|Photo: Elena Loizidou|
Elena Loizidou comments on the work of Judith Butler, and introduces our Judith Butler Archive.
The Archive is split between those articles published in Theory, Culture & Society and those published in Body & Society between 1997 and 2009, and contains 2 articles by Butler herself. These articles will be free to access until 30th April.
The staff of life: Commentary on Judith Butler
Nathan Schneider recently wrote: ‘Judith Butler’s philosophy is an assault on common sense, on the atrophy of thinking. It untangles not only how ideas compel us to action, but how unexamined action leaves us with unexamined ideas—and, then, disastrous politics’. Who is then this philosopher that Schneider introduces with such respect in his interview for the art and politics magazine Guernica?
Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, University of Berkeley, California, the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School, Switzerland and Visiting Professor at the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, London. She is the sole author of 10 books: Gender Trouble (1990; 1999a), Bodies that Matter (1993), Excitable Speech (1997b), The Psychic Life of Power (1997a), Subjects of Desire (1999b), Antigone’s Claim (2000a), Giving an Account of Oneself (2003), Precarious Life (2004a), Undoing Gender (2004b); Frames of War (2009) She co-authored, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000) with Slavoj Zizek and Ernesto Laclau, Who sings the Nation-State? (2007) with Gayatri Spivak, and, Is Critique Secular? (2009) with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown and Saba Mahmood. She is also the author of numerous articles and some interviews (notably Bell (1999a) (2010) and with William Connoly ( Butler: 2000d)). Brownwlyn Davies recently edited a collection of conversations (Judith Butler in Conversation (2008)) where we are exposed in print to her intellectual dexterity and generosity towards her interlocutors.
Her writings and conversations reflect her sustained engagement with questions of life, desire and subjectivity. The philosophy of Hegel and Levinas, along with the theoretical inputs of Foucault, Derrida, Witting, de Beauvoir (see Hughes and Witz: 1997), Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt and psychoanalysis have been influential in her work. In turn, her philosophical outputs have influenced and transformed a number of disciplines, from women studies to law. This is evidenced by the publication of The Judith Butler Reader (2004) and a number of monographs analyzing, reflecting and critiquing her thought: Judith Butler: Routledge Critical Thinkers (Salih: 2002), Judith Butler (Live Theory) (Kirby:2006), Judith Butler: Ethics Law Politics (Loizidou: 2007), Judith Butler from Norms to Politcs (Lloyd: 2007), Unbecoming Subjects (Thiem, 2008) Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative (Jagger: 2008).
Judith Butler though is not just a mere academic philosopher. On the contrary Judith Butler does not rest at the shores of the teaching room or her office. She is a political activist, voicing her critical thought against the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israeli politics, and racist and sex and gender discrimination politics. She has by now a sustained critique in her writings of Israel’s politics and assaults against the Palestinian People and in an article in the London Review of Books she argues for distinguishing between contesting Israeli politics and being a good Jew, contesting in this way the more popular opinion that wants these two practices to remain interlinked and provide a sustained and uncritical support to Israeli politics. This summer we also saw her refusing in person the Civil Courage Award of the Christopher Day Street Parade in Berlin on the grounds that the organisation sustained racist practices against migrant queers. Judith Butler’s public and political expressions are a testament to her ‘fidelity’ to responsibility, interdependence and life.
Let’s see though why Judith Butler renders such respectful comments as the ones offered by Schneider above. Butler has provided us with a Copernican revolution regarding our understanding of the subject. In Gender Trouble (1990) she offers us a different path in understanding the gendered subject. Gender Trouble (1990), as is widely known, questions those understandings of gender, in which gender is presented as being based on sexual difference, consequentially recognizing masculinity and femininity as the only two spectrums of gender. Butler showed instead how gender is a process, and not some essence that pre-exists a subject’s formation. As such, she introduced the concept of ‘gender performativity’ in the academy. The practice of ‘gender performativity’ exposes us to the ways in which subjects outside the categories of femininity and masculinity are obstructed from becoming culturally intelligible. And, simultaneously, allows us to see how such preclusions and foreclosures can subvert totalising understandings of gender (feminine/masculine), enabling the possibility of so called ‘abjected’ subjects to become culturally intelligible.
