In her first essay contribution to the 2000 volume Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Butler summarizes Hegel’s alternative to the abstract universality of the Kantian subject: “We do not remain the same, and neither do our cognitive categories, as we enter into a knowing encounter with the world. Both the knowing subject and the world are undone and redone by the act of knowledge” (20). One should not, however, limit this to the narrow confines of the “knowing subject.” Or, rather, one should, with Whitehead, understand the category of “knowing subject” to be quite a bit wider than the human activities of knowledge creation.

Furthermore, “universality is…linked to the problem of reciprocal recognition,” which is itself a matter of “customary practices” (20). Butler now moves to her own theoretical argument, which has to do with the boundaries between cultures: “if Hegel’s notion of universality is to prove good under conditions of hybrid cultures and vacillating national boundaries, it will have to become a universality forged through the work of cultural translation.” Her futher explanation sounds contradictory. First, Butler says that cultures cannot have their boundaries set, “as if one culture’s notion of universality could be translated into another’s.” Then, in place of cultures being “bounded entities,” Butler refers to “the mode of their exchange” as “constitutive of their identity.” How can exchange happen between unbounded entities? This is in direct opposition to Marx’s point about the emergence of commerce inter mundia, that is, between distinct social groups. Butler commits a sleight of hand: she wants to advance a theory of “this constitutive act of cultural translation” while, in effect, maintaining that particular cultures do not exist.

What makes more sense is her call “to see the notion of a discrete culture and entitative ‘culture’ as essentially other to itself” (25). Rather than “bounded,” Butler should have said “complete.” Otherwise, she needs to offer an alternative unit of analysis than culture.

Butler on Zizek’s style and m.o.: “The link between theoretical formalism and a technological approach to the example becomes explicit here: theory is applied to its examples, and its relation to its example is an ‘external’ one, in Hegelian terms. The theory is articulated on its self-sufficiency, and then shifts register only for the pedagogical purpose of illustrating an already accomplished truth” (26).

On the difference in Zizek’s structural performativity and Butler’s cultural performativity. Both understand the positing function of language as an action that establishes “the illusion of a prior substantiality” (29).

“But where Zizek isolates the structural features of linguistic positing and offers cultural examples to illustrate this structural truth, I am, I believe, more concerned to rethink performativity as cultural ritual, as the reiteration of cultural norms, as the habitus of the body in which structural and social dimensions of meaning are not finally separable” (29).

Next, Butler discusses Laclau’s work on particularism, universality, and the chain of equivalence (30). Taking Saussure as his theoretical inspiration, “Laclau attempts to show that each and every particular identity is never complete,” such that every identity shares the same “structural feature” of “a constitutive incompleteness. A particular identity becomes an identity by virtue of its relative location in an open system of differential relations.” Universality is here premised on “the absence of any such shared content” (31).

How about Wynter’s sociogenic principle? Such a principle, like Stiegler’s discussion of tendencies, seems to provide something universal without being a common element or content.

In any event, this does not strike me as actually all that political. For the discussion is about subject formation and identity rather than the distribution of material resources for a social order’s reproduction. Butler is concerned with the incompleteness of linguistic meaning. While this can be linked to politics, it is not by that very fact itself political.

Closer to Da Silva than Da Silva admits (Toward a Global Idea of Race, pp.5–6):

“The point [of Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?"] would not be to extend a violent regime to include the subaltern as one of its members: she is, indeed, already included there, and it is precisely the means of her inclusion that effects the violence of her effacement. There is no one ‘other’ there, at the site of the subaltern, but an array of peoples who cannot be homogenized, or whose homogenization is the effect of the epistemic violence itself” (36).

Indeed, in describing Spivak’s position, Butler refers to her refusal of “the ruse of the transparency that is the instrument of colonial ‘reason’” (36). In its place, “Spivak offers cultural translation as both a theory and practice of political responsibility.”

Here’s Butler’s take on how “universality has been used to extend certain colonialist and racist understandings of civilized ‘man’,” etc. (39):

“When we begin the critique of such notions of universality, it may seem to some… that we operate with another concept of universality in mind, one which would be truly all-encompassing. Laclau has argued persuasively that no concept of universality can ever be all-encompassing, and that were it to enclose all possible contents, it would not only close the concept of time, but ruin the political efficacy of universality itself. Universality belongs to an open-ended hegemonic struggle” (39).

However, I think she makes two mistakes here. First, one can easily undercut that usage of universality as false. Should it not be put in quotes so as to indicate that it is a “claim to universality” or a “presupposed idea of what counts as universal” that is operative? Just because imperial powers invoke a commitment to democracy and human rights when bombing countries does not mean their speech is correct. On the contrary, for Butler “the exclusionary character of those conventional norms of universality does not preclude further recourse to the term” (39). Recourse to the term, yes, but that does not make it correct or principled, it makes it ideological.

Second, why not, as Wynter has, make the very process of cultural differentiation into the subject of universality? Well, Butler rejectes such a principle out of hand: “Although they often appear as transcultural or formal criteria by which existing cultural conventions are to be judged, they are precisely cultural conventions which have, through a process of abstraction, come to appear as post-conventional principles” (39).

The open-ended “not yet” of universality, which Butler argues “constitutes it essentially,” instead accepts the validity of these intrinsically exclusionary claims to universality. I suspect that she remains caught between the abstract universal and the concrete universal. She continues to treat the universal as something that never has enough differences to fill itself out, and in this regard, her conception of universality is abstract. But insofar as she acknowledges the incompleteness and consequent changeability of the universal, there is at least a gesture toward concreteness. However, it is not actually the concrete universal because Butler has not thought the identity of universal and particular subsisting in the individual. Indeed, the individual—the third moment or “functional part” of the notion/concept—is absent in this essay.