October 19, 2010

Masters of Subjection

The following is a reaction to reading Judith Butler's Psychic Life of Power:

Power exists prior to the subject, and power is also the “willed effect of the subject” (Butler, 14). We all enter a world that is completely symbolized, structured, ordered, and arranged before us. We step onto a cultural, political, and social stage as somewhat unwitting participants who have to adapt, to figure out the rules of the game in order to figure out what it means to be a part of that stage. We have to learn the rules of the game in order to exist as parts of the social body, and in order to be individuals within this pre-given system. This is the process of subjection. As Butler writes, “the subject emerges both as the effect of a prior power and as the condition of possibility for a radically conditioned form or agency” (14-15). We become individuals after being subjected to a powerful system in which we learn what it is to be named—resistance becomes possible only when one is named, ordered, and shaped by the social system that they are born into.

This process seems to be viciously circular—but Butler argues that power is never complete, never absolute (17). For me, this is where Butler provides a useful blend of Foucault and Lacan that moves beyond the arguments that Copjec provided a few weeks back. For Butler this incompleteness is the Lacanian real—that which the social order can never fully envelope. Identity is flexible, instable, and in flux because social identities can never fully account for the full being that any single person is. Agency, it seems, stems from the gaps, from the incompleteness of power. Agency, Butler writes, “is the assumption of a purpose unintended by power, one that could not have been derived logically or historically, that operates in a relation of contingency and reversal to the power that makes it possible, to which it nevertheless belongs” (15). Agency—or resistance—is an unexpected deviance or anomaly that takes place within a bounded system, but which stems from that very system. Humans resist violence and oppression with new forms of social organization, with weapons, and with the very language and sets of social symbols that were used to create oppression and violence in the first place. We write protest signs in the very language that represses; we march in places that are designated for free speech.

Moving beyond Foucault (or maybe taking him along for the ride), Butler argues that power not only subjects social bodies—it also shapes the formation of the psyche. If norms are internalized, she argues, then power is what creates the distinction between “interior and exterior life” (19). She writes, “Just as the subject is derived from conditions of power that precede it, so the psychic operation of the norm is derived, though not mechanically or predictably, from prior social operations” (21). Reflexivity is when the subject turns itself into an object of reflection (22), in which the Freudian drive and the Lacanian desire are in a constant tension with the desire for subjection itself (22). In order to become a working part of the social order everyone loses their unique inner drives or desires—or when they submit to dominant social and psychic order they suppress those original desires. In order to achieve the categorical status of a social individual every subject undergoes a dramatic loss.

The idea that complete subjection requires “mastery” is fascinating. Butler writes, “The more a practice is mastered, the more fully subjection is achieved…Though one might expect submission to consists in yielding to an externally imposed dominant order and to be marked by a loss of control and mastery, paradoxically, it is itself marked by mastery” (116). Here I think Butler pushes the argument beyond one of pure oppression to something that is even more ironic and insidious at the same time. By learning social codes, by learning from a young age who it is that holds power, when to cross the street, how to talk to authority, and the “proper” modes of interaction, every subject slowly masters his/her own subordination. A piano player can be seen as either a genius or a rigid slave to a particular set of routines. The same goes for a graduate student who, after years of reading the right books, parroting the right phrases and discourses, and turning in the proper papers at the proper time, finally masters the system and obtains a PhD. However, what have they become at that point? What is lost?

Final point. Butler writes, “Psychoanalysis insists that the opacity of the unconscious sets limits to the exteriorization of the psyche. It also argues—rightly, I think—that what is exteriorized or performed can only be understood by reference to what is barred from performance, what cannot or will not be performed” (144-45). When it comes to subjection, socialization, and power, what is it that cannot be performed? How is power something that sets the stage—even for resistance—and bans certain ways of acting and thinking from the “acceptable” social order? To continue using graduate school as an example, what forms of behavior are restricted in this particular setting? Are students expressing resistance when they form on-campus clubs to discuss political action, or are they confined to a relatively safe place that cannot effectively infect the rest of the social order?* What forms of thought, which ways of thinking, are mastered in higher education? Are we all learning how to think differently, or are we all learning how to think and act within a certain prescribed social system that allows for long-winded discussions of agency and resistance within convenient time slots? Deep exploration and discussion about “what cannot or will not be performed” is encouraged, as long as, in the end, we all think within certain boundaries and turn in the right papers at the right time.


Jérémy M said...

Thanks for this Ryan. I am very ignorant about psychoanalysis (beyond Freud's "on Dreams"), but your post remains quite clear (except that I have no idea what Lacan's Real is yet).

How do you understand what Butler means by "exteriorization" of the psyche ? Is it the coming to awaraness of un/subconscious "thoughts" ? Or is it the performance of actions inspired or motivated by such thoughts ?

BTW, I thought there was an asterisk at the end of this phrase: "are they confined to a relatively safe place that cannot effectively infect the rest of the social order?*"

Is it a typo or did you drop a note ? (or is the asterisk a clue that this question is rhetorical ?)

I'd say the questions you ask are very important ones, pertaining to the very meaning of anthropology and other social sciences/humanities.

Will think and read about this further. Thanks again.

- And now, back to hopefully "infectious" activities ;) -

Ryan Anderson said...

Hey Jeremy!

Well, in all fairness I find Lacan's idea of "the real" to be a bit unclear myself...he calls it that which cannot be explained, described, or understood. Now THAT'S easy to talk about, eh? I basically understand it as that which exists outside of human symbolization and social construction. There is always something left over, something that exist outside of the ways in which we construct and order the world--that's basically "the real". Slavoj Zizek has some more interesting and clear ways of talking about this (we have read some excerpts from 'Looking Awry' that have been good for clarifying some of what Lacan is talking about).

I'm no expert, and have only read a little bit of this psychoanalysis stuff--it can be interesting but sometimes it seems to lead into some dead ends, IMO. Especially when certain assumptions don't really have any empirical grounding. In some cases, you either go with the starting assumptions or you don't.

"How do you understand what Butler means by "exteriorization" of the psyche ? Is it the coming to awaraness of un/subconscious "thoughts" ? Or is it the performance of actions inspired or motivated by such thoughts ?"

I think it's more along the lines of the latter--the performance or expression of inner subjectivities, thoughts, etc.

About that asterisk...I wish I had some phenomenal reason for it. But I don't. I initially wrote this for a seminar reaction, and the asterisk was just a note to my class about something the prof had mentioned. But now I'm going to leave it, just for fun. Maybe more people will wonder where the hell it leads...