Fecundity and Natal Alienation: Rethinking Kinship with Emmanuel Levinas and Orlando Patterson

Levinas Studies 7 (1):1-19 (2012)
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In his 1934 essay, “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” Levinas raises important questions about the subject’s relation to nature and to history. His account of the ethical significance of paternity, maternity, and fraternity in texts such as Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being suggest powerful new ways to understand the meaning of kinship, beyond the abstractions of Western liberalism. How does this analysis of race and kinship translate into the context of the Transatlantic slave trade, which not only stole Africans from their families and communities, but also imposed upon them a single “fictive” kinship relation to the master? What if the problem of racialization is not only a matter of being “chained” to one’s identity through (presumed) blood ties, but also being violently separated from one’s kin? What does it mean for the concepts of ethical and political fraternity if the only father recognized by law and society as legitimate is the slave master? Or if the bodies of slave women are exploited, not only for productive labor, but also for the reproductive labor that makes more slaves for the master? If kinship is a way of making sense of the relation between past, present and future generations, then what does a radical disruption of existing kinship relations, and the imposition of one fictive, absolute and unilateral kinship relation, do to the social meaning of time and of history in a particular community? In this paper, I reflect on the significance of fecundity and kinship in the context of US slavery, both in order in order to situate my analysis in the particular history of my own present community, and as a way of demonstrating the significance of a more determinate social analysis for Levinas’ ethics of singularity and politics of universal justice.



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Lisa Guenther
Vanderbilt University

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