Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sovereignty, Ontology, and Ethics in the Work of Judith Butler

While looking through my papers for some of my older lists, I came across this paper, written a number of years ago for my advisor's class focused on critiques of sovereignty.  I thought I would put it up here.  

The beginning impetus of this project was to begin to make a critical assessment of the attempt of a segment of critical theorists to use their writing to make a political impact.  I was going to look at a number of works that operated in this vein including Susan Buck Morss, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and others.  Some of the writers I was looking at had been working in this vein for some time, namely Edward Said, whereas others had not.  The specific common ground that I found in these writers was a focus on the notion of the human, and more often than not, a return to humanism.  I wanted to examine how the notion of the human and structures of sovereignty circulated in their various critiques of the Bush administration.  In essence, I wanted to examine how these attempts to engage in the current political environment led these thinkers to accept notions of the human and of sovereignty that were defined by the common sense of the contemporary political situation.
          However, my attempts to engage in this material were by in large failures.  My work was more polemical than critical, criticizing the political tactics of the antiwar movement rather than looking critically at their structural underpinnings.  Perhaps at this point we are still too close to or even still in the era that I sought to examine.  The critique that I wanted to make was strongly influenced by the work of Wendy Brown.  In her book Politics Out of History Brown argues for a certain distance between criticism and political practice.  She makes this argument by examining a comment that Michel Foucault my in regards to his book The Uses of Pleasure.  On being asked if the book was written for the liberation, he responded, “not for, but in terms of.”  Brown then argues, “The difference between “for” and “in terms of” is critical: it indicates whether intellectual life will be submitted to existing political discourses and the formulation of immediate political needs those discourses articulate, or will be allowed the air of independence that it must have in order to be of value as intellectual work for political life.”[1]  This comment offers a fairly compelling critique of the tendency that a number of intellectuals have in an attempt to be engaged through their intellectual work.  The production of a work that operates in the realm of “in terms of” offers an assessment of the horizons of a movement, and perhaps points to ways that those horizons can be challenged.  At best, the act of speaking for produces another representation of those limitations, and usually not that.  In effect, my initial attempts just reproduced what they were trying to critique.

            I decided to think of a different approach to engage with this question, one that would avoid the pitfalls of my earlier approach. I came to the conclusion that I could accomplish this by looking at how Judith Butler succeeds in writing to a broader audience in her book, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, while keeping a commitment to a critical examination of the terms that used within the current political debate.  This commitment can be seen very early within the book, and in language that is by in large in solidarity with the broader left anti-war movement.

            If national sovereignty is challenged, that does not mean it must be shored up at all costs, if that results in suspending political dissent.  Rather, the dislocation from First World privilege, however temporary, offers a chance to start to imagine a world in which that violence might be minimized, in which an inevitable interdependency becomes acknowledged as the basis for global political community.  I confess to not knowing how to theorize that interdependency.  I would suggest, however, that both our political and ethical responsibilities are rooted in the recognition that radical forms of self-sufficiency and unbridled sovereignty are, by definition, disrupted by the larger global processes of which they are a part, that no final control can be secured, and that final control is not, cannot be, an ultimate value.[2]

            As I said before, we see a commitment to both to a defense of civil liberties within the country as well as finding non-violent solutions to the crisis in the structures in world governance.  At the same time, there is already the commitment to rethinking the two topics that I am interested in discussing, the ways that sovereignty is involved in structures of world governance and the way that modes of interdependence can be transformed within that structure.  Those two themes along with the question of the human are the ideas that I want to examine in Judith Butler’s work.  These themes, particularly the questions surrounding the notion of the human have been an interest throughout Butler’s work.  I am limiting my examination to the work that was produced from the time of the late Clinton administration to the present situation.

           The discussion will open on the broader topic of sovereignty in response to both the military humanism of the Clinton administration to the current situation labeled rather broadly under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror.’  This will primarily be a reading of the essay “Indefinite Detention” but will draw from other works as well.  From there, the essay will move into a discussion of the notion of the human.  This theme is strongly interrelated to the first, as that sovereignty frequently operates through mechanisms of exclusion from this category.  This should take up the bulk of the essay moving from the response to Martha Nussbaum calling for a universal cosmopolitanism to her latest work Undoing Gender.  The discussion will end with an exploration into her recent discussion of ethics. This should bring the two earlier topics together in an even more explicit manner, and perhaps point to the possibility of an ethico-political project tied to the work.

