I did not expect Judith Butler’s essay, “An Account of Oneself,” to articulate my experience of being a young woman and a Roman Catholic—but this is precisely what the essay did. Although Butler may not have intended it, her discussion of the “I’s” formation, the regimes of truth in which this “I” lives, and the “primary condition of unfreedom” tethered to this “I,” all sound a familiar keynote for practicing Catholics. At least, they did for me. Synthesizing existentialist and postmodern philosophy, Butler gives an account of being human, of being born into a world and a life you neither chose nor desired, and of how each “I” must come to terms with its inherited culture in order to arrive at some understanding of itself. For this reason, I add Judith Butler to my list of people—a list including Alice Munro, Greta Gerwig, Josef Pieper, both my sisters, my ninthgrade English teacher, and many others—who have, in some way, told me my own story as if they could hear the softest beatings of my heart.
In her essay, Butler interrogates perhaps our oldest question: that of who we are. Throughout, Butler argues against the Rousseauian idea that we are “born free” or the Lockean notion that we are tabula rasa. Instead, she insists that when we ask who we are, we must remember that “the context”—that is, the world around us—“is not exterior to the question; it conditions the form that the question will take.” She says,
When the “I” seeks to give an account of itself, it can start with itself, but it will find that this self is already implicated in a social temporality that exceeds its own capacities for narration; indeed, when the “I” seeks to give an account of itself, it must, as a matter of necessity, become a social theorist.
For Butler, then, we are not born as pure untouched subjects, encountering the world with an objective eye; rather, we are born as pre-approved members of a moving world, a world with established languages, traditions, and cultures, all of which meld my “I” in ways we do not control. As Butler puts it, “My story arrives belatedly . . . my narrative begins in media res:” my “I” enters a stage already set; I begin the story of myself long after its true beginning.
Butler recognizes that these formative forces, our “contexts,” shift from generation to generation, from year to year, and indeed, from person to person. Borrowing from Foucault, she glosses these changing forces as separate “regimes of truth” in which “I”s exist. While, in all likelihood, Butler was not thinking of Catholicism when she wrote her essay, as a cradle Catholic, I can assure you that the Church is one such spatial, historical, philosophical, and theological regime. It is the lens through which I view the world, the foundation of who I am. And I would wager I’m not unique in this regard. Many born into the Church, even those who later leave, acknowledge its formative power. As Ignatius of Loyola said, “Give me a child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man.” This, at least, has been my experience. Before I knew my name, I was a baptized Catholic, and before I could write the alphabet, I could recite the Creed. My “I” is not of my own making. To use Butler’s language, I am “dispossessed by the social conditions of [my] emergence;” I did not create my world, but instead inherited a tradition, which has formed—and continues to form—my “I.”
For Butler, each individual’s “I” is formed in just this way and feels a degree of dispossession, Catholic or otherwise, which I believe to be true. But I might—at the risk of seeming too self-centered—argue that Catholics feel this dispossession more keenly. For, by virtue of being a practicing Catholic, I have not inherited the “common culture,” but rather a tradition of two thousand years which, in many ways, is archaic and foreign to the world. I live directly beside, but not within, 2020’s regime of truth. I peer into rooms where “I”s are formed by the era of social media, a secular-humanistic approach to politics, a liberal-progressive attitude; and although those forces form my “I” as well, they do so to a much lesser extent. I’m put in mind of Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” for I always feel “the dark / encroachment of that old catastrophe” before all else. For this reason, I am not only dispossessed of my own “I”, but also dispossessed of the common culture’s “I”; estranged not only from myself, but also from what Charles Taylor proclaimed to be “a secular age.” The burden of my inheritance is not only heavy; it is almost isolating. At times, I have wished I could sleep in on Sundays, be “content” with “wakened birds” and “their sweet questionings;” but this is not my lot. As Butler says, every one of us must “invariably struggle with conditions of [our] own [lives] that [we] could not have chosen.” For me, the primary condition is the Church.
And struggle I do. For, as Butler points out, if regimes of truth offer “the terms that make self-recognition possible,” they also—paradoxically—fail to recognize any “I” completely. How could they? A regime of truth is not a person, and therefore, cannot recognize us on a personal level. It can only be a “regime,” a pre-conceived way of doing things, mute and unseeing. According to Butler, we realize this failure in our regime of truth when we feel the regime’s way of doing things no longer recognizes who we think ourselves to be. She says,
The regime of truth comes into question because “I” cannot recognize myself, or will not recognize myself, within the terms that are made available to me.
