After reading Judy Butler’s Subjects of Desire in tandem with The Fragile Absolute and The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, I’ll briefly outline the role of desire as constituted in Hegel and subsequently interpreted by Kojeve and Butler. Butler discusses the interpretation of desire in the Phenomenology of Spirit by Kojeve in his influential lectures to what would be the poststructuralist school.
The unitary subject was disrupted in Kojeve’s account of Hegel. The human subject as a bifurcated, split and in ontological isolation was a position that Nietzsche, Kant and others never submitted to. To Hegel, desire is the will’s struggle to become different, and to overcome external differences.
Desire, in Kojeve’s reading of Hegel is recast as the force which radically reconstitutes the subject and strips her of her metaphysical monism. Hegel states in the Phenomenology that desire signifies the reflexivity of consciousness, and that it become other than itself so that it may know itself. Desire in the Phenomenology is a form of consciousness that is always outside itself, and always linked to self knowledge, a longing for identity. There is a permanent irony in the Hegelian subject, in that it knows itself only via the very structure of its constitution: mediation. What the subject finds is itself outside itself, hence, the subject finds mediation itself.
Alterity then is the internalizing of the world that it desires and encompasses what is initially other to itself. This experience of the world as everywhere confirms for the subject a sense of metaphysical place. In phenomenological terms, the subject is to be located in the realm of experience.
According to Butler, when we desire, we pose the question of the metaphysical place of human identity itself. Pooling from Spinoza, Butler argues that being is the unity of opposites, but negativity is nonexistent, it is nothingness. Here is where Butler recognizes Hegel’s inheritance to Spinoza, and his metaphysics can be read as a way to relocate God in consciousness. Unlike the Phenomenology, in Spinoza’s realm of the life world, the human subject requires obstruction in order to gain reflection. Actualization occurs only when the subject confronts that which is different from itself.
It is true that reflection on something else is self consciousness. In distinguishing something different from itself consciousness makes a determination of something negative. In stating that it is not me, a positive reality is born. This is the answer to teenage identity crisis. In this stage the subject is understood as a mode of consciousness.
But when the subject seeks to assert, or externalize the fact that it is different from the thing that it seeks to differentiate, the subject is undetermined through this process. The subject becomes itself once its predicament is articulated, once the subject has reached full self consciousness. Consciousness then has only a theoretical understanding of the world, and it is the sensuous and perceptual that remains remote.
The sensuous expression of self consciousness in general is desire.
Thus far, we understand movement as the play of forces, and explanation as the necessary Alterity of consciousness itself. Desire then appears as a synthesis of movement and Alterity.
Self consciousness itself must have a sensuous dimension, and this expression is desire in general. Desire has as its principle the assimilation of all external relations into relations of inner difference, desire then forms the experiential basis for the project of the Phenomenology.
According to Stanley Rosen’s understanding, Hegel places desire as central to world history, the spirit first knows itself as a subjective feeling. We become alienated from ourselves or regard and regard our true self as contained in the object outside of us, which we desire to assimilate. Desire is thus fundamentally desire for my own self understanding, or from my interior essence from which I have become detached. Thus, every confrontation with an external reality is an alienation of the subject; difference threatens the subject with annihilation until the subject can recognize the difference as itself. Self consciousness needs to understand itself as self negation, as a self determining being.
The Phenomenology is almost like fiction novel, and the subject’s journey starts with the sensuous and perceptual world, until it runs up against an other. Self consciousness exists in and for itself when it exists for another, and it can exist only in being acknowledged.
The self-same structure found in the other is not an adequate reflection of itself in the other. Indeed, the first experience of the structure of the other’s desire system is an experience of self loss.
It is only through the death of the other’s will does the initial self-consciousness retrieve its claim to autonomy. Thus, the effort to overcome the otherness of the other is first an effort to overcome the otherness within oneself.
As in Lordship and Bondage, the lord cannot realize his freedom through suicide, so he begins to embody his denial. The lord’s body is beyond the body as such, and he requires the other to contain his body, so that he endeavors not to embody it. This equates to the popular understanding that the lord’s existence is false as it is for the other, and not fir itself.
Butler’s treatment of Kojeve’s formation of desire in the subject is an argument of an “intentional structure”. The subject embodies desire as a part of his action in the world. Kojeve posits action as the absolute, and he anthropomorphizes the subject of Hegel’s Phenomenology into a subject that is post-historical. Kojeve claims that recognition is not necessary, but that the subject is always acting from a position of freedom.
Unlike Hobbes, society arises to meaningfully manage reciprocal desires and recognition amongst its subjects, hence individuality gains ground by validated participation in the social sphere.