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Reviewed by:
  • Giving an Account of Oneself by Judith Butler
  • Christa Hodapp
Giving an Account of Oneself. Judith Butler. New York: Fordham U P, 2005.

The chapters of Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself originally were given as the Spinoza Lectures for the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in the spring of 2002. In this work, Butler returns to the problem of subjectivity and subject formation, but this time in the context of ethics and ethical philosophy. Pulling together ethical considerations and theories of the self from authors including Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, and Levinas, Butler deftly and successfully decenters and refocuses ethical analysis by claiming that the subject is not the ground for ethics but rather the problem for ethics. Central to this thesis is the claim that the self is inherently relational, and emerges through an address to others within a context of language and normative structures beyond the self 's control. Due to this exteriority, the self experiences an opacity that prevents it from providing a full account of the self to the other whom it addresses. It is precisely this opacity and limitation that Butler argues will create a new focus and understanding of ethics, and will radically alter our conceptions of violence, harm, condemnation, and responsibility.

In the first chapter, "An Account of Oneself," Butler establishes the ways in which one can give an account of oneself by working through the theoretical offerings of various philosophers on the subject. The discussion begins with an overview of Adorno, highlighting his claim that the problem of morality centers on dissonance between the universal interest and the interest of particular individuals. Thus, the particular individual, or the "I," cannot be understood apart from its social conditions, and the imposition of universality without reference to cultural specificity creates a form of ethical violence. This leads Butler to conclude; "Yet there is no 'I' that can fully stand apart from the social conditions of its emergence, no 'I' that is not implicated in a set of conditioning moral norms, which, being norms, have a social character that exceeds a purely personal or idiosyncratic meaning" (7). However, Butler claims that this is not a sufficient understanding of the "I," and points out that Adorno fails to interrogate the ways in which norms determine who or what can be a subject at all or how norms determine the limits of subjectivity. Consequently, subjects are created through moral norms but also must negotiate these norms reflectively. [End Page 115]

Of great importance to the creation of subjects is the nature of address and recognition. When giving an account of one's self, the subject is always addressing an Other while being interpellated as a subject through moral norms and the Other. Butler claims that it is within our relations to others that the opacity of the self arises and that this opacity is part of our nature as relational and dependent beings. Furthermore, if this opacity is the result of our relationship to others, and the relationship to others is the basis of our ethical responsibility, then it is this opacity that creates our most important ethical bonds. Turning to Foucault, Butler points out that the scene of address to an Other takes place within the context of normative structures, and to recognize an Other one must do so within norms, hence the self "becomes an instrument of that norm's agency" (26). In other words, the offering of recognition itself does not come from a pure subject standpoint, but is always mediated through exterior means by pervasive normative structures. The necessity of the address to another within these exterior normative frameworks creates the condition of exposure of the subject, and this exposure is a source of opacity that creates an undermining effect on a subject's attempt to provide a narrative of the self.

The second chapter, "Against Ethical Violence," provides a discussion of ethical violence as it relates to her discussion of the subject in the previous chapter. At the beginning of the chapter, Butler describes ethical violence as the demand for individuals to maintain self-identity at all times, or to present a self exhibiting complete...


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