The Failed Divine Performative: Reading Judith Butler’s Critique of Theology with Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil [April issue of The Journal of Religion]
Adam Kotsko, Chicago Theological Seminary
First, I will examine what Butler means by theology, focusing on her critique of Jacques Lacan in Gender Trouble.3 I will then elaborate Butler’s closely related theories of performativity and interpellation as laid out in Excitable Speech and The Psychic Life of Power, and in particular in her reading of Louis Althusser’s "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in the latter work.4
Only after all this has been established will I attempt a Butlerian reading of Anselm, with an eye toward determining whether theological texts are always as "theological" as Butler seems to assume. Butler refers to theology in nearly all of her books. These references are almost uniformly negative, but not in the sense of indicating an explicit polemic against theology or religion. She does take a Nietzschean critique of religion largely for granted, but the primary targets of her critique of theology are avowedly secular thinkers who take up positions that seem to Butler to function theologically. What she means by this is perhaps best exemplified in her critiques of Lacan (which are echoed in her later critiques of Lacanians such as Slavoj Z¡ iz¡ek and Mladen Dolar). In one of her many discussions of Lacan in Gender Trouble, Butler makes a distinction between "the materialist and Lacanian (and post-Lacanian) positions" regarding sexual difference.5
The materialist position, exemplified by Jacqueline Rose and Jane Gallop, "un-derscore[s] . . . the constructed status of sexual difference, the inherent instability of that construction, and the dual consequentiality of a prohibition that at once institutes a sexual identity and provides for the exposure of that construction’s tenuous ground."6
In this view, "the prohibition that constructs identity is inefficacious," so that "the paternal law ought to be understood not as a deterministic divine will, but as a perpetual bumbler." By contrast, in the Lacanian view (including Luce Irigaray’s post-Lacanian view), the "paternal Law" as that which generates sexuation "bear[s] the mark of a monotheistic singularity."7
One is tempted, then, to say that for Butler, the Lacanian view does understand sexual difference as "a deterministic divine will," whereas a materialist view (i.e., Butler’s own) emphasizes the constructed and fluid character of sexual difference. However, her account of the monotheistic nature of the Lacanian view is much more complex. Further on in Gender Trouble, Butler criticizes Lacan’s conception of the Symbolic or paternal Law as constitutively unattainable, arguing against the plausibility of "an account of the Symbolic that requires a conformity to the Law that proves impossible to perform and that makes no room for the flexibility of the Law itself, its cultural reformulation in more plastic forms."8
Such a view of the Symbolic leads to "a romanticization or, indeed, a religious idealization of ‘failure,’ humility and limitation before the Law, which makes the Lacanian narrative ideologically suspect."9
Butler compares this concept of the law to "the tortured relationship between the God of the Old Testament and those humiliated servants who offer their obedience without reward," a comparison that for Butler is all the more telling in light of her perception that sexuality has taken the place of religion’s "demand for love."10
Thus, the monotheistic element of Lacan’s thought consists in the idea of a law that is unilaterally imposed and nonnegotiable, but at the same time impossible to fulfill, leading Butler to wonder if the law aims only at enforcing the subject’s feeling of "an enslavement to the God that it claims to be unable to overcome."11
For Butler, therefore, "Lacanian theory must be understood as a kind of ‘slave morality’" in the Nietzschean sense.12
The task of the reader of Lacan is to look "for the theological impulse that motivates" the account of the unchanging paternal Law "as well as for the critique of theology that points beyond it." Most importantly, one must avoid the key move of "slave morality," namely, the disavowal of "the very generative powers it uses to construct the ‘Law’ as a permanent impossibility."13
The problem with theology, then, isn’t simply that it’s an illusion—although it is clear that Butler’s materialism commits her to the view that no extratemporal absolute, in the form of either a personal God or an immutable law of all human culture, can actually exist. The problem is rather that the subject, by participating in and thereby maintaining this illusion, fails to recognize its own power. The Lacanian who resigns himself or herself to the inevitability of the Symbolic does not just decide not to waste energy on something impossible—in conceding the immutability of sexual difference, the Lacanian or theological subject lends his or her energy to the ongoing struggle against any reformulation of the Symbolic order. One is reminded of Carl Schmitt’s insight that the attempt to exempt oneself from the political can itself be a profoundly political gesture.14
Despite this decisive rejection of a theological stance, it is not the case that theology is the sole object of her critique. The third part of Gender Trouble is devoted to an analysis of the ways that attempting to ground gender in some kind of prelinguistic realm—including apparently quite "materialist" attempts—are always necessarily self-undermining insofar as they simply end up repeating the patterns of the hegemonic norms of sexual difference. With all this in mind, then, one can tentatively distinguish two types of error with regard to sexual difference in Butler’s theory.
- On the one hand, there is what one could call the vulgar materialist error, which misrecognizes the appropriate field of battle, obfuscating the stakes of a political-cultural-linguistic struggle by misdirecting it toward a biological or otherwise prelinguistic ground.
- On the other hand, there is the theological error, which is correct insofar as it locates sexual difference on the level of culture and language but goes astray in reifying a particular cultural construct (e.g., the paternal Law) and thereby attempting to put it above the fray—a move that necessarily generates, and is in turn reinforced by, feelings of failure and guilt.
With this concept of the "theological" in hand, we can now turn to Butler’s theory of performativity as it is developed in Excitable Speech. The argument of Excitable Speech is closely related to that of The Psychic Life of Power, in particular to the reading of Althusser in the latter. In the introduction to Excitable Speech, she provides a capsule summary of this reading, arguing that "Althusser inadvertently assimilates social interpellation to the divine performative," resulting in a figuration of the "‘voice’ of ideology" as "almost impossible to refuse."15
The divine performative and related notions, however, are developed in more detail in Excitable Speech, resulting in a kind of mutual coimplication—in order to fully understand either, one must start with the other. Given that this analysis is directed toward the reading of Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, in which the account of the devil’s interpellation presupposes the power of the divine performative to call the devil into being, I have chosen to begin with Excitable Speech, a choice that also has the benefit of clarifying the concrete political stakes of Butler’s more abstract philosophical argument in The Psychic Life of Power.
As the above quotation illustrates, Butler makes reference to theology in connection with performativity in Excitable Speech, but it is not the only or even the primary mode in which she critiques various opposing theories of the performative... Butler and Anselm from An und für sich by Adam