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Giving an Account of Our Class Discussion

note: I was originally going to attempt to live tweet notes from this class, but I soon realized that Judith Butler's Giving an Account on Oneself was going to be difficult to present in 140 characters or less...I take full responsibility for any mis-interpretations/mis-communications in my presentation of the class notes. We had a particularly intense conversation surrounding this text. (One that I am not sure I "got" completely) I hope you will be generous in my attempts to make sense of Butler and our subsequent discussion. Thanks!
p.s. after almost a month delay, I am presenting the notes as is! Please see Mary's awesome Diablog here, here, and here. A wonderful afterword can also be found here.

After a brief check-in about the course, we began with a wonderful summary and outline by our facilitator, Mary. As Chloe pointed out, Mary's thorough outline/summary of Butler's work was complete with footnotes! ☺
Our discussion began with the question "What is Butler doing in this text?"
Liora asked, what is the usefulness of it? What is the value of a text like this?
Mary responds that she didn't think about the text politically, but instead thought about it theoretically as a way to think through "responsibility."

Touched by Fascination

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In the moment in which I say "I," I am not only citing the pronomial place of the "I" in language, but at once attesting to and taking distance from a primary impingement, a primary way in which I am, prior to acquiring an "I," a being who has been touched, moved, fed, changed, put to sleep, established as the subject and object of speech. My infantile body has not only been touched, moved, and arranged, but those impingements operated as "tactile signs" that registered in my formation. These signs communicate to me in ways that are not reducible to vocalization. They are signs of an other, but they are also the traces from which an "I" will eventually emerge, an "I" who will never be able, fully, to recover or read these signs, for whom these signs will remain in part overwhelming and unreadable, enigmatic and formative. (Butler, 69-70)

Near the beginning of our discussion last Tuesday, we looked at a passage that had struck me, and stayed with me during the time I spent with Giving an Account of Oneself. The passage comes on page 84, and ends the introduction to the chapter on responsibility. Butler writes that we are "slaughtered beings." I don't know what this means, but it fascinates me. Butler references Laplanche, explaining that the primary address overwhelms, and cannot be interpreted or understood -- then comes the part about the slaughter. As Sara suggested, maybe we're being messed with here. Regardless, I have been touched by this passage, and it's all owing to her language; owing to my fascination with slaughterhouses, bodies, and organized blood baths.

But, is fascination useful? Do I need it to be, or want it to be?

In the passage quoted extensively above, Butler conjures an image of a child in early infancy being formed by the touch of another. Wanderings of these first instances of touch follow this growing being throughout life -- as Levinas would put it, infinitely recurring -- and remain unconscious. Fascinations, similarly, are often affective touches. They follow us, overwhelm us, and catch us off guard. And we use our fascination. Often our fascinations serve as transitional objects, and can, if we allow, become addictive. If I allowed, my fascination with slaughterhouses may become debilitating, surely I can think of certain fascinations and objects that have left me utterly beside myself in distress because I could not possess them completely. This particular fascination comes and goes, but never loses intrigue. I cannot speak of its usefulness, nor will I admit that it is useless, or without meaning. It is neither useless nor without meaning. Similarly, I cannot explain the "usefulness" of the theory that touches us, if we allow it, in Giving an Account of Oneself. Were we to allow ourselves to be fascinated without reason - without application, which is an ugly concept anyway - we would be able to experience the sensation that follows from being overwhelmed. That is not to say, of course, that we should not interpret or understand Butler's theory -- quite the contrary, actually -- but that we may not immediately need to find its political application, or usefulness, because it may be more useful, really, to be overwhelmed, and experience theory as an object of fascination -- a transitional object that follows us through life, recurs in our thoughts and then through our actions. Thinking is nothing without action, but action is nothing without thought.

At this point, my subject widens out into that of play, and of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming, and also of fetishism, lying and stealing, the origin and loss of affectionate feeling, drug addiction, the talisman of obsessional rituals, etc. (D.W. Winnicott, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," from Playing and Reality, 5)

That is not to say, then, that fascination cannot be harmful -- sometimes it slaughters.