It is worth noting that performativity is a practice of citationality by ‘which discourse produces the effects it names’ (Butler, 1993: 2). ‘Gender performativity’ is also a practice of citationality, though this time discourse produces bodies ‘as already sexed’ (Ahmed, 1998:113); that is, as having a sex prior to naming. As you can see, language, and more specifically a critical analysis of the way language operates, is at the centre of Butler’s method of analyzing gender. The term performativity is a linguistic term that Butler takes from Austin (1962) and Derrida (1992) and adapts to gender. Butler’s ‘performativity’, though originally used by her to ‘trouble’ gender conceptions, has been subsequently used by her to explore more generally the ways in which the subject is formed. Excitable Speech (1997) is an example of Judith Butler’s use of her own ‘construction’ of performativity in analyzing racist and other injurious forms of speech. Her concept of ‘gender performativity’ has been the focus of analysis (Salih: 2002, 62-64); Bell: 2006, 214-17; Loizidou: 2007, ) and critical engagement ( Bell, 2007; Rothenberg, 2006; Sedgwick, 2003), and has been exposed to criticisms that focus primarily on the shortcomings of performativity (as an analytical method), as it is seen as failing to reflect the complexities of our lives.
Her ‘subject’ as you may have gathered is not created ex-nihilo. It rather depends on an ‘outside’ (norms, culture, society) for its formation. It is an ex-static subject. And indeed interdependence shapes Judith Butler’s work. It is the ‘scaffolding’ that holds her work together. She demonstrates that interdependence is inevitable; no subject is autonomous (Butler, 2010; Bell 2010) and closed, but rather ex-static, contingent, always in the process of making, ‘depending’ on an outside (i.e. power, society, culture) ( Butler, 2009a) for survival, recognition, persistence. Indeed Butler’s subject is formed in friction of the inside-outside ( Butler: 1997a). This ‘dependence’ on an outside for the formation of the subject does not nevertheless preclude the subject from being agentic ( Butler: 1997a). The subject can subvert the outside (Butler, 1990: 5) and hence through subversion gain its agency. Her critics, though, have warned her of the dangers that loom for the ex-static subject; running a risk of giving up its agency (McNay: 1997) or being purely intentional (Rothenberg: 2006). It is an important thought to note that Butler recognises the subject may not be able to articulate their agency as they may be located in totalising situations, situations whereby they are completely stripped from the possibility of re-acting. In Precarious Lives (2006) and Frames of War (2009) she is explicit about this. In both occasions she articulates that certain subjects, prisoners of war or populations that are not recognised as people (e.g.Palestinians, Queer asylum seekers) are unable to account for themselves (a practice that enables us to access our agency), for the ‘outside’ is overwhelmingly totalising, ‘framing’ as such outside the parameters of gaining access to agency. Frames of War (2009) in relation to this takes even a step further. It explains how this takes place and how we may begin re-addressing this imbalance by articulating a ‘bodily ontology’ based precisely on precarity and vulnerability, in the hope of paving the path to a better life.
Judith Butler’s conceptualisation of the subject (as argued by Loizidou, 2007) is inextricably linked with the problematic of life. In Subjects of Desire (1999b) she offers a reading of desire that is linked to life. In Gender Trouble (1990) life takes the form of gendered life, as in Bodies that Matter (1993) and Undoing Gender (2004b). Excitable Speech (1997) reflects upon injuries inflicted on lives by speech acts. In more recent work, Antigone’s Claim (2000a), Giving an Account of Oneself (2003; 2005) and Precarious life (2004a) as well as Frames of War (2009), she shows the limits that the ethical, political realm imposes upon life. Through the concept of ‘life’, Butler presents to us the practices involved in draining out, restraining, or even destroying ‘life’, as well as possible ways in which we may continue ‘resisting’ restrictions imposed upon us by state apparatuses (such as governmental officials and legislative limitations), disciplinary regimes and norms, so as to be able to have livable lives.
When considering possible ways through which we may open up a space for a better life, Butler directly confronts realms of ethics, politics, law, realms that stage a claim on life (via responsibility, decisionism, justice) and in certain circumstances, such as those of a state of emergency (but not only), tend to threaten or totalise life. In confronting these stakeholders of life (ethics, politics, law) she demonstrates, in the same way she did when she deconstructed gender, how each one of these realms tries to lay a total claim over life, and how such an act exposes that they are interdependent. How may it then be possible to subvert and transform such violence you may ask? In An Account of Oneself (2003) she points out that the practice of deliberation may be a possible way of opening a space for an ethics of recognition, a space that under totalising circumstances may not exist. In most of her work she talks about subversion as a way of combating normative assumptions regarding subjects. In ‘Competing Universalities’ (2000b: 136-181) she invokes translation, mediating between competing universal claims. These three practices, have a common aim; to sustain an agonistic relationship between legal, political and ethical spheres, prevent the totalisation of one sphere over the others and create at least the background conditions for a more ‘livable and viable life’. As each sphere or realm of life depends on each other to sustain its goals regarding life, any possibility for a better life necessarily has to retain an open and agonistic relationship between these spheres of life.
Her engagement with aesthetics has been lesser. In her latest work we observe, though, a subtle and refined engagement with this realm. In Frames of War (2009) she picks up scenes of war, killings, displacement, prisoners of war, incarceration and poetry, to expose and depict what the frame of main-stream media pushes out, but moreover to raise through ephemeral images our interdependence on this earth. What may be the significance of seeing these images through Judith Butler’s eyes and to see the vulnerability, precariousness and interdependence that people on this earth have with each other? What does she hope that the scene of art may offer? Let’s hear her:
…the utopian perception that sometimes breaks through the realm of art is one in which a notion of time emerges that counters and destroys the time structured by retribution and atonement. It constitutes a form of forgiveness that offers no understanding of the guilty deed, but rather the obliteration of the mark of guilt itself. This power of obliteration constitutes a certain kind of violence, but it is important to understand that this is a violence mobilised against the conception of violence implied by retribution. Understood as ‘a critical violence’, it is mobilised against the logic of atonement and retribution alike.
( Butler, 2008: 74)
As I was writing this commentary, I found myself visiting an old family friend at the General Hospital in Nicosia, Cyprus. In its corridors a young tall man that had a pacemaker installed was walking side by side a visibly older short man whose operation required him to be assisted by his own ventilating machine. I heard the younger man asking the older: ‘When do you think we’ll be out of here?’. Without hesitation the older answered ‘Whenever they tell us, we just need patience’. I am conveying this image not because it so clearly transmits a scene of interdependence (man-man, man-machine, man-medical institution, man-social, man-environment) but rather for another reason. Judith Butler writes above that art, and she is talking about Walter Benjamin’s engagement with Kandisky and Klee in that instance, can provide us with a perception that breaks away from the time of vengeance, retribution, guilt, territorial expansiveness. The hope that she invests in art, at least from the essay that I cite above, is a hope that it can provide us even fleetingly with the space/time and canvas for reflecting on the possibility of a different life world. She refers to this trick or treat that art can offer as being Utopian. The time of forgiveness that is transmitted through the media of painting in the cited essay is depicted as Utopian. The scene at the hospital, transmits to my mind how the break from the time of vengeance to the time of patience, maybe more everyday than Utopian. As Frames of War (2009) successfully argues, our very earthly existence, persistence and survival may very well depend In stilling (or slowing down) moments (precarity and vulnerability) as the one at hospital, in the process of shattering those frames that frame them differently (as efficient government of populations) or even worse of framing them out. Her outlook, an outwards outlook, an outlook that sees different, that teaches us to see, even the Utopian in my case, as everyday and opens her readers and listeners to seeing life differently, with gentleness even if sounded by pain, mourning, harshness and precarity. And if her outlook is an assault, as Schneider suggests, then it takes the form of a gentle touch, a touch that invites us to embrace the earth with sharper vision and sensitivity in the hope that we can curb the rush to violence.
Ahmed, S (1998) Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bell, V (1999) ‘On speech, race and melancholia: an interview with Judith Butler’ Theory, Culture & Society 16(2):163-174.
