Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory

By Stephen K. White | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
JUDITH BUTLER'S BEING-IN-TROUBLE

A GUIDING IMPERATIVE of Judith Butler's thought is the commitment to “a problematizing suspension of the ontological.” Drawing upon the momentum of both feminist and poststructuralist thought, she understands her task to be an “interrogation of the construction and circulation” of ontological claims. By this, she means an investigation of the multitude of ways in which notions of being have traditionally been construed as “pre-linguistic” or “pre-given” and thus as having a kind of privileged, uncontestable status in accounts of subjectivity, society, and politics.1 When an account is rooted in an “ontological essentialism” or “metaphysics of substance,” Butler contends, there is an occlusion of power, for such ontology invariably contains a “normative injunction that operates insidiously by installing itself into political discourse as its necessary ground.”2 This allows categories of identity, for example gender, to present themselves as beyond contestation.

In the wake of Foucault, the deployment of philosophical efforts to expose power in inconspicuous places is, of course, familiar. But Butler's efforts display a number of characteristics that give it a real distinctiveness. For one thing, her unmasking operation unfolds through a perspective that goes a good bit beyond Foucault in its understanding of language and power. An analysis of this perspective and how it enables her critique of ontological essentialism, especially as it has appeared in feminism, will be my entry point for taking up the issue of Butler's own affirmation of an alternative ontology (section 4.1).

The following abbreviations will be used for referring to Butler's books:

____________________
1
Judith Butler, “The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess,” Differences 2 no. 2 (1990): 105-6.
2
GT, 16, 20; BTM, 219.

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