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Butler: Is It All Greek? | The Nation

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Butler: Is It All Greek?

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Judith Butler, who is a Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is a troublemaker. She announced as much when she arrived on the critical feminist scene in her second and most well-known work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, first published in 1990:

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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.

Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: The prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.

In the 149 dense pages that follow this preface, Butler took on a host of psychoanalytic theorists, from "Freud and the Melancholia of Gender" to "Lacan, Riviere, and the Strategies of Masquerade." She also critiqued "The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva" (who uses semiotics in the service of psychoanalytic critique) and "Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex," whose The Lesbian Body and other works are, according to Butler, limited by Wittig's humanism. In Gender Trouble, Butler's admiration is reserved for Michel Foucault, the openly gay philosopher of power most famous for his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish, a philosopher whose terms are evident in Butler's preface above: "the reigning discourse of my childhood"; "rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms"; "the subtle ruse of power." Butler's genealogical critique of gender, i.e., a critique of gender's very origins, a critique of the very terms of the critique, was a grand synthesis of the most radical European ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. Simone de Beauvoir's famous statement in The Second Sex that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is a conceptual starting point, but only a starting point. Foucault's work on the journals of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite so tortured by his/her predicament in a sexually normative world that s/he commits suicide, enables Butler's challenge not only to the categories of gender but to the categories of sex itself. But what stands head and shoulders above Butler's illustrious collection of radical theories is Gender Trouble's overarching claim that gender, and possibly even sex itself, is not an expression of who one is but rather a performance.

Toward the end of Gender Trouble, Butler poses a set of questions that indicate the practical, political direction of her critique:

What performance where will invert the inner/outer distinction and compel a radical rethinking of the psychological presuppositions of gender identity and sexuality? What performance where will compel a reconsideration of the place and stability of the masculine and the feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire?

Not only did Gender Trouble immediately appear on feminist-theory syllabuses around the country, it became a foundational text of queer theory. Is it any wonder it provoked a backlash?

Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death is a slender, very well-written book that is the published version of the Wellek Library Lectures Butler gave at the University of California, Irvine, in May 1998. Butler starts out:

I began to think about Antigone a few years ago as I wondered what happened to those feminist efforts to confront and defy the state. It seemed to me that Antigone might work as a counterfigure to the trend championed by recent feminists to seek the backing and authority of the state to implement feminist policy aims. The legacy of Antigone's defiance appeared to be lost in the contemporary efforts to recast political opposition as legal plaint and to seek the legitimacy of the state in the espousal of feminist claims.

Butler's study of Antigone led her someplace she had not anticipated. Rather than view Antigone as the figure who defies the state in the person of her uncle, Creon the King, who has forbidden her to bury her brother Polyneices--"I say that I did it and I do not deny it"--Butler follows some of her own most important intellectual mentors, namely, the Enlightenment philosopher and founder of dialectics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the poststructuralist psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray, in viewing Antigone "not as a political figure, one whose defiant speech has political implications, but rather as one who articulates a prepolitical opposition to politics, representing kinship as the sphere that conditions the possibility of politics without ever entering into it." Butler is interested in Antigone as a liminal figure between the family and the state, between life and death (this is the choice she must make, and in her defiance of Creon she chooses the latter), but also as a figure, like all her kin, who represents the nonnormative family, a set of kinship relations that seems to defy the standard model.

In addition, there is a contemporary occasion for Antigone's Claim, one that is elucidated in Butler's new preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, in which she declares her interest in "increasing the possibilities for a livable life for those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." I do not think it amiss to describe Antigone's Claim as dedicated to those who try to die on the sexual margins. Though directly referred to only occasionally in her text, it is the specter of death as a result of AIDS that haunts Antigone's Claim, and the particular dilemma AIDS presents to those who live and die outside the boundaries of normative family and kinship relations. Toward the end of the third and final chapter, "Promiscuous Obedience," Butler states:

For those relations that are denied legitimacy, or that demand new terms of legitimation, are neither dead nor alive, figuring the nonhuman at the border of the human. And it is not simply that these are relations that cannot be honored, cannot be openly acknowledged, and cannot therefore be publicly grieved, but that these relations involve persons who are also restricted in the very act of grieving, who are denied the power to confer legitimacy on loss.

