butler: desire, subject, and motivation

The first section of the reading, which for my purposes will be the intro through chapter 2, deals extensively with the Subject and his relation to the social and to his subjection. The idea of a person as subject connotes a very negative meaning which springs from the definition of subjection that was laid out at the beginning of the intro. Combined with the ideas of bondage, being a subject awakens thoughts of slavery, servitude, and meaninglessness. However, the subject, especially in the context of The Psychic Life, has a much higher status, and if not status at least role. The subject has the power to subjugate, but also is the target of some "other's" subjugation (With the small caveat that the "other" can be the self disavowed). Which brings me to my first quote, "How does the subjection of desire require and institute the desire for subjection?" (19) People, by their very nature, want to be subjugated; that is, they want to be the focus of someone else's desire or attention. One freely volunteer's their position as subject as a means of increasing their social status. The subject in this sense does not imply a servant of another's power, but the other's desire to be the subject.

"Desire is always the desire to persist in one's own being… the desire to persist in one's own being as something that can be brokered only within the risky terms of social life." (28) Every action someone takes aims at increasing the other's desire to be the one that committed the action. The desire to be desired increases the number of others that will desire me. This chain of desirement is inherently risky as I may be left as the only one that desires to be me, and therefore I must persist alone with only my desire.

Does this line of reasoning make any sense? I think it strikes at one of the most important viewpoints presented by Butler?

And along the lines of only committing actions in self-interest, I appreciated this quote, "In effect, self-sacrifice is not refuted through the claim that self-sacrifice is itself willful activity; rather, Hegel asserts that in self-sacrifice one enacts another's will." (52) This proves that self-sacrifice cannot be done for anything but selfish reasons; to better entrench one's self in the desire of the other. I only do something good because other people will think better of me for it and if I don't improve enough in the eyes of the other, then I will not commit the act of self-sacrifice. So I pose to you, can you think of any action that is done without selfish motivation?

The question of whether there can or cannot be selfless action is one i've debated in pseudo-philosophical coffee-house style before. Mostly the conversations were a little unfocused because of all the societal (ideological?) baggage surrounding the value of altruism: people often start by assuming that selfless action is good, and trying to work back up to that point instead of the other way around. Often, many of the biases involved in these conversations would eventually find their roots in religious reasons, and so Butler's reading of Hegel interests me quite a bit as almost a very post-facto analysis of other viewpoints involved in these discussions. On a personal note, I've always been suspicious of "self-less" actions for other reasons, namely the way that this mode of action is so often co-opted by repressive political and social collectivities. That said, considering only one's own immediate personal gain seems to be equally as short-sighted.

Anyhow, I thought Hegel's explanation of enacting the other's will, which sort of emerged out of his whole ontological analysis of the relationship of a thinking consciousness to a changeable body was- as far as I could follow it- pretty interesting. Specifically related to my own experience, I thought his description of how the thinking consciousness attempts to institute a relationship with some sort of transcendent being in order to deal with its hatred of its changeable, death-bound half might not be entirely far off in some cases: there's a lot of strange self-loathing in the way some people talk about religious devotion, and the promise of eternal life is certainly ever-present in evangelist rhetoric.