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Judith Butler and Theology
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Judith Butler and Theology

Anna Maria Riedl

Judith Butler and Theology

Translated by Maren Behrensen Edited and published with the financial support of the Research Commission (FoKo) of the University of Lucerne and the University of Münster

Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data available online: http://dnb.d-nb.de All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, translated, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. © 2021 Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, an Imprint of the Brill-Group (Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, Netherlands; Brill USA Inc., Boston MA, USA; Brill Asia Pte Ltd, Singapore; Brill Deutschland GmbH, Paderborn, Germany) www.schoeningh.de Cover design: Anna Braungart, Tübingen Production: Brill Deutschland GmbH, Paderborn ISBN 978-3-506-71508-1 (paperback) ISBN 978-3-657-71508-4 (e-book)

Contents Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix Butler, Religion, and Theology  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix Structure of the Book  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . x A Theology of Vulnerability  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xii

PART A Butler’s Philosophy I


Preliminary Remarks  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Butler’s Understanding of Language and Her Style  . . . . . . . . . . 2 Butler’s Understanding of Theory, Object of Intellectual Interest, and Methodology  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Butler as a Recognition Theorist  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Foundations of Butler’s Philosophy  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Power, Discourse, and Performativity  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Butler’s Notion and Understanding of Discourse  . . . . . . . . Performative Praxis: Citing, Repeating, Displacing  . . . . . . 2 Gender, Norms, and Subject  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Butler’s Concept of Norms  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Framework for Butler’s Critique of the Subject  . . . . . . . . . . . Subjectivation and Gender Norms  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Butler’s Response to Criticism of Her Gender Theory  . . . . . Resisting the Effects of Norms  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Philosophy of Language: Vulnerability, and Resistance through Language  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Subjectivation as ‘Subjection’  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From Gender Theory to a Theory of the Subject  . . . . . . . . . . The Process of Subjectivation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Figure of the Trope  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The First Precondition of Subjectivation: the Desire to Exist  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Second Precondition of Subjectivation: Matrix of Norms and Ideas of Identity  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Melancholy  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

3 5 7 11 15 15 16 17 18 19 19 21 22 23 25 28 29 30 31 33 35 36






Resistance to Power . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Potentiality  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Resistance through Entanglement  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Structural Resistance as Work on the Conceptual Framework  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

37 38 40

Post-sovereign Subjects  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 The Other – Asymmetrical Intersubjectivity  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Readjustment of Recognition: Who Are You?  . . . . . . . . . . . . Dependence on the Recognition of Others – the Ecstatic Subject  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Transformative Effects  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Vulnerability and Precarity  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Alterity as Exposure to Others – the Vulnerable Subject  . . Ontological Vulnerability – Precariousness  . . . . . . . . . . . . . Phenomenology of Vulnerability  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Real Danger – ‘Precarity’  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Reflexivity, the Capacity to Act, and Responsibility  . . . . . . . . . . The Limits of Accountability  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Responsibility as Response  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Reinterpreting Responsibility  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . From Dyad to Triad: I/Subject, You/Other, Power/Norm  . .

43 45 46

Post-sovereign Ethics  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Ethics of Non-violence  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ethical Violence  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Violence before Violence  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ethics of Non-violence  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Ethics and Critique  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ethically Motivated Critique  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Critique of (Conventional) Understandings of Ethics and Epistemological Framework  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Critical Ethics  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

67 68 69 72 74 79 79


48 49 51 52 53 54 56 57 57 59 61 63

80 83

Butler’s Philosophy of Freedom: Summary and Evaluation  . . . . . . 87 1 Power and Recognition  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87 2 Living Appropriation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 3 Limits of Recognition  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93 4 Possibilities and an Open Future  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98 5 Participation and Solidarity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104



Part B Butler and Theology I



Liberation Theology  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Option for the Poor  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Development and Criteria of the Option for the Poor  . . . . . Crisis and Internal Ruptures of Liberation Theology  . . . . . 2 Poststructuralist Critique  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Critique of the Ontological Framework  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No Praise for Vulnerability: Reorienting the Christian Ideal of Action  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

111 112 112 116 118 119 120

Political Theology  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Theology “With Its Face to the World” (J. B. Metz)  . . . . . . . . . . . The Political in the New Political Theology  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Concepts of Democracy and Responsibility  . . . . . . . . . 2 The Relationship between Ethics and Politics  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Theory of the Subject  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Critique of Ethical Violence and the New Conception of Ethics  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

123 123 124 126 128 130

Prophetic Critique . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Between Universality and Particularity  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Universal, Secularized Ethics  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Particularist, Sacralized Ethos  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Ethics, Politics, and Translation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Critique as Praxis  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cultural Translation and Cohabitation  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

137 138 138 141 144 145 147


Bibliography  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153 Acknowledgments  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163 Index  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165

Introduction Butler, Religion, and Theology Judith Butler is one of the most prominent and influential philosophers of the 21st century, and she is now by no means unknown in the theological world, either. For example, a broad theological approach to Butler can already be found in the volume edited by Ellen T. Amour and Susan M. St Ville that was published in 2006 under the title Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler. But this volume is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, since theology has generally been slow to deal with Butler’s broad output. A look at pertinent publications shows that what has long sparked attention and discussion in theological circles is primarily her gender theory. This offers perhaps an initial explanation for why further engagement with her work has been so hesitant. The Catholic Church in particular finds it difficult to deal with gender theories, and its representatives often speak of gender as an ideology, with Butler frequently being made into the figurehead of this ‘ideology’. However, theologians across the world have repeatedly argued that this view of Butler’s work is built on ignorance and misunderstanding. It is perhaps precisely this debate on Butler’s gender theory that is blocking the view of her wider work, and in particular of the fact that she has since turned to a range of different issues, such as hate speech, American politics after 9/11, and a critique of Zionism. Without wishing to diminish her contribution to gender theory, or to deny its significance to her work as a whole, I will not rehearse once again here all the arguments and misunderstandings that perhaps prevent a fruitful dialogue between Butler and theology. Instead, I want to shift attention away from her roots in gender theory, and towards her reflections on ethics, politics, and the theory of recognition, themes that began to emerge at the latest with Giving an Account of Oneself (2005). Using philosophical sources for theology is not new, and I do not see the need to explain this approach once again. My focus is on how theology can benefit from dialogue with Butler’s philosophy, whose essential elements are her definition of responsibility from relationality, her critique of violence, the theme of translating universality, her reflections on performativity, and finally the idea gained primarily from Levinas of the ethical claim by the other. Butler herself, however, resists a reading of her work that hastily identifies within it a religious potential for hope. Responding to a question from the audience about the religious dimension and hope in Levinas’ sense during her Sigmund Freud Lecture in Vienna in 2014, she said:


Introduction He is definitely, definitely with me as I am thinking that through – Levinas… . But I don’t know if it has to stay within the bounds of religion. It doesn’t bother me if it has origins in religion, but it may wander outside this sphere of religion. [ehm] You know it’s Kafka. I am closer to Kafka than Levinas, and Kafka says: There is hope infinite hope unfortunately not for us (Butler 2014).1

Of course, this reply does not prohibit us from searching for this religious potential and hope in Butler’s work. If we follow her reflections in Parting Ways, then it is possible to read here an answer to how we deal with and translate religious traditions. Nevertheless, such a position also provides a kind of framework for a dialogue between Butler and theology, one that demands that her translations from religious sources for a broader society are not hastily declared again to be solely religious, thereby diminishing the ethical claim that they hold for all people. This reference to the religious source of Butler’s ethics indicates another framework for dialogue: Butler is, not least, a Jewish thinker, even though she is very careful not to treat her different identities as absolute and as the only explanation for her reflections. In a discussion on Parting Ways, she emphasizes: “After all, I am a Jewish person, and that is not really debatable” (Butler 2015: 394). A reading of Butler’s texts from the perspective of Christian theology should be aware of where Butler positions herself, since this would prevent our rashly appropriating her claims to bolster Christian positions. At the same time, though, Butler’s religious origins can serve as a basis for a theological reading of her work, since it is apparent that her texts are at least partially rooted in a theological soil. Butler herself stresses that her positioning does not mark an end to dialogue, but indeed raises the question of “whether there is an ethical relation to the non-Jew that is articulated within the Jewish tradition” (Butler 2015: 395). Structure of the Book This book is divided into two parts, each of which can stand alone. Part A introduces Butler’s philosophy chronologically, and reviews and interprets the oeuvre of one of the most well-known female philosophers today.2 1 The quote is a transcript from a video of the lecture and is therefore perhaps incomplete. The video is available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYYdM6FfcZU (accessed December  22, 2019). 2 Part A is based on a revised version of the third chapter of my doctoral thesis on Judith Butler, published in 2017: Ethik an den Grenzen der Souveränität. Christliche Sozialethik im Dialog mit Judith Butler.



The fact that Butler’s philosophy has many overarching themes that sometimes change their terminology makes it difficult to order the philosophy according to central topoi and to systematize her theory. After some preliminary remarks, I have therefore chosen to approach her work in an essentially chronological way. This allows me to pursue and bring together common themes without having to construct a unified theory. The chronological approach is not meant as a rigid structure, but rather as a framework to guide readers, with references to later or earlier works being inserted as appropriate. I start with some preliminary remarks (1) and will then turn to Butler’s early work and sketch the foundations and genesis of her thought, as well as her beginnings in gender theory (2). These early reflections consolidate around the turn of the millennium, with new impulses leading Butler to undergo something of a shift in her thought. This shift will be analyzed under the heading ‘post-sovereign subject’ (3), enabling me to sketch her post-sovereign ethics that builds on this subject (4). The concluding chapter summarizes the chronological path through her work according to central topoi, which are discussed in dialogue with criticisms of Butler’s philosophy and which demonstrate Butler’s theory to be a philosophy of freedom. The wide chronological arch from her early to current work has two aims. First, to show the changes that Butler’s work has undergone and to emphasize how simplistic it would be to read her as a gender theorist only. Second, to show that, although her interests shift and her themes change, there are common threads running through her work as a whole. Continuities in her thinking are shown, as well as the abrupt breaks and shifts in her thought. At the same time, the concept of recognition is introduced as the key to her oeuvre, and I show that, contrary to how she is usually perceived, Butler is much more than (just) a gender theorist. It is precisely this broadening of the view of Butler that makes her interesting for the dialogue with theology. I pursue just such a dialogue between Butler’s philosophy and theology in Part B. Using three theological approaches (liberation theology, New Political Theology, and prophetic critique), I show where there are similarities and differences between theology and Butler’s thinking, and above all how such a dialogue can enable new perspectives and the further development of these theological approaches. I therefore bring three central aspects of Butler’s thought together with the corresponding theological approach: 1. Butler’s theory of the post-sovereign subject with liberation theology 2. Butler’s post-sovereign ethics, critique of abstract normativity, and universalism with the New Political Theology 3. Butler’s post-sovereign politics, critique of reified particularism, communitarianism and nationalism with prophetic critique



The three subchapters in Part B also function as independent essays. Together, they present a blueprint for a theology of vulnerability. A Theology of Vulnerability This theology of vulnerability is, no longer assuming an autonomous subject, but a subject that is at least equally relational and vulnerable, is located between universalism and particularism. Such a theology is in demand everywhere, wherever relationality (being related to others and other things) is denied or suppressed. This is a criterion not only for ethical relations with others, but also for political institutions and systems: unjust in this logic would be not only all forms of relationship that completely explain, master, represent another human being (according to the Biblical instruction, “Thou shalt not make an image or picture” (Ex 20:4; Dtn 4:16), but also all forms of (political) representation that presume to represent the whole, the polity. Resistance and agency consist not only in the refusal of such a dominant discourse and the prevailing norms, but also in how norms are appropriated and exercised. As such a performative practice, religion in particular can prove to be pluralizing, opening up new possibilities, and agency.

PART A Butler’s Philosophy

Chapter I

Preliminary Remarks Judith Butler, the gender theorist, someone who has become well-known on account of her polarizing (de)construction of sex and gender. Today, no one working in gender studies can ignore her contribution. Enthusiastic endorsement and emphatic rejection of her views (there is rarely anything in between) overlook the fact that her work comprises much more than her gender theory, and that she has long since turned to other issues, such as the reaction in the US to 9/11 (Precarious Life, 2004b), and Israeli politics (Parting Ways, 2012c). The scholarly reception of Butler’s work faces several difficulties. First, her oeuvre is a work in progress: her views are not final, but are instead developed continually. Second, her oeuvre is highly multifaceted, and her themes so diverse that there seems to be no link between them. A closer look only partially confirms this first impression, however. While the terms that she uses for central topoi sometimes change, rendering it more difficult to trace thematic strands. For some topoi, it is possible to identify terminological families or synonyms (e. g. norm/convention/social framework); it becomes more difficult when changes in terminology conceal shifts in terms of content, Butler speaking, for example, of the ‘subject’ in her early work and often of the ‘self’ in her later work. What helps here is to go through her whole work so as to follow thematic paths. We can nonetheless identify core themes that are present in entirely different texts. This is the case, for example, for the theme ‘subject and border(s)’ with regard to human beings, norms, and recognition, for the theme ‘vulnerability and violence’, and for the theme ‘ethics and critique’. Nevertheless, anyone expecting to find a closed and complete system of thought will be disappointed. For this reason, Butler’s work has frequently been misunderstood and attacked as confusing, eclectic, and nihilistic. In a polemical article entitled “The Professor of Parody”,3 Martha Nussbaum writes: Her written style, however, is ponderous and obscure. It is dense with allusions to other theorists, drawn from a wide range of different theoretical traditions. In addition to Foucault, and to a more recent focus on Freud, Butler’s work relies heavily on the thought of Louis Althusser, the French lesbian theorist Monique Wittig, the American anthropologist Gayle Rubin, Jacques Lacan, J.L. Austin … 3 The title is presumably an allusion to the fact that Butler suggests – predominantly in her early texts – that parody can be a method of resistance. Nussbaum’s criticism far exceeds this theme, however.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy These figures do not all agree with one another, to say the least; so an initial problem in reading Butler is that one is bewildered to find her arguments buttressed by appeal to so many contradictory concepts and doctrines, usually without any account of how the apparent contradictions will be resolved…  . Sometimes the answer that the question expects is evident. But often things are much more indeterminate. Among the non-interrogative sentences, many begin with ‘Consider  …’ or ‘One could suggest  …’ – in such a way that Butler never quite tells the reader whether she approves of the view described… . In this way obscurity creates an aura of importance… . When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin (Nussbaum 1999).

This criticism, which continues in the same vein over several pages, is dishonest and says more about its author than its target. Not only does Nussbaum make the claim, one based more on insult than on argument, that Butler’s work has neither scientific nor philosophical merit; she also misunderstands – or wants to misunderstand – the very foundation of Butler’s style and approach (see Redecker 2011: 42).4 Referring to various theories and authors – such as Nietzsche’s genealogy, Freud’s psychoanalysis, Hegel’s theory of recognition, Levinas’ theory of alterity, Foucault’s critique of power, and Austin’s philosophy of language, to name only a few – is certainly a distinctive feature of Butler’s work; moreover, her style, which does indeed often employ an idiosyncratic language, moves in a kind of circular questioning that might never seem to lead to answers. But it is unfair to ascribe this stylistic peculiarity – as Nussbaum does – to a desire on Butler’s part to create “an aura of importance”, to bully the reader, or to hide how “thin” are the ideas in her books. We should at least acknowledge that Butler’s idiosyncratic language arises from her genuine concern with her themes. Understanding Butler’s texts requires that we also seek to understand her approach – and vice versa. Methodology and content are mutually dependent. It thus seems apt to begin with some preliminary remarks. I will first sketch Butler’s understanding of language and her style, and then proceed to her understanding of theory, her object of intellectual interest, and her methodology, before finally offering as a key to interpreting her work an approach that sees the work as constituting a theory of recognition. 4 That productive debates between different strands of feminism are possible is shown in the anthology edited by Benhabib, Butler, Cornell and Fraser (1995). For a nuanced account of the controversy between Butler and Nussbaum, see Wald 2007. Wald shows clearly how Nussbaum’s criticism is grounded in a separation of political and academic feminism, a separation that does not exist in this form, which is shown not least by the debate between Butler, Fraser, Benhabib and Cornell.

Preliminary Remarks



Butler’s Understanding of Language and Her Style

Butler’s work has often been criticized for its supposed incomprehensibility. In 1998, an Anglophone journal even awarded her a bad writing prize.5 While some strange constructions can be explained by the difficulties that translators of Butler’s texts face (many of her phrasings, metaphors and neologisms are nearly impossible to capture in another language), the ‘prize’ suggests that this is not the only reason that her style has been considered so difficult. Butler herself addresses this issue in relation to Gender Trouble: Both critics and friends of Gender Trouble have drawn attention to the difficulty of its style. It is no doubt strange, and maddening to some, to find a book that is not easily consumed to be ‘popular’ according to academic standards. The surprise over this is perhaps attributable to the way we underestimate the reading public, its capacity and desire for reading complicated and challenging texts, when the complication is not gratuitous, when the challenge is in the service of calling taken-for-granted truths into question, when the taken-for-grantedness of those is, indeed, oppressive (1999b: xviii).

Here, Butler acknowledges that a certain difficulty in her language is deliberate. Elsewhere, she clearly states: It’s not that I’m in favor of difficulty for difficulty’s sake; it’s that I think there is a lot in ordinary language and in received grammar that constrains our thinking – indeed, about what a person is, what a subject is, what politics can be – and that I’m not sure we’re going to be able to struggle effectively against those constraints or work within them in a productive way unless we see the ways in which grammar is both producing and constraining our sense of what the world is (2004a: 327-328).

Thus, her complex language is a tool that she uses consciously. Its purpose is to make the reader attentive and to foreground concepts and themes that are no longer visible in ordinary language use and in the structures of everyday grammar, and that therefore go unnoticed. While analytic philosophy aims for argumentative purity and declares the recourse to ordinary language to be the yardstick of thinking, Butler remains suspicious, and particularly so of common perspectives and phrases (see Redecker 2011: 37). This is a clear example of her coupling of methodology and content, since her use of language is closely connected to her performative approach: she takes for granted that 5 The press release from the journal Philosophy and Literature can be found online at: www.denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm. Butler’s reply appeared in the New York Times of 20 March 1999 (see Butler 1999a).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

language creates reality. There are two levels that can be distinguished here: that of grammar, where language can simulate (false) facts and certainties, and that of formulations, where the use of words can shape and limit thinking. The first borrows from Nietzsche’s skepticism concerning the subject: “there is no such substratum; there is no ‘being’ behind the deed, its effect and what becomes of it; ‘the doer’ is invented as an afterthought, – the doing is everything” (Nietzsche 2017: 27). With regard to the second level, that of formulations, Butler thinks that, by naming something or someone, we always already exclude something else. If we call someone a child, for instance, then the child is not an adult; if we call someone an American, she is not European; and if we describe someone as a man, then he is not a woman. When we say ‘mine’, we imply ‘not yours’. Through language, we establish things – both what is and what is not, or ought not to be. We identify and define someone as something, which can result in our inability to perceive other aspects of this person. Language is an instrument of power, and this power always risks turning into violence when our definitions become too narrow. As a consequence of the power that language has, Butler argues for an increased sensitivity to the use of language. Her complex style is grounded in this concern: by employing unconventional wordings and phrasings, she hopes to counteract the effects of language. This puts her in the company of such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Martin Heidegger, but also of poets such as Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, who believed in the possibility of a utopian restart through language. It is fitting that the philosopher Eva von Redecker should call Butler’s approach to language “poetic” (see 2011: 37). The point is to use language deliberately, in order to change reality through another kind of language (see Redecker 2011: 40). However, Butler’s poetic approach to language should not be misconstrued as naïve optimism. She clearly distances herself from such a position: Of course, this has always been the conceit of high literary modernism, namely, that the world can only be given anew when redescribed by heightened and unconventional language that reworks the settled meanings of words into those that are explicitly unconventional (Butler 2003c: 202).

Her concern is not to create a completely new language, but to achieve a heightened sensitivity to the effects of language; a clear perception of the limits created by language, and a careful expansion of these limits. Since it is impossible simply to speak anew, Butler creates interruptions by using strange combinations, unconventional phrases, alien concepts, and neologisms. These

Preliminary Remarks


interruptions disturb readers and force them to pause, re-read and reflect.6 Thus, Butler’s texts do not always proceed in a linear fashion, which can create the impression that they lack direction and simply circle around certain issues and questions. But we can find structure in her texts if we see them as often functioning like a Talmud, where the text in the middle of the page is encircled by different commentaries that can build on, but also contradict, each other (see Redecker 2011: 36). Even the structure of Butler’s texts therefore invites multiple readings and reflections, and allows the reader to place her own commentaries and questions against the main text. Realizing that Butler does not consider this juxtaposition of contradictory assertions to be a mistake can be the first step in understanding her theoretical approach. 2

Butler’s Understanding of Theory, Object of Intellectual Interest, and Methodology

The notion of ‘theory’ is somewhat inappropriate with regard to Butler, but I will continue to use it for pragmatic reasons. ‘Theory’ suggests a finished system of thought whose parts all fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I have already noted that this expectation is confounded when reading Butler’s texts. Her frequent references to other theories, her sentences often coined as questions, and her soft, ambiguous formulations are an indication that what seems difficult in her writing is often deliberately crafted in such a way. Butler’s approach to theory, her object of interest, and her methodology show that she is neither a relativist nor a nihilist. For Butler, theories and scientific discourses are both products of their specific environment, and are at least partially responsible for creating reality: In what follows, I will argue that theory is itself transformative … But one also has to understand that I do not think theory is sufficient for social and political transformation. Something besides theory must take place, such as intervention at social and political levels … I would add, however, that in all of these practices, theory is presupposed. We are all, in the very act of social transformation, lay philosophers, presupposing a vision of the world, of what is right, of what is just, of what is abhorrent, of what human action is …, of what constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions of life (Butler 2004c: 204-205).

6 In her dissertation Subjects of Desire (1987), Butler recommends just this approach for readers of Herder’s works.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Butler thus presupposes an interaction between theory and reality, one that makes itself felt not only theoretically, but also socially and therefore empirically (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 84). Butler’s focus is therefore first and foremost on theories, and especially on theories of the human. Although Butler adopts a critical stance mainly towards the ideas of the subject produced by theory, i.e. towards the philosophical discourse of science, she implicitly succeeds in including human beings themselves in her theory. Precisely because her empirical object are theories about human beings as subjects, her theoretical analyses are always also reflections on the living conditions of actual, contemporary humans (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 84). And, since she presupposes that theories have the function of constituting reality, Butler is concerned with the prospective conditions of being a subject (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 84). Thus, Butler’s approach combines empirical description with philosophical ethics, and it is no coincidence that this approach is often placed in relation to phenomenology (see Redecker 2011: 125; Coole 2008: 11-27; Villa 2003: 22). Butler’s guiding object of intellectual interest is therefore to enlighten (Aufklärung). She aims to provide a critical analysis of historical or seemingly natural givens in order to show that the patterns and structures of thought that underlie these givens are in principle open to change. The questions that guide this approach are: Which theoretical answers have been offered so far? Are these answers commensurate with the problem, or what do they lack? Which unquestioned premises lie behind these theories? (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 85) The methods that Butler uses to pursue these questions are genealogy, (de)construction, and eclecticism. Genealogy, a method derived from Nietzsche and Foucault, is a specific form of critique that creates disidentification with regard to something that at first glance seems untouchable. The method is concerned with freeing an object from a rationale that seems self-evident, in order to expose the political power interests, norms, and psychological mechanisms that underlie it (see Redecker 2011: 42). This involves mapping out the fractures in historical development that show that something deemed self-evident or metaphysically necessary was not always so, and is therefore not necessarily immutable. History shows, for instance, that our understanding of childhood has changed radically: neither the exact duration of childhood, and nor the ideas of what makes a good childhood, have always been like they are today. But, once phenomena such as ideas of childhood and gender hierarchies have been shown to have a history, they can be analyzed with regard to the social and political form that they take, and they can be criticized and (where necessary) changed (see Redecker 2011: 43). This method enables Butler to read concepts that are otherwise kept deliberately separate in philosophy, such as ‘the ontological’, ‘the natural’,

Preliminary Remarks


‘the essential’, from a common perspective: namely, that the concepts present social norms in a descriptive mode and legitimize these norms by tracing them back to an origin (see Purtschert 2004: 188). Even though Butler does not work in a strictly diachronic way, her method does make use of the concept of genealogy (see Butler 1993: 32). This is apt since her genealogy, which is in fact more synchronic than diachronic,7 follows the three classic criteria of the method: namely, to show that a phenomenon is contingent, to expose the power mechanisms involved in its emergence, and to present a different way of understanding the phenomenon (see Redecker 2011: 44). Butler’s second central method is (de)construction,8 for which she provides a rather simple definition: namely “to call a presupposition into question” (Butler 1993: 30). This ‘calling into question’ is directed primarily against claims of unity and identity, and it searches for contradictions, exclusions and gaps – for all the things that are denied so as to postulate the identity of an individual, the unity of a group, the unambiguity of a text or statement (see Redecker 2011: 44). Work on theories and texts (which is one of Butler’s central approaches) is concerned above all with tracking down hierarchical and complementarily constructed pairs of concepts (such as man and woman) and their (often evaluative) connotations. Butler does this by combining (de)construction and the third method, eclecticism. While genealogy and (de)construction reveal the deficits, and complement and correct them, Butler uses the method of eclecticism to add other approaches to theories that she deems deficient, and to correct them (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 85). Contrary to what is often assumed, this approach does not require readers to be familiar with all the thinkers that she uses. Butler provides the knowledge from the other theories that is needed in her texts. Nonetheless, readers must be prepared to encounter a wide range

7 This is a synchronic genealogy, since Butler is not concerned primarily with historical work, but with showing how certain linguistic forms congeal in contemporary discourses (not unlike Foucault’s archaeology). 8 Whether Butler is a constructivist is debatable, and she herself is ambiguous. On the one hand, she does not defend herself when others categorize her as a constructivist; on the other, she frequently criticizes constructivist approaches (see Butler 1993: 6-12). The term (de)construction is chosen here to highlight both the dual meaning of deconstructive and constructive, as well as the difficulties in categorizing Butler’s work (on this, see Mihçiyazgan 2008). After considering different concepts of constructivism, Mihçiyazgan concludes that Butler is not a constructivist. Poststructuralism is a similar case. Butler herself says: “I’m not particularly interested in being a loyal poststructuralist; sometimes I deviate from it and sometimes I leave it behind. But poststructuralism continues to be an important horizon of my thought, although it is not the only one” (2002a: 125*).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

of interlocutors, who sometimes contradict and rile each other (see Redecker 2011: 45-46). Eclecticism is concerned with frustrating presuppositions, broadening the horizon, and thereby discovering what is unknown. Eclecticism is, to turn the common complaint levelled at Butler on its head, “part of what constitutes the challenge, the radicalism, and indeed the richness of her work. Theoretical formulations such as Althusserian interpellation, Kristevan abjection and Freudian melancholia are re-cited and re-located to produce stunning and innovative juxtapositions” (Salih 2004: 6). It becomes clear how these methods reinforce each other in Butler’s work. Like her sometimes complicated language, they serve to open up uncommon perspectives, to read well-known texts differently, and to combine established theories anew. It is for this reason that Butler’s work always has a constructive element. She is concerned not only with revealing deficits, but also addressing the perceived problems and constrictions: To call a presupposition into question is not the same as doing away with it; rather, it is to free it from its metaphysical lodgings in order to understand what political interests were secured in and by that metaphysical placing, and thereby to permit the term to occupy and to serve very different political aims (Butler 1993: 30).

None of these methods destroy the object under investigation; rather, they destroy the foundations of those objects that derive their identification from the belief in a necessary development (see Redecker 2011: 46). She is therefore by no means concerned with a destructive disidentification or deconstruction, but rather with a deconstruction that mobilizes and releases new thoughts. What is questioned is not the existence of something, but its status. In the spirit of this critical practice, Butler links not only empirical research and philosophy, but also theory and politics. Besides her enlightening interest that I have already mentioned, her second interest is in change, and in particular in how to change the structures permeated by violence, which not only shape us but also give us the opportunity for our own criticism, since they depend on the very possibilities of expression (see Redecker 2011: 47). This concern raises the question of the norms that should guide this, or in Butler’s case the lack of information about these norms (see Benhabib 1995a: 29-30), as she refuses to provide a list of criteria for a good life. This refusal to make normative statements and the often vague formulations are indeed consistent with Butler’s understanding of theory. This questioning attitude, which does not already know the answer, is typical of Butler’s positions, and again shows the link between content and

Preliminary Remarks


methodology. Her methodology stands for a position that certainly does not count on a definitive answer; indeed, a position that does not even assume that such an answer can exist. This approach to “a ‘different ethics’, one that should be able to become political in a productive and appropriate way, involves making considerable (dis)course corrections by asking different questions, in order to generate different answers” (Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 86*).9 This already anticipates the analysis of the content of Butler’s philosophy, which again shows how difficult it is to separate methodology and content in her work. This will also become evident in the next and final section of this chapter, which introduces Butler as a recognition theorist. 3

Butler as a Recognition Theorist

To see the theme of recognition as a key to Butler’s thought might seem strange. Even though recognition plays a central role in her work, she is much better known for her gender theory, and it is only recently that Butler has been read as a recognition theorist (see Allen 2006; Balzer 2014; Bedorf 2010; Dungs 2006, 2008; Ferrarese 2011; Lloyd 2005, 2007; Thiem 2008). We can only speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps her prominence as a gender theorist has narrowed the perspective on her work, or perhaps the sometimes harsh rejection of her theses have even led critics to cease dealing with her work. In either case, her later developments have disappeared from view. As we have seen, however, her work encompasses much more than the gender theory with which she is so often associated. She herself has pointed to these later developments: I must say, I feel the reception of my work is none of my business. You know? It’s not my concern. It’s your concern. I just keep working. I keep posing certain questions and I think there are times when people think ‘What happened to the Judith Butler I used to know?’ … I mean I can’t stay the same for everyone to be consumed as the author of ‘Gender Trouble’. I have to continue to live and that means I have to ‘reposer les questions’ (Butler 2007).

I want to take this development into account by looking at Butler’s work through the lens of recognition, since this is a theme to which Butler herself has given greater attention. Some authors even see a break with her earlier work, located around the turn of the millennium. Catherine Keller (2015: 220), for instance, speaks of “Butler I” and “Butler II”, with Gender Trouble (1990), Bodies That Matter (1993), Excitable Speech (1997a), The Psychic Life of Power 9 *Marks here and in the following always quotations translated from German.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

(1997b), and Antigone’s Claim (2000a) belonging to the former, and Giving an Account of Oneself (2005),10 Precarious Life (2004b), Undoing Gender (2004c), Frames of War (2009), Parting Ways (2012b), and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), to the latter. This division will be adopted here, insofar as Chapter 2 (the foundations of Butler’s philosophy) focuses mainly on the early works, and Chapters 3 and 4, on the later. We should also note, however, that, although such a division is not fundamentally false, to make the division rigid would also be problematical, and it would be better to characterize the change that is present in Butler’s work not as a clean break, but as a shift or turn. Her later work does not completely abandon her earlier positions; and the change did not suddenly begin with Giving an Account of Oneself, since there are also already thematic shifts and a growing (re)turn to the theme of recognition in Excitable Speech (if not earlier). What also supports the view that recognition is key to Butler’s work is the fact that recognition is a theme that she did not begin to be interested in from a particular moment in time. Rather, recognition was part of her work from the very beginning, and simply emerged gradually over time. The theme of recognition is already present in her doctoral dissertation on Hegel (Subjects of Desire, 1987) – and thus much earlier than in the work of Taylor and Honneth. What has shaped Butler’s thought deeply is Hegel’s dictum, which followed Rousseau and rejected Fichte: “They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another” (Hegel 1807/1977: 112). Although, as we will see, Butler takes a critical view of the Hegelian idea of a struggle for recognition, she does frequently emphasize the relevance of recognition for her own work: “From the beginning, the relation of desire to recognition was the philosophical topic that interested me … the most. In one way or another, all my books revolved around this question” (Butler 2001: 588*; see 2002a: 124; 2016: 54). The same is true of the relationship between recognition and power, and of the ethically relevant question regarding the link between recognition and subjectivation (see Balzer 2014: 411-412). The fact that, despite its constant references to the theme of recognition, Butler’s work also displays a shift is because she increasingly focuses on questions of intersubjectivity (see Balzer 2014: 412). While earlier texts foreshadow this turn, it becomes clearly visible in her Adorno Lectures (published as Giving an Account of Oneself), where she drew on Levinas’ theory of alterity to place the other into the event of recognition. The increased number of references 10

The Adorno Lectures appeared in German – under the title Kritik der ethischen Gewalt (Critique of Ethical Power) – in 2003, which is why they are listed here before Undoing Gender and Precarious Life.

Preliminary Remarks


to recognition theory is therefore also accompanied by a turn to ethics (see Schippers 2014: 3). The shift of emphasis in Giving an Account of Oneself can also be understood as Butler’s reaction to the unrelenting criticism of her gender theory. After repeatedly being accused (and not least by colleagues such as Martha Nussbaum and Seyla Benhabib) of moral nihilism, of destroying the power to act, and of abandoning the oppressed (female) subject (see Benhabib 1995a:21; Assheuer 2013), Butler perhaps used the Adorno Lectures to clarify once and for all that she is not concerned with denying the existence of bodies (which a title such as Bodies That Matter clearly demonstrates),11 and even less so with destroying ethics and morality. By increasingly emphasizing reflections from recognition theory, she makes clear that she is concerned precisely with moral philosophy, with a theory of the moral subject that will from then onwards (if not before) run through her work. Her aim is to investigate the origins of morality both for the individual and for society (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 83). This is also shown by the fact that Butler, who had initially criticized conventional concepts of the subject, now began to develop her own understanding of the subject. She does so by engaging fundamentally with the themes of vulnerability and precarity, which is the reason that her work can be seen as exhibiting a “turn to ontology” (Hekman 2014: 452) and a “turn to ethics” (Hekman 2014: 459): “It is her ontology of the subject that gives Butler an opening into the realm of ethics” (Hekman 2014: 457; see Schippers 2014). Butler’s concern is to formulate a theory of morality that is better able than previous theories to account for the essential elements of becoming a moral subject (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 83). This she deems necessary because for her many traditional (ethical) theories violate the subject by presupposing its sovereignty. It would therefore be inappropriate to read the work that she produced after her work in gender theory only in terms of a defense against criticism. Rather, this later work is a consistent development of her theoretical approach; it does not simply leave her past work behind, but uses new impetus to lend it different emphases and arrangements. This turn therefore constitutes not a break, but a shift in focus and a deeper reflection on questions and themes that had already existed. We can see this in both the style and the content of her work. Butler’s response has become quieter; she has taken back some 11

A detailed reconstruction of this debate, which also offers a precise explanation of Butler’s position, can be found in Redecker (2011: 66-74). She makes it plain that Butler is concerned neither with a variable interchangeability of gender (such as a change of clothes), and nor with denying the existence of bodies and genitalia – her focus is rather on the consequences that this existence of anatomy has in discourse.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

of her earlier radical claims; she has freed herself from some of the constrictions and solidifications of her early work. Her style has moved towards the circular questioning, the seeming avoidance of definitions, which is so typical of her thought. As a review of Giving an Account of Oneself notes: Butler replies with the soft tautologies of an ethics that no longer wants to be accused of moral nihilism. ‘Because we are all vulnerable, we have obligations to everyone’. There is no norm that could enforce this norm, and that is precisely the point at which the free and sovereign subject coincides with unconditional obligation. Radically ethical is to be moral without following a norm. If that’s not metaphysics! (Assheuer 2003*)

This reference to metaphysics (and I will not consider here whether it really is metaphysics or not) shows that this is a different Butler to the one, for instance, in Gender Trouble. While not turning away from gender theory, she shifts her focus to the themes of ethics, vulnerability, critique, and subjectivity. In doing so, Butler performs a turn that, while not abandoning gender theory, does broaden the framework with its clear social-philosophical and political orientations. What also shows these changes is the fact that she refers to different theories. She draws less on Michel Foucault and John Austin, and instead engages with Hegel’s theory of recognition and Levinas’ theory of alterity, thereby deconstructing both the self-identical subject and Honneth’s idealized concept of recognition (see Riedl 2016: 149; 2017: 109). The fact that Butler clearly chooses a different approach to recognition than other prominent figures, such as Taylor and Honneth, might also explain why Butler is not primarily read as a recognition theorist. For, she deconstructs the very concept of recognition by deconstructing the autonomous, self-identical subject and showing how it arises from power and at the same time is subjected to power. Processes of recognition therefore occur within the space of this double aspect of power (see Dungs 2008: 289-299). In dealing with recognition, Butler does not provide a closed theoretical system. Nonetheless, the theme of recognition can be regarded as a bridge between her (early) work in gender theory and her later work in ethics and politics. This introductory chapter has already made use in referring to Butler’s sources and her understanding of the subject of some central terms in Butler’s theory. The next chapter will conduct a systematic and chronological investigation of these terms and their genesis in Butler’s theory. In doing so, I will not only look more closely at the foundations of her thought, but also present the changes that her thought has undergone and the common threads that run through it.

Chapter II

The Foundations of Butler’s Philosophy This chapter focuses primarily on Butler’s early work. The central point of departure and the motivation for her work is from the very beginning her engagement with the subject. I have alreadymentioned that Butler, criticizing the conventional understanding of the subject, first investigates how the subject is constituted in the modern period, this starting-point being closely linked to her understanding of the power of discursive systems, the effect of norms, and performativity. The connection between these three concepts constitutes something like the foundations of Butler’s thinking. In order to shed light on this, this chapter will first describe in terms of Butler’s understanding of performativity the connection between power, discourse, and performativity (1).12 I will then investigate how Butler understands gender, norms, and subject, and attempt to clear up some misunderstandings of her work (2). Exploring the connection between the three reveals how Butler, following Foucault, adopts (above all in Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, and Excitable Speech) a strongly discourse- and power-oriented theoretical approach to explain how the subject is formed through the ritualized citation of norms. Finally, this look at Butler’s early work concludes with her reflections in The Psychic Life of Power and Antigone’s Claim (3). Here, she picks up on gaps in her early work, and especially in her work on gender theory, and turns to psychoanalytical ideas to discover why subjects repeat norms in the first place. Her focus is now on the link between subjectivation and the possibilities of action. 1

Power, Discourse, and Performativity

Butler’s early work already reveals a shift that abandons, modifies, or tries to re-explain some of her previous ideas. It is above all her engagement with the subject that changes her notion of performativity and that “directs the gaze further and further away from dazzling performance [in Gender Trouble] to the mechanisms of repetition” (Redecker 2011: 56*). At the same time, it shows how 12

Butler’s understanding of performativity has been used by several authors as the key to interpreting her early work. See, for example, Redecker 2011: 55-85. Müller 2009 also provides a detailed examination of the connections between language, subject, and power in Butler’s early work.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

a central theme – namely, the possibilities for resistance in a world that seems to be completely subjected to the power of discourses – runs (sometimes more clearly, sometimes less) through Butler’s work from the very beginning. Butler’s Notion and Understanding of Discourse Butler is a representative of the so-called linguistic turn. Linguistic turn is the name given to a series of very different developments in 20th-century thinking. What they all have in common is a certain linguistic skepticism, especially towards the idea that language is a transparent medium for grasping reality. For Butler language and discourse have been important in her work from the very beginning and still are today. Thus, the theme of performativity partly eludes the chronological approach that I have chosen here. Nevertheless, I deal with it at the beginning because it forms the framework for Butler’s thinking. As a representative of the linguistic turn, Butler claims that language or discourse is the mode by which reality is constructed. Since reality is produced through discourse, the latter is both productive and always already linked to the exercise of power.13 But the power of discourses is not only negative; rather, because they denote and structure, they also give meaning. Discourse is something like a meta-system that creates structures and makes a linguisticsymbolic order possible (see Villa 2003: 21). By discourse, Butler means not only spoken language, but also systems of thought and speech that we use to describe and order the world.14 Discourse is not merely spoken words, but a notion of signification, which concerns not merely how it is that certain signifiers come to mean what they mean, but how certain discursive forms articulate objects and subjects in their intelligibility. In this sense, ‘discourse’ is not used in the ordinary sense, but draws from the work of Foucault. Discourse does not merely represent or report on pregiven practices and relations, but it enters in their articulation and is, in that sense, productive (Butler 1995b: 138).

