John E. Drabinski Publishes "Levinas and the Postcolonial"

Submitted on Friday, 10/28/2011, at 2:32 PM

John E. Drabinski, visiting associate professor of Black studies, is the author of Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other (published by Edinburgh University Press; distributed in North America by Columbia University Press). He calls the book “an effort at bringing some of the debates in contemporary European postmodern theory into conversation with a set of international authors who speak from the perspective of former colonized people.”

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Drabinski defines postmodernism as “a philosophical sensibility that puts difference and fragmentation at the center of our thinking, rather than [regarding difference as] something that has to be eliminated or overcome.” One of the ideas most important to postmodernism, he says, is “the Other,” a concept that Lithuanian-born French thinker Emmanuel Levinas helped to develop within European philosophy in the mid-20th century. The new book places Levinas’ notion of the Other alongside the work of several figures from India, Latin America and the Caribbean. “[I] ask: How is it changed or altered when it’s put in dialogue with these other thinkers … who think from the [national perspective of the] former colonies rather than, as Levinas does, from [that of] the former colonizer?” Drabinski says. “How does the meaning of Otherness change? What is its political meaning? What is its ethical meaning?”      

Chapters of the new book relate Levinas’ ideas to those of Indian philosopher and Harvard professor Homi Bhabha; Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson for Mexico’s Zapatista movement; Martinican poet, writer and critic Édouard Glissant (about whom Drabinski has recently completed another book); and Columbia University Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a scholar from India whom Drabinski calls “arguably the most important living postcolonial theorist.”

Spivak herself has praised Levinas and the Postcolonial for the way in which “Drabinski resolutely places himself in the unacknowledged double bind between the ethical and the political in Levinas’s work and, with an impressive and erudite humility, attempts to rethink Levinas for ‘those of us with a materialist sensibility.’”

“To think of postcolonial critique as a philosophy of difference and an ethical relation to the Other is inconceivable without taking into account the work of Emmanuel Levinas,” said Nick Nesbitt, professor at Princeton and prominent Francophone theorist, in another review. “Levinas and the Postcolonial refuses all theoretical ghettos to bring welcome intellectual rigor, depth, and insight to the critique of global colonialism.”

Drabinski says that for him, the new book represents “the culmination of a dozen years of reading and thinking and writing that constitutes a field shift from European philosophy to Black studies.” He earned a Ph.D. in European philosophy from the University of Memphis in 1996, but decided a few years later to redirect his focus to Afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectual traditions, in which he found “a very distinctive philosophical voice that [other] philosophers haven’t taken very seriously, and it struck me as some of the most profound thinking of the 20th century.”

At Amherst, Drabinski teaches such courses as “Theorizing the Black Atlantic” and “The Creole Imagination.” His previous books include Sensibility and Singularity (2001) and Godard Between Identity and Difference (2008), and he is co-editor, with Oklahoma City University Professor Scott Davidson, of the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy.