Personhood and Other Objects
The Figural Dispute with Philosophy
Judith Butler
Barbara Johnson’s singular contribution to literary theory can hardly be
summarized by a quick set of formulations. One writes sentences like the
previous one because one has to begin somewhere, and one knows in ad-
vance that any “account” will be partial and, in that sense, fail. This volume
has a complex task because, on the one hand, we are treating “Barbara John-
son” as the author and, on the other hand, Barbara Johnson as a teacher. So
how, then, do we formulate our guiding questions? Are we asking who she
was, who she was to us, to others (questions that could involve engaging in
a contextualization of her formation and ours, the way she taught us, and
perhaps the way she teaches us still)? Or are we asking some questions about
the texts she wrote that brought her an unparalleled form of recognition
as a literary critic and theorist? If we are asking about the texts, then it would
seem we are putting the person aside. Yet oddly and felicitously, we fi nd that
Barbara Johnson’s texts, including many that appear in this volume, are cen-
trally concerned with the theoretical question of what a person is. Thus, as
we try to fi nd our way between the person of the author and the texts by the
author, Johnson herself proves to be something of a useful guide. The ques-
tions she posed are ones that we struggle with today as we try to think about
how to understand her pedagogy and her writing. In Johnson’s various read-
ings of Winnicott, Kohut, Lacan, de Man, Plath, and Baudelaire, and again
in her engagement with legal cases, she made a strong set of claims: persons
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