            The question of sovereignty became a serious question in the 1990’s with the end of the cold war and the restructuring of the world system that occurred because of that and decolonization.  Early investigations took on triumphalist narratives such as Francis Fukymura’s the end of history or responses to the question of postmodernity such as the works by Frederic Jameson and David Harvey.  But this shifted with the Chiapas uprising and a whole host of other mobilizations against the phenomenon that was being labeled globalization.  This produced a great deal of literature in response, the most notable being Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire.  At the same time, Giorgio Agamben was responding to another crisis that can be defined by the various intra-state ethnic conflicts, and the occasional interventions by various inter-state bodies and the United States that has been defined as military humanism.  The intervention that Butler makes is on the same terrain as Agamben’s and in response to it.  Both are engaged in a rereading of Foucault in light of the current reinsurgence in a certain sort of sovereignty and both are interested in the mechanisms of exclusion in production of the human.

     This examination of the reinsurgence of sovereignty primarily occurs in the essay “Indefinite Detention” but the topic gets touched on in a number of the essays of the rest of the book.  This essay is in response to the acts of the Bush administration; in particular the detention camp at Guantannamo and the Patriot act, but one can now add the atrocities of Abu Graib and rendition.  She makes this effort primarily through a rereading of Foucault’s comments on governmentality.  She gives the stakes of the argument in the introduction.

     Whereas Foucault argued that sovereignty and governmentality can and do coexist, the particular form of that coexistence in the contemporary war prison has yet to be charted.  Governmentality designates a model for conceptualizing power in its diffuse and multivalent operations, focusing on the management of populations, and operating through state and non-state institutions and discourses.  In the current war prison, officials of governmentality wield sovereign power, understood here as a lawless and unaccountable operation of power, once its legal rule is effectively suspended and military codes take its place.  Once again, a lost or injured sovereignty becomes reanimated through rules that allocate final decisions about life and death to the executive branch or to officials with no elected status and bound by no constitutional constraints.[3]

            As Butler points out, a common reading of Foucault’s comments on governmentality saw Foucault’s argument as the ending of the functioning of a sovereign power.  Butler, like both Wendy Brown and Giorgio Agamben, argues against that reading.  She shows that he didn’t make this argument himself.  But what does that mean for the notion of governmentality, and what is its relationship to this new form of sovereignty?  Butler sets up an interesting relationship between sovereignty and governmentality, in effect, linking the two in opposition to a more liberal notion of the law.  It also seems that despite the fact that Butler agrees with the elements Agamben’s reading of biopower and governmentality that rejects stagist or evolutionary interpretation of their transition, she doesn’t quite reproduce the argument that he makes in regards to their relation.
          Before we get into a discussion of the differences in approaching Foucault’s work, perhaps we should spend a brief period of time working through what Foucault meant by governmentality.  Foucault’s article on that subject works through a whole series of political thinkers who are responding to Machiavelli’s ideas around the defense of the principality.  Foucault argues that these arguments represent a major transition in the manner of governance, shifting from an emphasis on protection of territory to the maintenance and sustenance of a population.  This term of population is the crucial term in the production of this concept of governmentality. “From the moment when, on the contrary, population appears absolutely irreducible to the family, the latter becomes of secondary importance compared to population as an element internal to population, no longer a model but a segment.”[4]  He traces out the transition of this thought following various usages of the analogy of the family to the formulation of the term “population.”

            As Butler points out, this leads to substantially different approach to structures of governance.  “Governmentality is broadly understood as a mode of power concerned with the maintenance and control of bodies and persons, the production and regulation of persons and populations, and the circulation of goods insofar as they maintain and restrict the life of the population.  Governmentality operates through policies and departments, through managerial and bureaucratic institutions, through law, when law is understood as “a set of tactics,” and through forms of state power, although not exclusively….  Marked by a diffuse set of strategies and tactics, governmentality gains its meaning and purpose from no single source, no unified sovereign subject.  Rather, the tactics characteristic of governmentality operate diffusely, to dispose and order populations, and to produce and reproduce subjects, their practices and beliefs, in relation to specific policy aims.”[5]

            There is a curious contrast with Agamben’s work, which seems to be interested in similar questions.  Where Butler works through Foucault’s work on the population, Agamben looks explicitly at the work on biopolitics, focusing on the production of the ‘docile body’ and models of individuation.  If one were to make a gross generalization of Agamben’s work, it by in large focuses on the production of sovereignty through acts of individualization and exclusion.  One feels that there is more relation to Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism than Foucault.  He goes on to make the curious comment, “It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power.  In this sense, biopolitics is at least as old as the sovereign exception.”[6]  This logic can be produced through the fact that Agamben’s notion of biopolitics seems to repeatedly slip back into Foucault’s notion of an older model of sovereignty, one based on the taking of life, rather than on based on the disciplinary norms that can be found in any number of institutions.

