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Postmodern Identities–Butler and Zizek


This week we looked at the work of two contemporary   thinkers, Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek. We can see how they relate to questions of anti-foundationalism and   the status of philosophy and psychoanalysis today. As usual these are my notes from the course. They are not my own work but that of Professor Roth.

Judith Butler II

Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher, Lacanian ...

Slavoj Žižek, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recommended Reading for this module

  • Judith Butler, “Introduction” from Undoing Gender (2004)
  • Slavoj Žižek, “You May!” London Review of Books, vol. 21 (March 1999

This week we looked at the work of two contemporary   thinkers, Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek. We can see how they relate to questions of anti-foundationalism and   the status of philosophy and psychoanalysis today.

Gender as a performance.

Butler is a prolific author. She started her career with the work on French Hegelianism and the status of Hegel in modern   France.

“The concept of desire was extremely   important to me, the interplay between desire and recognition, which is so central to Hegel’s phenomenology.” (Interview)

Cover of "Gender Trouble: Feminism and th...

Cover via Amazon

She moved on to work on gender and  sexuality in a book called Gender Trouble which really was a game changer   in the field of women’s studies, gay and   lesbian studies and queer studies as it came to be called later.   Gender Trouble was so surprising and so   provocative because it brought together   gender theory and theories of performance. She argued that gender is not an essential category, so she was   anti-essentialist and   anti-foundationalist.  She also said that gender had everything to do with   performance and with improvisation.

Since then,  Judith Butler has been working out the ramifications of taking performance   seriously, while at the same time paying attention to the ways in which identity, sexuality and politics intersect in the contemporary world. In her interview with professor Roth {link} she says:-

 “I think for me gender trouble was, well, it emerged from my activism.   Some people said, you’re such a feminist,   why don’t you do feminist scholarship?   I thought, oh, no, I don’t want to do   feminist scholarship.   I just want to read my continental   philosophy over here, and then have my feminist activism   over there.   But then I was invited to work on   Beauvoir and Wittig and that   involved me in a kind of critique of   dominant forms of feminism at the time   that seemed to assume that women to be   recognized as a woman you had to be you   had to be within a certain kind of   heterosexual frame or you had have a   particular relationship to the maternal.   And I fought against that.    And I, I wanted to open up the   category, and I wanted to say that the   category mis-recognizes certain people, or fails to recognize them   altogether.    So, maybe opening up the terms of   recognition was one aim of Gender   Trouble. “ (Interview)

Undoing Gender is a text from the last decade where Butler reconsiders the constellation of issues gender, sexuality, performance politics and ethics.   The   real focus is on the difference that   vulnerability makes as we think about identity, responsibility, and performance.

“To understand gender as a historical category is to accept that gender, understood as one way of culturally configuring a   body, is open to continual remaking, and that ‘anatomy’ and ‘sex’ are not without   cultural framing.”(page 9/10)

That’s really important for Judith   Butler these things are not natural, essential or cultural, they are open to   continual remaking.   Freedom and pleasure are found in this continual remaking.   She is very sensitive to the charge that she writes as if people can just reinvent themselves willy-nilly, or   ad-hoc, she’s not arguing that at all.   She’s very much aware of how cultural   re-framing is also an inhibition on remaking.   She’s interested in how inhibition and remaking work together or intersect   and that is certainly in the Foucauldian   tradition.   That is how prohibitions actually lead to new forms of identity and remaking.   So she says that performance is a   kind of doing.

“If gender is a kind of doing, an   incessant activity performed, in part,   without one’s knowing and without one’s willing it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint”  

Judith Butler (photo Credit : wikimedai)

Improvisation is a very interesting word, because when you’re  improvising with an instrument, you’re often not conscious of  what you are about to play.   That’s one of the keys about   improvisation.    It’s that combination of, of   unpredictability and possibility that   Butler is emphasizing here.   She says there’s no easy way to separate   the life of gender from the life of   desire, our identity is very much   affected by our passions or, our desires.

This leads her to a consideration of agency.   Agency is a vexed subject for, Judith   Butler because she does not want to rely on a concept of the self that sees the self as an author of everything that   happens in the world that sees the self as controlling, as dominating.   Because that would put her in the in the liberal individualist paradigm that has   been criticized by a range of thinkers   we’ve seen and from Horkheimer and Adorno   through Foucault that is that the   criticizing of this notion of the   imperial or dominating self.   She’s interested in agency as a mode of   being that is ‘riven with paradoxes’.

“As a result, the ‘I’ finds itself at once constituted by norms and dependent on them but also   endeavours to live in ways that maintain a critical and transformative relation to them”

Gender is important for Butler because   of her own political and ethical stances   which involve her, in feminism and gay and lesbian, and transgender politics. She wants to have a philosophical   context for those politics that emphasizes a possibility, freedom   and recognition of the realities of   social norms and cultural constraints

“After all, queer theory and activism acquired political salience by insisting that anti-homophobic activism can be engaged in by anyone, regardless   of their sexual orientation, and that   identity markers are not prerequisites for political participation.”

You don’t have to be gay to be in favour of gay liberation just as you don’t have to be an Arab or a Jew to be in favour of Arab or Jewish liberation. There is a kind of activism that comes through identity, but it is not limited to essential identity markers.

“The task   of all of these movements seems to me to be about distinguishing among the norms   and conventions that permit people to   breathe, to desire, to love and to live, and those norms and conventions that  restrict or eviscerate the conditions of   life itself.” 

What brings these movements together for Butler is a politics of possibility that allows people to desire and to live more freely.

Sometimes she talks about it in terms of reducing vulnerability.  All of those things could  be seen as part of the enlightenment   project.   Making the world a better home for human beings is to give   people the ability to breathe, to desire to love. Butler doesn’t really want to be just part of The Enlightenment Project that has also resulted in the marginalization or even the oppression of some and the degradation of the   planet and the ecosystem.   She wants a politics that will create these possibilities without falling into the dynamic of exclusion, marginalization and domination that has   characterized The Enlightenment.

“What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is most liveable only for some and   similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives that is un-livable for some.   The differences in position and desire set the limits to universalizability as an ethical reflex.  The critique of gender norms must be   guided by the question of what maximizes   the possibilities for a liveable life.”   (Page 8)

Kant (Photo Credit : Wikimedia)

Universalizability as an ethical reflex hearkens back to Kant and his categorical imperative.   ‘Act as if the maxim of your actions was   in principal universalizable, that is that the principle of your action   could be applicable to all people.’   That’s the Kantian ethical test.   What Butler is saying is that the   differences in who we are and what we   desire set the limits of   universalizability, you can’t   universalize everything without   homogenizing the differences among   people, and that is unethical, it is   oppressive.   She wants to have limits to universalizability without giving up the   project of a search for a reasonable basis, for enhanced possibilities, for livening together.

“If there are norms of recognition by   which the human is constituted, and these   norms encode operations of power, then it   follows that the contest over the future   of the human will be a contest over the   power that works in and through such   norms.”  (Page 13)

The values that we use to legislate proper behaviour are infused with operations of power to make people become certain kinds of human beings.   What   looks like an ethical norm can really be an   operation of power.   Butler doesn’t believe that we could exist with an absence of norms but she wants us to be able to pay attention to how norms, when they operate, create patterns of exclusion and oppression that violate other norms that we have. If we learn to pay attention  to those things,   we won’t strive for perfect  universalizability but to  increase the likelihood that our actions   will preserve a possibility for people to  live with the desires, with the hopes,  with the with the possibilities that they  say they want to have

This goes back to Butler’s talk about improvisation We, we don’t always know what it   means to inhabit a certain subject   position.   That is we don’t always know what it means to behave like a man,   or to behave like a strong person, or to behave like a heterosexual or   behave like a gay person.   We don’t know exactly what those terms   mean.   But we are expected by our society today   to somehow conform to patterns of   identity that have been set down for us.   How can we acknowledge these patterns of   identity while still leaving room for   improvisation?

