Giving An Account of Oneself: Part 1

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Judith Butler’s text, Giving an Account of Oneself takes up the question of ethics and the role of narrative re-telling of one’s story within the context of subject-formation. As she notes very clearly in the beginning of the text, Butler is not interested in merely synthesizing ethical traditions, but rather in developing an entirely new ethical framework.

The text begins with a review of salient ethical traditions and a posing of new questions. Butler is interested in establishing what she refers to as “the inauguration of ethics” – a linguistic moment of reflection that starts with a question.

For Foucault, who posed ethics as the relation of the self to regimes of truth and power discourses over the self’s own idea of their subjectivity, the inaugurating question of ethics is, “what can I become?” Butler is concerned with asking the ethical question, “how ought I to treat the other?” – out of a desire to understand a more relational basis for intersubjective relations with others in a democratic society.

Butler believes that a new sense of ethics can emerge from the failure of recognition, but one can only gain recognition in a process wherein reciprocal recognition throws the singularity of the subject out of joint. This means that ethics can arise out of the failure of recognition, more of which will be discussed below.

While not referring to the de-centered encounter as a traumatic blow, Butler’s account of the role of trauma in the ethical inauguration it is starkly similar to Levinas’ traumatic face of the other ethics that Critchley picks up in his work on ethics, Infinitely Demanding (see my review here).

As I mentioned before, the starting point of ethics is the end-point of our schemes of intelligibility, or the point where the self asks what it might mean to continue in a dialogue where no common ground can be assumed.

To frame Butler’s account of ethics, it is worthwhile understanding a bit more about Foucault and the “regime of truth” – what you might consider the framework for the scene of recognition, deciding who will qualify as a subject of recognition. Foucault’s key insight is that any relation to a regime of truth will always consist of a reflexive relation to oneself. If I question the regime of truth I also question my own ontological status because I am constituted in it deeply. The regime of truth comes into question when the I cannot recognize itself.

While Butler diverts from Foucault’s primary ethical inquiry, she frames the text with a Foucauldian view of power and normativity as the shaping features of the self. The “I” is automatically caught up in a realm of social power relations within a sphere of normative relations. These normative relations not only structure the possibility of the exchange, but they also structure the conduct of engaging the other.

In a similar vein to that of Foucault, in Adorno’s work on morality, we find that, “when the I seeks to give an account of itself it must seek to become a social theorist.” The self must interpret its own socially constituted ethical position. The reason for this is that the I is always entangled in a set of relations that are tied to a set of norms.

Much different from both of them is Nietzsche, who’s I takes account of itself only after punishment – i.e. through an original aggression that he holds to be part of every human being. The institution of law compels the individual to turn that aggression inward, to craft an inner world composed of a guilty conscience and to vent that consciousness in the name of morality (Pg. 14).

This mode of agression is taken to be part and parcel of the inward life of every individual, and thus establishes the human as a reflective being. Thus, I am implicated in any morality system through an other before I even begin the process of reflection. Butler notes:

“thus I come into being as a reflexive subject in the context of establishing a narrative account of myself when I am spoken to be someone and prompted to address myself to the one who addresses me” (15).

Foucault refuses to generalize the scene of punishment as the framework for all morality and instead how bad conscience becomes the means for manufacturing values. For Foucault, reflexivity emerges in the act of taking up a relation to moral codes, but it does not rely on an account of internalization or of psychic life more generally, certainly not a reduction of morality to bad conscience (Pg. 16).

The creation of the self does not happen ex-nihilo, but takes place within a set of norms that precede and exceed the subject. The way to make oneself in response to the norms that shape the self is what Foucault refers to as “critique”

“Critique would insure the desubjugation of the subject in the course of what we could call, in a word, the politics of truth” (Pg. 17).

Post Hegelian Recognition:

Hegel argues that recognition can never be pure, it always consists of a reciprocal act, where I recognize that the other is structured the same way as I am. What is clear in the three dominant readings of the Hegelian other is that the other is always found exterior to the subject, some have argued this leads to a sort of alterity of imperialism, to an ecstatic exchange, and to others the process of recognition involves an assimilation of what I was into the other.

“My account of myself is partial, haunted by that for which I can devise no definitive story. I cannot explain exactly why I have emerged this way, and my efforts at narrative reconstruction are always undergoing revision.”

If a certain ethical opacity exists in my accounting of myself does this then imply that I am an ethical failure?

Is there in this vulnerable relation a dependency upon language and one another that results as a consequence of this opacity?

An ability to affirm what is contingent in oneself may help that subject relate to others that may or may not mirror the same constitution.

We do not survive without being addressed, which means that the scene of address must contain a sustained conditions for ethical judgment, deliberation and conduct. Levinas claims that the address of the other constitutes me and that it seizes the self before its constitution.

On Psychoanalysis

Transference is the primary recreation of a realtionality within analytic space that structures the mode of address, and provides a new type of address. Butler questions whether the narrative retelling of ones story can never be satisfied because of the constitution of the subject. “The “mineness” of a life is not necessarily its story form” (Pg. 52). The origin of the story of the I is available only retroactively and in the form of a fantasy. Laplanche says something similar when he claims that the address of the other constitutes what will become my unconscious.

So the point of the transference for Butler is to enact what cannot be narrated and to enact the unconscious as it is relived in the scene of the address itself.

The site of the counter-transference will be what my call recalls for her.

“only when the analyst goes fully mad will the analysand feel that their treatment has worked because they know that the analyst has been where they have been, and then emerged intact.”

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