Butler’s understanding of discourse involves two epistemological insights. First, meanings do not lie in the things themselves; rather, it is discourses that assign these meanings. In other words, we can only ever discern in the world what we 13 14

Butler follows Foucault with this understanding of power, and does not represent a sociological concept of power as formulated, for example, by Weber. Müller points out that Butler therefore belongs more to the performative turn (which is based on the linguistic turn), the former conceiving of culture as a staging of performances and actions, with this conception going beyond the understanding of a text and sign system (see Müller 2009: 109).

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


grasp through the prism of linguistic categories. This does not mean that there are no phenomena beyond discourses, viruses and diseases could be cited as examples (see Villa 2003: 22-23). But the very perception of these phenomena is again already shaped by discourses. Second, discourses can be performative, i.e. they not only give meaning to things, but in a certain way actually produce them. They have the power to determine what can be thought, said, and thus ultimately lived, thereby drawing boundaries that make other things appear unlivable. Performative Praxis: Citing, Repeating, Displacing Butler develops the idea of performativity in line with John Austin’s theory of speech acts, which states that a “performative act is one that brings into being or enacts that which it names, and so marks the constitutive or productive power of discourse” (Butler 1995b: 134). For a speech act to become performative, it needs linguistic and social conventions. Conventionality always also means historicity, i.e. it arises from the sedimentary deposition of norms, ideals, social processes, and legal systems, etc. (see Villa 2003: 29). Their citation enables performative speech acts to be repeatable through time, independent of each individual. Performativity thus functions by making use of certain historically accumulated codes that lend it authority. An example of a performative speech act is when the registrar says: “I hereby declare you husband and wife”. According to Butler, it is only in and through citing linguistic conventionality, which implies authority, that a speech act is successful: If a performative provisionally succeeds (and I will suggest that ‘success’ is always and only provisional), then it is not because an intention successfully governs the action of speech, but only because that action echoes prior actions, and accumulates the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior and authoritative set of practices (Butler 1997a: 51).

By pointing to the provisionality of success, Butler once again brings temporality into play. On the one hand, speech acts call up the past: we enter into a discourse and, in order to be understood, use – consciously or unconsciously – its conventionality as an authority. On the other, speech acts are open to the future, since it is precisely because we cite that change occurs. Every repetition means deviations. Repetition shifts the convention invoked and its semantic meaning, which cannot be fixed permanently and immutably, since “terms are not … to be regarded as having a pure meaning that might be distilled from their various usages” (Butler 1997a: 161). This openness is important for Butler,


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

as it means that such unambiguity should also not be produced: “The violence of language consists in its effort to capture the ineffable and, hence, to destroy it, to seize hold of that which must remain elusive for language to operate as a living thing” (Butler 1997a: 9). In contrast, the semantic openness of terms (which is not to be confused with their arbitrariness) ensures ambiguity, which can protect against total unambiguity and thus against ideology, which is always unambiguous. Performativity is thus for Butler a power that can produce social reality. At the same time, however, the fact that “speech is a kind of act does not necessarily mean that it does what it says” (Butler 1997a: 102). Performativity, norms, and the subject are therefore inseparable in Butler’s work. 2

Gender, Norms, and Subject

As is often the case with Butler, how she deals with the subject shows a process in which views are elaborated, sharpened, or (partially) withdrawn (see Joas/ Knöbl 2013: 627; Meissner 2010: 20). This already suggests that the portrayal of Butler’s analysis of the subject is not an easy matter, especially as it touches on one of the most prominent and most criticized foundations of her theory. In order to make this complex theme accessible, this subchapter aims on the one hand to comprehend Butler’s critique of (conventional) understandings of the subject, while on the other examining how her own understanding gradually begins to emerge from within this critique. Since Butler’s early work is based on the idea of a subject produced through norms, I do so by investigating the connection between norm and subject (formation). I will first of all clarify Butler’s concept of norms, and then define the framework for her critique of the subject in order to understand what Butler’s questions are directed against or at. This will then allow us to approach Butler’s gender theory in two steps. First, I will examine the link between subjectivation and gender norms, a link that Butler developed above all in Gender Trouble. As a response to the sometimes vehement criticism of these early ideas, Butler presented further explanations in Bodies That Matter. Since it can help to dispel misunderstandings of Butler’s gender theory, I will also deal in a second step with Butler’s response to the criticism. Once it has become apparent that Butler understands the subject as something essentially shaped by (gender) norms, the possibility comes into view of resisting the effects of norms. Butler takes up this theme of resistance again in Excitable Speech, which shows the early signs of her shift from gender theory to a general philosophy of language, and an increasingly clear engagement with the theme of recognition.

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


Butler’s Concept of Norms Drawing on her performative approach, Butler also understands subjects as being generated through normative discourse. For her, language is the place and mode for the subject to attain social existence (see Villa 2010: 412). The subject in Butler’s theory is a linguistic form; it denotes a linguistic phenomenon through which persons become intelligible through the repetition of norms i.e., they become linguistically tangible and thus addressable individuals with identity. When Butler speaks of norms, she means social norms – or, better, a dominant cultural framework of interpretation, one that is created by a web of norms and categories, and that exerts regulating effects on social reality (see Redecker 2011: 58). Butler herself writes: A norm is not the same as a rule, and it is not the same as a law. A norm operates within social practices as the implicit standard of normalization… . The norm governs the social intelligibility of action, but it is not the same as the action that it governs. The norm seems to be indifferent to the actions that it governs (Butler 2004c: 41-42).

Framework for Butler’s Critique of the Subject Some reactions to Butler give the impression that her critique of a humanistic understanding of the subject is only negative and indeed leads to the abandonment of the subject (see Balzer 2014: 427; Benhabib et al. 1995; Meissner 2010: 22). Butler does indeed adopt a critical position towards the subject when she conceives of the subject as always already socially constituted, and she rejects the idea that the subject has a pre-societal and individual core (see Meissner 2010: 22). But my preliminary remarks on Butler have already suggested that her approach does not intend to destroy the object of her critique. Her critique is not only negative; rather, Butler is concerned with forging a new way of thinking about the issue. She begins with a critique of the theories of the subject that demand too much from it and thereby overtax it structurally (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 86). First, she considers approaches to be dangerous that demand perfect authenticity and sovereignty from the subject. Second, she sees that many ethical theories do not sufficiently consider essential aspects of moral subjectivation, which she sees as a structural deficit of the theories (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 86). Nevertheless, says Butler, “we cannot entirely do without a theory of the subject” (2008b: 1303*). Her critique is therefore also directed not against thinking about the subject per se, but against the humanistic idea of the self-identical subject. For Butler, the subject is not a substance; it has no ultimate origin, and possesses no supra-historical truth. Rather, it is something that emerges from processes of meaning attribution within an open system of discursive possibilities (see Meissner 2010: 22).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Butler’s critique is therefore directed primarily against the discourse that has produced the autonomous, self-identical subject of Western modernity and the associated bio-logic of sex, gender and sexuality (see Butler 1999b: 22; Meissner 2010: 23). In contrast, Butler seeks to expose the notion of the autonomous subject as a historical phenomenon that has problematic effects (see Meissner 2010: 24). She therefore focuses her investigation on the conditions under which the humanistic, Western notion of the autonomous and selfidentical subject with the capacity to act could emerge, and the consequences of understanding the subject in this way. This already shows that her interest is not purely negative, since it is precisely by addressing these issues that Butler takes the reality and potency of the subject seriously (see Meissner 2010: 22). From this, we can identify four central principles in Butler’s engagement with the subject. First, it becomes clear that Butler is located within the tradition of a feminist critique of the autonomous bourgeois subject. We must of course take into account here the heterogeneity of this tradition, and the fact that not all its adherents share Butler’s positions (which are often interpreted as radical) (see Riedl 2016: 144-146). Second, her prior object of intellectual interest is clear, with Butler exploring the mechanisms that produce a certain idea of the subject, an idea that then becomes a lived reality (see Villa 2003: 43). Third, by pointing out that her line of reasoning is directed against the modern discourse on the subject, Butler locates her critique historically and contextually. Thus, she is concerned not with the task of the subject, and nor (as she is often accused of being) with seeing everything as only an effect of power and structures. Rather, she is concerned with adopting a sensitive approach, one that does not overburden the subject with the impossible demand that it possess autonomy and identity. If Butler’s approach were not historical and contextual, then she would indeed run the risk of advocating a universalism of effects. The fact that this very criticism is made again and again may be due to the fact that some critics do not see the contextual and historical thrust of Butler’s approach. Although Butler makes this clear in her more recent work, it is only implicit in her early texts (see Meissner 2010: 22-23). Butler is also accused of failing to mention that there are a number of modern concepts of the subject and therefore of constructing opposites (see Fraser 1995: 65-72; Villa 2003: 44). Fourth, this shows once again Butler’s typical way of working: fundamentally questioning something does not mean completely rejecting it as an error. On the contrary, it is a matter of perceiving and taking seriously the ambivalences uncovered: for Butler, the autonomous subject is both a construction and a highly effective reality (see Meissner 2010: 21).

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


Subjectivation and Gender Norms It is important to read and understand Butler’s engagement with the subject against the background of her engagement with the issue of gender, since her thesis that the subject is produced performatively is something that she develops in her early work on gender binarism. This does not mean that Butler’s theory of performativity cannot be applied to other themes. The fact that Butler chooses gender binarism is because she conceives of it as a central category in the modern production of the subject (see Hauskeller 2000: 36). The understanding of gender affiliation has an immense significance in daily life. There is hardly any area of existence that is not affected by the male/female classification. However, and contrary to all accusations, Butler is not concerned with overcoming every notion of gender or body. Rather, her concern is first of all to show in a descriptive manner how gender binarism determines discourse and thus social reality. Even before the birth of a child, for example, the statement ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’ invokes a vast number of cultural connotations and expectations that influence how the child is then addressed, that give it an identity, and that provide it with templates for self-understanding (see Redecker 2011: 72). “[T]he medical interpellation which … shifts an infant from an ‘it’ to a ‘she’ or a ‘he’; and in that naming the girl is ‘girled’, brought into the domain of language and kinship through the interpellation of gender” (Butler 1993: 7). This act of interpellation does not occur only once, but is constantly repeated throughout life and thus becomes solidified, thereby creating a naturalizing effect. For Butler, this interpellation through which the child is assigned a gender identity with all its expectations derives from a gender system that is shaped by a certain ideal, which (put very simply) is that men are male, and women are female. In other words, depending on the physical gender traits, a social role is ascribed that may vary according to cultural context, but that usually entails certain interests and behavior, such as the desire for the opposite sex. The gender classification or assignment thus imposes unambiguity. Butler speaks of intelligibility, by which she means the possibility of being recognized and understood (see Butler 1999b: 23). This already points to what we will encounter again in her ethical reflections: namely, the fundamental importance of recognition, but also the possibility that recognition can fail. The adoption of gender norms sets off a process of subjectivation; this is a process “not, strictly speaking, undergone by a subject”, but rather one through which “the subject, the speaking ‘I’ is formed” (Butler 1993: 3).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Butler’s Response to Criticism of Her Gender Theory As has hopefully already become clear, gender is in Butler’s work not something negative. On the contrary, where they conform to the norms of gender binarism, gender and the expectations attached to it allow for interpellation and thereby bestow identity. Butler writes: “‘Sex’ … will be one of the norms by which the ‘one’ becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility” (1993: 2). Nevertheless, Gender Trouble in particular has been subjected to two main accusations or (mis)interpretations. The first is that Butler pleads for the freedom to choose one’s gender like an item of clothing that one puts on, and the second is that she negates the significance of the body (see Balzer 2014: 421-424; Redecker 2011: 66). Butler attempts to counter both accusations by sharpening her concept of performativity in Bodies That Matter, which is intended to clarify once more the role of norms. To do so, she works with the thesis that the physically gendered body can be described as a performative effect (see Redecker 2011: 66). One does not have to share the dissolution of the separation of sex and gender that this entails, but, even where this dissolution can be criticized, it is important to understand it correctly in the context of Butler’s theory. Butler claims that the ideal of gender binarism is so deeply rooted culturally that all people are automatically assigned to one of the two sexes on the basis of anatomical and other characteristics – despite the fact that these seemingly natural characteristics are not always clear. In other words, an apparently unambiguous naturalness is used without questioning whether the perception of nature has not already been culturally transformed, possibly to such an extent that it is no longer possible to fall back on a ‘pure’ nature because it has already been transformed by a symbolic order (see Butler 1999b: 11; Dungs 2006: 237). She also sees in the separation of sex and gender an “uncritical reproduction of the Cartesian distinction between freedom and the body” that leads to the maintenance of “the mind/body dualism” (Butler 1990:17). For Butler, “to claim that sexual differences are indissociable from discursive demarcations is not the same as claiming that discourse causes sexual difference” (Butler 1993: 1). The fact that Butler deems the complete distinction between sex and gender to be untenable does not mean that she denies the existence of physical gender characteristics. Rather, she is concerned with how the existence of such characteristics is captured discursively (see Redecker 2011: 68). Butler herself argues: “To claim that discourse is formative is not to claim that it originates, causes, or exhaustively composes that which it concedes; rather, it is to claim that there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (1993: 10).

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


Butler therefore also rejects a linguistic idealism, since bodies are not perfectly or exhaustively constituted by language. She makes this clear in later texts: “I confess … that I am not a very good materialist. Every time I try to write about the body, the writing ends up being about language. That is not because I think that the body is reducible to language; it is not” (2004c: 198). The difficulty of the debate, writes Butler, lies in “determining where the biological, the psychic, the discursive, the social begin and end” (2004c: 185), because “sexual difference has psychic, somatic, and social dimensions that are never quite collapsible into one another but are not for that reason ultimately distinct” (Butler 2004c: 186).15 The same applies to body and gender, then, as to the example of viruses mentioned in the previous chapter: they may exist independently of discourse, but the act of referring to them is always already embedded in discourse. Talk about bodies is so indissolubly embedded in discourse that no one can refer to a pure, original body. The related thesis that we also bring the body into being through performativity becomes clearer if we take a less highly charged issue than that of gender, e.g. how discourses on ideals of ‘slimness’ or ‘fitness’ influence the body and even alter physical characteristics (see Redecker 2011: 71-72). The materializing effect of discourses makes clear once again the role of norms, and why in Butler’s thinking gender cannot be changed at will like a piece of clothing. Norms form the subject, for which they are both a prerequisite and a limitation, and they do so in a process of constant repetition. Identity is thus not a free decision that is made from day to day, but arises because norms have an early, inevitable and repeated effect on a life, and must be cited, regardless of whether they are wanted or not (see Redecker 2011: 71). This ineluctability of norms is not to be understood in an essentialist way; it is not a biological or ahistorical, but rather a historical and social, a priori (see Meyer 2001: 126-127). Resisting the Effects of Norms The effect of norms becomes problematic when classification fails. Any behavior and any desire that does not correspond to the ideal can lead to a precarious status, because it cannot be classified in the prevailing discourse and cannot therefore ultimately be deemed intelligible, i.e. comprehensible. This 15

Butler clarified this point in an interview from 2013*: “You know, I’m not crazy. I’m not denying that there are biological differences between the sexes. But when we say that they exist, we also need to define precisely what they consist in, and then we are entangled in cultural interpretation”.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

touches on the issue of recognition, since persons who do not meet the criteria are not recognizable and thus appear only partially in the discourse or are omitted from it completely. Norms then have an excluding character, and their power turns into violence (which also shows that power and violence are not the same in Butler’s work). The more powerful the regulating system of norms, the more difficult it is to resist it. At the same time, this increases both the danger that the system will be experienced as violent, and the desire to resist it. Butler’s analysis thus apparently leads to a dilemma (see Redecker 2011: 59-62). One solution would be to attempt to escape norms altogether, which Butler herself considers illusory; and even abolishing most norms is not necessarily expedient, given their function of bestowing identity. After all, we are not only “[s]ubjected to gender”, but also “subjectivated by gender” (Butler 1993: 7). Butler tries to circumvent this dilemma by drawing on Foucault and his productive concept of power. According to Foucault, power is omnipresent, and there is no place beyond power. On this basis, Butler confronts those (psychoanalytical and structuralist) approaches which, in her opinion, proceed from a juridical and therefore too monolithic understanding of power. Butler rejects the approach of the juridical model that the law remains unaffected by how (and whether) it is fulfilled. Her deconstructive approach (for example, to Freud, Levi-Strauss and Lacan) always aims to expose the historicity and therefore mutability of the rules and laws that such thinkers seek to make absolute (e.g. Freud’s Oedipus complex) (see Redecker 2011: 60). In drawing on Foucault’s understanding of power, however, she also takes a stand against those (feminist) theories that hold on to the fiction that there is a place beyond power. For Butler, such theories do not take the omnipresence and thus ultimately the power of power seriously enough. Butler is concerned with the expansion of possibilities within a given power system, and thus not with the reconquest of any original freedom. She does not start from the outside, but seeks possibilities of resistance in the inner ruptures and contradictions of the system of power (see Redecker 2011: 60). It is therefore not a matter of abolishing norms or of establishing other, good norms to replace the bad ones. Since norms always have a constitutive and excluding effect, they are not suitable as a positive reference point for emancipatory efforts. Instead, social critique should start with the incoherence and the areas of the inexpressible constituted by the symbolic order (see Meissner 2010: 19). This possibility of resistance lies (to simplify Butler considerably) in the shifting of the meaning of norms, which is done by repeatedly imitating a normative ideal. Here, Butler alludes to the difference between original and copy: however good the copy may be, it will never be, for all its successful imitation, the original, but instead marks a difference (see Villa 2003: 33-34).

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


In constant repetition, the shifting element of this repetition can be used subversively – for example, by citing the norms differently than expected, i.e. transversely to the prevailing ideas. The existing norms can thereby be called into question. What remains problematic is that Butler conceives of this resistance without a prior subject: The coexistence or convergence of such discursive injunctions produces the possibility of a complex reconfiguration and redeployment; it is not a transcendental subject who enables action in the midst of such a convergence. There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains ‘integrity’ prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there (Butler 1999b: 185).

This raises the question of how this resistance conceived by Butler is to come about, since she renounces precisely that transcendental subject that controls the shifts and precedes the norms. The actual interaction between ideal and instantiation remains just as unclear as the origin of the motivation that leads someone to take up and subversively apply norms, or not (see Redecker 2011: 81). Philosophy of Language: Vulnerability, and Resistance through Language In Gender Trouble and especially in Bodies That Matter, Butler develops the theme of resistance in terms of complex psychoanalytical theories and with the help of the motif of expropriation. This approach becomes clearer with Excitable Speech. In her texts on gender and the body, Butler had mainly investigated the power of social norms for the constitution of the subject, which she saw essentially in the effect of repetition and imitation. But she now focuses on language, and especially in its violent and injurious form. After analytical philosophy and especially discourse ethics claimed that communicative action is based on a reasonable exchange of reasons and that language, according to its telos, opposes violence, Butler thus brought (back) the issue of linguistic violence into the philosophical context and initiated a broad discussion (see Kuch/Herrmann 2010: 13-14). Butler’s shift from dealing with gender to exploring a general level of the philosophy of language enables her to sharpen her concept of performativity further. At the same time, the idea of using tools and of expropriation becomes clearer, since language is always already a common good. For Butler, concepts are “not property; they assume a life and a purpose for which they were never invented” (Butler 1997a: 161). Language thus precedes the subject and is


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

therefore precisely a tool that can be taken up for the purposes of resistance. It is suitable for all of this because its ambiguity offers the chance for change. Such a change can, for example, be a reinterpretation in which a statement initially intended as an insult is taken up by the person or group concerned and transformed into a positive self-description (see Butler 1993: 233; 2004a: 352).16 Butler’s idea here is more than simply giving a new meaning to insults. It is about openness to the future and safeguarding this openness: The razor-thin difference between a ‘merely accidental’ change through never quite identical repetitions of the existing on the one hand, and resistant acts on the other is then measured by the fact that the latter specifically appear as expropriatory appropriation, … in countless … subversive forms that thwart the normative order and destabilize it in the name of a future of richer possibilities (Redecker 2011: 85*).

For Butler, the opportunity to exploit the necessary repetition of norms subversively and thus achieve shifts in meaning is embedded in a much larger project (which only just began to emerge in her early work) of enabling freedom. Resistance, as is already evident here, begins with finding out why certain subjects are visible and why others are omitted from discourse. By working on this borderline of visible and invisible, of livable and non-livable, of recognized and non-recognized, Butler remains true to her phenomenological origins.17 She proceeds deconstructively so that certain phenomena become possible (again) where normative assumptions cloud the view (see Redecker 2011: 74). Her aim is to make visible again those who have so far fallen out of discourse, to bring them back to life. The theoretical issue of recognition becomes obvious in her work with Excitable Speech at the latest, and with her engagement with Althusser’s scene of interpellation, which Butler (1997a: 25) describes as an “act of recognition”. Althusser describes how a policeman (as a representative of state power) calls to a passer-by on the street. By turning around, the passer-by recognizes himself as the person addressed and becomes a (citizen) subject (see Althusser 2014: 190). Only that which can be addressed, and named becomes part of social reality and is thereby given the opportunity to be recognized (see Redecker 2011: 76). 16 17

An example of such a reinterpretation is the term ‘Kanak’, originally an insult to Turks that Turkish youths in Berlin use as a self-description after their football teams have won (see Redecker 2011: 83). But a different perspective is taken by Coole 2008.

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


Butler once again interweaves the concepts of subject and performativity when she asks regarding the injurious effect of words: “Is our vulnerability to language a consequence of our being constituted within its terms?” (1997a: 2) Her depiction of injury therefore mixes linguistic and physical phenomena in three ways. First, she describes the physical effects that an injurious address can have (such as physical symptoms triggered by bullying) (see Butler 1997a: 4). Second, she shows how, in order to describe injuries caused by language, we always rely on a vocabulary of physical wounding (see Butler 1997a: 4-5). Third, it is always bodies that turn towards each other in the act of speech. This makes clear that we are virtually physically dependent on language. Like its name, the subject also receives all other formative meanings from outside (see Redecker 2011: 76-77). Butler claims: One ‘exists’ not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable. The terms that facilitate recognition are themselves conventional, the effects and instruments of a social ritual that decide, often through exclusion and violence, the linguistic conditions of survivable subjects (Butler 1997a: 5).

The source of this violence lies neither in the intention of the speaker and nor in the words themselves (even if both play a role in the specific injury), but in the process of subjectivation, in the performative constitution of the subject, which extends into the subject’s very corporeality and which makes it so vulnerable to violation by language. For, [l]anguage sustains the body not by bringing it into being or feeding it in a literal way; rather, it is being interpellated within the terms of language that a certain social existence of the body first becomes possible … the address constitutes a being within the possible circuit of recognition (Butler 1997a: 5).

We can draw an initial conclusion here: the advantage of taking a performative perspective on knowledge is first of all the focus on linguistic-symbolic structures and how they generate subjectivity. By starting out from the discursive production of the subject, Butler attains a potential for change, reorientation, and creation. For, if one accepts her claim, then it means that a different discourse could also produce a different subject. If the subject cannot be determined ontologically, but only discursively, if it encounters itself ‘itself’, so to speak, always only as a detour of the citation, then subject and self-identity can never be complete. For, every subject is in the middle of changing and within mutually contradictory and fragmentary discourse formations (Villa 2003: 45*).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Butler thus opens up the possibility of historicizing the subject (see Meissner 2010: 24). This historicization then enables criticism of an understanding of subjects as autonomous and ontological entities. Butler herself calls this theoretical work on the subject an anti-fundamentalist method (see 1993b: 37), by which she means a critique of the founding delusion of contemporary theories and their notions such as “reason, the subject, authenticity, universality, the progressive view of history” (Butler 1997c: 27*). Butler, on the other hand, seeks to free categories from being fixed to only one meaning or reading, to deontologize them, and to prevent their totalization through definition. She is concerned with protecting categories from final definition, expanding the possibilities of what a subject can be or become, and showing that these possibilities are potentially never complete (see Villa 2003: 43-44). With her performative approach to subject constitution, Butler can describe how the ritualized repetition of social norms over time produces identity, and that the subject is constituted discursively. What she always emphasizes here is that “to be constituted by discourse [does not mean] to be determined by discourse” (Butler 1990: 182). Precisely this distinction, however, remains unclear, since we do not know why subjects enter the process of subjection to norms, how they nevertheless remain actors, and where the point of entry of this process lies. Why is the subject receptive to the norms, and how does a subject emerge in contact with the norms as an entity that is not fundamentally determined? (see Redecker 2011: 87) These questions are addressed in the next subchapter. 3

Subjectivation as ‘Subjection’

We have seen that, despite the potential for change and the advantage of historicization, some desiderata remain in Butler’s early work. What remains open is above all the question of how to conceive of the ambivalence of ‘constituted by power’ on the one hand, and ‘resistant to power’ on the other. This subchapter aims to show how Butler takes up this question in her theoretical investigation of the subject in The Psychic Life of Power and Antigone’s Claim. There are two main goals that she pursues and which I will focus on here. First, she seeks to work through the process of subjectivation, i.e. how norms and subject come into contact for the first time, how power enters the interior of the subject, how the social becomes anchored in the psyche (see Bublitz 2002: 20), and how the subject emerges. Second, and this goal clearly exceeds the first, she is concerned with clarifying how the power that is nested within the subject becomes the subject’s very capacity to act (see Hauskeller 2000: 54), i.e.

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


why subjection and the capacity to act need not be a contradiction in terms, and why resistance to power is therefore certainly possible. In order to explore the process of subjectivation (as Butler understands it), we shall first look at the figure of the trope, which she uses to shed light on how the subject emerges in the process of interpellation and (re)turning to power. In addition, Butler claims that there are two preconditions of subjectivation: namely, (1) the desire to exist, and (2) an already existing matrix of norms and ideas of identity. On the basis of these two preconditions, she explains how it is only with the emergence of the subject that a distinction is made between inside and outside, and thus also between psychological and social. This idea is based on the Freudian separation of repression and foreclosure (“Verwerfung”) (see Butler 1997b: 23), which can also be assigned to the preconditions. The conclusion of this first block is Butler’s examination of melancholy, which is an expression of what a subject, but also a society, has repressed, and Butler thus aims to investigate what the consequences are of these unconscious losses. The motif of melancholy already suggests the second thematic block of this subchapter: namely, the question of resistance to power. Here, I will show first of all that Butler sees not only losses in the subject, but also potentiality. From this fundamental capacity of the subject to transgress (but not completely detach itself from) the matrix of norms, Butler develops the idea of resistance through entanglement. It is above all in her work on the Antigone myth in Antigone’s Claim that she defines this idea more precisely and clarifies it as being structural resistance, as work on the conceptual framework. Before exploring the two thematic blocks, I shall first begin by describing the shift that takes place here, one that can be simplified as a shift from gender theory to a theory of the subject. From Gender Theory to a Theory of the Subject Firmly rooted in discourse theory, Butler’s early work leaves open the question of the why of norm citation and the psychological mechanisms of this citation. She does not provide a complete picture of how subject and power first come into contact, and why this contact is not a matter either of determination or of a prior subject being necessary (see Redecker 2011: 94). Picking up on these desiderata, Butler makes a clear shift in her thematic focus, a shift that already begins in Excitable Speech and her turn to the philosophy of language. Although Butler clearly draws on Foucault’s theoretical work on power and the subject in The Psychic Life of Power and Antigone’s Claim, she no longer uses this work primarily for the theme of gender and body, but instead focuses on the subject and its emergence (see Balzer 2014: 429). Whereas previously she had focused primarily on how power affects the subject from the outside, she


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

is now concerned with how power works within the subject and produces it. In doing so, she remains true to her performative understanding of the subject as a linguistic form: “The subject is the linguistic occasion for the individual to achieve and reproduce intelligibility, the linguistic condition of its existence and agency” (Butler 1997b: 11). This statement shows firstly that subject in Butler’s work is not synonymous with person or individual. Secondly, that Butler is concerned with the possibilities and limits of knowledge, with the term’s history of meaning and its mechanisms of action. And, thirdly, that she emphasizes the idea of performativity, which she uses to oppose both essentialist and structurally deterministic conceptions. Identity is also acquired in the process of discourse. Subjects do not precede the performative processes as beings with certain characteristics, but rather become subjects in relation to a preceding social order. A coherent identity is not a characteristic of personality, but the normative prerequisite for being addressable and recognizable (see Meissner 2010: 24). This also explains Butler’s focus when she intervenes in the discussion about the subject: The notion of the subject has incited controversy within recent theoretical debate, being promoted by some as a necessary precondition of agency and reviled by others as a sign of ‘mastery’ to be refused. My purpose is neither to enumerate nor to resolve the contemporary instances of this debate. Rather, I propose to take account of how a paradox recurrently structures the debate, leading it almost always to culminate in displays of ambivalence. How can it be that the subject, taken to be the condition for and an instrument of agency, is at the same time the effect of subordination, understood as the deprivation of agency? If subordination is the condition of possibility for agency, how might agency be thought in opposition to the forces of subordination? (Butler 1997b: 10)

The Process of Subjectivation Foucault’s theory and productive concept of power again plays an important role in Butler’s work on subjectivation. Like Foucault, Butler understands “power as forming the subject, as well as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire … power is not simply what we oppose but also, in a strong sense, what we depend on for our existence” (Butler 1997b: 2). Butler defines the process of subjectivation under the keyword subjection, which “signifies the process of becoming subordinated by power as well as the process of becoming a subject” (Butler 1997b: 2). It is precisely this double aspect of subordination and becoming that marks a decisive point for Butler: “Subjection consists precisely in this fundamental dependency on a discourse

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


we never chose but that, paradoxically, initiates and sustains our agency” (Butler 1997b: 2). According to Butler, while Foucault identifies the ambivalence in this formulation, he does not elaborate on the specific mechanism of how the subject is formed in submission. Not only does the entire domain of the psyche remain largely unremarked in his theory, but power in this double valence of subordinating and producing remains unexplored (Butler 1997b: 2).

Butler seeks to take Foucault’s theory further at this point, and she does so in dialogue with a theory of the psyche: I am in part moving toward a psychoanalytic criticism of Foucault, for I think that one cannot account for subjectivation and, in particular, becoming the principle of one’s own subjection without recourse to a psychoanalytic account of the formative or generative effects of restriction or prohibition … Yet as I elaborate this critique, some romanticized notions of the unconscious defined as necessary resistance will come under critical scrutiny, and that criticism will entail the reemergence of a Foucauldian perspective within psychoanalysis (Butler 1997b: 87).

This demonstrates that Butler is concerned neither with simply adopting Foucault’s positions nor engaging solely with psychoanalysis. Nor is her goal to create a grand synthesis (see Butler 1997b: 3). Rather, her aim is a psychoanalytic reading of Foucault that deals critically with both Foucault and psychoanalysis. Butler thus deliberately discusses what are actually two contradictory approaches. As in previous texts, she needs Foucault in order to set his productive concept of power against the juridical power model of psychoanalysis, and thus “to prove that psychic life, even if it followed its own logic, can neither be understood in isolation from its social regulation, and nor does it have a reservoir of pre-social, unrestrained motives and drives in the unconscious” (Redecker 2011: 93*). The fact that, despite this criticism, she nevertheless draws on psychoanalysis (especially on Freud and Lacan) is due to a deficit in the theory of power and discourse: namely, that it does not explain the psychological aspects of subject constitution. Butler, though, wants to discover what the link is like between power and psyche if power is a condition of subjectivation and not just something that we ward off (see Dungs 2006: 238). The Figure of the Trope Butler claims that the form of power “is relentlessly marked by a figure of turning, a turning back upon oneself or even a turning on oneself” (Butler 1997b: 3). The problem with the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy idea of the formation of the subject from the synthesis of externally operating power and internal psychic structure that turns back upon itself is that there is actually no subject that makes this turn, since the turn made by the subject also functions as the founding moment of the subject (Dungs 2006: 239*).

Butler nonetheless holds on to the figure of the turn (she also speaks of trope) in order to illuminate the paradox of subjectivation. The trope is a rhetorical stylistic device in which an expression is replaced by a related, pictorial, but not synonymous, term. “This figure operates as part of the explanation of how a subject is produced, and so there is no subject, strictly speaking, who makes this turn. On the contrary, the turn appears to function as a tropological inauguration of the subject, a founding moment whose ontological status remains permanently uncertain” (Butler 1997b: 3-4). The task of the trope is not primarily to explain the process of subjectivation. The moment we seek to determine how power produces its subject, how the subject takes in the power by which it is inaugurated, we seem to enter this tropological quandary. We cannot presume a subject who performs an internalization if the formation of the subject is in need of explanation. The figure to which we refer has not yet acquired existence and is not part of a verifiable explanation, yet our reference continues to make a certain kind of sense. The paradox of subjection implies a paradox of referentiality: namely, that we must refer to what does not yet exist. Through a figure that marks the suspension of our ontological commitments, we seek to account for how the subject comes to be. That this figure is itself a ‘turn’ is, rhetorically, perfomatively spectacular (Butler 1997b: 4).

In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler then investigates theories of the subject that also work with the figure of a turn. An initial explanation of how external power, such as regulation, enters consciousness and becomes psychological can be found in Hegel: “The master, who at first appears to be ‘external’ to the slave, reemerges as the slave’s own conscience. The unhappiness of the consciousness that emerges is its own self-beratement, the effect of the transmutation of the master into psychic reality” (Butler 1997b: 3). In Nietzsche, Freud and Althusser, too, “the power that at first appears as external, pressed upon the subject, pressing the subject into subordination, assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity” (Butler 1997b: 3). Butler’s criticism, which is directed above all at the Althusserian call of the policeman, is that this is a punitive interpellation carried out in the name of the law (see Butler 1997b 106), which would imply that power is dependent on a prior sense of guilt on the part of its subjects, who otherwise would have no reason to turn around (as the subject in Althusser’s narrative does in

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


response to being addressed by power) (see Butler 1997b: 5; Redecker 2011: 96). For Butler, none of the theories that she deals with can really ultimately explain how the very first … turn against itself comes about. Conscience, which appeared to be a promising candidate  … coincides with subjectivity. Thus, the decisive phenomenon, the passionate attachment with which the subject approaches power, cannot be explained by recourse to so-called conscience, but rather precedes it (Redecker 2011: 96*; see Butler 1997b: 5-6).

This, however, leaves unanswered a central question behind this paradox and in The Psychic Life of Power: “What, prior to the subject, accounts for its formation?” (Butler 1997b: 117) And Butler concedes that: “The double aspect of subjection appears to lead to a vicious circle” (1997b: 12). Nevertheless, she does not relinquish the idea of the precedence of power, and even, like Foucault, emphasizes it: “The story by which subjection is told is, inevitably, circular, presupposing the very subject for which it seeks to give an account”. For, “[i]n the act of opposing subordination, the subject reiterates its subjection” (Butler 1997b: 11). Butler denies, however, that this is a vicious circle, and uses the authors that she has dealt with to begin to think beyond it: the subject is indeed subordinated by power, but power is also the condition of its possibility. It is precisely the seemingly indissoluble paradox of subordination and subjectivation that Butler addresses. She embarks on the complicated search for an explanation of subjectivation in the “turns of psychic life. More specifically … in the peculiar turning of a subject against itself that takes place in acts of self-reproach, conscience, and melancholia that work in tandem with processes of social regulation” (Butler 1997b: 18-20). The First Precondition of Subjectivation: the Desire to Exist For Butler, one precondition for becoming a subject is the desire to exist. Drawing on Spinoza, she also speaks of striving to persist in one’s own being (see Butler 1997b: 27-28; 62).18 This desire, which is psychic in nature, is the cause of the passionate attachment to power, since, in order to exist, subjects must surrender themselves to power.


While Butler’s engagement with Hegel, Foucault and Levinas, for example, has been relatively widely discussed in secondary literature, her borrowings from Spinoza, which appear in several texts, have received little attention. That Spinoza is more important for her thinking than it may appear is particularly evident in her essay The Desire to Life: Spinoza’s ethics under pressure (Butler 2006a).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy The Foucauldian postulation of subjection as the simultaneous subordination and forming of the subject assumes a specific psychoanalytic valence when we consider that no subject emerges without a passionate attachment to those on whom he or she is fundamentally dependent (Butler 1997b: 7).

Desire leads to subjects being at the mercy of and dependent on others. This is not a conscious act, but the condition of existence. Butler always emphasizes, that “[t]he fact that the identity of the subject is based on its passionate devotion to prior norms does not make it an accomplice or even responsible for its possible oppression. The attachment to possibly deforming and hurtful conditions does not reveal any fundamental masochism (as Nussbaum, for example, insinuates)” (Redecker 2011: 100*; see Butler 1997b: 6). However, this leaves the subject powerless and vulnerable. “Even the most injurious and dismissive norm or gesture can become for Butler’s subject the longed-for guarantor of existence and the occasion for subjection; one prefers to be in a degrading designation than beyond all address” (Redecker 2011: 97*). Butler illustrates this by pointing to a child’s love, which is prior to judgment and decision; a child tended and nourished in a ‘good enough’ way will love, and only later stand a chance of discriminating among those he or she loves. This is to say, not that the child loves blindly (since from early on there is discernment and ‘knowingness’ of an important kind), but only that if the child is to persist in a psychic and social sense, there must be dependency and the formation of attachment: there is no possibility of not loving, where love is bound up with the requirements of life (Butler 1997b: 8).

It becomes clear that in this love, in this existential attachment (Butler deliberately avoids speaking here of a striving for recognition), there is a certain indiscriminateness. But it is precisely for this reason that no “subject, in the course of its formation, can ever afford fully to ‘see’ it” (Butler 1997b: 8) – where ‘see’ is to be read here in the sense of ‘keeping present’. This is why the process of subjectivation entails the repression of dependency; it is only by denying it that a subject understood as autonomous can emerge at all. Butler speaks of the “ambivalence at the site where the subject emerges. If the effect of autonomy is conditioned by subordination and that founding subordination or dependency is rigorously repressed, the subject emerges in tandem with the unconscious” (Butler 1997b: 7). The subject is thus produced by an exclusion. “This attachment in its primary forms must both come to be and be denied, its coming to be must consist in its partial denial, fort he subject to emerge” (Butler 1997b: 8). This exclusion is the first turn against itself, and is characteristic of all further turns that follow. This becomes clearer against the background of seeing childhood not only

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


as a period of life, but as a continuing aspect of the self (see Butler/Rosenberg 2007: 384). Subjectivation is not a one-off act, but a continuous process of repetition. Through the desire for existence, the ‘I’ is dependent on others. In order for others to allow the subject to preserve itself and to partake, it must become recognizable, which is the reason that subordination occurs. Only in repressing this dependency on the previous power does the subject emerge. The repressed, excluded desire is nonetheless active in the unconscious. “The traumatic repetition of what has been foreclosed from contemporary life threatens the ‘I’” (Butler 1997b: 9), for which reason “the subject stands as a bar to that desire” (Butler 1997b: 9). In order to exist, the subject must turn against its own desire, because, in order to be recognizable, it must not remain in being, but must desire identity through norms. In this logic, it must thwart its desire and instead “desire the conditions of its own subordination in order to emerge as a subject” (Dungs 2006: 240*; see Butler 1997b: 9) and be able to exist. The Second Precondition of Subjectivation: Matrix of Norms and Ideas of Identity The second precondition of becoming a subject has already been mentioned several times. For, the desire to exist takes place in the social space and thus always encounters an existing matrix of norms and ideas of identity: The desire to persist in one’s own being requires submitting to a world of others that is fundamentally not one’s own … Only by persisting in alterity does one persist one’s ‘own’ being. Vulnerable to terms that one never made, one persists always, to some degree, through categories, names, terms, and classifications that mark a primary and inaugurative alienation in sociality (Butler 1997b: 28).

