Naming Subjects

Naming Subjects

In a comment and a subsequent follow-up blog post, Samantha Blackmon has made me want to try to write out some thoughts on naming and subjection. While I haven’t read the Judith Butler she mentions, I have read enough to make some observations. Many of my colleagues have wondered why I would be interested in queer theory (given that I’m not queer and am only peripherally interested in gender or race theories). The simple answer is that I think it provides a more comprehensive framework for considering the problematic nature of representation than materialist or social constructionist approaches. I like to have a fat tool-kit. I think queer theory is, despite its dizzying array of perspectives, one of the most vital areas in criticism today.

From what I know of Butler, there is a profound shift in what she considers the ground-zero of subjection. In her doctoral thesis (reworked into Subjects of Desire) she looks at the construction of identity from the standpoint of internal processes. In Gender Trouble, she pursues psychological approaches rigorously, eventually discarding them in favor of concepts centering on public performance of identity. She suggests that gender identity is mapped against a “heterosexual matrix”— a public, socially constructed image of sexuality that becomes a metalepsis. The choice of terms here is key. Butler turns the corner into believing that our internal construction of gender is externally produced. It is a metalepsis—a figuration of a figuration—a chimera in our heads. I have not read any Butler past this point, though from what I know of it she now calls the “heterosexual matrix” a heterosexual hegemony. I became less interested in following this particular (social-construction) turn, and instead have wanted to dwell on Subjects of Desire, a work which she now calls her juvenilia.

The core of Samantha’s thinking (and the later Butler) rests in the conception of naming as an external phenomenon. This approach is central to just about every discourse on naming since Plato’s Cratylus— because once we dispense with the concept of natural names (boy and girl as biological gender), we must turn to consider how such names become socially accepted. In Plato’s case, he first turns to genealogy—names are descended from other names. In Butler’s case, naming is more closely tied to the exercise of power.

What interests me more is the internal aspect of naming—naming as the self-conscious possession of a self which is distinct from the other. In effect, this sort of naming (or possession of a self) is related in a complex form to the negation of self (ecstatic surrender) to another. The relationship, explored in Subjects of Desire, is an unstable one—regardless of the external constraints. So, when I wrote about Vivien Thomas, I was most interested in the relationship of his identity (self-determined and asserted) to the external circumstances. This is also the subject of Roland Barthes “Death of the Author.” Butler took up this issue briefly, but she let it drop in favor of a more socially instrumental approach. The social circumstances of assertion and withdrawal of identity mirror, but are not identical to, the problem of the internal construction of self. It’s a hair-splitting distinction to be sure, but an important one to me as a writing teacher.

2 thoughts on “Naming Subjects”

  1. Thoughts that I also posted to my blog because Lauren from Feministe asked about personal acts of naming:
    This brings to mind the African concept of Nommo, words granting “being”. The words have the power. It is when one names something (or oneself) then it “becomes”. To stick with the vein of queer theory it is much like the coming out process. It is, in my opinion, only when one begins the coming out process and names themselves as queer that they can begin to become their full selves. The queer, the African American, etc. Jeff pointed out in a subsequent post that Butler’s naming is external, but I would take it so far as to say that external naming don’t mean diddly without internal acceptance and self naming. So perhaps, coming to being involves not only being given a place by a policing agent but also accepting that place. The “word” gives life.

  2. I like to have a fat tool-kit
    Now, that’s just asking for trouble. But I’ll pass up the opportunity for easy laughs and simply say that I admire your ability to actually read La Butler. My tolerance for academic jargon, never high, has plummeted since I left the academy.

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