Recently, at a party, I told someone I hadn’t met before that I was a philosophy student. This is a slight embellishment, but under such lively circumstances, “an interdisciplinary degree in social and political theory” was just too cumbersome. The person responded by asking me why I would want to do such a thing—philosophy was too abstract, and was therefore “pointless”. It’s not an uncommon critique to encounter: philosophy is neat, but it doesn’t produce tangible social or political change.
Of course philosophy is challenging, but it’s also culturally and politically productive. Philosophy not only helps us understand how and why our reality is as it is, it also offers us the conceptual tools to better the social, cultural, and political world that we create and in which we live. I searched my mind for examples of where and when philosophy had had a felt impact on society, and I quickly landed on the work of feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler.
Butler is among the most influential and widely read contemporary critical theorists. Her work is vital both within and outside of disciplines such as Gender Studies and was instrumental in the development of Queer Theory. Certainly, readers familiar with Butler to any degree will identify her groundbreaking work on the construction of gender and sex. In her earliest books, Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler identifies sex and gender as sets of “actions” or behaviors that people learn to perform through various social institutions. Sex and gender, she says, are discursive constructions: they are meaningful by virtue of the fact that they are formed, communicated, and reinforced in and by language.
Butler’s thinking provoked a profound and almost immediate conceptual shift in contemporary Western thinking about gender and sex. Influenced by foundational thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault, and building on the works of Erving Goffman and J. L. Austin, Butler’s inquiry demonstrated that, because these categories are created in language, they are not part of our bodily condition. In other words, they are not “natural” (but they are not “unreal”, either). Butler’s destabilization of the categories of sex and gender and her interrogation of gender norms have been immensely productive politically, undergirding feminist activism against sexism and discrimination, gay rights, and the increased awareness and public understanding of what it means to be a transgender person. (Butler herself has said that Gender Trouble was inspired by the combination of her academic and activist work.)
Although it’s her thinking about gender that has and continues to be her most significant contribution to academic thought and contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality, Butler’s work has, understandably, changed considerably over time. In the past two decades, Butler’s interests have shifted from, for example, analyses focused on semiotics to investigations of socio-cultural phenomena. Now, she more readily emphasizes ethics and relationality and has become as interested in the “doing” of subjectivity as she is in its “undoing”. (For a detailed overview of Butler’s trajectory see Lynne Segal, “After Judith Butler: Identities, Who Needs Them?“.)
As Butler continues to engage theorizations of human life in context, a theme in her more recent work is that of how we create the conditions for stronger ethical relations between human beings. Recently, for example, she considered the role of state violence in determining who counts as human, and the social and ethical conditions that make some lives “grievable” and others not grievable (e.g., in Frames of War, and Undoing Gender). Despite the shifts in Butler’s thinking over the years, she remains committed to thinking about human life and being; specifically, subject formation—the production of individuals/selves within a given social context—continues to be a grounding concept and theme in her work.
Given the direction in which Butler’s work has traveled, and the themes and phenomena she has taken up over the years, it makes sense that a collection of her varied work would be published to capture this trajectory. This new collection, entitled Senses of the Subject is a selection of Butler’s essays published in the past 20 years. Taken from edited academic collections and non-academic publications, but curated around the general theme of the “sensuous conditions” of sensing and being sensed, these essays, taken together, explore the ways in which human passions (e.g., touch; desire), influence the formation of the subject. The essays in this collection are organized around Butler’s engagement with the works of key thinkers across continental philosophy, including René Descartes, Frantz Fanon, Luce Irigaray, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The result is a extensive and exacting collection that demonstrates Butler’s long-standing but less-well-known interest in the relational and embodied dimensions of subject formation.
In an essay on Descartes’ Meditations, Butler examines the linguistic and grammatical function of the “I” in the formulation “I think, therefore I am”, in which Descartes famously thought the mind as separate from the body. Butler uniquely considers how Descartes’ subject—represented by “I”—and the body are specifically formed through language. For her, the act of writing the “I”, or the establishment of the “I” in grammar and text, distances the narrator (Descartes) from the body that he is questioning. In writing the “I”, she says, Descartes “splits the narrator from the very self he seeks to know and not to doubt.” In this way, Butler offers us a new way of thinking the “I”—as a linguistic and grammatical phenomenon. The consequence of this, she shows, is that the “I” is thought not through introspective meditation, as Descartes proposed, but rather via alterity, or that which is outside and beyond the self. Butler effectively undoes Descartes’ formulation and, in turn, offers new insight into his construction of the subject.
