Judith Butler on Nonviolence and Gender: Hear Conversation with The Partially Examined Life

A new Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life inter­view with Judith But­ler, Max­ine Elliot Pro­fes­sor of Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at UC Berke­ley, dis­cuss­es the ethics and psy­chol­o­gy of non­vi­o­lence. This fol­lows a three-part treat­ment on the pod­cast of her ear­li­er work.

For a first-hand account of her new book, you can watch two 2016 lec­tures that she gave at UC Berke­ley on ear­ly ver­sions of the text:

Watch on YouTube. Watch the sec­ond lec­ture.

But­ler has been a tremen­dous­ly influ­en­tial (and con­tro­ver­sial) fig­ure in ongo­ing intel­lec­tu­al debates about gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty. Her 1990 book Gen­der Trou­ble argues that gen­der is a “per­for­mance,” i.e. a habit­u­al group of behav­iors that reflect and rein­force social gen­der norms. Prac­tices such as dress­ing in drag sat­i­rize this per­for­mance, show­ing how even in “nor­mal” sit­u­a­tions, “act­ing fem­i­nine” is not a reflec­tion of one’s inner essence but is a mat­ter of putting on a dis­play of cul­tur­al­ly expect­ed man­ner­isms. The drag per­former (on But­ler’s analy­sis) may con­vey an absur­di­ty that decon­structs the expect­ed accord of bio­log­i­cal sex, sex­u­al pref­er­ence, and gen­der iden­ti­ty: “I’m dress­ing like a woman but am real­ly a man; also, in my every­day life, I dress like a man but am real­ly (in the way I actu­al­ly feel about myself) am a woman.” Most con­tro­ver­sial­ly, as a post-struc­tural­ist, But­ler argues that it’s not the case that there is an uncon­tro­ver­sial bio­log­i­cal fact of sex that then cul­ture con­nects gen­der behav­iors to. Instead, all of our under­stand­ing of the so-called bio­log­i­cal fact comes through the cul­tur­al lens of gen­der; we lit­er­al­ly can’t under­stand any such raw, bio­log­i­cal fact apart from its cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tions. In oth­er words, it’s not just gen­der that’s a social con­struc­tion, but bio­log­i­cal sex itself.

This posi­tion has been attacked both from the posi­tion of naive, com­mon-sense sci­en­tism (of course bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences result­ing in babies isn’t just a mat­ter of what con­cepts a par­tic­u­lar soci­ety has hap­pened to devel­op) and as a moral haz­ard and exis­ten­tial threat: In 2017 while at a con­fer­ence in Brazil, far-right Chris­t­ian groups protest­ed her pres­ence and even burned her in effi­gy.

It should also be not­ed that But­ler’s take on gen­der departs from cur­rent, intu­itive expla­na­tions of the phe­nom­e­na of trans­gen­derism, i.e. that one might feel their “true gen­der” to be dif­fer­ent from what soci­ety has assigned them. For But­ler, there is no inner gen­der essence that may or may not be dis­played authen­ti­cal­ly. Instead, the “inner” is a cul­tur­al con­struc­tion, itself built out of our exter­nal per­for­mances and the dynam­ics of our psy­chic life, which she dis­cuss­es with­in the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic tra­di­tion.

This use of psy­cho­analy­sis to explain our cul­tur­al life per­sists in new­ly released book, The Force of Non­vi­o­lence: An Ethico-Polit­i­cal Bind. Though the the­o­ry of non­vi­o­lent polit­i­cal protest may seem a far-flung top­ic from gen­der stud­ies, both involve the process of defin­ing an iden­ti­ty. In the case of gen­der, one defines one­self as a par­tic­u­lar gen­der or as being of a par­tic­u­lar sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion (as opposed to leav­ing these attrib­ut­es ambigu­ous and flu­id) by grasp­ing onto a strict social divi­sion between the avail­able sex­u­al options and declar­ing that one of them is “not me.” In But­ler’s dis­cus­sion of non­vi­o­lence, she instead focus­es on what counts as “self” in the usu­al­ly excused excep­tion to non­vi­o­lence, self-defense. She’s crit­i­ciz­ing a posi­tion where most of us claim to be non­vi­o­lent (and claim that our gov­ern­ment is non­vi­o­lent) because we are not the aggres­sors: We will fight only when we are attacked or threat­ened.

It’s not that But­ler is cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly against using vio­lence to defend one­self, one’s loved ones, one’s coun­try, or any­one else who is in dan­ger of being seri­ous­ly harmed. She is, how­ev­er, argu­ing for an eth­ic of non­vi­o­lence that clear­ly under­stands our inter­re­lat­ed­ness with every­one else in the world, even and espe­cial­ly those that we might think out­side our cir­cle of con­cern. It’s too easy for us to define “self” as “peo­ple like us,” which then leaves out the rest of the pop­u­lace (and the non-human pop­u­la­tion, and the envi­ron­ment more gen­er­al­ly) from inclu­sion in our “self-defense” cal­cu­la­tions of when vio­lence might be jus­ti­fied. But­ler ana­lyzes the fear of immi­grants, for instance, as a “phan­tas­mat­ic trans­mu­ta­tion” that projects the poten­tial for vio­lence that always exists with­in our imme­di­ate social rela­tions (and even our own rage against our­selves) onto an invad­ing Oth­er. As in the case of gen­der, she wants us instead to under­stand the dynam­ics of these self-and-oth­er attri­bu­tions, to behave more ratio­nal­ly and humane­ly, and to chan­nel our unavoid­able rage con­struc­tive­ly into force­ful non-vio­lence, or what Gand­hi calls Satya­gra­ha, “polite insis­tence on the truth.” The goal of this type of polit­i­cal action is con­ver­sion, not coer­cion, and it’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion and respect­ing even a hat­ed oth­er as a griev­able equal that pro­vides a real con­trast to vio­lence. She wants us to rec­og­nize the poten­tial for vio­lence with­in each rela­tion­ship, at each moment, and to choose oth­er­wise.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast began a dis­cus­sion of the gen­er­al con­cept of social con­struc­tion back with in Oco­to­ber with episode 227, fol­low­ing this up with appli­ca­tions of this con­cept to race (dis­cussing Kwame Antho­ny Appi­ah and Charles Mills with in episode 228 with guest Cole­man Hugh­es), to the devel­op­ment of sci­ence (con­sid­er­ing Bruno Latour on episode 230 with guest Pro­fes­sor Lyn­da Olman), and to gen­der (con­sid­er­ing Simone de Beau­voir’s The Sec­ond Sex for episode 232 with Pro­fes­sor Jen­nifer Hansen. Pro­fes­sor Hansen then con­tin­ued with hosts Mark Lin­sen­may­er, Wes Alwan, Seth Paskin, and Dylan Casey to dis­cuss But­ler’s Gen­der Trou­ble. For fur­ther expla­na­tion of The Force of Non­vi­o­lence, see episode 236 at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life, Pret­ty Much Pop, and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. He is a writer and musi­cian work­ing out of Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. Read more Open Cul­ture posts about The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life.

Image by Solomon Grundy.

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  • AJ says:

    I real­ly liked this talk. As some­one who is involved with the Alter­na­tives to Vio­lence Project (AVP), I real­ly liked the for­mat and views that are pre­sent­ed here. I admire Judith But­ler’s work and stance on non-vio­lence. She is very in-depth and brings a lot to the table. It is real­ly worth the time for any­one con­cerned with non-vio­lence.

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