'Politics begins as ethics': Levinasian ethics and Australian performance concerning refugeess

Tom Burvill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay begins by outlining Emmanuel Levinas's radical conception of ethics. Levinas invokes/declares an absolute and primary obligation of responsibility to the human Other, whom he figures hyperbolically as invoked by the epiphany of the encounter with ‘the face of the Other’. This encounter with alterity founds not only ethics, but subjectivity itself, in Levinas’ conception. I apply Levinas's concept to the refusal of responsibility, of unqualified hospitality and asylum, exercised by the Australian Government under John Howard. The essay argues that the rich and varied response of Australian theatre and performance to this refusal was, however, broadly ethical. Its form of politics was to produce affective rather than ideological transformations in the audience. I examine a selection of performance and theatre work that uses different performance strategies to explore how this was achieved. The essay also outlines Levinas's objection to art conceived as representation of the face of the Other, and his delineation of the ethical mode of embodied discourse he calls ‘the saying’, which can be seen in moments of performance as an embodied, affective and interactive mode.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-243
Number of pages11
JournalResearch in Drama Education
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • Levinas
  • ethics
  • responsibility
  • refugees
  • performance
  • politics


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