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The Return of the Body:

Judith Butler’s Dialectical Corporealism

Christopher Peterson

All of its life, the body is also a dead body,

the body of a dead person, of this death
that I am living.

—Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus

Metaphysics always returns . . . and Geist is

the most fatal figure of this revenance.

—Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger

and the Question

In contemporary cultural studies, the body is laden with intense

desires and expectations. Emerging with the eclipse of poststruc-
turalism in the late 1980s, “the body” promised to weigh in on
contemporary political debates, to give material substance to a
discipline supposedly evacuated by what some felt to be the
excessively linguistic or textual focus of contemporary theory.
But what if the very turn to the body occasioned a certain return
of the metaphysics of presence, only now bearing the name, or
rather, the spirit of “the body”? Indeed, scholars in race, gender,
and sexuality studies have often invoked the body as a marker of
both identity and self-presence. Given the violence of erasure,

Discourse, 28.2 & 3, Spring and Fall 2006, pp. 153–177.

Copyright © 2008 Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201-1309.
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invisibility, and death (both social and material) to which minor-

ity bodies have historically been subjected, it has also seemed to
many that the ontology of these bodies must be insisted upon in
the face of this nihilistic threat. As Sharon Holland announces in
Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity, “bring-
ing back the dead (or saving the living from the shadow of death)
is the ultimate queer act.”1 And in the introduction to her semi-
nal, 1991 collection of essays on queer theory, Inside/Out, Diana
Fuss notes how “a striking feature of many of the essays collected
in this volume is a fascination with the specter of abjection, a cer-
tain preoccupation with the figure of the homosexual as specter
and phantom, as spirit and revenant, abject and undead.”2
Yet, queer scholarship for the most part has addressed the
problem of the spectral only by way of contesting its pervasiveness
in dominant representations of homosexuality. If saving us from
the shadow of death names the “ultimate queer act,” such so-called
“raising” of the dead relieves us of any sustained engagement with
what Jacques Derrida calls spectrality, understood, in part, as an
originary process of mourning that is the condition of all life,
indeed, of any body. For Derrida, spectrality does not originate
with one’s social or biological death. As he argues in a brief read-
ing of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” our “future”
absence divides our present/presence from the very beginning.
Derrida takes Valdemar’s catachrestic utterance-—”I have been
sleeping-—and now-—now-—I am dead”3-—to make a point about
the function of language:

My death is structurally necessary to the pronouncing of the I. . . . The

utterance “I am living” is accompanied by my being-dead and its possi-
bility requires the possibility that I be dead; and conversely. This is not an
extraordinary story by Poe here, but the ordinary story of language. . . .
I am thus originally means I am mortal.4

While Derrida’s point is that the iterability of a speech act requires

the possibility of one’s absence from future scenes of utterance
(and thus already implies one’s absence in the present), this living
death also names the experience of “being” more generally. As
Heidegger puts it, being “is always already dying” in its “being-
toward-its-end.”5 For Heidegger, death is not a punctual event that
one might mark on a calendar; rather, death always already
belongs to our being. The conventional reduction of death to a
calculable moment is precisely what Poe’s story parodies. While his
doctors assert that his “disease [is] of that character which would
admit of exact calculation in respect to the epoch of its termina-
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tion in death,” Valdemar (aided by the magic of mesmerism) con-

tinues to live beyond the estimated moment of decease, a prolon-
gation of dying that allegorizes how life stretches along a path
marked at every step by death (51). Valdemar’s protracted dying
also echoes Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for
death,” in which death “kindly” stops for the speaker and bears her
forward through each stage of life. If, as in Dickinson’s poem,
death haunts our “being” from the very beginning, then the spec-
tral condition of sexual minorities is not reducible to a problem of
representation, or rather, mis-representation, as queer scholarship
tends to suppose. When Holland caricatures “postmodernism” as
“the attractive zombie theory of the academy, a place where the liv-
ing travel through death and are reborn to utter the truths of such
a journey,” she suggests that postmodernism articulates a dialecti-
cal relation between life and death, a sublation of being and non-
being that ultimately triumphs over finitude (166). Such a dialec-
tical view of the relation between life and death, however, opposes
itself to the spectral, which is neither present nor absent. But per-
haps Holland’s caricature is to be expected, for as Derrida notes in
Specters of Marx, “the traditional scholar does not believe in
ghosts—nor in all that one would call the virtual space of spectral-
ity.”6 If the traditional scholar does not believe in ghosts, that is
because “there has never been a scholar who, as such, did not
believe in the clear-cut distinction between the real and the unreal,
the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being
and non-being” (34). For Derrida, a capacity to speak to “ghosts”
would be the mark of a scholar.7 Although it might seem odd to
yoke queer critics to the figure of the traditional scholar, so
ingrained is the anti-spectral character of queer scholarship that
Holland can declare the ultimate queerness of raising the dead as
a “fact,” and support this claim only by referring us to ACT UP’s
famous political slogan: “silence = death.” To insist on this “fact,”
however, is to sidestep the problem of finitude altogether.
When scholars in race, gender, and sexuality studies write
about the body, what is typically invoked is the living body, the body
that is present to itself, untainted by mortality. For cultural studies,
spectrality is merely an effect of racism, sexism, homophobia, and
other social injustices. Subtracted from such external violence, the
body can be made present, its ontology no longer in question. But
spectrality, as Derrida uses the term (and as I propose to track it
here in the context of racial and sexual politics) does not have its
origin in social inequality. Naming a process of originary mourn-
ing that animates corporeal life, spectrality has no proper begin-
ning or end. The abjection that sexual and racial minorities
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endure might be better understood as a mode of redoubled ghostli-

ness that harnesses the spectrality inherent to all life and attaches
it to those on the margins of sociality: the figure of the gay man
dying of AIDS functions as the “proof” of the homophobic white
male’s ontological security; the representation of African-
Americans as “spooks” (to cite a somewhat antiquated yet illustra-
tive racist epithet) works to ward off the death that always already
haunts the ontology of the white body.8
No doubt the emergence of gay and lesbian studies in the
midst of the AIDS crisis and the cruelty of those discourses that
sought to invoke AIDS as further proof of the “death style” of
(male) homosexuality inspired many queer critics and theorists to
resist the equation of homosexuality and death. Yet, the contesta-
tion of this equation, I would argue, has also had the consequence
of disavowing finitude. My claim is that the specific, historical
effects of homophobia, racism, and sexism must also be thought in
relation to the generalizable principle of spectrality. Certainly
there are good reasons to be wary of entertaining general princi-
ples, given the risk that they might come to saturate the social and
political field, to erase differences altogether. Indeed, the turn to
the body has been occasioned by a renewed faith in particularity
that often eschews the large claims of “theory.” Yet rejecting gen-
eral principles altogether risks a certain overparticularization that
fails to imagine how the general and the particular might be held
in perpetual tension without either finally coming to absorb the
other. If “social death” names an ontological deprivation that
attends the lives of racial and sexual minorities, there is no reason
why these specificities cannot and should not be brought to bear on
the generalizable condition of spectrality, and vice versa. Not to
negotiate this tension between general and particular, between
spectrality and social death, is to miss the opportunity to interro-
gate how the social death of racial and sexual others is produced
in and through the disavowal of the spectral.
The insistence on the ontology of the socially dead, in other
words, merely reverses and reinscribes the division between life
and death, presence and absence, that conditions the abjection of
queer lives. In a passage from The Psychic Life of Power, for instance,
Judith Butler addresses how we might counter the abjection of
those bodies deemed expendable, “gay people, prostitutes, drug
users, among others . . . [who] are dying or already dead.”9 While
she asks us to consider if “‘social existence’” for the majority is pur-
chased through “the production and maintenance of the socially
dead,” she does not pursue the question of how the construction
of the socially dead is predicated on the fiction of social being, of
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being as presence (PLP 27). Dedicating her work toward expand-

ing “a field of possibilities for bodily life,” she theorizes against the
insidious means by which the abjection of minority bodies pro-
duces them as “shadowy contentless figure[s] for something not
yet made real.”10 But this invocation of ontology—intoned in the
suggestion that these ghostly shadows might someday be embod-
ied—would appear to conflate social death or abjection with what
we are calling spectrality. This conflation denies the possibility of
the specter, of that which is neither spirit nor body. As Derrida
notes in Specters of Marx: “For there is no ghost, there is never any
becoming specter of the spirit without at least an appearance of
flesh. . . . For there to be a ghost, there must be a return to a body,
but to a body that is more abstract than ever” (202). Although the
possibility of the specter requires a certain return to the body, that
body never fully returns to itself. Indeed, the return of the body to
itself is forever deferred by its “hauntological” condition. Follow-
ing Derrida, we might consider that all bodies live in the “shadowy
regions of ontology,” all bodies are hauntological, not ontological.
Only by virtue of the fiction of ontology do certain bodies appear
to be more present than others. The social existence of the major-
ity, of those white, male bodies that supposedly matter, is condi-
tioned by a certain disavowal and projection of the body’s finitude.
The socially dead are thus made to stand in for the death that
haunts each and every life.
While the interrogation of the body as a stable marker of iden-
tity would appear to have received its most well-known and persistent
challenge in Butler’s anti-epistemological accounts of corporeality,
the equation of the body with presence remains very much intact.
Indeed, I would suggest that, despite the frequent characterization of
her theorizations of corporeality as “deconstructive” by both her sup-
porters and her most virulent critics (Nussbaum or Žižek for
instance), they remain squarely within a metaphysical tradition of
presence that disavows finitude, that is, within that very tradition that
deconstruction has made it its mission to displace.11
In a reading of Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Bondage,”
for instance, Butler attempts to revise the master/slave dialectic in
terms of the corporeality negated by Hegel’s text. In the context of
this dialectic, the master disavows his body and projects it onto the
slave. The master’s negation of his bodily life, she suggests further,
allegorizes Hegel’s idealist enterprise more generally: “In Hegel’s
Phenomenology bodies are almost never to be found as objects of
philosophical reflection, much less as sites of experience, for bod-
ies are, in Hegel, always and only referred to indirectly as the
encasement, location or specificity of consciousness” (PLP 35).
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Butler implies that Hegel’s preoccupation with Spirit (geist/mind)

is complicit in the very refusal of the body that the master per-
forms within the master/slave dialectic. Her rewriting of this
dialectic in terms of the body thus makes the body into the very
object of “philosophical reflection” that Hegel denies.
This concern with questions of corporeality, of course, extends
well beyond her explicit engagements with Hegel, and would seem
to be confirmed by the position that she has achieved among the
most well-known and most-often-cited exponents of what we might
call, for lack of a better vocabulary, “body theory.” From her 1993
book Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,” to her essay,
“How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are Mine?” in
Qui Parle (1997), to an interview published in Signs (1998), “How
Bodies Come to Matter,” to her more recent book Precarious Life
(2004), Butler explicitly affirms her philosophical and political
task as, in part, that of making the body “more relevant.”12 Yet, as
she laments in “How can I Deny . . .” some critics (the example that
she gives is feminist historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese) have inter-
preted her work as doing quite the opposite: negating and dis-
missing the body altogether. This question as to whether she has
inadvertently “made the body less rather than more relevant,” how-
ever, only makes sense within a dialectical logic whereby the body
is either affirmed or negated—that is, made more or less.
Whether her rewriting of Hegel does or does not remedy the
disavowal of the body that she identifies in his text, it would appear
that she inserts the body into Hegel’s dialectical apparatus without
making explicit her relationship to dialectical thinking. Does But-
ler succeed in displacing the dialectical logic that she identifies in
the Spirit/Body opposition, or does the structure simply become
inverted such that Body now comes to occupy the privileged posi-
tion that Spirit once enjoyed? As Andrzej Warminski reminds us,
“for dialectical thought it makes no difference which [term] deter-
mines which as long as their relation remains one of determina-
tion.”13 In this sense, if the preservation of both Spirit and Body
require the negation of one another, then Body is always already
Spirit and Spirit is always already Body. I want to suggest that But-
ler’s work performs an implicit move from Spirit to Body that fore-
closes the possibility of the spectral, of what is neither spirit nor
body. I maintain that what Butler performs in her work, over and
over again, is a provisional death of the body, a death that is nev-
ertheless denied by the body’s resurrection as an immortal object
of philosophical reflection. At stake here is the question of
whether or not the dialectical move from Spirit to Body is really
any move at all. As Fernando Vidal observes, the Christian doc-
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trine of resurrection has always struggled with the oxymoronic fig-

ure of the “spiritual body.”14 Christianity poses the paradox that
one will be resurrected as a spiritual being that is somehow numer-
ically identical with one’s fleshly body. But just as the fantasy of
spiritual transcendence requires the very body that it negates, the
affirmation of bodily presence over and against the immaterial
remains implicated in the idealism it aims to “correct.” Given its
persistent negation/preservation of the body, Butler’s theory is
thus far more Christian than it knows.

