AVIVA-Interview with Judith Butler
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AVIVA-Interview with Judith Butler
Zimmer, Heidingsfelder, Adler

"I must distance myself from this complicity with racism" - with these words, the famous philosopher and gender-theorist refused the "Civil Courage Prize" at the CSD in Berlin, June 2010.

Who doesn´t know Judith Butler, born 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio?
Since the publication of "Gender Trouble", she is internationally known for her theories, especially for her thesis of the performativity of gender. Her work contributes to feminism, queer theory and political philosophy, where she proves herself a vehement activist and denouncer of American war politics under George Bush. Especially in Germany, the reception her theories concerning gender was very controversial and caused a lively discussion in feminism. Her most recent work focuses on the struggle for equality against racism and agression, Jewish philosophy and criticisms of state violence. Because of her early departure from Berlin after the CSD, AVIVA-Berlin couldn´t talk to her face-to-face but we are very happy that she took the time to answer our emailed questions about racism and the CSD, her latest political statements, the challenge of modern feminism and the importance of her Jewish background!

CSD and Gender

AVIVA-Berlin: You refused the prize for civil courage at CSD in Berlin. Would you have accepted a prize for moral courage at the alternative CSD, that is taking place in Kreuzberg on June 26th?
Judith Butler: Yes, I suppose I would have! I am only sorry that I did not understand the political situation in Berlin earlier. I intended to take the prize when I arrived, and I was quite surprised by the number of groups and individuals throughout Europe who encouraged me not too.

AVIVA-Berlin: You criticised the hosts of Berlin CSD 2010 for losing sight of double discrimination, not distancing themselves from ´racist statements´ and making the whole event superficial. You have made these issues visible. Can you please tell us more about what exactly you are refering to?
Judith Butler: I never used the word "superficial." I believe that this was attributed to me by someone who helped organize the CSD. The problem was not that the event was superficial, but that the CSD is linked with several groups and individuals who engage in a very strong anti-immigrant discourse, referring to people from north Africa, Turkey, and various Arab countries as less modern or more primitive. Although we can find homophobia in many places, including those of religious and racial minorities, we would be making a very serious error if we tried to fight homophobia by propagating stereotypical and debasing constructions of other minorities. My view is that the struggle against homophobia must be linked with the struggle against racism, and that subjugated minorities have to find ways of working in coalition. It was brought to my attention that the various groups that struggle against racism and homophobia are not part of the CSD list of affiliates.

AVIVA-Berlin: In their defense the hosts argued that you were on a tight schedule and might not have noticed all the activities against disrimination that took place during and before the parade. Where do you think the hosts might have officially shown more moral courage?
Judith Butler: I do not doubt that some people and some events at the CSD were designed to show an opposition to discrimination of various kinds. But many of the people in leadership roles, including Jan Feddersen and Rudolph Kampe, have been very strong in demonizing new immigrant communities, allying gay politics with anti-immigration politics, and refusing the racial and religious diversity of contemporary Europe. Some of these tactics are very problematic, including that of the group, Maneo. The CSD needs very much to refuse affiliation with groups that promote racism. It makes no sense to struggle to overcome the subjugation of one minority by increasing the subjugation of another. This is especially true when one realizes the importance of queer, trans, gay, lesbian, and bi people within minority migrant communities.

AVIVA-Berlin: Before you arrived in Berlin did you know that you would reject the prize?
Judith Butler: No, I was excited about coming, and very eager for the event. It came as a surprise to me that so many people in Berlin, in other cities in Germany, but also in Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, France, and the US, contacted me to ask me not to accept the prize. I realized that there were political divisions in the Berlin community that need to be addressed more directly and productively by the CSD and other major gay and lesbian organizations.

AVIVA-Berlin: How could the CSD become more politcal? And what do you think about the fact that the CSD in Berlin is split up into two different events: the parade and the alternative CSD in Kreuzberg.
Judith Butler: I suppose I had assumed that some of the same people go to CSD Berlin and to CSD Kreuzberg. But what I had not considered was how many people refuse to go to CSD Berlin precisely because it has not taken a strong stand against racism and the targetting of new migrant communities. Perhaps the problem is not that CSD should become "more political" but rather which politics the CSD should pursue. If the mainstream gay movement continues to ally itself with European cultural norms of purity or if it does not openly affirm the equal rights of minorities, then it will remain in conflict with various activists who either emerge from minority communities or who are committed to anti-racism as part of their politics.

AVIVA-Berlin: What does Christopher Street Day mean to you personally?
Judith Butler: You know, Christopher Street is the place in New York where the famous Stonewall resistance happened a few decades ago. It is, for me, the name of a place where resistance to police violence and harassment takes place. I think it is important to enter the streets, to lay claim to public space, to overcome fear, to assert pride, and to exercise the right to take pleasure in ways that harm no one. All of these are key ideals. I like the pageantry and the joy. But if we ask about how to oppose violence during these times, we have to consider the way that new immigrant communities are subject to right-wing street violence, how they are subject to racial profiling and harassment by police, and we have to object to harassment and violence against all minorities. Indeed, the opposition to illegitimate state violence and various forms of cultural pathologization are crucial to the queer movement more generally. So if we fight for the rights of gay people to walk the street freely, we have to realize first that some significant number of those people are also in jeopardy because of anti-immigrant violence - this is what we call "double jeopardy" in English. Secondly, we have to consider that if we object to the illegitimate and subjugating use of violence against one community, we cannot condone it in relation to another! In this way, the queer movement has to be committed to social equality, and to pursuing freedom under conditions of social equality. This is very different from the new libertarianism that cares only for personal liberty, is dedicated to defending individualism, and often allies with police and state power, including new forms of nationalism, European purity, and militarism.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your philosophy is often classified as part of pop-culture. Actually, especially in Germany many people refer to your book "Gender Trouble" and link your name to the idea of freely "choosing" and "creating" gender although your theory is not euphoric and includes melancholy and political engagement against any form of discrimination. How do you feel being considered as a pop-icon?
Judith Butler: I am not sure I am a pop-icon. I don´t read those kinds of commentaries. But if the arguments of Gender Trouble have made their way into popular culture, then I am pleased. It seems to me that academic work only becomes part of a larger social movement by assuming a popular form. The misreadings are interesting to me, and perhaps say more about the social needs of one´s readers than the text itself. In any case, my effort has been to show that even though we are in some ways formed by social norms, we are not determined by them. We can struggle with them, through them, and against them. I presume that some people are drawn to the work because it tries to understand agency in the midst of social power.

AVIVA-Berlin: In a documentary for ARTE -TV you said that becoming aware of being a lesbian made you feel unsettled, you were afraid of the pathologisation, the image of lesbians and social exclusion. Do you think today, 40 years later, that coming out and living openly in a non hetero-normative way is easier?
Judith Butler: Yes, it is easier, and I am always pleased and surprised by that discovery. But for those of us who had no social movement when we came out as adolescents, we doubtless still carry scars from that period of life. I am still haunted, even though I could not be more "out."

AVIVA-Berlin: According to your philosophy identity, not only concerning gender, is always vulnerable and never stable. For many people, this idea isn´t comprehensible, awkward or frightening - how do you react to this point of view?
Judith Butler: Maybe there are various viewpoints that are at issue here. It is true that many people want the stability of "identity" categories, they want to know what gender they are or what sexual orientation they have. And they want that to be a stable and enduring part of their lives. I can certainly understand this. But others want to know that they can have certain relations, and even change over time, and they are not always able to say with certainty that they belong to one category or another. Whereas for some stability and belonging is a precondition of living well, for others that very stability and belonging feels like a trap, a prison, or even the end of a sense of being alive. So perhaps this is a complex terrain. Moreover, the categories that are available to us are also changing, they are historical, and so we may think that we identify with one gender only to find that we are not generally recognized as belonging to that gender. Or we may find that we have to enter a social struggle for recognition. At other times, living without explicit recognition can be a form of freedom. So perhaps we need to develop a capacious way of understanding the complexity of gendered and sexual life.