We are being informed through   institutions.   We’re being called names.   We’re being we’re having norms imposed on   us.   So who are we such that we.   We receive or we’re, we’re vulnerable to   being called certain names.   Or we’re vulnerable to certain kinds   of social expectations or norms or   whatever.   So you know, I felt like I actually   needed to understand the domain of impressionability to understand how it is we might   be at once socially constructed but also   self-constituting.    So I had to link those two  things because  there were some people who said, oh,  Butler, it’s all social construction or,   oh, Butler, it’s all volunteerism.   I thought, oh, I better put   these things together. “   (Interview)

This is the improvisation being a way of acting freely when you’re not just going according to a   script.   When you feel your life is just moving according to a script there’s a sense of constraint and control that can   be extraordinarily oppressive. Where there’s a   margin for improvisation, for invention,  for self invention, for self fashioning that gives you a sense of freedom, and pleasure.

“There is   always a dimension of ourselves and our relation to others that we cannot know and this not-knowing persists with us as a condition of existence and, indeed, of survivability.” (Page 15)

Butler doesn’t want us to think that it’s all about absolute knowledge that we need to grasp everything, philosophically or scientifically.   This condition of not knowing, Freud   called it the unconscious, is actually a   part of our survivability.

“We are, to an extent, driven by what we do not know, and cannot know, and this ‘drive’(Trieb) is precisely what is neither exclusively biological nor cultural, nut always site of their dense convergence…..  Sexuality emerges precisely as an improvisational   possibility within this field of   constraints.”  (Page 15)

The great improvisations, say in jazz, are often on the basis of what we call standards, a great jazz song is called a standard.   When we improvise, what we are doing is to acknowledge the background,   the standard, and use it as a springboard for possibility.   A standard gives rise to the   possibility of invention, and then coming   back to the standard and then going out   again.   That possibility is the kind of   freedom and pleasure Butler wants to see more of in  society.

Slavo Zizek

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...

Slavoj Zizek  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like Judith Butler Zizek has become a philosopher, he has audiences all over the world in and  outside of academia.   He has written a lot about popular culture. His words and his performance   resonate widely because of his  attentiveness to non-academic forms of   communication and his penchant for incisive readings of what we thought of as very   familiar forms, whether that would be Hitchcock or other popular cinema. He uses humour wonderfully to instruct us on some really complex and   difficult issues. If you search for him on Youtube there are hundreds of videos and he has huge audiences.

Zizek says that he has learned   a lot from Jacque Lacan, a great French   psychoanalyst and theorist who started of   being very influenced, not only by Freud,  but also by the surrealists and then by   Alexander Cousev’s notion of master slave dialectic from Hegel.   Lacan went on to write very enigmatic   and powerful works about how language,  the unconscious, and desire intersect and form a constellation of forces, that we could never fully understand but that   structure our lives are subjective as are our   fantasies and our actions.

As well as the short reading of “You May” we watched a couple of film clips from you tube. If you have a chance   to look at the documentary Zizek {link} that gives you a   sense of his ideas and of his way of thinking as a  person moving through the world

In the text Zizek talks about modernism as a practice that orients itself around” an empty spot where we thought God was” .   From modernism there was a notion that God is missing and that there is an empty spot where the God or the ordering principle or the sovereign   of the world that we used to think was there isn’t, it is lacking.

“The lesson of modernism is that the machine revolves   around an emptiness; the post modernist   reversal shows the Thing itself as the incarnated, materialized   emptiness.” (You May- p43)

Rather than just thinking that God is dead, the post modernism thinks that the materialized emptiness is this terrifying object that nonetheless structures are our very existence.  For Zizek what happens is that we have a notion of what he calls ‘the big other’ that is some   ordering principle of the universe.   In post modernism, we realize that the force that determines what we are; who we are and what we do is itself materialized   emptiness.   There is a power of absence that controls us and defines our existence.

