Providing Meaning to the Human Experience in Spite of Epistemic Distance

As human beings we are living in a world and are subject to a milieu of cultural, institutional, linguistic and behavioral influences; and yet we are constantly striving for some sort of meaning to our existence. To provide some answers to this yearning for meaning, the German Idealist tradition maintained a unified notion of the self, and provided an ontology of a subject that could be known. Alternatively, Postmodern philosophy is critical of this pursuit of a universal notion of the self, and pursues a constant disruption of any coherent, stable, or absolute notion of agency, in order to make room for subjects that ultimately become marginalized in the process of abstracting from human experiences. Taking into consideration thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler, this postmodern stance promotes the notion that there are epistemic limitations to human agency, and to uphold an anthropology based on this awareness would be one that is problematically universalizing a notion of the agent that cannot be known in its entirety.

In this paper I will present a philosophical anthropology that rests on some notions that provide meaning to the self-reflective human agent, and yet I am not seeking to reify or universalize any one of them. The nodes of meaning I present result from the fact that I am located, and have been conditioned by my education, culture, upbringing, religious beliefs, and place in history. I continue to maintain, however, that within our globalizing society it is important to bridge the differences between human beings. This is my attempt to provide some meaning to human agency, in the hope that it may allow for points of convergence to arise between individuals as they speak of what it means to be human. It should be noted, however, that my attempt at addressing human subjectivity is not an effort to promote a universal claim about human nature as such, for I am in agreement with the postmodern stance on epistemic distance, and the limitations placed upon individuals as social agents who are embedded, yet not limited by language.

The philosophical anthropology I will present in this paper promotes a notion of agency that is inspired by Judith Butler’s magnum opus: Gender Trouble.1 This is my humble attempt to provide meaning to human agency in the midst of the linguistic confusions Butler enlightens us to in her work. Though Butler’s interest is not anthropological in nature, in this paper I will use her philosophy as a springboard to facilitate rethinking how agency has been constructed. I will begin by presenting a brief synopsis of Butler’s theory of performativity, next I will present the limits of this philosophy in terms of providing meaning to agency, and I will conclude by presenting some examples in the hopes of providing meaning to what can be described as an opaque picture of the self. This notion of the self is constantly in flux, in lieu of the myriad of ways one gathers meaning throughout one’s experiences in life.

Utilizing Butler’s hermeneutics of suspicion, my anthropology intends to point to an open-ended answer to the pertinent question of what it means to be human. I am affirming that there is something that we can say about the self, though this need not be an absolute notion of who the human being is; for given the epistemic distance between the communicating subject and the object being specified via language, there are limitations to what an anthropology can achieve. Yet, in light of this limitation, I am seeking to go beyond the repeated acts in Butler’s theory of performativity for the purpose of providing meaning to the performing agent.

It is through the act of reflection on the myriad of factors that informs us in life that one becomes educated as to what is meaningful for human agency; and I maintain that it is possible for these factors—as variegated as they are—to take us beyond the social construction of the subject to say something meaningful for the human person. Though Butler’s prerogative in Gender Trouble is the issue of genderification, and the power dynamics involved with identification of the subject, I will next present why her work is relevant for providing an anthropology that is both aware of the body and pursues an anti-essentialist method of identification of the socially-inscribed self.

I. The Relevance of Judith Butler in Formulating a Philosophical Anthropology

As I have said previously, the relevance of pursuing a philosophical anthropology lies in the simple task of providing meaning to the human condition. As universal as that may sound, I affirm that this condition is not one that can be reified or categorized in such a way as to apply to every human being. It is this method of categorization and the pursuit of an absolute sense of the self that Butler problematizes in her work. The relevance of Butler’s thought lies in her constant questioning of what is easily taken for granted when identifying the human experience and what that means.

Butler is incredibly successful at “lifting the veil” to reveal who we are as individuals within society and at an even deeper level, of how we conceive of ourselves in light of the social inscriptions placed upon us from the moment of our first breath. When asked to describe the issues of most relevance to her in an interview with Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, Butler states that she is highly concerned with

…ordinary language and in received grammar that constrains our thinking—indeed, about what a person is, what a subject is, what gender is, what sexuality is, what politics can be—and that I’m not sure we’re going to be able to struggle effectively against those constraints or work within them in a productive way unless we see the ways in which grammar is both producing and constraining our sense of what the world is.2

It is in her problematizing of what is taken for granted that enables her to fully address who qualifies as being human insofar as how the concept of the human individual has been constructed, and how what is said invokes a normalization of the formulation of human desires and language. For Butler if one fails to take into account the linguistic horizon one operates within when considering what it means to be human, then this inevitably “leads to an enormous parochialism”, and fails to cope with the marginalized differences that are not considered within the matrix of intelligibility that our language works within.3 In Gender Trouble Butler specifically takes issue with the problematic heterosexual matrix embedded within the social scheme of intelligibility, and pursues a genealogy of gender to argue for a theory of performativity that deconstructs the gender norms that have been perceived as natural.

II. The Socially-Constructed Subject and Butler’s Theory of Performativity

In Gender Trouble, Butler reveals gender as involving a process of advocating certain prejudices by science and society in order to construct the male—female binary. She finds this problematic, for there is a power that is laden within this constructed gender binary, which is only further propelled by our language, failing to employ a suspicion of the categories in which it relies, and therefore naturalizes these gender differentiations.4 By exposing the way in which this gender binary is appropriated by classifying a subject as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, Butler is successful in undermining the category of ‘sex’ that is exercised in ordinary language.

Butler addresses the feminist strategy of utilizing the category of ‘female’ to critique the peremptory claims of a masculinist signifying economy through a process of deconstruction to expose the hidden other that lies within it. This approach illuminates the problem that arises when attempting to represent a given entity, for there is always an other that remains undisclosed. By specifying the ‘male’ as the oppressor, and the ‘female’ as the victim, feminists advocate an essentialist approach that ultimately excludes those bodies that differ from the reserved norms consisting within the gender binary that corresponds with their matrix of intelligibility.

Throughout this work Butler seeks to expose the limitations of language, and this revelation only occurs when the multiple comes into view, and gender categories are revealed as false or illusive. In describing her aim, she states:

It would be wrong to assume in advance that there is a category of ‘women’ that simply needs to be filled in with various components of race, class, age, ethnicity, and sexuality in order to become complete. The assumption of its essential incompleteness permits that category to serve as a permanently available site of contested meanings. The definitional incompleteness of the category might then serve as a normative ideal relieved of coercive force.5

Butler problematizes the process of essentialization that is involved in formulating the category of ‘women’ in the work of feminist theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig, and Jacques Lacan. In her critique she exposes the processes of exclusion involved in upholding a concept of ‘woman’ in their work, and also reveals how excluded bodies outside the normalized gender categories have been denaturalized in ordinary language. Throughout her critical analysis in this work, Butler is demanding a reconception of the roles and normalized behaviors as prescribed by the conflated gender structure we have been given.

Butler continues her critique of the attempt to essentialize gender roles in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”.6 In this article she reveals how gendered identities are produced, and continues to pursue her critique of the feminist reliance on the male—female binary. She refers to the production of the gender binary as taking place

… through the various ways in which bodies are acted in relationship to the deeply entrenched or sedimented expectations of gendered existence. Consider that there is a sedimentation of gender norms that produces the peculiar phenomenon of a natural sex, or a real woman, or any number of prevalent and compelling social fictions, and that this is a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corporeal styles which, in reified form, appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes which exist in a binary relation to one another.7

By uncovering the process of abstraction involved in distinguishing bodies, Butler is negating the idea that there is a natural distinction between two sexed bodies. Despite what we may perceive or describe as natural, these gender distinctions are comprised of repeated performances of the body, rather than one’s biological composition. Gender, therefore, is nothing more than a social inscription that effectively groups bodies into either male or female, and these distinctions are not natural, but have been naturalized within our language.

The phallogocentric law maintains the sexual distinctions that take priority in our language. In order to cope with our reliance on these distinctions, Butler provides a genealogy of gender ontology to reveal the illusive origin of sexed bodies. She describes her genealogical pursuit as a yearning

… to understand the discursive production of the plausibility of that binary relation and to suggest that certain cultural configurations of gender take the place of ‘the real’ and consolidate and augment their hegemony through that felicitous self-naturalization.8

In this case, what Butler defines as ‘the real’ are the lived bodies that are being described by these gender characterizations. The category of gender becomes an illusive term, and the problematic constructs within our language are revealed.

By exposing the lack of origin for gender categories, Butler is successful at breaking apart these constructs. In the concluding chapter of Gender Trouble she defines gender as

…the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.9

In successfully producing a genealogy of gender, Butler recovers a sense of the subjective within our objectifying language, and she exposes it as something that is far from natural, but incorporates a powerful binary that actively excludes bodies rather than being reliant upon biological characteristics, as science has claimed. In characterizing a body as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, these differentiations can only amount to social inscriptions based on repeated acts. The gender binary is broken apart only by exposing the repetition or citation that is relied upon in forming such a construction. What Butler aims to achieve is a new visibility of the body, and in doing so she allows the subject to gain a sense of agency that fails to be limited by abstracted descriptions.

Butler’s yearning to reconceptualize the categories that are deeply embedded within our language requires us to reconsider the way we think about these terms, thus leading us to a way of thinking that is disturbed by static modes of representation. Butler redefines the body as a surface that is perpetually being signified by others, and in this way it is constantly being politically regulated by “gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality.”10 She concludes her critique of gender by speaking of how the body has been styled, describing that it is

… never fully self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities. Consider gender, for instance, as a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning.11

This nuanced notion of gender as a style of the flesh provides the body with a greater sense of presence. The body has become reconceived as that which acts or performs, rather than something that requires genderification, and corresponds to a particular gender role. Insofar as gender is concerned, the role one plays is simply the style in which the body is performing, rather than some essential ontological distinction upheld by a particular biological makeup.

Butler defines gender as a sustained performance of the body. The ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities said to be embodied by a human being are not something that can be essentialized, rather these distinctions have been created

…as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for prolifer ting gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality.12

The phallogocentric law that dominates society, and the view we have towards human bodies, limits and oppresses by concealing the construction of gender. Gender has been construed as a stable identity, and in this way it has masked its process of signification through observing repeated performances of the body. By limiting the body to its social inscription, gender is only further substantialized. Butler completely redefines gender roles as comprised of sedimented performances, rather than referring to any ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ essence.

Butler upholds that the subject lacks any real essence in light of the epistemic distance between the subject and what can be conveyed through discourse. This negative notion of the self in Butler derives from her observance of the thought of Lacan and Žižek. She describes in The Judith Butler Reader that it was in reading Lacan that she became more cognizant of the lack of self-understanding that is gained for any subject, and

…that there would be no way to recover one’s origins or to understand oneself fully; that one would be, to the extent that one is a subject, always at a distance from oneself, from one’s origin, from one’s history; that some part of that origin, some part of that history, some part of that sexuality would always be at a radical distance….the subject is born into a network of language and uses language but is also used by it; it speaks language, but language speaks it.13

The awareness Butler has regarding the mode of representation provided to the subject within language is strewn throughout her work, and this lies in tandem to the influence of Žižek’s thought on her notion of subjectivity and her yearning to separate herself from Freud’s concept of agency.

In Bodies that Matter, she describes Žižek’s work as involving a critique of language and representation, and that the agent is constantly falling within the set of norms that are the status quo. The norms that the standard of normalcy and decency consist in are those that signify the subject, and yet are completely empty of meaning in themselves. She describes Žižek as advocating the view that language

…operates by means of the displacement of the referent, the multiplication of signifiers at the site of the lost referent. Indeed, signification requires this loss of the referent, and only works as signification to the extent that the referent remains irrecoverable.14

For Žižek as well as Butler, there seems to be no way out of the agent-as-signified-state. It is in this way that Butler’s notion of subjectivity incurs some problems, for though the subject is never outside of signification, there is a dissonance that can occur in one’s performance.

