These days Judith Butler is turning down invitations to some places such as Germany. The reason is not so much that’s she’s busy, but that she is concerned about her ‘own person’, especially in light of the brouhaha surrounding the awarding of the Adorno prize and her anti-Zionist stand. Fair enough, you might say. But that becomes a little more difficult in light of her engagement in that form of moralizing, of telling others what to do, known as ‘ethics’.

In Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), Butler seeks to do precisely that. Here she argues that every account is an address, directed to ‘you’ in particular. Ethics is therefore a thoroughly relational activity, arising in dialogue, that is, discursively: ‘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’ (p. 50). The key to Butler’s argument is that the accounts given are limited, broken, incoherent and incomplete. Here ethics begins. If my account is limited, then that should lead me to patience for an interlocutor caught in the same bind. Patience, tolerance and an effort to understand – these flow from the awareness that both interlocutors struggle with comparable incoherencies.

That is, one opens up to the ‘other’ (whatever that is) in vulnerability, in openness … or as she puts it at times, in permeability. Nicely liberal, really. But it is a little difficult to see how one may be vulnerable or even permeable if one doesn’t engage in the first place for fear of one’s person.