Unbecoming subjects [Elektronische Ressource] : subject formation and responsibility in the context of Judith Butler's thinking / vorgelegt von Annika Thiem

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Unbecoming Subjects Subject Formation and Responsibility in the Context of Judith Butler’s Thinking Inauguraldissertation zur Erlangung des Grades eines Doktors der Theologie der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät der Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen vorgelegt von Annika Thiem Berkeley, USA im Wintersemester 2003/2004 Gedruckt mit Genehmigung der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät der Universität Tübingen Hauptberichterstatter: ......................... Prof. Dr. Dietmar Mieth Mitberichterstatter: ............................. PD Dr. Mangus Striet Dekan: .............................................. Prof. Dr. Ottmar Fuchs Tag der mündlichen Prüfung: 15. Juni 2004 i Table of Contents Approaching Subject Matters.................................................................................1 1 Self-consciousness, Desire, Body—Hegelian Subjects................................... 28 1.1 Desire and the Emergence of Self-consciousness ............................................... 29 1.2 Self-consciousness and the Ineluctability of Bodies and Desires....................... 41 2 Desire and the Unconscious—A Psychoanalytic Intermezzo ........................ 61 2.1 The Unconscious, Desire, Responses, and Responsibilities ............................... 65 2.2 Intractable Subjects, Disavowed Desires—Never Loved, Never Lost ........

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Unbecoming Subjects

Subject Formation and Responsibility
in the Context of Judith Butler’s Thinking










Inauguraldissertation
zur Erlangung des Grades eines Doktors
der Theologie
der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät
der Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen











vorgelegt von
Annika Thiem
Berkeley, USA


im Wintersemester 2003/2004






























Gedruckt mit Genehmigung der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät
der Universität Tübingen

Hauptberichterstatter: ......................... Prof. Dr. Dietmar Mieth
Mitberichterstatter: ............................. PD Dr. Mangus Striet
Dekan: .............................................. Prof. Dr. Ottmar Fuchs

Tag der mündlichen Prüfung: 15. Juni 2004 i
Table of Contents
Approaching Subject Matters.................................................................................1
1 Self-consciousness, Desire, Body—Hegelian Subjects................................... 28
1.1 Desire and the Emergence of Self-consciousness ............................................... 29
1.2 Self-consciousness and the Ineluctability of Bodies and Desires....................... 41
2 Desire and the Unconscious—A Psychoanalytic Intermezzo ........................ 61
2.1 The Unconscious, Desire, Responses, and Responsibilities ............................... 65
2.2 Intractable Subjects, Disavowed Desires—Never Loved, Never Lost .............. 81
3 Conscientious Subjects of Conscience—............................................................
Nietzsche, Althusser and Circles of Passionate Attachments........................ 96
3.1 Conscience, Violence, and Responsibility.......................................................... 98
3.2 Nietzsche, “Promise,” “Guilt,” and “Bad” Conscience ................................... 108
3.3 Althusser and Interpellation as Performative Subject Formation..................... 121
4 Facing Levinas.............................................................................................. 138
4.1 The Face and Substitution................................................................................... 143
4.2 The Third and Asymmetries ............................................................................... 158
5 Subject Formation, Materiality, Discursiveness, and Resistance ............... 171
5.1 Signification, Discursive Enactment, and the Production of the Body ............ 177
5.2 Unruly Subjects—Norms, Gaps, and Necessary Resistances........................... 194
5.3 The Butlerian Conceptualization of Agency...................................................... 206
ii
6 Subject Formation, Self-concept, and Enacted Emplotment...................... 217
6.1 Tracing Paul Ricoeur’s Theory of Emplotment................................................. 219
6.2 Desires and Bodies in Enacted Emplotment ..................................................... 236
6.3 Re-Enacting the “Arelational Master-Subject”? ................................................ 245
7 No End to Subject Formation—No Mercy in Subject Formation?............ 254
Bibliography........................................................................................................ 293
List of Abbreviations........................................................................................... 304
Acknowledgments ............................................................................................... 305

