Senses of the Subject, by Judith Butler

Danielle Sands on a collection of philosophical essays that focus on passions, desires and sensory experience

July 16, 2015
Book review: Senses of the Subject, by Judith Butler

The “return to philosophy” battle cry has been reverberating for some time, from Alain Badiou’s mathematically inflected systematising and Slavoj Žižek’s Marxist-Christian-psychoanalytic-Hitchcockegelianism to the largely incomprehensible mumblings of assorted realists, materialists and, most recently, accelerationists (yep, me neither). Philosophy has doubtless been reinvigorated by work from these quarters, but the bombast with which this “return” has been heralded testifies to a disciplinary insecurity, a hangover from its alliance with literary studies in the late 20th century. The fertility of this alliance is now often overlooked, displaced by the narrative of a philosophy dispossessed by literary studies, politically inactive and locked in a dead-end fixation with the limits of language. Triumphing in its extrication from this association, the resultant philosophy – by turns unreflective and innovative – has been all too eager to eject the baby with the bathwater, dismissing as sophistry any references to text, language or the literary.

Luckily, Judith Butler missed the “return to philosophy” memo. These collected essays, spanning some two decades, are rich with unfashionable concerns and nonchalant interdisciplinarity. Her focus is the intense passions, desires and preconscious sensory experience so often disavowed by philosophy in its narrative of subject formation. While she is openly indebted to it, Butler is clear that philosophy is not enough; it cannot address nor explain that which precedes or exceeds it. Unexpectedly, her guide here is Kierkegaard, a fellow philosophical parasite, from whom she learns “the necessity of indirect communication” and the power of stylistic attentiveness. The lexical and methodological shifts of a 20-year writing span serve only to magnify her concern with language and form. In its tail-chasing attempts to capture the conditions of its own existence, a reflexive writing is the perfect medium through which to explore the strangeness of the self. Difficult thinkers leap out of their abstraction: Descartes’ spectral hand discloses the materiality that haunts its incomplete figuration; Spinoza’s desire unlocks the possibility of an “ethics under pressure” that prioritises neither self nor other; the encounter between Sartre and Fanon reframes colonialism’s curtailing of subjectivity as “the deadening of sense”.

Senses of the Subject is an exercise in funambulism, tentatively advancing an ethics of embodiment without succumbing to tactile lyricism, to the reductive claim that “the senses are primary”, or to any of the manifold problems upon which 20th-century philosophical ethics foundered. Sometimes the results are quiet, overpowered by the clamour of pre-existing philosophical vocabularies. An essay fleshing out Hegel recasts absolute idealism’s conception of history as the recycling of the body’s discards, “abandoned clothes and old stuff”, only to leave us adrift, closing tantalisingly with an opaque vision of an ethical future. Butler reframes our disorientation as a virtue: the “lived paradox” of the self must displace the philosophical and political orthodoxy of “sovereign individualism” and we must fashion a discourse that neither forecloses this paradox nor assimilates the sensing self.

Both canonised and caricatured, Butler’s work in gender studies continues to overshadow her philosophy. With this inspiring book – simultaneously a philosophical dispossession of philosophy, a paean to sensation and an affirmation of the “radically impossible venture” of ethics and politics – she edges towards a palpable, outward-looking alternative to philosophical chest-beating.

Danielle Sands is lecturer in philosophy, Royal Holloway, University of London.


Senses of the Subject
By Judith Butler
Fordham University Press, 228pp, £69.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780823264667 and 4674
Published 2 March 2015

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Reader's comments (1)

In 1999, Butler won the annual Bad Writing contest, judged by the journal Philosophy and Literature, for a sentence that was almost impossibly awful. No doubt her latest publication contains ones that would also stand a good chance of winning. I’m wondering, though, whether this review might not stand an even better chance. I was particularly taken by the sentence "Descartes’ spectral hand discloses the materiality that haunts its incomplete figuration." There must be an English equivalent, but I have a French game, where you have a sequence of random choices of words that, at first sight, seem to produce meaningful sentences, but which, in fact, of course, just result in empty gobbledegook. Much of the review is like that. Here we go again: "...we must fashion a discourse that neither forecloses this paradox nor assimilates the sensing self." I’m off to the shops now. Mustn’t forget to foreclose the paradox on my way out.

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