nikki moore

something old something new…

In Subjection on January 20, 2009 at 1:09 am

written fall, 2008.

There are rare times when a thinker can both explicate and perform the subject of her own critique in writing.  The Psychic Life of Power is one such work, wherein Judith Butler both explores and performs the iterability of the subject by explicitly working in and through concepts from Althusser, Hegel, Nietzsche, Foucault, Freud & Lacan and implicitly through Derrida.  Namely, Butler is working through the trope of the ‘turn’ as it is rooted in Louis Althusser’s exploration of the concept of interpellation, tracing and transforming it through the forenamed philosophers’ theories of subject formation into a bodied agent of political consequence[1].

To follow the strength of Butler’s argument, I would like to follow her performance of the iterable subject through the text (Psychic Life of Power) highlighting a few key concepts and moves therein.  But first, a few words on iterability.

While Butler is notably and professedly a Hegelian and Foucauldian, when interviewed at Berkeley in the 1990’s, Butler named Jacques Derrida as the greatest influence on her own body of work.  This influence, though unspoken in the Psychic Life of Power, is performed in Butler’s workings of what Derrida calls iterability.  Briefly and admittedly reductively, iterability can be thought as the ability of signs to be grafted into new and different contexts while both retaining a trace of their earlier meaning and taking on and forming new meanings in each new context, all the while displacing notions of origin or essence[2]. 

Moving back to the explicit terms of Psychic Life of Power, Butler deploys and employs the workings of Derridian iterability through multiple readings of a body/soul/subject trio, beginning with this trio’s appearance in Hegel’s work on the Unhappy Consciousness.  Here, in Hegel, Butler highlights the bodily subjection of the bondsman to the master where the body of the bondsman ‘performs’ as the extended body of the master in work and productivity.  As the bondsman realizes his own distinct presence in the work of his hands, i.e. in what he produces, he is confronted with the fleeting nature of both what is produced and himself as the producer. He is also faced with his own ongoing erasure as the Master takes credit for the work of his extended contractual body, i.e. the bondsman. In a move to repress this knowledge of death’s inevitability, as Butler writes it, the bondsman splits himself psychically into bondsman and master, performing a denial that echoes Freud’s death drive and Nietzsche’s aesthetic class whose subjectivity is formulated out of ressentiment.[3]

Moving from Hegel to Nietzsche, in chapter 2, via Freud, Butler draws on the violent foundations of morality in On the Genealogy of Morals and points to the inherent ressentiment in all artistic production. We all know the story here, how Nietzsche’s understanding of subject formation is rooted in the bad consciousness of the internalizing slaves, etc.  For Butler this story is important as it pinpoints the creativity implicit in the interiorization of the subject: “As a peculiar deformation of artistry (which is, of course, indistinguishable from its primary formation), self-consciousness is the form the will takes when it is prevented from simple expression as a deed.” [4]  While we might see Nietzsche’s Nobles as those able to express in deed rather than representation, Butler problematizes Nietzsche’s own work (and her own as well) as the results of aesthetic activity.[5]  Without resolving this suggestion that ressentiment is at the heart of all production, the body/soul/subject trio is reframed and recontextualizing in the shift from Hegel’s bondsman, to still a slave morality, but one which is founded in artistic performance and production.

Moving this iterable body/soul/subject trio through the work of Foucault, Butler locates a transmigration of the soul from interiority (as in Hegel & Nietzsche) to the subjectivated body of Foucault’s finding[6].  This necessary step, shifting the meaning of soul from an interior to an exterior formulation, gives Butler the now newly iterated context of performativity (specifically gender performance) that she will deploy in the final chapters of The Psychic Life of Power.  With one final recontextualization of the body/soul/subject trio through Althusser’s concept of interpellation, Butler has brilliantly managed to carve out space for a politically charged subject whose body performs both its own subjection and its most heightened possibility for freedom from that same subjection.  If you will follow Butler with me to p.99 in the text, she writes: “What is brought into being through the performative effect of the interpellating demand is much more than a ‘subject,’ for the ‘subject’ created is not for that reason fixed in place: it becomes the occasion for a further making.  Indeed, I would add, a subject only remains a subject through a reiteration or re-articulation of itself as a subject, and this dependency of the subject on repetition for coherence may constitute that subject’s incoherence, its incomplete character.  This repetition, or better, iterability thus becomes the non-place of subversion, the possibility of a re-embodying of the subjectivating norm that can redirect its normativity”[7]

Here, in Butler’s own words and rhetorical performance, iterable subjectivation finds its destination in the “incomplete redirecting of normativity”.  This redirecting was made possible by her own performative dislocations of the body/soul/subject trio as it is found in variation, through Hegel’s Unhappy Consciousness, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, Foucault’s theorization’s on the subjectivation of the body and Althusser’s working of the ‘turn’ or interpellation.  While the performative subject of Butler’s own critical iterabilities is not without flaws, equipped with the trope of the ‘turn’ and this iterable subject formation, Butler and others following her work, can and have formulated not only the politicized arm of Derridian deconstruction, but equally viable political subjectivities whose agency is both bound and formulated by the structures they are working to reconfigure.   What this does from, for, with and to Nietzschean ressentiment is now up for discussion.

[1] On the turn, Butler writes: “Considered grammatically, it will seem that there must first be a subject who turns back on itself, yet I will argue that there is no subject except as a consequences of this very reflexivity.” Butler, Judith.  The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press, 1997. P. 68

[2] For Jacques Derrida’s full working and unworking of iterability, see “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited Inc, which is a compilation of writings between Derrida and John Searle on and around the concepts of speech act theory, first outlined by J.L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words.

[3] What is at stake here for Butler is both self-renunciation and performativity.  “The renunciation of the self as the origin of its own actions must be performed repeatedly and can never finally be achieved, if only because the demonstration of renunciation, whereby the performance, as an action, contradicts the postulation of inaction, that it is meant to signify.  Paradoxically, performance becomes the occasion for a grand and endless action that effectively augments and individuates the self it seeks to deny.”  Butler, Judith.  The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford University Press, 1997.  p.49

[4] Ibid, p.76

[5] Not that Nietzsche did not, indeed, recognize his own complicity in slave morality as well.  Numerous passages in the Genealogy of Morals find Nietzsche almost joyous over the results of artist production, including his own.  Butler not only recognizes this duplicity and complicity, she uses it to raise the stakes for the performative subject she seeks to iterate.

[6] For more on this transition from interiority to exteriority, see Butler, on the chapter “Between Freud and Foucault”.  The following quote, for the sake of brevity, may help illustrate the points she is working therein: 

       p.89 “In the final chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault calls for a “history of bodies” which would inquire into “the manner in which what is most material and vital in them has been invested.”  In this formulation, he suggests that power not only produces the boundaries of a subject but pervades the interiority of that subject.  In the last formulation, it appears that there is an “inside” to the body which exits before power’s invasion.  But given the radical exteriority of the soul, how are we to understand “interiority” in Foucault?  That interiority will not be a soul, and it will not be a psyche, but what will it be?  Is this a space of pure malleability, one which is as it were, ready to conform to the demands of socialization?  Or is this interiority to be called, simply, the body?  Has it come to the paradoxical point where Foucault wants to claim that the soul is the exterior form, and the body the interior space?” [Italics, mine].

[7] Ibid, p.99.


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