‘The case for national health care has never seemed stronger’, writes Judith Butler in What World is This: A Pandemic Phenomenology. So too the case for a universal guaranteed income. ‘Socialist ideals are renewed. And the movements to abolish prisons and defund the police are no longer “crazy” pipe dreams.’ How to explain these new possibilities for the left? Butler’s book never mentions Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, it focuses on how the experience of the pandemic has expanded our political imagination by upending the notion of ‘the bounded self’. Covid-19 may no longer be top of the headlines, but Butler argues that it has cast us as ‘relational, interactive’ beings, while ‘refuting the egological and self-interested bases of ethics itself’. This shift, she claims, will have political ramifications for years to come.
Not content with the pragmatic point that collective disasters require collective solutions, Butler proposes that we ground left politics in a phenomenology of intersubjective relations. This goes deeper than solidarity. In her view, it means learning ‘that we pass the air we breathe to one another, that we share the surfaces of the world, and that we cannot touch one another without also being touched.’ This offers a perfect antidote to the ego, which for Butler underpins competitiveness, conflict and ecological spoliation. Of course, as Butler acknowledges, our intersubjective world is made up of many overlapping worlds. Certain groups – those with inferior health care, those who could not work at home, those subject to environmental colonialism – were more vulnerable to the virus than others. But since the pandemic was a common enemy, it forced us to confront such inequalities head-on. Even nationalism, which for Butler is inextricably linked to the ‘bounded self’, will supposedly fall as we realize the epidemiological dangers of a global order in which so many countries cannot afford the vaccine.
A Pandemic Phenomenology forms part of an ethical or intersubjective turn in Butler’s evolving oeuvre. Born in 1956, and coming of age after the waning of the diverse left culture of the 1960s, Butler was disconnected from, and untouched by, the neo-Marxist upsurge of that era. She is best known for Gender Trouble (1990), her pioneering critique of feminism’s heterosexist bias. That text, along with her follow-up titles Bodies That Matter (1993) and Excitable Speech (1997), popularized a politics based on performative acts of insubordination directed against congealed or oppressive subject-positions. In Butler’s early work, the task was to undermine and scramble the codes that create and regulate subjectification. More recently, however, she has drawn on her long-standing interest in phenomenology – her Wikipedia page notes that she was punished in Hebrew School by being forced to study Martin Buber – to supplant the politics of insubordination with what might be called an ethics of reparation.
Butler was not alone in following this trajectory. Many of the figures who came to prominence as 60s radicalism was fading took a similar route. In Derrida’s later texts, the word ‘responsibility’ frequently looms, along with the slogan ‘Deconstruction is Justice’. Foucault’s writing on the ‘care of the self’ has likewise been described as ‘a way of examining and freeing oneself not by socially-constructed norms and standards, but according to one’s own ethical code.’ Both men were important influences on Butler. In some cases, this ethical approach may have reflected an accommodation with neoliberalism – supplanting the interrogation of power with a focus on the individual. But for Butler it has expressed the need for a more collectivist politics in the context of accumulation crises, climate change, the pandemic and the growth of right-wing populism.
Butler’s ethical turn began with her 2004 work, Precarious Life, a study of a prior disaster: 9/11. There Butler argued that the attack that brought down the twin towers, killing three thousand innocent people, breached the vulnerable narcissistic boundaries of Americans’ bounded or ‘ego-logical’ selves. The invasion of Iraq was a defensive reaction to that breach. It obscured an underlying ‘sociality of the self’: the fact that ‘we are not bounded beings . . . but also constituted in relation to others’. Butler reflected on why Americans were often only capable of mourning their own countrymen. In her view, global inequality had produced a ‘differential allocation of grievability’, an exclusionary conception of ‘what counts as a livable life and a grievable death.’ In striving to recover our lost sociality, she asked what radical politics would look like were it to take injurability or vulnerability rather than independence and self-mastery as the point of departure for political life.