Certainly, I have felt this non-recognition from the Catholic Church. I am handed the Creed’s “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” and I whisper to myself, “Do I really?”; I recite “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and I ask, “How could that possibly be?” And what’s more, I feel parts of myself budding and flourishing for which I can find no immediate home in the Church. Can I be ambitious, when Christ asks me to be humble? How do I die to the world, when I so much love being alive? In all candor, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that a tradition of two thousand years, much of which was conceived of by men, might not speak directly to a twenty-fouryear-old woman trying to make her way in the world. The fact that it does at all is something I find extraordinary.
I say all of this to my non-Catholic friends, and most, if not all, listen patiently and carefully. Afterwards, they tentatively venture, “Well, why do you go then? Why not give the whole thing up?” And that’s a good question—but it’s one to which I have an answer. I continue to go and continue to struggle because I believe the entire thing is true. It is precisely because the Church shaped my “I” that it unquestionably stands as my regime of truth—indeed, I believe it is the regime of truth. It does not matter if I find myself confused and lost more often than I find myself assured and consoled, just as it does not matter if the Church’s regime of truth renders me unrecognisable to the contemporary regime. As Puddleglum says in Lewis’ The Silver Chair, “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live like a Narnian even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
And yet, under scrutiny, such a declaration is not always convincing. While I’ll happily confess that this scene from Lewis’ novel never fails to bring tears to my eyes, I am not blind to the paradoxical (and arguably insufficient) logic of Puddleglum’s answer. In fact, there’s something obviously illogical about siding with someone who may not exist or living in a place which simply is not there. Isn’t it we Catholics who long not for Utopia, but for a physical home, for the kingdom of God? If Catholicism is only Plato’s noble lie, I’ll have no part in it. And while I continue to believe Catholicism is much more than a lie—indeed, the opposite—at some point it occurs to me that I have no reason to think this. Surely there is a patent gap between the absurdity of Puddleglum’s statement and the ferocity with which it is said; and surely there is a necessary weakness when one professes to believe a regime of truth but feels unrecognized by the regime itself. While this weakness has been identified as the cornerstone of Christianity—wouldn’t Kierkegaard simply argue that it is by virtue of the absurd we avow ourselves to unseen mysteries, and only by virtue of the absurd will the unseen come to our aid?—this paradox becomes harder to justify the more we feel dispossessed and unrecognized by the Church’s regime. To believe in the unseen is one thing. To believe and feel unseen in turn is quite another.
For Butler, it is at this point that the “I” begins not only to question a regime of truth, but also one’s own “ontological status.” She says,
To call into question a regime of truth . . . is to call into question the truth of myself and, indeed, to question my ability to tell the truth about myself, to give an account of myself.
The critical point for Butler is that at the very moment the regime of truth ceases to see us, we lose the ability to see ourselves, for we are beholden to the regime and the formative power with which it shaped our “I.” Butler, and other social theorists, observe this phenomenon with interest, writing essays with terse titles such as “An Account of Oneself.” Butler’s ease with what many (including myself) would consider a true existential crisis finds root in Butler’s larger philosophical axiom: namely, that identity is constructed by a myriad of factors, none of which are definitive and all of which can be changed. The idea that one has a core identity throughout one’s lifespan—for example, a soul—is as foolish, for Butler, as saying this core identity was created by a transcendent being. On this view, the breakdown of a regime of truth and the corresponding loss of our native conception of self is simply that: the passing away of something which never really existed. In fact, it is a welcome opportunity to “give an account of [ourselves].” For, as she says in Gender Trouble, identity is “a discursive practice . . . open to intervention and resignification,” which is “ongoing,” ad arbitrium.
In many ways, Butler’s ideas of identity and its constant reconstruction are provocative and certainly worth considering; but the reality of creation is too central to the Catholic Church to follow Butler this far. As a result, Butler’s idea that the collapse of our regime of truth is merely an opportunity to give an account easily inspires indignation among Catholics. For Catholics not only exist within the Church’s regime of truth: we are the Church itself, the mystical body of Christ, incarnate on earth. If we believe Butler when she says all regimes of truth inevitably fail to recognize one’s “I,” then for Catholics, this non-recognition must be understood as nothing less than a severing of the self. Not only do many Catholics feel alienated from the Church; they also—necessarily—feel alienated from themselves; and so, how are we supposed to account for ourselves, when it is our very selves that are collapsing? At once, we are Thomas the doubter, cynical of the resurrection, and Thomas the faithful, who, when all other Apostles were silent, said, “Let us go, that we too may die with him” (John 11:16). It is impossible to feel at home in either person. At such times, what Kierkegaard said seems particularly pathetic, and particularly true: “To contend with the whole world is a comfort, but to contend with oneself is dreadful.”
