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Unbecoming Subjects

Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility

Annika Thiem

Publication Year: 2008

Moral philosophy and poststructuralism have long been considered two antithetical enterprises. Moral philosophy is invested in securing norms, whereas poststructuralism attempts to unclench the grip of norms on our lives. Moreover, poststructuralism is often suspected of undoing the possibility of ethical knowledge by emphasizing the unstable, socially constructed nature of our practices and knowledge. In Unbecoming Subjects, Annika Thiem argues that Judith Butler's work makes possible a productive encounter between moral philosophy and poststructuralism, rethinking responsibility and critique as key concepts at the juncture of ethics and politics. Putting into conversation Butler's earlier and most recent work, Unbecoming Subjects begins by examining how Butler's critique of the subject as nontransparent to itself, formed thoroughly through relations of power and in subjection to norms and social practices, poses a challenge to ethics and ethical agency. The book argues, in conversation with Butler, Levinas, and Laplanche, that responsibility becomes possible only when we do not know what to do or how to respond, yet find ourselves under a demand to respond, and even more, to respond well to others. Drawing on the work of Butler, Adorno, and Foucault, Unbecoming Subjects examines critique as a central practice for moral philosophy. It interrogates the limits of moral and political knowledge and probes methods of social criticism to uncover and oppose injustices.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This project has seen several instantiations and transformations; the most radical transformation was the last one, which separates this book from its sibling submitted as a dissertation at the University of Tübingen during the winter term of 2003–4. The overarching arguments of the two versions are quite different from each other. The dissertation centered on staging scenes ...


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-18

While it is a commonplace to begin with the question of how to live well, it seems to me that we still run up against this question time and again—this question that Socrates posed as the central question for philosophy. Living with others as we do, this question also means how to live well given the social circumstances we find ourselves in. How to live well? How to know ...

Part One: Challenges to the Subject

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1. Subjects in Subjection: Bodies, Desires, and the Psychic Life of Norms

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pp. 21-50

That our bodies, our desires, and even our psychic lives are not separable from the way that norms and social power act on us is not just an uncomfortable thought or a theory that adequately seems to sum up experiences that we might have had. If we think about it a bit longer, then this concept puts our commitments to the test about how we think about our capacity ...

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2. Moral Subjects and Agencies of Morality

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pp. 51-92

The subject as an autonomous knowing and acting subject in control of him-or herself has come into question not only because of the theoretical interventions from various intellectual camps, such as psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, feminism, and postcolonial studies. Much more mundanely, our daily experiences often make us—sometimes painfully—aware of the limits ...

Part Two: Responsibility

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3. Responsibility as Response: Levinas and Responsibility for Others

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pp. 95-143

Subject formation in relation to responsibility and moral philosophy pertains to the question of what it means to think about the formation of the subject as an ethical subject or, in other words, as an ethical agent. It is possible to approach this question of ethical agency through the issues of the will and intentionality, as described in the last chapter, in order to ...

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4. Ambivalent Desires of Responsibility: Laplanche and Psychoanalytic Translations

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pp. 144-184

Given contemporary critiques of the subject and of the moral subject in particular, the project of this book is to consider the implications of these critiques for rethinking moral philosophy. If we start with a revised understanding of the subject in terms of its formation, rethinking responsibility consequently becomes a pressing question, since we no longer have the ...

Part Three: Critique

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5. The Aporia of Critique and the Future of Moral Philosophy

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pp. 187-224

My discussion of responsibility as a key concept for moral philosophy in previous chapters centers on articulating responsibility in terms of responding to others and as a mode of relating and being with others. Responsibility as a question and problematic of moral conduct emerges as a genuinely ethical question because of our condition of being with others. I argue in ...

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6. Critique and Political Ethics: Justice as a Question

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pp. 225-256

None of us live as fully self-sufficient, autonomous beings; we are implicated in the lives of others not only at the beginning and end of our lives, but all throughout them. We live with others, proximate to others whom we encounter personally, whom we might wish to encounter, or whom we might wish that we would need not encounter, and with others whom we ...


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pp. 257-284

Works Cited

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pp. 285-296


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pp. 297-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780823248582
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823228980
Print-ISBN-10: 0823228983

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 609109017
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Unbecoming Subjects

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Criticism.
  • Poststructuralism.
  • Responsibility.
  • Butler, Judith, 1956-.
  • Ethics.
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