Bell, V (2002) ‘Feminist thought and the totalitarian interloper: on rhetoric and the fear of “dangerous thinking”’ Economy and Society 31(4):573-587
Bell, V (2007) Culture and Performance: The Challenge of Ethics, Politics and Feminist Theory Oxford: Berg Publishers. Bell, V (2010) ‘ New Scenes of Vulnerability, Agency and Plurality: An interview with Judith Butler’ Theory, Culture & Society 27(1):130- 152.
Butler, J (1987) ‘Variations on sex and gender’, in Benhabib, S and Cornel, D (eds), Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in Late-Capitalist Societies, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Butler, J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London, New York: Routledge.
Butler, J (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, London ,New York: Routledge.
Butler, J (1997a) The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Butler, J (1997b) Excitable speech: A Politics of the Performative, London, New York: Routledge.
Butler, J (1998) ‘Merely cultural’ New Left Review 227: 33-44.
Butler, J (1999a) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London, New York: Routledge.
Butler, J (1999b) Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflection in Twentieth-Century France, NewYork: Columbia University Press.
Butler, J (2000a) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, New York: Columbia University Press.
Butler, J , Zizek, S and Laclau, E (2000b) Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, London ,New York: Verso.
Butler, J (2000c ) ‘Politics, power and ethics: a discussion between Judith Butler and William Conolly’ Theory & Event 4(2), http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theoryand event/toc/index.html (accessed on 15th January 2006).
Butler, J (2001) ‘How can I deny that these hands and this body are mine?’, in Cohen, T, Cohen, B, Miller, J, and Warminski, A (eds), Material Events: Paul De Man and the Afterlife of Theory, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press .
Butler, J (2003a) Giving an Account of Oneself, Assen: Koninklijke Van Gorcum.
Butler, J (2003 b)’ No, it’s not anti-semitic’ LRB 25 (16): 19-21
Butler, J (2004a) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London ,New York: Verso.
Butler, J (2004b) Undoing Gender London, New York: Routledge.
Butler, J (2004c) ‘Judith Butler: reanimating the social’, in Gane, N (ed), The Future of Social Theory, London and New York: Continuum.
Butler, J (2006) ‘Afterward’ in Armour, T. E and Ville, M. St. S (eds) Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler New York: Columbia University Press.
Butler, J and Spivak (2007) Who Sings the Nation-State? New York: Seagul.
Butler, J (2008) ‘Beyond Seduction and Morality: Benjamin’s Early Aesthetics’ in Costello, D. and Willsdon, D. (eds) The Life and Death of Images: Ethics and Aesthetics London: Tate Publishing.
Butler, J (2009a) Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London, New York: Verso.
Butler, J,Asad, T, Brown, W, and Mahmood, S. (2009b) Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Butler, J (5th of March ,2010) ‘Assuming Gender’ lecture given at the Centre for Gender, Sexuality and Law at Columbia UniversityNew York.. http://media.law.columbia.edu/CGSL/butlersymposium100305pt4flv.html
Butler, J (June, 2010) ‘I must distance myself ‘http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-must-distance-myself/
Brownwyn, D (eds) (2008) Judith Butler in Conversation: Analyzing the Texts and the Talk of Everyday Life, London, New York: Routledge.
Chambers, A.S (2007) ‘ Sex’ and the Problem of the Body: Reconstructing Judith Butler’s Theory Body & Society 13(4): 47:75.
Derrida, J (1992) ‘Before the law’, in Attridge, D (ed), Acts of Literature, London, New York: Routledge.
Edwards, J. (2008) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: 1 (Routledge Critical Thinkers) Londo, New York: Routledge
Fraser, N (March-April 1998) ‘Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler’ NLR I (228): 140-149
Hughes, A and Witz (1997) ‘A Feminism and the Matter of Bodies: From de Beauvoir to Butler’, Body & Society, 3(1):47-60.
Jagger, G (2008) Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative London, New York: Routledge.
Kirby, V (2006) Judith Butler (Live Theory) London: Continuum.
Lloyd, M (2008) ‘Towards a cultural politics of vulnerability: Precarious lives and ungrievable deaths’ in Carver, T. and Chambers, A.S Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics: Critical Encounters, London , New York: Routledge pp. 92-105.
