Dive In!

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.

The longest single chapter in the book is devoted to Sartre, who has more pages in the index than Hegel himself. Sartre and Beauvoir attended Kojève’s famous seminar in the 1930s (discussed by Butler at length) on Hegel’s Phenomenology, and both were deeply influenced by Kojève’s updating of the lord/bondsman parable, which stressed self-making via action in the world. But if Kojève, like Hegel, saw such action as aimed at the ultimate achievement of a democratic equality, Sartre, like Nietzsche, insisted on blocking it before it got there. Whether scrupulously or only timidly – in a sense this is the question for Butler – Sartre rejects Hegel’s goal, his ‘hypothetical unity of self and world’, declaring it ‘a permanent possibility which can no longer be actualised’. This blockage in the domain of the actual is what gives works of literary imagination their special status. As Butler puts it, ‘the impossibility of realising the imaginary in the real world points to a solution that is second best, namely, the imaginative realisation of this possibility in the world of the literary text. Imaginary works are so many “noble lies” which allow for the creation of transfigured worlds which remain the elusive dream of desire.’ A frustrated desire thus becomes ‘a fiction-making endeavour, and the author of actual literary fictions becomes the privileged typologist of desire.’ Ontological estrangement is overcome only through the ‘momentary enchantments of desire’s imaginary satisfaction’. The chapter ends, as Sartre’s writing career did, with his studies of Genet and Flaubert, models of the self who ‘transformed their losses into occasions of unparalleled literary creation’.

‘Writing is less a solution,’ Butler observes, ‘than a continuous reflection on a life that can have no solution.’ Still, both the scale and the triumphal tone of the Sartre chapter suggest that she is far from critical of this ‘second best’ solution, a retreat into the sunny, enchanting world of ‘literary creation’ where desire’s parades never seem to get rained on. Even literary critics, who will naturally feel flattered, may wonder what the value of this parallel creation might be to or in the world. Butler answered this question only later, by means of her most famous concept, ‘performativity’. According to this, to play self-consciously and theatrically with identity, as a drag artist plays with it for example, is to reveal the groundlessness of such normative and oppressive roles as femininity or masculinity. In other words, imagination interferes directly with the world.

Performativity’s wide appeal clearly has much to do with its confirmation that biology is not destiny, that the world is still under construction – in other words, that the Romantic programme of creative imagination lives on in the form of social constructionism. But sceptics have continued to object that Butler concedes too much to the imagination’s freedom. To think of gender as performative is ‘exhilarating’, Adam Phillips writes. But rather than the freedom to perform inventively, what Butler describes may be the compulsion to ‘act out’. Take away Freud’s sense of the heavy constraints on human identity, as revealed for example by the process of mourning, and you get an illusion of freedom that does not stand up to scrutiny. ‘If the idea of performance frees identity into states of (sometimes willed) possibility,’ Phillips goes on, ‘mourning refers those same identities back to their unconscious histories, with their repetitions and their waste . . . without the idea of mourning, performance becomes an excessive demand – pretend there’s no unconscious, then pretend what you like.’

Butler has some snappy answers to this charge, referring to Freud, bodies, involuntary repetition and gay melancholia. But in a sense her entire career has been devoted both to provoking and to answering it. And this is one way of explaining her career-long engagement with Hegel, who appears frequently in her subsequent works (and will again be central to her forthcoming book on Antigone). It is through Hegel that she has ceaselessly tested out the limits of ‘pretend what you like’, and distanced herself from what Kate Soper calls ‘a politics of sexual self-expression’.

Sartre’s desire for self-sufficiency collides with Hegel’s insistence, which is also Butler’s, that we move through the world in necessary self-estrangement. ‘The ideal of self-sufficiency that haunts post-Hegelian thinking is a nostalgia for a life freed of the exigencies of temporality – one that could escape a fate of continual self-estrangement and then death.’ Self-sufficiency, whether or not it takes the form of heroic imagination, depends on Sartre’s Cartesianism, his identification with the thinking mind rather than the unthinking body. His Nature is alien, serving only to shock us into a realisation of its alienness. The body for Sartre is ‘a being that we are but do not choose’, hence ‘a limit to freedom’. Butler slips dangerously near to this same ‘somatophobia’ (her term) and, like Beauvoir, she has been accused of forcing on feminism a disastrous choice between freedom and the body. Again, it is her Hegelianism that rescues her. In a recent essay, she uses Hegel both to distinguish herself from Žižek and Laclau, and to offer a critique of ‘theoretical formalism, something which Žižek, Laclau and I have all come close to’. Citing Hegel’s critique of Kant, she describes theoretical formalism as trying to learn how to swim without actually getting into the water. For Hegel, on the other hand, the self knows only by diving in and getting wet, giving itself over to the world it seeks to know: ‘the knowing subject cannot be understood as one who imposes ready-made categories on the world. The categories are shaped by the world it seeks to know.’

This image of the body thrashing about in the waters of the world makes one hesitate before accusing Butler of an excessive or misplaced literariness. Consider for example Nussbaum’s assault, which was entitled ‘The Professor of Parody’. Nussbaum is probably right to say that the idea of performativity has less to do with J.L. Austin than with the example of the theatre, and I think she is right again, and generous, to admit that the parodic performance of gender as Butler explains it does offer a genuine if limited degree of freedom. But for Nussbaum, as for Phillips, Butler sees too much freedom, too little constraint. Theatricality will be available only to a small number of actors, not to mass movements nor to meet practical demands. Freedom does not exist without a ‘social agent behind or prior to social forces that produce the self’. The body, for example, is limited by being part of nature; it’s ‘too simple’ to write the body off as ‘culture’. Once again, Butler is charged with the literary sin of pretending anything she likes.