As for vulnerability: it seems clear to me that in being named "a boy" or "a girl" we are vulnerable to the language that others use to describe us. We are brought into the world by being named by others, and that primary vulnerability is there, before we have any power to name ourselves. Do we ever escape the social interpellations of others? Do we ever escape the social imprint? Or do we struggle with and against that legacy we never chose?

AVIVA-Berlin: In opposition to other feminists, you don´t only talk about the vulnerability of women as victims, but emphasise the possibility to act. What does that mean for modern feminism?
Judith Butler: Perhaps contemporary feminism is divided on the question of whether political actions can and should take place outside the context of the state or whether they require state and legal institutions to compel social change. I think my early work focused on the cultural acts and practices that institute and change gender, but I also worried then, as I worry now, about allying with forms of state power that might end up defining women in ways that might turn out to be very restrictive. This is, of course, one problem with victim discourse. On the one hand, we need to be able to describe very clearly how and when people are victimized, but if someone then becomes defined as a victim, how can that person act? The definition of the person as victim, once institutionalized by law, can keep us from being able to understand forms of resistance, struggle, and agency. Feminism has to describe and oppose modes of gender violence, but it also has to show how women resist, fight, and transform their worlds. We have to do both, and ask whether the strategies we pursue enhance our agency or not.

Jewish Life/Roots

AVIVA-Berlin: You grew up in a practising Jewish family and had a private tutorial with your Rabbi when you were 14. Did you have your Bat Mitzvah and what does Jewish identity mean to you today?
Judith Butler: At the time, my synagogue did not give girls the chance to have a Bat Mitzvah. I suppose I would have pursued it if I could. As it was, I attended courses at one of the local synagogues, discussed Jewish ethics, the history of the Nazi genocide against the Jews and other minorities, read Jewish philosophy, and found myself very interested in the traditions of existential theology.

AVIVA-Berlin: How does being Jewish influence your everyday life, your work at the university, your use of language and your life as a feminist, as a queer activist, a lesbian and political philosopher? Or does it play a role at all?
Judith Butler: I am sure it plays a major role, but I may not be able to know all the ways that it affects me. It certainly affects my sense of humour and my sense of irony! But also, it seems to me that certain practices of close reading emerge from traditions of biblical commentary within Judaism, and that I am very sceptical of efforts to define or portray any notion of the divine. I am probably an agnostic on religious matters, but I do sometimes still attend the synagogue, and the music and singing is profound and moving to me.

Recently I have been trying to understand those resources within Jewish philosophy, understood generally, for thinking about the critique of state violence, the ideals of co-habitation, the ethical relation to the non-Jew, and the problem of memory and restitution. I am also interested in debates about Zionism that were very much a part of Jewish life both before and after World War II. Hannah Arendt has proven to be especially important to me, especially her efforts to establish a federal authority for Palestine and her objections to all forms of nationalism, including Jewish nationalism.

AVIVA-Berlin: How do you feel about the accusation that you have perhaps taken an anti-Semitic position concerning your statement about the Hamas and the Hezbollah as progressive social movements? (On: http://radicalarchives.org/2010/03/28/jbutler-on-hamas-hezbollah-israel-lobby/) Does that bother you more as a philosopher or on a personal level?
Judith Butler: Unfortunately, that clip was cut short and did not include all of my response. What I actually said was that although groups like Hamas and Hezbollah should be described as left movements, that like all left movements, one has to choose which ones one supports and which ones one refuses. They are "left" in the sense that they oppose colonialism and imperialism, but their tactics are not ones that I would ever condone. I have never supported either group, and my very public affiliation with a politics of non-violence would make it impossible for me to support them. The editing of my response was obviously an effort to distort my view, and I am very sorry that the distortion has been able to circulate as it has. Thank you for giving me the chance to clarify what I actually said and what I have always thought.

AVIVA-Berlin: Does Jewish ethic and tradition influence your philosophy and your comprehension of human life?
Judith Butler: Yes, life is transient, and so must be safeguarded by all means.

