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[Pn. 7] The Politics of Bodily Life

19 October 2013


According to Judith Butler in Precarious Life, to appear before the law is to appear as an autonomous, rights-bearing individual, and the reward for doing so is that we can claim the rights afforded by these discourses as belonging to us. The compromise is that this liberal ontology does not recognize those dimensions of ourselves that Butler identifies as bodily life, where bodily life is about our constitutive dependency and about our exploitability as a result of this dependency. Yet Butler also notes that so many of our political endeavors are precisely efforts to gain and to guarantee autonomous power over our bodies and our lives.

Butler characterizes what I am calling this striving for misrecognition as “an interesting political predicament.”[1] But what if being undone by bodily life while simultaneously striving for autonomy and bodily integrity is consistent with the conflicted ontology of the human being as living thing, and not just of the human being as a creature of culture and politics? Rather than a story of discourses of autonomy imposed upon ecstatic and self-undoing corporeality, what if the opposition between autonomy and dissolution were internal to bodily life itself? If so, then the ontology of liberal humanism misrecognizes and misrepresents, not the “truth” of ourselves as bodies undoing ourselves, but rather the tension internal to the living thing according to which autonomy and integrity are striven for but never attained.

[1] Butler, Judith, Precarious Life (London, New York: Verso, 2004 [this edition published by Verso, 2006]), p. 24.


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