1

Approaching Subject Matters

Why the subject? Why subject formation? Why subject formation and
responsibility? Why Judith Butler? What does it mean to begin with these questions
and not with others? It is necessary to begin, one way or another. But this beginning
will never be the actual beginning—the story has long begun. The beginning can only
become the beginning belatedly. The beginning always comes too late. And the
beginning—or, rather, the choice of where to begin—remains irrecuperably
contingent, insofar as there is no absolute or necessary beginning for such a study. Yet
where one begins and how one begins does matter, as it crucially sets the path for the
entire study and traverses it. The question “why” puts us on a very different path than
the question “how.” “Why” and “how” both operate as addresses, demanding
responses, and by doing so they also enable the emergence of theoretical inquiries.
But they operate differently in implying and delimiting how responses must perform
in order to work as adequate responses. “Why” seems to address by calling into
question the validity and value of a certain inquiry and seems to set us up for a
response that will somehow justify why the subject, why subject formation, why
subject formation and responsibility, and why Butler. What, then, would happen if we
began instead with these questions: How the subject? How subject formation? How
subject formation and responsibility? How Butler? How to theorize subject formation
and responsibility? How to read Butler? To ask “how” interrupts and suspends the
demand for justification of a theory’s or theorist’s value. To offer a response that
begins with “because” remains at odds with the desires the “how” has voiced. This
does not mean that one might not or ought not in the end have reason or reasons to
turn away from particular theories or theorists and to turn to others. In undertaking the
encounter that is prompted by the question how to read this or that particular theory or
theorist, the interest propelling the inquiry becomes that of finding out what it means
to read them and how to read them productively. Reading someone then means
finding ourselves addressed, allowing ourselves be addressed by thoughts and
questions, listening and deferring a rash response, and letting beliefs, values, and
predilections be called into question and opened up. And so alongside the question
2
“how” has emerged the question of what it means to do something, to ask questions in
a specific way, to think a thought in a certain way.
What does it mean to read Butler as theorist of subject formation and
responsibility? It might mean disrupting the association of her work as that almost
exclusively dedicated to feminist and queer theory. As Sara Salih points out in her
introduction to Judith Butler in Routledge’s Critical Thinkers Series, Butler’s thinking
is mostly thought of in terms of “gender” and “gender performativity.” But Salih is
quick to emphasize that it is not quite that easy to categorize Butler and her thinking
quite so neatly and that such an attempt would be in fact “an endeavour which would
1work against the Butlerian grain, if there is one” (2). To call for reading Butler’s
thought as not only feminist or queer is not to deny Butler’s importance for these
fields and in her influence in initiating a wide theoretical and political discourse far
beyond the boundaries of these fields on questions of sex, gender, sexuality and other
2identity categories, as well as on questions of identity politics more generally. The
attempt here is also not to defend Butler as a philosopher or theorist of the subject and
to prove her significance for philosophy of the subject and moral philosophy. The
intention with which this study sets out is to ask what happens when one engages
carefully and rigorously with Butler’s work, interrogating its offers to thinking about
subject formation and responsibility. The hope of this study is that it will allow us to
read for and engage with the ways in which Butler’s thinking might make theorizing
the subject and responsibility by undergoing productive crises and transformations.
If we begin to think about the questions of subject formation and responsibility
and ask about the nexus between them, one way of approaching is to think about the
root of responsibility as response. The question of responding is ethical at its core and
brings about the subject as an “ethical agent” insofar as the demand of a response is

