When the Face Becomes a Carrier: Biopower, Levinas’s Ethics, and Contagion

Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 77 (2-3):715-732 (2021)
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In the midst of a pandemic, what does it mean to see the Other as Other and not as a carrier of the virus? I argue that in seeking a Levinasian response to the pandemic, we must be mindful of the implications of the mechanisms of surveillance and control that, presented as ways to protect the Other, operate by controlling the Other and rendering our relation to the Other increasingly impersonal. Subjected to these mechanisms, the Other becomes a dangerous entity that must be controlled, and the state that deploys them comes increasingly to mediate the relation between self and Other. The more we rely on such mechanisms for protection, the easier it becomes to regard the Other not as one who summons me to an infinite responsibility but as a vector of disease. Despite all the differences between Levinas’s and Foucault’s approaches, reading them in conversation shows that the control and surveillance of the population functions within a discourse that medicalizes and objectifies the Other in favor of the centralizing power that uses those technologies. In defiance of Levinas’s warning against imposing a narrative on the Other’s suffering, this discourse coopts that suffering as a justification for biopower.

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Sarah Horton
Boston College (PhD)

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