Behind the Address: Adorno, Butler, and the Mediation of Relationality

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This paper argues that Adorno’s concept of mediation is relevant for Judith Butler’s relational ethics. Butler develops an account of relationality that is a vital source for theorising an ethics of non-violence in which ethical demands always emerge within the realm of political contestation. Drawing on Levinas, Butler argues that our ethical obligations emerge due to the primacy of the address of the other. This means that we are in an unchosen relation of interdependency with others. This account of relationality becomes a vital resource for theorising ethics because it entails that interdependency, vulnerability and impingement provide a framework for a theory of responsibility. This is linked to Butler’s relational ontology that conceives of the human as vulnerable and dependent.
I shall argue here, however, that there are two incompatible positions in Butler’s relational ethics and social ontology. Butler’s relational ethics invoke Levinas’s pre-ontological scene and makes the claim that the self is always produced through a primary impingement from the ‘other’. I argue that the way in which Butler does this inadvertently reintroduces a foundation, located outside of the social world, that grounds ethical responsibility. This is a problem because it undermines Butler’s socialised account of ontology. It does so because it entails a contradictory position: on the one hand, Butler’s work aims to displace any merely ‘given’ and foundational account of the human; on the other, this very displacement involves introducing an immediate and foundational ethical relation. My contention here is that such a foundation locates ethics as prior to political contestation, and that this obfuscates the political structure of ethical claims.
In response to this issue, I propose that Adorno’s account of the mediation between subject and object offers an alternative account of relationality; one in which all ethical questions are formulated within historical, social, and economic conditions. I argue that there can be no independent foundation for ethics, prior to sociality; ethical obligations are themselves mediated by the concepts that make them intelligible and by the social world which makes that understanding possible. As such, with Adorno, I maintain it is a problem to begin by assuming an ethical relation to the other, because that relation, and the conception of ethical obligations that it entails, should itself be viewed as a mediated construction. As such, I maintain that any attempt to found ethical responsibility in an unmediated way, that is without attending to particular social conditions, will fail to be sufficiently attendant to the relations in which human life is constituted. In drawing Adorno’s work in this way, I intend to show how Butler’s relational ethics can be defended without relapsing into a pre-social account of the ethical subject and the ongoing relevance of Adorno’s work for contemporary post foundational ethics.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2022
EventInternational Critical Theory Conference - John Felice Rome Center, Rome, Italy
Duration: 16 May 202218 May 2022


ConferenceInternational Critical Theory Conference


  • Adorno
  • Butler
  • Mediation
  • Relationality
  • Ethics


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