A Pandemic Phenomenology aims to answer that question. Here Butler advocates a politics rooted in what she calls ‘critical phenomenology’, a body of thought she traces to Max Scheler, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, as well as contemporary philosophers like Lisa Guenther. Whereas mainstream phenomenology is concerned with the lived experience of the singular human subject, critical phenomenology is concerned with inter-subjective and collective experiences. Yet she also distinguishes critical phenomenology from the struggles over recognition or identity. ‘The collective constitution of the world is not the same’, she writes, ‘as a struggle for recognition within the existing social coordinates and categories.’ Instead, it entails a ‘fundamental transformation of the understanding of value’ based on a recognition of our shared vulnerability.
Bulter also stresses critical phenomenology’s active political dimension. From a phenomenological (essentially Heideggerian) point of view, she claims, we don’t just see the world, we grasp it, and thereby constitute it. What emerges is no longer the liberal world of self-interested individuals who decide on limited collective policies, but one in which the ‘embodied self is situated socially, already outside itself in the environment and others, affected and affecting.’ The upshot, in an age of globalization, is ‘the imperative to reconstruct the world in common.’ Reflecting on the work of Achille Mbembe, Butler writes that ‘we are not talking about resources and companies in which one could own a share of stock but a common world, a sense of belonging to a world, or a sense of the world as a site of belonging.’
What are the political implications of this perspective? The feeling Butler describes, of being part of a common world, is more or less compatible with every variety of politics, across the ideological spectrum. Indeed, populism, nationalism and fascism are precisely concerned with constructing this kind of collective subject. Part of Donald Trump’s genius lay in his rallies, which addressed his follower’s desire not just to identify with their leader but also with one another. At first glance, it might seem that liberalism, with its preference for arms-length relations, lacks the intersubjective dimension Butler describes, but this is hardly the case. Victorian liberals argued that it was impossible to build a society on the basis of self-interested egos, and relied on the private sphere, domesticity and the cult of women to transcend the bounded selves of the laissez faire economy. Butler’s suggestion that humanity is paying for its bounded, ‘ego-logical’ (let us say selfish) preferences would be recognizable to anyone familiar with the novels of Dickens and their critique of utilitarianism, or the progressivism of Jane Addams and its rejection of ‘lone horseman’ capitalism. What, then, would it take for the ethical turn to lead to a leftist politics? To answer this question we must address two prior ones. First, what does it mean to ‘constitute the world’; what does the world look like when we grasp it phenomenologically? And second, how should we conceptualize the collective subject that does the constituting; what kind of political world does Butler’s intersubjective subject inhabit?
Butler gives the impression that because we constitute the world intersubjectively, we constitute it as intersubjective. But this neglects the role of reification: the sedimenting and routinizing processes that turn intersubjective practices into structural constraints. Capital is a perfect example. The process of valorization contains many intersubjective moments. In selling labour power, there is the relation of employer and employees; in the labour process, there are the group relations of the factory floor or office; in circulation consumers meet sales-people, and so forth. Yet, as Marx wrote, the end product confronts us as an alien being. Amid intersubjectivity, many processes occur behind our backs or, at least, outside our consciousness.
In addition, our intersubjective relations interact with the physical, biological and ecological world, giving them a materiality that the discourse of intersubjectivity cannot capture. Consider the pandemic. It was constituted in large part through the workings of capital. Global warming and tropical deforestation, the processes that led to the zoonotic leap, were non-accidental byproducts of a societal order based on extracting value wherever possible. Its effects were aggravated by the fact that states had spent decades slashing social spending to enrich investors. Meanwhile structural racism led to the unequal distribution of affordable medical care and the overrepresentation of the poor in frontline jobs. Every moment in this chain had intersubjective aspects to it, but the result, which combined physical with socioeconomic factors, has the automaticity of a well-oiled machine. To be sure, the recognition of the role of capital – of its reified character and its imbrication with natural processes – does not lead directly to an anti-capitalist politics. We need the mediation of an intersubjective world. But Butler doesn’t put these two worlds – capitalist objectivity and intersubjectivity – into a single framework. She lacks a political language that can simultaneously comprehend the real-world infrastructure constituted by capital and the phenomenological sphere out of which we constitute politics.
