Questions of Identity and the Notion of Self-Invention: A Brief Discussion of Some of Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek’s Ideas

When Judith Butler writes about the gender being “a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint,” she refers to the fact that we constantly play a game of identity with and within the societal constraints. As she puts it, “the “I” that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms and dependent on them but also endeavors to live in ways that maintain a critical and transformative relation to them. (…) the “I” becomes, to a certain extent unknowable, threatened with unviability, with becoming undone altogether, when it no longer incorporates the norm in such a way that makes this “I” fully recognizable” (p. 3). Who we are depends not only on our biological gender, or our assumed gender, but also on how we, as individuals, adapt and relate to the norms of society. In Butler’s opinion, “One only determines “one’s own” sense of gender to the extent that social norms exist that support and enable that act of claiming gender for oneself.” (p. 7). The self-invention, for her, is related to the realization and understanding of the social norms that constrain us and define us, at the same time: “If I am always constituted by norms that are not of my making, then I have to understand the ways that constitution takes place.” (p. 15). Only this way we can truly gain a sense of identity, “self-inventing” ourselves through the awareness of our own external and internal limitations.

Slavoj Žižek, in his article “You May!” is engaged in polemics with this view (not necessarily with Judith Butler’s, but with the idea of reflection upon one’s life and societal conditions, in order to arrive at one’s true, “real” identity). According to him, it is this reflexivity, which he considers to be excessive that leads to unhappiness:

“All our impulses, from sexual orientation to ethnic belonging, are more and more often experienced as matters of choice. Things which once seemed self-evident – how to feed and educate a child, how to proceed in sexual seduction, how and what to eat, how to relax and amuse oneself – have now been ‘colonised’ by reflexivity, and are experienced as something to be learned and decided on.”

For this philosopher, the problem is that we no longer “improvise.” We are so used to analyze, psychoanalyze, and overanalyze everything that we no longer know who we really are. We know how we are supposed to react, and we know what makes us react that way:

“Today, the formations of the unconscious (from dreams to hysterical symptoms) have lost their innocence: the ‘free associations’ of a typical educated patient consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of his own disturbances, so we have not only Annafreudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian interpretations of the symptoms, but symptoms which are themselves Annafreudian, Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian – they don’t exist without reference to some psychoanalytic theory. The unfortunate result of this reflexivisation is that the analyst’s interpretation loses its symbolic efficacy and leaves the symptom intact in its idiotic jouissance.”

The real problem, in his opinion, from a Lacanian psychoanalytical point of view, is that “This reflexivity undermines the notion of the Post-Modern subject free to choose and reshape his identity.” We are not only exaggeratedly overanalyzing ourselves, but we are forced to do so by the society. We cannot read or watch anything anymore without feeling obligated to analyze it. And not only that, but we are forced to like this over-reflexivity: “Duty becomes pleasure. Second, there is the obverse paradox of pleasure becoming duty in a ‘permissive’ society. Subjects experience the need to ‘have a good time’, to enjoy themselves, as a kind of duty, and, consequently, feel guilty for failing to be happy.”

So, what is the solution? How can we find our “true,” “real” self? I’m not sure that the answer to these questions can be given in a true, definitive form. Paraphrasing what Žižek himself stated in a documentary about him (Žižek!, 2005), philosophy is not about giving answers. It’s about asking questions.

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Works cited:

1. Butler, Judith – “Introduction” from Undoing Gender (2004)

2. Žižek, Slavoj – “You May!” London Review of Books, vol. 21 (March 1999)


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