TEXT review

Dehiscence in politic and ethics?

review by Maya Nitis


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Moya Lloyd
Butler and Ethics
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2015
ISBN 9780748678853
Pb 232pp AUD72.99


The importance of the ethical for Butler ... is that it marks a critical temporality, one that gives the rhythm to any project of a collective self-making... As the relation of address, the ethical “inaugurates time and again the political”. (133)

Today’s edited collections might risk laying out a neoliberal smorgasbord of neatly packaged and digestible bricks of so-called knowledge, a suspicion which Butler and Ethics hardly dispels at first glance; yet the volume quickly proves to offer a nuanced, energetic and needed engagement with Judith Butler’s work, which has been increasingly concerned with ethics in the last decade and a half. It thus constitutes an important contribution to embattled interdisciplinary inquiries into the intertwinement of ethics and politics. Moreover, the transdisciplinary approach in wrestling with concrete current, historically situated conditions, makes it an arresting and relevant read.

A collection of essays may be difficult to summarize without lumping the individual contributions together and betraying their differences, although such difficulty may also evidence a certain breadth of this particular book. A number of the pieces seem to grope for systematicity, for instance, by filling theoretical gaps in ‘the topic’ – which is not singular since the conjunction in “Butler and Ethics” invites being read backwards and forwards, and the direction may indicate whether one is interested in stylizing Butler’s thought to respond to a given issue, or in how it challenges what has so been understood by ‘ethics’. These two significantly varied approaches frame this volume, the tension between which is amply played out in the editor’s contribution to which I will return.

Taking up Butler’s worry that a focus on ethics may dislocate politics (Butler & Connolly 2000), the relationship of ethics and politics constitutes the central concern of Butler and Ethics. Nevertheless, Butler is charged with enacting just such a dislocation by Bonnie Honig (2010), an issue addressed by multiple authors in the volume. If an anthology can be said to have a central aim, this book aims to present the interdisciplinary engagement with Butler’s rethinking of the ethical-political as an inter-relation and the debates about its implications among queer, feminist, political theorists. I will delve deeper into this discussion following the requisite summary of the contributions clustered around a. limits that condition ethics as failure, b. performativity undermining dichotomies and c. the connection between these two themes.

Taking the reader on an invigorating journey through ethical-political intertwinement that connects the varied contributions, the opening essay warrants particular attention, bringing together the themes of performativity and failure. Nathaniel Gies’ capacious reading offers a generous lead into the collection, replying in advance to some of the more fastidious criticism of Butler’s engagement with ethics. Gies’ ‘Signifying Otherwise: Liveability and Language’ addresses the terms of knowability and the way in which Butler’s ethical-political considerations displace the demand for certainty that has conventionally grounded ethics and agency. The displacement operates on two fronts: through the opacity of the subject to itself and the impossibility to fully master or author linguistic/social norms, as Mills also lays out. Gies says:

when Butler points to aspects of subjectivity irreducible to the operation of norms, she does not retreat to but further displaces a traditional account of agency ... for Butler the recognition of limits, incoherence and failure is not a qualification of the project of expanding possibilities for life but a goad to it: “new modes of subjectivity become possible...when the limiting conditions by which we are made prove to be malleable and replicable”. (23)

This reading succeeds in leaving behind dichotomies and moving towards an alternate logic arguably at the heart of Butler’s ongoing project of unfolding thought irreducible to dualisms.

A number of essays take up what Catherine Mills calls ‘an ethics of failure’ in ‘Undoing Ethics.’ Rather than evaluating to what extent such a designation captures Butler’s approach, I want to query how it brings together the focus on limits constitutive not only of an ambivalent notion of the so-called subject but also of agency and politics, as Jenkins takes up (136). The attention to limits as constitutive rather than simply limiting – or in Foucault’s language, as productive rather than strictly prohibitive or repressive – challenges Butler’s commentators to engage a non-sovereign conception of action and agency (Foucault 1990). Although the shift from Foucault’s productive power to Butler’s conditioned collective agency – more in tune to working with what is already there than creation, which may indicate a more radical break with power’s proximity to mastery – is not marked, a consideration of these themes can yield such an insight. Collective agency constitutes another subtle concern coursing through the pages. Mills reads in Butler ‘an ethics of failure’ rather than of relationality, bringing a feminist focus on ethics to a prominent queer theory theme of failure. While she sees the constitutive role of limits and opacity for Butler, Mills argues that Butlerean relationality remains problematic in so far as it relies on ‘commonality’ (43). Against the reading of relationality as source or cause of responsibility, Mills sees it as a locus thereof, while positioning opacity as the onto-epistemological condition of ethics in a relational context (51). Seeming to object to any notion of commonality, be it dependency or opacity, Mills holds out for a more radical ungrounding of ethics via Butler’s turn to cohabitation.

