- Senses of the Subject by Judith Butler
Judith Butler is undoubtedly one of the most popular philosophers and critics of our time—across philosophy, psychoanalysis, political and social theory, gender studies, etc.—her scope has breadth, playfulness (Mr. Magoo!), confrontation, and a serious attention to performative rhetoric. Butler’s new book, Senses of the Subject, is a bastion of her oeuvre as a “poststructuralist thinker” (a term that she has provisionally accepted) and a remarkably ethical collection of essays spanning from 1993-2012 which register “some shifts in [Butler’s] views over that time” (1). Senses inscribes and lends itself to the poststructuralist tradition (a tradition she is tirelessly working with and against) but is, on my estimation, beyond an empty textualism.
Butler who “philosophizes with the times” records her shifting views towards the social, political, juridical and philosophical problems of the last three decades. In this book, Butler remains true to her theoretical roots as she emphasizes leaving concepts permanently open, contested, and contingent in order not to foreclose in advance any future claims for inclusion. However, in Senses there are unique accents placed upon Butler’s call for conceptual openness and the “less known—and less popular—dimensions of [her] philosophical work” (10). These accents include the role of affects, the narrative self-fashioning of subjects, belatedness (Nachträglichkeit), tropology, and impressionability in relation to the body as a site of ideological interpellation.
Senses is noteworthy if we, the reader, want to follow Butler, a profound thinker of our contemporary age evolve with the times. While the book merits reading in full, from front cover to back cover, one useful strategy is to read the essays published in chronological order—from “Kierkegaard’s Speculative Despair” (1993) to “To Sense What is Living in the Other: Hegel’s Early Love” (2012).
Butler’s core thesis, although formulated and recast under different light with every subsequent publication (rhetorical, tropological, discursive, material, etc.) on the subject is that the “I” does not stand apart from itself; it is affected, embodied, and constituted through complex matrices of power that place it in a multiplicity of “positions” ergo the psychic life of power. The “I” is addressed to give an account of itself which performativly constitutes the “I” within the backdrop of a set of norms and counter-norms. Butler’s term for this process is subject formation. More simply put, what we call the “I” is always already addressed by a “you” that affects me; and “I” must struggle with the hail of the “you” to figure out who “I” am.
Whether we are reading Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Freud, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Fanon, and Irigaray, the role of affects and the body becomes a site for reorienting the subject sensu stricto towards an ethical encounter with others. The challenges posed by Butler’s work opens up a space for the rethinking of the subject and its relation to affects: desire, rage, love, despair, grief, mourning, and shame. The [End Page 582] introduction considers the homologous structures literary fictions have in relation to affective subject formation. Butler’s rhetorical question drives her thesis:
Could it be that the narrative dimensions of the theory of subject formation is impossible, yet necessary, inevitably belated, especially when the task is to discern how the subject is initially animated by what affects it and how these transitive processes are reiterated in the animated life that follows?(4)
The turn to “the narrative dimensions” of subject formation marks a recasting of Butler’s problematic on affects and the body in explicitly rhetorical/tropological terms (undoubtedly because around 1997-1998 she is reading de Man). The rhetorical dimensions of discourse and the materiality of the body becomes a central point for Butler as she explores the performative function of language. For example, in chapter one, “How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are Mine” (1998), the crux of the argument is presented explicitly in rhetorical and tropological terms and language’s relation to the body. For Butler, language does not construct the body unilaterally nor does...