Global Currents article

Thinking From Vulnerability, Enrique Dussel (Z”L)

Enrique Dussel at the Forum To Read in Freedom of the XIX International Book Fair, in Mexico City. Image Credit: Maritza Ríos / Secretariat of Culture of Mexico City, via Flickr. CC BY 2.0 DEED.

During a very hot South African evening in January 2016, I was sitting with Enrique Dussel in the backyard of an architecturally styled colonial bed and breakfast. A few weeks before, on Christmas Eve, he had turned 82. At this time, his body was likely fragile but his engagement with the work of others was as powerful, insightful, and constructive as ever. Having made the long trip from Mexico City to Pretoria, I remember asking him multiple times if he wanted to rest, but his mind was restless and relentless. Subverting the genealogy of the Judeo-Christian tradition was “too important” and thus “deserved five minutes more” (or to my delight over two-dozen “five minutes more”).

These extra hours of engagement were in addition to our work together as a part of the same teaching cohort at the University of South Africa Decolonial Summer School. Though jetlagged, I kept trying to take as many mental notes as possible. As one of the hundreds and hundreds of people around the world who enjoyed these personal dialogues with Enrique know, these conversations were events. The dialogues were part of an effort to build a future imaginary around a socially committed goal. It was not a naïve utopia Enrique desired to build, but, adapting Karl Marx to 20th global south realities, it was a solidarity movement built around what he called an “energetical principle,” a force that could guide theories and praxis for the generations to come.

After a few dozens of those “five minutes more,” a flood irrupted, but the conversation was not interrupted. But when it became impossible to ignore, we started walking toward his room so he could get a deserving rest. He gently but firmly grabbed my arm not to fall in the wet stone and kept conversing with me with even more vehemence than before. He fully acknowledged his physical vulnerability, but this challenge only seemed to grow with this acknowledgement. It is true that the passage from individual to social vulnerability requires a more sophisticated reflection. But this is precisely one of the tasks he had taken by radicalizing the asymmetrical Levinasian encounter. For Emmanuel Levinas the encounter with an other demands our attention because their vulnerability creates the possibility for a different intersubjectivity, one that rejects the “imperialism of the same.” For Enrique, the encounter with another demands our attention because their vulnerability creates the possibility of a different society that rejects actual political imperialism and colonialism.

It was not a naïve utopia Enrique desired to build, but, adapting Karl Marx to 20th global south realities, it was a solidarity movement built around what he called an “energetical principle,” a force that could guide theories and praxis for the generations to come.

If one can see a thread in the longstanding and incredibly prolific contributions of Enrique, it is precisely this geopolitical thinking “from vulnerability” of those who are not “the same.” The fact that two of his most important interlocutors (Marx and Levinas) are European-born Jews is not a coincidence. After critiquing Descartes’s division between mind and body, he argued that in the globalized history set by European philosophy, Jewish thought, which emerged from experiences of vulnerability, was a potentially revolutionary philosophical tradition that demanded attention, study, and (as soon we will see) radicalization from outside of Europe. This is why already in the 1970s, while generating his philosophy of liberation, he re-imagined how the world looked different from “The Greek” and “The Hebrew” perspective. The Greek, especially under the imperial categories hijacked by Western Christian imperialism (occluding the Islamic contribution to historical re-interpretations of it) represented the impossibility of “slave emancipation.” The Hebrew, the suffering language of people passing through multiple oppressive colonialisms represented, especially in pre-Holocaust Europe, the power of vulnerability that enabled “the possibility of the revolution of the poor.”

He understood the necessity of thinking power from vulnerability through his engagement with Marx, Levinas, and others (some Jewish, some from many other vulnerable communities). While recounting his experience of reading Levinas, Dussel argued that it produced a “desquiciada repulsion” (subversive overthrowing) for “all that he had learned until then,” i.e., the Greek. But as he attested to over and over again when writing from exile after pro-western reactionary forces destroyed part of his house (including his library) in Mendoza, Argentina, experience and thought are not divorced from one another. He also experienced this overthrowing repulsion when he received an interpellation working as a laborer close to Nazareth. After showing admiration for the Spanish conquistadors (“who conquered the Inca empire with few soldiers”) he was asked: “Who were the powerful and who were the vulnerable in that situation?” Understanding that the history of the peoples of the so-called “Americas” should be retold, he began to think again “from exteriority,” but this time from another geopolitically located position. For this reason, when he encountered Levinas in person, he asked if “the Other” the Jewish philosopher was speaking about could be  “Indians slaughtered during the conquest of the Americas,” “Africans who were made slaves,” and “poor people” in a dependent system of global inequality. While Levinas in an interview shows his delight that young Latin American intellectuals saw “the same thing,” Dussel reports that Levinas’s answer was (perhaps in a methodologically Jewish manner) to return the question to his young Global South interlocutors: “it is something for you to think about.”