Forgiving Sabrina Harman

Recently, @newyorker re-tweeted this profile of notorious Abu Ghraib photo-taker and subject, Sabrina Harman. (The sudden re-fascination with Abu Ghraib was sparked by a new set of photographs, of which we may also consider our relationship of responsibility.) The article explains Harman's history with photography, recalling numerous fascinations that Harman attempted to possess through photographic mediation. Photography itself, perhaps, being the ultimate fascination. Harman is the most interesting subject of Errol Morris's documentary Standard Operating Procedure, and seemingly the most interesting and sympathetic person involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Just as John Waters has repeatedly asked the country to exonerate Leslie Van Houten for her involvement in the Manson murders -- claiming that among the Manson family members, she is the most forgivable -- I am in full support of the exoneration of Sabrina Harman, who has been both responsible and irresponsible to us, and who we have been irresponsible to, and so must be responsible for.



Act Three
Scene I

The lights raise upon the scene of "Primary Trauma."

How, then, do we understand responsibility? What will responsibility look like, or how do we view responsibility through this new ethical sensibility? Since we have limited our own accountability, as well as that of others, where does our responsibility lie? How are we responsible and where do we locate the limits of responsibility and accountability?

Judith Butler:
I want to suggest that the very meaning of responsibility must be rethought on the basis of this limitation; it cannot be tied to the conceit of a self fully transparent to itself.

To take responsibility for oneself is to confess the limits of one's self-understanding. (83)


And this confession, or open acknowledgment of our limited self-knowing also acknowledges these limits as a human condition, not merely the condition for the subject.

Judith Butler:
When I speak as an "I," I know that I know that I do not know what I am doing when I speak this way - I find that my very formation implicates the other in me, that my own foreignness to myself is, paradoxically, the source of my ethical connection with others. (84)


We are foreign to ourselves ...

Does this strangeness to ourselves, which as you say, implicates the other in me - that which precedes me, that which I cannot know or narrate, yet must acknowledge - lead me to suffer from my own strangeness in any way? Does my strangeness cause me anxiety, which then makes me anxious about the other's otherness? If I cannot fully know this self, but only know its limits, know that it has limits, and acknowledge them, do I not suffer from this not-knowing? Is my own strangeness not the source of an infinite anxiety that can never be satisfied? And I will never know what this anxiety is, for it is the effect - or perhaps not an effect at all, but an inescapable condition of my being - of a strangeness that I will never, can never know. Not just that I will not know it fully, but I will not know it, period. My anxiety is a passion without an object. Except this strangeness that is not an object at all.

Judith Butler:

If I am wounded, I find that the wound testifies to the fact that I am impressionable - that I am vulnerably given over to the other in spite of myself: I do not will it, I cannot predict it. It is hopelessly uncontrollable.

I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the other. If I do, I have removed myself from the mode of address in which the problem of responsibility first emerges.

An anxiety over one's own strangeness, then, may be an anxiety over being implicated in this mode of address that forces one - against their will (prior to their will(ingness)) - into a relationship with another; a relation of responsibility.

The impression of the other penetrates me - a penetration I do not will, and cannot control. So, I cannot be accountable for another or their actions, but I am responsible to them.

I am overwhelmed.

Judith Butler:

Yes. Being addressed is traumatic. One can be addressed in a harmful way. The primary experience of trauma cannot be interpreted or understood. This is precisely our unknowingess.


The trauma of address. This is why we suffer from strangeness.

Judith Butler:

Another word comes our way,

a blow.

An address that suddenly, strangely slaughters,

even as one lives on, strangely,

as this slaughtered being, speaking away.

But what does this mean?
I don't trust metaphors.

Franz Biberkopf walks across the scene to deliver a brief monologue in response to the gruesome metaphor.

Franz Biberkopf:

Supply at the slaughter-house: Hogs 11,543, Beef 2016, Calves 920, Mutton 14,450. A blow, bang down they go.
Hogs, oxen, calves - they are slaughtered. There is no reason why we should concern ourselves with them. Where are we? We?

