatial boundaries. In regards to the other, “appeals to reality and truth have to cross too many borders to be heard” (Hodge 2002:8). The only way to reopen this communication is, as Popke urges, to “cultivate an ethics of hospitality” (Popke 2003:313).

Copyright Judith Stevens 2006


Ahmed, S., 1998, Differences That Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism, Cambridge & New York : Cambridge University Press

Butler , J., 2004, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London & New York : Verso

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Kearney , R., 2001, “Others and Aliens: Between Good and Evil”, in Jennifer L. Geddes, J.L. (ed), Evil After Postmodernism: Histories, Narratives, Ethics, London : Routledge

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The White House, 2002, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, (online) date accessed 13 July, 2005 ,