Death by Discourse

In isolating Butler’s work for critique, I do not mean to suggest

that her corpus is uniquely “guilty” of resurrecting the metaphysics
of presence under the guise of the body. As I noted above, the
body has become something of an obsession (a hantise as one says
in French) in American critical discourse over the past fifteen
years. The impetus for this critical reading of Butler emerges from
my own sustained engagement with and admiration for a body of
work that has provided a wide-range of fields—among them, con-
tinental philosophy, feminism, queer studies, performance studies,
and critical legal studies—with a series of rich and provocative the-
oretical engagements. My contention, however, is that her theo-
rizations of corporeality also tend to eclipse the most radical
insights of deconstructive thought by adhering to a series
of dialectical oppositions (presence/absence, body/spirit,
life/death) that fail to dislodge being from the present.15 Butler’s
reticence to interrogate the presumption of self-presence seems
surprising given the radical character of her major theoretical
claims. As is well known, her central argument about the body
asserts that it is unknowable outside of those linguistic tropes that
occasion its survivability within language. Drawing from the Fou-
cauldian paradigm of what American critics too loosely character-
ize as “discursive construction,” she insists that any effort to posit a
body prior to discourse is nothing more than a ruse, one that does
not take into account how bodies congeal and materialize by virtue
of their implication in language. By alerting us to the discourse of
“constructivism” as a peculiarly American phenomenon, I mean to
suggest that its invention is conditioned by the translation of Fou-
cauldian thought into an American context. Although this prob-
lem of translation is both linguistic and cultural—in that it is not
merely a question of language difference but also of the uniquely
American political investments that Foucault’s thought has often
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been enlisted to address—the former might be said to enable, or

at least reinforce, the latter. This possibility is suggested by Robert
Hurley’s translation of Histoire de la Sexualité. In an often-cited pas-
sage, Hurley’s text reads: “Sexuality must not be thought of as a
kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an
obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is
the name that can be given to a historical construct.”16 The term
that Hurley translates as “construct” is given in the original as “dis-
positif,” although when it appears in the chapter title, “Le Dis-
positif de Sexualité,” he translates it as “deployment.”17 Dispositif
(also “device,” or “mechanism”) has a much different connotation
from the English “construct,” which, as Butler notes, implies that
there is some sort of agent doing the constructing.18 When cou-
pled with the notion of “discourse,” construction also suggests
something much more idealist than dispositif. As Butler remarks in
“How Can I Deny. . .” the discourse of constructivism risks a certain
linguistification, a certain reduction of everything to language.
This linguistification, however, ought to be read in the context of
the American appropriation and assimilation of various French,
“poststructuralist” theories (another American invention) rather
than as a testament to an idealism inherent in contemporary
French thought.
The argument that bodies become legible only within dis-
course has often been interpreted as negating materiality alto-
gether. And yet, Bodies That Matter explicitly distances itself from
the constructivist paradigm by advocating a “return to the notion
of matter, not as a site or surface, but as a process of materialization.”19
Despite diagnosing the constructivism debate as moribund, how-
ever, this text incessantly conjures up its ghost. If the monistic
threat whereby the body becomes nothing but language is simply a
red herring, then why—some sixty pages into this text—does one
need to return to the question: “Are bodies purely discursive?” The
polemic over the question of whether Bodies That Matter does or
does not negate corporeality thus distracts us from how this text
performs the possibility of the body’s death if only to bring us as
readers to the brink of an ostensible, poststructuralist nihilism, one
in which the body always survives its “dangerous” encounters with
the dematerializing effects of discourse and language. The claim
that would understand this theory as doing away with the body thus
misses the dialectical logic by which the body always survives its
death. The body is always present in Butler’s work—and that is pre-
cisely the problem. For it is the very figuration of the body as pres-
ence that marks this theory as idealist. Ironically, the false percep-
tion of her theorizations of corporeality as a nihilistic threat to
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identity politics diverts our attention away from the manner in

which the metaphysics of presence haunt her work. In short, while
Butler offers a radical anti-epistemological account of corporeality
through which the body is rendered unknowable prior to discourse
and culture, her theory is far more conventional with respect to
the body’s ontology.20
This theory might be understood, moreover, as a negative con-
structivism through which the ontology of the body is paradoxi-
cally secured only through its temporary, discursive cancellation.
Yet, this negative constructivism should not be confused with
“deconstruction,” which Derrida has persistently worked to distin-
guish from a negative operation. As he notes in The Ear of the Other,
“the word ‘deconstruction’ has always bothered me.”21 This com-
ment might seem surprising given the ubiquity of the term both in
Derrida’s work and in critical responses to deconstruction. But
one should recall that Derrida introduced this word as part of a
long chain of terms, including trace, différance, dissemination,
specter, and so on—none of which has he ever given a unique pri-
ority. The term “deconstruction,” however, has been privileged by
the critical reception of Derrida and often dialectically opposed to
something like “construction” or “reconstruction.” Assimilating
Butler’s work to a caricatured view of Derrida, for instance, Nancy
Frazer writes that “feminists need both deconstruction and recon-
struction, destabilization of meaning and projection of utopian
hope.”22 Contra Frazer, I would suggest that this dialectical oppo-
sition between deconstruction and reconstruction is precisely But-
ler’s modus operandi, and thereby what positions her squarely within
the very metaphysics that Frazer sees Butler as “deconstructing.”
The latter’s negative constructivism, in other words, ought to be
understood as a symptom of the literalist posing of deconstruction
against reconstruction.
According to the central thesis of Bodies That Matter, the body’s
ontology is mediated through language and discourse. Tacitly
modeled on Hegel’s dialectic of negativity, this mediation involves
a negation/affirmation of bodily life through which the latter
comes into being only by risking its possible dissolution in lan-
guage. On the one hand, then, critics are not entirely mistaken
that this argument negates or elides the body. On the other hand,
these critics fail to recognize that this “negated” body is also always
preserved. That Butler understands herself to be embattled in a
polemic with regard to the all-too-frequent charge of nihilism
aimed at poststructuralist theory is confirmed by the sarcasm that
pervades the preface to Bodies That Matter. Relaying an anecdote
involving an unnamed critic who, exasperated with her theoretical
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musings, reportedly asked her “‘What about the materiality of the

body, Judy?’” she wryly responds:

I took it that the addition of “Judy” was an effort to dislodge me from the
more formal “Judith” and to recall me to a bodily life that could not be
theorized away. . . . If I persisted in this notion that bodies were in some
way constructed, perhaps I really thought that words alone had the
power to craft bodies from their own linguistic substance? Couldn’t
someone simply take me aside? (x)

Although Butler goes to great lengths to show how the body always
“escape[s]” and “eludes its capture” by language, is not this threat
of the body’s dissolution, its full and final subsumption into lan-
guage, precisely the nihilistic possibility that this and other texts
rehearse over and over again, if only to win for the body a sense of
triumph over death? (HCD 4, 18). Responding in another context
to the paranoid conditionality of sentences that begin “‘If real bod-
ies do not exist . . .’” Butler writes: “The sentence begins as a warn-
ing against an impending nihilism, for if the conjured content of
these series of conditional clauses proves to be true, then, and
there is always a then, some set of dangerous consequences will
surely follow” (Benhabib 35). Writing in the wake of the de Man
scandal, the effort to counter this familiar caricature is under-
standable. But when does the effort to refute the caricature—post-
structuralism = nihilism—end up disavowing death, indeed, put-
ting in place the very metaphysics of presence that deconstruction,
in particular, has sought to displace? Does the charge of nihilism
always have to be answered by insisting on poststructuralism as “life
affirming”? According to the charge of nihilism, negativity leads to
consequences so dangerous that we cannot possibly look it in the
face. Or as the refrain often goes in contemporary identity politics:
the socially dead cannot afford, at this historical moment, when
they are just now emerging from the shadows of abjection, to dwell
with the negative, when as figures of death, that has been the only
space that they have been allowed to inhabit.
Given the polemic surrounding the question of nihilism, then,
how are we to understand the preoccupation with “discursive con-
struction” that haunts Butler’s work? Following from Foucault, her
use of the term “discourse” would appear to bear a set of meanings
that line up quite neatly with those of the French philosopher.
“Discourse” in Foucault is not only language, but carries the mul-
tiple valences of power, disciplinarity, institutionality, regulation,
and idealization. Although her texts clearly exploit these multiple
meanings, above all discourse comes to name something of a
threat to the body. Understanding discourse as anterior to the
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body, she announces something like the death of the body as a