The big steer has a broad forehead. With sticks and thrusts it is driven up to the butcher. In order to make it stand still, he gives it a slight blow on the hind leg with the flat part of the hatchet. One of the drivers seizes it from below around the neck. The animal stands for a moment, then yields, with a curious ease, as if it agreed and was willing, after having seen everything and understood that this is its fate, and that it cannot do anything against it. Perhaps it thinks the gesture of the driver is a caress, it looks so friendly.*

Biberkopf exits.
End of Scene I.

An Account of Oneself

Act One
Scene I

We begin at the "Scene of Address", where there sits a round-table. Four subjects emerge from an unknown elsewhere and take their places (marked by name-tags) around the table. The subjects consist of two women, one man, and someone unknown - distinguishably human, but as yet without a face. The distinguishable subjects are Judith Butler, Emmanuel Levinas, and Myself. Judith Butler sits center stage right and Myself sits directly across from her at center stage left. Levinas sits slightly upstage from Judith Butler, and the unknown character sits directly upstage center, concealed from discernible view. There is an empty chair on the side of the table where Myself sits, just slightly upstage, to give the illusion of symmetry.

The four sit in perfect silence for 4'33".

Finally, someone speaks,

This is an Address (to you)


In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler surveys the question of moral philosophy - a question of doing - at the limits of self-knowingness. If responsibility for the Other is determined prior to action, prior to the will - if it is impossible for one to know fully or precisely everything that one claims, or everything that one does when speaking as an "I" - what are our ethical limitations? What are our ethical responsibilities? Butler argues for an ethics not in spite of these limitations, but based on these limits of self-knowledge as the limits of responsibility itself. In proposing this ethics of limitations, Butler necessarily addresses the inevitable ethical failures that accompany this new sense of ethics (42). What this new sense of ethics entails is a willingness to acknowledge the limits of acknowledgement itself, an experience of the very limits of knowing. Since we are constituted in partial opacity to ourselves - partial knowledge of ourselves - I, therefore, must be forgiven for what I cannot fully know, and forgive you for the same. I experience my partial self-knowing beside the partial self-knowing of another. Since no account of ourselves will ever fully satisfy, can never fully be satisfied (always without end), desire for recognition must continue to flow without satisfaction, with the knowledge (acknowledgment) that this desire can never be resolved finally. Therein arises the violent threat of refusing these limitations: satisfaction kills desire (43). The persistent desire for recognition, then, enables a new sense of ethical judgment: "recognition sometimes obligates us to suspend judgment in order to apprehend the other" (44). A judgment based on reciprocal recognition, precisely when judgments are suspended, is a way of owning one's limitations, and the limitations of responsibility. Butler's ethics of judgment moves beyond a condemnation that works unilaterally - inflicting violence upon the judged in the name of "ethics" - towards an ethical judgment that demands recognition, that is in the service of sustaining life (47).

In her final chapter, Butler asks, So, what will responsibility look like?

If one does not will responsibility, for it is prior to the will, what is one's responsibility to the other?
The "I" comes into being through prior conditions - these others and their norms are beyond the control of the "I" they form. The subject is dispossessed from the start, responsible for an Other exceeding willingness, or action. The "I" can never completely narrate or give an account of itself, for it was formed prior to its ability to claim the very "I" that it narrates. I am formed in ways that precede and enable my self-forming: "The 'I' is the moment of failure in every narrative effort to give an account of oneself" (79). Self-narration requires this failure. And survival requires this narration. "I" is responsible to "you" for the "I" that I am is nothing without this prior "you" - a dependency greater than dependency. But one should not -- does not -- try to transform the unwilled into the willed. Any refusal of the self-unknowingness in demand of full transparency of the self to itself does violence to the opacity of the self being addressed. Our responsibility to the other relies on that unknowingness - the very failure to know.
It is at the edge of knowledge - looking over the vast terrain of my own unknowingness - that I give an account of myself, and receive an account from you.