- Converging on an Open Quest
I very much enjoyed the exchange in which Judith Butler and I engaged last year, through an e-mail correspondence between what Borges would have called the “unlikely geographies” of Berkeley and London. The points of convergence of our respective approaches are clear: as Butler points out, the process of gender formation that she describes and the logic of hegemony as presented in my work (and in that which I wrote in collaboration with Chantal Mouffe) coincide in several of their assumptions. Neither we nor Butler see identities—political in one case, gendered in the other—as the expression of an intemporal mechanism or principle, but as products of the enactment of contingent norms; and both of us deny those norms a transcendental status, an a priori “hardness” which would reproduce itself unchanged in all historical instances. On the contrary, we see them as submitted to historical variations and as penetrated by a constitutive indetermination and ambiguity.
I have used the word “transcendental” ex professo, because it is the status of the transcendental which is at the root of many of the most crucial problems in contemporary theory. Most people would agree that transcendentalism, in its classical formulations, is today unsustainable, but there is also a generalized agreement that some kind of weak transcendentalism is unavoidable. In the deconstructionist tradition, for instance, the notion of “quasi-transcendentals” has acquired considerable currency. But most theoretical approaches are haunted by the perplexing question of the precise status of that “quasi.” The problem touches on, on the one hand, the question of “metalanguage”; on the other, the status, in theory building, of categories that apparently refer to empirical events but that in practice have a quasi-transcendental status, operating as the a priori conditions of intelligibility of a whole discursive domain. What is the status in psychoanalysis, for instance, of categories such as “phallus,” of the “castration complex”? Because of the undecided status of the “quasi,” we are confronted with a plurality of alternatives, whose two polar extremes would be a total hardening of those categories, which would thus become a priori conditions of all possible human development, and a no less extreme historicism which sees in them only contingent events, products of particular cultural formations. The first extreme is confronted with the whole array of problems emerging from any transcendentalization of empirical conditions; the second, with the difficulties derived from not dealing with those conditions which make possible even a historicist discourse. The logic of the “quasi” tries to avoid both extremes, but it is extremely unclear in what that logic would consist of. These are questions which have not been dealt with enough, in either Butler’s approach or in mine; but they are issues to which both of us will have to return—perhaps in future exchanges.
Let me now move to two central points contained in Butler’s latest piece, published in this issue of Diacritics as an addendum to our original exchange. They relate to the relationship between hegemony and iteration, and to the role of names in fixing meaning. I think that iteration belongs to the structure of any hegemonic operation, but that the latter stresses a double dimension of both repetition and displacement of meaning. To understand how these two dimensions interact with each other is crucial in order to grasp the [End Page 17] logic of the political. (I understand hegemony to be the central category in political analysis.) As Derrida has shown, iterability (the possibility of repetition in a plurality of instances) is something which belongs to the essence of the sign. What would something be which occurs in only one instance? It would simply not be a sign. But if the sign has to be the same, it also has to be different each time—and in that case the instance of its differential use has to be as part of its internal structure as the dimension of sameness. Now, in that case, it can only remain the same by becoming something constantly different from itself. This is the point where the usefulness of this analysis for a theory of the hegemonic becomes visible: for...