The Call & the Wall

One of the things to bear in mind with regards to a performative (poststructuralist) type of speculative intervention into what we refer to as the “subject”  is that the typical laymen’s understanding of the “subject” presupposes two crucial philosophical assumptions that we are endeavoring to, first, grasp and, secondly, to undermine: first, there is the notion that knowledges and perceptions are bordered and that there are rules or laws that govern these; secondly, that there is a call, that someone or something – typically something that is in a position of dominance, like the police or the state – brings something else into existence by “calling” it.

This is a theological notion that invades philosophy and frames with way we think philosophically and, unfortunately, therefore the way we think of politics. Someone is called by God (or gods) to do or be something beyond their profane material existence. A clumsy liberal conception of “identity politics” cannot even begin to think of subjectivity in this way. It takes identity as an essential item (not an existential) because identity presupposes two sides of the same coin: things cannot be “identical” if there is not something else that is either reliant on it or is leading it around by the nose. Identity is literally a codependency. Ironically, perhaps, for many breaking free of this codependency (or as Quentin Meillassoux calls it in After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Kantian correlationism) would mean a deeper entrenchment, a deeper investment in one’s identity.

But are we only ever called? Alain Badiou suggests otherwise in his theory of the subject. According to him, what he calls the subject happens after the event, after an event has already taken place (or taken a place), that retroactively an event’s happening has been declared and fidelity to that event’s occurrence has also been declared and maintained. This is where the “subject” arises: in the course of making a decision to maintain fidelity to an event’s occurrence.

As we saw in the last entry on Badiou’s “Eight Theses on the Universal”, if the subject constitutes (or is constituted by) a type of hole in knowledge according to Badiou, then the subject is also a type of interpellation in the Althusserian sense. For Althusser, the interpellated subject – the subject that is conjured into existence, like a magic trick, precisely because it has been hailed – is an ideological construction. And, as we will consider in a future entry, ideology functions as a weak universalizing and ahistorical narrative that covers the gaps of one’s knowledge of something (namely, its material – and hence, political – existence).

Judith Butler also suggests otherwise. For her, identity markers like gender are performative and, therefore, not simply essential. All of these “phantasmatic constructions” function within a repetitive performance of the boundaries or rules that attempt to erect the walls of identities. As Butler notes in the concluding chapter, “From Parody to Politics”, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed.”[1] Butler’s conclusion gives us something to consider as we move forward. She notes that

The deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics; rather, it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated. This kind of critique brings into question the foundationalist frame in which feminism as an identity politics has been articulated. The internal paradox of this foundationalism is that it presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate. The task here is not to celebrate each and every new possibility qua possibility, but to redescribe those possibilities that already exist, but which exist within cultural domains designated as culturally unintelligible and impossible. If identities were no longer fixed as the premises of a political syllogism, and politics no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old. Cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate or, rather, their present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness. What other local strategies for engaging the ‘unnatural’ might lead to the denaturalization of gender as such?[2]

In the next entry, we will look at Butler’s conclusion as a grounding for where we are headed with regards to thinking about Walter Benjamin’s theory of a “new kind of barbarism”. The neo-Kantian speculative barbarism of Benjamin’s early writing needs to be situated, as a political concept, within this framework of identity, correlation, performance, borders and boundaries (of knowledge but also, as I will suggest, of actual physical borders and boundaries that constitute both states and private property), and, crucially, also with the theological and messianic notion of the calling in mind.

[1] Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble, 181

[2] Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble, 190.


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