To look beyond ourselves is surely one of the tasks of political theology and critical theory. Each values inquiries that decenter the self, or at least seek some critical view of what we think we know of it. Both have some idea that what lies beyond our sense of self—or our aspiration to look—might help us think about what we encounter closer to hand. That the effort often sends us back to descriptions of selfhood might be an irony of some significance, or perhaps only a joke. Whether the joke is on the inquirer or on the project of inquiry overall depends, like so many jokes, on the telling.
Relationality is a critical term used to describe a version of the procession beyond the self and then back to it, perhaps transformed and having transcended the original understanding, or perhaps stuck in selfhood as a category that constrains more than it allows. I will spend most of this essay describing the term’s use to transform and transcend other definitions of selfhood, opening a sense of self that is already unbound and disrupted by multiplicity in dynamic, uncertain relations with others. But I hope the possibility of less helpful recursions might hover over what follows, until I can return to it, briefly, at the end.
Relationality as a critique of singular (male) subjectivity
In its most basic form, “relationality” is the condition of being in relation with others, and in most formulations, the condition of being somehow constituted by relationships with others. In this sense, it is often used to refer to the idea that I am made by my relationships—generally with others, or in friendships, kinship relations, loves, and other connections—and that there is no “I” without or outside of these relationships.
Whether this idea emphasizes the others with whom I am in relation or the fact of relation is one point of difference among different theories. Whether it emphasizes my development in relationships or my present or persistent constitution in them is another. Which relationships matter—who I am in relationship with, and what kinds of connection count as “relationships”—is another. Some theories of relationality emphasize the particularity of relationships and of the other(s) with whom I am in relation. Others emphasize the fact of connection or interaction, the exposure of the self before others generally or an Other, abstractly, as the defining characteristic of the idea.
All of these versions of relationality reject in some way an idea of the self as singular, independent, self-sufficient, and practically and ideally alone. This conception of the self is sometimes referred to as the “sovereign subject” or the “Enlightenment individual,” a broadly Western Enlightenment ideal of the subject of ethics, politics, and theology as a singular, self-sufficient, rationally self-governing man.
Feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero describes him as the “homo erectus,” the ideal of selfhood as a man upright and alone, inclined only by weakness, never in care or connection to others. Psychologist Carol Gilligan describes this singular subject in terms of an ideal of moral development in psychologists’ definitions of moral maturation as the achievement of the capacity for and disposition toward rational abstraction. Christian ethicist Barbara Hilkert Andolsen considers him in the form of the Anglo-European, mid-20th-century, white, working man, socialized toward independence and a sense of individual achievement which errs toward pride.
These are just a few of the characterizations of the subject against which arguments for relationality have been made. They are all conceptions of the ideal or normal subject of ethics and politics as notably male and otherwise associated with masculine norms.
A primary strand of thinking about relationality emerges from feminist critiques of ideals of subjectivity that take the norms to which men are socialized as standard and the norms to which women are socialized as aberrant. Gilligan, for example, developed her theory of relationality from hearing a “different voice” in her female subjects, who were considered “morally immature” according to the standards of development that took rational abstraction as the ideal. Others have argued for a relational view of the self to recover the work of caregiving, often performed by women, as labor. For this work to be recognized as something more than “labors of love,” charming and admirable but not politically or economically significant, the subject of ethics and politics cannot be considered normally and ideally independent. We must instead imagine ourselves to be normally and perhaps ideally dependent, emmeshed in a web of relations, needing each other and needed by each other.
If we assume and idealize independence, the argument goes, needs will go unmet or will seem like exceptional burdens, or the effort of meeting needs will be ignored so as to deny their presence. Independence of some kinds might be possible for some individuals at some times in their lives. But as the philosopher Eva Feder Kittay argues, independence is the condition we can least guarantee. We are born dependent and tend to remain dependent to varying degrees throughout our lives. Our ordinary dependence—and the care on which we depend—must be recognized in our conception of the subject of ethics and politics. When it is not, people who provide care lead unintelligible lives, and many who need care will be castigated as immature, insufficient, or otherwise failing to become a full and proper self.
