Giving an Account of Oneself

Judith Butler

Excerpt – Part 2 – Against Ethical Violence – Psychoanalysis


Cressida: Stop my mouth. . . .

I know not what I speak. 

—Shakespeare, The History of Troilus and Cressida


How do these concerns relate to the question of whether one can give an account of oneself? Let us remember that one gives an account of oneself to another, and that every accounting takes place within a scene of address. I give an account of myself to you. Furthermore, the scene of address, what we might call the rhetorical condition for responsibility, means that while I am engaging in a reflexive activity, thinking about and reconstructing myself, I am also speaking to you and thus elaborating a relation to an other in language as I go. The ethical valence of the situation is thus not restricted to the question of whether or not my account of myself is adequate, but rather concerns whether, in giving the account, I establish a relationship to the one to whom my account is addressed and whether both parties to the interlocution are sustained and altered by the scene of address.


Within the context of the psychoanalytic transference, the ‘‘you’’ is often a default structure of address, the elaboration of a ‘‘you’’ in an imaginary domain, and an address through which prior, and more archaic, forms of address are conveyed.{7} In the transference, speech sometimes works to convey information (including information about my life), but it also functions as both the conduit for a desire and a rhetorical instrument that seeks to alter or act upon the interlocutory scene itself.{8} Psychoanalysis has always understood this dual dimension of the self-disclosing speech act. On the one hand, it is an effort to communicate information about oneself; yet, on the other hand, it recreates and constitutes anew the tacit presumptions about communication and relationality that structure the mode of address. Transference is thus the recreation of a primary relationality within the analytic space, one that potentially yields a new or altered relationship (and capacity for relationality) on the basis of analytic work.


Narrative functions within the context of the transference not only a means by which information is conveyed but as a rhetorical deployment of language that seeks to act upon the other, motivated by a desire or wish that assumes an allegorical form in the interlocutory scene of the analysis. The ‘‘I’’ is narrated but also posited and articulated within the context of the scene of address. What is produced in discourse often confounds the intentional aims of speaking. The ‘‘you’’ is variable and imaginary at the same time as it is bounded, recalcitrant, and stubbornly there. The ‘‘you’’ constitutes an object in relation to which an aim of desire becomes articulable, but what recurs in this relation to the other, this scene for the articulation of desire, is an opacity that is not fully ‘‘illuminated’’ through speech. So ‘‘I’’ tell a story to ‘‘you,’’ and we might together consider the details of the story that I tell. But if I tell them to you in the context of a transference (and can there be telling without transference?), I am doing something with this telling, acting on you in some way. And this telling is also doing something to me, acting on me, in ways that I may well not understand as I go.


Within some psychoanalytic circles, doctrines, and practices, one of the stated aims of psychoanalysis is to offer the client the chance to put together a story about herself, to recollect the past, to interweave the events or, rather, the wishes of childhood with later events, to try to make sense through narrative means of what this life has been, the impasses it encounters time and again, and what it might yet become. Indeed, some have argued that the normative goal of psychoanalysis is to permit the client to tell a single and coherent story about herself that will satisfy the wish to know herself, moreover, to know herself in part through a narrative reconstruction in which the interventions by the analyst or therapist contribute in many ways to the remaking and reweaving of the story. Roy Schafer has argued this position, and we see it in several versions of psychoanalytic practice described by clinicians in scholarly and popular venues.{9}


But what if the narrative reconstruction of a life cannot be the goal of psychoanalysis, and that the reason for this has to do with the very formation of the subject? If the other is always there, from the start, in the place of where the ego will be, then a life is constituted through a fundamental interruption, is even interrupted prior to the possibility of any continuity. Accordingly, if narrative reconstruction is to approximate the life it means to convey, it must also be subject to interruption. Of course, learning to construct a narrative is a crucial practice, especially when discontinuous bits of experience remain dissociated from one another by virtue of traumatic conditions. And I do not mean to undervalue the importance of narrative work in the reconstruction of a life that otherwise suffers from fragmentation and discontinuity. The suffering that belongs to conditions of dissociation should not be underestimated. Conditions of hyper-mastery, however, are no more salutary than conditions of radical fragmentation. It seems true that we might well need a narrative to connect parts of the psyche and experience that cannot be assimilated to one another. But too much connection can lead to extreme forms of paranoid isolation. In any event, it does not follow that, if a life needs some narrative structure, then all of life must be rendered in narrative form. That conclusion would transform a minimum requirement of psychic stability into the principle aim of analytic work.


