Judith Bulter and the Discursively-Constituted Subject

Applebaum spends an entire chapter trying to articulate the notion of the constituted subject from Judith Butler’s work, a concept that has been vigorously critiqued while also proving to be helpful in remaining open to the ways our notions of subjectivity can contribute to oppressive norms.

Butler’s notion of the subject as constituted by discourse comes out of her critique of the term “sex” used so ubiquitously by second-wave feminists. While they distinguished between sex and gender, their notions of sex were already inscribed by the discourse around gender, hence maintaining an oppressive heteronormativity.

In a debate between several feminist philosophers, Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler go back and forth between whether there is any “self” not discursively constituted, or whether the subject is entirely constituted by discourse. Benhabib argues that the former allows for agency of subjects whereas the latter does not. Butler counters that discourse allows for stabilizing or destabilizing factors in which we can find agency, but beyond that there is no prediscursive subject.

Applebaum draws from this debate the insight that whites cannot speak about complicity and white privilege without re-inscribing that very complicity and privilege. There is no pre-complicit discussion about whiteness, since the complicity is already enacted by the very performance of whiteness.

While I’m interested by Applebaum’s use of Butler, I have yet to see how she draws from Butler or post-structuralism more broadly for a complication of the notion of the white subject. Since calling a person “white” already excludes and assumes a particular discourse, how do we account for the variety of subjectivities present in the discussion of white privilege? For instance, how do we understand the complicity of poor whites or persons who are known as white in this country yet because of their immigrant status or non-English speaking status are constituted as very different white subjects, in fact may not be considered white?

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