The second question concerns the collective subject that Butler evokes. In my view, this requires more than a mere appreciation of intersubjectivity. We need at least some account of human needs, motives and interests, especially insofar as they are relevant to politics. Butler’s suggestion that vulnerability or ‘injurability’ can serve as a standpoint for politics is intriguing on its own terms. But our fear of being infected is as likely to make us avoid one another as to act collectively.
Within the history of philosophy, phenomenology was a response to Kant’s positing of a transcendental ego. By way of contrast, Butler’s critique of the ego, and of ego-variants like the ‘bounded self’, could be read as a response to psychoanalysis, which is at root a theory of the consequences of our prolonged period of infant helplessness: that is, our vulnerability. Yet we must distinguish between two variants of psychoanalysis. On the one hand, Freud posited the ego as a seat of autonomy and moral responsibility. On the other, Klein stressed the ethical responsibility of the individual, rooted in their intersubjective origins. For Klein, there is no subject, only what we might call inter-subjects: individuals with ethical relations to one another, obligations based on the recognition of mutual vulnerability and possible harm. Is Klein’s account of intersubjectivity, ethical responsibility and reparation a sufficient basis for a more collectivist politics? Or do we also need Freud’s stress on autonomy?
Here it is essential to note the difference between the ego, which Butler invariably refers to negatively, and the self, as the term is used in phenomenology, therapy and politics. The ego is the seat of reason, whereas the self is a psychical representation, as in ‘self-image’. In The Wish to be Free (1968) Fred Weinstein and Gerald Platt wrote, ‘From the standpoint of psychic structure . . . the important development historically has been the strengthening of the ego.’ Resulting from a radical ‘break with authority in religion, politics, economics and the family’, it was this egoic empowerment, not the ‘productive facilities’ nor ‘commitment to rationality as such’, that was the signal contribution of modern progressive movements. Since the 1970s, however, a change has set in: such movements have largely ignored or derogated the ego while attending to the intersubjective self. Yet intersubjectivity, whether in the phenomenological form advocated by Butler, or in the Hegelian form associated with identity politics, is a relation between selves, not egos. The Kleinian themes of recognition, intersubjectivity and reparation add something to the psychology of the ego, but they do not supplant it. A healthy, democratic group life relies on strong, bounded egos capable of resisting group pressure. Contra Butler, these are not contrasting options.
In general, then, if we want to develop a democratic, emancipatory or collectivist politics, intersubjectivity is not enough. A collective subject needs an account of the structure of the world, the causes of such crises as 9/11 and the pandemic, and reasonable proposals to resolve them. What is important is not how people are in the world (intersubjective ethics) but what they do in it (politics). This requires reason as well as experience. It requires journals, blogs, books, study groups and the like: the historic resources of the left. While intersubjectivity is a fundamental condition of social action, it is not enough. An emancipatory practice must marry the ideal of social justice to the ideal of individual freedom. The latter is worth emphasizing, since the failure of the historic left to realize its stake in individual freedom was one reason why figures like Foucault, Derrida and Butler sought a wholly new politics after the 1960s.
Whatever its limitations, A Pandemic Phenomenology represents an important attempt to forge a leftist politics appropriate to our times. At the very least, by emphasizing injurability and responsibility she encourages us to rethink the ethical basis of left politics, including that of the democratic socialism of the 1930s and 40s and the participatory democracy of the 60s. Butler’s enormously diverse and creative body of work has made her an important leader in that effort. Moreover, she has demonstrated great personal courage in withstanding the ferocious criticism elicited by her critique of Zionism, her support for Black Lives Matter and her rejection of trans-exclusionary feminism. As her example reminds us, everyone has a stake in the struggle to rebuild the left.
Read on: Judith Butler, ‘Merely Cultural’, NLR I/227.