1 Sara Salih, Judith Butler (London: Routledge, 2002). Interestingly, this remark is part of the
introductory chapter entitled “Why Butler?” For an interview touching on a wide range of Butler’s thinking
see Judith Butler, “Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignification,” Gary Olson
and Lynn Worsham, JAC 20.4 (2000): 727-765.
2 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and Bodies
That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993) are perhaps the most famous
and influential books by Butler on these subjects. Even in her later work, Butler has certainly not turned
away from questions of sex, gender, and sexuality, but has continued to engage with them in Antigone’s
Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia UP, 2000) and Undoing Gender (New York:
Routledge, 2004). 3
not neutral, not that of merely bringing up the question of how to respond; rather, this
question of how to respond is that of how to respond well. The questions “how to
respond” and “how to respond well” imply that there is an “I” that I come to speak, to
take up, as I realize the “how to respond” to mean “how ought I, how should I, how
can I respond?” The presupposition thus is that there is an I who is possibly able to
find herself responsible, who comes to take up this I in connection with realizing that
she should respond in this or that certain way. But prior to the emergence of this
subject, there has to have been an address for a response to be possible at all. It is
impossible for the I to recollect or reconstruct this scene of being addressed, to grasp
that which has been addressing it and the content of this address, because it is
necessarily only arriving belatedly on the stage. The I finds itself addressed by others,
by social norms and rules, by demands that come upon it and that it could not choose
nor of which it could possibly ever gain full knowledge. The addressing other has
always already left; there is no time in which the I and the other, the demand and the I,
had been contemporaneous. The subject emerges as addressed and demanded to
respond, and the other and the message have already in some important way been lost.
Yet this does not mean that there are no differences between the different ways and
situations of becoming responsible, between the different responsibilities that emerge.
The irrecoverability of the subject’s pre-history means that it is impossible to deduce
or develop a single conclusive theory of the subject and responsibility so that, in the
attempt to theorize the subject and responsibility, there will always be a point where
theorizing becomes speculation and the theorist more a poet than a scientist of
3philosophy. To be unable to know with full certainty, then, does not do away with
differences, but rather returns us to them and urges us to attend carefully to them and
the ways in which they may be intertwined. In thinking about subject formation and
responsibility, we, then, will have to consider the differences between becoming

3 Butler argues this point in her Adorno Lectures: “[T]hat there is no final or adequate narrative
reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it. It only means that at
the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers” (AL 87; the second
sentence, however, is omitted in the German translation and is solely part of the unpublished English
manuscript). Judith Butler, Kritik der ethischen Gewalt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003); to be
published as Against Ethical Violence (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004). Page references are given to the
published German translation; the quotations are taken directly from the English manuscript.
4
responsible by, to, and for another person and becoming responsible by, to, before,
and for norms, rules, and laws.
But insofar as we understand responsibility as formed through being addressed
and demanded to respond, then to be responsible is bound up, on the one hand, with
the questions “who am I?” and “who am I to answer to that other?” as well as, on the
other hand, with the questions of “who or what is this other?,” “where is this other?,”
and “what is that to which I am to respond and to respond well?” For these questions
to become available to the I, however, means that the other is not utterly and
absolutely lost. The I still must be in a certain relation to that other that is demanding
a response and seducing the subject to respond, although this does not mean that there
necessarily needs to be full reflective awareness and self-knowledge for there to be
responsibility. In order to inquire into subject formation and responsibility, it is thus
necessary to consider the emergence of the subject in relation to these others and of
the various dimensions of the addresses and of the addressing other. In Butler’s work,
the most explicitly and sustained inquiry into responsibility and the other as an other
person—and into ethical theory in general—can be found in her Kritik der ethischen
Gewalt (Critique of Ethical Violence), three lectures given as Adorno Lectures at the
Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt am Main in 2002. Even so, the formation of
the subject in response to being summoned and as entangled with norms and rules that
labor on the body and psyche is a thread that runs through all of Butler’s work and
finds its most systematic engagement with regard to the role of norms, regulations,
4and power in Psychic Life of Power.
Since emergence and development are constitutively part of one’s becoming a
subject, it is impossible to understand subject and subjectivity as someone or
something that one is and always already possesses, as transcendentals of one’s
existence. At the same time, this development is not a kind of progression towards
perfection or a progression in which the past, as one moves into the future, is
overcome and left behind. Nor is this becoming, this continuous formation, a process
that is ever readily available and transparent to the subject in recollection and
reflection. The subject that emerges is one that always remains vulnerable, transient,

