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Niels Helsloot Niels Helsloot


Niels Helsloot, 'Who are the happy few? Judith Butler's constructive desire'.
Translation by Johan van Es.
Section 4. (pp. 188-190)
© 2004


Impossible existence

Although Butler's argumentation agrees more with a 'Nietzschean' like Foucault than with a 'Freudian' like Lacan, her attention is devoted more to Lacan. In The Psychic Life of Power she brings the two into discussion. From Foucault's perspective she opposes Lacan in that his assumption of a primal pleasure made inaccessible by universal laws implies a theoretical immobilization of the historical development of language and culture. As an objection to Foucault she states that he wants to have his cake and eat it by regarding such fixations of historical changeability as a repressive exercise of power and subsequently rejecting this repression as an attack on an original multiformity which would be no more subject to change itself. [*] However, even if the exercise of power is understood as something productive, it still has repressive aspects. Foucault's theory of power ignores these. A psychoanalytic perspective casts more light on those aspects, as Freud, besides the suppression of aspects of an existing subject (repression), also recognises a form of suppression which operates already during the formation of the subject in the process of its becoming (foreclosure, see Butler, Laclau and Žižek 2000: 148-158).
   Power has great psychic consequences precisely to the subject that is not completely formed. This is the central theme of The Psychic Life of Power: the problem that one isn't just subject to a power beyond oneself, but that one's whole existence depends on it. This is what makes children vulnerable and susceptible to abuse of power. But if the subject is in a continuous state of becoming, and is all the time interpellated by repetitive performatives, the violence never ceases. Out of its dependence it clamps onto its subjection. This leads to rejection of what is culturally incomprehensible. As opposed to the repression of excluded forms of love, foreclosure implies that one cannot exist psychically without losing the object of love completely. The loss cannot even be mourned, because there has never been opportunity to acknowledge it: what is lost never had a right to exist. This leads to a melancholic ambiguity in the subject taking the place of its original loss. Love and desire become inextricably bound to aggression and hate, so that the identity of the subject itself continually runs the risk of becoming incoherent and incomprehensible. In as far as Butler's earlier work could create the impression that travesty is a riskless or even hilarious dress party, she now makes it painfully clear that the parodying repetition of the norm not only delivers pleasure in contravention and relief at the dissolution of the norm, but also fear of punishment, self-condemnation, feelings of guilt and destruction of self-esteem.
   In a written discussion with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek which she had after The Psychic Life of Power, Butler offers a critical addition along these lines to her initial hope for the subversive travesty of universal claims. In her eyes, this hope took too little account of the influence of the denial of desire during the performative development of gender identity. Instead, she now argues that the repetition of claims of universality continually requires translation into the concrete cultural contexts in which their validity is claimed (cf. Butler, Laclau and Žižek 2000: 35-37, 162-169). Already in Gender Trouble Butler advocated a coalitional politics which would allow the co-existence of different forms of 'femininity' without appealing to an overarching belief in 'women' (1999b: 20-22). A coalition between different minorities could now be worked out by creating translations between their objectives (for example between the struggle against racism and the campaign against homophobia). As a 'radically democratic' contribution to the struggle for hegemony (cf. Laclau and Mouffe 1985), 'translation' remains an open process, of which the success can never be assured (cf. Helsloot 1989: 562-564).

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   *   This judgement applies especially to the English translation of Foucault: in the incomprehensible yet consequential reference to 'a world of pleasures in which grins hang about without the cat' (Butler 1999b: 32), grins will not be the translation of sourires (smiles), but of souris (mice): if the cat's away, the mice will play – but the cat of course returns!

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