            At the same time, there seems to be something vital in Agamben’s work that links up with the current situation.  The modes of control of the population are increasingly defined by this power of exclusion.  I have already indicated its linkage with the conflicts of the 1990’s as well as the acts of the Bush administration.  If anything, the structures of governmentality have strengthened the ability of the sovereign to kill and exclude.  His works have given a fairly compelling history of this ability.[7]   The current archipelago of prison camps set up by that administration show the urgency of the question of the camp even if one doesn’t accept Agamben’s misreading of Foucault.

           Butler’s work implicitly recognizes this fact by placing the sovereign act of exclusion within the terms of anachronism.  “Sovereignty in this sense no longer operates to support or vitalize the state, but this does not foreclose the possibility that it might emerge as a reanimated anachronism within the political field unmoored from its traditional anchors.”[8]  Butler doesn’t make the same mistake that Agamben makes in linking the notion of biopower to the ability to create the state of exception and take life.  Butler sees that governmentality creates the possibility of opening up this form of “anachronistic” power that operates in the contemporary situation.
          And it is important that Butler places this form squarely within the structures of bureaucracy that engages in the structures of maintaining the population that is the focus of Foucault’s work.  She describes the system in the following terms.  “Petty sovereigns abound, reigning in the midst of bureaucratic army institutions mobilized by aims and tactics of power they do not inaugurate or fully control.  And yet such figures are delegated with the power to render unilateral decisions, accountable to no law and without legitimate authority….  It is rather, a lawless and prerogatory power, a “rogue” power par excellence.[9] 

           And yet this power comes out of the bureaucratic structures of governmentality, and more significantly, it operates through them.  The Guantanamo prisons are a complex operation depending on the techniques of the prison.  The level of monitoring of the ‘detainees’ is incredible, from the food that they consume to the amount of toilet paper they use.  This operation is dependent on an incredible level of expertise, bringing in experts from a number of different fields.  The whole apparatus of the panopticon has been placed at the service of producing subjects that will produce the right kind of information for the United States to continue and legitimize the war on terror.

            At the same time, Butler wants to link the two notions, governmentality and sovereignty in a more substantial level, in opposition to a more substantial notion of the law.  She argues that both “are equally irreducible to law.  Neither is necessarily grounded in law, and neither deploys legal tactics exclusively in the field of their respective operations.  The suspension of the rule of law allows for the convergence of governmentality and sovereignty….  The state is neither identified with the acts of sovereignty nor with the field of governmentality, and yet both act in the name of the state.”[10]  She links the two on the notion of technique.  One can perhaps go as far as to argue that the acts of suspension that are defined as sovereignty become one of many techniques for controlling a population within the field of governmentality, particularly at moments of crisis.

            I want to make another link in this connection of concepts.  I think that there is another concept buried within this linkage that makes it work.  The linkage operates on a crucial term, one that doesn’t find any particular currency within the work of Foucault, but can be found in other modes of critique.  That concept is that of instrumentality, or instrumental reason.  We can find this term at the crossroads between the term of sovereignty and the term of governmentality within Butler’s work.  Governmentality is the condition of this new exercise of sovereignty in the sense that it first establishes law as a “tactic,” something of instrumental value, and not “binding” by the virtue of its status as law.  In a sense, the self-annulment of law under the condition of a state of emergency revitalizes the anachronistic “sovereign” as the newly invigorated subjects of managerial power.[11]

            It is important to note that the notion of “instrumentality” plays no particularly significant role with Foucault’s essay.  After all, he is showing a transition from a Machiavellian understanding of the principality to a population model.  This hardly a transition to a mode of instrumentality to one that was non-instrumental.  Rather, I would argue that the currency of this discussion comes out of the concept of instrumental reason that is developed by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their work in response to the Third Reich such as the Dialectic of Enlightenment, as well as Horkheimer’s essays around that same period of time. 
         Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno wrote a whole series of essays trying to understand the phenomenon of the Third Reich.  The question could be phrased simply, how could one of the most advanced capitalist-bureaucratic states, a state with one of the largest labor movements in the world, produce such a popular and reactionary movement?  How could it engage in the systematic murder of entire populations?  The question is a lot less vexing within the current moment, but there were still residual traces of the belief in progress that lasted the First World War.  What was unusual about Horkheimer and Adorno’s effort to explain this phenomenon is that they sought to look into the terms of the Enlightenment itself to show a genealogy that pointed to the current moment.
        When one looks at it, both the acts of the Blitzkrieg, and the Endlosung itself were dependent on the same structure of techniques that were developed in the assembly line.   Both are dependent on a whole series of techniques of compartmentalization and efficiency.  Max Horkheimer points to this connection in his essay, “The End of Reason.”

Reason in this sense is as indispensable in the modern technique of war as it has always been in the conduct of business.  Its features can be summarized as the optimum adaptation of means to ends, thinking as an energy-conserving operation.  It is a pragmatic instrument oriented to expediency, cold and sober.  The belief in cleverness rests on motives much more cogent than metaphysical propositions.  When the dictators of today appeal to reason, they mean that they possess the most tanks.  They were rational enough to build them.  Within the range of Fascism, to defy such reason is the cardinal crime.[12]

            The techniques that they describe, ‘thinking as an energy-conserving operation…. a pragmatic instrument oriented to expediency, cold and sober” can be placed under the term of instrumental reason.  This concept is one that they link to the project of the Enlightenment itself.  It produces a reason that “rests on motives much more cogent than metaphysical propositions.”  This logic can be linked to some form of utility in its broadest sense, and to return to the discussion that Butler brings up in regards to the law, produces a logic that subordinates the figure of the law to a tool that can work aid in this efficiency.

            This “utility” is devoted towards producing structures of domination based broadly on Decartes notion of mind body dualism.  Descartes advocates a concept of reason that is built upon the domination of the mind over the body.  Horkheimer and Adorno link this concept to the general economy of the modern industrial system in their work, Dialectic of Nature.

The concordance between the mind of man and the nature of things that he had in mind is patriarchal: the human mind, which overcomes superstition, is to hold sway over a disenchanted nature.  Knowledge, which is power, knows no obstacles: neither in the enslavement of men nor in compliance with the world’s rulers.  As with all the ends of the bourgeois economy in the factory and on the battlefield, origin is no bar to the dictates of the entrepreneurs: kings, no less directly than businessmen, control technology; it is as democratic as the economic system with which it is bound up.  Technology is the essence of this knowledge.  It does not work by concepts and images, by the fortunate insight, but refers to method, the exploitation of others’ work, and capital.  The “many things” which, according to Bacon, “are reserved,” are themselves no more than instrumental: the radio as sublimated printing press, the dive bomber as a more effective form of artillery, radio control as a more reliable compass.  What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men.  That is the only is the only aim.  Ruthlessly, in despite of itself, the Enlightenment has extinguished any trace of its own self-consciousness.[13]

            We are immediately introduced indirectly to Descartes form of logic, which is linked to a patriarchal form of power, as the dominated form of the body both takes the form of nature and that of women.  This methodology that is dedicated to a form of domination that is directed towards an economy of efficiency is intensified through methods tied to the expansion of technology.  This is linked to three main fields, propaganda, warfare, and navigation in order to point out that the innovations of the day were only continuations on themes that had run through the Enlightenment.  More significantly, they point out that these technologies have been shaped and formed by the domination that defines the system of economy.
        This can be pushed farther.  Instrumental reason provides the necessary logic behind the domination of human beings through its instrumentality.  This draws on the classical marxist analysis that show how workers become appendages to their machines and shows the possibility of this technique being brought into other facets of life.  More significantly, it shows the possibility of designating sections of the possibility of demarcating sections of the population as unproductive, and legitimating their removal.  It also gives the tools to make these mechanisms extremely efficient.  It enters human value within the same structure as objects, operating within the same logic of equivalence.    

            Essentially the separation that Horkheimer and Adorno make with an orthodox marxist understanding of the world is the same point of separation that Butler makes with Foucault.  Both are essentially arguing that modern disenchanted forms of power allow for a reinsurgence of older models of power, for Horkheimer and Adorno this gets placed under the aegis of ‘myth’ whereas for Butler it gets placed under ‘sovereignty.  They link the phenomenon of Nazism in the present.  “The horde which so assuredly appears in the organization of the Hitler Youth is not are return to barbarism but the triumph of repressive equality, the disclosure through peers of the parity of the right to injustice.”[14]  The argument makes the link on the basis of equivalence, and replaciblity.  Similarly, the reintroduction of sovereignty is a contemporary phenomenon that is linked to the contemporary situation.  In the moment of the crisis, the figure of myth, the horde or the sovereign are returned to as a resolution to that crisis.  They become “instrumentalized” and brought into the new apparatus.
          Perhaps the point where the analysis of Horkheimer and Adorno fails is when the notion of the human arrives.  Their section “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment” is perhaps the least illuminating section of the book.  One neither gets an analysis of how instrumental reason function to separate the human from the non-human, nor how the separation is produced.  Whereas the earlier work on instrumental reason aided and expanded on Butler’s understanding of the relationship between governmentality and sovereignty, they will have to be abandoned to understand the mechanisms of exclusion that produce the human.

            This is the part of Butler’s work that has its closest ties with a certain element of Agamben’s work.  Agamben spent a great deal of time discussing the fact that the increase in the figure of the refugee, the stateless figure put a good deal of stress on the mechanisms of the human rights apparatus.  He points out quite accurately that most established notions of human rights going back to France’s Declaration of Rights is dependent on that subject being tied to a discrete territory.  This has become irrelevant for larger and larger groups of people, who leave their countries in order to flee from wars, repression, or simply to look for work.  The Bush administration has excused its behavior through the gaps within these structures, labeling its enemies, stateless “enemy combatants.”

This question has been part of Butler’s work, and her involvement in, and examination of the terms of a certain type of cosmopolitan human rights discourse.  This can already be seen in her engagement with the argument that Martha Nussbaum brings up in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism.

           If existing and accepted conventions of universality constrain the domain of the speakable, making a border of demarcation between the speakable and the unspeakable.
          The border that produces the speakable through the exclusion of certain forms of speech becomes an operation of censorship exercised through the very production of the universal.  Does every postulation of the universal as an existent, as a given, not codify the exclusions by which that postulation of the universal proceeds?  In this instance and through this strategy of relying on established conventions of universality, do we unwittingly stall the process of universalization within the bounds of established conventions, naturalizing its exclusions, and preempting the possibility of its radicalization?  The universal can be articulated only in response to a challenge from (its own) outside.  What constitutes the community that might qualify as a legitimate community that might debate and agree upon this universality?[15]

Butler’s primary critique of Nussbaum’s work is that it operates on the principle that there is a structure of universality in place.  She clearly points out that this logic produces a restrictive notion of universality that reestablishes the restrictions within the “established conventions of universality.”  We have already noted that international operates on a notion of a subject that is a state-bound subject, leaving out the increasing number of stateless refugees within the society.  But in her other work, Butler also points to the fact that there has been considerable debates about the relevance of gays and lesbians in human rights organization.  One can see the most explicit moment of this in the debates over the term “gender” within global forums on rights.  The term has become controversial because the Vatican along with other structures within those forums see the term as Trojan horse for legitimating homosexuality.

The structures of global governance that many liberals expect to use to combat the reinsurgence of sovereignty were the preconditions for that reinsurgence.  The question of the human is already in them.  This question is perhaps the most urgent throughout her work.  It is constantly rephrased in similar language in Antigone’s Claim, Undoing Gender, and Precarious Life.  She phrases this question within the essay “Indefinite Detention.”  “It is crucial to ask under what conditions some human lives cease to become eligible for basic, if not universal, human rights.  How does the U.S. government construe these conditions?  And to what extent is there a racial and ethnic frame through which these imprisoned lives are viewed and judged such that they are deemed less than human, or as having departed from the recognizable human community?”[16]

Her work constantly pairs this question of the historical ontological structures of the human with the political ramifications of those structures. Within the discussion of Precarious Life, she points out that the deaths that occur in relation to the violence of the United States and Israel are somehow less human than the deaths that occurred at the Twin Towers.  “But this is just a sign of another differential relation to life, since we seldom, if ever, hear the names of the thousands of Palestinians who have died by the Israeli military with United States support, or any number of Afghan people, children and adults.  Du they have names and faces, personal histories, family, favorite hobbies, slogans by which they live?…  To what extent have Arab peoples, predominantly practitioners of Islam, fallen outside the “human” as it is naturalized in its “Western” mold by the contemporary workings of humanism?”[17]

To push this question into the contemporary politics, one can see this very gap evident within the recent removal of Israeli settlers in Gaza.  An extraordinary effort was made to show the pain and the suffering of the settlers.  They were made human, individual.  Some of the people that were expelled had been living there had been there for weeks.  This contrasts strongly with the anonymity in which thousands of Palestinians have been removed from their houses in much more brutal circumstances and without remuneration.  We can’t limit our understanding to this phenomenon to limited concepts such as “bias” or some kind of nefarious influence from the AIPAC.  Instead, we need to look at the influence of the colony in the postcolony.  Despite the efforts of decolonization and anti-racism, the racist and orientalism of colonialism remains a profound influence on the current constructions of the human in human rights discourse.

The immediate reaction to the attacks was phrased in the question, “Why do they hate us?”  One wonders at the sincerity of the question, but the response to the question outside of leftist circles certainly avoiding answering it in anyway that would be uncomfortable to readers.  Like a lot of the literature produced to explain the ethnic conflicts of the 1990’s, writers such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington tried to produce explanations that were somehow timeless, or at the very least, having ancient origins.  Instead of investigating the implications of colonialism and the violence of the attempts at decolonization, they produce a notion of an Arab society, and more relevant to us, subject that is somehow timeless.  Butler notes the relationship between the act of this pathological reading, and the current structures of indefinite detention.

I think, not only because, in a proto-Foucaultian vein, it explicitly models the prison on the mental institution, but also because it sets up an analogy between the suspected terrorist and the mentally ill.  When analogies are offered, they presuppose the separability of the terms that are compared.  But any analogy also assumes a common ground for comparability, and in this case the analogy functions to a certain degree by functioning metonymically.  The terrorists are like the mentally ill because their mind-set is unfathomable, because they are outside reason, because they are outside of “civilization,” if we understand that term to be the catchword of a self-defined Western perspective that considers itself bound to certain versions of rationality and the claims that arise from them.  Involuntary hospitalization is like involuntary incarceration only if we accept that certain suspected criminal activities are themselves signs of mental illness.  Indeed, one has to wonder whether it is not simply selected acts undertaken by Islamic extremists that are considered outside the bounds of rationality as established by a civilizational discourse of the West, but rather any and all beliefs and practices pertaining to Islam that become, effectively, tokens of mental illness to the extent that they depart from the hegemonic norms of Western rationality.[18]

This production of pathology allows for a couple significant processes to occur.  The first process that it excludes a reading of the events of 9-11 within a political context.  The very few initial attempts to engage in this reading were immediately dismissed under the rubric of either being 'Anti-American,’ excusing the terrorists, or both.  In effect, those critics who dared to express opinions deemed unspeakable were then themselves pathologized.  By doing this, it opened up the possibilities of military action and the detentions and the occupation that occurred.  It also allowed for an entire archipelago of detention camps to open around the world.  The individuals held within are then somehow manage to exist outside of the international conventions of what is human, through a number of loopholes in international law and the prestige and power that the United States holds within the world.  

She makes a similar analogy between the acts of exclusion that occur within the structures of the global war on terror and the normative structures of gender.  As a later text puts it, “The desire to kill someone, or killing someone, for not conforming to the gender norm by which a person is “supposed” to live suggests that life itself requires a set of sheltering norms, and to be outside it, to live outside it, is to court death….  This is not far removed from the threat of death, or the murder itself, of transsexuals in various countries, and of gay men who read as “feminine” or gay women who read as “masculine.”  These crimes are not always immediately recognized as criminal acts.  Sometimes they are denounced by governments and international agencies; sometimes they are not included as legible or real crimes against humanity by those very institutions.”[19]

As we can see, the mechanisms of exclusion are not the same.  There is a considerable difference in each of their construction, and Butler is in no sense trying to create some sort of unified field theory of exclusion.  But, these different mechanisms constitute the human with their limitations.  More significantly, she sees this discussion as one that needs go to go farther than one of mere inclusion into the category of human, but rather the examination of the regulatory norms of the concept itself.  She phrases this best in the discussion that occurs in the essay “Violence, Mourning, Politics.”
       I am referring not only to humans not regarded as humans, and thus to a restrictive conception of the human that is based upon their exclusion.  It is not a matter of a simple entry of the excluded into an established ontology, but an insurrection at the level of ontology, a critical opening up of the questions, What is real?  Those who are unreal have, in a sense, already suffered the violence of derealization.  What, then, is the relation between violence and those lives considered as “unreal”?  Does violence effect that unreality?  Does violence take place on that condition of that unreality?[20]

            What constitutes the human is by no means eternal; rather it is linked to the accretion of practices that become reified into a form of ontology.  The most significant factor of that production is the process of exclusion.  Butler links these modes of exclusion with violence, and asks the question of what relations exist between these structures of violence and the enforcement of the limits of what is considered the human.  She puts this best in her analysis of Antigone.  “The symbolic might be understood as a certain kind of tomb that does not precisely extinguish that which nevertheless remains living and trapped within its terms, a site where Antigone, already half-dead within the symbolic that captures Antigone, and although she commits suicide in that tomb, there remains a question whether or not she might signify in a way that exceeds the reach of the symbolic.”[21]

Butler links this zone of exclusion, this extinguishing force with the notion of the symbolic that Lacan in no small part borrows from structural anthropology.  She recognize this as a powerful force in understanding the human, but her notion of ontology is conflict with the notions of structure and form that are taken on by the structuralists and Lacanians.  Instead of accepting the forms of the symbolic as timeless, she places them within limits, and moreover she places the act of stating the law into the realm of performative desire.  We see this expressed in a response to her critics.

The ideal form is still a contingent norm, but one whose contingency has rendered necessary, a form of reification with stark consequences for gendered life.  Those who disagree with me tend to claim, with some exasperation, “But it is the law!”  But what is the status of such an utterance?  “It is the law!” becomes the utterance that performatively attributes the very force to the law that the law itself is said to exercise.  “It is the law” is thus a sign of allegiance to the law, a sign of the desire for the law to be the indisputable law, a theological impulse within the theory of psychoanalysis that seeks to put out of play any criticism of the symbolic father, the law of psychoanalysis itself.  Thus the status given to the law is precisely the status give to the phallus, the symbolic place of the father, the indisputable and incontestable.  The theory exposes its own tautological defense.[22]

            The statement “but it is the law” becomes a performative defense of the current structures of society.  It points to an underlying desire for those norms to remain static, and what’s more, to suppress any criticism of them.  Butler points to an underlying theological impulse within this logic, the desire for a transcendental basis for the human, a limit that cannot be crossed.  This exists in the form of the father, the phallus, etc.  But in order for that to exist there is a need for a sort of outside that must be excluded, and that always puts the norm in crisis.  This doesn’t in and of itself challenge the theory as it accepts this principle, but Butler goes further into the argument in her reading of Antigone, arguing,

     Antigone represents not kinship in its ideal form but its deformation and displacement into crisis and raises the question of what the conditions of intelligibility could have been that would have made her life possible, indeed, what sustaining web of relations makes our lives possible, those of us who confound kinship in the rearticulation of its terms?  What new schemes of intelligibility make our loves legitimate and recognizable, our losses true losses?  The question reopens the relation between kinship and reigning epistemes of cultural intelligibility and both of these to the possibility of social transformation.[23]
Antigone becomes the place of interest for Butler because she represents a moment of radical indecipherability, a moment where the familiar terrain becomes internally unfamiliar and contradictory.  The deformation and displacement of established modes of the human, whether that is gender, kinship, etc allows for a new form of politics, a new way for people to engage with each other under the sign of the human.  Crisis is a productive force, opening up new possibilities for the relationships that are put into crisis.

At this point, it seems cogent to return to the comments that Wendy Brown made that opened up this discussion.  If the terms of the current discourse are implicated within the structures that a leftist political project is interested in opposing, then the attempt to use that language as it exists is going to be problematic at best.  Perhaps the urgency that has been evident in so much of the academic activist work has been generated because of the state of exception that was produced after the 9-11 attacks has led to the failure of those projects to make any real foothold.
       Judith Butler has an interesting discussion of the same topics in her essay “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue.”  The essay is both a reading of the Foucault essay entitled “What Is Critique?” and a general analysis of the practice of criticism.  She links this practice with searching for limits. 

“One does not drive to the limits for a thrill experience, or because limits are dangerous and sexy, or because it brings into a titillating proximity with evil.  One asks about the limits of ways of knowledge because one has already run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives.  The categories by which social life are ordered produce a certain incoherence or entire realms of unspeakability.  And it is from this condition, the tear in the fabric of our epistemological web, that the practice of critique emerges, with the awareness that no discourse is adequate here or that our reigning discourses have produced an impasse.  Indeed, the very debate in which strong normative view wars with critical theory may produce precisely that form of discursive impasse from which the necessity and urgency of critique emerges.[24]

            Butler argues for an understanding of both limit and transgression that takes them out of a realm of pure aestheticism, and places them into necessity.  One gets the sense that she is arguing against a popular reading of Bataille’s understanding of transgression, one that perhaps in not too of the mark at times.  Instead, she argues that the drive towards the limits of knowledge occurs because of “one has run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives.”  Butler points out that one area that this crisis occurring is between critical theory and normative views. This reference to normative views refers to Jurgen Habermas’ communications theory, but it also can refer to certain modes of political engagement.
     We can see precisely this impasse occurring within the current attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s action on a basis that is linked to the current structures of human rights governance.  It has shown that the structures that liberals are so invested in defending are full of loopholes, aporias, and contradictions. We already see this question appearing in the Wellek lectures.  The aporia that is found in the living death of Antigone poses a limit of legibility, but it is a horizon that points to other possibilities.  The attacks of 9/11 are placed within the same possibilities, by shaking ‘our’ first world privilege; there is the possibility of engaging with the world on different terms.  It is at the moment of this limit that Butler begins to think within the categories of the ethical.

Butler’s ethical turn has been in part a reading of Levinas.  Levinas, after all, offers us a discussion of the potentially murderous encounter with the other.  Levinas’ reading of this encounter provides the basis for a system of sovereignty that is based on mutual obligation.  This is significant, but it seems that Butler is taking a slightly different direction than Levinas.  For Levinas, the category of ethics becomes a way of creating a philosophical system that avoids an emphasis on ontology.  Moreover, this system is a rejection of Spinoza’s concept of the conatus.  The obligation of the other supersedes this concept.  Butler is not making either of those maneuvers.  

Instead, an ethical engagement is directly linked to the question of ontology, and the ambiguities and permutations of ontology.  Butler’s ethics are linked to an acceptance of a radical contingency within the notion of the human.  One could go as far as to say that it is dependent on a radical sense of productivity of the body, its ability to shift and transform in both its materiality, and its modes of representation.  It emphasizes accepting the alien in the present as well as the fact that the human will never be fully determined.  This is not based on a sense of sense of service to the other, but rather through a dearticulation that occurs through modes of democratic collectivity.  We can see this emphasis in her work.

I would suggest that in this last process, we can only articulate or resignify the basic categories of ontology, of being human, of being gendered, of being recognizably sexual, to the extent that we submit ourselves to a process of cultural translation.  The point is not to assimilate foreign or unfamiliar notions of gender or humanness into our own as if it is simply a matter of incorporation alienness into an established lexicon.  Cultural translation is a process of yielding our most fundamental categories, that is, seeing how and why they break up, require resignification when they encounter the limits of an available episteme: what is unknown or not yet known.  It is crucial to recognize that the human will only be built over time in and by the process of cultural translation, where it is not a translation between two languages that stay enclosed, distinct, unified.  But rather, translation will compel each language to change in order to apprehend the other, and this apprehension, at the limit of what is familiar, parochial, and already known, will be the occasion for an ethical and social transformation.[25]

She links her form of ethic processes of cultural translation that are never complete, and never lead to a formation that stays ‘enclosed, distinct, unified.’  This mode of translation calls for a process of “yielding our most fundamental categories, that is seeing how and why they break up, require resignification when they encounter the limit of an available episteme.”  This translation refuses both the violence of assimilation and incorporation.   But this is not an ethic of self-abnegation; instead it opens up possibilities of collective transformation.

The nonviolent response lives with its unknowingness about the Other in the face of the Other, since sustaining the bond that the question holds us in common, as if we already have all the resources we need to know what defines the human, what its future life might be.

That we cannot predict or control what permutations of the human might arise does not mean that we must value all possible permutations of the human; it does not mean that we cannot struggle for the realization of certain values, democratic and non-violent, international and antiracist.  The point is only that to struggle for those values is precisely to avow that one’s own position is not sufficient to elaborate the spectrum of the human, that one must enter into a collective work in which one’s own status as a subject must, for democratic reasons, become disoriented, exposed to what it does not know.[26]

She places this ethical engagement under the name of nonviolence, and places an emphasis on the life with the “unknowingness about the other.” But this recognition of the unpredictability of the human doesn’t return us to some form of amorphous relativism.  Instead, it creates the preconditions for a politics that places an emphasis on democratic collectivity.  It emphasizes that “one’s own position is not sufficient to elaborate the spectrum of the human.”  Butler emphasizes the collective engagement that is involved in democratic politics.  It is a collective politics, in which; “we’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”[27]  Any attempt to freeze the definition of the human begins to disallow this democratic engagement.  Within the current context, the term ‘crisis’ has been thrown out repeatedly, but what does this mean in regards to understanding the basic structures of trying to understand and engage with the world.  To ask those questions, are the basic preconditions for creating a new politic and new possibilities for radical politics.

[1] Wendy Brown, Politics Out Of History, 43
[2] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), xii-xiii.
[3]Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004),  XV.
[4] Michel Foucault, “Governmentality”
[5] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), 52.
[6] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 6
[7] Although it is interesting that he never explicitly references colonialism as a laboratory for this despite the fact that the material that he is drawing from Hannah Arendt does just that.
[8] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), 53.
[9] Ibid., 56.
[10] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), 55.
[11] Ibid., 62
[12] Max Horkheimer, “The End of Reason”,   28.
[13] Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment
[14]MaxHorkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlighenment, 13.  
[15] Judith Butler, “Universality in Culture”, 48-49.
[16] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), 57.
[17] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), 32.
[18] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Books, 2004), 72.
[19] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge Press, 2004), 34. 
[20] Ibid., 33.
[21] Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 44.
[22]Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 21.
[23] Ibid., 24.
[24] Judith Butler, “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”, 307-308.
[25] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge Press, 2004), 38.
[26] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge Press, 2004),35-36.
[27] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge Press, 2004), 19.

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