Luckily for Butler, giving an account is much simpler than the splitting of a mind. Indeed, her answer is that of a true academic: to give an account, one need only engage in the practice of critique. The “I” must extract himself from his tradition, examining “the epistemological and ontological horizon within which [its] subjects came to be.” Through this practice of critique, the “I” takes ownership of his past and therefore restructures—we may as well say redefines—the regime of truth in question. Butler says,
In the making of the story, I create myself in new form, instituting a ‘narrative-“I”’ that is superadded to the “I” whose past life I seek to tell.
For Butler, this redefinition is the cornerstone of a responsible system of ethics. No longer are we compelled to blindly follow the ethical axioms of any regime: through critique, we create our own axioms, specific to our “I,” and then construct our own regime of truth which—because we made it ourselves— will recognise us and our conception of the good more completely. Only once one has undergone this practice of critique, redefinition, and recreation can one emerge triumphant from any existential collapse. Indeed, one can emerge not only triumphant, but also better: a sharper thinker, an improved critic. It’s almost as if Butler believes we should do the work of Christ ourselves and “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
But those who attempt to do the work of Christ under their own power embark on a fool’s errand; and finding refuge in the role of critic is more feasible on paper than in reality. In some ways, assuming this role is like trying to live in two places at once: praying in the Church while examining its exterior, walking the path of faith while observing it from afar. No one can live this way. Neither fully inside nor fully outside the Church, critics are exiled to a permanent threshold, perched on the Church’s staircase with no interlocutor but themselves. And while no one would deny a thoughtful approach to the life of faith is necessary, there is no question so important it should prevent us from standing beneath the cross of Christ. Following Butler, one may easily be tempted toward man’s oldest sin: that of hubris; to say: if only we could think deeply enough, ask a better question, or make a finer distinction—then we would solve the existential dread that has plagued man since the fall. But to think this would be to commit the very oversimplification of the human condition from which Butler wants to warn us away. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man would tell us that “to be overly conscious” is nothing more than “a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.” Wouldn’t we much rather be St. Thomas Aquinas, who, on finishing his greatest work of criticism, the Summa, was asked by Christ “What reward wilt thou have?” to which Thomas responded, “None other than Yourself, my Lord.”
Last year, I had what I believe is called a “bad Lent.” Living in a new city and working a new job, I found myself isolated from all traditional centers of community, including the Church. To fill this sudden emptiness, I relied on Butler’s tool of critique. Certainly, I felt the nonrecognition and loneliness she describes— why not, I thought, employ her suggested solution? And so, I spent my time combing through every difficulty I had with the faith; placing my doubts on a pedestal and examining every contour until I could see them all in my sleep.
This consolation sought in criticism resulted in nothing less than spiritual collapse. My critiques became so idiosyncratic and, I admit, incoherent, I could not begin to articulate them to any reliable interlocutor. As a result, they grew unchecked, furthering my isolation. Moreover, my ever-strengthening doubts filled me with guilt, and therefore I scrambled to the confessional almost every day in moments of feverish piety and remorse. But these moments never lasted very long, and as a result, the sacrament became transactional for me: hurried whispers in exchange for absolution. To borrow a phrase from Bonhoeffer, I began to consider the gift of confession nothing more than “cheap grace,” for I was too inundated with my own doubts to sincerely receive the mercy offered. But I sought it anyway.
I am not sure why I missed Mass on Palm Sunday—perhaps I was ill, or else traveling, or else I simply did not go. In any case, Holy Thursday was the first time in months I entered the Church and did not see the crucifix: purple cloth draped over the suffering Christ. And immediately, something large and deep reared its head within me. I first felt regret—that I had eschewed and avoided the man whose passion and death was beginning; and I then felt an earthshattering loneliness. Met with a veiled Christ, I was struck by the conviction I had played the fool. The elaborate critiques I spent all of Lent building prevented me from seeing the very thing I purported to examine—the crux of faith itself.
