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Feminist Theory
2014, Vol. 15(1) 89–100
Judith Butler’s post-Hegelian ! The Author(s) 2014
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ethics and the problem with
DOI: 10.1177/1464700113512738

Hannah Stark
University of Tasmania, Australia

Judith Butler’s recent work is exemplary of the trend in contemporary theory to con-
sider ethics. Her deliberation over ethical questions, and the place of ethics in intellec-
tual work, has undeniably intensified since September 11. This article will demonstrate,
however, that this is a rendering explicit of what has always been implicit in her work.
Rather than perceiving the ethical dimension of Butler’s writings in her increasing inter-
est in thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt, I contend that it is in her
sustained interest in Hegel, and specifically in Hegelian recognition, that her work can
be read as engaged with ethical concerns. This article highlights the growing critical
concern with the prevalence of recognition in ethical theory and questions the possi-
bility of theorising ethics outside of the recognition-paradigm.

Difference, ethical turn, ethics, Judith Butler, recognition, subjectivity

In the year 2000 Judith Butler acknowledged her ambivalence about the return to
ethics, fearing that it would engender a turn away from politics and an intensifi-
cation of moralism (2000a: 15).1 Despite this ambivalence, or, perhaps, because of
it, the corpus of her work is pervaded by an ethically vexed tone. Her deliberation
over ethical questions, and the place of ethics in intellectual work, has undeniably
intensified since September 11. This article will demonstrate, however, that this is a
rendering explicit of what has always been implicit in her work. Rather than
perceiving the ethical dimension of Butler’s writings in her increasing interest in
thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt, I contend that it is in her
sustained interest in Hegel, and specifically in Hegelian recognition, that her work
can be read as engaged with ethical concerns. In this article I investigate the

Corresponding author:
Hannah Stark, School of Humanities, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 41, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia.

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90 Feminist Theory 15(1)

pervasiveness of Hegelian recognition in Butler’s work and the post-Hegelian eth-

ical framework that she arrives at. This has a broader significance because Butler’s
work is exemplary of a larger recourse to Hegelian recognition in contemporary
theory, as can be seen in the work of such thinkers as Paul Ricoeur, Nancy Fraser,
Axel Honneth, Charles Taylor and Jean-Luc Nancy. ‘‘‘Recognition’’ has become a
keyword of our time’ Fraser and Honneth observe: as ‘a venerable category of
Hegelian philosophy, recently resuscitated by political theorists, this notion is
proving central to efforts to conceptualize today’s struggles over identity and dif-
ference’ (2003: 1). Interrogating Butler’s use of recognition is imperative to feminist
theory, not only because of the centrality of identity, difference and subjectivity to
feminist concerns but also because of her position within feminist and other intel-
lectual debate. This article highlights the growing critical concern with the preva-
lence of recognition in ethical theory and questions the possibility of theorising
ethics outside of the recognition-paradigm. The argument moves from a discussion
of the place of Hegel in Butler’s writing, to an examination of the implications of
her use of Hegelian recognition for the ethics that is emerging in her work, before
looking at the mounting critical concern with recognition more broadly.
Butler can be described as foundationally concerned with Hegel, in that her first
monograph examines the twentieth-century French reception of his work. I argue
that this engagement scaffolds her political project which she acknowledges
revolves around a set of concerns prompted by Hegel’s legacy (Butler, 1999b:
xiv). In the preface to the re-released edition of Subjects of Desire in 1999, Butler
defends Hegelian subjectivity, writing that the question to which she returns in her
work is: ‘What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the
constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?’
(1999b: xiv). Butler’s rendering of this model of subjectivity is complex because it
envisages the Hegelian subject as the product of a historical trajectory that was
initiated by Hegel but has been perpetuated subsequently by his interpreters, and to
which she contributes her own complex reading.2 The purpose of outlining Butler’s
interest in this model of subjectivity in her earlier work is to emphasise her subse-
quent examination of these concerns in the last decade.3
Butler’s subject is etymologically ‘ec-static’: it is outside of itself.4 In Subjects of
Desire, Butler renders desire as ecstasy because it motivates the subject to pursue
what it lacks, which is, of necessity, outside of itself. Driven into interactions with
others and with its environment, this subject’s identity is mediated by the reflexivity
that being-outside-of-itself allows, and it can find itself only in this state. Butler
acknowledges the paradoxical nature of Hegel’s subject, which is isolated in its
pursuit of an autonomous self-consciousness while also and necessarily discovering
its identity through relating to others (1999b: 4). She describes this subject’s inter-
actions with its surroundings as a double process of assimilation and projection. As
a result, Hegel’s subject internalises otherness while simultaneously externalising
itself (Butler, 1999b: 42). Consequently, the porous boundary between what the
subject is and what it is not drives it into a constant state of becoming in which it
will always remain incomplete.