Also moving against conventional ethical ‘ought’s’ in ‘Butler’s Ethical Appeal’, Sara Rushing argues that the search for systematicity in Butler’s commentators misses the nuanced shift from prescription – that hasn’t seemed to work yet in at least a few thousand years – to a nudging, solicitation and subtle moving towards embodying the changes sought: ‘This body of words has aesthetic appeal, a certain poetry to it, which is meant not so much to communicate ideas as to induce an experience ... or to perform it iteratively across multiple texts and talks, and to solicit a community of solidarity’ (82). Thus recognizing the limits of agency and/as prescription enables a shift to performativity. This performative (and perhaps perlocutionary) aspect is key to Butlerean ethical-political work and also illuminates both the necessary attention to language and the interest in affect addressed by Rushing and Schippers. Rushing argues that affect takes on an important role in Butler’s ethics, acting as a ‘synapse firing’ between ethics and politics (84). This connector deflects Honig’s charge of displacing politics but remains to be more directly addressed according to Rushing. In ‘Violence, Affect and Ethics’ Birgit Schippers also focuses on the subterranean role of affect in Butler’s ethics, arguing that it ‘construes the subject ... in three forms:’ desire, trauma and excitability. Unlike Mills, Schippers sees Butler’s affective subject as thoroughly relational – since it is always dependent on others – and irreducible to the philosophical subject disciplining or stripped of its passion. Thus Schippers brings Butler’s decentering of the subject to bear on the philosophical project and its classic rejection of visceral and sensual modes of knowing (96).

The struggle with dichotomies is no stranger to performativity, and the extent to which a thinker moves away from dualist ideology. Hence even when making a convincing argument, inattention to its dichotomous structures or to the categories on which it relies forestalls the performativity of knowledge production that enables movement toward dialogical practices of solidarity. Lloyd’s ‘The Ethics and Politics of Vulnerable Bodies’ not only portrays but also enacts the struggle with non-dualistic thinking that resonates throughout the essays. She answers her own complaint against Butler for not providing prescriptions, with the astute insight that to do so misreads Butler’s account of ethics as non-prescriptive (183). Yet Lloyd returns to lament the lack of clear steps for action (185). This problematic seems to rest on the attribution of a dualism to Butler, which misses not only the way in which Butler’s account shifts from dualism toward cleavage thereby splitting and retaining the movement without static bifurcation, as Gies points out, but perhaps also Lloyd’s own prior insight regarding Butler’s ‘dialectic without synthesis’ (Lloyd 2007). The difficulty here testifies to the entrenchment and stakes of dualist logic. Lloyd’s awareness of this is poignantly alluded to in a note citing Butler’s call for ‘an insurrection at the level of ontology’ (2004: 33) in place of simple extension of inclusion of content (188).

Both Chambers and Walker can be seen as replaying the struggle between dualist and performative approaches. Unlike the rest of the essays Samuel Chambers focuses on Butler’s earlier work and The Psychic Life of Power. His main claim is that an account of social formation is missing there, forcibly removed from a reading of Althusser. He provides this ‘missing account,’ arguing that its absence is consequential and allies Butler with liberal theorists in her Frames of War (2009) since it necessitates a resort to tautologies in place of such an account. Also unsatisfied with Butler’s theorization of the ethical-political relation, Drew Walker wrestles with Butler’s evocation of a futural universal human condition in ‘Two Regimes of the Human’. Rejecting the possibility of any universal, he splits a human figure into a spectral one concerned with survival and a performative one concerned with limits, arguing that only the latter is subversive. Walker worries that locating the process of dehumanization as a condition for what counts as human distracts from specific political dehumanization.