Continuing with the formation of the subject in terms of the way the “I” is shaped through alterity, Butler’s essay on Merleau-Ponty works through the relationship between the latter and 17th century rationalist Nicolas Malebranche. Merleau-Ponty was a 20th century French phenomenologist, largely influenced by the work of Edmund Husserl but also interested in Malebranche. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology demonstrates that the body is not, as Descartes’ work implies, a passive object that houses a consciousness (mind) that then lives in the world. Instead, he showed, the body is an “I can” endowed with intentionality and possibility. For Merleau-Ponty, an individual apprehends and communicates with the world through the body, and not solely through consciousness.
Butler explores the way that Merleau-Ponty’s theorizing of the body specifically in terms of touch, intersects with that of Malebranche. For both, the body is impressionable, and these “impressions act on the body and form the basis for sentience, feeling, cognition and the beginnings of agency itself”. Malebranche declared that “I can only feel what touches me”, a formulation that connects with Descartes’ aforementioned cogito because it too suggests that the subject is formed through something external to it. For Malebranche, that external thing is touch, possibly divine or spiritual touch. Butler draws on this construction to explore the sentient materialization of the “I”. Reading Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Malebranche, and keeping in mind that Merleau-Ponty was captivated by the tactility of embodied experience, Butler finds that the “I” contains a “certain passive constitution from the outside”, and that the “I” is thus “borne through feeling” and through an attentiveness to what is outside of it and its constitution. Butler shows what touching and being touched, in the intersection between Malebranche and Merleau-Ponty, makes possible for experience and existence.
Other essays in this collection include “Hegel’s Early Love”, wherein Butler explores Hegel’s brief and early engagement with love through the language with which he writes about it. Butler examines two surviving fragments of essays by Hegel on love (one simply called “Love” and the other posthumously titled “Fragment of a System”). She examines the language Hegel employs in his discourse on love as a way of determining what his works intend to communicate about this phenomenon. Hegel’s language, she proposes, is a series of continuous reversals. In his exposition, he presents declarations and claims, and when he stages their reversal, the claims accumulate but do not negate each other. In this way, Hegel establishes a treatise of love. The claims collect and synthesize, in the same way that Hegel says the subject is an emerging set of syntheses. Ultimately, through these reversals, Hegel is working to imagine some expression of love that is at one and the same time a singular feeling and not yet a singular feeling—love contains something living: “the one who loves [is] a living being who senses what is living in the other.” When in love, the possibility for and content of sensing (loving) is determined by that which is outside the constitution of the subject. Here, Butler unravels Hegel’s argumentation and, consequently, shows us how Hegel’s language makes the subject of/in love.
Each essay in Senses of the Subject is concerned with the question of how continental philosophy has engaged with how the sensuous aspects of human experience shape and determine subject formation. Other essays engage with Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel in which he presents an analysis of despair as a passion of human existence that fails to synthesize. Butler also explores the way that the writing of feminist philosopher Irigaray is literally intertwined with that of Merleau-Ponty, whom she cites by way of mime and imitation. Other essays take up the works of Baruch Spinoza, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
Senses of the Subject shows the expansive yet precise reach of Butler’s thinking throughout the past two decades. The essays selected for this collection engage with key thinkers in continental philosophy, with the depth and rigor that readers of Butler can expect of her thinking. Those familiar with Butler’s work will of course not be surprised by the careful and particular manner with which Butler engages the Western philosophical tradition.
This collection nicely represents the vastness of her intellectual and ethico-political engagement, yet it focuses on her examination on key philosophical thinkers and less on her interrogation of social and cultural phenomenon. Uniquely, the significance and importance of Senses of the Subject lies in the fact that it represents the less popular and less well-known aspects of Butler’s philosophical work.
Unexpectedly, Butler’s notoriously difficult prose pervades this collection. Senses of the Subject summons a reader already familiar with and interested in the particularities of the philosophical terrain that these essays cross. Those who appreciate and admire Butler’s work for its immediate and on-the-ground political potential may not find much here that is productive. This is a text that will be especially generative for those curious about or working with one or more of the thinkers taken up in these essays, for Butler’s engagement not only expands insight into the works but also is useful for provoking new modes of inquiry with which to engage with these thinkers.
Senses of the Subject is a masterful collection of critical interrogations of philosophy as the object of inquiry. It’s also a splendid inquiry into and about the relational aspects of our embodied existence as well as the way that the language of touch, passion, and desire shape human subjectivity.