Questions concerning "Frames of war":

AVIVA-Berlin: What exactly is the challenge of non-violence and what does the acceptance of one´s own vulnerability imply?
Judith Butler: Vulnerability is never mine alone. If I seek, through acting violently, to establish my own impermeability, I inevitably fail. No human can successfully overcome vulnerability, even though that might be a guiding fantasy - indeed, it is a guiding fantasy for many forms of nationalism and militarism. In my view, shared vulnerability establishes a perspective from which to criticize the impossible and destructive fantasies that structure some nationalist forms of militarism.

AVIVA-Berlin: In an interview with Jill Stauffer you said that getting to know "the other" is connected to the challenge of reacting non-violently. But to what extent is it possible to understand the other? Is it important to admit a certain "opacity"?
Judith Butler: Yes, we have to move away from the idea of "knowing" as mastery. Perhaps there is a way to think about "acknowledging" the vulnerability of the other, the equal rights of the other, and to pursue the question, "who are you?". The question is a direct address, a way of entering into relation, but it is not the same as trying to possess the other through knowledge or relegating the "Other" to some permanent site of unknowability.

AVIVA-Berlin: How important are media in this context? How could they communicate the ability to non-violent reactions?
Judith Butler: I think that journalism and media has a very profound responsibility to represent wars in a way that help people think about why there is war, what destruction it causes, and what alternatives are available. This means that the framing has to work against nationalism, racism, and sensationalism.

AVIVA-Berlin: How can we deal with agressive feelings, without becoming violent and does that mean that we can act destructively, without hurting others?
Judith Butler: There are many songs and dances that engage aggression, and certainly many sports as well. There is vigorous debate and open conflict over political views, and even ways of participating in martial arts. There are many ways of crafting aggression, both through speech and other modes of expression, that do no harm.

AVIVA-Berlin: Do you have any suggestions about how, for example, the Hamas or fundamentalist Islamic groups as well as the politics of Israel could deal with their agressions in a queer, non-violent way? How could queer politics be added to the conflict?
Judith Butler: Well, there is now a significant set of queer groups in Israel actively involved in promoting Palestinan justice as well as "anarchists against the wall". And there are queer groups in the West Bank (Aswat) and in Beirut, for instance, that are trying to criticize the forms of "homonationalism" I discussed above. It is unfortunate that these positions are not well enough known.

AVIVA-Berlin: Concerning your theory: In "Frames of War" you tell us, that it is a problem, that not everyone is respected as a subject. Is it, these days, where most reflections on society, politics and human life passes by system theory, still possible to base a political theory on the ontologie of a subject
Judith Butler: I agree. We cannot base a politics on any ontology of the subject. We have to think about modes of social relationality that precede the formation of the subject, and we have to ask why it is that some creatures are produced as subjects, and others are not. So I am not in favour of a subject ontology. If we claim that rights of recognition should be equally distributed, then we are talking about that mode of power that produces and sustains subjects. But we are not talking about an ontology of the subject.

AVIVA-Berlin: In your theory what did you add to Hegel´s subject and his idea of "Anerkennung"? And why is Hegel´s theory still so important for your philosophy?
Judith Butler: A fine question! I think it is important to realize that if and when recognition happens, it happens through established languages and norms, and that the claim to be recognized sometimes requires innovating new modes of language and new social conventions. This is why some persons and creatures are "recognizable" when others are not. I suppose I try to think about the unequal distribution of recognition, and in that way bring a theory of power to the concept of Hegelian recognition. But I also want to radicalize his notion that recognition is always mediated. He did not explain why some are recognizable, and others not. I know that some social theorists distinguish strongly between claims of recognition and claims of redistribution, but I want to suggest that the unequal distribution of recognisability is a politically urgent problem. Perhaps that what was finally at issue at the CSD. For me, the struggle for freedom is linked with the struggle for equality.

AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much for your time. It would be great to meet you next time in Berlin so that we can interview you face to face - we still have some more questions...

Read more at AVIVA-Berlin:

Judith Butler - Raster des Krieges. Warum wir nicht jedes Leid beklagen

Judith Butler - Die Macht der Geschlechternormen und die Grenzen des Menschlichen und Krieg und Affekt

Undine Zimmer, Marie Heidingsfelder and Sharon Adler