The relentless and restless Dussel took up the challenge. In dialogue and in a way that radicalized other relative exteriorities, he started to think with and from vulnerable communities of colonial western modernity. Dussel asked himself how to think from Latin America, a rich and diverse and yet wounded continent of “colonized, humiliated and dependent” communities. In Enrique’s thought, this does not negate the existence of a clear distinction between “the Greek” and “the Hebrew.” But this distinction does not account for everyone in the world. There are exteriorities that have been occluded by the Euro-American modern/colonial system and he was committed to explain why and how, and to learn from them. While his desire for encyclopedic knowledge led him to explore thought from around the world (China, Asia, Africa…), this was not just to contest the Orientalist project that constructed the other as in opposition to the European, but also to critique what Latin Americanists will call the Occidentalist project. The later occludes the other and rejects the possibility of alternatives. So while the rejection of Orientalism leads one to question the construction of difference, the rejection of Occidentalism requires one to also explain that there are other possibilities for living beyond the uniformity of the European model. For this reason, these other exteriorities became a key thread of his work.

There are exteriorities that have been occluded by the Euro-American modern/colonial system and he was committed to explain why and how, and to learn from them.

This is precisely the argument that my jetlagged brain was able to collect on that hot and rainy Pretoria night. In search of these alternatives, we can learn two lessons from Enrique on how to critique the post-World War II western consensus that led to the construction of “a Judeo-Christian tradition.” Both lessons remind us that there are other alternatives beyond the totalization and the uniformity of imperialism in the west. First, the west occludes the alterity of what Levinas calls “the Hebrew” by incorporating Jews into the western “Judeo-Christian” after almost two thousand years of persecution and genocide. Second it occludes the distinct alterities of what he called “the poor, the Indian, and the African” that are now represented in Latin America as lesser forms of “popular Christianity.” In actuality, these communities could foster creative resistances and re-existences for those who suffered persecution and genocide for over five-hundred years.

This is not to say, it is important to clarify, that Enrique was after “pure alternatives.” He departs from the conception that colonialism has violated all the world, and claims that not all alternatives were swallowed and that liberatory cracks exist and are opening every day. But as the system, from the very first years of the conquest of the Americas, used collaborationism to achieve its aims, we can find implications throughout the communities of the vanquished. For this reason, he will argue that a transmodern project can only be built with the encounter of members of these communities engaging in a dual critique: against the empire and against problematic modern/colonial reproductions and collaborationisms within these communities. This is why he protested against western imperialism, even at the risk of speaking openly about the treatment of Palestinians by a state that declared itself in Hebrew (and English) as representing all Jews. And when analyzing the history of Christianity in Latin America, being the editor of a monumental work with multiple volumes, he wrote again and again about the different roles that the Church and Catholic communities have played in Latin America. He does depart from a positive reaffirmation of what has been occluded (analectics). But he does so by supporting a dual critique that becomes a challenge to romantic purisms.

While today recounting the personal encounters with Enrique look idyllic, they were a part of committed work that resisted purism. In this sense, they were always events. Hundreds of hundreds of people initiated committed intellectual work following those memorable conversations. My work on Latin American Jewish thought, crossing occlusions and rejections across borders, would not have been possible without his contributions and his active dialogue with other Jews and Latin Americans, from Marc Ellis to Michael Lowy and Walter Mignolo to Maria Lugones. And thousands and thousands more will keep such work up by engaging his scholarship. This is especially true when he permanently challenged conceptions of individual ownership of work by making his texts readily available online for free at . So let us remember Enrique as someone who challenged us to keep building transmodern critical solidarity movements from the perspective of vulnerable exteriority.

Santiago Slabodsky
Santiago Slabodsky is the Florence and Robert Kaufman Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University in New York. He is co-director of the journal Decolonial Horizons/Horizontes Decoloniales at the GEMRIP institute in Latin America and convener of the summer program of Liberation Theologies and Decolonial Thought at the Global Dialogue Center in Spain. In the past he was co-chair of the Liberation Theologies unit at AAR, convener of the PhD Program in Religion, Ethics and Society at Claremont School of Theology and associate director of the center for Race, Culture and Social Justice in his current institution. Concurrently to his permanent posts in the US, he has served as visiting professor at institutions in the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Costa Rica, Macedonia, and Argentina and has lectured throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East. His book Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking received the 2017 Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association.

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