When the subject desires the conditions of its own subordination, then this is a process in which already existing social norms are perpetuated psychologically. It is the fabrication of conscience as the effect of an internalized prohibition Conscience is the means by which a subject becomes an object for itself, reflecting on itself, establishing itself as reflective and reflexive…. In order to curb desire, one makes of oneself an object of reflection; in the course of producing one’s own alterity, one becomes established as a reflexive being  … Reflexivity becomes the means by which desire is regularly transmuted into the circuit of self-reflection (Butler 1997b: 22).

Thus, the desire to exist offers “a more insidious route for regulatory power than explicit coercion” (Butler 1997b: 21), for it is from this desire that results the susceptibility to subordination. It is something like the key to the door for power.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Because the ‘I’ is dependent on others, relationships and sociality in order to live, to survive, it is at the mercy of others and existing norms. If the subject wants to be recognized, then it must describe itself within the norms and with the terms of the existing discourse (see Butler 1997b: 21). But this discourse excludes some things from the outset as a social taboo. What is excluded here differs from the exclusion described above, which consisted in the suppression of dependence. If the desire for existence was about “a) an attachment that is subsequently disavowed” (Butler 1997b: 24), then it is now about “b) a foreclosure that structures the forms that any attachment may assume” (Butler 1997b: 24). The social matrix not only sanctions desire, but does not even allow certain forms of desire to be present as ideas. It regulates to whom desire can be directed in the first place, and what is impossible from the outset. This can be the other, as Butler emphasizes, but also “an ideal, a country, a concept of liberty” (1997b: 196). But what is rejected is barred to the subject. An infinite number of possibilities of who one could be is lost before one could know that something has been lost (see Villa 2010: 425). The subject is therefore produced not only by the exclusion, but also by the previous loss. “The inability to declare such a loss signifies the … ‘absorption’ of the loss by the ego” (Butler 1997b: 170). Just as the repressed is reflected in the subconscious, so the rejected is also found there as melancholy, which in psychoanalysis is the characteristic of a loss that cannot be grieved. Melancholy Already apparent in Gender Trouble, the motif of melancholy can be considered key to Butler’s analysis. For Butler, it is a central pattern to interpret cultural and political power structures, and a site where social norms and subjectivity are mediated (see Redecker 2011: 87). The philosopher Eva von Redecker, who has taken a broader look at the motif of melancholy and how it functions in Butler’s work (see 2011: 87-115), criticizes Butler for closing herself off from a reading that would allow an identification with the forbidden, lost, rejected. For Redecker, the subject in Butler’s theory needs the excluded as the opposite and thus only for delimiting identification (see Redecker 2011: 99, 114). Melancholy is for Butler the consequence of a process of “internalization”, a process that “fabricates the distinction between interior and exterior life, offering us a distinction between the psychic and the social that differs significantly from an account of the psychic internalization of norms” (Butler 1997b: 19). The melancholic exclusion becomes the founding moment of the subject, and marks the “variable boundary between the psychic and the social” (Butler 1997b: 171), the limit of what a subject can reflect upon and thus the limit of the subject.

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


Melancholia rifts the subject, marking a limit to what it can accommodate. Because the subject does not, cannot, reflect on that loss, that loss marks the limit of reflexivity, that which exceeds (and conditions) its circuitry. Understood as foreclosure, that loss inaugurates the subject and threatens it with dissolution (Butler 1997b: 22).

It is the ungrievable loss (the characteristic of melancholy) that makes reflexivity (the characteristic of the subject) emerge, together with its limits (see Redecker 2011: 98). “The question concerning the conditions of emergence of subjects thus also leads to a more precise understanding of the transition from social to psychological power. It could be summed up as a continuation of power in another mode” (Redecker 2011: 99*). Resistance to Power I already mentioned at the beginning of this subchapter that The Psychic Life of Power aims not only to explain the process of subjectivation, but also to address why it is that subordination and the capacity to act are not necessarily contradictions, and why resistance to power is certainly possible. Butler cites this as her most important concern in several passages in The Psychic Life of Power. But how is the subject, who has been created by the power that has also taken root within it, to offer resistance to that power? This is possible because, according to Butler, power works in two ways: in the conditions of the subjectivation as just described, and in the actions of the subject, which itself again exercises power. The point of Butler’s reflections is that there is no such thing as before and after power, but rather that power produces a subject, a process of subjectivation with a “potentially enabling reversal” of power (Butler 1997b: 12). The subject itself becomes an ambivalent place where power is transformed from its condition into the (conditional) capacity to act. This transition is, according to Butler, difficult to grasp, but “[a]t some point, a reversal and concealment” of power occur (Butler 1997b: 15): Many conversations on the topic have become mired in whether the subject is the condition or the impasse of agency. Indeed, both quandaries have led many to consider the issue of the subject as an inevitable stumbling block in social theory. Part of this difficulty, I suggest, is that the subject is itself a site of ambivalence in which the subject emerges both as the effect of a prior power and as the condition of possibility for a radically conditioned form of agency. A theory of the subject should take into account the full ambivalence (Butler 1997b: 14-15).

It becomes clear that Butler never seeks a site beyond power, but consistently searches for the potential for resistance within the given conditions, for a way “to take an oppositional relation to power that is, admittedly, implicated in


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

the very power one opposes” (Butler 1997b: 17). As Butler’s previous reflections make clear, this cannot be a triumphant march of the autonomous subject. Nevertheless, her statements suggest a cautious optimism: “I would suggest that no historical or logical conclusions follow necessarily from this primary complicity with subordination, but that some possibilities tentatively do” (Butler 1997b: 17). Butler does not follow Foucault’s fatalism, which claims that there is nothing beyond subordination to power, but she also does not represent a liberal optimism alien to reality, which claims that every power can be overcome by the capacity to act (see Riedl 2016: 148; Butler 1997b: 17-18). Rather, she searches for an intermediate path, which she finds by consistently taking seriously the ambivalence of the subject. This is the starting-point for resistance to power, since the subject is constituted, but not determined, through the interpellation of power. In rereading the Althusserian scene of interpellation, Butler arrives at the insight that the interpellation of power, which brings a subject into being, “regularly misses its mark” (Butler 1997a: 33; see Butler 1997b: 113-131). Interpellation constitutes the subject, but can never determine it exhaustively (see Butler 1997b: 131). First, because, as we have already seen in the previous section, the repetition of norms gives rise to shifts. Repetitions are “never merely mechanical” (Butler 1997b: 16). Second, because, although “social power” regulates “what losses can be grieved”, this act of regulation “is not always as effective as it aims to be” (Butler 1997b: 183). For, the forbidden finds itself as repressed and rejected in the unconscious in the form of melancholy. “Melancholia … ‘preserves’ its lost objects as psychic effects” (Butler 1997b: 182). For Butler, however, this includes the “recognition that the subject produced as continuous, visible, and located is nevertheless haunted by an inassimilable remainder” (Butler 1997b: 29). “This psychic remainder signifies the limits of normalization” (Butler 1997b: 88) through social norms. Butler thus pursues a heterotopic line of reasoning: phenomena of non-normalization (the trace of the repressed and rejected that the subject carries within itself) within a comprehensive process of normalization are emphasized and valorized (see Villa 2010: 424). Alternative forms of action and identity are indeed forbidden and suppressed through their subordination to a discourse, but they leave a trace in the subject and thus possess a latent existence in the ego (see Müller 2009: 80). Potentiality The trace that Butler sees as making resistance possible is a trace of potentiality; it is something that goes beyond the subject. This ‘more’ could be termed the surplus on which total subjectivation fails. For, rigid categories of identity

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


with their situational claims to totalization (such as professor vs. mother) are a mistake (see Villa 2010: 424). Behind this is the same idea that Butler had already described in Bodies That Matter: “there is a cost in every identification, the loss of some other set of identifications, the forcible approximation of a norm one never chooses” (Butler 1993: 126). Butler explores this trace through Giorgio Agamben’s statement: “There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality” (Butler 1997b: 131; see Agamben 1993: 43). She takes up this “existence” and interprets it as being the entity that enables the subject to transgress circularity: ‘[B]eing’ as precisely the potentiality that remains unexhausted by any particular interpellation. Such a failure of interpellation may well undermine the capacity of the subject to ‘be’ in a self-identical sense, but it may also mark the path toward a more open, even more ethical, kind of being, one of or for the future (Butler 1997b: 131).

This shows that Butler’s goal is not only to explain the double aspect of subjectivation (subordination and production) or the paradox of the referentiality of the subject (see Balzer 2014: 457). Rather, her much larger project is to search within the given conditions for an expansion of the spaces of freedom. She makes this clear with her constitution of the subject in The Psychic Life of Power: The subject might yet be thought as deriving its agency from precisely the power it opposes, as awkward and embarrassing as such a formulation might be, especially for those who believe that complicity and ambivalence could be rooted out once and for all. If the subject is neither fully determined by power nor fully determining of power (but significantly and partially both), the subject exceeds its logic of noncontradiction … To claim that the subject exceeds either/or is not to claim that it lives in some free zone of its own making. Exceeding is not escaping, and the subject exceeds precisely that to which it is bound. In this sense, the subject cannot quell the ambivalence by which it is constituted. Painful, dynamic, and promising, this vacillation between the already-there and the yetto-come is a crossroads that rejoins every step by which it is traversed, a reiterated ambivalence at the heart of agency (Butler 1997b: 17-18).

While Butler thus determines the gap that presents itself between completely free and completely determined as being located in the capacity to act in contingency, she still leaves unclear how the subject becomes the actor. How can resistance be more than a sleight of hand on the part of power or pure chance (see Butler 1997b: 87-88)? This becomes clearer if we turn to Antigone’s Claim.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Resistance through Entanglement Using Antigone’s fate as an example, Butler plays through how she understands the possibility of resistance that she has so far developed only theoretically. Antigone, child of the incestuous marriage between Oedipus and his mother, accompanies her blind father into exile. After his death, she returns to Thebes, where her brothers Polynices and Eteocles share power. When Eteocles drives Polynices away, Polynices goes into battle against Thebes, where the brothers kill each other. The new king, Creon, forbids, under threat of the death penalty, the burial of Polynices because he conspired against Thebes. Antigone resists, and buries and mourns her dead brother symbolically to allow him to enter the world of the dead. After confessing to the crime, she is sentenced to death by being buried alive. By the time she is finally pardoned, she has already committed suicide. It is astonishing how much Antigone’s resistance corresponds to what Butler makes the central element of her critical praxis: Antigone insists on publicly mourning someone dead, an act forbidden by the laws of the community (see Redecker 2011: 101). Despite the many parallels, however, we should always bear in mind that this is a literary narrative, i.e. it uses images to make something clear. This is both an opportunity, but also a limit, regarding the transfer of Antigone’s situation to reality, which does after all itself always requires translation. Even if Antigone is presented as a successful example of resistance and action, Butler warns at the same time against idealizing her too much, since Antigone chooses death in the end and is therefore not entirely suitable as a role model (see Butler 2000a: 23) Butler uses Antigone to pursue the possibility of resisting the prohibition on mourning. However, from where does Antigone gain her spirit of resistance? The forms of change shown so far (through the shift in repetition and the remainder of the repressed and rejected active in the subconscious) do not suggest determination, but neither do they necessarily indicate a subject’s decision to act. The previous constitution of the subject is more like how the figures are in the German boardgame ‘Mensch ärgere dich nicht’: these may move different numbers of squares, and throw other figures out (and be thrown out), but the decision on all this is made by the dice (see Redecker 2011: 103). Butler, in contrast, does not want to establish a subject that is determined by higher decisions, and nor a subject that throws the dice and is therefore sovereign, not even at a higher (divine) level. As is so often the case with Butler, the solution is a tightrope walk that does not attempt to erase the ambivalences contained within, but rather integrates them as a constitutive element. In the case of resistance, this consists in “locating in the subject itself a relative and limited disposition over its use, without

The Foundations of Butler ’ s Philosophy


having to resort to a model of intentional freedom of will” (Redecker 2011: 103*). Butler uses Antigone as an example of this balancing act. Thus, in Butler’s interpretation, Antigone’s transgression of the prohibition is not a one-off instance of action, something “out of the blue”, but rather the result of a whole chain of connections that shape her life: Antigone is the result of incest; she is daughter, sister, orphan; in supporting her father, she also takes on the role of brother; finally, in resisting the king, she imitates her dead brother and thus takes on the sovereign position of the (counter) king (see Butler 2000a: 62-67). As a child of incest, she already has an impossible, non-intelligible identity imposed on her, which is reinforced by the multiple role reversals, and a whole series of lost relatives are added to this. Her resistance to the prohibition on her desire to bury her dead, ungrievable brother is the result of a melancholic identification with him. This outcome, however, is located within a long chain of twists and turns, attachments (to family ties, tradition, custom, religion), exclusions and losses (see Redecker 2011: 103-105). Antigone’s spirit of resistance issues from this chain; she acts as she acts not despite, but precisely because of, these attachments. It is precisely because of her history that she can become a rebel and offer resistance: The point of Butler’s theory of action lies precisely in the fact that positions can arise from such contingent and concrete ties, which bring with them the resources … for resistance. And this not despite but precisely because of a highly normatized and power-saturated environment. This psychological mechanism is … the prerequisite for a certain rigidity and stubbornness on the part of subjects, which, once they have entered the strange situation, allow the subjects to counter permanently the usual way of appropriating norms(Redecker 2011: 106*).

Antigone’s action therefore springs from what power has invested psychologically in her, the possible and the impossible, the desired, repressed and rejected. Only when all of this is taken together does Antigone’s status as a subject emerge. Butler makes clear with the Antigone narrative that she is concerned not only with the psychological disposition itself, but with the unique story that gives rise to this disposition. The openness or contingency comes about through the various influences and entanglements that each subject combines and interweaves in an unforeseeable way (see Redecker 2011: 106). Butler calls this “promiscuous obedience” (Butler 2000a: 57). Everyone is interpellated (contextually) with the same norms, but the norms do not have the same effect in everybody. This is precisely the origin of individual action. While The Psychic Life of Power still poses the question of how resistance to power can be thought of from the entangled and attached subconscious,


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Antigone’s Claim makes the answer clear: it is a resistance that does not deny its ambivalence, a resistance wrested from power, one that arises from the ambiguity of interpellation and the individual linking of melancholic exclusions and identifications. Antigone shows that “agency implicated in subordination is not the sign of a fatal self-contradiction at the core of the subject and, hence, further proof of its pernicious or obsolete character” (Butler 1997b: 17). Structural Resistance as Work on the Conceptual Framework The main focus has so far been on the possibility of individual action and resistance. Butler’s concern, however, is always also the question of how her conception of the subject “works as a notion of political agency in postliberatory times” (Butler 1997b: 18). This question has not only an individual, but also a structural, dimension: namely, where it is a matter of keeping the conditions of subject constitution as open as possible. This becomes clear in Antigone’s suicide. In the end, she cannot survive because the social order not only prohibits her desire, but makes it seem impossible. The loss does not consist primarily in the fact that a certain direction of desire or subject position is forbidden and therefore lost, but in the fact that it contradicts the dominant conception in such a way that it cannot be formulated at all – neither as a loss nor as a demand (see Redecker 2011: 107). Butler sees her constitution of the subject as both a warning and a challenge for political action, which, since it is always concerned with the acceptance and assertion of subject positions (see Butler 1997b: 29), is always in danger of producing exclusions and rejections, and committing abuses of power. “If one is to oppose the abuse of power (which is not the same as opposing power itself), it seems wise to consider in what our vulnerability to that abuse consists” (Butler 1997b: 20). Using the Antigone motif, Butler sees the goal as being a (conceptual) framework “that does not confer an impossible status on her love, her losses, and her kinship from the outset (and does not banish her demand to an extra-political, possibly irrational, realm just because it runs counter to the prevailing order)” (Redecker 2011: 110*). The question applied to Antigone, What makes a life grievable?, is a theme that Butler develops with virtuosity in her later work. It is ultimately the question of the human being and its limits, and forms, as it were, the thread that runs through the question of the possibility and failure of recognition. The question leads directly to the next chapters, for Giving an Account of Oneself spins this thread further by placing alongside discourse and power the other, thereby clearly emphasizing sociality and asymmetry.

Chapter III

Post-sovereign Subjects In dealing with the foundations of Butler’s thought, we have already touched upon numerous motifs (performativity, desire, resistance, grievability, interpellation and its failure) that also appear in Giving an Account of Oneself, Undoing Gender, and subsequent works. Despite this repetition, Butler’s work, starting with Giving an Account of Oneself, takes a turn that distinguishes it once again from the shifts that I have traced so far, with Butler now aiming “to revise recognition as an ethical project” (Butler 2005: 43). Butler also conveys this shift through a changed language. She now refers to the interpellator as ‘you’ and the subject addressed as ‘I’ and ‘self’ (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 96; Balzer 2014: 497). Instead of the constitution of the subject, she now speaks of the individuation or formation of human beings, of the ‘I’ and the self (see Balzer 2014: 498). Whereas in The Psychic Life of Power, Butler had “examined how power is mediated psychologically, she now gives greater focus to the role of each counterpart in the transference of norms. Butler introduces, so to speak, ‘the other’, and couples the subject with the other at such a fundamental level as to give rise to a new definition of life conditions as ‘precarious’” (Redecker 2011: 124*), as well as to a dynamization of the melancholic rigidity in which Antigone still seems to be trapped. The basis of this new orientation is the question posed in Giving an Account of Oneself concerning a contemporary moral philosophy: “Considering how it might be possible to pose the question of moral philosophy, a question that has to do with conduct and, hence, with doing, within a contemporary social frame” (Butler 2005: 3). Like Adorno, Butler identifies the central problem of such a concern as being “the divergence between the universal interest and the particular interest” (Adorno 2001: 19; see Butler 2005: 44). This relation becomes inappropriate when the general (the universal, the abstract, the moral) ignores or suppresses the individual (the particular, the contextual, the concrete, the ‘I’). “If [the ethos] ignores the existing social conditions, which are also the conditions under which any ethics might be appropriated, that ethos becomes violent” (Butler 2005: 6), which, Butler stresses, “does not mean that universality is violent by definition. It is not. But there are conditions under which it can exercise violence” (2005: 7). Butler also stresses elsewhere “that the problem is not with universality as such but with an operation of universality that fails to be responsive to cultural particularity and fails to undergo a reformulation


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

of itself in response to the social and cultural conditions it includes within its scope of applicability” (Butler 2005: 6). Conversely, giving too much emphasis to the individual is also no solution to the problem. Butler sees as just such an error an ‘I’ that is thought of as pure immediacy, detached from its social conditions (see Butler 2005: 7). As a way out, she suggests always posing the question of morality as one that is contextually bound (see Butler 2005: 3). This gives rise to two further questions. The first is: “how does the historical time in which we live condition and permeate the form of the question itself?” (Butler 2012a: 9) Or, in other words: What is the “force of morality in the production of the subject” (Butler 2005: 10; my emphasis)? Taking the social embeddedness of the ‘I’ as her starting-point, Butler therefore investigates the role played by abstract generality (synonym for social norms) in the emergence of the concrete individual, the subject. By focusing now not only on the subject and the effect of norms, but also on the concrete other as virtually a third party, she gains a new perspective on the process of subjectivation. In pursuing this question, Butler, who had up to then predominantly criticized the conventional understanding of the subject, then develops her own concept of the ‘post-sovereign subject’ (see this chapter III, part A). However, this does not yet avert the danger that such a post-sovereign subject might experience (ethical) violence, which is the reason that Butler’s second question is: “how to live one’s own life well, such that we might say that we are living a good life within a world in which the good life is structurally or systematically foreclosed for so many” (Butler 2012a: 9). This question, which is concerned with the “relation that a subject has to morality” (Butler 2005: 10; my emphasis), is dealt with in the subsequent chapter, “Post-sovereign ethics” (see part A, chapter IV). Before we can examine Butler’s ethics and the question of violence and nonviolence that is involved, we first need to understand her underlying concept of the subject. For, in order to avoid abandoning the concept of the subject completely and to preserve the capacity to act critically, Butler introduces an alternative notion of the subject: namely, the ‘post-sovereign subject’ (see Villa 2003: 57). I will explore this post-sovereign subject in the next three subchapters, with the first focusing on the relationship between the subject/’I’ and the (newly introduced) concrete other. Butler draws on various sources to illuminate this relationship, each of which problematizes the subject’s capacity for complete accountability and sovereignty. Butler herself writes about her use of these sources. I make eclectic use of various philosophers and critical theorists in this inquiry. Not all of their positions are compatible with one another, and I do not attempt

Post-sovereign Subjects


to synthesize them here. Although synthesis is not my aim, I do want to maintain that each theory suggests something of ethical importance that follows from the limits that condition any effort one might make to give an account of oneself” (Butler 2005: 21).

Two of the most important sources are Hegel and Levinas, whom Butler uses to develop her ontology of post-sovereign subjects, an ontology designed to illustrate why subjects are already shaped by radical relationality and asymmetry in their becoming, in their prehistory. The first subchapter will examine how Butler, drawing on Hegel, conceives of an ecstatic subject that is dependent on the recognition of others (III.1). This constitution of the subject is complemented by Butler’s reference to Levinas, which allows her to introduce a vulnerable subject that is always already exposed to others (III.2). Finally, I will clarify why it is that, although the subject that emerges from this ontology is not capable of full accountability, Butler nonetheless holds on to the possibility of responsibility (III.3). While the first two subchapters focus primarily on the relationship between ‘you’ and ‘I’, and on the role of the other in subjectivation, the third draws on Foucault and Adorno to focus on the effect of norms and on the social framework. This will firstly make clear why Butler’s ontology is not metaphysics, and secondly highlight her shift to ethics. 1

The Other – Asymmetrical Intersubjectivity

In Butler’s previous work, recognition appeared above all as something that occurs through interpellation by (anonymized) others (see Balzer 2014: 493). Although she emphasized dependence on others, “[f]or Butler, the Other, far from being a concrete other, is a generalized structure” (Ferrarese 2011: 761). Giving an Account of Oneself constitutes a clear turn from this position (see Redecker 2011: 117; Balzer 2014: 493), with Butler now introducing the concrete other into the event of recognition, and making recognition an intersubjective process involving “at least two subjects” (Butler 2009: 6). By introducing the other, she also carries out a recomposition of the framework, into which she inserts recognition (see Ferrarese 2011: 768). This subchapter examines this readjustment of recognition, before showing why it is certainly possible to talk in terms of a turning-point in Butler’s work. Having dealt in some detail with this turning-point, I will then focus on Butler’s ontology, with attention being given initially to how Butler, in her interpretation of Hegel as a thinker of dependence and unfreedom, understands subjectivation. I do so in two steps: first, by focusing on the dependence on the recognition of others; second,


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

by exploring not only how this subordinated subject is determined by the encounter with the concrete other, but how transformative effects make it possible to dynamize the subject, which has so far been frozen in melancholy, so that it is conditioned but not determined. Readjustment of Recognition: Who Are You? The changed framework of recognition signaled by Giving an Account of Oneself is evident in the fact that Butler reinterprets the process of subjectivation introduced in The Psychic Life of Power. While she had previously followed classical criticism of the subject, pointing out that we are not authors of ourselves, not sovereign in a way that allows us to determine our identity, she has been working since Giving an Account of Oneself … to prove that the very idea of the self as something like a self-contained, confined and independent ‘work’ is wrong in the first place (Redecker 2011: 124*).

The starting-point here is the non-metaphysical ontology that she has developed, one based on a “general conception of the human” (Butler 2004b: 31) as radically intersubjective and asymmetrical. This ontology “offers direction for a different theory of recognition” (Butler 2005: 33), and can be characterized with the phrase “subjectifying recognition” (Bedorf 2010: 78*). Unlike performativity, which relates the subject to norms, Butler traces subjection to the constitutive relation to the other (see Purtschert: 2004: 200). Only in recognition that takes place through interpellation do we become subjects (see Bedorf 2010: 78). It is not recognition that makes the address possible and thereby constitutes the subject; rather, the address by another is the primary act that recognizes the subject and thus brings it into being. Whereas Butler had previously reconstructed recognition primarily in the relation between subject and effect of norms, she now introduces into this process a third party in the form of the concrete other. She thus goes beyond Foucault, whose work reaches a limit for her where he is unable to refer to the other: Foucault’s question effectively remains ‘Who can I be, given the regime of truth that determines ontology for me? He does not ask the question ‘Who are you?’ nor does he trace the way in which a critical perspective on norms might be elaborated starting out from either of those questions (Butler 2005: 25; my emphasis).

With the concrete other, Butler explicitly introduces something new into her previous reflections. The other is not simply an expression of social norms; it is the living encounter with a counterpart that always goes beyond what norms can produce. Recognition is indeed only possible with the help of existing

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norms, but, and Butler insists on this, there is a difference between norm and other. “It will not do, then, to collapse the notion of the other into the sociality of norms and claim that the other is implicitly present in the norms by which recognition is conferred” (Butler 2005: 24). This difference between norm and other arises from the fact that the desire for recognition continues even where it fails, thereby possibly putting the normative framework into crisis (see Redecker 2011: 128): Some would doubtless argue that norms must already be in place for recognition to become possible, and there is surely truth in such a claim. It is also true that certain practices of recognition or, indeed, certain breakdowns in the practice of recognition mark a site of rupture within the horizon of normativity and implicitly call for the institution of new norms, putting into question the givenness of the prevailing normative horizon. The normative horizon within which I see the other or, indeed, within which the other sees and listens and knows and recognizes is also subject to critical opening (Butler 2005: 24).

The non-existent chance to experience recognition within an existing structure of norms can thus become a source of change. The other, however, introduces yet another innovation into Butler’s reflections. Whereas Butler had previously been concerned mainly with the desire to be recognized, she now adds to it the desire to recognize others. This desire obviously does not have to be learned or acquired in any other way, but is part of the original desire outlined in The Psychic Life of Power: “The task is not to move from an established ego to a world of others, to move beyond narcissism to the possibility of attachment. Rather, attachment is already overdetermined from the start” (Butler 2005: 74). This desire also has a potential for resistance and action, since the lack of the possibility to give recognition can also trigger resistance against the framework. If and when, in an effort to confer or to receive a recognition that fails and fails again, I call into question the normative horizon within which recognition takes place, this questioning is part of the desire for recognition, a desire that can find no satisfaction, and whose unsatisfiability establishes a critical point of departure for the interrogation of available norms (Butler 2005: 24).

This resistance to norms only becomes possible through the encounter with and desire of a concrete other. By referring to the other, Butler succeeds in posing the question of the ‘who’ and thus in making clear that we are more than just the effects of norms. She insists that something irreducible is inherent in us, which becomes clear in the various stories that we tell (see Butler 2005: 31). The ‘I’ is always stimulated to this telling by the interpellation by others.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Dependence on the Recognition of Others – the Ecstatic Subject Butler’s new perspective on recognition draws on the scenario of interpellation that she had outlined in her early work, this scenario now being pursued by Butler in “Post-Hegelian Queries” (Butler 2005: 26). Despite the similarities, we can also see clear differences between Butler’s theoretical reflections on recognition, which are in accordance with Althusser’s model of interpellation, and her ethical reflections on the significance of recognition in the constitution of subjects (see Balzer 2014: 496). Hegel is a major source for Butler’s theory of intersubjectivity and radical relationality, even though he is usually regarded in philosophy as contributing to the absolutization of the subject. Hegel serves Butler as an antagonist to Descartes: “As a Cartesian self (soi), the subject appears as a thinking, reflexive entity, which cannot only be separated from the living body, but whose very essence is thinking itself” (Butler 2008b: 1301*). As an antipole to this, Butler interprets Hegel as a thinker not only of freedom, but also of unfreedom and dependence (see Butler 2008b: 1303). Butler states: “This is not a particularly ‘postmodern’ insight, since it is derived from German Idealism and earlier medieval ecstatic traditions. It simply avows that ‘we’ who are relational do not stand apart from those relations and cannot think of ourselves outside of the decentering effects that that relationality entails” (2004c: 151). In this reading, Hegel’s subject is entangled in the world and finds what it needs for self-preservation outside of itself: While Hegel, too, regards the subject as a self-determining entity, it is embedded in a fundamental relatedness with an opposing world of objects and other subjects. The thinking of the Hegelian self is interwoven with its object, the material world. This leads to a conclusion that is ontological rather than epistemological: The Hegelian subject is not only capable of distinguishing itself from other selves, and of mediating between itself and other worlds, it is defined as a continuous act of mediation (Butler 2008b: 1301*).

According to Butler, then, “criticism of excessive autonomy or asociality does not apply to Hegel’s conception of the subject” (Butler 2008b: 1303*). Rather, “Hegel represents an ec-static conception of the subject, which is outside itself, not self-identical, and differentiated” (Butler 2008b: 1304*). Butler rejects the criticism of Hegel that has been voiced essentially by the French poststructuralists: “The ec-static interpretation of Hegel is entirely different from the one who is made responsible for a totalizing or even imperialistic perspective… . Hegel especially can count as a representative of a thoroughly social ontology of the subject” (Butler 2008b: 1307*). The origin of this “fundamental dependency on the other” (Butler 2005: 33) is “the fact that we cannot exist without addressing the other and without being addressed by the other” (Butler 2005:

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33). This primacy of the social means that “it is not because we are reasoning beings that we are connected to one another …, but, rather, because we are exposed to one another, requiring a recognition that does not substitute the recognizer for the recognized” (Butler 2004b: 48). A reconstruction that Butler seeks to support with reference to Laplanche, who works on the primary experience of the infant being overwhelmed by the interpellations of others. This again demonstrates Butler’s phenomenological approach. Methodologically, a somewhat speculative phenomenology can be discerned here, for the roots of the object of investigation lie in the darkness of early childhood experience (see Redecker 2011: 125). It is already apparent here that Butler conceives of the relation between ‘I’ and ‘other’ as being asymmetrical. It is an “encounter with alterity … that is irreducible to sameness” (Butler 2005: 27). In recognition, it is not two equals that meet and mutually recognize each other, but two concrete others that are never equal. It is therefore not reciprocity that for Butler determines recognition; instead, “[t]he situation is, from the start, asymmetrical, and the ‘I’ finds itself disarmed and passive in its relation to the message from the other” (Butler 2005: 76). Transformative Effects This conceives of subjectivity as being something that is produced in inexhaustible co-authorship, virtually as common property (see Redecker 2011: 123). A foreignness is thus inscribed at the base of existence, one that cannot be appropriated completely (see Bedorf 2010: 92). This might suggest that Butler’s goal of formulating a moral philosophy without ethical violence has failed, since it is precisely in radical social ontology that the effect of the general, the social, on the subject becomes apparent. Since, in order to become a subject, the ‘I’ must seek recognition, it “establish[es] a structure of substitutability at the core of singularity” (Butler 2005: 35). Sociality becomes the foundation of the self. The theory of post-sovereign subjects does not end here, however. Butler not only introduces the exposed position of the human being as a reason for recognition, but also develops, through her interpretation of Hegel, an understanding of the intersubjective process of recognition and its effects that is centered around the idea of exposure (see Balzer 2014: 501). The ecstatic character of our existence, as indicated by Hegel, has transformative effects. The subject is not only exposed and forced out of itself, but also forced into a relationship with others, and this has a transformative effect. For, “to be addressed is not merely to be recognized for what one already is, but to have the very term conferred by which the recognition of existence becomes possible. One comes


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

to ‘exist’ by virtue of this fundamental dependency on the address of the other” (Butler 1997a: 5). In this asymmetrical encounter with others, the subject is produced, decentered and changed; Butler also speaks of “being undone” (see Butler 2004c). “[R]ecognition becomes the process by which I become other than what I was and so cease to be able to return to what I was. There is, then, a constitutive loss in the process of recognition, since the ‘I’ is transformed through the act of recognition” (Butler 2005: 27-28). Desiring recognition means putting oneself at risk (see Butler 2004b: 44). The encounter with the other always and irreversibly changes the subject. “The other represents the prospect that the story might be given back in a new form, that fragments might be linked in some way, that some part of opacity might be brought to light” (Butler 2005: 80). For Butler, we become ‘I’ through ‘you’. What constitutes us are the “signs of an other, but they are also the traces from which an ‘I’ will eventually emerge” (Butler 2005: 70). Butler’s conception of post-sovereign subjects, developed through a reading of Hegel, is marked by radical relationality and asymmetry. “There is, as it were, a sociality at the basis of the ‘I’ and its finitude from which one cannot – and ought not to – escape” (Butler 2005: 75). Even our innermost being is given to us by others: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something” (Butler 2004c: 19). But all this is not only catastrophe, overpowering, expropriation; rather, it means that we are not “fixed and frozen in our … subject-positions” (Butler 2004b: 47), but are responsive and transformable. What is new about this idea becomes particularly clear against the background of Butler’s earlier reflections. In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler had explained subjectivation on the basis of the fixating function of melancholic exclusions, with resistance thus being a consequence of one’s own attachment, through which one had become what one is (see Antigone). Butler now sets in motion this rigidity, this frozen formation of the theory of the melancholic subject (see Redecker 2011: 118). The ‘I’ now no longer functions, as in The Psychic Life of Power, only as a ‘barrier’ to its desire for recognition, but also carries within itself the possibility of living encounter and thus of an opening up to others. In this way, Butler honors a dynamic that is hinted at towards the end of The Psychic Life of Power: in order to overcome melancholy (a sign of possibilities not permitted), it must become mourning again. We have to face the “verdict of sociality” (Butler 1997b: 198) within us and allow our dependence on others. Mourning means admitting the loss repressed in melancholy and accepting the uncertainty and disorientation that accompanies it. One mourns “when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed,

Post-sovereign Subjects


possibly forever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation  … the full result of which one cannot know in advance” (Butler 2004b: 21). The aim is therefore not to recover from the loss as quickly as possible, but to give the loss and its transformative effects space (see Redecker 2011: 117). The subject is ecstatic, because it is generated in a radically relational way. “The ontology of such a subject is divided and characterized by irresolvable tensions… . Through the experience of difference, this subject is cast into the future” (Butler 2008b: 1304*). Therefore, “[t]o ask for recognition, or to offer it, is precisely not to ask for recognition for what one already is. It is to solicit a becoming, to instigate a transformation, to petition the future always in relation to the Other” (Butler 2004b: 44). Only then will the transgression of the self, in the sense of a constant process of transformation, succeed. 2

Vulnerability and Precarity

Drawing on Hegel, Butler develops a social ontology that fundamentally understands the subject as being entangled in asymmetrical relationships; the subject is dependent on the recognition of others, but this encounter with others also produces transformative effects that open up to the subject becoming, change, and possibilities. The previous subchapter already identified important foundations of the ontology of the post-sovereign subject, but it only touched marginally on a (perhaps the) central aspect. With her reflections on sociality, Butler focuses increasingly on questions of vulnerability, precarity, and survival (see Balzer 2014: 499). The precarity of human existence repeatedly appears in her texts in slightly varying terms (vulnerability, responsiveness, exposure, incoherence, partial blindness, ecstatics, dependence; see Redecker 2011: 124).19 I will now explore this theme by first focusing again on ontology. In drawing on Levinas, Butler thinks essentially of alterity as exposure to others, and thus establishes the vulnerable subject. Butler takes up the theme of vulnerability from two different perspectives: as ontological vulnerability (precariousness) and as physical exposure or real danger (precarity). This difference between 19

The very language that Butler uses makes clear that she is not concerned with the end of the subject: “The language Butler uses to articulate such vulnerability is indicative of her claim regarding the openness of the subject: she talks about ‘being dispossessed’, ‘being undone’, ‘being beside oneself’, ‘given over to the other’, ‘being a porous boundary’ and ‘being outside myself’. Such modes of dispossession, however, do not ring the death of the subject” (Schippers 2014: 20-21).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

‘precariousness’ and ‘precarity’ is only explicitly mentioned in the introduction to Frames of War (see Butler 2009: 23-32; 2008a: 135-146) and is not always clear before that. I will now deal with both in detail, and determine their connection via the phenomenology of vulnerability. Alterity as Exposure to Others – the Vulnerable Subject The theme of dependence and passivity in Butler’s interpretation of Hegel has already alluded to aspects of vulnerability. The subject must engage for its becoming in asymmetrical encounters with others without knowing for certain what recognition it will receive and how it will emerge from this encounter. Drawing on Levinas, Butler takes up these aspects and develops them further: He speaks of a passivity prior to passivity, and there he means to indicate the difference between a subject who undergoes passivity, who relates to that passivity through a certain reflexivity, and a passivity that is prior to the subject, the condition of its own subjectivation, its primary impressionability (Butler 2005: 77).

