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Butler: Is It All Greek? | The Nation

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Butler: Is It All Greek?

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The Hegelian dialectic is a philosophical tradition a classical liberal humanist like Martha Nussbaum does not, apparently, have much sympathy for. It's unfortunate that Nussbaum did not take on this philosophical difference in attacking Butler in The New Republic last February. Instead of accepting the work as being of a tradition "that seeks to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs," in Butler's self-characterization, Nussbaum isolates her as a philosopher:

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Georgette Fleischer
Georgette Fleischer is completing a manuscript on "Genre Departures: Women Writers and the Crisis of Representing...

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It really is about time we had the letters of Rebecca West.

Butler gains prestige in the literary world by being a philosopher; many admirers associate her manner of writing with philosophical profundity. But one should ask whether it belongs to the philosophical tradition at all, rather than to the closely related but adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric.

According to Nussbaum, Butler is a "new symbolic type" of feminist thinker, influenced by a lot of French "postmodernist" ideas. In Nussbaum's vision, Butler is the Pied Piper of academia, traipsing off with all the "young feminists" behind her. Not only does Nussbaum claim that Butler's ideas are philosophically soft (if they are even philosophy at all), but she claims that Butler is leading a trend away from engaged feminism, having traded "real politics" for "symbolic verbal politics." The "new feminism" of Judith Butler "instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all." From here, Nussbaum stoops to condescension ("In public discussions, she proves that she can speak clearly and has a quick grasp of what is said to her") and, ultimately, after several swipes at Butler's "sexy acts of parodic subversion," to the astonishing claim that Butler "purveys a cruel lie, and a lie that flatters evil by giving it much more power than it actually has": Butler's "hip quietism," according to Nussbaum, "collaborates with evil."

In Antigone's Claim, it is not only Antigone's public grief over Polyneices and her insistence that she bury him that absorbs Butler's interest but also the way in which her defiance of Creon, her condemnation to death and the taking of her own life (like her mother, Jocasta, she hangs herself) "fails to produce heterosexual closure for that drama"--if Antigone had complied, she would have married Creon's son and presumably become a mother. This, Butler claims, "may intimate the direction for a psychoanalytic theory that takes Antigone [as opposed to Oedipus] as its point of departure," namely, a psychoanalytic theory that would step outside the confines of compulsory heterosexuality.

And yet Butler's attraction to this particular family drama goes further back. While for Freud and for Lacan after him the Oedipal drama is a paradigm that in various ways instates, by way of prohibition, normative heterosexuality and kinship relations, Butler views this drama differently. In its deviations from the law and in its apparent need for prohibition, the most famous Theban family represents not just the predicament of those who live on the sexual margins but in a more historical sense, the family and kinship relations of our times:

Consider that in the situation of blended families, a child says "mother" and might expect more than one individual to respond to the call. Or that, in the case of adoption, a child might say "father" and might mean both the absent phantasm she never knew as well as the one who assumes that place in living memory. The child might mean that at once, or sequentially, or in ways that are not always clearly disarticulated from one another. Or when a young girl comes to be fond of her stepbrother, what dilemma of kinship is she in? For a woman who is a single mother and has her child without a man, is the father still there, a spectral "position" or "place" that remains unfilled, or is there no such "place" or "position"?... And when there are two men or two women who parent, are we to assume that some primary division of gendered roles organizes their psychic places within the scene, so that the empirical contingency of two same-gendered parents is nevertheless straightened out by the presocial psychic place of the Mother and Father...that every psyche must accept regardless of the social form that kinship takes?

Butler sees in the Oedipal story an allegorical reflection of things as they presently are; what if, rather than prohibiting such things, we took them as our starting point; what if we accepted the nonnormative? Second, Butler wants to move the fulcrum of the drama a generation forward because Antigone occupies a position not only between life and death, and not only between private and public, between the family and the state: Antigone figures for Butler a desirable transition into the world of ethics that does not forget familial origins. This is made clear in Antigone's extended exit speech, one Butler focuses especially on. On the point of being led away to her death, Antigone argues that her brother Polyneices is irreplaceable and therefore had to be honored by her even though it means her own death. A husband or child could have been replaced, but since her parents are no longer alive, not a brother.

What is the law that lies behind these words?
One husband gone, I might have found another,
or a child from a new man in first child's place,
but with my parents hid away in death,
no brother, ever, could spring up for me.
Such was the law by which I honored you.

In this speech one senses that Antigone is finally at peace. For she, like the rest of her family, is characterized as much by her personal moral sense as she is by her strange kinship predicament. And one senses in Butler's interest in these lines a homage to those who have lived, or have tried to live, and to those who have died "on the sexual margins."

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