The outlines of the troubled Theban family are well-known. Oedipus Rex, actually written after Antigone (442 BCE) though its action precedes it, begins with the problem of a plague. As a priest informs us:

A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth,
A blight is on the cattle of the fields,
a blight is on our women that no children
are born to them; a God that carries fire,
a deadly pestilence, is on our town,
strikes us and spares not, and the house of Cadmus
is emptied of its people while black Death
grows rich in groaning and in lamentation.

Soon, of course, we learn what the trouble is, when the blind seer Teiresias informs Oedipus the King, "You are the land's pollution." Unwittingly, the man has murdered his own father during an altercation at a crossroads, wedded his own mother and produced four offspring who are in fact his half-siblings. This unbearable truth causes his wife and mother Jocasta to hang herself in the polluted bedchamber, where afterward Oedipus tears the brooches from her robe in order to blind his own eyes. Toward the end of Antigone's Claim, Butler raises an issue that supports my reading of the book's contemporary occasion: "Consider that the horror of incest, the moral revulsion it compels in some, is not that far afield from the same horror and revulsion felt toward lesbian and gay sex, and is not unrelated to the intense moral condemnation of voluntary single parenting, or gay parenting, or parenting arrangements with more than two adults involved (practices that can be used as evidence to support a claim to remove a child from the custody of the parent in several states in the United States)."

In Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE), the middle play of the trilogy but written last, an old, blind Oedipus is led onstage by his daughter Antigone. (Sigmund Freud, who did so much for the Oedipus myth, referred at the end of his life to his daughter and fellow psychoanalyst Anna Freud as his "Antigone.") Here, the theme of proper burial, which is so important a theme in Antigone and in Antigone's Claim, receives advance treatment. Oedipus begs of Theseus, King of Athens, a proper burial when he dies, that Theseus accept "the gift" of his "beaten self: no feast for the eyes." The oracle has prophesied that if Oedipus's sons do not tend his corpse, Thebes will be conquered by Athens, and Oedipus wants revenge on his sons because they drove him into exile from Thebes. When Polyneices makes an appearance toward the end of Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus not only rejects his son's plea to join his side against his other son, presently in possession of Thebes, he curses them both; a curse that comes to pass between the action of Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, when in battle both brothers die at once on the other's sword. Polyneices' final words in the trilogy are spoken at the end of Oedipus at Colonus to his beloved sister Antigone, to whom he offers a blessing if she will honor his corpse with burial rites. And here we have arrived at Antigone and Antigone's Claim.

From the start of her career, Judith Butler has been on a quest for a theory of the subject that might work for "those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." As she stated in her new preface to the recent reissue of her first book, Subjects of Desire: "In a sense, all of my work remains within the orbit of a certain set of Hegelian questions: What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?" Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit has underwritten most of Butler's work, as has the work of Lacan, whose seminar on "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" is the other major influence on Antigone's Claim. The book both follows from Butler's earlier work and turns in some interesting new directions; namely, it moves explicitly into the realm of ethics and implicitly into practical politics.

While Butler has tended in the past to focus particularly on the section of the Phenomenology of Spirit that deals with the famous "Lordship and Bondage" relation, in Antigone's Claim she makes what seems like an inevitable advance in the text, given the confluence of her present interests, into the section of the Phenomenology that deals with "the true Spirit: The ethical order." In this part, Hegel argues that it is the "Family" that "as the element of the nation's actual existence...stands opposed to the nation itself; as the immediate being of the ethical order, it stands over against that order which shapes and maintains itself by working for the universal; the Penates [household gods] stand opposed to the universal Spirit." For Hegel, it is woman who is associated with these household gods that stand opposed to the universal Spirit or the state; it is woman who is associated with the divine, as opposed to the human, law. The figure of Antigone upholds the divine law when she buries her brother Polyneices (twice) in defiance of her uncle Creon, who has ordered that the corpse of a man who threatened the integrity of the state will be left to rot in the sun, torn by beasts and birds.

Butler's affinities with a philosophical tradition arising from Hegel--the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist philosophers and social critics (though she rarely if ever refers to them in her work)--are not limited to her use of difficult language, which notoriously won her a Bad Writing Award from the journal Philosophy and Literature. Butler shares with the Frankfurt School a fundamental, one might say foundational, debt to the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx harnessed in his theories of history. Hegel explains his dialectic in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:

Knowledge is only actual, and can only be expounded, as Science or as system; and furthermore, that a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle. It is, therefore, easy to refute it. The refutation consists in pointing out its defect; and it is defective because it is only the universal or principle, is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, it is derived and developed from the principle itself, not accomplished by counter-assertions and random thoughts from outside.

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:

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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