With this notion of “primary impressionability”, Levinas becomes for Butler the precursor of the idea of a subject exposed to others. Butler uses his theory of alterity to reconstruct the subject at a pre-social level, where it is not yet able to refer to itself reflexively (see Dungs 2005: 281). She thus develops the thesis of “having been given over from the start” (Butler 2005: 77). Even before there is a subject, it is already related to a ‘you’, which underlies an exposure, a dependence, an exclusion. This basis transcends everything: “the ‘I’ that I am is nothing without this ‘you’, and cannot even begin to refer to itself outside the relation to the other by which its capacity for self-reference emerges. I am mired, given over, and even the word dependency cannot do the job here” (Butler 2005: 82). Nothing and nobody can protect us from this existential relationality and alterity: “This fundamental dependency  … is not a condition that I can will away. No security measure will foreclose this dependency; no violent act of sovereignty will rid the world of this fact” (Butler 2004b: xii). To counter the idea already rejected by Hegel of mutual recognition, she insists with Levinas on an asymmetrical alterity and the singularity of the other. Levinas captures this singularity with the term ‘face’ (visage), which says “that there is an other before us whom we do not know and cannot fully apprehend  …, whose uniqueness and nonsubstitutability set a limit to the model of reciprocal recognition  … and to the possibility of knowing another more generally” (Butler 2005: 31). Nevertheless, Butler insists on the “face-to-face

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encounter” (Butler 2005: 95),20 but as a radical rather than a reciprocal addressability. This points to what I will take up again in the third subchapter: by placing such a clear focus on remaining open to the other, Butler retains explicit traces of Levinas’ theory. The excess of mutual connectedness that lies within it also serves to introduce accountability before responsibility (see Redecker 2011: 129). Ontological Vulnerability – Precariousness Butler reconstructs on an ontological-existential level a vulnerability that stems from exposure. This vulnerability, usually referred to as precariousness, does not mean something like danger or precarity, because Butler is essentially concerned with the fact that it is a delicate state that, unlike a danger, cannot be averted (see Redecker 2011: 124). Like Levinas, Butler sees this fundamental vulnerability not as something negative, but as an ethical potential: “In a strong contrast to the Nietzschean view that life is essentially bound up with destruction and suffering, … we are beings who are, of necessity, exposed to one another in our vulnerability and singularity” (Butler 2005: 31). The source of this vulnerability is explained by the ontology of the subject, according to which we only become an ‘I’ through the interpellation of an other. This interpellation has something injurious, an injury that precedes the subject, “one that we have by virtue of being interpellated kinds of beings, dependent on the address of the other in order to be” (Butler 1997a: 26). As in Levinas’ grounding of ethics in the theory of alterity, the subject is introduced transitively via its previous vulnerability (see Dungs 2008: 292). Ontological vulnerability is therefore a linguistic-performative vulnerability. It inheres in the subject as existence, since the subject is already vulnerable in the process of its subjectivation. And, although this vulnerability inheres in the subject as a being dependent on interpellation, it lies in the ontology of the subject that makes it a subject in the first place. Here lies the source of a shared humanity, since symbolic vulnerability through language characterizes humans and distinguishes them from other living beings. It is therefore precisely this vulnerability that makes us human (see Herrmann 2013: 9; Kuch/Herrmann 2010: 10). The subject can therefore neither prevent this vulnerability, nor remember it; it can neither rid itself of it through an act of will, nor even tell it. To tell a 20

Butler also goes against Levinas here, who, in her opinion, breaks off the possibility of a dialogical responsibility, because he sees the chance of real responsibility ultimately realized only in the tradition of Judaism (see Butler 2005: 93-94).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

story about this vulnerability would mean developing a fiction about a state in which the subject was not present (see Dungs 2005: 281). Butler goes even further and, although accounting for this vulnerability is impossible, declares dangerous any attempt to deny it: Although I am insisting on referring to a common human vulnerability, one that emerges with life itself, I also insist that we cannot recover the source of this vulnerability: it precedes the formation of ‘I’. This is a condition, a condition of being laid bare from the start and with which we cannot argue. I mean, we can argue with it, but we are perhaps foolish, if not dangerous, when we do (Butler 2004b: 31).

For Butler, then, we must not deny fundamental ontological vulnerability, but must try to visualize it, even if it can never be fully understood. She tries to bring about such a visualization, which differs somewhat from a theoretical defense or justification, because she assumes that such an insight into vulnerability has ethical consequences (see Redecker 2011: 126). A tool for this is the phenomenology of vulnerability, which Butler uses to follow the traces that the untellable beginning draws in every life. Phenomenology of Vulnerability For Butler, the fact that we cannot find the source of our original vulnerability does not mean that it can be denied, and especially so since we feel its consequences. Butler explores these consequences in those experiences where people feel themselves to be dependent and expropriated, and it is childhood that she returns to again and again in this context, since this is the phase of life when it becomes clearest how existentially dependent people are, and how much others shape their identity and their whole being. But adults also have experiences of non-coherence and expropriation, when vulnerability becomes tangible. Two phenomena that Butler repeatedly addresses are love and mourning. The latter is when we experience the loss of an other, who is always also a part of ourselves; when we cannot, as in melancholy, cover something up, but are disoriented and decentered; it is loss from which the ‘I’ can emerge in a changed form. Butler points out that the priority of the other is particularly evident in the face of death, since as a rule it is the death of an other that, long preceding the fear of our own death, is especially traumatic (see Butler 2005: 75). Similarly, people in love experience being incapacitated by the other. For Butler, the ‘I’ is brought ‘outside itself’ here, with its ecstatic character thereby being revealed. It is especially love that makes expropriation and vulnerability so evident. One aspect that Butler already addressed in The Psychic Life of

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Power is the apparent randomness of loving: we cannot fully control to whom our loving is directed, and not even when this love is injurious; thus, in loving, people are always somewhat exposed to the other. Butler also finds confirmation in Adorno that dealing with injuries can be human: “Someone who has been offended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when agonizing pain lights up one’s own body. He becomes aware that in the innermost blindness of love  … lives a demand not to be blinded. He was wronged, from this he deduces a claim to right and must at the same time reject it, for what he desires can only be given in freedom. In such distress he who is rebuffed becomes human” (Adorno 1974: 164 [III, 104]). Butler quotes this passage mainly to show that there are political dimensions even in this apparently very private ethics (see Butler 2005: 101-102). However, traces of our original vulnerability are manifested not only in emotions, but also in our very corporeality. Butler explores this through an examination of insults, which also often trigger physical reactions. By coupling corporeality to the phenomena of dependence and exposure, she emphasizes the potential for precarity: “the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence” (Butler 2004b: 26). Vulnerability is equally rooted and culminates in physical exposure and thus ultimately in the threat of death, which the ‘I’ encounters “not only in this or that attribute of the other, but the fact of this other as fundamentally exposed, visible, seen, existing in a bodily way … I cannot will [this exposure] away, for it is a feature of my very corporeality” (Butler 2005: 33). For Butler, the body is therefore not only an expression of singularity (see Butler 2005: 33); rather, “to be a body is to be exposed to social crafting and form, and that is what makes the ontology of the body a social ontology” (Butler 2009: 3). Just as the subject is brought into being in the act of being addressed, the singularity of the body also has its roots in the social: Insofar as ‘this’ fact of singularizing exposure, which follows from bodily existence, is one that can be reiterated endlessly, it constitutes a collective condition, characterizing us all equally, not only reinstalling the ‘we’, but also establishing a structure of substitutability at the core of singularity (Butler 2005: 35).

The body is the site “of a common human vulnerability” (Butler 2004b: 44); social ontology is virtually inscribed in it. She writes: “[M]y body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do” (Butler 2004b: 26). But even if Butler insists on a bodily exposure that connects everybody, this is


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

not to deny singularity. It does not mean that all people are the same; rather, it means that they are bound to each other by their common vulnerability (see Butler 2005: 34). Although Butler links the corporeal with a universal dependency and vulnerability that affects everyone, she does not deny that corporeality individualizes. On the contrary, it is precisely the corporeal that shows the sameness in difference; or, better still, the difference of sameness. Butler’s ontology is not a metaphysics; it is not a statement on existence that encompasses all people. Rather, it is concerned with showing why it is problematic to speak simply of equal vulnerability as a conditio humana. Butler’s aim is to show that, even where we are apparently all the same, we are already shaped by dependencies and exposure, and thus always already determined by difference. “Human vulnerability is for Butler the starting-point to understand that, in the face of the general human condition, people are already confronted with asymmetries and social dependencies” (Leidinger 2018: 312*). Real Danger – ‘Precarity’ In dealing with her phenomenology and especially with her remarks on corporeality, we have already seen that Butler thinks not only of an ontological vulnerability, but also at a very real level of a threat to concrete life. This is the second meaning of vulnerability, which Butler calls precarity. Although it is also something that in principle threatens all people, it affects them very differently. And while it is dangerous to deny ontological vulnerability, it is important to avert this real danger as far as possible or at least to reduce it. How this is to be achieved remains open, however. How is the subject, which is so vulnerable and which lacks sovereignty, supposed to take responsibility or even become an ethical actor? If, therefore, in the light of these analyses, it should not be possible with the best will for the subject to give a complete account of itself, nor to be able to protect itself from the linguistic impositions of others, which are always possible; if it … also cannot act without hurting others, since any address exposes the other and simultaneously constitutes its being with unchosen norms and an unchosen language … – how is it even possible to speak about ethical theory and especially responsibility? Do we not have to give up and consider any normative account as doomed to fail? (Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 98*)

Butler sees the danger of failure, but believes that there is a notion of responsibility that does not deny the status of vulnerability and precarity, and that can thus avert the violence that comes with denial. The way to achieve this, as is already evident, lies in the connection between the two vulnerabilities (precariousness and precarity), and it is no coincidence that they should share

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the same word stem. The word ‘precarious’ not only expresses that something is in danger, but is also used in the legal field to denote revocable legal titles (see Redecker 2011: 125). This double meaning (revocability of the status of the subject and threat to life) takes us into the realm of ethics, which we will deal with in more depth in chapter IV. 3

Reflexivity, the Capacity to Act, and Responsibility

With Hegel and Levinas, Butler characterizes the subject as being ecstatic and vulnerable. It is from the very beginning subjected and expropriated, able neither to fathom the beginnings of its existence that makes it so vulnerable, and nor to leave these beginnings behind, thereby making it seem incapable of responsibility. That Butler would not affirm the latter has already been made clear. This subchapter explores how she addresses the tension between the limits of accountability and the reflexivity necessary for responsibility by building a model of responsibility as response to reinterpret responsibility. I will also establish why it is that Butler does not stop at an ontology that she also describes as a speculative prehistory of the subject in the encounter of ‘you’ and ‘I’, but rather thinks of this encounter as a triad of ‘I’/subject, ‘you’/other, and power/ norm. By doing so, she ties the readjustment of her theory of recognition to Foucault’s analysis of power, while drawing on Adorno to reject as speculative an ontology that ignores the political. This lays the foundations for her ethics. The Limits of Accountability By combining the Hegelian idea of dependence with Levinas’ notion of exposure, Butler sees the subject as being shaped by a double asymmetry. The subject is always preceded by an other, who addresses, recognizes, and enables the subject. But, because subjectivation is not a one-off act, but rather a continuous process, this ontology, which Butler also calls prehistory, is not a beginning in the chronological sense, but a constantly repeating precondition of the self. Butler herself says: You may think that I am in fact telling a story about the prehistory of the subject, one that I have been arguing cannot be told. There are two responses to this objection. (1) That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers. (2) This prehistory has never stopped happening and, as such, is not a prehistory in any chronological sense. It is not done with, over, relegated to a past, which then becomes part of a causal or narrative reconstruction of the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy self. On the contrary, that prehistory interrupts the story I have to give of myself, makes every account of myself partial and failed, and constitutes, in a way, my failure to be fully accountable for my actions, my final ‘irresponsibility’, one for which I may be forgiven only because I could not do otherwise. This not being able to do otherwise is our common predicament (2005: 78).

This already shows that the concept of prehistory is not a simple one and can be easily misunderstood Butler herself writes: it is “that prehistory [that] interrupts the story I have to give of myself, makes every account of myself partial and failed” (2005: 78). For, the conditions of constitution make the self always opaque to a certain degree. “If we are formed in the context of relations that become partially irrecoverable to us, then that opacity seems built into our formation” (Butler 2005: 20). The ontology of the subject makes complete accountability impossible, for it lies in a beginning that must remain speculative. The ‘I’ is the moment of failure in every narrative effort to give an account of oneself. It remains in the unaccounted for, and in that sense, constitutes the failure that the very project of self-narration requires. Every effort to give an account of oneself is bound to encounter this failure, and to founder upon it (Butler 2005: 79).

With her post-sovereign conception of the subject, Butler leaves behind the usual rationale for responsibility. As a rule, responsibility is linked to reflexivity, to the possibility to choose, and to give account of oneself, which presupposes that decisions are based on rational arguments. All reasons thereby lie within the person of the action. Although ‘mitigating circumstances’ can be ascribed to the person, this does not change the fact that responsibility is fundamentally linked to reasons that can be rationally disclosed (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 99). According to Butler, though, this is “the grandiose notion of the transparent ‘I’ that is presupposed as the ethical ideal” (Butler 2005: 80) – an ideal that, in the face of impossibility, can drive one to despair and is “hardly a belief in which self-acceptance (a humility about one’s constitutive limitations) or generosity (a disposition towards the limits of others) might find room to flourish” (Butler 2005: 80). But the fact that the possibilities of accountability are limited does not mean for Butler that accountability is completely impossible. On the contrary, the other, in its address, calls for accountability, for the narration of the self. Accountability is therefore always also self-recognition, because, in answering, I myself narrate myself and thus accept the interpellation. The ‘I’ partly constitutes itself as a reflexive subject. “I am not bound to establish forms of subject formation or, indeed, to establish conventions for relating to myself, but I am

Post-sovereign Subjects


bound to the sociality of any of those possible relations” (Butler 2005: 114). In this respect, the limitation on the possibility of accountability also does not release the subject from being responsible for its actions. On the contrary, it follows that we must try to explore ourselves and our use of norms: “[B]ecause a subject produced by morality must find his or her relation to morality. One cannot will away this paradoxical condition for moral deliberation and for the task of giving an account of oneself” (Butler 2005: 10). Responsibility as Response The accountability that Butler demands despite all partial blindness does not originate from a reflexivity of pure self-reference, however. Rather, the ‘I’ obtains this accountability from the other. If the subject is opaque to itself, not fully translucent and knowable to itself, it is not thereby licensed to do what it wants or to ignore its obligations to others. The contrary is surely true. The opacity of the subject may be a consequence of its being conceived as a relational being, one whose early and primary relations are not always available to conscious knowledge … This postulation of a primary opacity to the self that follows from formative relations has a specific implication for an ethical bearing toward the other. Indeed, if it is precisely by virtue of one’s relations to others that one is opaque to oneself, and if those relations to others are the venue for one’s ethical responsibility, then it may well follow that it is precisely by virtue of the subject’s opacity to itself that it incurs and sustains some of its most important ethical bonds (Butler 2005: 20).

Through the other, the subject is always called to account in interpellation and recognition, and, in the attempt to respond, it gives an account of itself. “This account-ability is in other words tantamount to responsibility, not to self-transparency” (Keller 2015: 226). It is above all Levinas whom Butler uses for her own idea of responsibility as response, and whom she reads not only as a thinker of the exposed and vulnerable subject, but also of a normative responsibility. Following Levinas, Butler argues that we are addressed through the other’s face (see Butler 2005: 91; see Levinas 1991), and “[t]hus responsibility emerges not with the ‘I’ but with the accusative ‘me’” (Butler 2005: 91). This receptivity to the other is what makes self-reference possible in the first place (see Dungs 2008: 298). Alterity is the condition for responsibility, and the acceptance of this alterity is the condition for exercising responsibility. Without perceiving a counterpart, there is no question about the extent of moral responsibility (see Redecker 2011: 130). The question “How ought I to treat another?” (Butler 2005: 25) arises from the question “Who are you?” (Butler 2005: 25), since: “I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the Other;


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

if I do, I have taken myself out of the relational bind that frames the problem of responsibility from the start” (Butler 2004b: 46). As Levinas points out, responsibility contains the term response. He also speaks of the “response preceding any question” (Levinas 1991: 26). The very presence of the other “is a summation to respond. The I does not simply become conscious of this necessity to answer, as if I were a matter of an obligation which it would have to decide of. In its very position it is completely responsible” (Levinas 1986: 353). Butler therefore formulates a dialogical responsibility: both the addressed and the addressor are burdened with responsibility; both become for each other ‘I’ and ‘you’; they constitute each other anew in the situation and are therefore dependent on each other (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 102). Neither ‘dialogical’ nor ‘obligation’ should be misunderstood here, since it is not about reciprocity and not about attributing debt in the sense of a polluter-pays principle (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 100-101). According to Butler, an understanding of morality as a question of debt destroys the ethical relationship to the other. It risks triggering a spiral of justification that loses sight of the other (see Redecker 2011: 129), and that focuses instead on self-defense. Butler therefore calls for a “theorization of responsibility beyond bad conscience” (Butler 2005: 100), which emphasizes responsiveness over responsibility (see Redecker 2011: 129-130). “Whatever the Other has done, the Other still makes an ethical demand upon me, he has a ‘face’ to which I am obligated to respond – meaning that I am, as it were, precluded from revenge by virtue of a relation I never chose” (Butler 2005: 91). This for Butler is a responsibility not only for one’s actions, but also for the other, since my actions always constitute a ‘you’. Butler admits: “It is, in some ways, an outrage to be ethically responsible for one whom one does not choose” (Butler 2005: 91). But, and here again the understanding of responsibility comes into play, she is not concerned with debt: “We do not take the responsibility for the Other’s acts as if we authored those acts. On the contrary, we affirm the unfreedom at the heart of our relations. I cannot disavow my relation to the Other, regardless of what the Other does, regardless of what I might will” (Butler 2005: 91). This responsibility, just like the dependence on recognition that Butler conceives of in line with Hegel, has an existential character: the subject can try to deny it, but it cannot discard it; it is not a choice, but arises from being exposed to others. Just as recognition is always asymmetrical, so Butler also conceives of an asymmetrical responsibility, because the claim of the other always and only reveals itself as vulnerable, which is why the subject in communicative relationships is initially always in a situation of asymmetrical responsibility (see Herrmann 2013: 209).

Post-sovereign Subjects


Reinterpreting Responsibility The possibility of reflexivity and thus also of accountability is thus tied to the other, to the act of interpellation. The essence of Butler’s conception is that this does not represent the end of responsibility, but that this responsibility results precisely from sociality, i.e. the inability to achieve complete sovereignty and accountability. This becomes clear when she asks: “Do I need to know myself in order to act responsibly in social relations? Surely, to a certain extent, yes. But is there an ethical valence to my unknowingness?” (Butler 2005: 84) Butler seeks to gain a decidedly positive value from the constitutional conditions, the ‘ecstatic’ constitution itself, which she herself has emphasized (see Redecker 2011: 123). In doing so, she reinterprets responsibility: “I want to suggest that the very meaning of responsibility must be rethought on the basis of this limitation; it cannot be tied to the conceit of a self fully transparent to itself. Indeed, to take responsibility for oneself is to avow the limits of any selfunderstanding” (Butler 2005: 83). She is concerned with a responsibility at the limits of sovereignty, one that is based not on an ideal of the subject that has little connection with reality, but on those constitutional conditions that she traces phenomenologically, which include precisely those limits of self-knowledge and accountability that are usually postulated as obstacles to responsibility. For Butler, there is an opportunity in accepting the fallibility and the unfulfillability of certain demands that are made on us and that we make on others (see Schönwälder-Kuntze: 2010: 98). It is the opportunity for a responsibility that takes the limits of practical reason as its starting-point. Butler writes: “I am not altogether out of the loop of the Enlightenment if I say, as I do, that reason’s limit is the sign of our humanity. It might even be a legacy of Kant to say so” (Butler 2005: 83). It is not sovereignty that makes responsibility possible, but the admission of weakness, vulnerability, and an irreducible relationship to the other. Whereas some critics mistake the critique of sovereignty for the demolition of agency, I propose that agency begins where sovereignty wanes. The one who acts (who is not the same as the sovereign subject) acts precisely to the extent that he or she is constituted as an actor and, hence, operating within a linguistic field of enabling constraints from the outset (Butler 1997a: 16).

Responsibility is not an unrealistic or overwhelming task. It is rather a task within the conditions and limits from which we come and in which we live. It must therefore not be based on an unattainable ideal, but must extend the potential of given possibilities.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy If there is an operation of agency or, indeed, freedom in this struggle, it takes place in the context of an enabling and limiting field of constraint. This … agency is neither fully determined nor radically free. Its struggle or primary dilemma is to be produced by a world, even as one must produce oneself in some way. This struggle with the unchosen conditions of one’s life, a struggle – an agency – is also made possible, paradoxically, by the persistence of this primary condition of unfreedom (Butler 2005: 19).

The accusation that Butler cannot justify responsibility and the capacity to act beyond her constitution of the subject (see Benhabib 1995b: 111) overlooks the fact that the point of Butler’s concept of the subject is precisely to locate the capacity to act within the process of constant subjectivation (see Purtschert 2004: 192). Butler’s concept of responsibility shows once again how she weaves together seemingly contradictory sources. She combines Hegel and Levinas, dependence and exposure, recognition and alterity/responsibility, asymmetry and dialogicity. The dependence on recognition produces precisely the symbolic vulnerability of subjects, which becomes the starting-point for exposure to responsibility (see Herrmann 2013: 208). With the double asymmetry in relations of recognition and responsibility that she calls for, Butler gains a very specific ontology of the subject as a social ontology. With this social ontology, Butler relies on relationship rather than autonomy, on contingency rather than lucidity, thus reinterpreting ethical theory formation as responsibility. She bases responsibility on the acceptance of constitutional conditions in asymmetrical intersubjectivity. Responsibility is then only possible if it is not denied, because it is the cause of physical vulnerability from which we cannot slip away, which we cannot finally resolve in the name of the subject, but which can provide a way to understand that none of us is fully bounded, utterly separate, but, rather, we are in our skins, given over, in each other’s hands, at each other’s mercy. This is a situation we do not choose. It forms the horizon of choice, and it grounds our responsibility. In this sense, we are not responsible for it, but it creates the conditions under which we assume responsibility. We did not create it, and therefore it is what we must heed (Butler 2005: 101).

Butler thus argues that the cause of social bonds lies in asymmetry, and that is in the double asymmetry of the social, an idea that she gains from her reading of Hegel and Levinas: where the asymmetrical dependence on recognition increases, so the asymmetrical exposure to responsibility increases to the same extent (see Hermann 2013: 210). The outcome is an understanding of responsibility that derives from the structural reciprocity with which Butler takes

Post-sovereign Subjects


into account both the Hegelian figure of recognition and Levinas’ idea of a demand made by the face (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 100).21 It is a conception of responsibility that thinks radically of the limits of the human being and that makes demands precisely at these limits. There, where any understanding becomes difficult, because the other appears to be completely different, incomprehensible, and strange, and where a common basis for dialogue is obviously missing (see Riedl 2016: 153-154). From Dyad to Triad: I/Subject, You/Other, Power/Norm The prehistory of the subject that I have reconstructed so far, a prehistory in which the subject emerges as a subject only after encountering the other, shows the radical shift in Butler’s thinking. From Giving an Account of Oneself onwards, she focuses on the central question, “Who are you?” (Butler 2005: 25), and on the other. While Butler focused in her early work on subjectivation only in the relation between subject and the effect of norms, she now manages to escape this dyadic structure. Instead, she now thinks of “[t]he three elements of ‘society-you-I’ … in terms of their constitution, their content, and their emergence in a reciprocal relationship” (Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 91*). Despite or precisely because of the reference to an ontology, Butler does not abandon what she previously thought, but emphasizes that her ontology, like any reconstruction of the beginning, is only “an attempt to come to terms with what stays enigmatic” (Butler 2005: 78). Here, we can hear once again Butler’s understanding of speculative prehistory, which I already mentioned when dealing with the limits of accountability. All methods to clarify the preconditions of the subject can only be speculative. Butler writes: “[W]e cannot narrate that beginning with any kind of authority; indeed, such a narration is the occasion in which we lose whatever narrative authority we might otherwise enjoy” (2005: 82). And because, for Butler, ontology is necessarily speculative, it remains ineffective and without consequences if it is pursued independently of real conditions. Butler therefore embeds her ontology in the Foucauldian theory of power: Whether or not the other is singular, the other is recognized and confers recognition through a set of norms that govern recognizability…  . [N]orms work not only to direct my conduct but to condition the possible emergence of an encounter between myself and the other (Butler 2005: 25). 21

However, there are also critics who consider this reference to Hegel and Levinas to be unsuccessful or a false interpretation, since Butler thereby obstructs the possibility of normative judgments (see Bedorf 2010: 91; Liebsch 2012: 324). But, in turn, Salaverría (2009) contradicts this criticism.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

This encounter, interpellation and response take place with the help of norms and conventions, and every attempt to give account (like Foucault, Butler: 2005: 121 also talks in terms of “Wahr-sagen [speaking truth]”) takes place within the framework and with the means of discourse.22 Even where subjects oppose the norms, they act with this framework in mind. No one can move outside history or discourse. Drawing in particular on the late Foucault and his understanding of critical accountability, Butler argues that we are not simply the effects of discourses, but that any discourse, any regime of intelligibility, constitutes us at a cost. Our capacity to reflect upon ourselves, to tell the truth about ourselves, is correspondingly limited by what the discourse, the regime, cannot allow into speakability (Butler 2005: 121).

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler also follows the late Foucault because, unlike Nietzsche and Adorno, she recognizes in him the potential to change norms and to think of power as constitutive, but not deterministic (see Butler 2005: 16-18). In order to give and receive recognition, the subject must make itself understood with norms that are not originally its own. And, because the “norms by which I seek to make myself recognizable are not fully mine” and they “are not born with me”, “the temporality of their emergence does not coincide with the temporality of my own life” (Butler 2005: 35). Norms have usually been created before me and will still exist after I have died. By describing, recognizing, and being recognized, “this instance of an indifference in sociality” (Butler 2005: 35) enters life. The subject first becomes ‘I’ through something that does not belong to it and that approaches it from outside: If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognizable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life. But this narrative will be disoriented by what is not mine, or not mine alone. And I will, to some degree, have to make myself substitutable in order to make myself recognizable (Butler 2005: 37).


Butler already sees this idea in Hegel’s work: “Although Hegel is sometimes faulted for understanding recognition as a dyadic structure, we can see that within Phenomenology the struggle for recognition is not the last word. It is important to see that the struggle … reveals the inadequacy of the dyad as a frame of reference for understanding social life. After all, what eventually follows from this scene is a system of customs (Sittlichkeit) and hence a social account of the norms by which … recognition might be sustained in ways more stable than either the life and death struggle or the system of bondage would imply” (2005: 28-29).

Post-sovereign Subjects


By referring to the other, Butler succeeds in giving the Foucauldian structure of power a critical and transformative element. “If that which I am defies narrative capture, compels speculation, insists itself as an opacity that resists all final illumination, then this seems to be a consequence of my fundamental relation to a ‘you’ – an other who is interiorized in ways for which I can give no account” (Butler 2005: 80). The ‘I’, the self, the human is always more than the effect of norms, because the other and the encounter with him or her transcends what can be defined by language and what remains in the darkness of prehistory. The others show the self its own inconceivability by proving their irreducibility in the face of language. The narrative of the self, which turns the self into a linguistically comprehensible ‘what’, is incessantly breached by a ‘who’ (see Purtschert 2004: 200). The encounter with “this other establishes the scene of address as a more primary ethical relation than a reflexive effort to give an account of oneself” (Butler 2005: 21). It is here that Butler sees the relevance of ethics, which is committed to the protection of the unique, singular, linguistically indefinable. Mutually constitutive relationships not only show the effects of power; the other also gives these relationships an ethical dimension (see Bedorf 2010: 91). At the same time, however, Butler emphasizes the effect of power by emphasizing the normative framework in which this encounter between ‘you’ and ‘I’ takes place: In asking the ethical question ‘How ought I to treat another?’ I am immediately caught up in a realm of social normativity, since the other only appears to me, only functions as an other for me, if there is a frame within which I can see and apprehend the other in her separateness and exteriority (Butler 2005: 25).

Butler emphasizes that responsiveness is not without conditions, but requires “a frame for the human” (Butler 2005: 29), precisely that frame of social norms through which the face of the other is conveyed. Drawing on Adorno, who sees the patterns of the human, the idea of the human as necessary but also as always determining, Butler politicizes her ontology: It is not enough to say, in Levinasian vein, that the claim is made upon me prior to my knowing and as an inaugurating instance of my coming into being. That may be formally true, but its truth is of no use to me if I lack the conditions for responsiveness that allow me to apprehend it in the midst of this social and political life (Butler 2009: 179).

It is precisely within the protection of the singularity of the ‘I’, which stems from ontology, that the political (which is more than politics, and in the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

broadest sense stands for the patterns of the human, the norms, the social and political conditions of being human) must be negotiated. Butler’s construction of post-sovereign subjects therefore clearly leads to a post-sovereign ethics. It is only through the interplay of Hegel, Levinas, Foucault, and Adorno, or of ‘I’/subject-you/other-power/norm that the tension conceived by Butler between the conditionality and potentiality of the subject becomes possible and insightful. Butler thus goes beyond her own previous reflections, and acknowledges in The Psychic Life of Power to have generalized “the scene of punishment to account for how a reflexive subject comes about” (Butler 2005: 15). In this linking of ‘I’, ‘you’ and norms, and the “fanning out of the mediation of norms to innumerable scenes of address in which identity is repeatedly realigned on the basis of … normative expectations and aspects of recognition, this process becomes more comprehensible without losing sight of the potential threat of power” (Redecker 2011: 128*). On the contrary, Butler points to the direction that ethics should take by making clear that anthropology never functions only speculatively, that ontology remains blind without the political, and that the political remains empty without ontology. It is not necessary to share Butler’s theoretical approach, her selection of sources, or her interpretation in order to recognize that the question that she raises about the role of social conditions for the constitution of subjects cannot simply be ignored: One might rightly quarrel with the postulation of a preontological persecution by the Other in Levinas or offer an account that challenges … Laplanche. But either way, one must ask how the formation of the subject implies a framework for understanding ethical response and a theory of responsibility (Butler 2005: 135).

Butler’s central question, then, is not whether the theory of recognition is in itself a logical foundation for an edifice of ideas (although to dispute this is not the aim here), but whether this foundation can change the social framework that both enables and limits the subject. This question of the possibilities of an ethics based on the post-sovereign constitution of the subject, which has already been touched upon with the reinterpretation of responsibility, is the focus of my next chapter.

Chapter IV

Post-sovereign Ethics Butler’s reinterpretation of the capacity to act and of responsibility shows that her concern is not with abandoning morality and responsibility, and it is no coincidence that Giving an Account of Oneself is based on the question of how to formulate an appropriate moral philosophy. The previous chapter already made clear that the transition from the question “Who are you?” to the question “How should I treat someone else?” is fluid in Butler’s work. She tries to prove that this question, despite the constitution of the subject that she proposes, is not nonsensical, because we are perfectly capable of acting and being responsible within the limits that are imposed on us. It may therefore not be surprising that she links her discussion of the conditions that constitute the subject and the role of morality to a revision (already flagged up in the introduction to the previous chapter) of “recognition as an ethical project” (Butler 2005: 43). At the center of this ethical project is the question of “the relation that a subject has to morality” (Butler 2005: 10; my emphasis). Although this includes the constitution of subjects dealt with so far, as well as the issue of how to treat the other, it also points beyond this. In her acceptance speech for the Adorno Prize, Butler reformulates Adorno’s thesis of the Minima Moralia, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” (1974: 39 [I, 18]), as the question, “how does one lead a good life in a bad live?” (Butler 2012a: 9) For Butler, this not only entails accepting the importance of context, but also expresses two further convictions: “I must have a sense of my life in order to ask what kind of life to lead, and my life must appear to me as something I might lead, something that does not just lead me.” (Butler 2012a: 10). If we bear in mind that morality here is synonymous with norms, power, the general, the universal, the abstract, then the question that Butler is raising is concerned with nothing else but the framework conditions themselves, and how the subject can behave towards them. This “towards” plays an important role here, since it shows that there is more at stake than just how one behaves within the framework. In the previous chapter on the post-sovereign subject, and especially in the last section on reflexivity, the capacity to act, and responsibility (part A, chapter III.3), we already touched upon the possibility of individual morality within the given framework. What now also comes into view are the structural aspects of an ethics that questions both the possibilities of acting (if not beyond, then at least at the limits of this framework), and thus also the transformation of the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

framework itself. Butler is therefore concerned with change to normative structures. The essential aim of this chapter is to sketch Butler’s concern for a post-sovereign ethics, i.e. an ethics that does not deny the conditions that constitute the subject and power, but nevertheless explores structural changes and the good life. The following two subchapters explore the connection drawn in Giving an Account of Oneself between critique, ethics, and violence. Particularly interesting for the question raised by Butler of how a good life is possible in a bad life are the social framework and the impact of norms. Butler analyzes when, why and how the power that is always present turns into violence, and how the subject entangled in power can stand up to this violence that surrounds, affects, and helps to produce the subject. In raising these questions, she pursues the (lofty) goal of formulating an ethics of non-violence, which I will address in the following subchapter (1). The focus here will be less on her recent political work, and more on the discussion of “violence before violence” that precedes it (Redecker 2011: 138*). Although the focus is on the structural dimension of the discussion, I will also address its political implications. Butler’s reflections on war, international relations, new social movements, and democracy open up a new theme that is already in evidence here. For, Butler already advocates in her ethical reflections a concept of politics by which politics means not only state action, but also the (always already political) area of the social (see Purtschert 2004: 181), which makes the transition between ethics and politics fluid. Butler thus follows Hannah Arendt’s understanding of politics: the political emerges in between and establishes itself as the reference (see Arendt 1993: 9-12), which is why, according to Butler, it must always remain negotiable. I discuss this concept of politics above all in the second subchapter, which deals with Butler’s linkage of ethics and critique (2). This chapter therefore not only returns to the preliminary remarks made at the beginning on understanding Butler (see part A, chapter I), but also shows her search for a decidedly political ethics, for possibilities and practices that actually have a (structurally) transformative effect, without denying our own attachment to these structures. 1

Ethics of Non-violence

Butler’s theory of the post-sovereign subject sees the ‘I’ as being brought into being through recognition by the other; through the other, the subject is expropriated and receives its identity – from its name to what it desires. It is the other who, through recognition, figuratively holds power in its hands. And it is also the other that, with its face, makes this ‘I’ take responsibility. Nevertheless,

Post-sovereign Ethics


Butler’s starting-point for an ethics based on the post-sovereign subject is not this other, but the consequences that the process of recognition has for the self (see Balzer 2014: 513, 515). By turning the stance that subjects take towards relationality and towards their limits “almost into a moral watershed” (Redecker 2011: 118*), Butler not only marks the transition from a theory of the postsovereign subject to a post-sovereign ethics, but also makes “the condition of the possibility of ethics the fundamental finiteness of the human (who, as a knowing entity, always founders at the unthought, the unthinkable, and must therefore ultimately always remain intransparent)” (Meissner 2010: 88-89*). By taking her starting-point as the limits of sovereignty, Butler is concerned not with criticizing supposed inauthenticity, but rather with rejecting exaggerated notions of control and autonomy that the subject uses to do violence to itself and others (see Redecker 2011: 120). While other theories of recognition consider the absence, the refusal, of mutual recognition to be problematic, Butler is primarily concerned with the danger of its violent entry. For, recognition not only produces subjects, but also determines them, which always excludes something else; such a power of recognition is always in danger of turning into violence. In the following, I will examine the connection between ethics and violence in Butler’s thinking in three steps. First, I will present what she understands by the term ethical violence, which I will do by looking at various practices of recognition that Butler deems violent and that she explores both in their individual and structural forms. These forms of ethical violence serve Butler as problem markers for her own interest, which I will investigate in the second step: Butler seeks to uncover violence before violence, those pre-structurings of thought that either entirely or partly conceal the violent nature of certain exclusions and definitions. This interest helps her to formulate an ethics of non-violence, which Butler herself clearly identifies as an ethics of responsibility; this is the focus of my third step. Ethical Violence Before focusing on Butler’s concern with non-violence, we should first understand how she sees ethical violence and where she locates it. For Butler, ethical violence occurs along the border connecting recognition and dehumanization, and thus above all where people do not even come into the realm of a recognized and livable life. Butler explores the issue at both the individual and the societal level, as well as in the various practices of interpellation and recognition. Such practices are first of all those that demand unambiguity and full accountability from those interpellated, and they exercise violence because they demand the impossible, while at the same time risking provoking a counter-reaction in the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

form of violence. This is especially true where autonomy, i.e. self-originality, is expected and valorized. It is precisely because subjects can never fully know themselves that they tend to repress their ecstatic character, their decentration by others, and proclaim themselves as autonomous (see Butler 2005: 76-77). The attempt to break out of social relationships by denying one’s own dependency and vulnerability contains a potential for violence, since it means separating oneself from the other at all costs. Butler goes even further: “To remain decentered, interestingly, means to remain implicated in the death of the other and so at a distance from the unbridled cruelty (the limit case of uncritical enthusiasm) in which the self seeks to separate from its constitutive sociality and annihilate the other” (Butler 2005: 77). This applies not only to individual interpellation, but also to institutional and social systems, and the expectations that they have of individuals and groups: Ethical systems or moral codes that presuppose that the subject is transparent to herself, or that leave us individually responsible for an unconditional recognition of ourselves, tend to inflict a kind of ‘ethical violence’ on fallible creatures. While we must strive for self-cognition, take responsibility for ourselves, and act (or refrain from acting) with discernment, it is equally important to understand that all our striving for harmony within ourselves will always be undermined (Butler 2003a: 10-11*).

Ethical violence also takes place where totalizing judgments and definitions are imposed through recognition. For, recognition that is possessive is final – the other is violently subsumed under categories of sameness, and thus loses its otherness. Wanting completely to define or capture another means doing violence to her, because self-reference and self-recognition on the part of what is thus defined becomes difficult or even impossible. If the categories that one fulfils are declared to be impossible, or one is supposed to fulfil patterns of existence that are impossible to fulfil, then one’s self-understanding collapses (see Redecker 2011: 131). Totalizing recognition prescribes subject positions (as optimal); those that do not achieve them fall outside the framework of recognizability. Their desire for recognition for their own lives then has no chance of being perceived or heard. In extreme cases, it no longer even has the chance of provoking at least some kind of response, not even a negative one (see Liebsch 2012: 326). The relationship to the other falls apart when the (open) question, Who are you?, becomes the (closed) judgment, You are/have to be. In this case, the normative framework makes the definition overpowering. It leaves no room to evert and respond to the interpellation. Where living appropriation is prevented, morality becomes an abstract generality, and thus a form of violence (see Assheuer 2003). Where normativity turns into normalization, it

Post-sovereign Ethics


becomes a source of suffering and exclusion. If this continues, social difference turns into rigidified inequality (see Riedl 2016: 148). Norms then determine recognition completely, and the transformative relation to others fails. The person interpellated can only exist as a subject if she accepts the judgment for herself.23 Butler considers ethical violence not only in individual, but also and above all in collective social structures, and thus gives her work a political twist. To this end, she interprets the actions of states in a similar way to the subject shaped by certain norms (see Redecker 2011: 132). Butler pursues this in relation, for example, to the USA’s reactions to 9/11, and describes how nationalism “works in part by producing and sustaining a certain version of the subject” (Butler 2009: 47): the USA reacts to the injury caused by the terrorist attack not with grief, but by denying the injury. Instead of dealing with the experience of vulnerability, the USA issues a proclamation of sovereignty and strength, calls for a war against evil, and inflicts on others the violence that it itself has experienced (see Butler 2009: 47). To justify this, the USA explains its use of violence by pointing to the fact that it is trying to protect itself, and at the same time denies any commonality with or dependence on the others. Instead, a line is drawn between itself and the others, which dehumanizes the others. Violence therefore leads to violence, and to a spiral of dehumanization. Ethical violence, whether individual or collective, whether demanding or producing unambiguity, requires the unity of the subject and the clear demarcation from the other; it establishes an ‘either/or regime’ by creating an ontological difference between ‘you’ and ‘I’ (see Meier 2005: 194). Demarcation from the other only succeeds when the relational dependence is denied and the other is deemed not to belong to oneself. The other is dehumanized in order to make oneself independent and autonomous. Denying one’s own limits of sovereignty and making the self absolute risk restricting the limits for others, and thus ultimately the limits of what is considered human: [B]ecause the terms by which recognition operates may seek to fix and capture us, they run the risk of arresting desire, and of putting an end to life. As a result, it is important for ethical philosophy to consider that any theory of recognition will have to give an account of the desire for recognition, remembering that desire sets the limits and the conditions for the operation of recognition itself. Indeed, a certain desire to persist … underwrites recognition, so that forms of recognition … that seek to relinquish or destroy the desire to persist, the desire for life itself, undercut the very preconditions of recognition (Butler 2005: 44). 23

Butler is thus much closer to Adorno’s criticism of the idea of unity and Zygmunt Baumann’s critical reflections on modernity than to Derrida’s concept of violence (see Villa 2010: 415).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Violent practices of recognition thus ultimately help to make recognizability as negligible as possible, or making it impossible. This becomes apparent, for example, where prejudice and racism grow out of fear for national identity or security. But, for Butler, processes of dehumanization already begin prior to these aberrations – namely, where certain lives are denied the status of a life (see Redecker 2011: 113). Violence before Violence What Butler is interested in is violence before violence (see Redecker 2011: 111); that is, in what pre-structures thinking and seeing in such a fatal way that the discarded possibilities are not even perceived as loss. She traces this dehumanization in (public) discourses or in refusals of discourse, and deals with the theme by attending to the (taken-for-granted) victims of modern wars who are given no name, no face, no newspaper report (see Butler 2004b: 36). A current example are the dead refugees at the Mexican Border or in the Mediterranean, the African desert, or on their way through South America, who have received no perception as subjects. Western society has drawn the borders of recognition (and the double meaning of this phrase is entirely in line with Butler’s meaning) so high that exclusion has led to a double death, a physical and a social one. “If there is a ‘discourse’, it is a silent and melancholic one in which there have been no lives, and no losses … There is less a dehumanizing discourse at work here than a refusal of discourse that produces dehumanization as a result” (Butler 2004b: 36). For Butler, where people are blind and indifferent to the human dead is where the death of the human begins. She believes that this must have consequences for a society; that it creates a foreclosure that enters into the normative framework and then determines how the human is understood. It is the question already raised with Antigone that Butler takes up again with an impulse that is clearly critical of society: what does it mean for a society if certain losses cannot be grieved? It is closely linked to the question of what makes a life livable, and of who draws the borders of the human, as well as how and why. It is based on the idea that the grievability of life reveals how life is perceived (see Redecker 2011: 111). The reason that someone will not be grieved for, or have already been established as one who is not to be grieved for, is that there is no present structure of support that will sustain that life, which implies that it is devalued, not worth supporting and protecting as a life by dominant schemes of value. The very future of my life depends upon that condition of support … Whether or not I can live a life that has value is not something that I can decide on my own, since it turns out that this life is and is not my own, and that this is what makes me a social creature, and a living one (Butler 2012a: 10-11).

