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Diacritics 31.4 (2001) 22-40

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Giving an Account of Oneself

Judith Butler

In recent years, the critique of poststructuralism, itself loquacious, has held that the postulation of a subject who is not self-grounding undermines the possibility of responsibility and, in particular, of giving an account of oneself. Critics have argued that the various critical reconsiderations of the subject, including those that do away with the theory of the subject altogether, cannot provide the basis for an account of responsibility, that if we are, as it were, divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start, it will be impossible to ground a notion of personal or social responsibility on the basis of such a view. I would like to try to rebut this view in what follows, and to show how a theory of subject-formation that acknowledges the limits of self-knowledge can work in the service of a conception of ethics and, indeed, of responsibility. If the subject is opaque to itself, it is not therefore licensed to do what it wants or to ignore its relations to others. Indeed, if it is precisely by virtue of its relations to others that it is opaque to itself, and if those relations to others are precisely the venue for its ethical responsibility, then it may well follow that it is precisely by virtue of the subject's opacity to itself that it sustains some of its most important ethical bonds.

In all the talk about the social construction of the subject, we have perhaps overlooked the fact that the very being of the self is dependent not just on the existence of the Other—in its singularity, as Levinas would have it, though surely that—but also on the possibility that the normative horizon within which the Other sees and listens and knows and recognizes is also subject to a critical opening. This opening calls into question the limits of established regimes of truth, where a certain risking of the self becomes, as Levinas claims, the sign of virtue [see Foucault]. Whether or not the Other is singular, the Other is recognized and confers recognition through a set of norms that govern recognizability. So whereas the Other may be singular, if not radically personal, the norms are to some extent impersonal and indifferent, and they introduce a disorientation of perspective for the subject in the midst of recognition as an encounter. For if I understand myself to be conferring recognition on you, for instance, then I take seriously that the recognition comes from me. But in the moment that I realize that the terms by which I confer recognition are not mine alone, that I did not singlehandedly make them, then I am, as it were, dispossessed by the language that I offer. In a sense, I submit to a norm of recognition when I offer recognition to you, so that I am both subjected to that norm and the agency of its use.

As Hegel would have it, recognition cannot be unilaterally given. In the moment that I give it, I am potentially given it, and the form by which I offer it is one that potentially is given to me. In this sense, one might say, I can never offer it, in the Hegelian sense, as a pure offering, since I am receiving it, at least potentially and structurally, in the moment, in the act, of giving. We might ask, as Levinas surely has, what kind of gift this is that returns to me so quickly, that never really leaves my hands. Is it the case that recognition consists, as it does for Hegel, in a reciprocal act whereby I recognize that [End Page 22] the Other is structured in the same way that I am, and I recognize that the Other also makes, or can make, this very recognition of sameness? Or is there perhaps an encounter with alterity here that is not reducible to sameness? If it is the latter, how are we to understand this alterity? On the one hand, the Hegelian Other is always found outside, or at least...