Lloyd, M (2007) Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics (Key Contemporary Thinkers) Cambridge: Polity Press.
Loizidou, E (2007) Judith Butler: Ethics, Law, Politics London, New York: Routledge.
Loizidou, E (June 2008) The body figural and material in the work of Judith Butler’, Australian Feminist Law Journal 28: 29-51.
McNay, L (1999) ‘ Subject, Psyche and Agency: The work of Judith Buter’ , Theory Culture & Society 16 (2) :175-93.
Mahmood, S (2006) ‘Agency, Performativity and the Feminist Subject’ in Armour, T. E and Ville, M. St. S (eds) Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler New York: Columbia University Press.
Nussbaum, C M ((22nd February) 1999) ‘The professor of parody: the heap defeatism of Judith Butler’ The New Republic 37-45.
Rothenberg A. M. Embodied Political Performativity in Excitable Speech: Butler’s Psychoanalytic Revisions of Historicism 23(4) Theory, Culture & Society pp 71-93.
Salih, S (2002) Judith Butler: Routledge Critical Thinkers London, New York: Routledge.
Salih, S. (2004) The Judith Butler Reader Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Schneider, N ‘A Carefully Crafted F**k You’, Guernica: A magazine for art & politics, March 2010 http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/1610/a_carefully_crafted_fk_you/
Sedgwick, E K (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Thiem, A. (2008) Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility New York: Fordham University Press.
Zerilli, M.G.L (2008) ‘Feminist Know not what they do: Judith Butler’s gender trouble and the limits of epistemology’ in Carver, T. and Chambers, A.S Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics: Critical Encounters, London and New York: Routledge pp. 28-44.
Butler Symposium at the Centre for Gender & Sexuality, Law at Columbia University 5thMarch2010 Judith Butler Assuming Gender http://media.law.columbia.edu/CGSL/butlersymposium100305pt4flv.html
Judith Butler. ‘Cohabitation, Universality and Remembrance’ Birkbeck College, London. May 24, 2010
Judith Butler. ‘Hannah Arendt, Ethics, and Responsibility.’ European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 2009
Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben. ‘Eichmann, Law and Justice.’ European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 2009
Judith Butler ‘I must distance myself’
Elena Loizidou is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck College, London. She is the author of Judith Butler: Ethics, Law, Politics (2007). She is currently working on the book, Anarchism: an art of living.
 Schneider, N ‘A Carefully Crafted F**k You’, Guernica: A magaizine for art & politics, March 2010. http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/1610/a_carefully_crafted_fk_you/
 Butler (2003:19-21)
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV9dd6r361k ; For the speech itself see http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-must-distance-myself/ and for a reporting and discussion of this see http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/judith-butler-1-homonationalism-0/.
 It is worth noting that Judith Butler in the 10th anniversary edition of Gender Trouble (1999a) states that she ‘took … [her] clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law”’ (1999a: xiv). You can find Derrida’s essay in Derrida (1992).
 Sedgwick introduced the concept of ‘peri-performative. The ‘peri-performative’ relates to the context and audience of a performative and invite us to think of how ‘performative utterances’ affect those that find themselves in the context of such an utterance, instead of merely engaging with the response to such an utterance. See Sedgwick (2003) and Edwards ( 2009: 77-92)
 At the core of all these criticisms there is a skepticism as to the concreteness and facticity of Judith Butler’s work. They argue that the linguistic emphasis that the performative carries with it, eaves behind a detailed engagement with, social facticity (Lloyd:2008b); (McNay;1997), religious differences (Mahmood:2006, 177-224), materiality and capital (Fraser, 1998); (Nussbaum : 1999) , historicism (Rothenberg:2006) and the sexed body (Hughes and Witz:1997) (Chambers:2007). For a response to such criticisms see Loizidou (2008).For a response on criticisms on materiality see Butler (2001). For a response on criticisms on the social see (Butler: 2004c:2009a).
 For a recent explication of how Butler see interdependence as a integral part of her work see (Bell, 2010).
 For an explication of the use of subversion see (Butler, 2006: 276-291).
 Butler (2009a:2-5)