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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 5. (pp. 191-193)
© 2004


The unhappy consciousness

To return to my question: who are the happy few? This question arises only indirectly in Butler, via the question 'who?'. She does not, however, enquire after subjects of happiness, but after subjects of desire, i.e.: all subjects. Desire is in principle never satisfied. In this sense happiness is fundamentally unachievable in Butler. Yet it appears a few times in her work, albeit principally through its opposite, 'unhappiness'.
   One of the contexts where this happens is due to Hegel. Butler associates herself with a tale about the relationship between lord and bondsman in which Hegel summarises his interpretation of the desire for the Absolute (Hegel 1988: 127-156 [109-131]). Hegel assumes a life-and-death struggle, in which the defeated party gets the opportunity to subject itself to the victor and serve the latter as a bondsman, instead of dying. Thus, a mutual dependence arises: not only is the bondsman's life in the lord's hands, but for his recognition the latter also needs the bondsman. It is true that through his labour, the bondsman enables the lord to enjoy the fruits of this labour, but such an existence through mere consumption makes the master dependent and ensures the servant a certain independence vis-à-vis the things he labours at. Just like in the initial death-struggle, lord and bondsman still need each other's recognition. Self- consciousness which is aware of this inner duality and contradiction, is called by Hegel an unhappy consciousness [unglückliches Bewußtsein]. Butler discusses the association between lord and bondsman in Subjects of Desire without exploring this concept. She regards the relationship in question as a bodily paradox. The lord cannot become a pure subject by killing his own body, and therefore turns it into an instrument, into a bondsman. As such the body keeps on undermining the independence of the subject.
   In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler explicitly deals with the unhappy consciousness. That consciousness becomes aware of unhappiness is explained by Butler from the sceptical pleasure in subverting the certainties of others; the unhappy consciousness realises that the subversion affects itself as well. In Butler's words: 'The sadistic pleasure which looking at another gives, becomes in the 'mode of unhappiness' an unpleasant looking at oneself. […] The self which upheld its identity by seducing others to a state of contradiction, suddenly sees itself as one of the others; seeing itself from a distance not only leads to an unhappy consciousness, but also causes the pleasure of the sceptic to turn to pain.' (1997a: 45). To be affected oneself by the impossibility of a pure, unchangeable and incorporeal identity, and therefore not being able to conform to the norm, leads to the above-mentioned foreclosure and self-punishment.
   The logic of Hegel's argument according to Butler would lead one to expect that the development remains open, so that the pain would enable new pleasure and renewed self-assurance. But that is not the course followed by Hegel in this case. Instead he aims at a religious solution in the Spirit. This holds the promise that the pain will be rewarded with eternal happiness, the reverse of the current misery. No longer does pleasure emerge from anxiety and pain, but it comes to oppose them. From Foucault and psychoanalysis Butler plots a course which she regards as more Hegelian than Hegel. Repressive norms do not stand outside repressed desire, but are exactly repressive in so far as they take part in that desire. It is exactly as a productive aspect of repression that desire, the body and pleasure impose themselves. While Hegel's 'happiness' is similar to Lacan's primal pleasure, albeit not projected into some past but into a future which one repeatedly strives for without a chance of success, Butler's argument suggests that every interpellation of the subject makes consciousness both happy and unhappy, with one and the same move. Repressive power is productive power as well. Happiness can only be found in unhappiness, in the changeability with which it repeats itself. Butler however nowhere expresses this literally, which makes it likely that she would speak of pleasure, in the sense of lust and fun, rather than happiness, in this context.

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