That is not what literature means to Nussbaum herself. In her Poetic Justice, she defends the literary imagination ‘because it seems to me an essential ingredient of an ethical stance that asks us to concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own’. Hence ‘we can say of the mainstream realist novel what Aristotle said of tragic drama: that the very form constructs compassion in readers, positioning them as people who care intensely about the sufferings and bad luck of others, and who identify with them in ways that show possibilities for themselves.’ Literature must be studied because it’s a vehicle for preserving and transmitting the experience of those distant from us in space, time or circumstances.

For better or for worse, Nussbaum’s top-down compassion-training may well be the best public case American literary critics can currently make for the teaching of literature when challenged, as we recently have been, by the business-oriented counter-programme of composition, which happily dismisses literature from the secondary school curriculum in favour of ‘language skills’. And yet to listen to Nussbaum is to understand once again that for Butler, too, literariness is not merely free self-creation. It is also – and this is just as representative of how the imagination works – a repulsion felt for some of those who are closest to us in space, time and circumstance, even a wish that suffering and bad luck may befall them. She attends, for example, to ‘the adult sense of humiliation when confronted with the earliest objects of love – parents, guardians, siblings and so on – the sense of belated indignation in which one claims, “I couldn’t possibly love such a person.”’ This repulsion, which fellow critics will recognise as true of the actually existing imagination, is something that tends to be forgotten by admirers of literature from outside the profession. Butler’s repulsion is attractive, so to speak, because it makes room for the recognition of freedom and difference, which we fear may be squeezed out by a rational democratic community and which we need to be reassured about before we will voluntarily enter into such a community – community being as much a desideratum for Butler as for Nussbaum.

Nussbaum’s omission of the Hegel book from her otherwise comprehensive essay is perhaps symptomatic, considering that her own allegiances are so obviously Kantian. Nussbaum’s Kant is of course not the Kant who sponsored the Romantic imagination and with it contemporary social constructionism. He is the Kant of the categorical imperative. It’s in the name of Kantian ethics that Nussbaum sums up her objection to Butler’s literariness as an objection to the avoidance of norms. Nussbaum accuses Butler of taking for granted ‘an audience of like-minded readers, who agree (sort of) about what the bad things are – discrimination against gays and lesbians, the unequal and hierarchical treatment of women – and who even agree (sort of) about why they are bad . . . But take that assumption away, and the absence of a normative dimension becomes a severe problem.’ ‘There is a void,’ she goes on, ‘at the heart of Butler’s notion of politics. This void can look liberating, because the reader fills it implicitly with a normative theory of human equality or dignity. But let there be no mistake . . . we have to articulate those norms – and this Butler refuses to do.’

But why do we have to articulate our norms? What does it achieve? If we must be normative, aren’t there other, perhaps more consequential ways of performing our normative commitments? Lacking a sense of the performative, Nussbaum can’t judge the off-putting effect of her own confidently absolutist articulations of norms, which perversely render them more questionable rather than more self-evident. The case she makes for the compassionate imagination in Hard Times sounds a lot like Gradgrind’s notion of a circus. Butler, on the other hand, for all the hoopla about her difficult prose style, offers a more compelling aesthetic spectacle. She mistrusts norms yet performs the normativity that she mistrusts. The paradox is familiar. The in-group rhetoric about which Nussbaum is so snide works in fact not to exclude but to draw readers in. For it makes them want to belong, and it sets the price of belonging as a tacit, instinctive, ‘naturalised’ acceptance of just those unacknowledged norms that Butler’s desired alternative community would require. Its seemingly unintended literariness aims not at de-naturalising for its own sake, or simply pretending whatever you like, but at inducing us to embrace, freshly imagined, what Hegel called a ‘second Nature’.

Butler has explicitly refused to march under the constructionist banner, and in her refusal has probably done constructionism more good (by focusing on how constructions are always constrained) than she could have by giving it her blessing. But the crucial example is her position on human rights. For Nussbaum, no good can possibly come of avoiding phrases like ‘humanity’ and ‘human dignity’. For Butler, who uses a more generous tone towards her antagonists than they do towards her, the issue is ‘making universal claims about the conditions and rights of women (Okin, Nussbaum) without regard to the prevailing norms in local cultures, and without taking up the task of cultural translation’. To insist on the need for cultural translation, as Butler does, implies of course the possibility of translation (a point not all of Butler’s fans have grasped), while it also indicates the work necessary to achieve mutual comprehension and agreement, and the impossibility of achieving perfect transparency. Practically speaking, then, it means both laying claim to universal rights and stressing the cultural distance the imagination must travel in order to realise such claims. For some years now human rights experts have been speaking of the need for a strong human rights culture: not a set of norms, but a set of translations that make those norms real in the many places where people actually live, even at the risk of muddling somewhat their abstract universality (which in any case is fictive). More is done for such a culture by staging imaginative conversations around its tricky edges, as Butler has been doing, than by denouncing, yet again, the poverty of cultural relativism.

For some theorists of sexuality, Butler has come to seem somewhat arrière-garde – too committed to subduing sex to a meta-narrative of emancipation. It should be possible to agree that Hegel is much more than a childhood love object for Butler without also agreeing on the inappropriateness of her continued attachment to him. Yes, there is reason to resist the imperative to make sex serve the cause of emancipation. But there is no need to regret that Butler makes emancipation sexy.