What is left out if we assume, as some do, that narrative gives us the life that is ours, or that life takes place in narrative form? The ‘‘mineness’’ of a life is not necessarily its story form. The ‘‘I’’ who begins to tell its story can tell it only according to recognizable norms of life narration. We might then say: to the extent that the ‘‘I’’ agrees, from the start, to narrate itself through those norms, it agrees to circuit its narration through an externality, and so to disorient itself in the telling through modes of speech that have an impersonal nature.{10} Of course, Lacan has made clear that whatever account is given about the primary inaugural moments of a subject is belated and phantasmatic, affected irreversibly by a nachtraglichkeit. Developmental narratives tend to err by assuming that the narrator of such a narrative can be present to the origins of the story. The origin is made available only retroactively, and through the screen of fantasy. The mental health norm that tells us that giving a coherent account of oneself is part of the ethical labor of psychoanalysis misconstrues what psychoanalysis can and must do. In fact, it subscribes to an account of the subject that belies part of the very ethical significance of that subject’s formation.


If I give an account, and give it to you, then my narrative depends upon a structure of address. But if I can address you, I must first have been addressed, brought into the structure of address as a possibility of language before I was able to find my own way to make use of it. This follows, not only from the fact that language first belongs to the other and I acquire it through a complicated form of mimesis, but also because the very possibility of linguistic agency is derived from the situation in which one finds oneself addressed by a language one never chose. If I am first addressed by another, and if this address comes to me prior to my individuation, in what forms then does it come to me? It would seem that one is always addressed in one way or another, even if one is abandoned or abused, since the void and the injury hail one in specific ways.


This view has disparate philosophical and psychoanalytic formulations. Levinas has claimed that the address of the other constitutes me and that this seizure by the other precedes any formation of the self (le Moi). Jean Laplanche, in a psychoanalytic vein, argues something similar when he claims that the address of the other, conceived as a demand, implants or insinuates itself into what will later come to be called, in a theoretical vein, ‘‘my unconscious.’’{11} In a sense, this nomenclature will always be giving the lie to itself. It will be impossible to speak without error of ‘‘my unconscious’’ because it is not a possession, but rather that which I cannot own. And yet the grammar by which we seek to give an account of this psychic domain, which I do not, and cannot, own, paradoxically attributes this unconscious to me, as that which belongs to me as a predicate of the subject, just as any number of other features might be said to belong to me, the grammatical and ontological subject. To understand the unconscious, however, is to understand what cannot belong, properly speaking, to me, precisely because it defies the rhetoric of belonging, is a way of being dispossessed through the address of the other from the start. For Laplanche, I am animated by this call or demand, and I am at first overwhelmed by it. The other is, from the start, too much for me, enigmatic, inscrutable. This ‘‘too-much-ness’’ must be handled and contained for something called an ‘‘I’’ to emerge in its separateness. The unconscious is not a topos into which this ‘‘too much-ness’’ is deposited. It is rather formed as a psychic requirement of survival and individuation, as a way of managing—and failing to manage—that excess and thus as the persistent and opaque life of that excess itself.


The transference is precisely the emotionally laden scene of address, recalling the other and its overwhelmingness, rerouting the unconscious through an externality from whom it is returned in some way. So the point of the transference and the counter-transference is not only to build or rebuild the story of one’s life but also to enact what cannot be narrated, and to enact the unconscious as it is relived in the scene of address itself. If the transference recapitulates the unconscious, then I undergo a dispossession of myself in the scene of address. This does not mean that I am possessed by the other, since the other is also dispossessed, called upon, and calling, in a relation that is not, for that reason, reciprocal. Nevertheless, just because the analyst (hopefully) handles this dispossession better than I do, there is a dislocation that both interlocutors undergo for access to the unconscious to take place. I am caught up in that address, even as the analyst contracts not to overwhelm me with her need. Nevertheless, I am overwhelmed by something, and I think I am overwhelmed by her; she is the name I have for this ‘‘too-muchness.’’ But what does she name?