4 Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997). 5
and emergent—all at the same time. If human beings in their becoming remain
inevitably precarious, “subject” and “subjectivity” as concepts cannot be captured as
static notions or positions that one enters at some point of one’s life and that provide a
fairly safe harbor from there on. The lasting elusiveness and preliminarity of
becoming a subject must have an epistemological impact on our theories of the subject
and subjectivity. One attempt to attend to this inexorable vulnerability, transience, and
emergence in theorizing is to think about the subject through subject formation.
This becoming is not happening in a space prior to social conditions, but through
frameworks structured and traversed by social norms. The question of subject
formation and how subject formation is theorized, then, is not primarily unrelated to
political questions, because who gets to be a subject and how subjects get to be
delimits the field of intelligibility and determines what can and cannot appear as
legitimate political demands and issues. Insofar as subject formation is constitutively
bound up with ethical and political questions, such a recasting of the subject in terms
of subject formation will have to have consequences for thinking about ethics and
politics as well. At the same time, this intertwinement of subject formation with
questions of the political and the ethical demands that subject formation reflects on
what it means that the relations between subjects and their self-relation emerges
through political and ethical reflection and action. This does not, then, by necessity
mean that theorizing subject formation is to prescribe what these subjects and their
political and ethical actions ought to look like. Rather, the question that comes to the
fore with exigency here is the question of how to theorize. What does it mean to offer
a theoretical account of subject formation? Of the ways in which subject formation
and responsibility are bound up with each other? What roles and agencies does theory
acquire, what roles and agencies is it able and allowed to acquire, which roles and
agencies are foreclosed? What are our expectations of theory, and what purposes do
we ascribe to it? Theory as reflecting, inquiring, and unearthing problematics comes
to interrupt practice—our practices—and to dislodge our predilections. And it is this
interruption that is crucial for the critical potential of theory and that is core to
Butler’s thinking and writing.
But insofar as this kind of thinking is a dislodging of one’s own position and
practices, thinking is precisely not a merely intellectual exercise. This kind of
theorizing thus is a critical practice that is critical also and important insofar as it is
6
risky for the one doing and undergoing it: “The questioning of taken-for granted
conditions becomes possible on occasion, but one cannot get there through a thought-
experiment, an epoché, an act of will. One gets there, as it were, through suffering the
dehiscence, the breakup, of the ground itself” (“Is Kinship Always Heterosexual?”
519). It is through the experience of this ungrounding that theorizing as critique
6becomes a mode of being and thinking that is very different from fault-finding. The
practical and political question and potential, then, lies in the mobilization of these
dehiscences and breakages, in coming to decide how to react to those shattered
grounds and to that which emerges as possible. This mobilization of the breakages
means, from the perspective of the subject, to take a stance towards those breakages
and the possibilities that come to emerge. The task of theory as critical practice and
critical of practice, then, is not to make these decisions for us or to offer us recipes for
decision-making. But the task of theory is very much to reflect on these decisions and
their meanings, and for a theory of subject formation, the task is to reflect on how this
coming to decide and having to respond figures the relationship among ethics,
politics, and subject formation. The issues that have to be negotiated and renegotiated
at these intersections emerge as questions regarding agency, responsibility, and
accountability and its limits, questions regarding the ability to deliberate and what it
means to come to understand oneself as oneself as well as to understand oneself in
corporeal extension over time.
But what is it that becomes and emerges in subject formation? Individuals?
Persons? Subjects? “I”s? Can these notions be delimited against each other? As I
become aware of myself as myself, I become aware and emerge as what or whom

5 Judith Butler, “Is Kinship Always Heterosexual?,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
13.1 (2002): 14-44.
6 Patricia Purtschert argues critique as key to Butler’s thinking in her insightful article “Macht der
Kontingenz: Zu Judith Butlers Begriff der Kritik” (Philosophinnen des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. Regine Munz
[Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, forthcoming]). Purtschert offers that for Butler “[c]ritique
... represents a permanent practice that interrogates the conditions of subject formation in the context of
social power. On the one hand this leads to a critical reading of hegemonic subject positions, and on the other
hand this leads to a thematizing of excluded forms of existence” (my translation). Most explicit on critique as
“arts of existence” in Butler’s own writing is her essay “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,”
The Political, ed. David Ingram (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002) 212-226. See also Michel Foucault, “What
Is Critique?” The Political, ed. David Ingram (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 191-211. Ungroundedness and
contingency as crucial to critical practice already figures importantly in Butler’s earlier works, among those
the essay “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism,” Feminists Theorize the
Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (London: Routledge, 1990), 3-21.