The promise of Butler’s critique is the ability to imbue a dead regime with life once again. Resurrect it on your terms, in your way, and then you will be seen, albeit only by yourself. For social constructionists, this process is simple and arguably inevitable. For, when pushed, Butler does not believe regimes of truth have, strictly speaking, any “life”—the dichotomy between life and death is too objective, too tangible; the reality of both things too definite. A better image for Butler’s idea of regime is one of clay. Regimes may harden sometimes, become crusted and dusty. But at this point one need only supply the water of critique—and supply it liberally. Under its influence, the regime becomes malleable again, putty in the hand of the “I” until the original regime is only a memory. Granted, we may call this reconstruction an act of creation on the part of the “I”—but it’s worth noting it’s an act of creation based on destruction; an edifice built to contain nothing, save an infinite sequence of one’s own ideas. Indeed, in my experience, Butler’s practice of critique ultimately binds the “I” to oneself alone. It does not permit true dialogue with any regime, for the regime is not alive and cannot speak; there is no reality to account for. One is left only with oneself.
But where critique provides solipsistic stagnation, relationship offers itself as gift. If the cross on Holy Thursday taught me anything, it was this: that unless a person—for Catholics, the Son of God—stands at the heart of a regime of truth, the regime is fated to die. I believe Lewis’ naïve Puddleglum much more than I do the learned Butler; and I uphold a regime of truth which at times—and indeed chronically—does not recognize my “I,” because the experience of recognition cannot be completed by any axioms, ideas, or criticism. Granted, this experience may start there: who has not been captured by a clearly articulated idea or a perfectly crystallized thought? But true recognition requires an “other,” a subject who can recognise the “I.” And thus, the experience of recognition requires relationship, a space between two subjects who can gaze upon each other and eventually, one hopes, unify. In this way, it’s not inaccurate to think of relationship as a dance, an interplay of gazing upon the “other” and joining with him, of coming together and breaking apart again in movements not dictated by either subject per se, but by the music both hear.
Once we realize we are not standing within a regime of truth, but dancing with another subject, it becomes clear why Butler’s weapon of criticism is so limited with respect to the unique case of the Church founded by Christ. Intuitively, we understand that the unknown is a necessary part of any relationship. The presence of an “other” implies an entity not myself, and therefore fundamentally bizarre, foreign, and curious. In short, relationships themselves are a mystery—but perhaps the most overlooked mystery we live. Daily, people avow themselves to spouses they don’t fully know. And yet, marriages flourish. Of course, these relationships are vulnerable to the same doubts and criticisms the fallen world habitually breeds. But never is any one criticism enough to devastate the relationship, and this is precisely because the relationship contains the unknown quantity of the “other.” The practice of critique cannot account for someone outside oneself, and this, arguably, is Butler’s greatest mistake. For Butler, subjects give an account of identity in a triumphant act of criticism and recreation; but in relationship, we do not “account” for ourselves at all—not exactly. Rather, we allow our conception of self and any criticisms or doubts to enter the relationship, and then wait, breathlessly, to see how our partner responds. In relationship, we understand that we are no longer individual subjects with complete liberty over ourselves; we are part of a whole, mystically united with an “other,” one whom we cannot fully know.
Ultimately, to choose this life of relationship is to choose this unknown; and once chosen, it is to accept a certain amount of unfreedom—the precise unfreedom Butler examines and attempts to overcome through critique. For the more entangled we become in our relationships with an “other,” the less we control the shaping of our own identities. We are not the masters of our fate nor the captains of our souls—not completely, at least. In loving other people, we willingly allow an unknown presence to meld our “I” in profound and intimate ways which cannot be revoked. And—let’s be clear—this intimacy means more pain: pain at the feeling of unrecognition which eventually and inevitably comes. We cry out in betrayal, alarmed that one to whom we have grown so close can still, after all this time, surprise us in ways sometimes pleasurable, sometimes painful.
But the answer cannot be to fortify ourselves against others—to create a solitary regime of our own devising and seek recognition there. Such a regime only provides a mirror to the barrenness of our own soul. Rather, the answer must be to accept that relationships are both necessary and unknown, both gift and mystery. By nature of their givenness, these relationships are not of our own choosing, and there is a certain arbitrariness to that. But this arbitrariness is wrapped up with the gift of living; and it is an arbitrariness that lets us glimpse the greatest miracle: a soul distinct from our own. Undoubtedly we lose complete control over our “I” by entering into these relationships, but it is my hope that we find something infinitely more rewarding: freedom from the claustrophobia of ourselves and hope in the presence of something ever ancient and ever new: a companion and a lover; a Savior and our God.