In this context the question of the ‘‘who’’ reemerges: ‘‘By whom am I overwhelmed?’’ ‘‘Who is she?’’ ‘‘Who are you?’’ are all, in a sense, the question the infant poses to demands of the adult: ‘‘Who are you, and what do you want of me?’’ In this respect, Laplanche’s perspective offers us a way of revising Cavarero’s claim that the question that inaugurates ethics is ‘‘Who are you?’’ When the analyst is the other, I cannot know who the other is, but the pursuit of this unsatisfiable question elaborates the ways in which an enigmatic other, understood as the variegated demands of the adult world, inaugurates and structures me. It also means that she occupies a position for me as both more and less than what she is, and this incommensurability between the analyst as, say, person, and the analyst as, say, occasion for my psychic material lays the groundwork for the contribution that the client makes to the transferential scene. The analyst is, in her own way, dispossessed in the moment of acting as its site of transfer for me, and for reasons that I cannot know. What am I calling on her to be? And how does she take up that call? What my call recalls for her will be the site of the counter-transference, but about this I can have only the most refracted knowledge. Vainly I ask, ‘‘Who are you?’’ and then, more soberly, ‘‘What have I become here?’’ And she asks those questions of me as well, from her own distance, and in ways I cannot precisely know or hear. This not-knowing draws upon a prior not-knowing, the one by which the subject is inaugurated, although that ‘‘not-knowing’’ is repeated and elaborated in the transference without ever becoming a literal site to which I might return.


Through the transference, psychoanalysis nevertheless charts primary relational dispositions and scenes, articulating the scenes of address in which selves variably emerge. Although Laplanche’s perspective is not fully compatible with object-relations theorists such as Christopher Bollas, we can see in both approaches a certain attentiveness to what Bollas has called the ‘‘unthought known.’’{12} Bollas was instrumental in introducing the concept of the analyst as a ‘‘transformational object’’; he suggested that clinicians should return to Freud’s self-analysis and consider more attentively the uses of the counter-transference within psychoanalytic work. In The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known, Bollas describes being ‘‘recruited’’ into the environment of the analysand, tacitly positioned and ‘‘used’’ by the analysand as an ‘‘object’’ who belongs to an earlier scene. The counter-transference responds to what is not fully known by the analysand:


The analyst is invited to fulfill differing and changing object representations in the environment, but such observations on our part are the rare moments of clarity in the countertransference. For a very long period of time, and perhaps it never ends, we are being taken into the patient’s environmental idiom, and for considerable stretches of time we do not know who we are, what function we are meant to fulfill, or our fate as his object. (202)


Following Winnicott, Bollas makes the case that the analyst must not only allow himself to become used but even ‘‘be prepared on occasion to become situationally ill’’ (204). The analyst allows himself to be deployed in the environmental idiom of the analysand at the same time as he develops a reflective and deliberate capacity for analysis within that difficult situation. Bollas discusses several clinical examples, in which he shows the ‘‘expressive uses’’ of the countertransference within analytic work. One patient speaks and then falls silent, leaving Bollas with a sense of aloneness and disorientation. When he finally gives voice to this sense within the session, it is to suggest that for and with him the patient has effectively recreated the environment in which she had felt suddenly isolated and lost as a young child. He asks whether she has asked him to inhabit this experience through her long pauses so that he can know what it was she then felt. What she offers, then, is less a narrative than a recreated scene of suddenly abandoned communication and a disorienting loss of contact. There is a narrative dimension to his subsequent intervention since he asks whether this experience belongs to her past. The point, however, is less to reconstruct the precise details of the story than to establish another possibility for communication within the transference. When he suggests that she has given him the position of re-experiencing her own experience of loss and absence, he communicates to her in a way that has not been done before, and the conversation that follows, explicitly thematizing this broken form of communication, constitutes a more connected mode of communication, working to alter the default scene of address.


The model of psychoanalytic intervention that Bollas affirms constitutes a significant departure from the classical notion of the cold and distant analyst who keeps every counter-transferential issue to himself. For Bollas, ‘‘the analyst will need to become lost in the patient’s world, lost in the sense of not knowing what his feelings and states of mind are in any one moment’’ (253). Later he remarks that only when the analyst presents himself to be used by the patient is there any hope that the counter-transference can facilitate a new set of object relations: ‘‘Only by making a good object (the analyst) go somewhat mad can such a patient believe in his analysis and know that the analyst has been where he has been and has survived and emerged intact’’ (254). Bollas clearly suggests that the analyst must allow him- or herself to be impinged upon by the client, even undergo a kind of dispossession of self, as well as to maintain a reflective psychoanalytic distance and attitude. In describing Winnicott’s way of introducing his own thoughts into the analytic session, Bollas writes:


they were for him subjective objects, and he put them to the patient as objects between patient and analyst rather than as official psychoanalytic decodings of the person’s unconscious life. The effect of his attitude is crucial, as his interpretations were meant to be played with—kicked around, mulled over, torn to pieces— rather than regarded as the official version of the truth. (206)


The aim here appears to be to facilitate what Bollas describes as the ‘‘articulation of heretofore inarticulate elements of psychic life, or what I term the unthought known.’’ ‘‘Articulation’’ is a broad category for describing various modes of expression and communication, some of them narrative and some not. Although here Bollas does not consider the limits of articulability, that is, the unthought that can never quite be ‘‘known,’’ such a consideration would seem to constitute a necessary counterpart to his explorations. Indeed, primary forms of impingement that cannot be fully or clearly articulated within the analytic process are doubtless at work in the scene of address. Full articulability should not be deemed the final goal of psychoanalytic work in any event, for that goal would imply a linguistic and egoic mastery over unconscious material that would seek to transform the unconscious itself into reflective, conscious articulation—an impossible ideal, and one that undercuts one of the most important tenets of psychoanalysis. The ‘‘I’’ cannot knowingly fully recover what impels it, since its formation remains prior to its elaboration as reflexive self-knowing. This reminds us that conscious experience is only one dimension of psychic life, and that we cannot achieve by consciousness or language a full mastery over those primary relations of dependency and impressionability that form and constitute us in persistent and obscure ways.


The ways that an infant has been handled or addressed can be gleaned only indirectly from the social environment that the analysand later orchestrates. Although there is always a specificity to that environment, one can make the general claim that primary impressions are not just received by an ego, but are formative of it. The ego does not come into being without a prior encounter, a primary relation, a set of inaugural impressions from elsewhere. When Winnicott describes the ego as a relational process, he is disputing the view that the ego is constituted and there from the outset of life. He is also positing the primacy of relationality to any bounded sense of self. If the ego, as Bollas and Lacan would agree, ‘‘long precedes the arrival of the subject,’’{13} that means only that the relational process that seeks to negotiate a differentiation from the unconscious and from the other is not yet articulated in speech, not yet capable of reflective self-deliberation. In any case, the ego is not an entity or a substance, but an array of relations and processes, implicated in the world of primary caregivers in ways that constitute its very definition.


Moreover, if in the inaugural moments of the ‘‘I’’ I am implicated by the other’s address and demand, then there is some convergence between the ethical scene in which my life is, from the start, bound up with others and the psychoanalytic scene that establishes the intersubjective conditions of my own emergence, individuation, and survivability. Insofar as it recapitulates and reenacts in refracted form the primary scenes of address, the transference operates in the service of narrating a life, assisting in the building of a life story. Working in tandem with the counter-transference, the transference interrupts the suspect coherence that narrative forms sometimes construct, a coherence that can displace from consideration the rhetorical features of the scene of address, which both draw me back to the scene of not knowing, of being overwhelmed, and also, in the present, sustain me.


At its best, the transference provides what Winnicott terms a holding environment and offers a bodily presence in a temporal present that provides the conditions for a sustaining address.{14} This is not to say that transference does not contribute to the narrating of a life: one may be able to tell one’s story better when being ‘‘held’’ in the Winnicottian sense. But there are expressive dimensions of that ‘‘holding’’ that cannot be described through narrative means. There is no reason to call into question the importance of narrating a life, in its partiality and provisionality. I am sure that transference can facilitate narration and that narrating a life has a crucial function, especially for those whose involuntary experience of discontinuity afflicts them in profound ways. No one can live in a radically non-narratable world or survive a radically non-narratable life. But it is still necessary to remember that what qualifies as an ‘‘articulation’’ and ‘‘expression’’ of psychic material exceeds narration, and that articulations of all kinds have their necessary limits, given the structuring effects of what remains persistently inarticulable.


Sometimes a narrative voice can remain, for instance, shorn of its narrative powers. In Kafka’s story, after Georg appears to throw himself off the bridge and end his life, there is still a narrative voice that uncannily remains, reporting on the noises that populate that event’s aftermath. The final line of the text, ‘‘at this moment an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge,’’ is spoken by some voice that claims to be present to the moment described, and the third-person perspective is disjoined from the character of Georg, who has already let himself drop below. It is as if character is vanquished, but voice remains. Although Georg is gone, some narrative voice survives to remark upon the scene. It may be the voice of the imaginary friend to whom both Georg and his father were said to have written, and it may be that this friend turns out to have been writing the two of them, transitively, all along. The final line, referring to the ‘‘traffic’’ going over the bridge, makes use of the German word Verkehr, a term used for sexual intercourse, as well. The ambiguity suggests that this death is also a pleasure, perhaps an ecstatic relinquishing of discrete bodily boundary.{15} The voice that emerges to report this fact, a voice that belongs to no one and whose proximity to the event is logically impossible, is purely fictive, perhaps the sublimity of fiction itself. Although the story narrates a death, it also preserves a voice in the final narrative line, suggesting that a human something survives, that narration has some propitious relation to survival. What remains peculiar, however, is that this is a written voice with no body and no name, a voice extracted from the scene of address itself, one whose extraction, paradoxically, forms the basis of its survival. The voice is ghostly, impossible, disembodied, and yet it persists, living on.


In a well-known letter written to Benjamin on December 17, 1934, Adorno reviews Benjamin’s essay on Kafka and considers the conditions for survival that Kafka’s texts provide. He begins by noting that he is not ‘‘in the slightest position to pass ‘judgment’ upon [Benjamin’s] essay,’’ knowingly referencing the potentially fatal problems associated with judgment of this kind. Adorno’s remarks to Benjamin are the usual ones: Benjamin gives an account of an ‘‘archaic’’ and primal history that is irrecoverable, whereas Adorno insists that the loss of a concept of our ‘‘historical age’’ is a dialectical loss, one that has to be understood as a loss for us, under these specific historical conditions.



Adorno moves to a consideration of guilt and fatality via the figure of Odradek, a thinglike creature, fundamentally nonconceptualizable, described in Kafka’s parable ‘‘Cares of a Family Man.’’{16} Odradek, whose name admits of no clear etymology, is another son-like figure who vacates his human form in the face of parental judgment. Odradek appears to be at once a spool of thread and an odd star who is able to balance himself on one of his points. His laughter is the kind ‘‘that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves’’ (428). Barely anything of the human form survives in his survival, and the narrator of the story, a paternal voice, seriously doubts whether Odradek is even a remnant of a creature with ‘‘intelligible shape.’’ Neither Adorno nor Benjamin takes the psychoanalytic route in explaining this dehumanized form. But Adorno understands that vacating the human form in some ways promises the overcoming of a fatal guilt. He writes:


If [Odradek’s] origin lies with the father of the house, does he not then precisely represent the anxious concern and danger for the latter, does he not anticipate precisely the overcoming of the creaturely state of guilt, and is not this concern—truly a case of Heidegger put right side up—the secret key, indeed, the most indubitable promise of hope, precisely through the overcoming of the house itself? Certainly, as the other face of the world of things, Odradek is a sign of distortion—but precisely as such he is also a motif of transcendence, namely, of the ultimate limit and of the reconciliation of the organic and inorganic, or of the overcoming of death: Odradek ‘‘lives on.’’ (69)