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Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity

Alterity Politics: Ethics and Performative Subjectivity

by Jeffrey T. NealonJeffrey T. Nealon
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In conventional identity politics subjective differences are understood negatively, as gaps to be overcome, as lacks of sameness, as evidence of failed or incomplete unity. In Alterity Politics Jeffrey T. Nealon argues instead for a concrete and ethical understanding of community, one that requires response, action, and performance instead of passive resentment and unproductive mourning for a whole that cannot be attained.

While discussing the work of others who have refused to thematize difference in terms of the possibility or impossibility of sameness—Levinas, Butler, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Zizek, Jameson, Heidegger, Bakhtin—Nealon argues that ethics is constituted as inexorable affirmative response to different identities, not through an inability to understand or totalize the other. Alterity Politics combines this theoretical itinerary with crucial discussions of specific and diverse sites of literary and cultural production—the work of William S. Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Andy Warhol, Ishmael Reed, Rush Limbaugh, and Vincent Van Gogh—along with analyses of the social formation of subjects as found in identity politics, and in multicultural and whiteness studies. In the process, Nealon takes on a wide variety of issues including white male anger, the ethical questions raised by drug addiction, the nature of literary meaning, and the concept of “becoming-black.”

In seeking to build an ethical structure around poststructuralist discourse and to revitalize the applied use of theoretical concepts to notions of performative identity, Alterity Politics marks a decisive intervention in literary theory, cultural studies, twentieth-century philosophy, and performance studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822321453
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/19/1998
Pages: 226
Sales rank: 854,311
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Nealon is Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and is author of Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction.

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Alterity Politics

Ethics and Performative Subjectivity

By Jeffrey T. Nealon

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-2145-3


Today; or, Between Emergence and Possibility: Foucault, Derrida, and Butler on Performative Identity

What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday? –Michel Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment?"

While Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault continue to exercise wide-ranging influences on cultural and literary theory, it would seem that the book is closed on the specific relations between Derrida's work and Foucault's. As Derrida writes in a recent essay on Foucault, the sometimes acrimonious debate ended with Foucault's death. In retrospect, however, it seems clear that the acrimony of the debate has covered over more productive reflection on the possible intersections between their work. Perhaps such reflection is only becoming possible today, as the polemics of yesterday fade into the background. Here, I'd like to suggest that one such productive way of (re)articulating the differend between Foucault's work and Derrida's would be to take very seriously Foucault's emphasis on material conditions of emergence (on the question of today) in seeming contradistinction to the deconstructive emphasis on conditions of possibility or impossibility (the question of the origin or the future). As Foucault insists, he's primarily interested in a "history of the present"; not the arché or the telos, but rather the emergence and transformation of origins and ends. As he writes, his projects are in this way akin to Kant's: "not seeking to understand the present on the basis of a totality or of a future achievement," but rather "looking for a difference: What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?" ("What Is Enlightenment?" 34; my italics).

Even in his most recognizably "philosophical" or methodological work–that is, in The Archaeology of Knowledge and its analysis of the "statement"–Foucault remains skeptical of any discourse that engages itself with conditions of possibility: as he contends in the Archaeology, "for statements it is not a condition of possibility but a law of coexistence" (116). If nothing else, this Foucauldian insistence on the emergence and coexistence of statements (and his concomitant emphasis on the genealogical sites of chance, materiality, and discontinuity) may offer a slightly more sober way of understanding the dispute with Derrida than is offered in Foucault's rather vitriolic response to Derrida's reading of The History of Madness. In addition, though, I'm hoping that examining and reinscribing this debate (specifically in terms of Judith Butler's recent work on performative identity) has something to tell us, in a Foucauldian vein, about today.

But first, yesterday: Foucault's 1971 essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" is very clear concerning the stakes of this distinction between conditions of emergence and conditions of possibility. For Foucault, Nietzsche allows us to disrupt the specious privilege of metaphysical originality when he poses the question of origin not in strictly transcendentalist terms–not as Ursprung–but rather in "genealogical" terms. Nietzsche challenges us to rethink origin in two specific ways: first, as Herkunft (stock or descent; the chance, discontinuous history of what Foucault calls "the body–and everything that touches it: diet, climate, and soil" [83]); second, Nietzsche asks us to think origin as Entstehung, which Foucault glosses as emergence or event, "the moment of [force's] arising" (83) that "designates a place of confrontation" (84). By insisting on this distinction between conditions of possibility and conditions of emergence, Foucault's reading of Nietzsche continually highlights the genealogical principle, which holds that "What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity" (79). Genealogy consistently "opposes itself to the search for 'origins'" (77); that is, it opposes itself to the search for conditions of possibility, to the continuous or discontinuous exposure of the Ursprung's historico-transcendental traces in philosophy and in the human sciences.