A conception of the self as normally dependent on others is one starting point for relationality in this way. It encourages a view of ourselves as tied up with each other because we need them. We might need them to stay alive, most basically, or for our flourishing, or both. My dependence on another could be for emotional growth or the shared pursuit of the good, and these senses of dependence encourage a sense of relationality as the full constitution of myself—my life, my survival, and my flourishing—in relationship with others.
We might also define dependence on others in terms of our need for them not to harm us. This sense of dependence could be traced to Hobbes’s account of man in the state of nature, in which the natural equality of our ability to kill makes us each vulnerable to each other. For Hobbes, this universality of vulnerability leads to the “war of all against all,” as we each decide to strike before we can be struck. For many theorists of relationality, our dependence on others not to harm us indicates that we are bound up in each other in a multitude of ways: constituted in relationships and thus constitutively exposed and vulnerable in those relationships, dependent on them for existence in both negative and positive senses.
Paradigms of relationality
Most theories of relationality begin, or somewhere feature, a paradigm of relationship from which it derives its account of the relational self. One way to understand the different strands of thinking about relationality is to consider the different paradigms of relationship used by different theorists.
The paradigm of relation we have been considering so far in the feminist rejection of the singular subject is a relation of care, in which a caregiver, usually a woman, is providing for the needs of others, usually her immediate family; the children, sick, disabled, and elderly of her community; or the children, sick, disabled, and elderly of a wealthier community. This paradigm of caregiving is taken in these arguments to require a sense of relational selfhood in which care can be valued ethically and politically by imagining dependence on care to be normal and persistent, and caregiving, then, to be an essential activity of communities. People are “relational” in this view in that they are not independent and should not idealize independence as an achievement. They are bound up in each other in that they require each other for care. Caring for each other should, then, become a necessary or obligatory practice of at least some members of any community—who should then be recognized and compensated for their work.
Related to this paradigm of caregiving is the more specific paradigm of the infant cared for by the mother. In this scene of relationality, the infant lays radically exposed, unable to provide for themselves and thus vulnerable both to violence and a lack of care (see Cavarero, 2009). They are constituted in and by their relation with their mother or other primary caregivers who must provide for them lest they die of exposure, and who shape them into the person they will be. This paradigm of relation is sometimes used to argue for the ethical obligation to care for the vulnerable, as not to care (for the radically vulnerable, helpless infant) would be to do violence.
It is also used to describe the development of the self in relation with others: being made by one’s relationships, taught and shaped by one’s family and community. This is a sense of relational selfhood that sometimes aligns with ideas from critics of the Enlightenment, like Herder and Hegel, who write about the “national” or “social” constitution of selves. Herder describes our “mothers as first philosophy teachers,” because they teach us language and thus (he argues, contra Kant) the concepts with which we think. He is less concerned with the bodily vulnerability of the infant than the child-as-unformed-subject, but there are similarities in the scene and what he understands it to explain.
Another paradigm of relation also begins from infancy but imagines the infant exposed to the world itself, and to many people in that exposure. Hannah Arendt describes our “entrance onto the world stage” when we are born, exposed to others before we are anything else. This exposure constitutes us as political subjects from the start, living our lives in front of others and in relationships with them. There is no “I,” she argues from this scene, who exists prior to our political selves in this sense. We are born exposed and of the world, never without relations with others.
Emmanuel Levinas offers the paradigm of encounter with an Other, identified in his writing by their face. The Other is not defined in this paradigm of relation by a kinship relationship or other special bond. They appear as a face before one, and that face bespeaks a prior ethical responsibility to the other. You discover in their face, Levinas argues, that you were already responsible for them. This responsibility is not brought forth by their cry or their radical vulnerability, as in infancy, but by the fact of alterity, which renders us aware of our prior ethical obligation to the other. Our obligation to the other is in fact prior to ourselves, Levinas argues; we are constituted in ethical relation, in his view, not by our bodily dependence in exposure.
