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Bruce Robbins

  • Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in 20th-Century France by Judith Butler
    Columbia, 268 pp, £12.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 231 06451 9

In 1987, three years before Gender Trouble made her the most famous feminist philosopher in the United States, Judith Butler published a book on Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage and its impact on 20th-century French thought. The book had nothing to say about bondage in the recreational sense and, aside from a few pages at the end about Julia Kristeva and Simone de Beauvoir, was mostly indifferent to questions of sexuality. It is sexual politics that has generated Butler’s present celebrity, however, which no doubt helps explain the republication of the Hegel book – unchanged, except for an astringently self-critical new preface – but does not guarantee that it will be read. Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in 20th-Century France is often overlooked in accounts of Butler’s career, especially polemical ones. It is the one book left unmentioned, for example, in last year’s much-discussed broadside in the New Republic by Martha Nussbaum. To catch Butler in the act of not thinking about sex is no doubt less interesting to her more gladiatorial critics than skewering her for her deconstructive sins. Some will certainly find it inconvenient that, as this book reveals, her anti-identity politics was shaped more by Hegel than by Derrida.

Like Freud, Hegel told a story about the emergence of the self, and one thing Butler seems to prefer about his version is that there is no sex in it, or at least no biologically given sexual identity. Hegel describes the coming to self-consciousness of a heretofore undefined being by way of a life and death struggle with another undefined being. It is the struggle itself, and not any characteristics of either party, that turns one into the lord, the other into the bondsman. Further struggle will take these identities away again. The story centres on a reversal in which the weak and the strong change places, and it gestures towards an eventual endpoint (though one that is never achieved in the Phenomenology) involving reciprocal recognition among equals. In the post-structuralist tradition with which Butler has come to be associated, however, both this democratic ending and the shared, identity-resistant starting-point are abandoned. When Nietzsche retells Hegel’s story in his Genealogy of Morals, for example, the identities of lord and bondsman are given at the outset. Some of us are lambs, and some are birds of prey. That’s just the way it is. And what Nietzsche adds at the beginning of the story, he takes away from the end. The moment of Hegelian reversal – the revolt of the weak against the strong that produces Christianity – becomes for Nietzsche a misguided and even tragic departure from this initial otherness, which must be conserved, not transcended. For Nietzsche, and even more for the French Nietzscheans who followed, including Foucault, the ethical imperative has been to protect a mysteriously pre-given, all-but-sacred otherness from the apparently benevolent humanism that threatens to violate it, its syntheses and resolutions promising emancipation and equality but delivering only appropriation and defilement. For this anti-humanist tradition, Hegel’s dialectic of self and other must be arrested in mid-course.

Arrest the dialectic, however, and you leave yourself with such fixed identities as ‘the feminine’ or ‘the lesbian’, and Butler’s later impatience with that outcome can now be read back into her early enthusiasm for Hegel’s dialectic, her willingness at least to hold open the question of whether those who stop it short do so out of philosophical tough-mindedness or political faint-heartedness, as a proper punishment of Hegel’s imperial ambitions or as a retreat from the world into what Butler terms ‘linguistic idealism’. Butler remains ambivalent about Hegel but even to raise the possibility that French Nietzscheanism might be better seen as a fearful, truncated and therefore problematic revision of the dialectic is to change the intellectual map. Suddenly the lines between humanists and anti-humanists are blurred. We have to relocate Foucault who, while adamantly resisting demands for it, now seems more supportive of identity than the Hegel he repudiates. And despite her hesitations about identity and universality, Butler takes up a somewhat reluctant position in the landscape of humanism.

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