Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nitzan Lebovic reviews The Poverty of Ethics

Anat Matar. The Poverty of Ethics. Trans. Matan Kaminer. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Verso Books, 2022. 261 pp.

Review by Nitzan Lebovic

Anat Matar’s new book is a biting and a provocative argument that first, “morality is left-wing,” and that second, its contrasting “ethical discourse is always secondary to political discourse” (p. xxi). The purpose of separating morality from ethics is meant to serve the better of political activism in general, and that particular activist work on the left that resists the creation of a patriarchic and imperialist “white mythology.” In the words of Jacques Derrida: “‘[T]he white man takes his own mythology (that is, Indo-European mythology), his logos—that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form’” (p. xviii). Why would morality serve better than ethics for this fight? In his Philosophy of Right, Hegel distinguished morality, “which is implicated in responsibility, intention, conscience” from ethical life “in the family, civil society and the state” (p. xx). More recently, Foucault and Derrida followed on this critical contrast, stressing how ethical rhetoric has served, willingly or unwillingly, the mechanisms of suppression. Matar points out how the Israeli army has used its “ethical code” to divert attention from the occupation and mechanisms of apartheid control in the Occupied Territories (p. xx). Or how the Israeli judicial system often refers to the “Rules of Ethics for Judges” while approving the administrative arrests of thousands of Palestinians (according to statistical data, since 2005 every fourth Palestinian in the West Bank has been arrested at least once) (p. xi). Matar, a philosopher of language at Tel-Aviv University and a life-long activist, declares that “we need an independent notion of morality” to support the activist and dissenting voice of left-wing politics (p. xi). By “independent” she means separated from the philosophical branch of Kantian metaphysics and antipolitical abstraction.

Matar’s career as a philosopher has been grounded in a Wittgenstenian suspicion of linguistic norms and social conventions. At the same time, her activism led her to realize that “no line or body of thought . . . occurs outside of a community,” and that any attempt to negate the relevance of self-interest is a form of dogmatism (p. x). In other words, the philosophical-political stress falls on the context, rather than the speech act itself. Quoting from Wittgenstein’s Blue and Brown Books: “‘We refer by the phrase “understanding a word” not necessarily to that which happens while we are saying or hearing it, but to the whole environment of the event of saying it’” (p. 232). This allows Matar to operate, with a philosophical scalpel, on the body of a sick communal discourse.

The sobriety and directness of the prose, the bold political analysis, and the modest size of this book do not prevent it from shaping a sophisticated intellectual analysis. Indeed, this book sits comfortably among the masterful political-philosophical works Matar maps as her predecessors, from Ludwig Wittgenstein, to his followers Elizabeth Anscombe and Cora Diamond, to Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Adi Ophir and Houria Buteldja. While concurring with their critical view of the legacy of Kantian imperatives, she adds a crucial element by rejecting the academic separation between philosophy and politics, morals and action. In doing so, Matar exposes the “conditions of possibility” for what “derailed thought,” and how to fix it (p. 76). What needs fixing most urgently is liberal philosophy and philosophers who chase symbolic capital, utilizing an ethical language of reform in the service of power. Matar is especially biting about the work of a small group of philosophers who were critical in their own eyes but contributed, she argues, to the suppression of radical struggles of liberation in the name of democracy, liberalism, or nostalgia and utopianism: “It is difficult not to be reminded of [Stanley] Cavell’s longing for the greatness of an America yet to come, the romantic America . . . of Emerson and Thoreau” or Martha Nussbaum and Stan van Hooft’s admiration of Gandhi and Mandela as “‘sources of moral guidance’” (pp. 106, 107). Whatever their admiration, it was only partial, obscuring for example Mandela’s membership of the Communist Party of South Africa, or—quoting Robert Gooding-Williams—that “‘the presentation of blackness in this fashion is pitched to white fantasies and expectations of black serviceability’” (p. 106). Unlike Cavell, Nussbaum—who first followed classical British Liberalism, and more recently John Rawls's theory of justice—is “political through and through” (p. 101). She views nonviolence as a better basis for decolonization movements than anger and revenge. But her discussion of affect in political theory and action is grounded in fundamental forms of political suppression and paradox. For example, Nussbaums’s “long portrait of Mandela also makes no mention of his famous declaration about the interdependence of liberation struggles around the world,” which is relevant to Matar’s analysis of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and the limitations of intellectual integrity: “Nussbaum’s solid opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the name of academic freedom does have its limits: Nussbaum concedes that a boycott of Heidegger would be legitimate” (pp. 107, 112). Such examples stand for “Nussbaum’s strong aversion to radicalism,” and her “optimistic belief in the possibility of rational discourse free of power relations” (p. 110). Matar identifies here a “hostile presentation of specific steps taken by the consistent left” (p. 111). Whether one agrees or not with Matar’s views, her critical analysis of institutionalized norms—ethics in the service of governmentality—must be taken into account by anyone interested in the meeting of philosophy and politics.

I had the privilege of auditing Matar’s lectures while studying for my undergraduate degree in history and literature at Tel-Aviv University. Back then her courses on the philosophy of language seemed quite technical to my unexperienced mind, though even then her arguments were always explained in relation to philosophical-political examples. While I now have a different sense of what counts as “technical,” I think that even my younger self would grasp immediately the tenor and impact of this book. Matar uses her experience as both an intellectual and an activist to deliver a clear and compelling critique of “white mythology,” especially where it meets a self-serving academic professionalism.