It is in this context that we might again recall or reexamine Foucault's objections to Derrida in the Archaeology (though note that Derrida is never named directly in the text). According to Foucault, even if one emphasizes a radically discontinuous notion of conditions of possibility, a certain kind of pernicious transcendentalism nevertheless

can be purified in the problematic of a trace, which, prior to all speech, is the opening of inscription, the gap of deferred time; it is always the historico-transcendental theme that is reinvested. A theme [from which] enunciative analysis tries to free itself. In order to restore statements to their pure dispersion_____ In order to consider them in their discontinuity, without having to relate them ... to a more fundamental opening or difference. In order to seize their very irruption, at the place and at the moment at which it occurred. (121)

At least provisionally, Foucault posits his emphasis on conditions of emergence (the "very irruption at the place and at the moment at which it occurred") as a wedge to interrupt the smooth disciplinary movement from objects to their governing laws of possible inscription. Although deconstruction would seem to have performed just such a shift of emphasis– from the question of what something is in itself to the examination of how it is configured, haunted, and transformed by its others–Foucault nonetheless asks after the ways in which such a deconstructive movement surreptitiously protects or projects the "transcendental" space of the "trace" or the "opening of inscription."

For Foucault, perhaps we could say that it is the direction or orientation of Derrida's analyses that consistently runs the risk of reinstituting a kind of metaphysical privilege by gesturing toward some notion of the quasi-transcendental origin and/or the uncertain future engendered by it. And, concomitantly, Foucault seems to understand deconstructive analysis as nothing other than the monotonous exposure of an originary "gap of deferred time" (écart du temps différé), the endless staging and iteration of the slippage engendered by différance as a condition of (im)possibility. Here, according to Foucault, both the origin and the future remain shrouded, an "enigmatic, silent remainder" (Archaeology, 112), and the present remains nothing more than "a series of traces" (107).

As something of an aside, it would perhaps be easier to understand Foucault's infamous charge that deconstruction, thus understood, comprises "a historically well-determined little pedagogy" ("My Body," 27) if we recall Nietzsche's comments on Wagner's Hegelianism: "German youths understood him. The two words 'infinite' and 'meaning' were really sufficient: they induced a state of incomparable well-being in young men" (Case, 178). In the end, it is this incomparably reassuring feeling of infinitely problematized transcendental symbolism that Foucault reads all over Derrida's work on iterability and conditions of (im)possibility; and it is precisely this kind of reassurance–one could perhaps say the reassurance of the deferred future–that Foucault is out to disrupt in all of his work on conflicted conditions of emergence.

All of this is, I suppose, familiar territory for readers of Derrida and Foucault, as are the potential defenses and counterarguments on both sides. But, here I'd rather not continue to revisit these arguments in an attempt to recover or reopen a philosophical debate; in lieu of that, I'll just go on record as saying that, for me, Foucault's is a too hasty reading of Derrida. So instead of reopening the debate between Foucault and Derrida, I'd like to follow what I take to be a Foucauldian line and shift ground slightly to examine a way that they are productively being thought together. Specifically, I'd like to discuss how they are thought or brought together in Judith Butler's recent work on performative identity. Although reading Butler in this way certainly ignores any number of other important horizons within her work (her sustained engagements with feminism, psychoanalysis, queer theory, etc.), I hope to show that through her interventions on the question of performativity, we can see how Derrida's seeming emphasis on conditions of possibility is precisely a kind of confrontation with conditions of emergence and coexistence, and, likewise, we can see that Foucault as a thinker of emergence is no apologist for a kind of "social constructionism." In other words, in attempting to follow Foucault, I'm somewhat less interested in rehearsing a philosophical debate than I am in the question of today, in the conflicted sites where this philosophical debate has reemerged and is being reinscribed.

Judith Butler and "Performative" Identity

Almost universally understood–or, as it were, mis understood–as a theorist of identity as ironic yet power-laden theatrical performance, Butler, in her 1993 Bodies That Matter, asks us to reconsider her work on gender and compulsory heterosexuality in terms of Derrida's analysis of performative iterability in his "Signature Event Context." Given Butler's project (recall Gender Trouble's subtitle, "Feminism and the Subversion of Identity"), her engagement with Derrida's work is muted when compared to her more sustained and foregrounded engagement with Foucauldian questions concerning power and the disciplinary interpellation of bodies. On further reflection, though, Butler's interest in a Derridean intervention is easy enough to understand: if meaning and identity are always context-bound–if, as Derrida maintains, there is nothing outside the (con)text–then any particular meaning or identity carries with it the necessary, structural possibility of its own subversion by other recontextualizations or reinscriptions. In other words, it is from within the very logic of contextual meaning that it becomes (im)possible for there to be a meta-context, a context outside of or not subject to the law of context. And from this, the possibility of subversion (as reinscription of existing contexts) is engendered.

As Derrida points out in "Signature," J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words shows us that all supposed "constative" utterances–which, as Jonathan Culler writes, pretend merely to "describe a state of affairs" (112)–are in fact already "performative" utterances, "which are not true or false and which actually perform the action to which they refer" (Culler, 112). All "constative" meaning is not merely referenced from a preexisting storehouse of decided truisms, but is actually brought about in and through a series of "performative" actions–statements and restatements that redeploy and reestablish the performative force of truth in differing contexts. As Culler points out, "Austin reversed his predecessors' hierarchical opposition by showing that constatives were a special case of performatives" (119-20). As Derrida shows in taking Austin a step further, precisely because Austin maintains that all meaning is in this way beholden to action (rather than vice versa), all meanings are then essentially haunted by the possibility of subversive rearticulation–by the performative structure of signification itself.