Agency for Butler consists in what she defines as a “double-movement”, where the subject is constituted by signification, and then the subject correspondingly repeats the norms of the signifier.15 The descriptions of the agent in this sense fails to fully correspond with the identity as it is inscribed, as the repetition is never completely the same in any given instance. The identity category then, is fractitious, in that as she describes,

…such inclusionary descriptions produce inadvertently new sites of contest and a host of resistances, disclaimers, and refusals to identify with the terms.16

Within her notion of agency there is a double movement involved in invoking the category of identity, and at the same time contesting it, by somehow existing beyond the socially inscribed norms that define it.

It is possible to read Butler and fail to see a repeater who is performing the repeated acts, and yet her political agenda requires such an agent in order to fulfill her site of protest for the oppressive socially-inscribed norms that are placed on the body. In her own words, Butler states:

I would oppose the notion that my agency is nothing but a mockery of agency. I don’t go that far…. I am trying to say that while we are constituted socially in limited ways and through certain kinds of limitations, exclusions and foreclosures, we are not constituted for all time in that way; it is possible to undergo an alteration of the subject that permits new possibilities that would have been thought psychotic or ‘too dangerous’ in an earlier phase of life.17

This inconsistency of the Žižekian socially-inscribed agent is the repeater of the performance, who may embrace novelty outside of normative roles and the necessitated behavioral norms as instituted by society. In this sense agency for Butler is undoubtedly socially conditioned, but in the same instance there is a performer who is never fully determined, and yet exists and is able to defy the norms and repetitions as they are inscribed.

It is this allowance for novelty within Butler’s theory of performativity that I am drawing upon for my philosophical anthropology. For Butler the social field is inscribed onto our bodies so much so that she finds psychoanalysis and the narrative it provides problematic, for it essentializes the subject as one existing in isolation from the social-political impulses that are constantly infiltrating the self. Butler maintains that there can be no coherent story about yourself, or no integrated ego psychology. She is post-Freud in that she perceives the superego as a cloud. Any notion of absolute subjectivity fails to account for the abysses and splits in the norms that exist within the experiences of any given individual. Her theory of performativity provides for the new and the passionate within the life of the agent, and yet she reminds us that the Law is a phantom body where it is everywhere even as extensive as where it is not. In the next section I will humbly attempt to build upon this concept of agency for the purpose of addressing the ways in which we gather meaning in our life experiences. It is the Kafkan moment in Butler’s theory of performativity that allows for this extension of her thought, and I intend to focus on her notion that with deregulation there is also a sense of regulation taking place at all times.

III. The Act of Self-Reflection: Moving Beyond Butler

As mentioned in the previous section, there is a break between repetitions, and this serves as the point of political means to challenge the established norms Butler is concerned with. This source of novelty within a system of established behaviors and linguistic categories that both comprises and controls the agent is Butler’s anthropological stance, if any such stance could be made. This self that is responsible for one’s speech and action, though it may indeed mime the social norms in which it is inscribed, still remains an agent that gathers a sense of meaning for itself. There are a myriad of factors that enable this meaning to be achieved, and meaning in this sense is not absolute, universal, or static. The sense of meaning that I am referring to in this paper corresponds to the awareness one gains through the act of reflection. It is not my intention to invoke a systematization of factors in correspondence with this act of reflection, for in my opinion, this lends itself to a reification of instances in one’s life that are constantly in flux. Granted, it seems almost instinctual to grab ahold of something that provides meaning to one’s life at a particular time, and keep close to that variable for the rest of one’s days. It is important that we remind ourselves of the epistemic distance we have from any conclusive notion of the self, which accounts for one’s action in the world and yet cannot determine any meaning for itself in an ontological sense.

The task of providing meaning to the human experience requires an acknowledgement that the “self” is no longer an absolute concept. That is, it is not a category that reflects all of human experiences, but must rely on universals and on the limiting act of language formation. Inevitably there will be a marginalization of bodies that this philosophical anthropology fails to resonate with, and I am ok with that. In fact, I am laying it out right from the start that the task of providing meaning to the human experience must remain open to novelty. I am not too proud to admit to the limitations of my location and my attempt to provide meaning through the use of language. My wish is for the reader to impart a critical eye to the next section and involve their own conscious reflection to consider the ways in which these aspects provide or fail to provide meaning to their own subjectivity. Next I will present three examples that can possibly connote a sense of meaning to the self when reflecting on them in one’s own situatedness.

A. Reflection on Myth, Literature, Art & the Utilization of Imagination

It is through the imagination that the unexpressable aspect of one’s experience finds a form of expression through symbols or sounds. One form of symbolism that speaks to us is through the literary novel, and an example of such a journey occurs when reading a novel such as A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.18 Through the act of reading this literature the reader is able to escape to a place in their imagination that Beah creates, allowing some aspects of the human experience to be revealed to them in the form of literary symbolism. The nuances that appear to the reader when reading and reflecting on such graphic non-fiction invokes a sense of meaning for them when reflecting on the intensity of violence that perhaps they had never considered was humanly possible prior to an encounter with this memoir.

An alternative to literature are narratives told to us; some taking mythical form. Religious texts have relied upon such myths in order to speak to humans as they live, and enable the imagination to take hold and teach them that these stories have relevance to their lives. Other forms of artistic expression such as visual artistry and music, present meaning as portrayed through images and sounds, which speak to physical, emotional, spiritual and cultural aspects of the human experience that perhaps cannot be expressed via spoken language. Our imagination enables us to express important aspects of what it means to be human, and this brings both the subtle and poignant moments of our experiences to light.

B. Reflecting on One’s Mortal Body

An alternative to the Butlerian perspective on the body, is how the awareness of mortality plays a role in the human experience. Our eventual death is an aspect of the human condition that affects every one of us. Ernest Becker assesses this very point throughout his book on The Denial of Death, maintaining that

… the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.19

Becker reveals the many ways we create a symbolic immortality in order to cope with the idea of our death, so that we can disengage from the reality of the limits of our bodies. Such ways are by adoring those heroic individuals who seem to be forever young and all-powerful, and have no fear in the face of death.20 The fear of death plays a major role in our ways of acting in the world, and reflecting on the limitation to one’s mortality provides some meaning to the existing subject.

In his biological approach to the study of the human being, Richard Dawkins grounds his anthropology in the survival of the gene. From his biological perspective, all that humans amount to are “machines created by our genes”, and the more selfish our genes are the more chance they have for survival in the world.21 Humans seek to maintain a secure surrounding for the purpose of being more successful at gene reproduction, and we are instinctually sexual because of our biological urge to replicate. Reflecting on the scientific perspective of our bodies as genetic machines need not be naturalized (as Butler has found pitfalls in this essentialization), but it can still provide meaning to one’s existence.

C. Reflecting on One’s Purpose

The yearning to reflect on one’s purpose for some involves more than a consideration of one’s career, for it may incorporate a spiritual cosmology, and for others it simply involves a means of getting by. The spiritual worldview need not advocate one religion or spiritual exercise over another, but to utilize Paul Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern”, the act of reflecting on one’s purpose can simply mean the consideration of that which one is ultimately concerned about.22 For Tillich, “ultimate concern” describes the aspect in each individual that yearns for something in an ultimate way. The truth of one’s concern reaches its height in the relative life of the individual, and that is all that can be said.

For Tillich, the concern for the ultimate is not only what is particular to the human situation, but it is also a necessary component for the individual. The truth of one’s faith in a particular ultimate is entirely subjective, and yet has the ability to be made objective “if its content is the really ultimate.”23 People are ultimately concerned with what is initially a reflection of themselves, secondly a reflection of the holy mystery, and thirdly a reflection of their communal desire. In each case their concern is ultimate and portrays what their faith amounts to at a particular moment in time. This notion of ultimate concern can provide meaning upon reflection, whether one imparts religion when considering one’s purpose or not.

The difference between incorporating God within one’s perspective or not should not be understated, for there is a vast variance of meaning between the two. As Wolfhart Pannenberg describes in his theological anthropology, the purpose of the human being can only be realized in the eschaton.24 In his cosmology one’s purpose cannot attain fulfillment in this life, but only when one is granted wholeness by God. Failing to incorporate such a worldview does not provide any meaning for the secular individual, who perhaps rests solely on one’s purposes as far as family and nation are concerned for one’s existence.

The difference in meaning within this example of reflecting on one’s purpose can be universalized for all individuals when considering any instantiation of an example that ca

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