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Stark 91

Because, in a Hegelian sense, recognition is the regulatory matrix that structures

the relation of the subject to its surroundings, Butler positions it as the very con-
dition for the subject’s existence.5 Nancy Fraser attributes to Hegelian origins the
notion of recognition as a marker of intersubjectivity, and in this way she positions
it as at odds with liberal individualism. Recognition implies, she writes, ‘that social
relations are prior to individuals and intersubjectivity is prior to subjectivity’
(Fraser, 2003: 10). This reveals the multiple levels at which recognition operates.
It is at once the ability to recognise the self as a subject, the conferring of recog-
nition on others, and recognition or legitimation from the State. Hegel’s subject
achieves recognition partly by finding itself reflected in the world and partly
through being recognised by others. Ultimately this subject finds a reflection of
itself by recognising that the other is not only likewise struggling for self-conscious-
ness but is also a desiring being. In this way, Butler writes, the desire of Hegel’s
subject is ‘always the desire-for-reflection, the pursuit of identity in what appears to
be different’ (1999b: 7). She describes this subject as simultaneously discovering its
identity and finding its metaphysical place in the world, which, by reflecting the
subject back to itself, implies the existence of an ‘ontological relatedness’ (Butler,
1999b: 8) between them. It is because this subject continuously internalises differ-
ence that Butler writes of it as the aggregate of everything it encounters (1999b: 6).
For Butler’s subject it is the negative that marks an opening between the self
and the world and forces the subject into constitutive relational engagement
against what it is not.6 Butler follows Alexandre Kojève’s (1980) and Jean
Hyppolite’s (1974) reading of Hegel’s subject, which prevents it from arriving at
an absolute identity through the relation to this exteriority. It is because she thinks
that the unity between the subject and the world (absolute knowledge of the world)
is impossible that she regards the Hegelian subject as a conflicted site – split
between the metaphysical closure signalled by the satisfaction of desire, and the
necessary openness of this system indicated by the labour of the negative (Butler,
1999b: 13–14). The notion of interior and exterior is made problematic here as can
be seen in Hegel’s Phenomenology: for although initially it may appear that the
negative is what is external to the subject because it is excluded, it is actually
internal to the subject because of its constitutive function (1977: 21). Situated on
the cusp of differing from itself, this subject is kept fundamentally unsatisfied.
Condemned by the negative to engage in the endless process of becoming
undone, the subject is motivated to pursue the conditions of its own re-making.
Although it desires recognition in order to be constituted and confirmed as a
subject, Butler explains, it is actually the act of recognition which alters the subject
(2005: 28).
Mediated through Hegel, Butler’s notion of becoming is generated through
negation, which ensures that everything is constituted in opposition to what it is
not. This subject-in-process can never return to how it was prior to a particular
interaction with difference because the experience of alterity disrupts its coherence.
As a result, it changes fundamentally and irreversibly. Butler argues that at the
point of engagement the subject does not simply turn difference into identity, but

