What Would JB Do?

A few weeks ago, a trip through a very good work of intellectual history led me to take a fresh poke at post-structural theory. (as one does from time to time!) I was revisiting Judith Butler through whatever was available to me on Google when news of the killing in Orlando came out. Over the next few days, I found myself compelled to take a deep dive into one of Butler’s books in particular: Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a collection of essays written in the time period that followed 9/11.

As I’ve written before, my own intellectual pursuits have been heavily influenced by writers like Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose, those who in parts of their work have sought to identify, uncover, or deconstruct geneaologies of the idea of the liberal Enlightenment self. Jamesian and Deweyan pragmatist philosophy, that which posited that social experience is what constitutes the self, even pops up when I’m writing about Captain America and the Avengers. And such philosophy, as James Livingston writes, points in a straight line towards Judith Butler and feminist theory.[1]

Apparently, I’m not the only one re-reading Judith Butler these days. New York magazine recently published a nicely written appraisal of Butler’s influence on American culture. Not surprisingly, its focus was on Gender Trouble, Butler’s early work that declared gender to be a product of social performance. New York gives as an example of the ubiquity of Butler’s ideas the fact that teen stars such as Jaden Smith wear gender non-conforming clothes, and it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Identity politics are to be met with a shrug according to Smith’s generation.

In Gender Trouble, Butler sought to clarify and complicate gender as a means towards a better identity politics, not to obliterate it. Such a project was rooted in a thread that runs throughout Butler’s work, one that is not touched on in the New York piece, and that is a broader exploration of what it means to be constituted by one’s social environment, both in terms of identity and how it is experienced, but also in terms of violence and death. Where Butler comes out in Precarious Life — not just her insistence on questioning the liberal conception of the self, but in her suggestion that doing so might frame a new kind of social ethics — seems to me more relevant than ever.

Precarious Life takes as its task, in part, the posing of what Butler herself suggests might be an impossible question: how to acknowledge an “inevitable interdependency” as “the basis for global political community”? [2] In contrast, today is Independence Day, a holiday that not only asks us to think of the nation as exceptional, but also to fetishize the discourse of independence in ways that reflect what Jill Lepore has termed “historical fundamentalism,” and in all of the other ways that it’s been transmogrified. [3]

Butler’s suggestion after 9/11 was that we abandon “first person” narratives of violence and victimization.[4] Such a perspective comes from the idea that there is no “unaffected” or knowable “I,” no first person that exists before or with  “you” or other “I”‘s, as Butler explains in Senses of the Subject. [5] To leave behind the first person is therfore to see a social organism, and not just at the level of community or nation. The last thing Butler is calling for is a scheme for states in opposition to one another or for a clash of civilizations. Interdependence, it seems to me, is both a rejection of the individual self and of the nation as immutable and inevitable.

It seems to me that the exercise demands an abandoning of what is perceived as special. Butler is asking us to not see the victims of 9/11, or the American nation as conceived, as worthy of a kind of identity wedded to a value that is distinct and higher than that of others. But Butler resists using the idea of third person narrative in order to explore empathetic pathways, instead focusing on critical ones that pursue questions of our own complicity and culpability. It does remind me though, of philosopher George Yancy’s recent call to “love with courage” even those who fall outside of those frameworks that define who is worthy of the individual political/legal rights of a nation. Even Osama Bin Ladin, suggest Yancy, might be incorporated by such a radical rethinking of our moral frameworks, one that presumes “mutual vulnerab[ility].”

All of this leaves me to wonder what Butler would say today. Is it entirely nonsensical to ask queer and Latin@ communities to abandon first person narratives? Would acknowledging that identities are wholly valid and at the same time seeing them as the products of subjectivity make space for a reconciliation and a cosmopolitanism that equally incorporates disaffected youth infected with toxic American masculinity and subject to extremist thought? It seems to me that the intersections and collisions of identities at the heart of the killing in Orlando signals a clear need for voices like Butler, those that in recognizing the historical and material contexts of identity formation might offer an alternative to jingoism and the further atomization of our selves. [6]


[1] James Livingston, Feminism, Pragmatism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York, Routledge, 2001), 10.

[2] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2006), xii-xiii.

[3] Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 16.

[4] Butler, Precarious Life, 5-8.

[5] Judith Butler, Senses of the Subject (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 1-2.

[6] Of course, Butler doesn’t stand alone among queer and feminist theorists. Others could probably make better informed recommendations, but I suppose I would suggest in addition to Butler: Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012); Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).