As Nietzsche said we don’t become free because we realise God is dead, we just realize that the force that structures us is a force of emptiness.  Zizek puts it this way:-

“By the   mere act of speaking we suppose the existence of the Big Other, the guarantor   of meaning….”

When we engage in an act of speaking, we acknowledge that there are a set of rules that guarantee meaning.  If we didn’t act as if there were such a set of rules we would be crazy, we would be as he says,   “Psychotic.”

“Believing there is a code to   be cracked is of course  much the same as believing in the   existence of the Big Other.”

What Zizak is interested in is the ways in which what looks like prohibition actually gives rise to desire, and what looks like desire becomes a form of   prohibition.  What he tends to do is to emphasize that what looks like x is really y, and what pretends to be y is really z.   He does this in a way that acknowledges our first perceptions of the situation but then reverses those perceptions.

The post modern father wants to control the desire of the child. In a permissive society there is a different form of repression, a different kind of   transgression.

“In a permissive society, the rigidly codified, authoritarian master /slave relationship becomes transgressive.   This paradox or reversal is the  proper topic of psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis does not deal with the authoritarian father who prohibits enjoyment, but with the obscene father who enjoins  it and thus renders you impotent or  frigid.   The unconscious is not secret resistance  to the law, but the law itself.” (P7) 

For Zizek the obscene father is this post-modern father who makes you want to  do something rather than just prohibit you from doing something you originally   wanted to do.   The obscene   father is a symbol of lots of other things that, under the guise of permissiveness tells you what to feel, and what to think.

We see this all the time in contemporary American society. We say, we want you to be tolerant,   we want you to be free, we want you to be accepting of everyone, and so we’re going to train you how to do so.   We’re going to show you what kind of language to use what kind of behaviour to have with other people.   By giving   you more tolerance, we’re going to also   impose on you a code of politically   correct speech, politically correct   action, so you have politically correct   desires. This is what Zizek finds so intriguing about contemporary, postmodern society.   He talks about the pleasures of obedience.

“For psychoanalysis the perversion of the human libidinal economy  is what follows from the prohibition of  some pleasurable activity: not a life led in strict obedience to the law and deprived of all pleasure, but a life in which exercising the law provides a pleasure of its own, a life in which performance of the ritual destined to keep illicit temptation at bay becomes the source of libidinal satisfaction” 

The very act of prohibiting other people from getting pleasure becomes our pleasure.  What’s interesting for Zizek is the way in which exercising the rules of prohibition becomes its own kind of pleasure, its own game of erotics. He talks about erotic repression.

“Regulatory power mechanisms and procedures become reflexively eroticised: although repression first emerges as an attempt to regulate any desire considered ‘illicit’ by the predominant socio-symbolic, it can only survive in the psychic economy if the desire for regulation is there – if the very activity of regulation becomes libidinally invested and turns into a source of libidinal satisfaction.”

We get off on the rules for Zizek. It’s not about freeing ourselves from the rules, it’s about the rules becoming their own source of enjoyment and how that can be perversely put into society.   He says,

“The trick performed by the  superego is to seem to offer the child a free choice, in the case of the obscene or postmodern father the trick performed by the superego is to seem to offer the   child a free choice, when, as every child   knows, he is not being given any choice   at all.  Worse than that, he is being given an order and told to smile at the same time. Not only must you visit your grandma, whatever you feel, but, you must visit   your grandma and you must be glad to do it.  The superego orders you to enjoy doing what you have to do.”

Find pleasure in work, find pleasure in obedience.   This, for Zizek, is the true perversion because it insists on a different kind   of conformity, while under the  guise of tolerance. So he says, our post-modern society has a kind of rule saturation.

“Our post-modern reflexive society which seems hedonistic and permissive is actually saturated with rules and regulations, which are intended to serve our well-being ( Restrictions on smoking and eating, rules against sexual harassment).”

