Part Two of my Response
An interesting quote follows:
I think this establishes quite well how much of the
>>discussion thus far, as Butler puts it "misses the point".
>Absolutely not, it merely reinforces it. Since what is 'outside' of
>discourse is only outside by virtue of its exclusion from those discourses,
>that is a human act, not by virtue of its alterity. So it is Butler who has
>missed the point, mainly I would argue because she has a simplistic version
>of the relationship between knowlege, and that to which it is puported
>knowledge of. Still, the charge of idealism still stands because that which
>is outside of the discourse is outside only by virtue of its human

Yet again your "absolutely not", with Butler reinforcing linguistic
idealism, imputes to her a view of discourse as a "human act" which time and
again throughout Bodies That Matter she rejects. It is precisely its
alterity she is interested in, although perhaps not in the sense you are
after i.e some kind of almost absolute alterity that falls outside the
discursive? Her understanding of citationality and performativity
foregrounds the limits of discursive production. But she does not situate
such limits outside of the social, but rather as a "variable boundary set
and reset by specific political investments?" (20). The real and materiality
are quite often mobilised as Butler says "outside all argumentation" (21,
here she is refering to Zizek's work). I think your understanding of
alterity (perhaps you could clarify that status of the alterity you are
interested in) may well be working in such a way--- to guarantee a position
supported by the real, beyond dispute, and from which you can level claims
of idealism, linguistic gymnastics... Does not your line between discourse
and 'things' itself constitute a discursive construction? Butler points out
that she is interested in examining the status and effects of such efforts
to impose an irreducible materiality: "What occupies this site of
unconstructed materiality? And what kinds of constructions are foreclosed
through the figuring of this site as outside or beneath construction
itself?". She argues that this scenography and topography of construction
"is orchestrated by and as a matrix of power that remains disarticulated if
we presume constructedness and materiality as necessarily oppositional
notions" (28). This is a key point; it is not 'linguistic gymnastics' but
concerns the power relations, the politics, involved in attempts to situate
particular discursive practices on the side of an unconstructed materiality
or real. Butler's thesis made again and again is not that there is no
extra-discursive or real but the more interesting point that we do not have
to presume materiality\real on one side and discourse, the human (as you put
it), the real on the other; but to "free it from its metaphysical lodgings
in order to understand what political interests were secured in and by that
metaphysical placing, and therby to permit the term to occupy and to serve
very different political aims". Her point is that the extra-discursive "is
always posited or signified as prior. This signification produces as an
effect of its own procedure the very body that it nevertheless and
simultaneously claims to discover as that which precedes its own action"
(30). This is rather different than saying that there is no
extra-discursive-- it takes seriously the materiality of discourse, that
materiality is "bound up with signification from the start.... To posit by
way of language a materiality outside of language is still to posit that
ateriality, and the materiality so posited will retain that positing as its
constitutive condition" (30).

>I'm unsure as to what the term 'limited conceptions' applies to here? But on
>one reading it's unobjectionable to me. Life and humanity are contingent
>factors in existence and given the unpredicability of quantum forms then
>matter could always have emerged differently. But I don't see the point of
>the argument. because given that it has emerged as it has we have to deal
>with it and its powers and tendencies as they manifest themselves now, not
>ignore them or think that we are so in control that we can simply change
>them by changing our discourses of them. Of course, this leaves
>underdeveloped what exactly discourses are. But widen the concept too far
>and it becomes meaningless. All is discourse.

By limited conceptions I mean the effort to constantly reposition Butler
within an opposition between discursive construction/extra-discursive. Again
you seem to think that Butler has a human subject that can simply alter
things by changing discourse. She points out throughout the work that
"constructivism" should not be mistaken for a freedom of the subject to
"form her/his sexuality as s/he pleases" (94). Discourse, for Butler,
imposes constraints and limitations to what possibilities of sexuality can
be imagined. But because these constraints are worked through performativity
and repetition it is not fully determining but simultaneously generates
'failures' that exceed such constraints (i'll leave this for now--- to
develop it further would require a discussion of Butler's use of notions
such as citation and iterability). The point is that a 'we' outside of
discourse does not change them, but discursive power generates possibilities
for rearticulating such constraints.

>Well, again, if you give this argument a non-human spin I have no objection
>to it. However matter was formed, humans, chronologicaly speaking, are but a
>blip on its b****m, we encounter it as a set of restraining factors that we
>would do well to acknowledge. Were a species to emerge that consistently
>denied the reality of materiality it wouldn't be around long to construct
>discourses about it, would it?