Post-sovereign Ethics


Butler combines the motif of physical survival with that of social survival and dying: “All I really have to say about life is that for it to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable. A life that is in some sense socially dead or already ‘lost’ cannot be grieved when it is actually destroyed” (Butler 2010). Ethical violence does not begin at the final level; it is not only when physical survival is threatened that something is killed. The status as subjects, as participants in social discourse, is also threatened by death, a social death. For the ungrievable victims of war, this is a double death. This is the worst variant, but it also shows that a social death is also violent: “Another word comes our way, a blow, an address or naming that suddenly, inexplicably slaughters, even as one lives on, strangely, as this slaughtered being, speaking away” (Butler 2005: 84). Throughout her work, Butler explores the diverse practices of recognition that lead to ethical violence, which shut down, freeze, and define, and thus limit the space of the livable: The rigid definitions of gender norms, the historically accumulated injurious power in insults, the melancholic foreclosure of certain options for identity, the demands on the self to be coherent and fully accountable, the dehumanization of life manifested in ungrievability, and the denial of one’s own and shared vulnerability that turns into violent assertions of sovereignty – these are all patterns or mechanisms that determine a certain course of events or a certain order of things. And precisely those processes and systems that … threaten nonconformity with ‘unlivability’ (Redecker 2011: 136*).

Those who are identified as nonconformists are threatened by unlivability as much in their existence as in their death, because they are excluded, ungrievable, never attain the status of a subject, or have this status revoked. Butler wants to draw attention here to the fact that a person’s status as a subject and a human are not naturally part of a life. They arise in complex and norm-driven relationships of recognition, and never gain a stability that makes them independent of these norms of recognition (see Redecker 2011: 125). According to Butler, status as subjects of a society is precarious and always revocable; in this sense, human dignity is not inviolable, but highly palpable and under threat. Butler uses the example of the US prison camp at Guantanamo to show that no right, no norm, and no concept of the human being has so far been able to protect against the vulnerability of dignity: A nation (USA), which actually stands behind human rights, simply suspends them for a certain group: When the very human status of those who are imprisoned is called into question, it is a sign that we have made use of a certain parochial frame for understanding the human, and failed to expand our conception of human rights to include those whose values may well test the limits of our own (Butler 2004b: 89).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

For Butler, the spiral of violence and dehumanization can only be escaped if the “limits of acknowledgement” (Butler 2005: 42) are recognized. For, recognition is “the name given to the process that constantly risks destruction and which … could not be recognition without a defining or constitutive risk of destruction” (Butler 2004c: 133). Recognition will therefore always remain ambivalent, oscillating between non-recognition and violence through determination: in order to become a subject and to gain identity, a person must desire recognition, but this is precisely what prevents a persistence in one’s own being, because it requires exposure to others. “The ethical relation is a striving for a social good that promises full recognition. But is it not precisely the failure of this striving for a state of mutual recognition which guarantees this relation as an ethical relation?” (Butler 1998b: 212*) It is precisely from this failure that Butler seeks to gain an ethical meaning (see Butler 2005: 42).24 To be ethical means, in other words, to find oneself in a radically unachievable relation to the Other, and to fail in the attempt to master the Other, and mark this failure of mastery with the border of recognition. If, in Hegelian terms, we wanted to grant full recognition, we would have to establish the Other as a version of ourselves. But it is precisely that resistant aspect of the Other, which we cannot master, that  … must be preserved in and through the ethical relation (Butler 1998b: 213*).

Ethics of Non-violence Since, according to Butler, we can never escape our fundamental connectedness to others, and denying it leads to violence, the only alternative is to face up to this connectedness. Thus, if Butler’s account is correct and the experience of vulnerability often leads to the violent overcoming of it, then a different way of dealing with this vulnerability could be the path to an ethics of non-violence (see Redecker 2011: 134): That we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain, however, is whether the experiences of vulnerability and loss have to lead straight away to military violence and retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war (Butler 2004b: xii).25 24 25

Butler believes “that what we often consider to be ethical ‘failure’ may well have an ethical valence and importance that has not been rightly adjudicated by those who too quickly equate poststructuralism with moral nihilism” (Butler 2005: 21). Redecker refers to the use of the subjunctive, which states: “One searches in vain for the ultimate proof that subjects who face the experience of grief or disorientation must become pacifist. But this could also be seen as an indication that we are dealing with a

Post-sovereign Ethics


Butler’s concern is that an inevitable interdependence should be recognized as the basis not only for individual responsibility, but also for the (political) shaping of society (see Butler 2004b: xii-xiii). I am vulnerable like you; my status is as precarious as yours. This state cannot be overcome by escaping into supposed autonomy. Losing sovereignty in order to become human (see Butler 2003a: 11) becomes the basis of ethics for Butler. No norm can enforce this (see Dungs 2005: 282). It is about not closing oneself to the other, but about taking “the very unbearability of exposure as the sign, the reminder, of a common vulnerability, a common physicality and risk (even as ‘common’ does not mean ‘symmetrical’” (Butler 2005: 100). Much more important even than the insight that we are all vulnerable is, for Butler, that everyone also exercises power and can injure. The awareness of the violence that comes from oneself becomes the key to non-violence, which also includes the acceptance of one’s own limits. The unavailability of the human being has to be applied to oneself, because one is above all also unavailable to oneself. “A certain humility must emerge in this process, perhaps also a certain knowingness about the limits of what there is to know” (Butler 2005: 69). Butler therefore emphasizes the necessity to admit to oneself that everyone is fallible in her knowledge, judgment and action, and to recognize precisely in this what makes us human: If we are to act ethically … we must avow error as constitutive of who we are. This does not mean that we are only error, or that all we say is errant and wrong. But it does mean that what conditions our doing is a constitutive limit, for which we cannot give a full account, and this condition is, paradoxically, the basis of accountability (Butler 2005: 111).

It is an ambitious goal that Butler pursues with the ethics of non-violence. However, the word “goal” does not quite capture her concern, since for Butler it is not an attainable state or a virtue, but a practice of action (see Redecker 2011: 135). A practice in which we cling to the other, or (in relation to institutional and structural practices) to the common conditions of being human, and this under circumstances that actually tempt us to negate this relationship. Butler believes that “the question of ethics emerges precisely at the limits of our schemes of intelligibility, the site where we ask ourselves what it might mean to continue in a dialogue where no common ground can be assumed” (Butler 2005: 21). It is precisely at these points that it will become apparent whether the exit from the spiral of violence and dehumanization is successful, and whether we perceive that we “offer and receive acknowledgment: to someone else who is genuine ethical problem – theory can only point out options here, but cannot predict decisions” (2011: 134*).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

there to be addressed and whose address is there to be received” (Butler 2005: 21-22). It is not a question of abandoning the process of recognition per se, but of modifying the practice. In other words, it is not possible to ignore the normative framework, but it is very possible to act more humanely within the framework. This can sometimes mean suspending judgment.26 But Butler also knows that it would be naive to think that we can do without judgment: Although I am certainly not arguing that we ought never to make judgments – they are urgently necessary for political, legal, and personal life alike – I think that it is important, in rethinking the cultural terms of ethics, to remember that not all ethical relations are reducible to acts of judgment and that the very capacity to judge presupposes a prior relation between those who judge and those who are judged (Butler 2005: 45).

Even where we judge, our relation with the other that precedes the judgment must not be abandoned or denied. “Judgments must not damage recognizability” (see Redecker 2011: 131). It is a matter of always both continuing to address and remaining addressable. The desire to recognize the other must be greater than the determination achieved through recognition. According to Butler, desire is therefore more important than its fulfilment, because the former contains the connection to the other, whereas every fulfilment of desire bears the danger of ethical violence. This means “asking the question ‘Who are you?’ and continuing to ask it without any expectation of a full or final answer” (Butler 2005: 43). For Butler, it follows from this that it is desirable to practice a recognition that addresses without knowing the answer completely, and that does not pursue the goal of grouping as many people as possible together under universal norms of recognition, since it is precisely this tendency towards uniformity that conceals the danger of violence. By drawing on Adorno to politicize Levinas’ notion of exposure, Butler emphasizes that an ethics of non-violence is not only a challenge in the face-toface encounter, but also is present precisely in structural contexts and in political action. At an ontological level, we may ‘only’ be making a mistake when we claim that another person is none of our business, but at a practical level we are thereby exercising ‘real’ violence (see Redecker 2011: 130), since the error has very real consequences: it determines how we speak of the human being and the subject, as well as the attention that we pay to the social framework. 26

The act of forgiveness, or in the legal field of pardon, for example, would be a practice in which the other person is not fixed on her mistake beyond the norms of recognition. “It may be that only through experience of the other under conditions of suspended judgment do we finally become capable of an ethical reflection on the humanity of the other” (Butler 2005: 45).

Post-sovereign Ethics


Recognition therefore means being involved oneself in the production of the framework (of knowledge), a framework that can mean social death for some. Nevertheless, Butler believes that a correct or responsible life in the wrong life, in conditions entangled with power, can be possible. The basis for this is the ethics of responsibility that she developed in line with Adorno, according to which “responsibility has to do with assuming an action in the context of a social world where consequences matter” (Butler 2005: 108). For Butler, this means taking seriously the consequences of the social world, the social constitution of the individual, and not ignoring its power or evading it by denying it, but also not allowing oneself to be determined by it. Determination takes place where it is not the individual who decides what a good life is, but rather the individual who is supposedly living the good, right life. For, “how do I endeavor to lead a good life if I do not have a life to speak of, or when the life that I seek to lead is considered dispensable, or is in fact already abandoned?” (Butler 2012a: 11) Butler’s path leads not to adapting the individual to the norms of real life, but to changing structures. It is necessary to arrive at a (political) practice on the basis of the complex constitutional conditions in which as many lives as possible become (publicly) livable, i.e. perceptible and grievable. It is about a practice in which the human is considered to be common to all, which beyond that cannot be brought to a singular, equalizing ideal, because in it lies the danger of devaluation and exclusion, which destroys any chance of a good life. According to Butler, a good life for many becomes more likely if we do not comprehensively define what constitutes a good life. She knows that it “is possible to read this as a paralyzing contradiction” (Butler 2005: 103), since “it is a model of ethical capaciousness, which understands the pull of the claim and resists that pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself” (Butler 2005: 103). And: “[t]his mode of analysis works to the degree that we accept that social relations are structured by contradiction and that the divergence between abstract principle, on the one side, and practical action, on the other, is constitutive of the historical times” (Butler 2005: 109). Butler believes that no one escapes from entanglement and vulnerability, i.e. the fundamental conditions of existence. Precisely because no act of sovereignty can provide lasting protection, the only way out is to face up to these conditions and make them the basis for action. She admits that she is only cautiously optimistic in this regard: “I’m not sure non-violence saves the purity of someone’s soul, but it does avow a social bond, even when it is violently assaulted from elsewhere” (Butler 2009: 178). Butler thus gives generosity and modesty a place in moral philosophy. In doing so, she certainly does not promote nihilism, but rather advocates the idea that it is the acceptance of


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

our limitations that refers to the ‘humane’ in Adorno’s sense (see Dungs 2006: 248).27 The question of how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to vulnerability becomes the yardstick by which it is decided whether a human life is possible, because “when we do act and speak, we not only disclose ourselves but act on the schemes of intelligibility that govern who will be a speaking being, subjecting them to rupture or revision, consolidating their norms, or contesting their hegemony” (Butler 2005: 132). Butler is aware that her conception of an ethics of non-violence does not eliminate the fundamental vulnerability of life, and probably cannot even ward off every concrete danger. Nevertheless, she is convinced that the attempt to engage in this ambivalence is the more humane way, because it offers “a certain ethical practice, itself experimental, that seeks to preserve life better than destroys it” (Butler 2009: 177). In her view, it is also the more humane way because on this basis we not only act more humanely within the given normative framework, but such speaking and acting also have a performative effect on the framework itself, i.e. the social conditions. The decisive factor for Butler’s project is that each ‘violence before violence’ is not, as some fatalistic variants of even (post)structuralist theory sometimes claim, necessary and always the same. It is the correlate of a respective system, be it heteronormativity or aggressive foreign policy, it can change or even reduce itself with it – even within a certain formation, potentials for violence are not unbroken or without contradiction (Redecker 2011: 15*).

A world in which violence is minimized is therefore possible. An ethics of total non-violence is probably utopian, but, according to Butler, that is no reason not to strive for it. For, even if defining what is human produces the inhuman, “[t]his is no reason to dismiss the term ‘human’, but only a reason to ask how it works, what it forecloses, and what it sometimes opens up” (Butler 2004b: 89). This adherence to questioning already leads into the next section, because Butler’s ethical critique corresponds to an attitude that asks more questions than it answers, desires more than it acknowledges, leaves more open than it determines. Or, as Butler says: Have we ever yet known the human? And what might it take to approach that knowing? Should we be wary of knowing it too soon or of any final or definitive knowing? If we take the field of the human for granted, then we fail to think 27

In her most recent writings in particular, Butler makes it clear that it is not just a matter of passively persevering in one’s own vulnerability, but that the experience of one’s own precarity is not to be transformed into aggression against others, but into resistance against the structures (see Butler 2009: 177-178).

Post-sovereign Ethics


critically and ethically about the consequential ways that the human is being produced, reproduced and deproduced (Butler 2004c: 36).

This is where what is implied in Butler’s entire work comes in: the potentiality of existence demands that the limits of what is grievable, livable and human should not be drawn too narrowly, so as not to make possibilities prematurely impossible. 2

Ethics and Critique

The relationship between ethics and critique is the starting-point of Butler’s work, and I have therefore already referred to it in my passage through her work. It is above all Foucault’s understanding of permanent critique that Butler absorbs. Nevertheless, the shift that began with Giving an Account of Oneself becomes apparent here, too, and the next sections explore this shift in three steps: Firstly, Butler’s ethically motivated critique, which secondly criticizes (conventional) understandings of ethics and the epistemological framework, and thirdly thereby develops into a critical ethics. Underlying this shift is her understanding of performativity, which sees attitudes as also being actions, since they influence the framework of knowledge. For Butler, critique thus increasingly becomes a political process.28 The question is: how are critique and thus also action possible despite and within contingency? At the same time, this shows how Butler, who in her early work started out from a subject that was almost completely subjugated to norms, increasingly broadens the scope for action and resistance. Drawing on the late Foucault’s understanding of critique, Butler increasingly turns the transformative effects already opened up with the notion of the other into an artistic, creative, and self-transformative practice of “desubjugation” (Butler 2002b: 226). Ethically Motivated Critique Butler’s approach from the outset can be understood as an ethically motivated critique. Her entire work is devoted to proving that subjects are dependent on 28

It is based on Arendt’s broad concept of politics, as mentioned in the introduction to this chapter. Butler, however, rejects the separation of public and private: “That private sphere becomes the very background of public action, but should it for that reason be cast as pre-political? Does it, for instance, matter whether relations of equality or dignity or nonviolence exist in that shadowy background where women, children, the elderly and the slave dwell?” (Butler 2012a: 13). In addition, she wants to give the body back to Arendt’s concept of politics (see Butler 2016).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

the (linguistic) categories and norms with which they are brought into being. Butler’s concept of performativity draws attention to the fact that speaking and acting are inexorably interdependent, because even speaking is a form of action and a moral practice: “How one speaks and how one lives are not separate enterprises, even though, as Foucault reminds us, discourse is not life” (Butler 2005: 131). Butler’s “linkage of ‘discourse’ and social ‘being’ makes it possible to understand the limits of the conceivable not as limits of the possible, and to question them in the name of (still) ‘inconceivable’ subject positions” (Purtschert 2004: 187*). She summarizes this concern in Antigone’s Claim in the form of a question: “[how] the world of laws would have to look like, in which Antigone could have survived?” (Butler 2001: 587*) Antigone’s situation is synonymous with all those areas of the abjected that Butler seeks to reveal. The abject designates here precisely those ‘unlivable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the ‘unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject (Butler 1993: 3).

Butler’s critique is thus directed from the outset at theoretical and social systems of order and the boundaries that they create between recognizable and non-recognizable, livable and non-livable. Her critique has the task of questioning the social framework and the norms established within it as well as their effects. The difference is already apparent here between Butler’s critique and the theories that seek to account for generally valid norms. Butler is concerned not with the search for a final, unfathomable, true core, but with a permanently questioning attitude that reveals the production of truth: how and why is it produced? And how does it attain its apparent naturalness? In this, Butler absorbs what Foucault calls permanent critique, which means “pose the question of the limits of our most sure ways of knowing” (Butler 2002b: 215). Critique of (Conventional) Understandings of Ethics and Epistemological Framework Permanent critique means also investigating the epistemological framework and questioning existing understandings of ethics. Butler thus places herself in the Enlightenment tradition, and agrees initially with Kant that it must be a matter of researching the limits of what is knowable and thereby questioning precisely what appears to be most certain. But Kant relies on establishing and stabilizing the realm of the knowable and of reason by determining the limits and transcendental legalities, and thereby omits the realm of the unthinkable. In contrast, poststructuralist critique (to which Butler can be attributed) seeks

Post-sovereign Ethics


to relate precisely to this realm (see Purtschert 2004: 184-185), and Butler’s goal is to question what is apparently clear, necessary and reasonable at its boundaries. Critique has the task of “putting at risk the field of reason itself” (Butler 2002b: 218), since reason, too, is always already entangled in power. Butler agrees with Foucault that there is no critique outside the structures and discursive fields that should be criticized (see Purtschert 2004: 183). This should not be understood as meaning that Butler denies the necessity of norms or the possibility of reason. Rather, for Butler, we can only access all of this not independently of discourse, but within the respective historical and social framework. Like Foucault, Butler points out that a critique of reason does not mean starting from either-or – namely, either from reason or from irrationalism (see Butler 2005: 118; Foucault 2005: 533). Both “loathe to accept the notion that reason is simply divided” (Butler 2005: 118).29 Butler argues that there is a history of reason; or, rather, a history of rationalities. For, at different times or even at the same time, different things are considered rational, which, however, is not synonymous with the collapse of reason. At this point, Butler cites Foucault: “I don’t see how one can say that the forms of rationality … break apart and disperse… . I simply see multiple transformations – but why should one call that the demise [effondrement] of reason?” (Foucault 1989, 251, see Butler 2005, 119). On the contrary, according to Butler, it is not plurality that is dangerous, but the denial of the historical and social framework. To assert a truth independent of it would mean to renounce critique: Insofar as we do tell the truth, we conform to a criterion of truth, and we accept that criterion as binding upon us. To accept that criterion as binding is to assume as primary or unquestionable the form of rationality within which one lives. So telling the truth about oneself comes at a price, and the price of that telling is the suspension of a critical relation to the truth regime in which one lives (Butler 2005: 121-122).

Butler problematizes the primacy of reason. She expands the transitory status of critique and thus radicalizes the gesture of the Enlightenment. Critique serves the goal not of producing and stabilizing the realm of the knowable, but of continually reflecting upon the conditions of how the knowable is produced (see Purtschert 2004: 185). The task of critique is therefore to show “how theory, how philosophy, is always implicated in power” (Butler 1995a: 38) and not to present an analysis unimpaired by power (see Purtschert 2004: 185). 29

Butler criticizes Habermas for leaving the path of critical theory in a problematic way by relying on universal reason instead of a questioning attitude (see Butler 2002b: 213-214).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy Further, the primary task of critique will not be to evaluate whether its objects – social conditions, practices, forms of knowledge, power and discourse – are good or bad, valued highly or demeaned, but to bring into relief the very framework of evaluation itself. What is the relation of knowledge to power such that our epistemological certainties turn out to support a way of structuring the world that forecloses alternative possibilities of ordering? (Butler 2002b: 214)

Permanent critique is therefore also directed at the (self-)foundation of knowledge systems, since “power pervades the very conceptual apparatus that seeks to negotiate its terms, including the subject position of the critic” (Butler 1995a: 39). Just as the self cannot move outside of history, so theory is never beyond what it refers to (see Butler 2005: 115). It is precisely this that obliges knowledgeoriented science not (only) to apply (its own) norms and assumptions instrumentally, but to question these norms and assumptions as the foundations of theory and thus as contingent attitudes of thought. The accusation made by Nussbaum in “The Professor of Parody” (2000b) that this is parasitic or serves rhetorical self-mystification misunderstands that Butler is precisely concerned with the epistemological potential of questioning (see Purtschert 2004: 186). One does not drive to the limits for a thrill experience, or because limits are dangerous and sexy, or because it brings us into a titillating proximity with evil. One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives. The categories by which social life are ordered produce a certain incoherence or entire realms of unspeakability. And it is from this condition, the tear in the fabric of our epistemological web, that the practice of critique emerges, with the awareness that no discourse is adequate here or that our reigning discourses have produced an impasse (Butler 2002b: 215).

This quotation shows how Butler’s critique of (conventional) systems of ethics and their epistemological premises increasingly develops into a critical ethics that ultimately encompasses more than a questioning of the preconditions of thought. Critique already has a double function here: namely, to uncover the connection between power and knowledge, and to trace the discontinuities that lie within the connection; and to find possibilities for change (see Butler 2002b: 222). Critique thereby acquires an explicitly political hue. Critique, for Butler, is ultimately always also political practice: it is not just a matter of pointing out inequality, but also of changing how we perceive it and thus bringing unnoticed exclusions into consciousness. “For Butler, the task of critique is to bring the foreclosed – as a disturbance, as an interruption, as a negative presence – into the field of the discursive, thereby destabilizing the boundaries between the intelligible and the non-intelligible” (Purtschert 2004: 193*). Butler’s advocacy for those who exist on the fringes or outside the

Post-sovereign Ethics


discursively intelligible subject positions is a political application of critique and can at the same time be described as an ethical dimension of her work (see Purtschert 2004: 197). It is precisely because the subject can never completely shake off or leave the social framework, the norms, and the context from which it comes, that it must adopt an attitude of critique towards them. “In this sense ethical deliberation is bound up with the operation of critique” (Butler 2005: 8). According to Butler, the task of ethics is not to accumulate judgment after judgment and constantly to generate new norms, but to be critical of existing norms. For, “[j]udgments operate … as ways to subsume a particular under an already constituted category, whereas critique often asks after the occlusive constitution of the field of categories themselves” (Butler 2002b: 213). This by no means entails simply resigning oneself to existing (power) structures, but rather establishing a critical and resistant relationship to them within the system. This understanding of ethics clearly differs from those that develop a generally valid catalogue of norms as a guideline for the good life (see Purtschert 2004: 197). In her search for an ethics that is not based on following norms, Butler’s central question is how the subject, without denying the conditions of its constitution, can behave in a resistant manner towards them and change the framework. For, according to Butler, “[i]t is, of course, one thing to conduct oneself in relation to a code of conduct, and it is another thing to form oneself as an ethical subject in relation to a code of conduct (and it will be yet another thing to form oneself as that which risks the orderliness of the code itself)” (Butler 2002b: 217). By searching for this third “thing”, i.e. what risks the orderliness of the code itself, Butler finally arrives at what she understands as critical ethics. Critical Ethics Critical ethics “is not merely of a given social practice or a certain horizon of intelligibility within which one practices and institutions appear, it also implies that I come into question myself” (Butler 2005: 23). From Giving an Account of Oneself onwards, Butler begins to turn not only to the relationship between norms and subject, but also in line with the question of the other (Who are you?) to considering how critical practice can be (re-)formulated as an ethical relationship to oneself and others (see Purtschert 2004: 183). The ethical question of a critical practice arises precisely from the other, and above all from those foreclosed subjects who exist despite the apparent impossibility of their existence, and who thus question what we consider to be the only thing possible. From the insecure site of these others, social premises can be recognized as regulative and their status revealed as contingent rather than transcendental (see Purtschert 2004: 189). If the subject is to be critical in the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

sense conceived by Butler, it must question its own constitutional and existential conditions, and put itself on the line and become questionable for the sake of others. This collapse of human irreducibility through alterity also shifts the meaning of contingency. It no longer represents the genealogical-strategic site of critique from which the necessity of social premises can be questioned. Contingency now means having continually to expose the coherence of one’s own self-description (Purtschert 2004: 200*).

It is important always to allow others to question one’s own beliefs and to be prepared to break with what one considers normal and natural. “This break is said to open freedom, to inaugurate a possible transformation, to interrogate the conditioning limits of one’s time, and to risk the self at that limit” (Butler 2005: 122). According to Butler’s reading of Foucault, such a critique, which questions the established order and even the self, is related to virtue, since “virtue is not only a way of complying with or confirming with preestablished norms. It is, more radically, a critical relation to those norms” (Butler 2002b: 215). Critique is thus that attitude in which the subject remains questioning, in which it addresses and remains addressable. Butler cites as an example the Socratic dialogue, which calls for accountability through questioning and thereby brings about change. This account does not have as its goal the establishment of a definitive narrative but constitutes a linguistic and social occasion for self-transformation. Considered pedagogically, it constitutes part of what Socrates exemplified as parrhesia as courageous speaking in a critical spirit in ‘The Apology’ (Butler 2005: 130).

Such a practice of critique is borne by concern for the other, but without wanting to define the other. The subject is called upon to make this critique above all of itself, because it always partly constitutes itself. In the constant process of subjectivation, it should behave critically towards what forms it. Butler does not contradict her thesis here that subjectivation is always also subjugation, but she sees a difference in whether one always gives oneself unquestioningly to subjugation or relates to it critically. For, if that self-forming is done in disobedience to the principles by which one is formed, then virtue becomes the practice by which the self forms itself in desubjugation, which is to say that risks its deformation as a subject, occupying that

Post-sovereign Ethics


ontologically insecure position which poses the question anew (Butler 2002b: 226).

Butler has sought from the very beginning forms of resistance that do not deny the conditions constituting the subject, that do not underestimate power, and that always start where repetition and the lively encounter between people reveal gaps, epistemic cracks, and breaks. The point is not to eradicate the conditions of one’s own production, but only to assume responsibility for living a life that contests the determining power of that production; in other words, that makes good use of the iterability of the productive norms and, hence, of their fragility and transformability (Butler 2009: 170-171).

Both Butler’s methods (eclecticism, (de)construction, genealogy) and the means of resistance that she envisages (parody, subversive behavior, ‘parrhesia’, demonstrations, protests, self-examination/transformation) serve this purpose. All these practices are concerned with changing thinking by exposing it to the foreign (see Butler 2002b: 216). One’s own identity or subjectivity is opened up and pluralized through targeted confrontation with foreign alternatives. More important than the appropriation of foreign knowledge here is the expropriation of one’s own. The aim is cultural self-expropriation, which subjects one to foreign knowledge, and not multiculturalism transplanted into the subject (see Redecker 2011: 139). What these practices of critique have in common is an index of freedom, albeit one that remains implicit for the most part (see Redecker 2011: 137). The normative trait that this suggests may be surprising, but Butler herself describes her concept of critique as having “strong normative commitments that appear in forms that would be difficult, if not impossible, to read within the current grammars of normativity” (Butler 2002b: 214). It is not a matter of deconstruction for the sake of destruction or for the sake of protest itself; it is always a matter of the ethical motivation of critique. Butler therefore calls for a post-sovereign ethics: [A]n ethics (and democracy) that makes the dependence of all people on others a priori, that thus assumes that the ‘trauma’ of existential dependence on linguistic terms that are not available to us must also be seen as a resource. A post-sovereign ethics would not repeat the mistake of first setting a self-presence in order then to have to expose it as an ideology, but would break with the idea of a radically autonomous subject and thus open up a political space marked by a ‘lack of finality’. This enables the recognition of politics as a space for discussion and negotiation (Villa 2010: 415*).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Critique, as Butler sees it, aims to change systems and knowledge, and thus to enable new forms of subjectivity (see Meier 2005: 195-196). Drawing on the later Foucault, Butler rejects the accusation that she only starts with the negative and knows no creativity, since her question “who will be a subject here, and what will count as a life, [opens up] a moment of ethical questioning which requires that we break the habits of judgment in favor of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint” (Butler 2002b: 226). Through Foucault, she gains an understanding of critique that focuses on creative and artistic potential: I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an œuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. (Foucault 1990: 326; see Butler 2005: 44).

For Butler, the artistic potential of a critical ethics is essentially what she practices in her texts: disturbing, parodying, irritating, re-adjusting, making perceptible; and, above all, questioning, questioning, and questioning once again.

Chapter V

Butler’s Philosophy of Freedom: Summary and Evaluation This chapter summarizes and evaluates what we can gain from the specifically Butlerian view of recognition. I will assess Butler’s view, which itself is based on the ideas of power and the subject, and on her ethics of non-violence, by engaging with the central criticisms that have been repeatedly levelled at her approach. To do so, I will focus on five themes that constitute important aspects of Butler’s understanding of ethics: the connection between power and recognition (1), the importance of a living appropriation of norms (2), the limits of recognition (3), the concern for possibilities and an open future (4), and finally the link between participation and solidarity (5). These themes represent a selection and do not claim to be a comprehensive evaluation of all that Butler’s theory has to offer. The decision to focus on them is motivated by the desire to show how Butler’s work combines an always current relationship to the present with a theoretical framework of lasting importance to form the specific (normative) approach of her theory of recognition, an approach that leads to a philosophy of freedom. 1

Power and Recognition

All theories of recognition are based on the notion that we need and strive for the experience of recognition. Butler’s work is no exception here, since she also identifies recognition as a basic human desire (see Balzer 2014: 519). Nevertheless, there are clear differences between Butler’s theory and other theories of recognition – particularly those of Taylor and Honneth,30 but also that of Jessica Benjamin, to whom she is closer. One of the most striking differences is that Butler understands recognition as a process by which the subject is produced. While Taylor and Honneth think of recognition as the attainment of a positive relationship of the self both to itself and to the world, for Butler it is a process in which a self comes into existence in the first place. Butler thus also dissociates herself from a sociological understanding of socialization, “since most sociologists assume that socialization presupposes the internalization of 30

Butler’s reaction to Honneth’s theory can be found in Butler 2008c: 97-119.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

norms. They assume that a ready-made subject internalizes this or that object. But I want to suggest that the subject is formed by social norms” (Butler 2002a: 126*). In other words, only through recognition does a subject emerge. “From Butler’s perspective, both Taylor and Honneth, as well as Benjamin, assess ‘recognition’ too ‘late’, since they conceive of it (or at least tend to) as an event between subjects making ‘claims’ to recognition” (Balzer 2014: 521). Butler also understands the process of recognition as “a venue of power” (Butler 1997a: 12). Non-verbal actions and practices are also an event of recognition. Recognition takes place not only when verbal utterances occur or do not occur (i.e. when one is not addressed). Rather, some actions always take place, while others do not at all. Recognition is therefore an element not only of speech acts, but of actions in general and also of institutional arrangements (see Balzer 2014: 531). Butler thus presents a view of recognition that is much wider both conceptually and phenomenally (see Balzer 2014: 531), and she links recognition, subjectivation and power closely. This still seems strangely free of intersubjectivity in her early work. Although she deals with the effects of power, she limits herself largely to the relationship between norms and subject. Butler’s early conception of recognition sometimes seems to be ‘depersonalized’, whereas Honneth, Taylor and Benjamin, since they largely ignore the cultural and institutional contingencies and dimensions of recognition, are too ‘intersubjective’ (see Balzer 2014: 522-523). This changes significantly in Butler’s work after the other enters the event of recognition and this event becomes an intersubjective process, without the previously strong normative framework being relativized. By now grasping recognition as an intersubjective event within the framework of previous norms, Butler emphasizes that a subject and thus the possibility of self-consciousness and identity only emerge in the process of recognition. This always takes place with the help of previous norms and conventions, and can therefore not be understood independently of the power of social discourse. Butler clearly emphasizes that the ‘I’, the self, the subject, cannot be considered separately from the mechanisms of power: “The ‘institution’ of the ego cannot fully overcome its social residue” (Butler 1997b: 198). There is therefore no speaking, no acting, and no ethics beyond discourse. Any attempt to gain or give recognition is entangled in power relations. For Butler, there is no place beyond power. For, even if recognition takes place through interpellation by others, this interpellation functions only on the basis of a repeatable repertoire of norms that enable addressability in the first place, but at the same time also limit it, “so that what I can ‘be’, quite literally, is constrained in advance by a regime of truth that decides what will and will not be a recognizable form of being” (Butler 2005: 22). This applies both to recognition

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


by others and to self-recognition. Moreover, recognition does not simply bring something or a self into existence; rather, it always brings into existence a social subject. Recognition is therefore not only a problem of mere existence, but more specifically the problem of attaining a social existence and a social being (see Balzer 2014: 521). Recognition determines whether a person can take a social position, and what position that might be. Butler’s subjectifying process of recognition does not describe how individuals are (positively) confirmed and/or valued as the subjects that they already are; rather, it describes how individuals, in drawing on the prevailing norms of recognition, are made into the subjects that they can and should be. Recognition thus appears first and foremost as a constitutive-performative act (see Balzer 2014: 524). The fact that Butler develops her reflections primarily in terms of gender has led to the accusation that she pays too little attention to other relevant issues such as ethnicity and race (see Salih 2002: 92-95). This accusation is unjustified insofar as Butler, by referring to war and terror, expands the repertoire of her themes. Much more important as a counter-argument, however, is that, just because Butler relates her reflections to gender, this does not mean that her theoretical framework cannot be applied to other themes. In conclusion, Butler emphasizes the importance of norms for subjectivation. It becomes clear that power is a force that is immanent to recognition: “Power not only acts on a subject but, in a transitive sense, enacts the subject into being” (Butler 1997b: 13). By stressing this connection between power and recognition in such a decisive way, Butler clearly expands the scope of the concept of recognition (see Bedorf 2010: 95). Her reformulation of recognition as a paradoxical mode of action of power, which a subject both produces and limits, enables Butler to emphasize the inherent dynamic of the social, which remains clearly under-determined in the work of Taylor and Honneth (see Bedorf 2010: 201). This positioning in a “socio-historical horizon” (Butler 2005: 114-115) is reinforced by the fact that Butler’s more recent work no longer pays attention only to the formative effect of discourses, but rather connects this effect with intersubjective encounters. By considering the role of power, history, social norms, rules and conventions, but also of relationships, in the process of subjectivation, Butler emphasizes the importance of context and gives it a systematic place in this process. 2

Living Appropriation

In her theory, Butler emphasizes the importance of power and repeatedly warns against the violence that emanates from norms, which has led to the


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

accusation that she completely ignores recognition that is positive (see Liebsch 2011: 308; Bedorf 2010: 98; Allen 2006: 211). This accusation appears justified in view of the language of Butler’s early work, which sometimes appears to be negativistic and also anti-humanistic, but premature if her entire work is considered. The accusation also overlooks Butler’s understanding of the connection between recognition, power and subjectivation (see Balzer 2014: 525-526), and fails to appreciate that Butler grasps them in a way that is not so much judgmental as analytical. These criticisms therefore tend to be exactly the kind of dichotomous or oppositional lines of reasoning that Butler tries to avoid and overcome (see Balzer 2014: 525-526). Butler starts out from a productive concept of power, which she uses to counter a juridical understanding of power. The subject is produced by means of norms qua interpellation. Subjection as a form of power is understood as neither a positive nor a negative event, but as a process that is productive (see Balzer 2014: 526). In this process, norms are simultaneously the effect of power and the epistemological framework of recognition (see Butler 2005: 29). As an expression of power, they have the tendency towards (violent) normalization (see Butler 2004c: 55), but they are also productive. Butler sees in Foucault not only the negative role of society and norms, but also the aspect of self-empowerment (see Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 92). Recognition is therefore not only a restrictive practice and not a mere form of coercion, but a mode of subjectivation (see Balzer 2014: 528) that limits the possibilities of how we can relate to and represent ourselves. Recognition, as Butler sees it, is an ambivalent process from which an equally ambivalent subject emerges. Recognition can therefore neither presuppose nor produce an autonomous subject. Butler rejects the possibility of complete autonomy. Rather, “autonomy is the logical consequence of a disavowed dependency” (Butler 1995a: 46), a view that shows Butler’s resolute opposition to “ideas of an undisturbed self-relationship and self-transparency brought about through recognition, as well as to ideas of an ‘intact’ identity” (Balzer 2014: 520*). She distances herself from Honneth’s idealization of recognition, and points out instead that the subject emerges from this process not with an undisturbed self-relationship, but rather as “a fragile and fallible subject …, characterized more by its limits than by its sovereignty” (Butler 2003a: 10*). On the other hand, the subject is also not completely exposed to the effect of power. According to Butler, norms always have an effect, but this effect, rather than being piecemeal, is “a repetition that is never merely mechanical” (Butler 1997b: 16). And, because gaps remain in the spiral of repetition, because the repressed, opposing moments of history can be emphasized genealogically, and decon-

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


structive contexts can be played off against each other, Butler’s social philosophy cannot be dismissed as deterministic. She counts on the openness of the future (Redecker 2011: 84-85*).

