Sunday, February 28, 2010

Judith Butler: As Jew, I ws taught it was ethically imperative to speak up / Ha'aretz

Below you'll find part of a fascinating conversation between Udi Aloni, and Israeli-American film maker, and Judith Butler, who is visiting Bir Zeit university these days.
The discussion covers a number of topics, among them: Butler's upbringing, and how it affected her world view and activism; her recent work on grieving (who do people
grieve for, who they don't and why); on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and more.

I marked comments by Aloni with *, to help decipher who says what.
Racheli Gai.

Judith Butler: As a Jew, I was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up
By Udi Aloni
February 24, 2010

Philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler arrived in Israel this month, en route to the West Bank, where she was to give a seminar at Bir Zeit University, visit the theater in Jenin, and meet privately with friends and students. A leading light in her field, Butler chose not to visit any academic institutions in Israel itself. In the conversation below, conducted in New York several months ago, Butler talks about gender, the dehumanization of Gazans, and how Jewish values drove her to criticize the actions of the State of Israel.

* In Israel, people know you well. Your name was even in the popular film Ha-Buah [The Bubble - the tragic tale of a gay relationship between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim].

[laughs] Although I disagreed with the use of my name in that context. I mean, it was very funny to say, "don't Judith Butler me," but "to Judith Butler someone" meant to say something very negative about men and to identify with a form of feminism that was against men. And I've never been identified with that form of feminism. That's not my mode. I'm not known for that. So it seems like it was confusing me with a radical feminist view that one would associate with Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin, a completely different feminist modality. I'm not always calling into question who's a man and who's not, and am I a man? Maybe I'm a man. [laughs] Call me a man. I am much more open about categories of gender, and my feminism has been about women's safety from violence, increased literacy, decreased poverty and more equality. I was never against the category of men.

* A beautiful Israeli poem asks, "How does one become Avot Yeshurun?" Avot Yeshurun was a poet who caused turmoil in Israeli poetry. I want to ask, how does one become Judith Butler -especially with the issue of Gender Trouble, the book that so troubled the discourse on gender?

You know, I'm not sure that I know how to give an account of it, and I think it troubles gender differently depending on how it is received and translated. For instance, one of the first receptions [of the book] was in Germany, and there, it seemed very clear that young people wanted a politics that emphasized agency, or something affirmative that they could create or produce. The idea of performativity - which involved bringing categories into being or bringing new social realities about - was very exciting, especially for younger people who were tired with old models of oppression - indeed, the very model men oppress women, or straights oppress gays.

It seemed that if you were subjugated, there were also forms of agency that were available to you, and you were not just a victim, or you were not only oppressed, but oppression could become the condition of your agency. Certain kinds of unexpected results can emerge from the situation of oppression if you have the resources and if you have collective support. It's not an automatic response; it's not a necessary response. But it's possible. I think I also probably spoke to something that was already happening in the movement. I put into theoretical language what was already being impressed upon me from elsewhere. So I didn't bring it into being single-handedly. I received it from several cultural resources and put it into another language.

* Once you became "Judith Butler," we began to hear more about Jews and Jewish texts. People came to hear you speak about gender and suddenly they were faced with Gaza, divine violence. It almost felt like you had some closure on the previous matter. Is there a connection, a continuum, or is this a new phase?

Let's go back further. I'm sure I've told you that I began to be interested in philosophy when I was 14, and I was in trouble in the synagogue. The rabbi said, "You are too talkative in class. You talk back, you are not well behaved. You have to come and have a tutorial with me." I said "OK, great!" I was thrilled.

He said: "What do you want to study in the tutorial? This is your punishment. Now you have to study something seriously." I think he thought of me as unserious. I explained that I wanted to read existential theology focusing on Martin Buber. (I've never left Martin Buber.) I wanted look at the question of whether German idealism could be linked with National Socialism. Was the tradition of Kant and Hegel responsible in some way for the origins of National Socialism? My third question was why Spinoza was excommunicated from the synagogue. I wanted to know what happened and whether the synagogue was justified.