However, for Butler's purposes it is important also to recall Derrida's insistence that this possibility of subversion from within the horizon of contextual meaning is not brought about by a positive or negative polysemia (as Foucault seems to understand the "transcen-dentalist" upshot of Derrida's work). Subversion is not, in other words, made efficacious because each subject or word is uniquely lacking or excessive, and therefore marked by an irreducibly rich individuality that explodes context and lives outside its laws; rather, the reinscriptive possibility of subversion from within is a matter of the structure of the mark, what Derrida calls "the structure of the remnant or of iteration" ("Living On," 81). The "crisis" of meaning or identity, then, is not an accident nor a simple impossibility (neither a transcendental lack nor a plenitude of meaning, to be understood neither in terms of the absolute past nor in terms of the deferred future);, rather, this supposed crisis is a consequence of what Derrida calls "the positive possibility and 'internal' structure of ... language, ... the possibility of extraction and of citational grafting which belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken or written" ("Signature," 319-20).

The upshot of all this in Butler's reading is that what we might somewhat hastily call the law of material context–the specific emergence or situation that decides determinate meaning–always produces the possibility of another context, insofar as any word in any discourse is subject to "extraction" from one context and "citational grafting" onto or into another.

Certainly, concepts such as agency, responsibility, and intention do not merely vanish here, but they do lose their absolute privilege. Derrida writes, "In this typology, the category intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from this place it will no longer be able to govern the entire chain and the entire system of utterances" ("Signature," 326). As Butler reinscribes this Derridean notion into the realm of gender identity and production, following the logic of performatives, "the question of agency is [then] reformulated as a question of how signification and resignification work" (Gender, 144).

In Gender Trouble, Butler reshapes these Derridean notions of iterability, contextuality, and performative response to examine the cultural significance of gender once it is unmoored from the determining essentialist context of "sex." As for Derrida the performative law of contextual iterability always simultaneously produces the possibility (indeed, the necessity) of so-called deviant contexts, for Butler the cultural interpellations of gender (what she calls the "girling of the girl") necessarily carry with them more than mere contextual determinations of identity: "the rules governing signification not only restrict, but enable the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility" (Gender, 145). For Butler, as for Derrida, to say that subjective agency is "performative" is not to say that agency doesn't exist or that all agency is merely an ironic performance; rather, it is to say that agency is necessarily a matter of response to already given codes. The performative subject does not and cannot merely found its own conditions or its own identity; at the same time, however, this subject is not merely determined in some lockstep way. Butler argues, "the subject is not determined by the rules through which it is generated because signification is not a founding act, but rather a regelated process of repetition" (145). So, for Butler the question of the subject is not fruitfully posed in a binary matrix: the age-old nature-or-nurture question, "Does the subject determine or is it determined by its context?", will get you nowhere. Insofar as we cannot create and master the distance between ourselves and the codes that interpellate us, "it is only within the practices of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible" (145). Thus, the emergence of social agency is rethought through Butler's engagement with the possibility of reinscriptive response.

However, we have to hesitate here and note that, on what might, however ironically, be called a "classical" Derridean reading, Butler's "question of how signification and resignification work" would stubbornly remain a kind of metaphysical question about conditions of possibility. For example, the conclusion of Derrida's analysis in "Signature Event Context" is a familiar one for his readers: "The condition of possibility for these [performative] effects is simultaneously, once again, the condition of their impossibility, of the impossibility of their rigorous purity" (328). If performatives do indeed give rise to constatives rather than vice versa, the conditions of possibility for constative effects–nouns, stable identities, knowledges–are simultaneously the conditions of such states' impossibility. If constatives are made possible only through performative effects, then true constatives are, strictly speaking, impossible. Here, the discontinuous origin of performativity seems to give way to the uncertain future of reinscription; the impossibility of absolute grounding gives way to the impossibility of closure. And this is precisely where the question posed by Foucault–Why the ever so slight privilege of conditions of possibility rather than conditions of emergence?–becomes most crucial, especially for a project like Butler's.


Excerpted from Alterity Politics by Jeffrey T. Nealon. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction · Alterity Politics: Toward an Ethics without Lack,
1 · Today; or, Between Emergence and Possibility: Foucault, Derrida, and Butler on Performative Identity,
2 · The Ethics of Dialogue: Bakhtin's Answerability and Levinas's Responsibility,
3 · "Junk" and the Other: Burroughs and Levinas on Drugs,
4 · Enjoy Your Chiasmus! Ethics, Failure, and the Performative in Zizek and de Man,
5 · Is It the Shoes! Otherness and Exemplarity in Jameson, Heidegger, and Derrida,
6 · Becoming-Black: Repetition and Difference in Baraka's Blues People and Reed's Mumbo Jumbo,
7 · White Male Anger: Failure, Resentment, and Performative Political Theory,
Conclusion · Choosing Ethics, Affirming Alterity,
Works Cited,

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