In the process of recognition, power does indeed act on a subject through norms, produces it and limits it, but it never completely determines it. Thus, “there is no singly or multiply determined subject, but a dynamic social process, a subject who is not only under way, but constituted and reconstituted in the course of social exchange” (Butler 2009: 139-140). Butler knows very well that norms fulfil a function for human coexistence: they are “precisely what binds individuals together, forming the basis of their ethical and political claims” (Butler 2004c: 219); and the “possibility of an ethical response to the face thus requires a normativity of the visual field” (Butler 2005: 29). They are not only “the condition and structure of the subject” (Butler 2002a: 126-127*), but also “the permanent form of its resistance” (Butler 2002a: 127*). This idea becomes clearer once Butler introduces the other into the event of recognition, and emphasizes that recognition consists not only in the interpellation, but also in the response of the interpellated. It is not a mere act of coercion and determination, but consists as a two-way process of interpellation and acceptance or reversal of the interpellation. It is paradoxical because, through subjugation, it enables or causes transgressions (see Balzer 2014: 529). Recognition becomes through others a process, one that requires norms, but looks beyond their impersonal functioning (see Butler 2005: 30). “The address that inaugurates the possibility of agency, in a single stroke, forecloses the possibility of radical autonomy” (Butler 1997a: 26), but it also brings a subject into being and calls it to account. By doing so, it opens up a space for selfrecognition and self-reflection in the first place. If this succeeds, Butler argues in a conciliatory manner, then “norms … are not only part of a power game, but the stage for the ‘self-formation’ of the person and the horizon for a ‘living’ appropriation of morality” (Assheuer 2003*). But when it fails, the norms turn to violence. This happens when interpellation leaves no room for the response because the rules, conventions and norms are so determining that there is no space for self-recognition. In the best case, the subject thus constitutes itself “within a given network of power/discourse which is open to resignification, redeployment, subversive citation from within, and interruption and inadvertent convergences with other such networks” (Butler 1995b: 135). The importance of destabilizing norms suggested here is attributed by critics to Butler’s liberal concept of freedom. This concept might be problematic, because it may not bring into view other forms of the capacity to act and resistance, such as those that exist in non-secular societies (see Purtschert 2004:


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

192; Mahmood 2001: 202-236). Butler herself openly admits her attachment to the critical tradition (see Butler 2005: 131). Whether this already prevents her reflections from being applied to non-secular societies would still have to be examined, however. However, the fact that Butler usually problematizes actions that reproduce norms, because such actions have more of a stabilizing than a transformative effect on power, does not mean that she necessarily excludes other forms of the capacity to act. It would be quite possible to assume that the stabilization of certain norms leads to the destabilization of other norms, especially if the normative is understood as a contested place of opposing, contradictory, mutually excluding, and constantly changing assumptions and instructions (see Purtschert 2004: 192-193). Butler’s productive concept of power is not a vote against norms. She is not concerned with abolishing all norms, as she is repeatedly accused of being. That would also be impossible, according to her own terms. Instead, Butler emphasizes the need for a living appropriation in which people are made into subjects not by coercion, impregnation, or imposition, but through appropriation in the sense that they take norms on (see Balzer 2014: 524; Dungs 2006: 249). At the same time, however, Butler warns that we must not forget that the effect of norms always remains ambivalent: “Sometimes norms function both ways at once, and sometimes they function one way for a given group, and another way for another group” (Butler 2004c: 8). Butler’s productive concept of power opens up an understanding of recognition that can incorporate the contingencies, ruptures, and asymmetries of human life and human relationships without having to harmonize them. It is precisely her phenomenological approach that helps Butler to take seriously the (basic) human experiences of dependence, entanglement, partial blindness, vulnerability, and limitation, without thereby reducing the subject to its incapacity. She neither celebrates “an unproblematic sociality of the individual” (Redecker 2011: 100*), and nor does she attempt to limit this sociality in its fundamental meaning. Instead, she shows the entire connectedness of the subject to the world: “Survival does not take place because an autonomous ego exercises autonomy in confrontation with a countervailing world; on the contrary, no ego can emerge except through animating reference to such a world” (Butler 1997b: 195). However, it is precisely this trace of loss, the limit of the subject, that not only calls into question the conventional philosophy of the subject (see Butler 2005: 113), but also holds the possibility of an ethical practice. For, the fact that we are not fully available to ourselves is no excuse for our actions. In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler explains how her theory of passive subject formation through linguistic power sets limits to self-knowledge on the one hand,

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


and nevertheless serves a conception of responsibility on the other (see Dungs 2005: 279). But, by showing how overtaxing the demand for sovereignty and identity can be (which ultimately cannot be established completely), Butler creates an awareness of a deep relationality and thus also of human limits, which can mean an easing of the burden (see Riedl 2016: 151). Taking power seriously and thus unmasking the anthropological fiction of a free (i.e. nonconnected) individual can help to reject the excessive rhetoric of personal responsibility (see Dungs 2008: 285). What Butler’s productive concept of power has to offer lies in the differentiation that it makes possible. Power must neither be overcome in any form; and nor must we fall into a fatalism that simply accepts all the consequences of power. The subject is not simply an effect of power, and certainly not a oneoff effect, but is created in the constant process of interpellation. Although interpellation takes place within the framework of power, it can at the same time be a living encounter that transforms this framework. “We may well be formed within a matrix of power, but that does not mean we need loyally or automatically reconstitute that matrix throughout the course of our lives” (Butler 2009: 167). The subject can influence the framework that enables and limits recognition. Drawing on Butler thereby opens up two possibilities: a politicized understanding of everyday actions through targeted interventions in normalizing categories; and the disburdening insight that one does not have to be completely free from oppressive power to resist it credibly and effectively (see Redecker 2011: 147-148). 3

Limits of Recognition

Despite arguing for a spirited appropriation of norms and for recognition that is as non-violent as possible, Butler believes that in the final analysis recognition cannot overcome its ambivalence. Her starting-point is the observation that what we recognize as human is always already limited by the social framework, and that any attempt to define the human, no matter how honest it may be, will produce exclusions. As long as theories of recognition struggle with the question of how to pursue inclusivity and recognize the individuality of all people, then they will not solve, but simply perpetuate, the problem of exclusion (see Meyer 2001: 127). Butler wants to avoid this ideological trap of recognition (see Dungs 2008: 293; Bedorf 2010: 98), since she believes that not only foreclosure (and, as a consequence, exclusion) means violence, but also the attempt to make everyone recognizable, with its inevitable homogenization. But“[h]ow, then, do we think about a livable life without positing a single or


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

uniform ideal for that life?” (Butler 2012a: 15). Butler provides her own answer to the question: It is not a matter, in my view, of finding out what the human really is, or should be … I follow Donna Haraway in asking us to think about the complex relationalities that constitute bodily life, and to suggest that we do not need any more ideal forms of the human; rather, we need to understand and attend to the complex set of relations without which we do not exist at all… . no human creature survives or persists without depending on a sustaining environment, social forms of relationality, and economic forms that presume and structure interdependency. It is true that dependency implies vulnerability, and sometimes that vulnerability is precisely a vulnerability to forms of power that threaten or diminish our existence (Butler 2012a: 15).

Butler’s answer reveals her central concern: she wants to draw attention away from the question of right and wrong norms, and instead look for a different attitude towards whatever norms there are (see Redecker 2011: 54). For, even if Butler does not want to abolish norms and warns against making “violence essential to any and all subject formation” (Butler 2009: 169), she still also repeatedly draws attention to the fact that subjects are often “at least partially formed through violence” (Butler 2009: 167), and to what this means for these subjects. Norms are already not only an epistemological frame within which the face appears, but an operation of power as well, since only by virtue of certain kinds of anthropocentric dispositions and cultural frames will a given face seem to be a human face to any of us (Butler 2005: 29-30).

In processes of recognition, it is after all not only hermeneutic openness or added moral value that is at work, but also power effects that help certain subject forms to prevail (see Bedorf 2010: 95). Unlike with Taylor and Honneth, then, Butler’s question is not how mutual, positive recognition comes about, but, more fundamentally, who is addressed, as well as why and how, i.e. on what normative basis does who become (or is made into) what subject (see Balzer 2015: 531)? This has led to the criticism that, when it comes to the issue of in/exclusion, Butler herself now falls victim to the binarity that she rejects with regard to gender identity (see Lorey 1996: 44). However, this criticism overlooks the fact that Butler addresses exclusion in terms of its structural dimension, and does not focus on binarities in terms of content (see Purtschert 2004: 194). She is concerned not only with showing that some are included and others are excluded, but rather with questioning the system that has rejected certain options in such a way that they are not (or cannot be) perceived as exclusions.

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


Whose lives are grievable, and whose are not? … how do I lead this life? And how do I live this life within the life, the conditions of living, that structure us now? At stake is the following sort of inquiry: whose lives are already considered not lives, or only partially living, or already dead and gone, prior to any explicit destruction or abandonment? (Butler 2012a: 10)

These are the questions with which Butler expresses this concern. She wants to unmask the violence before violence that pre-structures our very perception of inclusion/exclusion. This structural violence, which precedes open violence, can be located, if at all, in the norms that determine who is deemed ‘real’ and ‘right’, and who is not (see Redecker 2011: 51). Unlike in Honneth’s theory of recognition, norms themselves cannot, or can barely, serve as a (values) base for such a critical theory of society (see Balzer 2014: 526). Butler does not want to approach the problematic of existing norms from a perspective that for its part invokes specific norms. She does not want to bring certain principles into play against others, but rather to develop a strategy by which more leeway can be gained within given principles or rules. This critique, which appears to have minimal (normative) preconditions, but demands from the subject a maximal commitment, is to start not from other rules and not from a site beyond all rules, but rather from the limits and internal instabilities of the rules (Redecker 2011: 50*).

Foreclosures, what eludes our consciousness, are not obvious; because our perception is pre-structured, we simply cannot see them. Emancipatory action cannot therefore be based on the subject’s ability to free itself from heteronomy, particularly if we assume that subjects only acquire their capacity to act in subjugation to heteronomous conditions (see Meissner 2010: 24-25). It is for this reason that Butler does not attempt to present a theory that overcomes, determines or locates power. Indeed, she even echoes Foucault when she warns against a “theory of power that would identify their common denominator in any satisfying way” (Butler 2005: 123), because that would spell the end of a critical attitude towards power. Instead, it is a matter of tracing its mechanisms of action. For Butler, power can only be understood in terms of its concrete operations and modes of action (see Butler 2005: 124). Foreclosures can therefore only be called into question by repeatedly destabilizing the borders between the recognized and the non-recognized. This can only be achieved through a thorough diagnosis of the discourses, social practices, and psychological operations that create the situation that leads to some subjects being described as ‘a-normal’, and that serve to make mechanisms of exclusion independent and violence take effect (see Redecker 2011: 137). It is a matter of working on the effects of power until perceptions shift. Butler’s efforts are therefore directed at identifying power structures and at naming them as such in order


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

to wrest them from a veiled naturalization (see Redecker 2011: 15) and thereby expand possibilities and life options. From Butler’s analytical perspective, this practice of expansion can therefore also be described as a deconstructive shift of norms (see Meissner 2010: 24-25). Behind this approach is the insight into the limits of recognition, which Butler emphasizes as the underlying attitude of ethics. For, non-violence can only exist where there is no judgment, no determining knowledge of how to be and to function as a human being. Besides the challenge of this approach for the individual, Butler also always emphasizes its structural component. For her, non-violence may be a personal struggle, but the parameters of that struggle clearly pervade political situations of conflict in which the move to retribution is made quickly and with full moral certitude. It is this juncture of violence and moralization I am trying to undo by suggesting that responsibility may well find a different mooring (Butler 2009: 172).

With this “find a different mooring”, Butler means a responsibility that is based not on the autonomy of the subject, but on its vulnerability. Not denying this vulnerability, but making it the starting-point for action, means not using supposed autonomy to conceal the limited sovereignty that this entails, and not seeking to avert precarity with violence. For Butler, accepting the unavailability of the self to itself is simply more attractive than any attempt to deny or overcome this unavailability (see Redecker 2011: 123). For, the insight into failure, the acceptance of one’s own limitedness, is not a loss, but the basic condition of ethics. “This dispossession does not mean that we have lost the subjective ground for ethics. On the contrary, it may well be the condition for moral inquiry, the condition under which morality itself emerges” (Butler 2005: 8). Only when we accept the limits that are part of being human can we act responsibly. If we deny them, we deny what makes us what we are. What we have to lose by denying them weighs more heavily than the loss of sovereignty (see Dungs 2006: 248). We may then seem to be autonomous, powerful, and safe from exposure, expropriation and vulnerability, but we deprive ourselves not only of the possibility of responsibility, but ultimately of humanity itself. For Butler, we need to lose our sovereignty in order to become human (see Butler 2003a: 11). Morality and responsibility arise precisely from accepting weakness and not from procliaming feigned strength. From the knowledge of one’s own (partial) blindness, judgment about others can be suspended, and no complete and impossible accountability has to be demanded or defined violently. Interpellation is then an open question: Who are you? (see Butler 2005: 31).

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


This ethical approach, which is highly demanding and challenging for the subject, but also for political action, has led to Butler being accused of propounding an ethics of ultimate ends (see Brumlik 2013). Butler herself points out in Giving an Account of Oneself that she understands her reflections as an ethics of responsibility (see Butler 2005: 108-109), but this does not necessarily refute the criticism. Her disagreement with the criticism becomes clearer when she remarks that the matter of non-violence is not about an ideal beyond, not about a way of acting free of the entanglements of real life, and not about a virtue. Rather, it is about a constant struggle to act more responsibly within one’s own limits:31 Non-violence is precisely neither a virtue nor a position and certainly not a set of principles that are to be applied universally. It denotes the mired and conflicted situation of a subject who is injured, rageful, disposed to violent retribution and nevertheless struggles against that action (often crafting the rage against itself). The struggle against violence accepts that violence as one’s own possibility. If that acceptance were not there, if one postured rather as a beautiful soul, as someone by definition without violent aggression, there could be no ethical quandary, no struggle and no problem. Such a position of virtue or principle of purity would disavow or repress the violence from which such positions are wrought. It is crucial to distinguish between (a) that injured and rageful subject who gives moral legitimacy to rageful and injurious conduct, thus transmuting rage into virtue, and (b) that injured and rageful subject who nevertheless seeks to limit the injury that she or he causes, and can do so only through an active struggle with and against aggression. The first involves a moralization of the subject that disavows the violence it inflicts, while the latter necessitates a moral struggle with the idea of non-violence in the midst of an encounter with social violence as well as with one’s own aggression (where the social aggression and ‘one’s own’ transitively affect one another) (Butler 2009: 171-172).

As a result, Butler’s approach offers a (meta-)critique of normativity rather than a conception of recognition as a meta-category. Recognition, as Butler sees it, is suitable as an instrument of hermeneutics. A hermeneutics which, together with an “analysis of the differential working of recognition” (Butler 2009: 142), reveals the “‘implicit logic’ of social practices” that Butler emphasizes (Balzer 2014: 532*). In addition, an essential result of Butler’s work, and one that critics have also acknowledged, is that she always pursues the ontological effects of power in terms of current exclusions and precarities. She provides resolute analyses of current problems and exclusions. However, her 31

Butler refers to Weber’s distinction between an ethics of ultimate ends and an ethics of responsibility, and that these do not have to be opposites, but should be understood as complementary: “Weber ends up arguing that something of the idealism of an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ is required for a political vocation” (Butler 2005: 144, fn. 8).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

linking of the theme of living appropriation and the limits of recognition suggests that her approach wants and is able to go further than revealing exclusion. First, the ambivalences that she creates when she places the impossibility of full recognition alongside the effort to achieve the greatest possible success in recognition must not be interpreted as a systematic error in thinking. On the contrary, this can also be read as her perceiving (often tense) basic human experiences, and taking them seriously. Second, by deconstructing recognition (as appreciation), Butler solves a central problem of recognition theories; or, rather, she does not even let this problem become an issue. “Instead of ‘recognition of difference’, we have: recognition produces difference” (Meyer 2001: 127*). This offers a way out of the ideological trap, because normative antagonism is integrated into the concept of recognition. As recognition loses its idealized status, the space for alternative normative concepts becomes free (see Meyer 2001: 125). The initial insight into the ambivalence of recognition, which consists not only in the double aspect of enabling and suppressing, but essentially in the fact that the repetition of norms possibly repeats the exclusion of the non-recognizable, opens the view to the limits of recognition and an ideological critique of systems of recognition. Third, the analysis of current exclusions and violations serves Butler above all as a marker of those foreclosures that are removed from our direct perception. By tracing these and asking how they work in the production of the subject, Butler addresses the ‘violence before violence’. Besides the analysis of current problems, she thus provides an interpretative framework that can claim lasting normative significance beyond the respective topicality of her themes (see Redecker 2011: 16), and that can be applied to the most diverse contexts. By following the principle that it is not power itself, but rather its excluding modes of action, that are to be questioned (and, in contrast to power itself, these can certainly be criticized and changed), Butler’s analyses contain impulses for an action theory. 4

Possibilities and an Open Future

The “presentness of Butler’s thinking and the critique of violence”, which was discussed in the previous chapter, “converge at a certain point – namely, the refusal to extend an analysis into the future. The prohibition to research into the future is already present in the Talmud. Butler’s work insists on a strong version of this: namely, that one of the axes of violence lies in the foreclosure of the future, which always occurs when a determination … is claimed to be definitive” (Redecker 2011: 16*).

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


Butler’s refusal to advocate a subjectivation beyond exclusion springs from the conviction that the logic of foreclosure can only be overcome by force against what cannot be brought (linguistically) to a common denominator (see Purtschert 2004: 193). Together with her belief that subjects are generated discursively, this has led to the accusation that Butler disregards the individual and aims to destroy individuality. For example, the medical historian Barbara Duden draws on Hannah Arendt’s distinction between a personal ‘who’ and a socially determinable ‘what’ to criticize Butler’s concept of the subject: “I am not without substance, I am not sense-less … I am after all who and not what” (Duden 1993: 29*). A reversed reading of Butler, however, could interpret her refusal to define the human within a normative canon as precisely a concern for the individual and her specificity. Butler is concerned with what is more and different from these norms, with what persistently escapes the normative power of discourse without ever being able to exist entirely outside the existing discourse (see Purtschert 2004: 199). Butler’s refusal would then not be anti-humanism, but would arise precisely from her concern for the humane – namely, for something in the individual that “cannot be entirely captured and subjugated by discursive constructions, something which eludes their totalizing grasp” (Butler 2001: 591*). If Duden’s reproach ever held true, then at most for Butler’s early work. With its attempt to find a new way of dealing with vulnerability and precarity, her ethics of non-violence clearly point in a different direction: In the light of Arendt’s terminology, we could read Butler’s turn to ethics as a redefinition of the relationship between what and who. Genealogical critique problematizes hegemonic conditions of subject formation – and thus what continuously makes persons into a regulated and disciplined what. Ethics, on the other hand, turns to the question of how a fragile relationship of the self to itself and others can be identified in the critical execution of one’s own subjectivation – to the who, in other words, that persistently eludes categorial definitions (Purtschert 2004: 199*).

Butler presents a post-sovereign ethics that does not start with a judgment and a ready knowledge of what the other is to be recognized as, and how. The essential insight here is: “what the Other is cannot be reduced to what can be said” (Butler 2001: 591*). Butler therefore persistently tries to avoid defining and determining what is irreducible and unique in people, what cannot be summarized under any generalizing norm. For, any determination or definition is only to be had at the price of excluding something. This is especially true of those universal definitions that declare something to be generally valid, across context and time. Such definitions prevent themselves from perceiving


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

and reacting to the changes that constantly take place. For Butler, though, this does not mean the end of all universality: I have written about that elsewhere, and wish only to remark here that the problem is not with universality as such but with an operation of universality that fails to be responsive to cultural particularity and fails to undergo a reformulation of itself in response to the social and cultural conditions it includes within its scope of applicability (Butler 2005: 6).

In contrast, Butler seeks to understand universality as a continuous and neverending process of translation, and also speaks of “cultural translation” (Butler 2003b: 24): “Only by keeping categories and identities open can the variation and integration of democratic and ethical possibilities be preserved for the future” (see Redecker 2011: 16). The question of normative evaluations is not abandoned; it is only subordinate in Butler’s concerns. The possibilities must first appear in the field of vision before one can ask how they are to be judged, the criterion for this being that norms enable as many subjects as possible to live a livable life. This means that every principle of universality that disregards cultural specificities and refers to an abstract generality must be subjected to a critical examination (see Dungs 2006: 249). Some critics see the possibilities of Butler’s approach as already being exhausted in the demonstration of humiliating and excluding discourses that this involves (see Bedorf 2010: 97). Butler’s work, however, shows an increasing concern with non-violence, a concern that contains an aspect of freedom that extends beyond the breaking open of the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy: Butler outlines a perspective in which a ‘greater freedom’ can be won for the subjects beyond sovereignty … This corresponds at first to the Hegelian idea that true ‘positive freedom’ can only be achieved in the social, and indeed in conditions of recognition, but in Butler’s work the perspective takes a more specific and critical turn. The subject gains a certain freedom not in recognized selfrealization, but in critical self-expropriation (Redecker 2011: 138*).

For Butler, abjection and melancholy can only be contained by allowing disorientation and grief. This increases uncertainty, but also leads to an expansion of possibilities, which is not possible without uncertainties. Uncertainty is therefore not a state for Butler that should always be overcome as quickly as possible. More can be gained, and more freedom from norms can be expected, in disorientation, in allowing grief. It is about not dissolving the persistence between being and becoming into fixed unambiguities. For, the awareness that one’s own being is constantly at stake opens up an understanding of “morality as a ‘repetition of its becoming’” (Schönwälder-Kuntze 2010: 102*).

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


Critique is therefore for Butler an ethical attitude: a constant questioning that also requires becoming questionable to oneself. This requirement goes beyond the (passive) persistence in vulnerability that the approach to nonviolence demanded. “Moral experience has to do with self-transformation, triggered by a form of knowledge that is foreign to one’s own” (Butler 2002b: 253*). Butler calls not only for the acceptance of passivity, but also for active self-transformation and self-expropriation. “If normalization is the violence before violence, then self-expropriation is the non-violence before freedom” (Redecker 2011: 140*). Butler pleads to be questioned again and again by the other and the foreign, and shows this herself in her work by constantly questioning other thinkers and theories, although Redecker (2011: 140*) rightly criticizes Butler here for (still) not specifying the criteria by which she selects the other and the foreign: “[T]he fact that, with Anzaldúa, Butler selects an author who is Chicana, Mexican, lesbian, American, intellectual, poor, writer, activist … and does not use, for example, Sarah Palin’s autobiography for the purpose of confronting foreign knowledge, would have to be explained in another way – if not through selective sympathies, say, then through shared goals that are pursued in ‘coalitions across differences’”. Redecker is referring here to Butler 2004c: 227-231. Up to now, opening up possibilities appears to be the lowest denominator to which Butler’s normative preconditions to be reduced (see Redecker 2011: 138). This leads again and again to the critical question of which norms Butler uses to orientate herself, and whether opening up possibilities is a sufficient and valuable undertaking in itself (see Benhabib 1995a: 26-29). This criticism is nourished by the suspicion that Butler would not be able to give sufficient positive goals and criteria for her theoretical project, and that her special attention to the restrictive side of norms would place normativity as a whole under a general suspicion (see Redecker 2011: 51). The question is whether Butler offers more than a destructive program. One answer is her approach of (self-)transformation, which, with its critical but also creative potential, points beyond deconstruction. Butler also repeatedly takes up the accusations in her texts, and argues that the question of whether making possible, i.e. aiming for options of freedom, is desirable in itself is “a thought experiment from a privileged perspective” (Redecker 2011: 52): “One might wonder what use ‘open up possibilities’ finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is ‘impossible’, illegible, unrealizable, unreal and illegitimate is likely to pose that question” (Butler 1999b: viii). Elsewhere, Butler writes: “The thought of a possible life is only an indulgence for those who already know themselves to be possible. For those who are still looking to become possible, possibility is a necessity” (Butler 2004c: 219).


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

Butler is also aware of the accusation that she does not formulate any norms. But precisely because the effects of norms are ambivalent, Butler does not see the naming of norms as the simplest solution. But her concern for extending possibilities already contains a normative element. This becomes increasingly clear in her work, and Butler herself makes it explicit when she responds to the criticisms that have been raised: The conception of politics at work here is centrally concerned with the question of survival, of how to create a world in which those who understand their gender and their desire to be nonnormative can live and thrive not only without the threat of violence from the outside but without the pervasive sense of their own unreality, which can lead to suicide or a suicidal life. Lastly, I would ask what place the thinking of the possible has within political theorizing. One can object and say, ah, but you are trying only to make gender complexity possible. But that does not tell us which forms are good or bad; it does not supply the measure, the gauge, the norm. But there is a normative aspiration here, and it has to do with the ability to live and breathe and move and would no doubt belong somewhere in what is called a philosophy of freedom (Butler 2004c: 219).

This philosophy of freedom starts with the fundamental conditions of life, and for Butler this obviously includes not only pure survival but also participation in society, a place in the social structure of norms (see Redecker 2011: 53). It is, then, pointless to argue about how much anthropology is contained in Butler’s reflections. She of course thinks about the human, even emphasizes that there can be no responsible ethics without asking about the conditions of subjectivation, and at the same time emphasizes again and again that this must not only be done speculatively. The philosopher Hans-Peter Krüger (2001: 139) even speaks of Judith Butler’s unknown rediscovery of the inevitability of philosophical anthropology. It is therefore worth looking at how she acquires this anthropology, since she provides something like an anthropological foundation without linking it to a justification of norms. In doing so, Butler succeeds in capturing the critical-ethical disposition of modern Western subjects without having to presuppose a certain moral substance of these subjects (see Meissner 2010: 89). On the contrary, she suspects that the best safeguard for the subject lies precisely in silence regarding what constitutes the human. Butler certainly represents an ontology, but “[i]t is an ontology that departs radically from the ontology of the essential subject prior to discourse, but it is an ontology nonetheless” (Hekman 2014: 456). Butler “argues that the ‘I’ has an ontology; it exists and acts. But its existence is predicated on social norms that give it an ontology” (Hekman 2014: 459).32 She herself uses the term “social 32

Butler is therefore sometimes assigned to the new materialism (see Hekman 2014: 458).

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


ontology” (e. g. Butler 2009: 2) to illustrate how it differs from classical ontology. One could also speak of phenomenological ontology, the means by which Butler makes the turn from the subject that is present to the subject that is constantly becoming performatively: Butler makes clear that the ontology she defines does not refer to the fundamental structure of being. It does not exist outside of the political organization and interpretation. The ‘being’ of the body is defined by norms and social and political association. It follows that it is impossible to attempt to mimesis one’s own precariousness by imposing greater precariousness on others. The ontology of the body is not separate from the social (Hekman 2014: 458).

Located in speculative space, the fundamental relationship between ‘you’ and ‘I’ creates an indissoluble vulnerability and connectedness. However, since this relationship is always already embedded in everrepeating processes of recognition, in language, in a social and physical existence, in a social framework, norms are added to this relationship virtually as a third party. Thus, the speculative, pre-political space of the relationship between ‘you’ and ‘I’ is abandoned. The space of the political, where the question of the good life is raised as a question of justice, is constituted. Butler by no means gives up the idea of the good life, which must always be more than mere survival, but she refuses to adopt a paternalism and (anti-)humanism that irrevocably defines this ‘good’ for others. The peculiarity of this approach becomes clear above all in a direct comparison with Nussbaum, precisely because both are concerned with a life worth living: [B]oth Butler and Nussbaum orientate their work towards the notion of life and making life livable. For Nussbaum (1997), this occurs through the compliance with a list of key requirements, such as bodily health, bodily integrity, life, respect (287-8). For Butler, on the other hand, the question of life cannot be answered once and for all, for one, not only because it will be continuously posed anew but also because it will be challenged anew (Schippers 2014: 52).

Butler points out again and again what it means when not the norm serves the individual, but life, the subject, the individual is adapted to the norm (normalized). The fact that we cannot do without norms does not mean therefore that we have to accept them as they are (see Butler 2004c: 207). Butler tries to give this ambivalence a place, and proposes a way of dealing with norms that is directed not against the norms themselves, but against their tendency to normalize. She demands that the categories of recognition and thus also the future be kept open in order to counteract the exclusive tendency of conferred identity.


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

The ethical background to this (political) demand is the expropriation, connectedness, and vulnerability that lie in the speculative and that unite all people. These stem from a situation of dependence and exposure, and therefore call for a different approach in the political sphere to the precarities of the human, which particularly affect some (possibly as yet unknown) people and groups. It is the double asymmetry on which Butler bases her ethics, thus emphasizing difference and uniqueness. 5

Participation and Solidarity

The issue of realization that Butler’s theory raises clearly leads into her political work, and opens the way to a post-humanist understanding of politics. For all the necessary demarcation of boundaries in a project such as mine, it nevertheless seems justified to take up this concept of politics here. For, it is not only in her strongly political-ethical work that the concept is located; it is already the performative turn from the present to the becoming subject that in Butler’s work becomes the very condition of the capacity to act and of politics (see Butler 1998b: 218). Although she rarely uses the term itself, Butler’s philosophy of freedom boils down to participation rather than universal recognition (see Meyer 2001: 127-128). She is concerned with opening up discursive fields, with destabilizing fixed identities, attributions, and practices of recognition that generate abjection and exclusion. The concept of participation on which this is based is directed against the exclusive effects that emanate from an inclusion oriented towards identities (see Meyer 2001: 132). For Butler, the double face of recognition makes it impossible to adhere to a political ideal of absolute inclusion. She demands that, if politics wants to avoid being ideological, then it must reflect on and consider its excluding effects (see Meyer 2001: 128). Nevertheless, according to Butler, inclusivity must represent in this discussion “an ideal that is impossible to realize but whose unachievability indicates the path along which a radically democratic project can progress” (1998a: 238*). This apparent contradiction can only be resolved if the discourse is transformed “as a site of permanent political contest” (Butler 1995a: 41), where definitions and exclusions are repeatedly broken up. Politics then becomes a performative act, one where “the subject ‘reformulates’ itself in the bursting open, breaking open, and shaking up of ‘identitarian’ systems” (Meyer 2003: 129*). This never happens in isolation, but always in relation to others. It is the “conception of an ‘identity generated participatively’ as a corrective to ‘conferred identity’” (Meyer 2001: 129*). Butler aims in the space of the political to emphasize participation rather

Butler ’ s Philosophy of Freedom


than an ambivalent concept of recognition, which, with its emphatic claim to inclusion, creates exclusion. The fact that this does not mean the end of normative claims is demonstrated by how Butler then understands solidarity. For Butler, solidarity should apply to those who fight against their exclusion and against discrimination. Solidarity is the door or bridge to participation (see Meyer 2001: 132). Unlike Honneth, who tends to limit solidarity in his model of mutual recognition and shared value horizons (see Honneth 1996: 124-129) to those who already belong, Butler focuses on destabilizing exclusionary processes (see Meyer 2001: 132). In doing so, she aims not at the political right to social recognition, but rather at “non-discrimination and opportunities for participation regardless of social prestige” (Meyer 2001: 133*), and thereby resolves what Benhabib has rightly criticized with regard to the debate on recognition: namely, the fusion of struggles over distribution and recognition arising from the homologous use of the concept of recognition (see Benhabib 1999: 38). For this to become possible, norms must always be made dynamic and kept open for the future, which requires a praxis of critiquing self and society, and a constant translation of norms. Social critique means critiquing, deconstructing, and shifting the norms that determine the ontological limits of the intelligibility of subjects (see Meissner 2010: 89). Self-critique requires a praxis that consistently questions one’s own preconditions with regard to their limits, especially when one’s own premises are put forward in the name of liberation (see Purtschert 2004: 187). Finally, translation “will compel each language to change in order to apprehend the other, and this apprehension, at the limits of what is familiar and parochial, will be the occasion of both ethical and a social translation” (Butler 2003b: 24). Butler’s work thus fundamentally amounts to a “model of a discursively shaped freedom” (Meyer 2001: 130*). The philosophy of freedom and its turn to participation that emerges with Butler’s ‘turn to ontology’, or ‘turn to ethics’, may come as less of a surprise if we observe how much Butler struggled from the beginning to make freedom possible. Her early work already showed that her goal was to establish new “terms of  … recognition” (Butler 1993: 21) with which to “broaden the participatory basis of democratic life” (Butler 1993: 21). This theme is pervasive: Echoing the theme of Gender Trouble, Butler argues that the key to contemporary politics must be not the identity of the subject, but the question of how power forms the field in which subjects become possible. We must call into question the framework that silences certain subjects (Heekman 2014: 458).

By posing the question of how violence (co-)constitutes subjects, Butler finally arrives at the question of non-violence, and this consists in an unfinished future, so that it is always possible to “understand the limit of the conceivable not as


PART A: Butler ’ s Philosophy

the limit of the possible, but to question it in the name of (still) ‘inconceivable’ subject positions” (Purtschert 2004: 187*). That Butler’s post-humanism is not anti-humanism cannot be clearer. We must, in the name of the human, allow the human to become something other than is traditionally assumed. In other words, we must embrace the rearticulation of the human. In politics, Butler argues, this demands a double path: simultaneously using the language of entitlement to assert the human while at the same time subjecting our categories to critical scrutiny (Hekman 2014: 457).

Here, the end of humanism is not the end of investigating the human: “Indeed, we can – and must – ask: what can the human mean within the posthumanism?” (Butler 2000c: 279) But the answer, unlike “the conceits of liberal humanism” (Butler 1993: 118), demands a “gesture of humility toward that which cannot be known in its entirety, which resists conceptual mastery, and which draws its ethical significance from this resistance” (Butler 1998b: 214*). The openness that this implies is something other than lawlessness or arbitrariness, which arise from a discourse in which questions of exclusion have little or no political interest. In contrast, Butler’s “gesture of humility” is derived precisely from this interest and is deeply committed to it (see Meyer 2003: 131). The failure of humanism or its unfulfillable demands, the fixations and exclusions generated, can, as a shared experience, become “a source of community or collectivity or a supposed condition of universality” (Butler 1998a: 249*). Post-humanist politics is thus located in the field of tension between humanistic values and their deconstruction. ‘Post-humanism’ denotes not an ‘anti-humanist’ or ‘a-humanist’ position, but, as the temporal ‘post’ indicates, a relationship of entanglement with what is criticized. This entanglement, however, is not deficient, but constitutive for normative thinking (Meyer 2003: 131*).

Butler thus presents an approach that makes it possible to act on behalf of those who are denied a name. Nevertheless, she does not claim to be able to speak for these others, who have to be sought out on the fringes of the conceivable (see Purtschert 2004: 198). Respecting the unavailability of the other becomes the basis of ethics and places the praxis of critique alongside this ethics in order constantly to question the social premises of this unavailability. Butler emphasizes that the question of morality cannot be removed from the question of the subject and its conditions of origin, since “the human is constituted and deconstituted” (Butler 2005: 105). Ethics finds “itself embroiled in the task of social theory, but social theory, if it is to yield nonviolent results, must find a living place for this ‘I’” (Butler 2005: 8). What we can conclude from

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this is that ethics requires anthropology. But, because anthropology depends on linguistic and social conditions, ethics requires social theory as a critique of self and society, as well as political responsibility. Butler thus presents an ethics of responsibility that brings together a critical and a political mission, and that combines ethics and social theory (see Butler 2005: 135).

Part B Butler and Theology

Chapter I

Liberation Theology Since their emergence in the 1960s, liberation theologies have developed in manifold forms, rendering it almost impossible to speak of the liberation theology. Today, the concept covers Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theologies, feminist theologies, womanist theologies, Latina/o and mujerista theologies, Native American liberation theologies, and ecojustice theologies. Nevertheless, despite these different strands, we can identify common features and a common origin in Latin American liberation theology: Liberation theologies are contextual theologies, emerging in specific locations and times, and are formulated to address specific forms of suffering and oppression by employing methods of social analysis, which draw upon the sciences (especially the social sciences), and biblical-theological reflection, which draws upon Scripture, religious history, and doctrine. Because these theologies deal with the suffering and oppression of particular endangered groups, central to their concerns are the definition of the human; analysis of sin, especially structural sin that diminishes the worth and status of those in each particular group; and drawing upon theological resources to advocate justice for each oppressed group, including creation itself (Nessan 2017).

I will take my own starting-point from the continuing relevance of these impulses of liberation theology, but I will not attempt a broad description and analysis of liberation theology movements. Instead, my core question is why liberation theology – which emerged in the 1960s in a very specific Latin American context – is still relevant for Western theology, and how it can still shape how theology is practised today. To this end, the first section will consider the option for the poor (1), which, originating in Latin American liberation theology, has not only found its way into other liberation theologies, but also become a central concept in the theology of the world church. Starting with a brief sketch of how the concept has developed, I describe important features of the concept, and flesh out criteria of the option for the poor. In a second step I focus on crisis and internal ruptures of liberation theology, especially regarding the notion of the poor. The second section will first draw on Judith Butler’s work to invoke the poststructuralist critique (2) of liberation theology. I will then show that this critique by no means necessarily leads to the abolition of liberation theology, but can contribute in the interest of liberation to bridging the temporal,


Part B: Butler and Theology

geographical, and cultural gap, and thereby to answering the question of the how and the why of liberation theology today. For, this dialogue creates, with Butler’s critique of the ontological framework, opportunities for classical liberation theology to reformulate its own orientation, its (re)connection to praxis, and the issue of the subject. Issues of subjectivity and identity, ‘I’ and other, resistance and (non-)violence that are raised in Butler’s work address aspects of liberation theology that were central to the latter from the beginning. At the same time, there is in Butler’s understanding of action a similar idea in liberation theology that can help reorienting the Christian ideal of action with a new emphasis: namely, of resistance through entanglement. 1

Option for the Poor

The concept option for the poor (opción por los Pobres) derives from Latin American liberation theology. At the latest since the third general assembly of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM) in Puebla de los Angeles (Mexico) adopted it as its own in 1979, the concept has become also a theological keyword beyond Latin America and now exists in many different forms: “option for the others”, “option for the oppressed”, “option for the victims”, “option for the marginalized”. Yet, the popularity and the increased references to the option for the poor risk alienating or diluting its original idea. Moreover, the formulaic character of the concept gives the impression that it can be invoked like a slogan in order to establish a common basis for discussion. In other words, the impression is given that there is a consensus about its meaning, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be fragile, if not highly contested (see Collet 1992: 68). However, even a cursory look at the history of how the concept emerged indicates the ideas that it contains, its potential applications, but also the extensions of perspective that it requires – in order to prevent the concept from degenerating into a meaningless cliché. Development and Criteria of the Option for the Poor The foundations for the option for the poor were laid primarily at the second general assembly of CELAM, which was held in Medellín in 1968. The assembly was concerned with processing the outcomes of the Second Vatican Council for the South American continent. However, the Council documents that inspired the assembly make no mention of the formulation option for the poor. But the Council certainly says something about the poor, for instance in Ad Gentes (AG) 5, Gaudium et spes (GS) 88, and particularly in Lumen Gentium (LG) 8:

Liberation Theology


Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men. Christ Jesus, ‘though He was by nature God … emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave’ (Ph 2:6), and ‘being rich, became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9) for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice. Christ was sent by the Father ‘to bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart’ (Lk 4:18), ‘to seek and to save what was lost’ (Lk 19:10). Similarly, the Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder. It does all it can to relieve their need and in them it strives to serve Christ.

In fact, the concept option for the poor does not appear in the Medellín documents themselves, either; it is only in Puebla that the concept is developed in detail. The first time that the formulation option for the poor was used was probably in the closing communiqué of the third national meeting of the Peruvian Priests’ Movement (ONIS), which was held in Lima from 9 to 14 November 1970 (see Collet 1992: 76). Nevertheless, crucial points are formulated in Medellín, where the following argument is already made: The Latin American bishops cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social injustices existent in Latin America, which keep the majority of our peoples in dismal poverty, which in many cases becomes inhuman wretchedness. A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else (14:1-2).

And Medellín (14:9) also already calls the church to account in the discipleship of Christ: The Lord’s distinct commandment to ‘evangelize the poor’ ought to bring us to a distribution of resources and apostolic personnel that effectively gives preference to the poorest and most needy sectors and to those segregated for any cause whatsoever, animating and accelerating the initiatives and studies that are already being made with that goal in mind.