thing-in-itself. This is made abundantly clear in the section from
Bodies That Matter that I noted above, which bears the interrogative
title: “‘Are Bodies Purely Discursive?’” Recognizing the too-easy
assimilation of death to that which cancels yet neither preserves
(dialectics) nor produces any remainder (deconstruction), Butler
proceeds to elaborate a meticulous answer to this question that
shows how “the body” emerges only on the condition of its “nega-
tion” by discourse. Her answer begins with the following assertion:
“To posit a materiality outside of language is still to posit that mate-
riality, and the materiality so posited will retain that positing as its
constitutive condition” (67).
We should note, before going forward, how “the body” and
“materiality” operate interchangeably throughout this section
independent and in lieu of any consideration of how the latter
exceeds the figuration of containment that is conventionally asso-
ciated with the former, as in both the Platonic and Christian
notion of the body as the “prison” of the soul. The construction of
the body in the West as a figure of containment is key to its affir-
mation as presence, to the re-presentation of the body as hermeti-
cally sealed, safe from contamination and death. While we will
return to this question of containment a bit later, what I seek to
underscore here is how this argument both refuses and falls prey
to the seduction of dialectical thinking. Against the reading that
would understand the theory of discursive construction as reduc-
ing body/matter to language, the text asserts quite clearly that
materiality cannot be “collapsed into an identity with language”
(68). The passage continues:

Language and materiality are fully embedded in one another, chiasmic

in their interdependency, but never fully collapsed into one another, i.e.,
reduced to one another, and yet neither fully ever exceeds the other.
Always already implicated in each other, always already exceeding one
another, language and materiality are never fully identical nor fully dif-
ferent. (69)

Resisting the dialectical logic that would want to sublate the

difference between language and materiality in the name of some
greater synthesis, this argument would appear to write a certain
différance into the relation between language and materiality. Any
possibility of identity is inevitably deferred by virtue of their “chi-
asmic” interdependency. But what is lost, if you will, in this recog-
nizably deconstructive strategy is recovered when we move from
the question of the relationship between language and materiality
to that of the ontology of the body. Although this passage seems
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designed to allay ours fears that the body might dissolve into lan-
guage, what would happen, we might ask, if the reverse were to
happen? That is, what if language was absorbed into materiality
such that bodies became nothing but material stuff without ideal-
ity, indeed, without any discursive life? That such a question is not
even on the horizon confirms that this argument concerning dis-
cursive construction means to perform a certain risk to bodily life.
According to the tacit logic of this polemic, the possibility of every-
thing becoming nothing but material is so in line with conven-
tional thinking that it cannot even be considered a risk, despite the
possibility that a material world without ideality would be, as War-
ren Montag reminds us, a “material world without anything . . . a
body that has given up the ghost.”23 But if the possibility of a mate-
riality emptied of all idealizations is so remote that we need not
even entertain it as a possibility, the same might be said of its corol-
lary. Who actually thinks that the body is or might become nothing
but language? According to the preface of Bodies That Matter, there
would appear to be many people who fear this nihilistic conclu-
sion. And it is precisely the hysteria spawned by this terrifying
prospect that this argument seems compelled to assuage. The sub-
text of this argument appears to be the following: “Do not be
afraid (of poststructuralism)—the body still lives.”
We know, of course, that the body lives on beyond its
encounter with discourse-as-the-threat-of-death because it returns
four years after the publication of Bodies That Matter in the reading
of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic from The Psychic Life of Power that
I have already discussed, and in the essay, “How Can I Deny That
These Hands and This Body Are Mine?” In the latter, Butler anec-
dotally invokes the figure of her own sleep-deprived body, having
risen from a bad dream only to find herself as the tacit object of
criticism on television’s C-Span. As she relates the anecdote, femi-
nist historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese commented to an inter-
viewer that she disliked the feminist view that “no stable distinction
between the sexes could be drawn or known, a view that suggests
that the difference between the sexes is itself culturally variable or,
worse, discursively fabricated, as if it is all a matter of language.”
She continues: “Of course, this did not help my project of falling
asleep, and I became aware of being, as it were, a sleepless body in
the world accused, at least obliquely, with having made the body
less rather than more relevant” (1). Accused, once again, of having
negated the body as an object of intellectual inquiry, she nonethe-
less awakens to the experience of her own insomnolent body,
called back from the dead of sleep. She responds to this call to
return not only to “the body” in general, but indeed, to her own,
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proper body, by performing for us once again both the possibility

and ultimate resistance of the body’s full subsumption into dis-
course. And yet, her uncertainty as to whether she is the subject of
Fox-Genovese’s interpellation leads her to stand at a curious dis-
tance from the polemic that her earlier work seemed to provoke:

There is, of course, something quite scandalous involved in the strong

version of construction that is sometimes at work, when, for instance, the
doctrine of construction implies that the body is not only made by lan-
guage, but made of language, or that the body is somehow reducible to
the linguistic coordinates by which it is identified and identifiable, as if
there is no non-linguistic stuff at issue. (3)

One wonders what “strong version of construction” she has in

mind here. For how could it not be the one that is attributed to
her? The curious lack of ownership that we can observe in this allu-
sion to a strong constructivism is striking, especially given her
opening anecdote in which she recognizes herself, Althusserian
style, as the addressee of an accusation that associates her with a
form of feminism that supposedly reduces the body to a discursive
fabrication. Unnamed by Fox-Genovese, Butler nonetheless asks:
“Was it . . . paranoia to think that she was talking about me, and
was there really any way to know? If it was me, then how would I
know that I am the one to whom she refers” (1). Although she
does proceed as if she is the proper addressee of this complaint,
the discussion of constructivism that follows would appear to for-
get or deny her implication in the “strong version of construction”
that she purports only to describe. How can she deny that this cor-
pus is hers?
Of course, her point here is to disassociate herself from this
strong version of constructivism, to show that she does not negate
the body after all. And yet, it seems that her work solicits such
hyperbolic responses (“What about the materiality of the body,
Judy?”) in order to exhume the body from its untimely grave and
begin the cycle of negation/preservation all over again. For while
the extradiscursive body may be “unknowable,” the intradiscursive
one certainly is, and what we know most about it, indeed, what this
argument suggests we need never not know, need never interro-
gate, is its knowability as presence. Whether the body is anterior to,
or coextensive with, discourse . . . it lives on. Remarking on the
effort to describe a body outside of language, Butler writes that “we
have already contaminated, though not contained, the very body
we seek to establish in its ontological purity” (4). Although the
body is neither reducible to, nor contained by, the linguistic fig-
ures that contaminate it, its being is still there, somewhere in the
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166 Discourse 28.2 & 3

chiasmus between materiality and discourse. What begins as a risk

to bodily life via the dialectic between discourse and body is ulti-
mately recuperated. In this sense, the body emerges as something
like a pseudonym for Spirit, for a death that is not death, for a
death that is denied. This positing/denial of death marks the
return of ontology in the face of finitude.

