This paper argues that the historical roots and current manifestations of secular and religious nationalism in the Republic of Turkey and the State of Israel are well understood in light of Emmanuel Levinas’ concept of totality. Furthermore, as discovered through ethnographic research collected concerning the lived experiences of ethnic and religious minorities in these nations, it posits that the best response to these all-encompassing, exclusive worldviews is found in the reality of the human face, as conceptualized by Levinas in connection with his notion of infinity.
The foundation and primary source of this project is ethnographic research collected in the Republic of Turkey and State of Israel in the fall and winter of 2015-16 as Wofford College’s 32nd Presidential International Scholar. The research consisted of approximately hour-long semi-structured interviews with ethnic and religious minorities in Istanbul, Turkey and Haifa, Israel. The communities encountered comprised of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds in Turkey and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. The interviewees included both men and women, and consisted of individuals who work in education, the non-profit sector, medicine, tourism, and are currently students.
The paper begins with a historical analysis of the secular and religious nationalisms that characterize both locales and finishes with a theoretical-philosophical exploration of the primary ethnographic interviews elucidated by the thought of French phenomenological philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas’ concept of totality and infinity helps conceptualize the lived experiences of the individuals I met and furthermore begins to offer an answer to the nationalistic totalities that dominate both locales: the human face-to-face encounter that has powerfully influenced the lives of key people interviewed. Finally, I argue that this framework is not only useful as a diagnostic tool, but begins to move towards an ethic that explores the capacity of human interaction to challenge totalizing conceptions of group identity.
Nicholson, Charles Phifer Jr., "Totality and Infinity—Nationalism and The Face: An Ethnographic Exploration in the Republic of Turkey and State of Israel" (2016). Student Scholarship. 13.