These two passages already reveal crucial ideas, criteria, and perspectives. This also becomes clear with the later choice of the term option (Spanish: opción) that indicates that it is not about a choice (this would be elección in Spanish), but about a fundamental direction, a predetermination with clear consequences (see Calderón 2006: 15-36). Jon Sobrino points out that the option for the poor is an underlying understanding on the part of Christology, and writes: “What I want to emphasize, however, is that the socalled option for the poor is more than a pastoral option; it is an all-embracing


Part B: Butler and Theology

option to grasp the whole view, but to see it consciously from one position” (Sobrino 1993, 33). The option for the poor thus marks an epistemological break that we cannot simply negate, and this becomes particularly apparent against the background of the Council’s statements. How the Second Vatican Council was received in Latin America gave the ideas of the Council a different perspective, with the Council’s reflections regarding the world church now being viewed from below, from the experiences of the poorest on the South American continent (see Collet 1992: 74): Vatican II speaks of the underdevelopment of peoples, of the developed countries and what they can and should do about this underdevelopment; Medellín tries to deal with the problem from the standpoint of the poor countries, characterizing them as subjected to a new kind of colonialism. Vatican II talks about a Church in the world and describes the relationship in a way which tends to neutralize the conflicts; Medellín demonstrates that the world in which the Latin American Church ought to be present is full revolution. Vatican II sketches a general outline for Church renewal; Medellín provides guidelines for a transformation of the Church in terms of its presence on a continent of misery and injustice (Gutiérrez 1973: 134).

This also makes clear that liberation theology and the option for the poor are contextually bound. This context is shaped undoubtedly by the dualisms of the Cold War, but above all also by the situation of the poor in Latin America, which makes it impossible simply to transfer the principle to other parts of the world without reflecting on its origins. The idea of the option for the poor is embedded in the context of a social analysis that is already apparent in the quoted passages from Medellín (see 14, 2), and includes a critique of capitalism. Gustavo Gutiérrez notes in a speech at the meeting of El Escorial in 1972: The poor do not exist as something fateful; their existence is neither politically neutral nor ethically indifferent. The poor are the by-product of a system in which we live, and for which we are responsible… . Poor is the oppressed, the exploited, those cheated of the fruits of their labour and robbed of their humanity. This is why the poverty of the poor is not a call to noble deeds that seek to alleviate it, but a call to create a different social order (cited in Collet 1992: 78*).

Liberation theory therefore focuses its social analysis on the economic dimension. From the 1970s, reference to the option for the poor has grown in popularity, with a shift in the hermeneutical matrix. While liberation theology was at first the praxis of small groups, it now focuses increasingly on impoverished peoples, classes and masses (see Collet 1992: 79). Nevertheless, also Puebla (the

Liberation Theology


third general assembly of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America) is firmly rooted in the tradition of Medellín, since it also begins with an analysis of the situation and then reflects on poverty from a theological and Christological perspective. Puebla (1145) further specifies the option for the poor as “preferred”: By drawing near to the poor in order to accompany them and serve them, we do what Christ taught us, to make ourselves into our brother, who is poor like we are. For this reason the service of the poor is the preferred, though not the exclusive, measure of our attempts to follow Christ (my emphasis).

This “preferred” gave rise to many speculations, comments and critiques,33 such that liberation theologians frequently felt compelled to emphasize that the point is not to exclude anyone, but to establish a priority in order to express without restrictions the universality of the Christian message (see Gutiérrez 1983: 127-128; Collet 1992: 77, 81). The Swiss theologian Giancarlo Collet (1992: 82-83) derives from the historical development of the option for the poor four constitutive elements that should inform any reference to the option: 1. A theological option: God himself first chose the poor; this is what Christians have to testify to in their actions. 2. An analytical option: the option for the poor demands an analysis of society and the reasons for poverty. 3. A political option: poverty is not a matter of fate, but calls for resistance to those not committed to solidarity and justice, and for change to those structures and hierarchies that necessitate or cause poverty. 4. A participatory option: the poor are the subjects of their own liberation; participation means taking the other in its otherness seriously. With the option for the poor, liberation theology places itself in the practice of discipleship of Jesus Christ. Faith and the practice of discipleship are the impetus for resisting and dealing with unjust structures. The most effective way to ‘face the reality of Christ’ means ‘getting a grip on the reality of Christ’, for which the most effective way is to go back to the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth; it means ‘taking on the burden of Christ’s reality’, that is, readiness to listen to and respond to his real moral demands and persist in that; it means ‘taking responsibility for Christ’s reality’, that is, making him productive in a real liberating praxis that makes its cause real (Sobrino 1993: 35).


For example, in the Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’ (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 6 August 1984; IX 7; IX 10).


Part B: Butler and Theology

The claim inherent in talking about the option for the poor is to begin with the given reality that is to be analyzed. At the same time, this perspective is by no means neutral, since its starting-point is the suffering of the poor and partisanship for the marginalized. This circularity of recognizing the problem and dealing with it becomes problematic if the analysis of the facts already presupposes a specific and antagonistic reality, which brings me to the crises and internal ruptures of liberation theology. Crisis and Internal Ruptures of Liberation Theology It seems pointless from our perspective today to analyze yet again the possible links between liberation theology and Marxism. The times have changed, the context of the Cold War no longer exists in this form, and there is therefore no need to reopen the often emotionally charged and polarized debates. Central categories such as the option for the poor firmly belong to the vocabulary of the world church, and it is now possible given the temporal distance from the ideological questions to acknowledge with greater serenity the ethical insights of the critical analysis of society. Why, then, does it still make sense to speak of a crisis of liberation theology? It would be too simplistic to find its causes only in social, political and economic changes (although these certainly play an important role), or in the strong opposition that liberation theology has at times faced from the curia. What we need to ask instead is whether it is possible, given our present realities of plural and polarized societies with their multi-dimensional problems, to speak at all of a universal project of liberation that is tied to one universal class. A critical perspective must investigate the reasons for crisis within liberation theology itself, within its internal contradictions and biases. This is something that liberation theologians have also called for: Was there  … a continuous conflation of the terms ‘liberation’ and ‘liberator’, which increasingly lost their concrete meanings and involved an emptying of the language? Was there … a tendency to enclose these terms only in the religious field? Did the theology of liberation in some of its variants not suffer an increasing loss of reality of the historically concrete, i.e. of what happened on our continent politically, socio-economically, and culturally? And did we not continue to speak of liberation without taking into account the actual conditions of liberation? (Castillo 2000: 130*)

A further criticism, one that is certainly to do with the increasing frequency with which mention is made of liberation theology and the option for the poor, is that:

Liberation Theology


The theology of liberation increasingly became a fashionable issue. Terms like ‘the poor’, ‘option for the poor’, and so forth were used like slogans … Other actors were missing: women, black people, and indigenous peoples – and different aspects, such as environmental protection, the gender perspective, the inclusion of everyday life. The phrase ‘for the poor’ lost its meaning (Ress 2004: 186*).

The accusation that liberation theology does not succeed in taking different actors into account is only partly true. Indeed, the liberation theologian Paulo Suess (2009) notes (albeit retrospectively) that the documents of Medellín and Puebla make no reference to the indigenous population of Latin America, the Guaraní, the Maya, and the Quechua. On the other hand, there is also a tendency to integrate more and more into the concept of poverty. The notion of the poor, initially used in line with Marxism and in parallel to the class struggle, and interpreted economically, includes women, black people, and indeed anyone who resists their own oppression. The poor called up with the option for the poor are therefore a collective term for a whole, and indeed highly particular, group, evidenced by the forms and extensions of the phrase to include the marginalized, the oppressed people, etc. This movement from the concrete to the general can be found in the work not only of Gutiérrez, but also of the brothers Boff (see Boff/Boff 1987: 60) and of Sobrino (see 1996: 194). The poor turns into a homogenizing label that erases the vast differences of those that it represents. Gutiérrez (1993: 236), for example, writes: “to be poor is a way of life. It is a way of thinking, of loving, of praying, of believing and hoping, of spending free time, and struggling for a livelihood”. And the lack of differentiation with regard to Latin America becomes even clearer when he says: “The Latin Americans are a people that fight for justice, that is oppressed and at the same time Christian” (see Gutiérrez 1973). Such passages raise the question of how the poor are represented, and how far this representation matches their reality. How is it at all possible to write about the poor of Latin America and not differentiate, for example, between countries and between different forms and causes of poverty? And there is not least the impression that the poor are always spoken for, and that they themselves have no voice. The larger the group of the poor becomes, the less clear it is who the poor actually are. The term is becoming an increasingly empty slogan. The poor are given no names, and are only mentioned in the plural. There is lacking a nuanced analysis of their problems and the possible multifactorial causes of these problems. In the statements of liberation theology, the poor are generally those who die before their time (see Sobrino 1990: 125). There are those who take their lives for granted, and those who cannot. This suggests an


Part B: Butler and Theology

antagonistic world order that is problematic because it erases grey areas: there are only perpetrators and victims, the rich and the poor (see Leidinger 2018: 157). At the same time, the notion of poverty is so charged that the actually existing poor are possibly overwhelmed by their intended role. Both Medellín and Puebla see the poor as a collective, and define them independently of their moral qualities; they think in dialectical terms, presupposing a reality marked by antagonism and conflict (see Leidinger 2018: 119). Even if we take seriously the internal fractures sketched here, liberation theology does not lose significance just because it shows itself to be shaped historically and contextually. Poverty, dependency, and marginalization are still social realities, and the economic dimension of liberation theology’s social analysis remains an important impetus. But it is important to recognize that new subjects have joined, meaning that social analysis must include not only economic aspects, but also issues of race, gender and ethnography. This must be accompanied by the insight that these analyses will not be final, but are also open and in need of renewal to be able to bring new subjects into view. At the same time, regardless of whether we speak of the poor, the marginalized, of classes, masses or the people, liberation theology addresses in all these terms a subject to be liberated. The fact that this concept of the subject has fallen into a crisis over time and is now regarded critically is an issue that liberation theology today cannot ignore. This development, which was decisively promoted by representatives of poststructuralism and expressed as criticism, is the subject of the next section. 2

Poststructuralist Critique

The following section turns to the poststructuralist (or postmodern) critique of the subject, as also clearly formulated by Judith Butler. I am aware that poststructuralism and postmodernism are not identical, even though the terms are often used synonymously. However, since I use both as modes of cognition and not to denote epochs, and since my focus is on the critique of the notion of the subject, a critique which can be assigned to both systems of thought (and with which it has many parallels), I will refrain from providing a detailed distinction between the two. Moreover, we should also note that it was primarily feminist theologians who criticized the notion of “the poor” in liberation theology and the term’s increasing character as a mere label and slogan, and who showed how deeply rooted liberation theology (which is always emphasizing its Latin American origins) is in Western thought and Western theology.

Liberation Theology


This critique is directed very much at the core of liberation theology, since “poststructural theory has raised questions of the viability and efficacy of liberationist aims and methodologies” (Daniels 2016: 109). Nevertheless, the previous section has already shown that the point is not to reject liberation theology as a whole, or even just its decisive achievements and impulses. Like liberation theology, Butler’s theory, with its methods and means of subversion and resistance, is an approach that critiques ideology, and that interrogates and deconstructs paternalistic and capitalist power structures. At the same time, her specific themes and research questions make her a challenge to classical liberation theology. My aim here is therefore not to abandon the central concerns and impulses of liberation theology, but to show “how poststructuralism might provide resources wherein one can envision liberative aims without reifying problematic ontological and epistemological regimes of knowledgepower” (Daniels 2016: 116). My thesis is that taking up the critique formulated here can help meet the internal ruptures of liberation theology, and keep it current and relevant for the future. Critique of the Ontological Framework I have already presented in detail Butler’s critique of the subject in part A, chapter II, and need not do so again here. The question of the subjectivation of the poor raises issues such as empowerment and resistance, and Butler frequently reveals in her deconstructive approach the complex entanglements of power and knowledge in which people, and especially those fighting for liberation, find themselves. The theologian Kwok Pui-lan summarizes the challenges to liberation theology that arises from this: The heart of the debate is over how liberation theology will respond to the postmodern challenge, which has dominated so much of the current cultural and intellectual landscape. Postmodernism questions some of the most basic assumptions of modernism: the constitution of the self as unified and coherent, the representative nature of language, the belief in human reason and universal truth, the commitment to liberal humanism, and optimism vested in technology, development and progress (Kwok 2003: 74).

This questioning (Butler also speaks of decentering the modern notion of the subject) encapsulates a position that is often viewed critically within liberation theology. A truncated understanding of poststructuralism and postmodernism interprets both as synonyms for relativism and the loss of values, which is accompanied by the fear that positions painstakingly won, such as an awareness of the realities of the poor, are carelessly abandoned. Butler herself


Part B: Butler and Theology

formulates the prejudices with regard to the emancipation of women, prejudices that resonate in the background of many a critical statement on postmodernism made by liberation theology: There is the refrain that, just now, when women are beginning to assume the place of subjects, postmodern positions come along to announce that the subject is dead … Some see this as a conspiracy against women and other disenfranchised groups who are now only beginning to speak on their own behalf (Butler 1995a: 48).

However, it should have become sufficiently clear by now that Butler does not abandon the subject, but (only) opposes those approaches that simply presuppose the subject as a given. Butler repeatedly warns of the dangers posed by such approaches: Surely there is a caution offered here, that in the very struggle toward enfranchisement and democratization, we might adopt the very models of domination by which we were oppressed, not realizing that one way that domination works is through the regulation and production of subjects… . To deconstruct is not to negate or to dismiss, but to call into question and, perhaps most importantly, to open up a term, like the subject, to a reusage or redeployment that previously has not been authorized (Butler 1995a: 48-49).

This warning goes to the very heart of liberation theology. Poststructuralist critics, and of these above all feminist theologians, “have elucidated how liberationist discourses have problematically, not to mention ironically, relied on the insights of modern Enlightenment values and priorities” (Daniels 2016: 109). If we take seriously that Butler’s warning does not aim at overcoming the subject, but instead demands a different way of speaking about the subject, one that does not characterize the subject as autonomous and self-originating, then Butler’s critique does not pose a danger to liberation theology. On the contrary, Butler’s insight offers the chance to avoid these dangers, and to show how normative ideas, even when they are used for the purposes of liberation, can exclude, marginalize, and oppress, since “they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression” (Butler 1999: xxiii). No Praise for Vulnerability: Reorienting the Christian Ideal of Action “Butler demonstrates how liberative political aims (such as those found in various iterations of liberation theology) are often founded upon fictive constructions that regulate, delimit, and hinder the potential liberative outcomes they are working towards” (Daniels 2016: 111). It is quite similar for the question of the possibilities for action and resistance, which is closely tied to ontology and

Liberation Theology


the concept of the subject. With its concern for the capacity to act and for the perception of those made invisible, Butler’s approach shows connections to liberation theology here, too. The difference is that for Butler an autonomous, already finished subject is precisely not the condition for the capacity to act: My suggestion is that agency belongs to a way of thinking about persons as instrumental actors who confront an external political field. But if we agree that politics and power exist already at the level at which the subject and its agency are articulated and made possible, then agency can be presumed only at the cost of refusing to inquire into its constructions (Butler 1995a: 46).

For Butler, action occurs as performative action, in repetition, resignification, and in the subversive use of language; action is therefore often rather a selfbehavior, an engagement with extant conditions and structures in which we find ourselves entangled. But taking seriously our own contextuality by no means diminishes the importance of action. On the contrary, it emphasizes that, despite all entanglement, constriction, oppression, and limited possibilities, we can still experience ourselves as resistant, and even regarding the structures that constitute us (see Leidinger 2018: 315). Moreover, and especially in her more recent work, Butler repeatedly emphasizes the bodily exposure of action. The capacity to act derives neither from being an autonomous subject and nor from a universal vulnerability as the conditio humana; rather, being vulnerable, the human being is receptive to changes triggered by others. By not rejecting these changes as an imposition, but engaging with them, the person can at the same time act in resistance to dominant norms and constrictions. According to Butler, resistance is marked by the subject’s receptivity, since the activity of the self arises through being-addressed (see Leidinger 2018: 322). At the center of Butler’s position is precisely that action is only possible in entanglement and connectedness, and that it is precisely here that lies the potential for resistance. The ability to act consists in the acceptance and shaping of dependence. Taking this as a starting-point can not only help overcome the problematic ontology of approaches in liberation theology, but also provide perspectives for reorienting the Christian ideal of action, since the emphasis on our connection to others is not to praise vulnerability. While this relationality requires humility in the face of our own limits and those of others, it is precisely for this reason that vulnerability requires shaping. The ideal is not abandonment, but resistant action. Arguing for resistance and not for self-abandonment as the paradigmatic expression of Christian action means emphasizing the act of shaping rather than that of devotion … Nevertheless, such an ideal of action is not to be located beyond


Part B: Butler and Theology the dependencies and fragilities of human concerns, but on the contrary within human vulnerability. It means presupposing that, despite the apparent lack of alternatives, there is indeed a ‘third way’ possible; and that it is up to human beings to seek and find this third way – in the knowledge that accepting responsibility and making decisions  … also means having to deal with the fact of becoming indebted (Leidinger 2018: 324-325*).

Such an approach also corresponds in many respects to liberation theology, while also allowing the problematic division of idealized poor and non-poor to be countered. The insight that a person has into her own entanglement and relationality, which is the origin of action, also opens up the view for the complexity of situations and causes.

Chapter II

Political Theology When in the following I talk of political theology, I mean primarily the New Political Theology as developed mainly by the German theologian Johann Baptist Metz (1928-2019). The clarification is important, since “political theology” typically evokes another name, that of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). However, what Schmitt expresses with his political theology differs radically from the approach advocated by Metz, which is the reason that Metz called his political theology “new”. Since what is “new” becomes particularly apparent against the background of Schmitt’s thought, I will frequently compare the two. I will do so in the section Theology ‘with its face to the world’ (1), where I will not only present the New Political Theology, but also show the parallels to Butler’s work. Of central importance here are the understanding of the political in the New Political Theology, as well as the concepts of democracy and responsibility. The second section, ‘On the relationship between ethics and politics’ (2), then argues that the relationship between New Political Theology and Butler is not as harmonious as it might at first seem. Here, I discuss the discrepancies between New Political Theology and Butler, and show what a dialogue between the two could achieve, and why such a dialogue could point the way out of a dilemma that besets Critical Theory, but that might also affect New Political Theology. I will first deal with Butler’s theory of the subject, before considering how her critique of ethical violence can lead to a new conception of ethics, one in which Butler’s own approaches to a political theology emerge. 1

Theology “With Its Face to the World” (J. B. Metz)

Metz sees his theology as a Theology of the world (Metz 1969), and charges it with the task of contributing to the development of the world, to the preservation of human life, and to the shaping of a world that is worth living in. For Metz, this task faces three contemporary challenges, none of which can be met either by traditional neoscholastic theology, or by a theology committed to a transcendental and idealistic paradigm. New Political Theology, in contrast, is for him a post-idealistic theology (see Metz 1980; 1992: 211). The first challenge that Metz posits is Marxism and its discovery of the world as history, which yields the insight that there is no disinterested or innocent knowledge. This insight requires in turn a praxis of critique, one that


Part B: Butler and Theology

continually questions the limits of its own premises. The second challenge for theology is the catastrophe of Auschwitz, which precludes a theology that is ahistorical and “all the familiar attempts at reconciliation made by theology” (Metz 1985: 220*). It requires being aware of and remembering the victims of history, and keeping eschatological unrest alive. Histories of suffering can and should not be explained or idealized. The third challenge emerges at the latest in the course of globalization, since it is precisely in becoming aware of a commonly shared world that reveals both how our own standpoint is shaped culturally and contextually, and the violence resulting from the attempt to apply our own perspective to the world as a whole. Yet, precisely because we cannot fully overcome the contextuality of our own perspective, we need to resist oppressive structures and show solidarity with those who suffer (see Metz 1980). Faced with these challenges, theology and Christian praxis must aim for change, and be pursued in a manner that is ethical (morally informed practice to criticize violence), historical (remembering the victims of history), and pathic (solidarity with those who suffer) (see Metz 1980: 56-58). Such a theology can find its task and its justification only in practice. It is directly opposed to a non-dialectical subordination of praxis to theory or the idea. In it, great emphasis is placed on the intelligible force of praxis itself, in the sense of a dialectical tension between theory and praxis. To that extent, it is a theology that operates subjects to the primacy of praxis (Metz 1980: 50).

To prevent theology from becoming subjectless and degenerating into actionism under this primacy of praxis, it also needs a theology of the subject, i.e. it fights, for the sake of the concrete human being, against the replacement of the political ego by the individual, since denying the human being her connection to others deprives her of the social space (see Manemann 2009: 314). The Political in the New Political Theology The starting-point for the New Political Theology is not the question of the relationship between religion and politics, but the turn towards the world. It is only this turn that reveals the intrinsic and most elemental task of theology: namely, to become political. It drives theology towards the world and into the concrete social-historical contexts which, if we take the talk of God seriously, have to be shaped and if necessary changed. This background makes it easier to understand why it is that Metz thinks that the connection of the terms “political” and “theology” is actually a pleonasm (see Manemann 2009: 313). Unlike Carl Schmitt, whose political theology aims for totality, the New Political Theology aims to take the whole into account:

Political Theology


Unlike the political, religion does not give shape to society. Religion is the connection to the whole; it removes borders, inasmuch as it gives rise to the world by giving rise to the world as world through reminding us of another world. This other world is not to be interpreted dualistically. It does not entail devaluing the present world, but nonetheless challenges us to work on shaping the world (Manemann 2009: 322-323*).

Schmitt’s concern was to preserve the order of the state, which had absolute priority, even if it meant breaking or temporarily suspending the constitution. Schmitt’s thinking was based initially on the rule of law and democracy, but not in the sense of a liberal or even deliberative model. He rejected public discourse and intensive communication on state issues (see Schmitt 2007). Parliament, compromise, discussion, and pluralism endanger the unity and functionality of the state. He argued instead for a decisionism, that legal-political idea that foregrounds not discussion, but the clear decision, the decree or the directive. The dictum from his Political Theology (1922/2005) has become well-known: Sovereign is he who decides on the exception… . The exceptional case reveals most clearly the essence of state’s authority … authority proves that to produce law it need not be based on law… . The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. (5-15).

The New Political Theology has a very different understanding of the political, one that has clear parallels with Butler’s. Both draw heavily on Hannah Arendt and adopt her idea that the political only emerges in the between-the-people. There is therefore no actual political substance (see Arendt 1993: 9-12). The field of religion and politics is for the New Political Theology civil society. It is the location for critically assessing institutionalized politics and for pressing for resistance and change. The term “politics” tends to refer to the institutionalized form in Butler’s work, too (this would include in the democratic system the electoral system, political parties, but also basic rights and the legal system), while “the political” denotes what happens between people, with Butler thinking first and foremost here of new social movements, activist groups, and demonstrations in the public space – in other words, all those movements and actions that raise the question of who is represented by politics and whether this representation should not be made open to new subjects. There are also clear differences between Schmitt and the New Political Theology when it comes to the relationship between religion and politics. The New Political Theology does not want a step backwards behind the separation of state and society, but it expresses doubts that modernity has led to a strict separation of religion and politics (see Manemann 2009: 314). Unlike Schmitt,


Part B: Butler and Theology

the New Political Theology therefore does not raise the question of the politicization of religion, but asks: “How can we prevent politics from becoming religiously charged again?” (Moltmann 1984: 72*). Behind this is the awareness that theological questions are not historically, socially, or culturally innocent. The question therefore is, who speaks of God, when, where, how, and with what intention? This stance also makes clear that the New Political Theology should be understood as a reaction to the critique of religion; it is just as concerned with revealing the sociopolitical implications of theology and religion. By “political”, the New Political Theology means more than the mere reflection on the political-ideological and political-practical consequences of religion and theology. Nevertheless, the description as “political” is certainly also to be understood attributively (see Manemann 2009: 313). The Concepts of Democracy and Responsibility Another major difference to Schmitt is how the New Political Theology understands democracy, which is directed not towards unity – one people, one nation, one state – but towards plurality. It is concerned not with defining the body politic or the people, but with enabling the process of subject formation, and that is the solidary subject formation of all. It is for this very reason that, for Metz, political theology must be a “theology of the subject”. Metz thereby wants on the one hand to pre-empt the accusation that political approaches too quickly ignore the subject in favor of society and history, and on the other to take a stance against transcendental approaches that present themselves as distinct theologies of the subject: subject does not refer to the isolated individual, the monad who only afterwards made sure of his co-existence with other subjects. Experiences of solidarity with, antagonism towards, liberation from and anxiety about other subjects form an essential part of the constitution of the religious subject, not afterwards, but from the very beginning (Metz 1980: 61).

For Metz, the theology of the subject should also be elaborated as a theory of history and society. A distinction should be made here between moral and social practice; not making such a distinction disregards the fact that the dominant social praxis is not simply given by nature, but determined by the moral praxis of those who have the say, who are already recognized subjects of society. This description is quite similar to that found in Butler’s work. In Faith in History and Society, Metz writes: I did not make a clear enough distinction in my early attempt to formulate a political theology within the concept of praxis between moral and social

Political Theology


praxis… . It is theologically important that moral praxis not be socially neutral and politically innocent. If the primacy of praxis in theology is taken seriously, this is a bearing not only on moral praxis in the narrower sense, but also on social praxis (Metz 1980: 53-54).

Very similar ideas can be found in Butler’s work: while political theory is often thought of as being in a vertical relationship with political practice, in the sense of being an edifice of thought that analyzes political phenomena from an external perspective, Butler, implicitly drawing on early Critical Theory, assumes that the act of theorizing is itself a specific form of practice, one that can never be completely detached from the political problems and power relations that structure the political field. There are further parallels to Butler’s work when it comes to the understanding of democracy. For the New Political Theology, democracy is always future, and, as we have already seen in part A, chapter V.4, this futurity is also one of Butler’s concerns. Both the New Political Theology and Butler therefore focus not so much on winning majorities as on keeping the excluded minorities in mind and on keeping the democratic system open to the future. For, while the system of institutionalized politics is geared towards persistence, the area of the political produces the necessary dissent always to drive forward politics (and especially democracy), and to protect it from a paralyzing complacency or prevent it from merely administering what exists. Metz also mentions in this context the need to mobilize “spiritual and moral forces by means of a radical democratization of the social infrastructure, a nourishing from below of freedom and effective responsibility” (Metz 1980: 103-104). Butler points out that politics that evades being questioned by the political risks becoming dogmatic (see Butler 2000c: 264). The New Political Theology characterizes itself as anamnetic, since it draws on “dangerous memories”, narratives of failed and unfulfilled hopes (see Metz 2006). This is another essential difference to Schmitt: while Schmitt places politics first, before law and constitution, for the sake of preserving order, the New Political Theology places first the other and the non-possibility of indifference. “The political is rooted in the need to give suffering a voice. This need is the precondition of all justice” (Manemann 2009: 317*). An important source for the New Political Theology is in this regard Levinas, who is also important for Butler. Both draw on Levinas in how they conceive of responsibility: the asymmetry, which lies in the claim made by the other, the encounter of ‘you’ and ‘I’ establishes a fundamental responsibility. This pre-political responsibility becomes political when the third party, which for Butler is the norm, enters the relationship and raises the question of justice. This pre-political responsibility


Part B: Butler and Theology

thus establishes responsibility in sociopolitical cooperation. It is rooted in compassion, and is marked by unpredictability, strangeness, and heteronomy (see Metz 2006: 166-178). Theology offers the New Political Theology the opportunity first to keep alive the awareness of the other in democracy, and second to endure the uncertainty of the democratic process. The first, because recognizing the other as other is one of the core messages of monotheistic religions. The second, because “Biblical monotheism is a unique proclamation against rootedness, a proclamation in favor of productive homelessness” (Manemann 2009: 318319*). The Biblical traditions contain for the New Political Theology the potential for change, one that can help secure a democracy that remains open to the excluded others and to the future. Up to now, I have presented the New Political Theology in terms of how it differs from Carl Schmitt’s political theology, while also pointing out some of the commonalities that it has with Judith Butler. This may not be surprising if we consider how close both the New Political Theology and Butler are to Critical Theory (or even see themselves as belonging to it), and how both develop their ideas in dialogue with Marx, Adorno, Benjamin, and Levinas. But this also raises the question of where the differences between the two lie. Can there be a dialogue between the two positions, one that does not merely affirm the parallels and confirm the position of each, a dialogue that can help further the theological debate? The next section will therefore consider no longer the parallels, but rather the discrepancies, between the New Political Theology and Butler, and thereby explore the potential for such a dialogue. 2

The Relationship between Ethics and Politics

One of the central obstacles to a dialogue between the New Political Theology and Judith Butler lies in their understanding of postmodernism. Metz frequently makes disparaging remarks about postmodernism, thereby reflecting the attitude of the church of his time. In an address made in Cologne Cathedral, Pope John Paul II (1991*) said: During a bygone era, proponents of modern science fought against the church with the slogans reason, freedom, and progress. Today, given the crisis of meaning that science faces, the manifold threats to freedom, and the doubts concerning progress, the battle lines have in a sense switched. Today, it is the church that stands up for reason and science, to which it entrusts the capacity for truth and which it legitimizes as humane undertakings.

Political Theology


Postmodernism has been wrongly depicted as anti-modernism, against which reason and freedom need to be defended. Metz shares precisely this understanding, seeing postmodernism not only as a betrayal of modernity, but ultimately also as a rejection of the God of the Bible (see Bellmann 1993: 104). He writes: All these concepts, which are influential in the humanities, urge us to bid farewell to European modernity. What calls itself ‘postmodern’ today usually bears the mark of a neo-pagan Greek spirit. European modernity, in contrast, bears the blurred traces of the spirit of Biblical traditions (Metz 1991: 122*).

Such positions can be found in the work not only of Metz, but also of other proponents of the New Political Theology, such as Dorothee Sölle (1993) and Kuno Füssel (1993). Misconstruing postmodernism as ‘anything goes’ leads the New Political Theology to defend modernity, which it also often criticizes, and to fight against the apparent death of the subject and of history. This one-sided and blanket rejection of postmodernism loses sight of perspectives that would certainly help the New Political Theology. Much more important, though, is that it prevents the New Political Theology from dealing with those theories that could keep it open to further development and to new discourses. I have already shown that, given her numerous agreements with the New Political Theology, Butler might be a promising partner for such a dialogue.34 We can of course debate how far Butler is a postmodern thinker. She describes herself more as a poststructuralist (see Butler 1995a: 39), and, although poststructuralism and postmodernism are not synonymous, they do certainly overlap. Without wishing to constrict Butler to one tradition of thought (which would be wholly inappropriate, and which she herself rejects again and again), we can nonetheless identify unmistakably postmodern traces running through the positions that she takes: for example, she opposes positions that treat key concepts of the political – such as subject, identity, sovereignty, autonomy, representation, power, the capacity to act – as final reasons or prerequisites that are closed to further negotiation. At the same time, though, she does not abolish these concepts, but regards them as contingent (see Butler 1995a: 35-57), thereby making clear that we cannot do without such foundations in the political sphere. However, these foundations are by no means necessarily given, but 34

This is certainly not to claim that Butler is the only possible partner here, or that this is the first attempt to develop the New Political Theology further. The fact that such an undertaking is difficult, and that it sometimes meets with harsh criticism from within the New Political Theology (see Ramminger/Geitzhaus 2018), is no reason to abandon the attempt.


Part B: Butler and Theology

must themselves become the starting-point and arena for political renegotiations (see Seitz/Schönwälder-Kuntze et al. 2018: 10). It is not only the understanding of postmodernism that impedes a dialogue between the New Political Theology and Butler, however, but also the former’s very specific criticism of the latter’s gender theory (a criticism that I have already refuted in chapter II): namely, that Butler has declared feminist approaches to be obsolete, and has deconstructed the collective subject “woman” so that now it cannot appear as the political subject of the feminist struggle either politically, economically, or ideologically (see Lis 2018: 146). Political theology would face the same threat if it were to engage with such approaches. It would become ‘post-political’, meaning that it would accept the conditions of prevailing problems since it would no longer be concerned with questioning the framework of existing circumstances (see Raminger/ Geitzhaus 2018: 9-10). Theory of the Subject I nonetheless attempt to facilitate a dialogue mainly due to the need identified by Metz for a theology of the subject, and to his insight (already cited) that moral praxis is neither socially innocent nor politically neutral (see p. 153; Metz 1980: 54). Metz sees this insight as being momentous for theology, since it forces us to ask who becomes a subject, and how. But it also means acknowledging that the non-recognition of some people as subjects does not result from their own moral weakness, but is part of a social praxis where some are empowered and others remain or are made powerless (see Metz 1980: 54). Butler consistently shows that, to question and change this social praxis, we cannot only reflect on consensus-oriented deliberation among legitimated and equal partners in discourse, but focus on those who are denied participation in discourses and rights from the outset. She is concerned here with a critical analysis of our systems of representation and their mechanisms, and with how they regulate our ethical attention – and with how ethical claims can nonetheless appear that are rendered invisible in the prevailing system (see Seitz 2018: 84). Politics always regulates and standardizes how ethical claims can appear in the public domain. For Butler, criticizing and resisting this praxis become necessary when politics does so in such a repressive way that claims that are ethically relevant can no longer be perceived as such, and can only still arise if at all on the fringes of social representation (see Seitz 2018: 82). Thus, a processual and consensual model of communicative action is replaced in Butler’s work by a discontinuous and dissensual concept of resistant performative praxis (see Seitz/Schönwälder-Kuntze et al. 2018: 11).

Political Theology


The impulse for such a resistant and emancipatory praxis, as well as for ethical action, does not originate with itself, however, but with being overwhelmed by the other (see Butler 2015: 102). Like the New Political Theology, Butler draws here on Levinas. As a result, both differ from (Aristotelian/Kantian/Utilitarian) approaches that take the subject as given so that it appears as the basis and prerequisite of normative reflections. Both are thus able to identify subjectification as a central problem of ethics. As I have already shown, however, Butler’s definition of the relationship between ethics and politics draws not only on Levinas, but also on Adorno, Hegel, Foucault, and Nietzsche. It is these voices, sometimes rejected by the New Political Theology as being ‘postmodern’, that enables Butler to escape from a dilemma that threatens to ensnare Critical Theory. For critical theory tends to lose the subject, which would be capable of freeing itself from its immaturity, and therefore loses the addressee for an alternative concept. Butler, on the other hand, succeeds in shifting what in Levinas amounts to a radical alterity (one that undermines every subjective self-presence) to the issue of sociality permeated by power, which in turn precedes every subjective capacity for action and constitutes individuals first and foremost as subjects capable of action. Thus, Butler’s later writings can be understood not least as an attempt to mediate how the ethics of alterity and discourse analysis problematize the subject, and to make this problematization mutually fruitful (Seitz 2018: 75*).

Butler thus raises the question of the social framework in which the encounter between ‘you’ and ‘I’ posited in the theory of alterity takes place, thereby demonstrating that sociality precedes alterity: the Other only appears to me at all, she only functions as an other for me, if there is a frame within which I can see and apprehend the other in her separateness and exteriority. So, though I might think of the ethical relation as dyadic or, indeed, as presocial, I am caught up not only in the sphere of normativity but in the problematic of power (Butler 2005: 25).

Alterity is always already socially mediated, since normative structures and systems of recognition can prevent or enable the other to be seen as other in the first place, and to be perceived and given participation as an ethicalpolitical actor. By understanding alterity as being mediated in social discourse, Butler aims for a critical analysis of the discursive, social, and political conditions under which we can be called upon by others to assume ethical responsibility. In doing so,


Part B: Butler and Theology Butler seems to separate two aspects of alterity that for Levinas are intrinsically connected: the claim of the other, which is a constitutive element of the subject, and the ethical factor of a call to responsibility within precisely this claim (Seitz 2018: 80*).

In summary, we can identify a central insight of Butler’s work as being the idea that social visibility and representation in the political system are never simply given, “but are always precarious realizations of power-saturated normative regimes that distribute attention and recognition” (Seitz/Schönwälder-Kuntze et al. 2018: 11*). Moreover, by referring to alterity and the question of how ethical responsibility becomes visible politically, she succeeds in bringing politics and ethics together. She shows the need to investigate the social, political, and discursive conditions that enable the other to be perceived in her alterity. Which frameworks make it possible to recognize a life as being worthy of mourning or protection, as being endangered? Alterity thus ultimately becomes a question of social-moral epistemology and the driving force behind political action (see Seitz 2018: 81). By understanding subjectivation as the hinge between subjection and becoming, and by locating within this hinge a potential for critical reflexivity, Butler is able to retain a certain freedom of action and to look critically at social modes of subjectivation. While sociality has primacy over alterity in Butler’s work, alterity provides criteria at the structural level by which political action and political systems can be evaluated. Critique of Ethical Violence and the New Conception of Ethics I have already shown that it is once again the plurality of positions that Butler weaves together that makes a critical difference. Not one of these positions leads Butler into the ‘anything goes’ feared by the New Political Theology. Although she deconstructs the autonomous subject, for example, she in no way brings about the death of the subject. On the contrary, there may indeed be a power-suffused sociality that precedes every subjective capacity for action and that constitutes individuals as subjects with the capacity for action in the first place. Nonetheless, in combining approaches from alterity theory and discourse analysis, Butler acquires a conception of the political that critically counteracts what she denotes as ethical violence. In doing so, Butler first opposes the violence she sees at work in ethical concepts that demand of the subject an irredeemable sovereignty. To counter such a sovereignty, she relies instead on a post-sovereign subject, and consistently rethinks political sovereignty, the capacity for action, and responsibility in a way that is in strict opposition to classical paradigms of sovereignty, autonomy, identity, and self-representation (see Seitz 2018: 72). But Butler also rejects the

Political Theology


violence that she sees at work in abstract universal norms. This form of ethical violence, as violence of abstract generality, consists in an imposition of universal rules that ignores social, cultural, and historical contexts, and thereby prevents or at least makes it more difficult for subjects to acquire the norms in a living and productive manner (see Seitz 2018: 77). Since Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler has focused not only on revealing this violence in ethical concepts, but also and above all on rethinking the ethical, which she does in repeated attempts and by addressing topical issues. Not only is non-violence a crucial point here, but similarly the danger (also emphasized by the New Political Theology) of “effacing the active traces of past destruction” (Butler 2012b: 99). Butler sees in this a Jewish concern, while also insisting that her Jewish ethics are certainly not exclusive (see Butler 2012b: 99). One essential source for Butler’s re-conception of ethics, and not only since Parting Ways, have been Jewish thinkers and traditions. In Parting Ways, she develops from Judaism a conception of ethics that stands for the recognition of the other and for the rights of the oppressed. While Parting Ways focuses explicitly on these themes, they have, as Butler herself says, accompanied her thinking from the very beginning: “prior to any question of gender or sexuality, there were for me questions regarding the Jewish community, its history of persecution, its methods of expelling its own, its relation to violence, and the question of what of theology could remain after the Nazi death camp” (Butler 2006b: 277-278). Birgit Schippers points out in The Political Philosophy of Judith Butler that, although Butler’s intention is not to develop a political theology, there are at least three points in her work that indicate that this is precisely what she does: 1) her criticism of secular terms and concepts that disguise their religious origins; 2) her insistence on the importance of the religious in the process of subjectivation; and 3) her use of the resources of political theology to reflect on ethics and to address the Israel-Palestine conflict (see Schippers 2014: 93). Especially the first two points are closely related. Since religion is part of subjectivation, it traverses the border between private and public, and, through subjects, becomes a part of society and its rules. For Butler, this is true not only for strongly religious societies; rather, “public life presupposes and reaffirms one dominant religious tradition as the secular” (Butler 2011: 71), which means that religious norms play a role even in the secular countries of the West. Their religious origins are often denied, however, and their norms presented as secular and superior to the religious. One example that Butler cites is the ban on headscarves, which is justified by the argument that it protects women’s equality. Butler’s analyses are therefore especially apt where the right of religions


Part B: Butler and Theology

other than the secularized majority religion to enter the public sphere is challenged, and where exclusive identity politics are pursued (see Schippers 2014: 94). Her counterproposal is laid out mainly in Frames of War, and is based on a politics of changing coalitions to oppose prevailing systems of power, with Butler warning above all that such a politics must prevent feminism and multiculturalism from being played off against each other. It is especially the third point (her use of the resources of political theology to reflect on ethics), though, that leads Butler in the direction of a Jewish political theology, that utilizes Jewish sources for a conception of politics derived from a focus on relationality, scattering, and diaspora, and they articulate a distinctive effort to develop a conception of politics out of political theology, specifically her articulations of forms of political community beyond the traditional confines of the nation state … as well as her critique of the narratives of modernity that frame differential conceptions of religious subjectivities, which she deploys, with the aid of Benjamin’s conception of the messianic expiation and which challenges the juridical conception of the guilty subject (Schippers 2014: 93).