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92 Feminist Theory 15(1)

rather realises – at the very moment its identity would cohere – that it cannot return
to its prior state. The foundational moment of identity thus entails self-loss, and
reveals a ‘subject that cannot remain bounded in the face of the world’ (1999b: xv).
Moya Lloyd describes Butler’s dialectic as ‘non-synthetic’, because it refuses dia-
lectic synthesis. This dialectic can therefore be seen as a constant conflict without
the possibility of resolution into identity through the overcoming of difference.
Lloyd continues that this is what enables Butler to prioritise difference over identity
(2007: 19).7
Butler’s early interest in the relationship between recognition and community is
evident in Subjects of Desire although this book can be described as more philo-
sophical than political or ethical. Because existence is confirmed by the ‘acknowl-
edging look of the Other’, she writes, ‘[t]rue subjectivities come to flourish only in
communities that provide for reciprocal recognition’ (Butler, 1999b: 58). In prioritis-
ing the foundational nature of intersubjectivity for the constitution of the subject,
Butler highlights our essential dependence on others. In Frames of War, she explains
that this is because the Hegelian process of relation ensures that ‘the subject that I am
is bound to the subject I am not’ (Butler, 2009: 43). This foundational binding not
only underpins her theory of how subjectivity relates to alterity but also foreshadows
her later political focus on intersubjectivity as a locus of ethical engagement. In
driving the subject into relation with others, it is its unfinished nature that can be
seen to mark the conditions under which it is in community.
Butler gives our binding to others ontological priority. Contextualised with
Jean-Luc Nancy’s claim in relation to Hegelian subjectivity that ‘I am unbound
of myself’ (2002: 37), this focus suggests that ecstatic undoing occurs precisely in
the binding of ourselves to others. Constituted by our ties to each other, ontologic-
ally ‘the forming and un-forming of such bonds is prior to any question of the
subject and is, in fact, the social and affective condition of subjectivity’ (Butler,
2009: 182–183). This is why Butler speaks only of the ‘social ontology of the sub-
ject’ (2009: 147, emphasis mine). It is not only to suggest that particular connec-
tions form and un-form us, but rather that the mere possibility of our connection to
others (which does not presume an actual encounter) is central to our sense of self
and our existence as a subject. This relational structure is beyond individual choice:
there is no possibility of existing without the impingement of others on our lives.
As a result, although a particular ‘you’ may be lost, the possibility of an ‘indexical
you’ remains and it is this you ‘without whom I cannot be’ (Butler, 2009: 44). It is
not surprising, then, that Butler’s recent work has turned to ethical concerns.
The ecstatic nature of the subject is examined in ‘Beside Oneself’, in which Butler
utilises grief to illustrate how undeniable intersubjectivity is. In its connection to
others, Butler’s subject always vacillates between ‘loss and ecstasy’ (2005: 28).
Implicit in the examination of grief is the differential treatment of a grievable
life. Returning to the notion of ecstasy, Butler theorises the relational structures
which both constitute and undo identity.8 As an ecstatic state, loss is transforma-
tive. The grief that follows the rupture caused by loss demonstrates both the
undoing of the subject and that fundamental reliance on others that continues

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Stark 93

from infancy. The experience of grief lays bare the ways in which we are enmeshed
in relational structures that are centrally important to our sense of self. Grief also
implies the prior ecstatic relations that structure desire and love. ‘Let’s face it’,
Butler insists, ‘We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing some-
thing. And if this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was
already the case with desire’ (2004: 19). This is an explicitly political statement not
only because she is theorising loss in relation to AIDS deaths and American politics
post-9/11, but also because this reveals something about our ties to others, the
kinds of community that such ties constitute, and the ethical responsibility they
Butler insists that this intersubjective embodied sociality is ‘fundamental’
(2004: 22). The political motivation in her more recent work on recognition is evident
notably in Bodies that Matter (1993), in which she asks why some bodies are assumed
to be more important than others. This question is part of a broad Hegelian agenda
as its concern is: who is protected by recognition and who comes to occupy the
position of negativity by being designated unrecognisable? Examining the embodied
nature of recognition is her supplement to Hegelian subjectivity because, as she
concedes, there is little mention of embodiment in Hegel’s work except as the con-
tainer of consciousness (Butler, 1997b: 34). As the site where we are exposed to one
another, the body is important for experiences of pleasure and pain but also for
recognition, and the policing and challenging of norms. As the location of corporeal
normalisation and resistance, the body also registers failures in both. The pre-text of
Butler’s contention in ‘Beside Oneself’, that the body comes into being through
sociality, is her argument in Bodies that Matter (1993) that the body is never prior
to discourse or society. In being embodied, the subject is always ‘given over’ (Butler,
2005: 101) to the other in a way that it cannot choose or control.
Embodiment is evidence of a common corporeal vulnerability in Butler’s more
recent work, as can be seen in her repeated evocation of the precariousness of
life. Vulnerability is a political tool because it enables us to understand our
implication in the lives of others who are similarly embodied and exposed. To
envisage the world in this way appeals to our proximity to others and disrupts
the subject’s sovereignty. This view is commensurate with Jean-Luc Nancy’s
notion of the ‘trembling subject’: ‘I cannot stop trembling before the other,
and even further, at being in myself the trembling that the other stirs up’
(Nancy, 2002: 45). Nancy’s reading of the Hegelian subject evokes that precar-
iousness of our relations which frames Butler’s discussion of the ‘constitutive
sociality of the self’ (Butler, 2004: 19).
Focusing on community, Butler asks how the act of recognition in our inter-
subjective relations creates and polices the categorical distinction between the
human and the less-than-human. The Hegelian tradition, she concludes, ignores
the fact that the category of the human is an exclusionary mechanism for confer-
ring humanness on some while depriving others of its status (Butler, 2004: 2). Her
epistemological critique of Hegel is central to her ethics and an ongoing concern in
her work. This is evident in her discussion of how the politics of inclusion structure

