Friday, 25 May 2012

Responding to Judith Butler on Bodies in Motion

Just this night I went to see Judith Butler talk here in Vancouver, and I wrote these thoughts up afterwards. Please be aware that they are off-the-cuff and written in a state of mild-to-extensive tiredness. If I have time later (unlikely), I might write more about each issue later. You should also know that other people who saw the talk responded to my note on Facebook (identical to this one) disagreeing with their interpretations of particular statements Butler made, such as in the case of the first note.


I liked, found useful, agreed with most of what Butler said. I want to begin this way because I won’t talk much about that here. Rather, I want to talk about some issues I had with things that were not central to her argument. This means simultaneously that I can accept what she said mainly without worrying about these objections, but nonetheless that I am a little more upset about these concerns because she could have easily presented the bulk of her ideas without triggering these issues the way she did.

1. I found problematic her assumption that we (the audience) shared particular sexual experiences or histories—that is, that we have all entered into particular agreements (specifically as liberals), and then found ourselves unexpected vulnerable in those agreements. Given the amount of struggle the asexual community has had in order to gain recognition or legitimacy of any kind at all, and given the fact that virgin-shaming and naïf-shaming more generally exist alongside and as a corollary to slut-shaming, both as forms of heteronormative sexual power that negatively affect men and women (among other things), and given the further fact that many cultural and religious groups practice sexual conduct that would exclude them from those categories, I am somewhat shocked that someone like Butler would be willing to include all of us into this set of experiences. I suppose this comes in part from the fact that I’m starting to enter into conversations about the over-valuation of sexuality and romance as universal human experiences, and Butler was not thinking of those conversations (nor is even necessarily aware of them), so I can't hold her accountable for not addressing them, but I did find this a personally uncomfortable moment. It was off-hand, but it was also easily avoided.

2. I also disliked the left-right polarization she presented. I know this is a personal quirk, in that I refuse to orient myself on the left-right axis and therefore get grumpy about people who think only in terms of the axis, but I still think it is a problem. For instance, the assumption that right-wing politics is necessarily antithetical to justice or equality, even as a leftist would define or conceive of those terms, is disconcerting to me. I wonder how we would respond if the political right mobilized bodies in opposition to the foreign occupation of Afghanistan, for instance, or in opposition to demonstratable political corruption? (With Ron Paul, these things seem plausible.) Surely these are things that those of us who would traditionally be categorized as left-wing (I dislike the axis, but I recognise that this is where political opinion tests place me) would be willing to support? Another way of asking this question is to ask whether the political handedness is inherent in the protestors or the issue: Butler specifically said that she would not celebrate the mobilization of right-wing protestors, that is right-wing people protesting, but what if the protest’s central issue is not itself clearly left- or right-wing? Would she not celebrate that even if that particular protest is something she could support? Or, as Butler herself might wonder, can a body have a political orientation regardless of the mobilization it is in?
[To be clear, for people who would offer me the political compass: I know of it, and I like it better than the left-right continuum, and I think it is still nonetheless woefully inadequate.]

3. I am wondering about the vulnerability of the police. Riots do happen, sometimes as results of protests. This is not to say that most police crackdowns of protests are not in the interests of state power more than democracy, that things like “security” are not often alibis for more unsettling political purposes, or that most demonstrations are not legitimate. But I am wondering what the language of “police power” or “police force” does to dehumanize the police themselves. Even (or especially) as instruments or embodiments of state power, the police-as-persons are also vulnerable, and there are times when the tropes of leftist discourse have been employed (generally by privileged undergrads who want to claim political legitimacy for their misbehaviour) to legitimize violence towards police officers in public spaces. I am thinking here of illegal street parties at Queen’s University, where paramedics, police officers, and police animals (a horse) were physically assaulted by partiers during the course of those state workers’ official and non-violent duties. (In this particular case, they were attempting to provide medical attention to injured students.) I say at the beginning of this entry that I “wonder” because I am thinking aloud here more than making a particular claim. I am not disputing anything that Butler has said, nor do I think this is an issue that she should have addressed, since it is not her focus. I do, however, think that we need to be careful when talking about body mobilization, violence, vulnerability, and police power/bodies. Not all occasions in which police interact with mobilized bodies are characterized by police violence on civilian bodies; sometimes civilians perform unprovoked violence on police bodies as well.

4. Let’s finish this with something I did like. “Unity means struggling.” Butler wanted to correct the misconception that disagreement among a coalition means that attempts to find unity have failed. Instead, struggling through issues means that the members have agreed to stay in the coalition rather than check out. I like this, though I find it exhausting, because what it suggests is that the painful discussions about equality, justice, and privilege may never end. It is easier for us to think that we are working towards—progressing towards, with all the problems that word contains—a utopic world in which injustice has been eradicated. The picture Butler offers is one of endless conflict and ambiguity. I say I find it exhausting, and I wonder if that exhaustion is one of the major motivators for utopian visions: that in the future (or in our gated community, if people go with segregation rather than proselytization), we will no longer have important political disagreements, and we can at last rest, we will no longer be so tired (so angry, so guilty, so hurt, so sad...). I don’t like what Butler is offering, but I think she’s right, and I like it more than the sort of homogenized Marxist or secular-atheist or gender-neutral or post-race utopias that many people seem to want to build (not least because I could not belong to some of those).

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