Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

The work of becoming a self

I’m reading “Desire, Rhetoric and Recognition” when the theme from the movie Laura comes on the radio. “Laura is the face in the misty light. . . .” While one part of my brain tarries on images from the film, I read, “We begin the Phenomenology with a sense that the main character has not yet arrived.” We are, Butler says, “‘waiting for the subject,’” who “will not arrive all at once” (51).

In Otto Preminger’s film, Laura is believed to be murdered, and while she has, therefore, “not yet arrived” when the action begins, the assembled characters gradually reveal information about her. Their descriptions are so compelling that the detective investigating the murder becomes fascinated with her. Later (spoiler alert), Laura appears—and the subject is now also the Other, an “explicit reality which has hitherto remained an implicit or nascent being. Before its actual appearance, the Other remains opaque, but not for that reason without reality” (74). Through Laura, I can more easily understand Hegel’s ideas.

My critical self scorns the idea that I should rely on popular culture to unlock philosophical concepts. But I discover that contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek uses exactly that approach. And when Butler references Saturday morning cartoons (52), I give myself license to freely associate as I read on. Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help is on my mind as I read Butler’s explanation of the destructiveness of self-consciousness:

Now this same agency realizes that having negated the object, it still retains a dependency on that object; moreover, that determinate living object is not the same as Life itself, and so a potentially infinite number of living objects must be negated for self-consciousness to gain the monopoly on Life that it seeks, and this project soon appears endless and futile. (66)

I’m over-simplifying one of the book’s themes, but Stockett portrays a Mississippi in which whites would prefer to negate blacks, to annihilate them. However, for white women to maintain their elevated position, they cannot totally negate their fellow citizens—or who would serve them and raise their children? As Butler writes, “the death of the Other would deprive self-consciousness of the explicit recognition it requires” (78).

Reading on, I am reminded of Amy Winehouse. More than some people, artists “find [their] own identity through the Other” (78). For Winehouse, this powerful Other was fans, record companies, Grammy awards and tabloids. And it was addiction. When Butler writes of Hegel presenting the second appearance of destructive desire, that it “endeavors to overcome bodily life altogether” (78), I feel a profound sorrow. We know that “annihilation would undermine the project altogether by taking away life” (78), but we are helpless bystanders.

I find some comfort in the last pages of the reading, in which Butler guides us through Hegel’s discussion of self-consciousness, labor, and the material world. Winehouse’s “Love is a Losing Game” is now the song in my head. “[W]e are recognized,” Butler writes, “not merely for the form we inhabit in the world (our various embodiments), but for the forms we create of the world (our works)” (83). Pop culture or no, I celebrate the work that transcends the self.