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94 Feminist Theory 15(1)

our concepts of both ‘woman’ and ‘universality’.9 Heavily influenced by Michel

Foucault, she theorises recognition as a site of power through which the regulatory
operation of norms enables such categories to be produced and undone. To be
possible in this context is to be recognisable, which means that existence is subject
to pre-existent norms. This subject is therefore constituted as human by external
norms, which by putting it outside of itself, reminds us of its ecstatic nature. What
this means, Butler suggests, is that we negotiate the human at moments of ecstasy
(2004: 31–33).
Butler’s ethical project is to expand those ‘grids of intelligibility’ which designate
the recognisably human. ‘What might it mean’, she asks, ‘to feel the surety of one’s
epistemological and ontological anchor go, but to be willing, in the name of the
human, to allow the human to become something other than what it is traditionally
assumed to be?’ (2004: 35). This is the hope in Butler’s use of recognition and the
point at which our relations to others become ethical. Far from resulting in ‘reduc-
tive relativism’ (Butler, 2004: 37), it would involve revitalising the category of the
human through constant critique. Central to her political project is the fundamen-
tal unknowability of what might constitute the human. In ‘Restaging the Universal’
she describes the gap between a conceptual category and its actualisation as its
‘futural promise’ (Butler, 2000b: 32). In Frames of War, Butler examines how being
is always in excess of the frame, and in her work this is often represented as failure
(2009: 9).10 The complexity of epistemology’s failure to contain ontology in a
totalising way, coupled with our inability to access ontology except through
social and political framing, contributes to the contingency of identity which
Butler prioritises.
Developing this idea in Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), Butler argues that
we should accept the fact that the other is as contingent as the self. This text
examines the structure of address when the subject is called by another to account
for itself.11 A fundamental opacity of the subject is revealed at such moments,
because contingencies of memory and narrative prevent it from giving a totalising
account. What Butler sees herself as formulating is a post-Hegelian notion of rec-
ognition. While she acknowledges that the subject in Hegelian recognition is not
opaque, she argues for the unknowability of both ourselves and others as the
ethical component of recognition. In Butler’s ethics, the subject’s recognition of
its own contingency is something that it should credit the other with. For an
incoherent subject to require the other to maintain a coherent self-identity is a
form of ethical violence (Butler, 2005: 41–42).
In Butler’s formulation, an ethical relation to the other acknowledges the ‘epistemic
limits’ (2005: 43) which govern that relation, making the structure of recognition more
flexible. This is because the world the subject knows is not pre-given: instead, it is
brought into being through the act of engagement. ‘We do not remain the same’,
Butler writes, ‘and neither do our cognitive categories, as we enter into a knowing
encounter with the world. Both the knowing subject and the world are undone and
redone by the act of knowledge’ (Butler, 2000b: 19–20). Our epistemological structur-
ing of the world has a constitutive influence on its manifestation through both

