- Giving an Account of Oneself
Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler's recent foray into moral philosophy, is a lucid interrogation of the problem of responsibility in the wake of contemporary critiques of the subject. In it, Butler moves beyond her concern with the conditions of subjectivity and its performances towards a fuller consideration of life with others. Butler proffers an answer to the problem of post-subjective responsibility that resonates with the best elements of the rhetorical traditions, [End Page 329] though perhaps Butler's project might also benefit from a more thorough engagement with the problem of rhetoric in its specificity.
Though works such as Gender Trouble earned a reputation (perhaps unfairly) for being theoretically dense to the point of obscurity, Giving an Account of Oneself is clearly and elegantly argued. Butler's argument is that moral philosophy relies on the ability of subjects to give an account of themselves and their actions. Such an account seems difficult in the face of blistering critiques of an autonomous, self-possessed, transparent, and naturally given subject of intention. How can one affirm responsibility in the post-subjective moment? As Butler puts it: "does the postulation of a subject who is not self-grounding … whose conditions of emergence can never fully be accounted for, undermine the possibility of responsibility and, in particular, of giving an account of oneself" (19)? What are the assumptions latent in critiques of the humanist subject that might deny the possibility of giving an account of oneself? Inspired by Foucault's interrogation of a naturalized truth of the subject, Lacan's account of a subject produced and dispossessed by the Symbolic Order, and Derrida's critique of presence, such critiques locate the subject as an effect of the operations of discourse, conceived broadly. Despite the force of these critiques, Butler claims that a view of the subject nested in and dispossessed by discourse provides possibilities for ethics. Butler's reframing of ethics draws on two assumptions that underwrite "post" accounts of the subject: that the subject is both an effect of discourse and of differential relation to others.
The first assumption is that a subject produced within discourse is also a subject that is dependent on and interpenetrated by others. Drawing on her continuing engagement with Hegel, the work of Adriana Cavarero, Levinas's conception of alterity and Laplanche's theory of seduction, Butler argues that the subject is endowed with a "fundamental sociality" (33). The markers of fundamental sociality differ for each of these theorists: Hegel relies on the concept of recognition; Cavarero appropriates Arendt's space of appearance; Levinas argues for the priority of an ethical relation to the other over ontology; and Laplanche conceives of the emergence of subjectivity as a primal seduction of a child by the adult world. But each of these framings of the subject is united by a basic commitment that subjects are produced in relation to others both as a generative point and as a horizon.
The second assumption is that when a subject dependent on other subjects attempts to give an account of itself, it does so within a structure of address. A subject makes a claim for itself only in the presence of others—an account of oneself both aims at the self but also simultaneously aims at presenting the self to another. On this reading, accounts of oneself are not transparent descriptions [End Page 330] of a subject's interiority: rather, an account of oneself must be a narrative, a discursive gathering of the self that can never fully recover the conditions of its emergence. Narrative is not simply a mode of communicating the content and intentions of a self to the other. Narrative is simultaneously the precondition for a subject naming and providing retroactive order to its own subjectivity. But where there are narratives, there is always the risk of narrative closure, or that the narrative is repeated without interruption. Put in terms of Butler's concern with ethics, is there not always a risk that a narrative becomes a self...