Judith Butler offers a related paradigm of relation in her discussion of relationality made palpable in mourning. Butler describes that we understand our boundedness in others anew when we look to them and do not see their faces after they’ve died, when we try to lean on them for help or reach out to them and find that they are not there. We learn in these scenes that we were bound up in them, that there is no “I” without them or “us,” even if we might have imagined there was precisely an independent “I” who was in a relationship with them.
To take mourning as a paradigm of relationality might seem like an effort to look to the exception to the rule, but I think it resonates profoundly with some conceptions of theological relationality that take the relation with God as the paradigm of our constitution in and by our relations with others. Some of these arguments emphasize our being creations of God, made by God and thus made in relation with God. Others emphasize ongoing relations with God in addition to creation, including the covenantal relationship of Jews to God or relationships of divine love to all human beings. In these theories, we are constituted in and by these relationships with God, though we may not always find God “there” for us as we find caregivers in the scenes of infancy and dependence discussed earlier. Instead, God might be far away, even infinitely far. Our formation in relation with God is thus figured as a kind of being-undone-in-the-other, as in Butler’s description of mourning: a discovery that I am not independent and alone precisely in the silence or absence of the other.
Finally, a crucial paradigm of relationality figures our constitution in relationships with both human and non-human living things, or matter generally. In this understanding, we are made in and by our relationships with plants and animals, the environment, natural materials, materials that we form and that form us. Some theories that emphasize these forms of relationality encourage us to think broadly about the “matter” that makes us. Others define specific animals, plants, land, and weather with which we are in relation: sacred connections, for example, with certain lands, as in some indigenous North American senses of relationality, or with certain animals, as in some indigenous African understandings of the self.
As a critical term, relationality rejects individualist conceptions of the self and subject for a conception of the self as made by its relations with others, such that there may be no “I” without “you” or “us.” It is resonant in this way with many strands of theology and political thought that are often crucially engaged with our entanglement with others, for better or worse. Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community. Where it retraces its steps back to the self and stands still, it mistakes precisely what it could be to take a stand as a relational subject.
Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1998.
Critical argument for the condition of human beings as exposed to others and constituted in that exposure. Substantial reply to Marx on these grounds, among much else.
Mara Benjamin. The Obligated Self. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018.
Benjamin argues for the consideration of the labor of raising children as a source of ethical questions about power and obligation to others.
Judith Butler. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997.
A theory of the creation of the psyche by the workings of power in social life, laying crucial foundations for the theory of relationality that she develops in a more ethical register in later writings.
—. Precarious Life. New York: Verso, 2004.
Collection of essays written after 9/11 developing an idea of relational subjectivity in mourning and the experience of violence.
—. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Butler’s first sustained ethical argument, a discussion of the moral life through a critique of a singular conception of the moral self as fundamentally more opaque to oneself than most moral reasoning imagines.
—. The Force of Nonviolence. New York: Verso, 2020.
An argument for nonviolence on the basis of the relational constitution of the self, already constituted by and implicated in the other against whom one might do violence, even in “self”-defense.
Adriana Cavarero. Relating Narratives. Translated by Paul A. Kottman. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Argument for the need for others to tell our stories, and the relational self understood through the narration of oneself by others. Engaged substantially by Butler in Giving an Account of Onself, and productively read together.
—. Horrorism. Translated by William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Consideration of contemporary terroristic violence as a violation or destruction of the relational self.
—. Inclinations. Translated by Amanda Minervini. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.
A critique of the subject of Western thought as ideally solitary, singular, and alone. Cavarero argues for the replacement of this subject with the movement of inclinations as in caregiving.
Carol Gilligan. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Classic work of care ethics presenting the findings of psychology studies challenging field standards of moral development in children to propose a relational perspective of moral reasoning.
Eva Feder Kittay. Love’s Labor. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Critique of Rawls and other liberal thinkers for the presumption of the independence of the subject; proposal of liberal political theory and ethics built from an assumption of radical human dependency.
Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Critical articulation of Levinas’s theory of alterity in the confrontation with the Other, constituting the self as already ethically responsible for the other.
Sara Ruddick. Maternal Thinking. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989.
Consideration of the labor of raising children as a source of a different kind of thinking, based in part in the need to assume connection between persons instead of independence or singularity.