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conformity and resistance. Ethics, for Butler, as the negotiation of recognition, is

therefore fundamentally linked to the modes of subjectivity which are possible.
For Butler, then, the subject does not contain an internal ethical core. Instead
the ethical site is at the limits of intelligibility, at the point where we negotiate with
what is outside our frames of knowledge. Here the subject encounters those alter-
ities which, displacing it from itself, make it ecstatic. It is for this reason that
Butler’s example of grief is apt; it demonstrates the rupture of subjective bound-
aries by an affective experience which not only cracks the subject open, but also
reveals that this subject was always already brittle. It is these states – grief, rage,
desire – in Butler’s work, that reveal the tenuous nature of the epistemological
structuring of recognition. It is because the subject is undone by the relationship
to alterity that Butler suggests there is a space where the categories of human and
nonhuman are negotiated. It is therefore the site of ‘our chance of becoming
human’ (Butler, 2005: 136). Butler’s ethical imperative is to redefine recognition
as fundamentally unsatisfiable and therefore open to alterity.
Butler’s work, and the ethical position that she adopts, is highly seductive.
Politically, it renders intimacy – how we are inextricably embedded in, and con-
stituted by, our relations to others – as fundamental to subjectivity and therefore
offers a model of personhood extricated from that of the liberal individual. This
calls us to account for the ways that we are connected to those with whom we daily
share bodily proximity, such as those to whom we are attached through kinship
and care-based structures. More significantly for ethical theory, it also establishes a
structure by which we need to maintain an openness to all potential others, includ-
ing those whom we have never met, because of our common humanity.
What I would question is the focus on recognition within her conception of
subjectivity and her explication of ethics. Although this post-Hegelian form of
recognition maintains an apparent flexibility, can it ever be truly adequate to the
absolute foreignness of alterity? The framework of recognition determines a rela-
tion between the subject and the other, rendering it as a specific form of sense-
making. Because the Butlerian subject comes into being through social norms, the
form that it will take reflects already existing frameworks: consequently, its possi-
bility for agency and resistance is to be found within these structures, never outside
them. The subversive repetition of a norm enables the subject to challenge its
stability. But such transformative resistance is wholly dependent on a sense-
making relation to already existing (although socially contingent) categories of
being. This means that subversive repetition is reliant on a context in which the
subversive act can be recognised as a form of subversion. Moreover, the capacity to
stretch the framework of recognition to its limits is dependent on the terms that are
made available through structural relations of recognition itself.12 As such, it is the
same normative framework that facilitates compliance with, and resistance to
norms. As Kathy Dow Magnus explains, ‘[t]he specific frame of reference within
which recognition takes place may be questioned, but even then, the framework
determines the kinds and forms of questions that may be raised’ (2006: 97). If this is
the case, then Butler’s work invites various questions. What does social recognition

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96 Feminist Theory 15(1)

