Butlerianism: On Elegant Couples

If one is pressed for time and can only read two books, it is my opinion that one can feel entitled to speak with a certain degree of authority about Judith Butler if one has read only The Psychic Life of Power and Precarious Life. No other combination of two books seem to me to deliver what this combination does — including any possible combinations of which Gender Trouble would be a member, since one would have to “waste” the second book offsetting one’s erroneous impressions of Gender Trouble.

This declaration gives me an idea for a potentially fun passtime that will help generate volume of comments I need to help me get through the remainder of this Butler paper (approx. 10 more pages). For any given author, what two books can one read to grasp the “whole” of the author’s thought in as elegant and economical a manner as possible? Bonus points for combinations that leave out the most obvious choices.

Here’s a stab at Kierkegaard: Repetition and Practice in Christianity.

(A possible drawback of this type of elegant combination: only after reading nearly all of an author’s work can one understand precisely why the elegant combination gives one the “whole.”)

29 thoughts on “Butlerianism: On Elegant Couples

  1. I’ll try Derrida, although I haven’t read even nearly all of his works:

    Introduction to The Origin of Geometry and Politics of Friendship.

    Although it’s hard not to include the obvious choice–Of Grammatology–since Deriida himself has said several times (I believe) that that book was a turning point in his thought. This is also highly interpretative, since I’m ignoring books which by rights I should include in the name of capturing the “whole”, but which I think fail to properly describe his genius–but that’s why I like this game.

  2. What a strange duo for Kierkegaard! I most likely would have picked Fear and Trembling and Stages on Life’s Way.

    Zizek?! Sublime Object of Ideology and Tarrying With The Negative.

    Plato is a harder one, because you can’t boil him down very easily, but my reluctant picks would be the Apology and the Republic.

    Late Derrida is interesting, but Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference are the two capstones.

  3. For Heidegger, I’d say Poetry, Language, Thought and The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

    For Derrida, Positions and On the Name.

    Adam is spot-on w/ Zizek.

    What about Agamben? His earlier work on language has been unjustifiably been lost in the shuffle of his most recent work.

  4. I withold final judgment until I’ve read the recently-reprinted books, but for Agamben I would tentatively choose The Coming Community and The Time That Remains.

    My attempt with Kant: Critique of Judgment and “The Supposed Right to Lie….”

  5. Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic and Encyclopedia Philosophy of Mind. Pretty sure the obvious picks would be PhdG and Philosophy of Right, so I am going to claim bonus points.

    I’d swap the Religionbook for “On A Supposed Right To Life…” for Kant, but the third Critique is obviously the way to answer this and still get bonus points. (This entire exercise is no fun if you don’t try for bonus points. At least for guys like Hegel and Kant who only have a half-dozen works that are ever looked at.)

  6. Adam,

    I know, I know; I’ve been picking the obvious ones. Of course the idea of a slightly less known, gnomic work that contains the whole of the larger books appeals to me. It’s just that I tend to think of those “finds” in terms of lesser-known authors, rather than lesser-known works. In my experience, books like Of Grammatology become metonymies of their authors for a reason. (E.g. I’d be tempted to do Pynchon, and suggest Crying of Lot 49 together with something else, but everybody knows that you should read that and save yourself a couple lost years reading the others.)


    I was just writing on Ruskin, as it happens; I’d suggest “The Mystery of Life and Its Arts” in addition to Modern Painters.


    I respectfully disagree with Tusar; I think Integral Yoga is a more necessary complement to The Life Divine.

  7. As per Ruskin I am going to go for errmmmm Unto This Lastand The Political Economy of Art. Me and you Brad – similar research projects…

    John Milbank – The Word Made Strange and his short essay Midwinter Sacrifice. This is because the first is an excellent overview of everything important to him and the second is beautifully written.

    Deleuze anyone?

    I would go for Derrida: Limited, Inc, Given Time

  8. PS My Ruskin ones are no good at all. No good at all. Sorry.

    Rest are okay mind you.

    George Bataille: this is a tough one as most of his texts are fairly short and he wrote a good range of stuff. Theory of Religion might be a worthy choice, but it is really not that great a theory of religion.

  9. Making a grab at those coveted bonus points, for Deleuze I’d say the two Cinema books. If you could pretend those are just one book, then ‘Cinema’ and ‘Pure Immanence’.

    Bonus points aside, then ‘Difference & Repetition’ + ‘What is Philosophy?’.

    I wonder what Anthony would say.

  10. Anselm: Monologion and On the Fall of the Devil.

    (I finished the Butler paper shortly before midnight yesterday, and a lot of the credit for that belongs to this very comment thread.)

  11. Bataille:Inner Experience and The Psychological Structure of Fascism.


    Inner experience is a good overview of his later whacky religious stuff, his trunanced mysticism, and his Blanchot like worries about death/God/his death etc.

    The Psychological Structure of Fascism because only by reading through lots of his stuff do you realise that the dichotomy he establishes between homogeneous and hetrogeneous matter is central to his later discussions of everything: transgression, the sacred, the lot.


  12. Alex, if you have a precis of your work on Ruskin, I’d be keen to see it — if you’re willing to share. If so, you can email me at baj1975 – at – gmail.com

  13. Alex,

    One minor W. nitpick — sorry! — is that Wittgenstein only published the Tractatus and a review during his lifetime. PI is still posthumous, even though it is his second main work.

    Here’s my one minor contribution:

    Henri de Lubac: Catholicism and Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (self-claimed bonus points for intentionally skipping over the wonderful The Mystery of the Supernatural in favor of this latter work, as it is a key de Lubacian text which Milbank neglects in his book, which undermines his historical [but not theological] argument).

    If this is still going on, anybody wanna try Nietzsche?

  14. On Nietzsche, the maximum bonus points go to the person who comes up with a combination that meets two core requirements:

    1. It is plausible
    2. It includes The Case of Wagner

  15. Kaufmann pairs The Birth of Tragedy with The Case of Wagner in the vintage edition. Maybe I haven’t listened to enough Wagner, or maybe I simply read sloppily, but I don’t think it was extraordinarily helpful even explicitly juxtaposed by the introduction. I won’t even try. Instead:

    Plato: Timaeus and The Seventh Letter

  16. Wittgenstein is easy no? Just his two offically printed works (Tractatus and PI)

    One, actually. PI is posthumous, and the second part was assembled by Anscombe and someone else (can’t remember who).

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