See previous comments. I think Butler's argument that such distinctions
between human/non-human, materiality/discourse rely on a signifying practice
would apply here. I'm interested in your response to this. And again I think
Butler does give her understanding of discursive construction an
anti-humanist spin in that she is not presuming a human actor doing the
construction, positioned outside of discourse. But perhaps you do not mean
this by non-human?

>On this I am with you. I certainly don't want to buy into simple
>distinctions between the real and the ideal. Both are potentially causally
>effective in human affairs and both need to be theorised. Still, there is,
>is there not, a difference between the elephants I saw last night, which
>were pink by the way, and probably due to the amounts of alchohol I
>consumed, and those raoming around Africa?

Your elephants are doing some interesting work here. First, to argue that
these elephants are discursive constructions does not mean that they are the
same or there is no difference. Are you implying that the elephants roaming
around Africa are real and material whilst the pink elephants are
discursive? Your elephants in Africa I think make Butler's point regarding
iterability, citation quite well. I could have some fun with this
(linguistic gymnastics?). They are having some quite interesting discursive
effects--- securing a position in the real for your argument, perhaps. I
will take up this in another post. I'm thinking about working through this
in relation to Butler's engagement with the work of Slavoj Zizek (the
chapter "Arguing with the Real" 187-222). What do you think of Zizek's
notion of a real that cannot be symbolised, a radical alterity or negativity
that exceeds and marks the limit of the symbolic, a "rock" or "kernel" that
resists symbolisation and discourse. Is this the conception of alterity that
you are after? Butler's problem with this is that it excludes the status of
this real from the social, political domain. It works discursively to secure
Zizek a ground from which he can critique the poststructuralists,
historicizing feminists, sadomasochistic Foucaultians..." (200). This move
(and I think it is alot more interesting than simply linguistic gymnastics)
forecloses the status of this real as a political signifier. It attempts to
secure the boundary between symbolization, discourse and the 'real'.
Although you might not consider this to be a problem. The point raised by
Butler is that this attempts to secure for Zizek the ability to speak the
real: "it is Zizek who, it seems, receives the word from the rock, and
brings it down the mountain to us" (201). Are your elephants in Africa
working to similar effect. I'm not sure. Is it a rhetorical move that
positions Butler in denial, seeking to escape the materiality of the real,
which you are the spokesperson for. As Butler puts it in relation to Zizek's
work "what is the rhetorical status of the metatheoretical claim which
symbolizes the real for us" (207). To symbolise the real, or elephants in
Africa for that matter as that which resists discursive construction, "is
still to symbolize the real as a kind of resistance" (207)

One last quote to think about: "What counts as the 'real', in the sense of
the unsymbolizable, is always relative to a linguistic domain that
authorizes and produces that foreclosure, and achieves that effect through
producing and policing a set of constitutive exclusions" (207). I'm
wondering if your 'elephants' are working such a policing?
>I am probably simplifying to some extent much of the discussion
>>to date, but i have been struck by the generalising tone and a failure to
>>engage in any detail with how Butler is mobilising these terms.
>This is where my major disagreement comes, because the simple mobilisation
>of concepts does not necesarily lead to them being useful ones or being able
>to bear the weight that is being asked of them. Whether or not Butler
>succeeds is not a question that can be answered by blithey saying she is
>using concepts differently. Concepts, much like materiality, are not always
>up to the tasks for which they are employed. Butler does not avoid a charge
>simply be asserting her innocence.

I do not think Butler's mobilisation of these concepts is at all simple.
Although my initial comments (previous post) probably were. And I agree that
Butler does not avoid a charge simply by asserting her innocence. But I
think the politics of the charge being levelled is quite interesting. For
example, framing her as promoting a human discourse grounded in human acts.
An interesting 'misreading' that has discursive effects a little more
material, or at least material implications, that 'linguistic gymnastics'
does not quite get at. And please note that I am not simply saying you have
got Butler wrong; the dynamics at work here are alot more interesting than that?

I am interested in the status of the alterity (non-human) you propose? Could
you develop on this a little please.

One last point, should I be pursuing this discussion on the list, as it does
not really directly engage with Foucault's work?

I look forward to your response

John Banks

  • Re: Discourse
    • From: Gregory A. Coolidge
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