mean for alterity? When social relations are processed through the matrix of rec-
ognition, what violence is done not only to the other but also to the subject? How
does this assume a specific subject capable of granting recognition to the other, and
an other who both requires and desires that recognition be granted? What ration-
ality does the structure of recognition assume? And, ultimately, what is the con-
ceptual cost of Hegelian recognition?
The stakes are high in this debate for imaginings of community. Recognition
has, of course, proved extremely useful for theorising intersubjectivity. The use-
value of recognition, according to Scott Lash and Mike Featherstone, is that it
provides a way to think about community so that recognition itself becomes the
source of the ‘social bond’ (2001: 14, emphasis in original). In this context recog-
nition can be seen to imply that there is commonality through difference. This can
be seen to have gained significance in relation to the identity politics of the 1980s
and 1990s. These political movements are, however, complicit with regimes of
visibility, so that recognition becomes coded as that which is visible and articulable
and what is beyond recognition is coded as invisible.13 In Butler’s work she argues
for the political importance of the visibility of minority groups and practices. For
example, in the 1999 preface to Gender Trouble she writes that although we need
not tolerate all minority sexual practices, we do need ‘to be able to think them
before we come to any kinds of conclusions about them’ (1999a: viii). Although I
acknowledge the importance of Butler’s concern with the erasure of minorities, I
am uneasy that in placing so much value on recognition and the rendering visible of
what the dominant order refuses to acknowledge, what is at risk of erasure is
actually difference, contradiction, and incoherence.
The Hegelian system of recognition has already been criticised by a range of
important contemporary thinkers. Elizabeth Grosz, for example, is extremely crit-
ical of recognition and of Butler’s reliance on this concept. ‘In spite of its place in
the rhetoric of radical politics since Hegel’, she writes, ‘recognition is the force of
conservatism, the tying of the new and the never-conceived to that which is already
cognized’ (Grosz, 2001: 103). Her claim here alludes to the most significant prob-
lem with recognition: that it requires that things which are fundamentally strange,
which we do not and cannot have knowledge of, be subjected to already existing
systems of meaning and value. The epistemological structure of thought categorises
and hierarchises being so that it is reduced to systems that pre-date the particular
encounter. Alain Badiou, like Elizabeth Grosz, is deeply critical of recognition:
‘[t]he truth is that, in the context of a system of thought that is both a-religious and
genuinely contemporary with the truths of our time, the whole ethical predication
based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned’
(Badiou, 2001: 25). The reason why this is important is that what is beyond our
recognition requires ethical valence.
The critique of recognition has important implications for theorising subjectiv-
ity, because, as Oliver comments, ‘theories of identity and subjectivity based on
recognition are implicit if not explicit in almost all types of contemporary theory’
(2001: 4). It is therefore central to thinking through both the apparent prevalence

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of Hegelian models of subjectivity and also the ethics which these models permit. The
recourse to the subject and the human in contemporary ethical work, and specifically
in Butler’s project, requires interrogation. The turn to ethics, and with it the rise of
interest in alterity and such humanistic terms as ‘friendship, hospitality, responsi-
bility, care, and love’ (2004: 685), is problematic, Rey Chow asserts, because what is
emphasised in ‘so many forms of mea culpa, self-analysis, self-reflexivity, and self-
admonition’, is ‘the self, the subject, the centre, and the origin that is the West’ (2004:
685). Examining the kinds of subjectivity that are supported in different ways of
theorising ethics is important because this is related to the ways in which intersub-
jectivity, otherness, and difference are imagined. Attridge alludes to the impact that
recognition has on the figure of the Other. He states that ‘insofar as I apprehend the
already existing other, it is not other: I recognize the familiar contours of a human
being, which is to say I accommodate him or her to my existing schemata’ (Attridge,
1999: 24). Oliver asks if we can even imagine intersubjectivity outside of the ‘warring
struggle’ of the Hegelian recognition-paradigm (2001: 6). Answering this question is
central to thinking through both the dominance of Hegelian models of subjectivity
and also the ethics which these models permit.
This also has important implications for feminism. In Becoming Undone,
Elizabeth Grosz insists that even though the struggle for recognition has historic-
ally been a central prerogative for feminists, moving beyond recognition and the
predominance of the subject must become a driving force for feminist theory (2011:
84). ‘At its best,’ she writes, ‘feminist theory has the potential to make us become
other than ourselves, to make us unrecognizable’ (Grosz, 2011: 87). This focus on
what is beyond recognition sits Grosz’s work in stark contrast with Butler’s. It also
invites questions about the kinds of ethics and politics, and specifically the forms of
feminism, which might be possible beyond the Hegelian model. It is worth con-
sidering what feminism beyond recognition might look like and whether we would
even know it when we saw it. This might require us to find new resources for
feminist theory in the work of philosophers who offer a critique of Hegel and of
Hegelian recognition (Gilles Deleuze comes to mind).
Butler’s work is exemplary of a larger trend in critical theory, both in her ethical
concerns and also in the Hegelian foundation of these concerns. I believe that we
must go beyond Hegelian recognition in order to encounter what is unknown in the
world and that this is the basis of ethics. The criticism of recognition has already
started in academic debate and it is gaining momentum. This critique of recogni-
tion is imperative because it is the first step in rethinking difference, identity and
political community. Moving beyond recognition enables new conceptualisations
of ethics, which may facilitate an opening to the unknown.