* Now I must go Jewish: what was your parents' relation to Judaism?

My parents were practicing Jews. My mother grew up in an orthodox synagogue and after my grandfather died, she went to a conservative synagogue and a little later ended up in a reform synagogue. My father was in reform synagogues from the beginning.

My mother's uncles and aunts were all killed in Hungary [during the Holocaust]. My grandmother lost all of her relatives, except for the two nephews who came with them in the car when my grandmother went back in 1938 to see who she could rescue. It was important for me. I went to Hebrew school. But I also went after school to special classes on Jewish ethics because I was interested in the debates. So I didn't do just the minimum. Through high school, I suppose, I continued Jewish studies alongside my public school education.

* And you showed me the photos of the bar mitzvah of your son as a good proud Jewish Mother...

So it's been there from the start, it's not as if I arrived at some place that I haven't always been in. I grew very skeptical of certain kind of Jewish separatism in my youth. I mean, I saw the Jewish community was always with each other; they didn't trust anybody outside. You'd bring someone home and the first question was "Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?" Then I entered into a lesbian community in college, late college, graduate school, and the first thing they asked was, "Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?" "Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?" and I thought "Enough with the separatism!"

It felt like the same kind of policing of the community. You only trust those who are absolutely like yourself, those who have signed a pledge of allegiance to this particular identity. Is that person really Jewish, maybe they're not so Jewish. I don't know if they're really Jewish. Maybe they're self-hating. Is that person lesbian? I think maybe they had a relationship with a man. What does that say about how true their identity was? I thought I can't live in a world in which identity is being policed in this way.

But if I go back to your other question... In Gender Trouble, there is a whole discussion of melancholy. What is the condition under which we fail to grieve others? I presumed, throughout my childhood, that this was a question the Jewish community was asking itself. It was also a question that I was interested in when I went to study in Germany. The famous Mitscherlich book on the incapacity to mourn, which was a criticism of German post-war culture, was very, very interesting to me.

In the 70s and 80s, in the gay and lesbian community, it became clear to me that very often, when a relationship would break up, a gay person wouldn't be able to tell their parents, his or her parents. So here, people were going through all kinds of emotional losses that were publicly unacknowledged and that became very acute during the AIDS crisis. In the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, there were many gay men who were unable to come out about the fact that their lovers were ill, A, and then dead, B. They were unable to get access to the hospital to see their lover, unable to call their parents and say, "I have just lost the love of my life."

This was extremely important to my thinking throughout the 80s and 90s. But it also became important to me as I started to think about war. After 9/11, I was shocked by the fact that there was public mourning for many of the people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, less public mourning for those who died in the attack on the Pentagon, no public mourning for the illegal workers of the WTC, and, for a very long time, no public acknowledgment of the gay and lesbian families and relationships that had been destroyed by the loss of one of the partners in the bombings. Then we went to war very quickly, Bush having decided that the time for grieving is over. I think he said that after ten days, that the time for grieving is over and now is time for action. At which point we started killing populations abroad with no clear rationale. And the populations we targeted for violence were ones that never appeared to us in pictures. We never got little obituaries for them. We never
heard anything about what lives had been destroyed. And we still don't.

I then moved towards a different kind of theory, asking under what conditions certain lives are grievable and certain lives not grievable or ungrievable. It's clear to me that in Israel-Palestine and in the violent conflicts that have taken place over the years, there is differential grieving. Certain lives become grievable within the Israeli press, for instance - highly grievable and highly valuable - and others are understood as ungrievable because they are understood as instruments of war, or they are understood as outside the nation, outside religion, or outside that sense of belonging which makes for a grievable life. The question of grievability has linked my work on queer politics, especially the AIDS crisis, with my more contemporary work on war and violence, including the work on Israel-Palestine.

To read the entire discussion, go to

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1 comment:

Belvina said...

Great! Thanks...Maya N.