From Preservation to Remainder

While Butler’s theory of corporeality is remarkably idealist, it is

also reminiscent of the Gothic, a genre that regularly stages the
return of the dead. In her trenchant study of Edgar Allan Poe,
Fables of Mind, Joan Dayan maintains that Poe converts the opposi-
tion between mind and matter in such a way that “his dissolutions
never utterly destroy physical fact. . . . If something decays in Poe,
something else materializes.”24 Dayan argues that Poe’s stories of
premature burials and bodies that will not die transform “the idea
of resurrection . . . as resurrection of the body” (177). In The Pre-
mature Burial, for instance, an unnamed Congressman’s wife is
deposited in her family’s vault prior to expiration. The woman
eventually dies, evidently on account of her struggles to free her-
self from her tomb, and is found “entangled in some iron-work
which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rot-
ted, erect” (170). Poe’s tale parodies the resurrection, Dayan sug-
gests, by stopping short of the body’s transformation into spirit,
leaving us only with the gruesome materiality of a body hanging on
a piece of iron. Although Dayan’s purpose here is to challenge the
argument that Poe’s work is idealist, Poe’s resurrection of the body
is implicated in a version of dialectical corporealism that resonates
in certain ways with Butler’s. Like Butler’s return to the body, Poe’s
body achieves a certain immortal presence by which it becomes
indistinguishable from spirit.
Insofar as we know in advance that the body will emerge as the
winner in its struggle with discourse-as-death, Butler’s theory is
implicated in a restricted economy that, according to Bataille,
attempts to account for all loss and expenditure, including death.
A “general economy,” by contrast, affirms a surplus that can never
be fully assimilated within Hegel’s dialectical structure.25 As Der-
rida glosses Bataille, dialectics is “laughable in that it signifies the
activity of a discourse exhausting itself to reappropriate every neg-
ativity.”26 If a general economy marks “the instance of an expendi-
ture without reserve that no longer leaves us with the resource of
. . . negativity,” then the Hegelian comedy of Spirit, and by exten-
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sion, the Butlerian comedy of the Body, is thus none other than
negativity as resource, as that “magic power that converts the nega-
tive into being” (Écriture 381, Phenomenology 93). Speaking of
Hegel’s Spirit in a manner that in turn describes the travails of the
body in her own work, Butler writes:

What seems like tragic blindness turns out to be more like the comic
myopia of Mr. Magoo whose automobile careening through the neigh-
bor’s chicken coop always seems to land on all four wheels. Like such
miraculously resilient characters of the Saturday morning cartoon,
Hegel’s protagonists always reassemble themselves, prepare for a new
scene, enter the stage armed with a new set of ontological insights—and
fail again. As readers, we have no other narrative option but to join in
this bumpy ride, for we cannot anticipate this journey without embark-
ing on it ourselves.27

Like Mr. Magoo’s automobile, Butler’s body displays a comic

resiliency that always manages to recover from its temporary onto-
logical failures.
That the body’s dwelling with the negativity of discourse is but
the condition of its ontologization would seem to be confirmed in
“How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview With Judith Butler,”
where she remarks that, “to live as . . . [an abject] body in the world
is to live in the shadowy regions of ontology. I’m enraged by the
ontological claims that codes of legitimacy make on bodies in the
world, and I try, when I can, to imagine against that” (277). While
she also remarks that her work “has always been undertaken with
the aim to expand and enhance a field of possibilities for bodily
life,” it would seem that such corporeal “possibilities” are imagined
separately from any interrogation of the body as presence. Yet this
political imaginary cannot be so quickly labeled “metaphysical,” if
only because it promises to “produce ontology itself as a contested
field” (279). Responding to her interlocutors’ question as to the
ubiquitous presence of the copula in her work (in particular as it
appears in the phrase “there are abject bodies”), she asks that we
understand her rhetoric as enacting a “performative contradic-
tion” in which she “endow[s] ontology to precisely that which has
been systematically deprived of the privilege of ontology” (280).
The point of such a “performative contradiction,” she goes on to
say, “is to roundly inaugurate an ontological domain . . . not to pre-
suppose an already given one. It is discursively to institute one”
(280). Here the “work of the negative” is allied with the performa-
tive, which does not presuppose an ontological domain, but rather,
produces it, indeed, “brings it into being” in the Austinian sense.
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168 Discourse 28.2 & 3

The ontologization of the abject, then, emerges as an effect of this

“performative contradiction,” one that is produced in writing, but
is nonetheless dressed up in the guise of speech, of an oddly Divine
utterance capable of endowing ontology to those who have been
deprived of it. Yet, this performative turns out to exhibit less of a
God-like character than it would at first appear to claim for itself:
“My speech does not necessarily have to presuppose. . . . Or, if it
does, fine! Perhaps it’s producing the effect of a presupposition
through its performance, OK? And that’s fine! Get used to it!”
(280). This disclaiming of the power of the performative to bring
the abject into being resonates with the claim that the “there is
. . . “ “produce[s] a counterimaginary to the dominant meta-
physics.” She continues: “The point is not to level a prohibition
against using ontological terms but, on the contrary, to use them
more, to exploit and restage them, subject them to abuse so that
they can no longer do their usual work” (279).
This restaging and abusive reappropriation of ontological
terms might sound rather deconstructive, yet one still wonders
what “work” ontological terms might perform within this new meta-
physical counterimaginary. The notion that there is no absolute
outside to metaphysics, that one must inhabit metaphysics in order
to displace it, seems consistent with deconstructive thought. In
Writing and Difference, Derrida remarks that Bataille’s laughter
exceeds dialectical oppositions only to find that philosophy must
“come to terms with Hegel indefinitely” [s’expliquer indéfiniment avec
Hegel] (Écriture 371). S’expliquer avec also has the more colloquial
sense of having it out with someone or something, as if the negoti-
ation between dialectics and deconstruction is an inevitable and
unending struggle. And yet this struggle must displace the
Hegelian “struggle to the death” that would oppose deconstruction
and dialectics, and therefore end with the death of either one or
the other. Derrida reminds us that there is finally no getting fully
outside of dialectics, that there is always a force that draws us into
its restricted economy if only to compel us to resist and displace its
totalizing gestures. This recognition of a certain proximity between
deconstruction and dialectics—a chiasmatic relation in which both
terms can be neither fully identical with, nor fully different from,
the other—is echoed by Arkady Plotnitsky’s claim that “even the
most radical departures from Hegel . . . cannot escape, if not Hegel
himself, at least not his shadow or the (en)closure of Hegelian-
ism.”28 Indeed, to insist on the absolute difference of deconstruc-
tion from dialectics would be to understand dialectics and decon-
struction as dialectically opposed, thus reconstructing the closed
economy that différance is meant to displace.
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That said, however, to underscore that dialectics and decon-

struction are not opposed is not to say that any and every effort to
displace Hegel’s idealist project is doomed from the start. If the
negation of Spirit by Body only preserves the return to Spirit that
it works to displace, that is, if the very effort to confound the
“reflexive suppression of . . . ‘the body’” inevitably negates and
preserves the body that it wants to affirm, then Butler’s corporeal-
ism remains caught in an inevitable circuit of dematerialization
and rematerialization, one in which Body and Spirit appear as
interchangeable poles in the dialectical machinery (PLP 57). This
polarization of Spirit/Body is all the more strange given that “mat-
ter”—to the extent that it signifies an instrumental yet uncontain-
able ingredient—would seem more properly to be the determinate
negation of Spirit. Moreover, matter does not bear a necessary
relationship to containment, and therefore, to any one body. The
substitution of Spirit with Body thus rehearses a peculiarly idealist
(both Platonic and Christian) notion of the body-as-presence. As
her interlocutors in Signs remark, the title Bodies that Matter is
extremely “felicitous” (279). The title achieves this felicity by con-
taining “matter” within the multiple valences of materialization,
signification, intelligibility, and legitimacy. If the title seeks to rep-
resent these various registers, however, it also serves to conflate
them. It promises that bodies can matter—ethically and politi-
cally—in and through their materialization, and hence, their
ontologization. But do bodies need to corporealize in order to
matter? Do they need, in other words, to be bodies in order to mat-
ter ethically and politically?
A spectral theory of corporeality would correspond to the
logic of the revenant, that is, to a body that can never fully return
to itself as a living presence. At the risk of being too free with the
specificity of Derrida’s language, the return to the body that he
theorizes as that which distinguishes specter from spirit (retour au
corps), might be better described as a return of the body. Such a
“paradoxical incorporation” would thus disrupt Spirit’s return to
itself, and yet resist the reflexive suppression of Spirit by Body
that characterizes Butler’s return to the body. Or perhaps we
might follow the grammatical possibilities that French has to
offer us: le corps revenant (the ghostly body/the returning body)
marks a middle voice between the active and the passive: neither
a return to nor a return of the body. This difference between the
return to or of (the body) and the body in return, marks the differ-
ence between preservation and remainder respectively. For the
latter names an interminable return, the body as the site of its
own loss and mourning.
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170 Discourse 28.2 & 3

Precarious Bodies

Butler’s more recent work, in particular Precarious Life (2004),

turns once again to the problem of corporeality, but does so in the
wake of the violence and mourning spawned by 9/11.29 She asks
what it might mean to acknowledge a shared “corporeal vulnera-
bility” as the condition of the human. Whereas her earlier work
tacitly relied on the figure of the living body, Precarious Life at first
seems to promise a shift away from the presumption of self-pres-
ence by asking how the loss of first-world privilege and the protec-
tion from injury and death that it seemed to ensure might give way
to an acknowledgement that we are not only physically dependent
on one another, but physically vulnerable to one another as well.
This recognition of mutual vulnerability is inflected by a Lev-
inasian approach to ethics that begins by affirming the precari-
ousness of the other. Following Levinas, Precarious Life maintains
that one ought not “extrapolate from an understanding of [one’s]
own precariousness . . . an understanding of another’s precarious
life” (134). For Levinas, the other always comes first. The precari-
ousness of the other is anterior to my own. To begin with my own
corporeal vulnerability would be to assert my ontological priority
before the other—an egological formation that, for Levinas, is
antithetical to ethics.
While Butler notes that Levinas’s theory might seem like an
“extreme pacifism,” she does not address the ethical problems that
such pacifism raises, most notably that of how the affirmation of an
“absolute other,” wholly outside the same, disavows the violence
that is both the condition and limit of our relations to others. As
Derrida has argued, the relation to the other cannot but be
thought in relation to the same: “If I attained [the other] immedi-
ately and originarily . . . the other would cease to be other” (Écrit-
ure 182). I must always relate the other to me. Other must mean
other than me. If the other were absolutely other, then the other
would disappear altogether. The “pure” relation to alterity that Lev-
inas imagines is thus “pure violence.” As J. Hillis Miller observes in
Others, Derrida wrestles with two opposing conceptions of alterity:

On the one hand, the other may be another version of the same, in one
way assimilable, comprehensible, able to be appropriated and understood.
On the other hand, the other may be truly and radically other. In the lat-
ter case the other cannot be turned into some version of the same.30

Although Levinasian ethics champions this latter conception of

alterity, scholars who focus on gender, sexuality, and race tend to
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foreground the pejorative connotations of otherness. This empha-

sis on the production of gendered, racial, and sexual minorities as
Other resonates to some extent with Derrida’s observation that our
relations to others always involve violence. In The Gift of Death, how-
ever, Derrida departs both from this exclusively negative valuation
of alterity and the Levinasian idealization of otherness by enlisting
the paradoxical aphorism, “tout autre est tout autre.”31 This seem-
ing tautology says both “every other is every other” and “every other
is absolutely other.” Notwithstanding the Levinasian notion that the
other is “absolutely other,” Derrida demonstrates that the other
remains irreducible to either pure otherness or pure sameness.
Faithful to Levinasian ethics, Butler maintains that the cry for
war occasioned by the violent acts of 9/11 is exacerbated by the
inability of Americans to recognize the precariousness of non-
American (particularly Muslim) lives. They are always already
dead, and therefore cannot be killed. But if Americans routinely
view Muslims as expendable, what does it mean to affirm their pre-
cariousness as anterior to our own? Does not posing their precari-
ousness as prior to our own risk repeating the gesture that secures
the ontology of Americans at the expense of Muslim lives? Indeed,
I would argue that the construction of the Muslim other as already
dead, and therefore incapable of being killed, is conditioned by a
peculiarly American disavowal of vulnerability and mortality, which
means that the Levinasian insistence on the anteriority of the
other’s precariousness reinscribes the very dialectic of being/non-
being that the turn toward ethics is intended to correct.32
As Donald Pease has argued, 9/11 replaced “virgin land” with
“ground zero,” effectively transforming a “secured innocent nation
[into] a wounded, insecure emergency state.”33 The killing of
those deemed already dead thus works to cover over this wound, to
reproduce the exceptionalist ideology of American innocence,
security, and invulnerability.34 Referring to the events of 9/11, But-
ler asks if we might learn something “about the geopolitical distri-
bution of corporeal vulnerability from our own brief and devastat-
ing exposure to this condition” (29, my italics). But if corporeal
vulnerability is a general condition of being, how is it that she char-
acterizes this precariousness as a “brief and devastating exposure”?
Is not the perception of this vulnerability as aberrant, as enclosed
within the space of a few hours on one September morning, symp-
tomatic of the American interdiction of mortality? I want to
suggest that this rhetorical slip betrays an adherence to a logic of
presence that disavows finitude even as this argument places the
vulnerability of the body at the center of its politics. This resurrec-
tion of ontology should perhaps come as no surprise, given But-
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172 Discourse 28.2 & 3