I would like to thank Jessica Murrell – my first and best reader – for her generous reading
(and re-reading) of this piece. I would like to acknowledge Ken Ruthven, Mandy Treagus
and the anonymous reviewers at Feminist Theory for their helpful and insightful comments
and suggestions.

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1. The ethical ‘turn’, which has become apparent in contemporary critical theory, phil-
osophy, and literary theory, is conventionally dated from the controversy surrounding
Paul de Man’s apparent support of National Socialism in 1987 and Jacques Derrida’s
insistence that justice be exempt from deconstruction (1992: 15). The increasing
importance of ethics in Humanities scholarship, and particularly in literary criticism,
is evident, for example, in the inclusion of Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s entry on this
matter in the 1995 updated edition of Lentricchia and McLaughlin’s Critical Terms for
Literary Study, the first edition of which was published in 1990.
2. The influence on Butler of Kojève, Hyppolite and Sartre is particularly significant
because their treatment of Hegel was the subject of her doctoral thesis, which she
later revised and extended for publication as Subjects of Desire.
3. On the thematic repetition in her work Butler has commented in an interview ‘I return to
the same problems again and again, in different ways and in different contexts’. See
Zajdermann (2006).
4. Lloyd argues that Butler is able to render Hegel’s subject as ‘ecstatic’ only because her
deliberately partial reading of Phenomenology of Spirit refuses the metaphysical closure
achieved by the unity of subject and substance (Lloyd, 2007: 15).
5. Butler aligns this desire for recognition with Spinoza’s conatus. To persist in one’s own
being, she argues, is to be recognised. An unrecognisable being lacks possibility, and
only possible beings are capable of persistence. To not meet the normative requirements
for recognition is therefore to be negated in a literal sense (Butler, 2004: 31).
6. Butler attributes the French interest in Hegel during the 1930s and 1940s to a desire to
find new life in the concept of negation after the First World War, and the eventual
outbreak of another. ‘The negative’, she writes, ‘is also human freedom, human desire,
the possibility to create anew; the nothingness to which human life had been consigned
was thus at once the possibility of its renewal . . . The negative showed itself in Hegelian
terms not merely as death, but as a sustained possibility of becoming’ (Butler, 1999b: 62,
emphasis in original).
7. Butler’s positioning in critical and political theory as central to the politics of difference,
as well as her foundational role in queer theory, can be seen to support a reading of the
vitality of her concepts of difference and identity.
8. The ‘ecstatic’ nature of subjectivity is evident in Butler’s rejection of the autonomous
subject which was central to her work in the 1990s, as for her the subject has never
possessed an interior agency but has always found itself in the external structures of
language, discourse and power which it then internalises. To describe this as a ‘return’ is
to highlight her re-adoption of her earlier terminology.
9. See ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘‘Postmodernism’’’
(Butler, 1995) and ‘Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism’
(Butler, 2000b) respectively.
10. Butler also contextualises this with her work on gender. She comments, ‘gender is
always a failure. Everyone fails. And it is a very good thing that we fail’. See
Zajdermann (2006).
11. This continues Butler’s earlier examination of the structures of address in Excitable
Speech (1997a), which draws on Althusser’s notion of interpellation and the speech
act theory of J. L. Austin. Giving an Account of Oneself is preoccupied with the structure
of address as an ethical site.

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12. I thank one of the anonymous reviewers at Feminist Theory for raising this point. For a
further critique of subversive repetition in Butler’s work see Saba Mahmood’s Politics of
Piety (2005).
13. A contemporary example of the correlation of identity politics and visibility is activism
around marriage equality. Gay marriage is of course an important step for the legal and
political rights of same-sex attracted people. However, the way that this debate has been
staged in the media and in celebrity culture has been premised on the rendering visible of
gay and lesbian identity and same-sex relationships. For example, in my own context of
Australia, the comedian Magda Szubanski ‘came out’, thus rendering her identity as a
lesbian visible, as a way of supporting marriage equality. Marriage is itself a form of
rendering visible in which public recognition of a relationship and its official documen-
tation occurs. While this visibility is important it also contributes to the rendering invisible
of relationship practices that fall outside of the recognisable structure of marriage.

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