Volume 3, 2008
Outside the State, Outside the Subject
In his preface to Beyond the Verse, written in 1981, Emmanuel Levinas poses the following provocative question: “Can democracy and the ‘rights of man’
divorce themselves without danger from their prophetic and ethical depth?” (BV xv / AV 12–13). The question is clearly intended to threaten the comfortable consensus that has gathered around these icons of our time and, more specifically, to displace what have come to be known under the title the “rights of man” from the context of the European Enlightenment with which they are so often identified. Levinas performs this act of displacement in the first instance by relocating
them within the tradition of the Jewish prophets. However, this effort ultimately leads him to a more radical displacement, one that amounts to a certain re-placing of them, a relocating of them elsewhere altogether. What does that mean? What are its implications for the doctrine of the “rights of man”?