ler’s adherence to Levinas, who, as Derrida notes, is “very close to

Hegel, much closer than he would want himself and here at the
moment when he is opposed to him apparently in the most radical
manner” (Écriture 147). Indeed, Levinas imagines a relation to
alterity that escapes the Hegelian dialectic of “mutual recognition”
by posing the other as absolutely exterior to the same. Yet, this
apparent move beyond Hegel ends up reinscribing a binary
between self and other that mimes the dialectic it claims to
surmount. Just as Levinas reverses rather than displaces the philo-
sophical tradition’s privileging of being over alterity, Butler inad-
vertently reasserts the ontological security of American life by pos-
ing the other’s corporeal vulnerability as anterior to one’s own.
Ethics cannot “begin” with the precariousness of the other, but
must commence at the intersection of a self and other who are
never fully outside the orbit of one another.
A return to ontology in Precarious Life is also legible in its ten-
dency to reduce corporeal vulnerability to the threat of external vio-
lence. Certainly the events of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq serve as devastating reminders of the body’s mortality.
But corporeal vulnerability does not have its origin in external vio-
lence. Corporeal vulnerability does not commence with our expo-
sure to others. The body’s finitude, its spectrality, is inherent. As
Freud puts it, however, “at bottom no one believes in his own
death. . . . Every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”35
The political stratification that positions the socially alive against
the socially dead thus also describes the unequal distribution of
mortality/immortality more generally.36 If no one believes in his or
her own death, then death always “happens” to others. As Heideg-
ger observes, the recognition that “‘one dies’ spreads the opinion
that death, so to speak, strikes the they” (234). For Heidegger,
however, the futural “not yet” that attends the “certain” but “inde-
terminate” possibility of death denies how being is always “ahead
of itself” in its anticipation of death. Hence, while the move from
the living body to the precarious body begins to address the prob-
lem of finitude so largely absent from Butler’s earlier work, her
tendency to reduce finitude to the problem of external threat and
violence does not awaken to the originary mourning that haunts
all bodies.
Avowing mortality and mourning might not only forestall the
violent response to 9/11, but could also challenge the reduction of
America’s “internal” racial and sexual others to the liminal status of
social death. The construction of the Muslim other as always
already dead describes but the most recent version of a long Amer-
ican tradition that secures the “immortality” of the “majority” at the
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expense of the mortalization of the nation’s racial and sexual oth-

ers.37 Indeed, the belief that “death strikes others” is most violently
felt in the domain of racial and sexual politics. What I have been
calling the “redoubled ghostliness” of racial and sexual minorities
describes an intimate contact with both social and material death.
As Karla Holloway observes in Passed on: African-American Mourning
Stories, black Americans are unusually at risk for an “untimely
death,” from specific forms of racial violence, such as lynching and
capital punishment, to all varieties of disease.38Given the homo-
phobic equation of homosexuality and death that has characterized
the response to the AIDS crisis, sexual minorities also bear the bur-
den of the death that heterosexist culture denies. Without dimin-
ishing the reality of this heightened proximity to death, however,
we must also recognize that finitude—as a generalizable condition
of existence—always comes “before its time.” While some of us are
socially dead, we are all specters. If self-presence is always tied to the
belief in one’s immortality, then only a theory that dislodges cor-
poreality from the present can challenge the unacknowledged
belief that death is what happens to others. “The ultimate queer
act”—to modify Holland’s assertion with which we began—would
be finally to displace the dialectic of being/non-being, to resist the
racist and heterosexist disavowal of spectrality through which the
abjection of queers both emerges and is sustained.

1 Sharon Holland, Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity

(Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 103.

2 Diana Fuss ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories/Gay Theories (New York: Rout-

ledge, 1991), 3.
3 Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings by Edgar Allan Poe (New

York: Bantam, 1982), 57.

4 Jacques Derrida, La voix et le phénomène (Paris: Presses Universitaires de

France, 1967), 108, 60. While Derrida does not use the term “spectrality” in this
early text, his analysis of the absence that speech always implies anticipates the
vocabulary of his later work.
5 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State

University of New York Press, 1996), 235.

6 Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx: L’État de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nou-

velle internationale (Paris: Galilée, 1993), 33.

7 For more on the implications of spectrality for scholarship, see Peggy Kamuf,

“The Ghosts of Critique and Deconstruction” and “The Haunts of Scholarship” in

Book of Addresses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
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174 Discourse 28.2 & 3

8 The present article expands on arguments that I make in Kindred Specters:

Death, Mourning, and American Affinity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

9 Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (Stanford: Stan-

ford University Press, 1997), 27. Cited in the text as “PLP.”

10 Baukje Prins and Irene Costera Meijer, “How Bodies Come To Matter: An

Interview With Judith Butler,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23.2
(1998): 281.
11 Martha Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody: The Hip Defeatism of Judith

Butler,” in The New Republic, February 22, 1999; and Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject:
The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (New York: Verso, 2000). See also Jordana
Rosenberg, “Butler’s ‘Lesbian Phallus’; or What Can Deconstruction Feel?” GLQ 9:3
(2003): 393-414. For a particularly powerful reading of Butler’s adherence to a
metaphysics of presence, see Peggy Kamuf, “The Other Sexual Difference,” in Book
of Addresses. For an analysis of current scholarship’s amnesia of deconstruction, see
Herman Rapaport, The Theory Mess: Deconstruction in Eclipse (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2001).
12 Judith Butler, “How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are

Mine,” in Qui Parle 11.1 (1997): 1. Cited in the text as “HCD.”

13 Andrzej Warminski, “Marx: Life/Consciousness,” in Hegel After Derrida, ed.

Stuart Barnett (New York: Routledge, 1998), 73.

14 Fernando Vidal, “Brains, Bodies, Selves, and Science: Anthropologies of

Identity and the Resurrection of the Body,” in Critical Inquiry 28 (Summer 2002):
15 It is precisely her adherence to a dialectical mode that allows us to observe

a seemingly unlikely and unexpected rapprochement between Butler and those critics
who so strongly oppose poststructuralism. Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian
would seem to offer an appropriate example given that it takes up the problem of
the spectral only by first opposing itself to poststructuralist theory, and by citing
(but not naming) Butler no less as an example of the dangers of poststructuralism.
Castle elaborates her notion of the lesbian “ghost effect” primarily as it operates as
a trope of absence and invisibility. Understanding the lesbian as having been
“vaporized by metaphor” throughout the modern, Western literary tradition, Castle
insists that “it is time . . . to focus on presence instead of absence, plenitude instead
of scarcity” (19). Making the lesbian present involves looking at “the very image of
negativity” wherein “lies the possibility of recovery—a way of conjuring up, or bring-
ing back into view, that which has been denied. Take the metaphor far enough, and
the invisible will rematerialize, the spirit will become flesh” (7). We could perhaps
not ask for a more neatly transposed, albeit implicit, account of Hegelian negativity
in this claim that what is canceled—here the lesbian—is also conserved and so can
be recovered, made present again. But whereas Hegel would understand being as
that which emerges only via negativity, Castle imagines the ontology of the lesbian
as given prior to the social mechanisms of homophobia that would appear to jeop-
ardize it. There is no room in Castle for “looking the negative in the face, and tar-
rying with it,” to invoke Hegel’s well-known phrase from the preface to the Phe-
nomenology (19). Although she addresses the possibility that the spectral metaphor
can be used in the service of rematerialization, because she understands death in
terms that are both pre-dialectical and non-deconstructive, Castle, I would main-
tain, deprives the lesbian body of its spectrality. Such spectrality would name a
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ghostliness irreducible to the social and historical violence that erases the lesbian
from view. Although what we are calling Castle’s pre-dialectical understanding of
corporeality underscores the relation of non-identity that holds between Castle and
Butler, it is not clear that the latter’s dialectical corporealism gets us any farther
beyond the disavowal of the spectral. That is to say that, while she “dwells” with the
negativity of the body, it is only to re-present these bodies, and therefore to exorcise
the political of the spectral. See Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homo-
sexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); and G. W.
F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1977). The spectralization of bodies would find leverage in Hegel if it were not for
his positing of being as the emergent possibility of the “work of the negative,” that
is, of being as full presence mediated through a “fight to the death” with the other.
In Kojève’s widely influential reading of Hegel, it is precisely this confrontation with
negativity that characterizes Hegel’s philosophy as a “philosophy of death.” See
Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (Paris: Gallimard, 1947). Accord-
ing to Kojève, Hegel understood that man’s spiritual being could only be attained
by severing spirit from Judeo-Christian theology that posits spirit in a “beyond,” and
not in “man-in-the-world.” Despite his recognition that man, in Kojève’s words, is
“death living a human life,” Hegel nonetheless posits being as ultimately possible
on this earth, an ontological claim anathema to Derrida’s notion of spectrality. Yet
Specters of Marx begins by addressing an “off-screen” voice who says: “I would like to
learn to live finally” (13). Echoing Hegel’s assertion that one must dwell with the
negative, Derrida maintains that this sentence “has no sense and cannot be just
unless it comes to terms with death” (14). Both dialectics and deconstruction, then,
involve a recognition of finitude. But whereas Hegel asserts that Spirit “endures
[death] and maintains itself in it,” which implies the persistence of Spirit as pres-
ence, deconstruction announces the death of being as presence (19).
16 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York:

Vintage, 1978).
17 Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1976).
18 See Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Rout-
ledge, 1990), 8.
19 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York:

Routledge, 1993), 9 (her italics).

20 Butler’s anti-epistemological theory of the body recalls the insights of

Bohr’s quantum mechanics, which, contrary to classical physics, holds that materi-
ality is “unknowable” in itself, that “no elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon
until it is a registered (observed) phenomenon.” See Arkady Plotnitsky, Complemen-
tarity: Anti-Epistemology After Bohr and Derrida (Durham: Duke University Press,
1994), 101.
21 Jacques Derrida, L’oreille de l’autre: otobiographies, transferts, traductions (Mon-
tréal: VLB Éditeur, 1982), 85.
22 Seyla Benhabib et al, Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (New York:

Routledge, 1995), 71.

23 Warren Montag, “Spirits Armed and Unarmed: Derrida’s Specters of Marx,”

in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (New York:

Verso, 1999), 77, 78.
24 Joan Dayan, Fables of Mind: An Inquiry Into Poe’s Fiction (New York: Oxford

University Press, 1987), 9.

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25 See Georges Bataille, La part maudite (Paris: Les Éditions de minuit, 1967).

Bataille argues that “The living organism . . . receives in principle more energy than
is necessary for the maintenance of life: the excess energy (the abundance) can be
used in the development of a system (for example, of an organism); if the system
can no longer grow or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed by the growth
of the system, it must lose it without profit, expend it, voluntarily or not” (70). See
also Georges Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” trans., Jonathan Strauss, Yale
French Studies 78 (1990): 9-28.
26Jacques Derrida, Écriture et la Différence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967), 377.
Cited in the text as “Écriture.”
27 Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 21.

28 Arkady Plonitsky, In the Shadow of Hegel: Complementarity, History and the

Unconscious (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1993), xiii. See also Reconfigu-
rations: Critical Theory and General Economy (Gainsville: University of Florida Press,
29 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York:

Verso, 2004).
30 J. Hillis Miller, Others (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 2.
31 Jacques Derrida, Donner la mort (Paris: Galilée, 1999).
32As Philippe Ariès has argued, death is treated almost as an aberration of life
in the U.S. Observing the American practice of embalming, he writes: “To sell
death, one must make it pleasant,” that is, something that is not death (69). Echo-
ing Ariès, Jessica Mitford asserts in her well-known exposé of the American funeral
industry, The American Way of Death, that the undertaker “put[s] on a well-oiled per-
formance in which the concept of death . . . play[s] no part whatsoever. . . . He and
his team . . . score an upset victory over death” (77, her italics). See Phillipe Ariès,
Essais sur l’histoire de la mort en Occident du Moyen Age à nos jours (Paris: Éditions du
Seuil, 1975); and Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1963).
33 Donald Pease, “The Global Homeland State: Bush’s Biopolitical Settle-

ment,” in boundary 2 30.3 (Fall 2003): 3.

34For more on the ideology of American exceptionalism, see David Noble,
Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: Uni-
versity of Minnesota Press, 2002), xl; Daniel Bell, “The End of American Excep-
tionalism,” in Public Interest 41 (Fall 1975): 193-223; Gene Wise, “‘Paradigm Dramas’
in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” in
Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline, ed. Lucy Maddox(Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 166-210; Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman
eds., The Futures of American Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); and
Michael Kammen, “The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration,”
in American Quarterly 45.1 (March 1993): 1-43.
35 Sigmund Freud, “Our Attitude Toward Death,” in The Standard Edition of the

Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, ed. and trans. James Strachey
(London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 289.
36See Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies (Cam-
bridge: Polity Press, 1992).
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37 See Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

(New York: Vintage, 1992); Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1982); Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne,
Melville, and Poe (New York: Alfred Knoff, 1958); and Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death
in the American Novel (New York: Scarborough Books, 1960).
38 Karla Holloway, Passed On: African-American Mourning Stories (Durham: Duke

University Press, 2002), 2.