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).

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A Thought on Justice

The other day I was thinking about justice, which in the Christian theological tradition has historically been contrasted with mercy. On the one hand there is justice, which requires that all people receive what they deserve due to the content of their actions. On the other hand, there is mercy, which requires kindness to those who are suffering. To fully embody these two qualities is our goal, but it is impossible for humans and for human institutions. Only God can do so and God can only do so on, or through, the cross.

What if we have justice wrong? What if it doesn't mean that all people receive what they deserve? (For one thing, I have difficulty explaining this mechanism of "deserving.")

I tried to think of what I mean or imagine when I think of justice. I discounted the first few things I thought of, because those were phrases with the word in them--Justice Department, Justice League--or metonyms--scales, swords, paladins. The best and closest articulation, one which encompasses the realm of justice departments but also social justice issues, was this: justice is the action towards creating and maintaining a fairly ordered world. (This is not "fairly" in the sense of "rather" or "reasonably", but more like "equitably".) This is of course not a perfect definition because we then fall back to what "fair" means--it might evoke deserving again--but I'm going to use it to make a distinction.

This history of ideas is located firmly in the armchair-philosophy position, but in lieu of extensive research I'm going to offer it regardless. I wonder if we have fooled ourselves about justice from quite a long time ago, around the time people developed law. In the pursuit of a fairly ordered society, communities resorted to punishment models of enforcement. That is, in order to deter crime and therefore promote a fairly ordered system, those who committed crime were given predictable punishments so that they would not want crime. Punishing crimes then became an instrument of justice, and the activity of that punishment became an organ of justice. But societies did not have (perhaps, initially, did not need or could not produce) other forms of justice, such as universal health care or financial accountability or anti-heterosexism initiatives. As a result, the law enforcement system became the entirety of the justice system, and humans developed the idea that justice was identical to the punishment of crimes (and perhaps the inverse, the reward of good deeds).

Let's look at the famous introduction to Law and Order: "In the Criminal Justice System the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." (Dun dun.) Even noting that this refers specifically to criminal justice, what I notice is that there is no sense whatsoever of reparation to the victim. There is no consolation. No healing. And there is no healing for the offenders, either; there is no concern for rehabilitation. There is also no concern for the prevention of crime. There is only retribution. This is only a small part of the movement towards a fairly ordered society. There is law, yes, and a certain kind of order, but that order seems to only be a legal one.

So I'm wondering if retribution is even a necessary component of justice at all. It has been a part of justice, necessarily, in the past. But is it one necessarily, in the philosophical sense? I don't think so; it seems only to be a component of justice insofar as it is a move towards a more fairly ordered system. If my suspicion is correct, then it seems to me that we need to rethink a lot of our political, legal, moral, and theological formulations.
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