Unrelatable

Judith Butler in the NYT:

I work with the feminist idea of “relationality” in order to show not only how lives are interdependent, but also how our ethical obligations to sustain each other’s lives follow from that interdependency. The interdiction against violence is a way of asserting and honoring that bond based on the equal value of lives, but this is not an abstract or formal principle. We require each other to live and that is as true of familial or kinship ties as it is of transnational and global bonds. The critique of individualism has been an important component of both feminist and Marxist thought, and it now becomes urgent as we seek to understand ourselves as living creatures bound to human and nonhuman creatures, to entire systems and networks of life.

Obviously this all commands assent up to a point, but I think there’s a limit case which it fails to consider: what about our ethical stance towards those for whom we have no “requirement” whatsoever, those who fulfil no need for us singly or collectively?

The web of relational co-creation seems like a fecund metaphor for human collectivity and ecological interdependence, but it feels to me like it simultaneously gathers too much in its net (what about beings that withdraw from relation, or that have no relation at all to our relationality? And I don’t mean those humans subjected to social death, or necropolitically “counted out”, but those beings which are simply unbound and unbindable by our social practices of relating, as little relatable-to as a neutrino), and pays too little attention to the problem of surplus or redundancy (Bataille’s “accursed share”, amongst other things). Why should we assume that the systems in which we are embedded are so perfectly balanced (in terms of needs/abilities) as to provide for an ideal reciprocity of all with all?

In practice, as Butler’s theme of the “ungrievable” acutely recognises, capitalism distinguishes sharply between productive and unproductive, reproducible and non-reproducible, selected and dysselected persons and populations. But are we justified in assuming that outside of a capitalist ensemble of relations we would immediately find ourselves enfolded in a global relationality in which nothing and no-one was unneeded, excessive, extraneous, supernumerary?

One could make almost the opposite argument, which is that an ethical obligation which does not hold in the absence of any possible relational binding or reciprocity is not truly ethical, but merely another guise for the general quid pro quo. Does Jesus heal the leper because the leper is part of the interconnected web of interdependency which makes up the socio-ecological world on which Jesus depends, or because the leper is precisely the diseased and abjected figure on whom nothing and nobody depends, whom the rest of the world is simply waiting to die?