Before wrapping up this discussion, I want to return briefly to ‘Signifying Otherwise: Liveability and Language’, where Gies connects two central aspects of Butler’s work: language and liveability. He accurately suggests that both echo themes already at the heart of her earlier writing on feminism and gender. Tuned into thought that does not function according to either/or models, Gies shows how the opacity, uncertainty and limitations addressed by Butler do not constitute a hurdle for ethics or politics but are their very conditions, a point also made by Mills and Jenkins (52, 136). Such a move radically rethinks western conceptions of politics based on exclusion, instead offering a thoroughly contingent and at the same time sustainable apprehension of the ethical-political in relation – conditioned by flux and failure. Instead of lamenting the danger to Butler’s work carried by the heavy heritage of Levinas’ problem-laden considerations of ethical demands, or the contamination of the face introduced by Butler’s always ‘promiscuous obedience’ to this notion (Butler 2000: 226), Gies illuminates the significance of such a reworking. Reading Butler and Levinas through one another, he poignantly and evocatively proposes to read the Levinasian ‘face’ à la Butler ‘as a kind of “human drag”’: ‘The face shows the instability of all attempts to offer “the human” as a clearly defined category in the same way drag points to the instability of normative gender categories’ (21). Performativity has long been questioned about the relation of language and that which may or may not exceed it; this very issue contributed to the impetus for Bodies That Matter, whose trope of mattering has become endemic in contemporary social debates (which Walker takes up in a critical register). Resisting the dualist vocabulary generally imposed on the question of language and its other/s thereby subtly discarding it in advance, Gies shows that for Butler this simultaneously ancient and current conundrum operates as an irreducible dehiscence, or cleavage, that, like failure, is a constitutive condition rather than a hindrance to agency (22, 33).

Fiona Jenkins’ ‘Sensate Democracy and Grievable Life’ also offers a practice of dialogical elaboration rather than argument thereby attending to its own performative mode of writing as doing. Such practice yields a performative ‘we’ at stake in Butler’s trajectory. Jenkins provides insight into Butler’s rethinking of the Kantian transcendental ‘I’ in Giving an Account (2005) without which no experience is possible – a kernel of the oft-criticized philosophical/grammatical Subject – in terms of the always (inter)dependent “we”. In what can be read as another reply to the insistent worry about the lack of an ethical program, the very inquiry into what constitutes the ‘we’ replaces the Habermasean normative question (131). This shift from prescription to an ethical-political critique that includes and translates among writing, speaking and collective action characterizes performative agency on this account (130).

Providing access to Butler’s innovative trans- and per-formative approach, Jenkins returns to a concept of temporalized universality, at work also in other contributions in divergent ways. Aligning the ‘temporalised political task of universalisation’ with translation provides the link to language and a futural temporality needed to understand Butler’s approach, which, without such orientation tends to be misunderstood as yet another conventional positing of a pre-existing commonality (121). Although Jenkins does not call this a ‘hopeful universal’ as Butler might, she articulates the deciding absence of a given in Butler’s universal calls. Such a reading of universalization as a task of translation recalls Walter Benjamin to whom Butler has increasingly turned in the past decade.

This anthology evidences both the editor’s and the contributors’ sustained and careful engagement with ‘the leading social theorist of our generation’, offering interdisciplinary breadth and depth in dealing with the nexus of ethics and politics (West 2011: 92; cited on 193). The lack of attention to how Butler’s interaction with Benjamin characterizes her ethical-political work constitutes an omission (except briefly by Jenkins), but I will focus on what Butler and Ethics does accomplish. The divergent essays display a struggle with a consequential shift in the studies of ethics and politics ushered in by ongoing intervention in these conventional disciplines by minoritized traditions voiced from feminist, race and queer studies. While the volume as a whole may not exemplify a performative approach to language and knowledge, it provides a compelling collection of insights that enable readers to apprehend the conditioning intertwinement, or as Lloyd puts it: ‘inter-imbrication’, of ethics and politics (167). Hence not only do some essays offer inspired and inspiring practices of reading-as-writing, the work as a whole provides an important and multifaceted discussion of the innovative trans- and per-formative approach, and thereby untethers thinking and knowledge from reduction to given oppositions that still dominate mainstream knowledge production.


Works cited



With degrees in English, Political Science and Philosophy, among others, Maya Nitis has embarked on a route through German Studies pursuing interests in pedagogy and critical theory, focusing on its feminist, Black and queer branches. Languages of Resistance 1: Performativity and Cultural-Political Translation, Nitis’s first book published in 2014, addresses the revolutionary in the intertwinement of language and reality, primarily through the work of Judith Butler in relation to that of Walter Benjamin. Nitis has also published in areas of feminist pedagogy and queer knowledge production in journals including Diacritics and Feministische Studien. Maya is currently working on a dissertation provisionally titled Literary Agency and Unfinished Knowledge, which queries an agency specific to literary endeavors and gives rise to a conception of knowledge undermining dominant goals of mastery.


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford