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Matt Hill

University Writing Program

University of Denver

Denver, CO 80208

Phone: 303-871-7808

Fax: 303-871-7665

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Me! I Disconnect From You: Ethical Responsibility and Choosing Who Can Speak

Me! I Disconnect From You: Ethical Responsibility and Choosing Who

Can Speak

I stole the title of this paper. The pre-colonized portion is the title of a
song by Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army. Numan has not had
much of a radio presence in the United States, but his sole U.S. hit,
“Cars,” nicely summarizes Numan’s professional (and reportedly
personal) affinity for disconnecting with the rest of the world. It is only

Here in my car [where]

I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It's the only way to live
In cars

During this time period—the late 1970s and early 1980s—Numan

crafted a persona of alienation, often in its most literal sense. Songs
such as “Me! I Disconnect From You,” “Are Friends Electric?,” and
“Praying To the Aliens” indicate this distance from other humans. It is
not necessarily clear whether the characters in Numan’s songs alienate
themselves or if they are alienated by some external factors. The lyric
from “Cars” seems to demonstrate at least some choice in the matter;
the voice in the song can lock his doors, and nothing in the song
indicates that some external factor plays a role in that choice.

The above brief foray into the music of Gary Numan describes an
impetus for examining the ethical dimensions of engaging with an
Other. I found this related to some concerns that I had when I would
describe my research on the Unabomber. At one presentation, a
woman in the audience astutely asked, “So why should we listen to a
murderer?” An excellent question, for which I had no immediate
answer, but I knew that something drew me to the case of the
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Unabomber. I know now that that interest is related to Judith Butler’s

notion of “giving an account of oneself,” as taken from her book of the
same name. I will address Butler in more detail below, but first, a brief
foray into Brooke Rollins’ article, titled “Persuasion’s Ethical Force:
Levinas, Gorgias and the Rhetorical Address,” from the recent jac
article devoted to Levinas.

In this piece, Rollins traces a history of the distinction of rhetoric

as being an alternative to violence, or force. She contends that rhetoric
is historically preoccupied with persuasion (nothing much controversial
there), and that this preoccupation prevents rhetoric from being truly
ethical (okay, perhaps some controversy here). She interprets I.A.
Richards’ critique of persuasion as a practice that “reduces rhetorical
discourse to matters of winning and losing, of conquest and
domination” (541). Richards prefers an “exposition” of ideas that
allows speakers to merely describe situations and ideas instead of
attempting to coerce one to change one’s mind. Rollins joins Richards’s
critique of rhetoric’s persuasive force with two feminist critiques: she
joins Sally Miller Gearhart’s “The Womanization of Rhetoric” with Sonja
Foss and Cindy Griffin’s work on invitational rhetoric. These critiques
point to the failure of traditional rhetorical practices that consider
audience in only instrumental terms. That is, in how a rhetor can use—
or sway, persuade, convince—the audience for a particular given
purpose of the rhetor’s choosing. For instance, Rollins interprets
Gearhart as claiming that rhetoric allows a rhetor to exert persuasive
force on an Other without fear of immediate retribution to the rhetor.
To extend this violent metaphor further, traditional rhetorical practice
is a “fire and forget” approach to communication. As a potential
solution to this approach, Foss and Grffin offer an invitational rhetoric
that attempts to “articulate a concern for the audience of others who
might be violated and encroached upon during the act of persuasion”

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(543). Rollins’ solution to these critiques of rhetoric’s linguistic force is

to engage with Levinas’ notion of responsibility towards an Other, a
move which Rollins claims is “always involved in a movement of
responsibility toward an other we can never fully contain or
comprehend” (544), so a desire to coerce agreement in such a case
cannot work.

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler addresses the notion of

coercion in rhetoric by rethinking the ethical responsibilities of listening
through her understanding of work by Theodor Adorno and Emmanuel
Levinas. Her investigation begins with Adorno’s critique of ethical
universals as potentially leading to violent outcomes. Violence is not
guaranteed when ethical universals are breeched, but the breech of an
ethical universal “instrumentalizes” violence as a likely outcome of
such an ethical breech. To attempt to ameliorate this potentially
violent situation, Butler moves to the ethical work of Levinas in an
attempt to understand better the relationship between a self and an

My original intent for this paper was to apply Butler’s book to two
particular cases: 1) the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, which already
includes violent actions, and 2) the case of the Westboro Baptist
Church, a case where the potential for actual violence appears high.
These two cases share an implication that neither subject(s) in either
case is worth listening to. In other words, Abu-Jamal and the Westboro
Baptist Church do not deserve our attention and are thus excluded
from participating in rhetorical practice or civic practice (this exclusion
is most literal in the case of Abu-Jamal, who is awaiting his execution
near Pittsburg). While I still find these particular cases fascinating, I
could not just quickly summarize Butler’s approach to ethics and
instead offer here my brief conversation with Butler. My assertion here
is not that she offers an easy answer to how those whose actions we
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find distasteful deserve our attention; rather, it is our ethical

responsibility to listen as to silence those “others” is to commit ethical
violence to them, ourselves, and rhetorical culture itself. Butler insists,
through Adorno and Levinas, that a traumatic event initiated from an
Other leads to the creation of a self, and it is only after the creation of
a self that we can engage in ethical behavior.

Butler begins Giving an Account of Oneself by noting that it is

important to recognize that questions of morals—and of ethics—are
about things we do, as people. They are not just theoretical constructs
with no impact on the rest of the world. With this in mind, she
describes Adorno on the contemporary ethical crisis:

Adorno refuses to mourn this loss [of an ethical ethos],

worrying that the collective ethos is invariably a
conservative one, which postulates a false unity that
attempts to suppress the difficulty and discontinuity
existing within any contemporary ethos. It is not that there
was once a unity that subsequently has come apart, only
that there was once an idealization, indeed a nationalism,
that is no longer credible, and ought not to be. As a result,
Adorno cautions against the recourse to ethics as a certain
kind of repression and violence. (4)

In essence, then, Butler reads Adorno as saying that a retreat into a

collective, conservative ethics is indeed an act of violence supported
by a “collective ethos”, one that subverts and supplants the creation of
(or even the desire for) new ideas. In Butler’s terms, this collective
ethos “instrumentalizes violence [or creates the conditions necessary
for violence to occur] to maintain the appearance of its collectivity”
(4). This violence only becomes “active” once the collective ethos has
become an anachronism. Further, “If [a collective ethos] ignores the
existing social conditions, which are also the conditions under which
any ethics might be appropriated, that ethos becomes violent” (6).
Here we find a crucial condition for critiquing ethical responsibility. If
one relies on a decontextualized ethics—or an ethics without external
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experience—then any ethical precepts or prescriptions become

ineffective, or anachronistic, to rely on Butler’s terms. If one’s
experiences are quite literally “out of time,” then perhaps it is possible
to live within and under the anachronistic, collective ethos, but this
ability to live “out of time” is neither likely nor desirable in Butler’s
appropriation of Adorno.

For Butler we only recognize (through reflection) our actions

once another being has committed a crime (an unjust act) against us.
She comes to this conclusion via her interpretation of Nietzsche’s
central claim in Genealogy of Morals, “We start to give an account only
because we are interpellated as beings who are rendered accountable
by a system of justice and punishment” (10). It is only at this point that
a human being will then care or need to give an account of oneself, in
other words, to attempt to understand one’s actions in relations to
others. This presages the crux of the paradox of ethical responsibility.
Before an unjust act occurs, we are not aware of ourselves, but how
can we identify an unjust act if we are not aware of ourselves and are,
seemingly, unaware of others? Butler is stating that we can recognize
an Other before we recognize our self—the Other is external to us and
thus readily identifiable—but “[d]oes the postulation of a subject who
is not self-grounding, that is, whose conditions of emergence can never
fully be accounted for, undermine the possibility of responsibility and,
in particular, of giving an account of oneself?” (19). Here is the heart of
my interest in the question of “why should we listen to a murder?”
Does an ethical duty for each subject, each self, exist that requires
each self to examine other subjects who seemingly do not exhibit an
ethical self? Butler describes the case in different terms. She presumes
that the self is opaque and is thus not unknowable to itself. Due to this
primary opacity—in Levinasian terms, the subject is pre-ontological—
the subject cannot decide not to engage with the Other. In fact, the

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subject is required to embrace the opacity and work with the Other
towards the self’s own formation. This postulation of a primary opacity
to the self that follows from formative relations has a specific
implication for an ethical bearing toward the Other. Indeed, if it is
precisely by virtue of one’s relations to others that one is opaque to
oneself, and if those relations to Others are the venue for One’s ethical
responsibility, then it may well follow that it is precisely by virtue of the
subject’s opacity to itself that it incurs and sustains some of its most
important ethical bonds.

In essence, then, it seems that one’s own ability to craft a

responsible ethics might just be one’s willingness to engage with
subjects (both as humans and as topics) that we find truly distasteful,
alarming, troubling, traumatic, or insane. For Butler, one way around
such ethical opacity in this case is to disregard (if only temporarily) the
need for a clear self-identity and to expect the same in others (42).
This is a surprisingly simple concept to insert into the debate. It is
reasonable to assert that most people do not adequately “narrate”
themselves fully to an exterior world. If we acknowledge—or account
for—this shared inadequacy, then a new ethics of communicative
responsibility may appear. One that allows for a more flexible
discursive space. It may be that only through an experience of the
Other under conditions of suspended judgment do we finally become
capable of an ethical reflection on the humanity of the Other, even
when that other has sought to annihilate humanity (45). Butler
interprets Levinas’ acquiescence to the “Other” as understanding that
“responsibility emerges as a consequence of being subject to the
unwilled address of the other” (85). She is careful to note that this
does mean victims are “asking for it” or some such claim. For her, it is
the exact opposite in that being persecuted means precisely that one
has had something done to them without one’s permission. The

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Me! I Disconnect From You: Ethical Responsibility and Choosing Who Can Speak

consequences of that uninvited action are what are at stake in Butler’s

account of Levinas, “We do not take responsibility for the Other’s acts
as if we authored those acts” (emphasis in original 91). Essentially, this
trauma has been thrust upon us, and it is our job to engage with that
trauma because ethics and morality already have a sense of
“unfreedom” entangled within their respective definitions. For
example, most humans would likely prefer to do whatever we like,
whenever we like. This simply is not the case within any reasonable
conception of ethical or moral duty. The notion of agreeing to an ethics
of any sort means giving up any claims to unconditional freedom.

In conversations with Philippe Nemo, Levinas clarifies the main

goals of his project concerning one’s duty towards the Other:

In this book [Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence] I

speak of
responsibility as the essential, primary and fundamental
structure of
subjectivity. For I describe subjectivity in ethical terms.
Ethics, here,
does not supplement a preceding existential base; the very
node of the
subjective is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility.
I understand responsibility as responsibility for the
Other thus
as responsibility for what is not my deed, or for what does
not even matter to me. (95)

Clearly, Levinas states that one’s ethical struggles need not account
for the Other. Instead, it is the self’s duty to attend to what the Other
has brought upon the self, whether or not that Other has done the
same. He states further that “[s]ubjectivity as such is initially hostage”
and that “[t]o be human means to live as if one were not a being
among beings” (100). One must attend to the traumatic event no
matter whether one chose the trauma or not as the continual duty
towards the Other is the defining feature of acting “humanly” (101).

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Me! I Disconnect From You: Ethical Responsibility and Choosing Who Can Speak

So, in thinking through Butler’s Levinasian, traumatic approach

to ethics, let us presume for the moment that the trauma need not
necessarily be something specific that we experience. To return to the
site of my initial experience with this question of ethics, I have no
specific connection to the Unabomber. Certainly other people do. But
that specific connection with him is not a necessary condition for
addressing him ethically. The traumas in such a case are multiple and
related: he “forced” his manifesto upon a public that he was also
terrorizing; he composed his ideas, quite brutally, in explosives; and he
breeched the rules of decorum that we expect as part of rhetorical
discourse (that is, he seemingly gave up on discourse completely in his
decision to become a serial bomber and murderer), to name but a few.
According to this traumatic ethics, it is my, our, duty to listen to and
engage with Others such as the Unabomber. Again, I do not claim, nor
do I think that Butler does either, that such an ethics is easy, but it is
an ethics that allows for new, critical approaches to responsible
listening. If we buy into Butler’s reading of Levinas (and Adorno), we
find a useful blueprint for navigating through seemingly non-rhetorical
cases such as that of the Unabomber, or of Mumia Abu-Jamal, or the
Westboro Baptist Church, even if those three may not be interested in
joining us on that path.

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Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham UP,

2005. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe


Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985. Print.

Rollins, Brooke. “Persuasion’s Ethical Force: Levinas, Gorgias and the


Address.” jac 29.3 (2009): 539 – 559. Print.

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citing this paper.