All these rules become their own form of pleasure even as they control us more and more.   Zizek is fascinated by how we create objects of desire which have evacuated from them all the things that made them desirable.   Decaffeinated coffee, beer without alcohol a whole range of things where  we still  have ‘the   label ‘ of the original object,  but all the things in the object that were bad for us, which is what made them desirable are gone. For Zizek duty becomes a pleasure

“The superficial opposition between pleasure and duty is overcome in two different ways.   Totalitarian power goes even further than   traditional authoritarian power.   What it says, in effect, is, do your   duty, I don’t care whether you like it or not.   Totalitarian power says in effect, not,   do your duty, I don’t care whether you like it, but, you must do your duty, and you must enjoy doing it.   (This is how totalitarian democracy works.  It is not enough for the people to follow   their leader, they must love him)……..   Duty becomes pleasure and then pleasure becomes duty.   The obverse paradox is that   pleasure becomes duty in a permissive   society.   Subjects experience the need to have a   good time to enjoy themselves as a kind   of duty, consequently feeling guilty for failing   to be happy.”

Nobody really wants to hear it, if you say you are not happy or you really hate your job. They get embarrassed and don’t know what to say, it’s like a confession of some sexual perversion.   I’m doing my job because I’m paid.  Oh no that’s bad; you should do your job   because you love it.   It should be your passion. The only things we should do are things that give us pleasure. For Zizek, this is a totalitarian democracy.   Under the guise of being nice, we want you to enjoy yourself; we want you to be   happy.  What they’re really saying to you is you must love what you are told to do.

Pleasure, becomes a duty.   The possibility for transgression in is a hard question for Zizek. It may be that, actually performing the old-fashion rituals of oppression become new forms of   transgression against the soft permissive oppression of post-modern, totalitarian democracies.   What Zizek is wanting us to understand is the way that pleasure and power get intertwined.

He doesn’t have a political program.   He’s not asking us to help the poor or to get rid of the rich or to increase or decrease   production, of consumer goods.   Fro his perspective, is, what he’s   doing is playing the role, in some ways,   of an analyst, the philosopher as   psychoanalyst.   That is, he’s asking us.   What can we possibly mean by what we are   doing?   What can we, what do we think we’re up to   when we look at ourselves in these   particular ways?   Why are we asking the questions we’re   asking?   Why are we, framing the world as we are   framing it?   This is the task of the philosopher.   The philosopher isn’t going to feed the   hungry. Zizak even talks about it from his bed.

So what do you ask a philosopher?   You ask a philosopher, why are we concerned with the possibility of catastrophe when there is catastrophe all around us already?   Why do we frame the world the way we do?   Why do we ask the questions the way we do?   Why do we accept certain kinds of answers as true and not others?  How do we manipulate our expectations for freedom and pleasure in ways that clearly make us more miserable?  These are the kind of questions that the   philosopher doesn’t answer, but throws   back to us because there is no foundation for an answer.   There’s no ‘telos’ for political practice  there’s just the possibility of reframing  the way we think about the world by being  more aware of the frames that already   exist



  1. Hi Louise, I just wanted to thank you for always posting your blog entries. Not so we can copy, but be inspired by your diligence! I never did get round to blogging in this course, just not enough time this round, but I’m half considering doing it again, 3 of us formed a google + community in which we were very active, and posted a lot, plus our essays, and that was fun, and a great place to vent when we felt writers block and other such things. Different ways of charting our journeys I guess.Anyhow, thanks again for always being so open with your learning, Angela

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you so much for saying so Angela.
      I have thoroughly enjoyed this course and the conversations I have had on facebook and the discussion pages. I love to share and I am doing the writing anyway so it is easy to share. I am nearly finished with the last week and will put up my latest essay today.

  2. […] Postmodern Identities – Butler and Zizek (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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  4. […] Postmodern Identities – Butler and Zizek (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  5. […] Postmodern Identities – Butler and Zizek (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  6. Aggeliki says:

    Great job there! I came upon your blog trying to find who that “Alexander Cousev” is, while watching this week’s video lectures. That was a hard one!! Actually his name is spelled “Alexandre Kojève” 😉 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kojeve

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