In doing so, Butler not only provides an ethical, historical and pathic approach, but also takes up central tasks demanded by the New Political Theology. She counts on an orientation towards the primacy of praxis, without thereby devaluing or dismissing the necessity of theoretical work, and her extremely detailed concept of the critique of ethical violence takes us one step further. Her aim here is not only to question the praxis of oppression, but also to investigate the practices of remembrance, solidarity, and liberation with regard to their possible exclusionary character. As a way out, she opposes the discursive regulation of knowledge and the epistemic conditionality of being with an ethical foundation of action. We can thereby use Butler to sharpen the concept of the political in the New Political Theology by focusing on critique: the primary task of critique will not be to evaluate whether its objects – social conditions, practices, forms of knowledge, power, and discourse – are good or bad, valued highly or demeaned, but to bring into relief the very framework of evaluation itself. What is the relation of knowledge to power such that our epistemological certainties turn out to support a way of structuring the world that forecloses alternative possibilities of ordering? (Butler 2002b: 252*)

While Butler’s reflections on secularized religious terms could be read as still echoing Schmitt’s political theology, which argues that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”

Political Theology


(Schmitt 1922/2005: 36), her engagement with Jewish resources points in the direction of the New Political Theology, an approach with which Butler is nonetheless presumably unfamiliar. But it should be clear at this point that a dialogue between Butler and the New Political Theology is not only possible, but also based on shared foundations, and that such a dialogue need not be unidirectional, since each can contribute to and learn from the other.

Chapter III

Prophetic Critique The title of this section is not intended to be misleading. In no way is it my intention to identify Judith Butler as the new prophet. I should also point out at this stage that I understand prophecy not in the sense of an unrealistic fantasy, of do-gooderism, or of pipe dreams of a better world. Such an understanding can be heard, for instance, when the educationist and antisemitism researcher Micha Brumlik says in an interview: “In pointed terms, I would … say that Butler explicitly lives what she deems to be a Jewish ethics, and that it is from this perhaps somewhat grandiose stance of, let us say, prophetic critique that she criticizes Israeli policy” (2012*). But what Brumlik also reveals here, whether intentionally or not, is Butler’s proximity to a model of critique that can be found in prophetic texts of the Bible, too. Before addressing this, we should first introduce the issue that tends to take prophetic critique as its model: namely, the tension between universality and particularity. This is not a new problem, whether in philosophy or in theology, but it is still a problem whose weighting raises central questions and consequences in ethics: Given the tension between the divine message of the Christian faith and concrete experiences of social injustice, we must expect a discrepancy to emerge ‘over time’ between the concerns of a universalist ethics to achieve universal communicability, and the challenge of Christian practice: that for the sake of justice we need to act in the here and now in ways that are not (yet) generally acceptable. In this respect, Christian social ethics is called upon to promote prophetic energies and support prophetic action; it must keep open, and answer theologically for, the space of symbolic action that is normatively unshielded and unprotected, but demanded for the sake of justice (Heimbach-Steins 1995: 119*).

While the first section here sketches the problem faced by a theology that neither can nor will relinquish its link to a religious, particularist context, the second focuses on how Butler deals with particularity and universality. In doing so, I will not spell out the theological implications of her radical reconception of ethics, politics, and translation explicitly; rather, these implications will be present throughout, and particularly so against the background of the first section.

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Part B: Butler and Theology

Between Universality and Particularity

This section begins as it were with the abstract or general in order then to work its way to the concrete. The first part introduces the tension between universality and particularity, and explains why this tension is central especially for a theological discourse or theological ethics. This will make clear on the one hand where the attempt to pursue a universal, secularized ethics comes from, and on the other what the price is for giving up the particularity of one’s own message. What this particularity can offer is addressed in the second part, which refers to Amos as a model of prophetic critique, but also of a particularist, sacralized ethos. Universal, Secularized Ethics Since the Second Vatican Council at the latest, no theological discourse can seriously deny its involvement in the world, in its relations, conflicts, and ways of thinking; and nor can it provide orientations from a point of view beyond: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of people United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every human. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds (GS 1).

In recognizing this, theology faces the challenge of explaining how, given the plurality of manifestations of human reason, an ethical claim to universality can be asserted. At its core, then, is the question of how the universal and the particular relate to one another. Especially ethics faces this problem, since it attempts to formulate universally valid norms of action. This is certainly not only a challenge for theology, as it equally concerns philosophical ethics. Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself also starts from the question of how the general and the specific relate to each other. But this problem confronts theology in particular, for without reference to the particularity of one’s own religious tradition and message, the contextual reference is lost and there takes place a “de-theologization of discourse” (Heimbach-Steins 2004: 104*). This becomes clearer when we consider the history of theology, since this shows how theology appropriates Enlightenment ideas and thereby moves closer to philosophy, with religion therefore being suspected of heteronomy and rejected as a source of reason:

Prophetic Critique


In the wake of Kant, the mainstream of the ethical discourse of modernity was detached as a discourse on justice or on moral normativity from the sphere of religion (as source of heteronomy) in the name of the autonomy of moral reason. Thereafter, it has had to legitimize itself and make itself plausible before the forum of moral reason (understood as supra-historical and universal) beyond religious confessions alone (Heimbach-Steins 2004: 104*).

Unlike philosophy, though, theology was doubly challenged to prove itself as an academic discipline: first, in linking to this process of development for ethical justification; second, in defending itself against a deductive model of justification perpetrated by the Catholic magisterium. This emancipation from an authoritative morality on the part of the magisterium, a morality simply enforced without reappraising existing insights and scientific facts, is a crucial step forward that today’s theology cannot ignore. This explains why the freedom of the moral subject, autonomy, and the rationality of ethical claims are still important in the discourse of theological ethics, and the fears that arise when they are criticized. It is feared that a re-theologization of the discourse would lead to an exclusive or group morality that would no longer be able in larger contexts to yield relevance. Although this explains the skepticism regarding a re-theologization of the discourse, we also need to consider the consequences of this development. “If ethics is conceptualized only as a system for justifying norms, then the question of the significance of the religious connection remains external” (Heimbach-Steins 2004: 107*). This is reflected in the loss of profile, both externally and internally: externally, the difference between a theological and a philosophical ethics threatens to disappear, making it necessary to justify theological ethics as a separate discipline; internally, it prevents understanding across the plurality of approaches. Much greater, though, seems to be the damage resulting from abandoning particular horizons of experience. For, if ethical justification largely ignores the religious or theological link, then the only remaining option is often recourse to an abstract universalism. Questions of what constitutes the good life, but also points of reference to real life and references to context, threaten to become unavailable or irrelevant in the formulation of ethical claims (see Heimbach-Steins 2004: 105), with ethics thereby seeming to amount merely to a formal theory for the justification of norms. That this reproach does not only apply to theology is shown among other things by the postmodern criticism of the concept of autonomy and of rationalist constrictions. But this balance seems particularly significant for a theological ethics with its rich potential of particular and experience-related narratives rooted in tradition and Biblical writings. As a consequence of this development, every heteronomous justification of norms is now the object of suspicion, but this leads to the fact that


Part B: Butler and Theology

theological ethics today finds it difficult to show its theological foundations in the first place (see Heimbach-Steins 2004: 103). To give a concrete example of what this wasted potential can be, I will consider prophetic critique in the Book of Amos as a type of reference to the particular. However, the reception of the Book of Amos initially reveals tendencies towards universalization. Martin Buber describes these universalization as follows: “We are accustomed to see in Amos the prophet of divine judgment, and therefore to deny him the passages which speak of the possibility of salvation …, or at best to interpret them in a negative sense” (1949: 103). Amos becomes the prophet of divine judgment par excellence. These universalization is also shown in the fact that, besides other prophetic texts and references to the Bible, it is the Book of Amos in particular that is used in theological ethics as an authority for social justice. This transfer to questions and challenges today takes place with regard both to the social situation criticized by Amos (social and economic inequality, unjustly accumulated wealth, urbanrural disparities, unjust distribution of property, and the resulting scarcity of resources), and to the substantive elements of his critique (appropriation of religion for political ends, exploitation of the poor, wasteful behavior on the part of the rich, religious cult devoid of meaning) (see Heimbach-Steins 2004: 100-102). The prophetic message can thereby be separated from its historical context, its religious foundations, and its literary background, and reduced to a few clearly formulated, central messages. For Michael Walzer, for instance, the universalizable core of the Book of Amos is “don’t oppress the poor” (1987: 77). However, these universalizations “misconstrue the special nature of Israelite prophecy” (Buber 1949: 103). Amos is not a prophet of doom: Hardly ever does he foretell a plainly certain future. YHVH does not deliver into his hand a completed book of fate with all future events written in it … It was something of this kind the ‘false prophets’ pretended … Their main ‘falsity’ lay not in the fact that they prophesy salvation, but that what they prophesy is not depend on question and alternative… . The true prophet does not announce an immutable decree. He speaks into the power of decision lying in the moment, and in such a way that message of disaster just touches this power (Buber 1949: 103).

To reduce the prophetic message to a few sentences that illustrate social criticism and to generalize it without context appears inadequate: It’s unlikely, I think, that what distant readers would learn from the prophets would be a set of abstract rules – or, again, a single rule: don’t oppress the poor. If they knew what oppression was …, they would already know that much. The rule, though it might have different references and applications, would be familiar (Walzer 1987: 78).

Prophetic Critique


I will now use an excerpt from the Book of Amos to illustrate where the potential of a particularist reading lies. Particularist, Sacralized Ethos The Book of Amos is part of the Twelve Prophets and one of the most wellknown texts of Biblical prophecy. I will not consider the text in its entirety here, but focus instead on the excerpt Amos 7:10-17, which reports on the prophet’s expulsion from the sanctuary of Beth-el and from Israel:35 10 11 12

13 14

15 16



Then Amaziah the priest of Beth-el sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying: ‘Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos saith: Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land’. Also Amaziah said unto Amos: ‘O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there; but prophesy not again any more at Beth-el, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a royal house’. Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah: ‘I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore-trees; and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said unto me: Go, prophesy unto My people Israel. Now therefore hear thou the word of the LORD: Thou sayest: Prophesy not against Israel, and preach not against the house of Isaac; Therefore thus saith the LORD: Thy wife shall be a harlot in the city, and thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword, and thy land shall be divided by line; and thou thyself shalt die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land’. The structure of the text and the idea of Amos as a model of Biblical prophecy are taken from Heimbach-Steins (2004: 97-101).


Part B: Butler and Theology

The indentations made by the text illustrate the three different levels of speech. The first level is effectively the narrator’s voice; here are the two speaking persons, Amaziah, the priest of Beth-el, and Amos. On the second level are the statements that they make. On the third level are statements by Amos and by God, reported in indirect speech. This structure illustrates the fundamental conflict that is at work here and that is based not only on the content of the prophetic message, but also and above all on the question of who is allowed to speak prophetically and to act as a critic, as well as when and where. The first lines tell how Amaziah, the priest of the sanctuary Beth-el, denounces Amos to the king, because Amos speaks against the king and stirs up the population. Amaziah first reports the prophecy made by Amos of the king’s violent death and Israel’s downfall, before he “then bids the prophet hasten and remove himself from the twofold authority of the king’s sanctuary and the royal house …, and return to his native land of Judah” (Buber 1949: 108). This is followed by Amos’ reply, who points out that he has not always been a prophet, but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore-trees (Am 14). Only the direct order from God to speak took him away from his flocks and turned him into a prophet. Amos reacts to his expulsion and the prohibition to prophesy in Beth-el and Israel with another threat against the priest and his family, a threat that echoes his threat against the king. Despite its brevity, the passage reveals something about what prophetic critique can be. Amaziah is a priest at the royal sanctuary of Beth-el, and he therefore serves the official state cult. As his reply shows, the situation is different with Amos, who is not a state prophet, not a prophet’s son, but one of the people, with a simple, proper means to earn his bread. But his calling to be a prophet counts for more, since he received it not from the king, but directly from God (Am 15). “In his answer Amos says that true prophecy is not a human calling, but a mission of God, Who takes a man from his work …, and sends him to the people with his message” (Buber 1949: 108). Amos speaks in the name of God, proclaiming his message in the form of quotations. Hence, Amos has an obligation only to God, and not to any king or institution. He is not employed at the temple and has no institutional security; he alone bears the responsibility for his words. But it is for precisely this reason that he is also under no obligation to uphold the reasons of state or to speak in a manner that is politically appropriate. He is therefore unwelcome at the seat of the state cult and the government, as his words cause unrest in Israel (Am 10). Amos’ threat against Amaziah also shows that human volition cannot hinder or stop the divine message (Am 16/17). We can characterize prophetic critique on the basis of the following features (see Heimbach-Steins 2004: 98-100):

Prophetic Critique


1. Authorized by God 2. Not part of institutionalized power 3. Politically dangerous, both for the sender and the receiver 4. Truth and authority cannot be directly verified 5. Tied to context and situation 6. Ethos-related The prophet proclaims his message in the name of God’s justice (1), and opposes politics (in the person of King Jeroboam) and (state) religion identified with politics (in the person of the priest Amaziah). He does not belong to institutionalized power and does not strive for this (2), which is precisely what makes his role dangerous (3), since he is free to criticize the prevailing politics (to which he has no obligation) and can denounce the conditions and openly declare inconvenient truths. By criticizing the rulers and denouncing the rich, he threatens to instigate revolt and resistance against the system, a position that also endangers the prophet, however, since he cannot hide behind any authority that would protect him. He stands up for himself and bears the full risk himself. This is all the more true because, although he receives his commission from God, this authorization cannot be proven or verified (4), but is based on the personal experience of his vocation (see Heimbach-Steins 2004: 99-100). With his message, the prophet is also tied to place and situation (5). He cannot simply return to Judah and preach there; his words would lose the specific context to which they are directed and thus also their meaning. “The Israelite prophet utters his words, directing them into an actual and definite situation” (Buber 1949: 103). While the social criticism of the Book of Amos is read like this today, Amos does not at first proclaim universally valid truths about true and false behavior, but criticizes very specific political and social conditions (see Heimbach-Steins 2004: 99). If we consider these lines within the text as a whole, then we can see that prophetic critique is first and foremost ethos-related (6). The prophetic message is tied to the instructions of the Torah. Amos frequently invokes this horizon of understanding and experience. For instance, in Amos 3:1-2: 1 Hear this word that the LORD hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt, saying: 2 You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities. Amos reminds the Israelites of their history. As can be seen from the recourse to the history of God of the people of Israel and their Torah, the prophet’s critique is aimed at coherence between confession, cult and social practice. It is thus not just any arbitrary form of social criticism,


Part B: Butler and Theology but rather one that necessarily refers back to God’s identity-forming narrative of Israel, that continues this tradition in a lively process of communication, and that gains its immediate plausibility from its reference to it (Heimbach-Steins 2004: 99*).

This line of reasoning is obviously only comprehensible to those who partake in this history and its resulting order of life, and who can therefore understand and establish the references (see Walzer 1987: 59-63). Tied to the situation, the speech of the prophet is therefore clearly a prime example of the particular: in a very specific situation, which the prophet, due to a special perception, insofar as he is a privileged interpreter in the horizon of the history of faith of his people, identifies with foresight as a crisis, Amos announces disaster to his people. Such a speech resists a contextless generalization that would blunt the critical edge of the prophet’s message (Heimbach-Steins 2004: 100*).

But this does not mean that prophetic critique can never leave its context and has become irrelevant for the here and now, or that it is only accessible to those who still participate today in the context of tradition proclaimed by the prophet. It can also tell something to readers from different times and different contexts. More likely, distant readers would be moved to imitate the practice of prophecy (or, perhaps, to listen in a new way to their own prophets). It is the practice, not the message, that would be repeated. Readers might learn to be social critics; the criticism, however, would be their own (Walzer 1987: 78).

While the prophet’s message may be particular, the praxis of critique need not be, since the six features identified here can be made universal. 2

Ethics, Politics, and Translation

This section is a kind of mirror image of the previous one, in that it starts from the concrete aspects of prophetic critique. I first show how Butler’s praxis of critique and the model of prophetic critique presented here converge, namely in an understanding of critique as praxis. I then on a more abstract level work out the renegotiation of the relation between particularity and universality in Butler’s work, which leads to a radical reconception of ethics and postsovereign politics. Cultural translation and cohabitation, i.e. living together with all those with whom we do not always voluntarily share the earth, and

Prophetic Critique


whose ethical demands impinge on us, are the keywords under which this is negotiated. Critique as Praxis Even a cursory glance reveals parallels between the model of prophetic critique presented here and Butler’s praxis of critique dealt with primarily in part A, chapter IV.2. Butler also criticizes practices of rejection and marginalization within a society. Her criticism also always has a political dimension, since she shows solidarity with those on the margin and strives for change. There is also in Butler’s work the same combination of criticizing the tradition and criticizing the perceived misinterpretation of the tradition from which the critic herself emerged. In this sense, for Butler, entanglement in the conditions that she criticizes is not a deficiency, but the very prerequisite for critique. At the same time, however, the model of prophetic critique that I analyzed also sees a distance to political/religious rule as a precondition of the critical, and this is also found in Butler’s work: “distance is the condition of criticality itself, an incommensurability which provides the ground for theory as a reflective and critical exercise” (Butler 2000c: 267). The parallels are particularly apparent when it comes to the dangers of critique. The analysis of Amos 7:10-11 has shown that [a]uthentic prophetic witness is about more than mere words, utterances and even public statements. Rather it is aligned with embodied presence and action. It is performative resistance. It performs the witness to the reign of God in history in a way that results from and draws on experiences of being vulnerable (Vosloo 2019: 5).

This recalls the fearless speech that Foucault called parrhesia: “Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parrhesiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him or her in telling the truth” (Foucault 1983: 4). Butler adopts this idea and thereby, like Foucault, moves critique into the vicinity of virtue (see part A, chapter IV. 2), whereby the virtue that Foucault has in mind here is bravery or courage (see Butler 2019: 100). But critique is deemed parrhesia not only because it is courageous, but also because there is an agreement between truth and belief in what is said. Parrhesia, therefore, is not simply a communication of something true; it also requires the speaker to believe that what is said is true, and it exposes the speaker to political risk. What is at risk is the body of the speaker, because arrest, imprisonment and death are governmental measures that can constrict or destroy the body of the speaker. It is not necessary for the person who speaks to risk his or her life in order to speak fearlessly, that is, as a parrhesiastes, but a certain risk is nevertheless taken, and this indicates that one not only speaks with conviction,


Part B: Butler and Theology but also acts with the courage of one’s own faith in what is true when speaking (Butler 2019: 101*).

We find similar ideas in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly and in the essay Rethinking vulnerability and resistance, where Butler goes one step further and describes the act of making oneself vulnerable as a possible form of resistance. Here, too, critique is consistently accompanied by exposing oneself to others, and even exposing one’s own body. Butler points to the fact that vulnerability is enhanced by assembling in order to protest. Protest groups are, for instance, vulnerable to police brutality. Yet, vulnerability emerges already prior to such assembling, given the precarious position in which people live… . Although Butler is aware of all the misuses associated with the term vulnerability (often to the detriment of women), she argues against the idea that vulnerability is the opposite of resistance. Rather, vulnerability, ‘understood as the deliberate exposure to power, is part of the very meaning of political resistance as an embodied enactment’ (Butler et al. 2016: 22). For Butler, vulnerability can be a way of being exposed and able to act at the same time. One cannot think about resistance without thinking about vulnerability, and by ‘thinking about resistance, we are already under way, dismantling the resistance to vulnerability in order precisely to resist’ (Vosloo 2019: 5).

However, the most significant overlap appears to be between the particularist reading presented here and its significance for ethics on the one hand, and Butler’s critique of universalist ethics and abstract normative theories on the other. As we have already seen in the section on political theology, Butler criticizes not only a theory of the subject and a demand for sovereignty that overtaxes the individual, but also an abstract generality, universal norms that threaten to cover and lose sight of the particular, and therefore an ethics that is involved in these forms of violence. To counter the imposition of general rules, Butler emphasizes social, cultural, and historical conditions; if these are not taken into account, then the identification and living acceptance of norms is bound to fail or be experienced as violent. “If no living appropriation is possible, then it would seem to follow that the precept can be undergone only as a deathly thing, a suffering imposed from an indifferent outside at the expense of freedom and particularity” (Butler 2005: 7). Butler seems to be in complete agreement here with Michael Walzer, who states: It is a mistake, then, to praise the prophets for their universalist message. For what is most admirable about them is their particularist quarrel, which is also, they tell us, God’s quarrel, with the children of Israel. Here they invested their anger and their poetic genius. The line that Amos attributes to God, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth’, could have come from his own

Prophetic Critique


heart. He knows one nation, one history, and it’s that knowledge that makes his criticism so rich, so radical, so concrete. We can, again, abstract the rules and apply them to other nations, but that’s not the ‘use’ that Amos invites. What he invites is not application but reiteration (Walzer 1987: 79-80).

Thus, Butler’s critique of universalistic ethical concepts certainly appears to overlap with Michael Walzer’s position and with a communitarian critique of liberal universalism. But this appearance is deceptive. Communitarianism opposes directly and unvermediately the liberal focus on the universal with an emphasis on social particularity (see Seitz 2018: 77). In contrast, Butler draws very different conclusions from the rejection of abstract universality and the emphasis on the particular. As we will now see, she conceives of universality and particularity as being intertwined in a much more complex way. Cultural Translation and Cohabitation That Butler thinks in a fundamentally different way to communitarianism, and even indeed attempts to break with it (see Butler 2012b: 9), is shown in the fact first that she does not fundamentally reject universality, and second that she believes that violence can also emanate from particularism. Butler makes clear the former again and again when she emphasizes that she is not arguing against universalism as such, but is only warning of the violence that can result from disregarding the particular. At the very beginning of Giving an Account of Oneself, she says: I … wish … to remark here that the problem is not with universality as such but with an operation of universality that fails to be responsive to cultural particularity and fails to undergo a reformulation of itself in response to the social and cultural conditions it includes within its scope of applicability (Butler 2005: 6).

In Contingency – Hegemony – Universality, she even points out that it is often necessary to argue universally in order to criticize injustices effectively (see Butler 2000b: 11-43). This already indicates why Butler regards particularism and universalism as two sides of the same coin. She is therefore more than critical of communitarianism, since it sees the particular, i.e. “the respective cultural and historical horizon of morality” (Seitz 2018: 77*), as the (ultimate) instance of norm justification. Butler sees ethical violence at work here in parallel with universalism. Conversely, this violence consists in “reifying a moment of cultural particularity and hypostasizing it as the only horizon of validity of normative obligations” (Seitz 2018: 78*). Butler identifies in this a threat to solidarity that exceeds a person’s own close community, language, culture, and time. She writes:


Part B: Butler and Theology There are communitarians who do not mind the local, provisional, and sometimes nationalist character of the communities to which they consider themselves ethically bound and whose specific community norms are treated as ethically binding. They valorize nearness as a condition for encountering and knowing the other and so tend to figure ethical relations as binding upon those whose face we can see, whose name we can know and pronounce, those we can already recognize, whose form and face are familiar (Butler 2012c: 134-135)

According to Butler, such an attempt to locate the ethical “exclusively in the normative ties between the members of a given community themselves” (Seitz 2018, 83*) cannot find “sufficient resources for living in a world of social plurality or establishing a basis for cohabitation across religious and cultural differences” (Butler 2012b: 9). But it is precisely these resources that she is interested in, and she therefore asks “what it means for our ethical obligations when we are up against another person or group, find ourselves invariably joined to those we never chose, and must respond to solicitations in languages we may not understand or even wish to understand” (Butler 2015: 99). She has in mind here not only the fates distant from us because they take place in other places of the world, or border conflicts of disputed states, but also all those who do not belong to any community, any nation, the stateless, the displaced, the refugees, the nameless, the unrecognized, who often live very close to us. Neither universalism nor particularism is a solution in itself: “if I am only bound to those who are close to me, already familiar, then my ethics are invariably parochial, communitarian, and exclusionary” (Butler 2015:104); if, on the other hand, “I am only bound to those who are ‘human’ in the abstract, then I avert every effort to translate culturally between my own situation and that of others” (Butler 2015: 104). Butler is therefore compelled to reject both universalism and particularism in this form. For, on the one hand, according to Butler, particularist demands always contain a universal element, as shown, for instance, when particularist demands for recognition appeal to a universal notion of equality, as in the demand for human rights for women or children (see Butler 2000b: 39). On the other, universal demands always have particularist origins, which means that they must be translated in order to achieve comprehensibility and to exercise political effect beyond these origins (see Seitz 2018: 78). What Butler proposes is a ‘translation performance’ or ‘cultural translation’ (see Butler 2000; 2012). In reflecting on this, Butler often refers to Jewish sources (including Hanna Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, Primo Levi, and Emmanuel Levinas), and demonstrates the overlapping of ethics and

Prophetic Critique


politics in alterity. Parting Ways in particular can therefore be read as a work of translation itself, a translation of Jewish religious thoughts. For Butler, translation clearly means something other than “an assimilation of religious meanings into established secular frames” (Butler 2012b: 8), and can just as little be described as “an effort to find a common language that transcends particular discourses” (Butler 2012b: 8). Translation in Butler’s sense means “a scene in which the limits of a given episteme are exposed, and forced to become rearticulated in ways that do not recontain alterity” (Butler 2012b: 8). Translation does not therefore convey or maintain continuity across time and space. On the contrary, by translating the particular of a culture, a tradition, a text, or a commandment into the here and now, it changes, is exposed to other texts, traditions and cultures, is interrupted by them and confronted with alterity, and some things are left behind as untranslatable. It is only this process of encounter that makes tradition understandable in the present. “Only by entering into a field of cultural translation do particular ethical resources become generalizable and effective” (Butler 2012b: 12). This gap, the fissure in continuity, is thus a prerequisite for tradition to remain vital and comprehensible. “In this way the loss of the original is the condition of the survival of the certain ‘demand’ relayed through language and across time” (Butler 2012b: 13). Translation therefore has something like two modes: transmission and reception. Transmission leads through the encounter with alterity to an opening to a more general comprehensibility. Reception, on the other hand, means translating the universal, the other, the foreign into one’s own particular life situation, one’s historical and geographical circumstances. “Thus injunctions such as … ‘love your neighbor’ can only be understood and taken up on the condition that they are translated into the concrete circumstances in which one lives” (Butler 2012b: 17). The question of the relationship between the religious and the secular occupies Butler here, too. She repeatedly emphasizes that it is not about simply translating the particular religious resources into a supposedly more universal secular language. It has already become clear in the section on the New Political Theology that for Butler the secular only too gladly veils its religious origins: And yet, if we refuse to sanctify the moment of translation as purely secular (and secularism does have its modes of self-sanctification), then it follows that religious significations are continued, disseminated, and transmuted on the occasion of translation. We neither leave the religious realm for a nonreligious one nor remain within a self-referential religious universe. The religious is transmuted into something else, and not precisely transcended in the process. At the


Part B: Butler and Theology same time, that transmutation bars a return to some original meaning, which means that the religious is strewn and scattered, signifying only in the context of a diasporic trajectory, postnational, and nonidentitarian – an affirmative impurity (Butler 2012b: 17).

Religious commandments and traditions can therefore only remain alive when transferred to others, but will also change. They can only be received if they can convey their meaning for the uniqueness of a life, a time, a context. “In this sense, there is no ethical response to the claim that any other has upon us if there is no translation; otherwise, we are ethically bound only to those who already speak as we do, in languages we already know” (Butler 2012b: 17), to those who belong to our religious community or our nation. Butler attempts to think of ethics anew, rejecting both reified particularism and the insistence on the normative sovereignty of each individual community on the one hand, and an abstract universalism that disregards cultural particularities on the other (see Seitz 2018: 78-79, 83). She again draws on Levinas and theoretical reflections on alterity in the conviction that a different concept of the subject can also produce a different understanding of particularity and universality. In doing so, she makes clear how greatly the spheres of ethics and politics overlap. Once ethics is no longer understood exclusively as disposition or action grounded in a ready-made subject, but rather as a relational practice that responds to an obligation that originates outside the subject, then ethics contests sovereign notions of the subject and ontological claims of self-identity. Indeed, ethics come to signify the act by which place is established for those who are ‘not me’, comporting me beyond a sovereign claim in the direction of a challenge to selfhood that I receive from elsewhere. The question of how, whether and in what way to ‘give ground’ to the other becomes an essential part of ethical reflection; in other words, reflection does not return the subject to him or herself, but it is to be understood as … a way of being comported beyond oneself, a way of being dispossessed from sovereignty and nation in response to the claims made by those one does not fully know and did not fully choose (Butler 2012b: 9; my emphasis).

Her recourse to Levinas and the theory of alterity thus results in “a reconceptualization of both social bonds and political obligations that takes us beyond nationalism” (Butler 2012b: 9). Butler thereby rejects not only the sovereign subject, but also the claim of sovereignty made by a community or nation. Her ethics of cohabitation therefore show themselves to be an alternative to all three variants of ethical violence that she criticizes (see Seitz 2018: 79): 1. the overly demanding claims on the subject to be sovereign, 2. abstract, universal normativity, and 3. reified particularity.

Prophetic Critique


Neither the subject, nor the particular community, nor the universality of practical reason can … claim a sovereign status for itself; rather, violence is at play whenever they present themselves as sovereign, i.e. self-founded, autonomous, independent: the category of the subject acquires a violent character as soon as reference to others and elements of relationality, vulnerability, and dependency are repressed; the universal becomes violent as soon as it is understood as being independent of those particular positions from which it is articulated, and to which it would have to be connectable in a livable way: and particularism becomes violent as soon as the horizon of values of each particular community is hypostasized to an irrevocable horizon of validity and the ethical obligations towards non-members are ignored (Seitz 2018: 91-92*).

Thus, for Butler, ethical violence is always at work when relationality, our relatedness to others and to the other, is denied or repressed. This is the common element of all three forms of ethical violence, and it is a criterion for ethical relationships with others, but also for political institutions and systems: according to this logic, what is unjust would be all forms of representation that claim to represent the polity completely (see Seitz 2018: 92). For, if every constitution of a political order of visibility and recognizability is fundamentally accompanied by a constitutive exclusion, i.e. by an exclusion of all those existences that do not correspond to the norms of recognition, then the representation of the polity is constitutively inadequate; it always contains … an ‘offsetting’ or a false counting of its parts (Seitz 2018: 92*).

An institution or system that nonetheless claims to represent the totality without exclusion would therefore have to be rejected, which, conversely, also opens up a perspective for the shaping of political systems and structures. For, it is not only a matter of preventing a totalizing perspective; it is also a matter of enabling openness and change. Political systems and institutions would therefore have to be designed in such a way that they are inscribed with a constitutive openness to the exclusions, rejections and claims that might still arise. They could also be measured by whether they succeed in bringing about such change when it is demanded of them (see Seitz 2018: 92). Butler’s post-sovereign theory of the subject (see part A, chapter III) leads, then, to a post-sovereign ethics (see part A, chapter IV), which in turn leads to a consistently post-sovereign politics. The potential of this approach for an ethics of non-violence that aims at a coexistence beyond nationalism has become clear. But the potential for a theological ethics that sees itself as being tied in a special way to a particular tradition is only just becoming apparent. It promises a location in the “not yet” between theological identity and


Part B: Butler and Theology

openness; or, as Butler writes, “in the context of a diasporic trajectory, postnational, and nonidentitarian – an affirmative impurity” (Butler 2012b: 17). If that “affirmative impurity” succeeds as a constitutive element for theology, then the statement from the Second Vatican Council quoted at the beginning would be fulfilled: “Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts… . That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds” (GS 1).

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Acknowledgments A book is never written by just one person; it always owes a lot to the many thoughts and ideas in the environment, and to the active support of people who have helped – to all of whom I am deeply indebted. First, special thanks to Dr. Maren Behrensen, who made the publication of this book possible with her first translation of the text. I would never have started such a project without her cooperation. Despite all its integrity, a translation always means changing a text. My second very special thanks to Dr. David West, who not only edited and corrected the text with great care and knowledge, but also made every effort to ensure that “my voice” was not lost in this process and was preserved in the text. Without his support, this project would not have come to fruition. In 2016, I was awarded the PhD prize of the University of Münster. I would like to thank the University and especially Katja Kunterding-Röhrs, who administered the funds and made it possible for me to use them in an uncomplicated way. This financial support not only flowed into the present project, but also enabled me to attend international conferences. The discussions there gave me the idea of writing this book. I would also like to thank the Research Commission of the University of Lucerne for the generous financial support that made it possible to have the text proofread and edited professionally. My thanks also go to the publisher Brill/Schöningh. The idea for this book took shape in a conversation with my editor. The opportunity to base the first part of this book on a revised version of a chapter of my doctoral thesis on Judith Butler, published by Schöningh in 2017, made my work much easier. Finally, I would like to thank my former student assistant Lena Greb, who spent many busy hours checking and correcting quotations and footnotes. Lucerne, November 2020 Anna Maria Riedl

Index Adorno, Theodor 43, 55, 57, 65, 67, 71, 76-78, 128, 131 Agency xii, 20, 28, 30-31, 37-39, 42, 44, 61-62, 67, 91, 95, 104, 121 Alterity 12, 35, 49, 51, 52-53, 59, 62, 84, 131-132, 149-150 Althusser, Louis 26, 32 Arendt, Hannah 68, 79, 99, 125, 148 Austin, John 14, 17 Autonomy (see also Sovereignty) 20, 34, 48, 62, 69-70, 75, 90-92, 96, 120-121, 129 Benhabib, Seyla 10, 13, 62, 101, 105 Benjamin, Walter 128, 148 Body/Bodies 22-23, 27, 48, 55, 79, 103, 145-146 Buber, Martin 140-143, 148 Church 113-114, 128 Cohabitation 147-150 Communitarianism xi, 147 Compassion 128 Critical Theory 81, 128, 131 Democracy/democratic 85, 100, 104-105, 120, 126-128 Derrida, Jacques 6, 71 Desire 12, 23, 33-36, 47, 71, 76 Exclusion (see also inclusion) 27, 34, 36, 42, 50, 52, 70-71, 77, 82, 93-95, 97-98, 100, 105, 134, 148, 151 Foucault, Michel 8, 16, 24, 31-33, 64, 80-81, 86, 95, 145 Freedom 24, 26, 39, 48, 62, 85, 91, 100-102, 105, 127 Freud, Sigmund 24, 29 Grief/Griefability (see also Mourning) 74, 100, 138 Gutierrez, Gustavo 114, 117 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 12, 32, 45, 48-50, 62, 64, 74, 100 Honneth, Axel 12, 14, 87-90, 95, 105

Identity 9, 21, 22-23, 30, 34-35, 38-39, 54, 66, 74, 85, 88, 80, 93, 100, 103, 105, 132, 144, 153 (Dis-)Identification 8, 10, 36, 39, 41 Identity politics 104, 134 National identity 72, 104, 150, 152 Self-identity 27, 32, 39, 48, 150 Inclusion (see also exclusion) 95, 100, 104-105, 117 Injustice (see also justice) 114, 137, 147 Justice (see also injustice) 103, 111, 115, 127, 137, 139, 143 Social justice 111, 115, 140 Kant, Immanuel 61, 80, 139 Lacan, Jacques 24, 31 Laplanche, Jean 49, 66 Levinas, Emmanuel 12, 52-53, 59-60, 127, 131, 150 Love 34, 54-55, 113 Metz, Johann Baptist 123-124, 126-130 Moral/morality 13-14, 43-44, 49, 59, 67, 70, 80, 91, 96-97, 100-101, 106, 118, 124, 126-127, 132, 139 Mourning 40, 50-51, 54, 132 Nietzsche, Friedrich 6, 8, 53, 64 Non-violence (see also violence) 75-79, 96-97, 99-102, 151 Norm 10, 14, 18-19, 22-28, 35-36, 41, 46-47, 59, 63-64, 71, 73, 80-84, 94-95, 102, 105, 139, 146-148 Normalization 19, 38, 70, 90, 101, 103 Normativity 47, 65, 68-70, 72, 76, 78, 85, 91, 96, 98-101, 105-106, 120, 131, 150 Religious norms 133 Social norms 38, 44, 65, 88-92, 102-103 Nussbaum, Martha 3-4, 13, 34, 82, 103 Ontology 8, 13, 27-28, 32, 45, 56-58, 63, 65-66, 85, 102, 105, 119-120, 150 Social Ontology 45-51, 53-55, 62, 71, 76, 102-103, 150



Parrhesia 84-85, 145 Participation 102, 104-105, 115, 131 Particularity/Particularism xii, 43, 100, 137-139, 144, 146-151 Performativity 5-6, 15-19, 22-23, 27, 30, 46, 53, 78, 80, 89, 104, 121, 130, 145 Political/Politics 8, 11, 42, 65-66, 68, 79, 85, 102-107, 115, 120-121, 125-127, 130-132, 143, 150-151 Pope John Paul II. 128

Social Death 72-73, 77 Solidarity 105, 115, 124, 126, 134, 145, 147 Sölle, Dorothee 129 Spinoza, Baruch de 33 Sovereignty (see also Autonomy) 13, 19, 52, 56, 61, 69, 71-77, 90, 96, 100, 125, 132, 144, 150-151

Relationality xii, 45, 48-52, 69, 93, 94, 121-122, 134, 151 Representation xii, 26, 90, 117, 125, 129-132, 151 Resistance 24-26, 37-42, 47, 85, 91, 106, 115, 119, 121, 125, 143, 145-146 Responsibility 53, 56-62, 66, 75, 77, 85,93, 96-97, 107, 115, 122, 126-128, 131-132 Right/rights 73, 105, 125, 130, 133 Human Rights 73, 148

Universality/universalism 20, 43, 67, 76, 81, 97, 100, 106, 116, 121, 133, 137-140, 144, 146-149, 151

Schmitt, Carl 123, 125-127, 134 Second Vatican Council 112, 114, 138, 152 Sobrino, Jon 113-117

Taylor, Charles 12, 14, 87-89, 94 Transcendence 52, 65, 83

Violence (see also non-violence) 6, 18, 25, 27, 55, 69-75, 93-95, 97, 101, 124, 132-134, 147, 150-151 Virtue 75, 84, 97, 145 Vulnerability 27, 51-56, 61, 62, 73-74, 77-78, 96, 101, 121-122, 146 Walzer, Michael 140, 146-147