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The Archive is split between those articles published in Theory, Culture & Society and those published in Body & Society between 1997 and 2009, and contains 2 articles by
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The staff of life: Commentary on Judith Butler
Nathan Judith Butler’s philosophy is an assault on common sense, on the atrophy of thinking. It untangles not only how ideas compel us to action, but how unexamined action leaves us with unexamined ideas—and, then, disastrous politics’. Who is then this philosopher that introduces with such respect in his interview for the art and politics magazine
Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature,
Her writings and conversations reflect her sustained engagement with questions of life, desire and subjectivity. The philosophy of Hegel and Levinas, along with the theoretical inputs of Foucault, Derrida, Witting, de Beauvoir (see Hughes and Witz: 1997), Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt and psychoanalysis have been influential in her work. In turn, her philosophical outputs have influenced and transformed a number of disciplines, from women studies to law. This is evidenced by the publication of The Judith Butler Reader (2004) and a number of monographs analyzing, reflecting and critiquing her thought: Judith Butler: Routledge Critical Thinkers (Salih: 2002), Judith Butler (Live Theory) (Kirby:2006), Judith Butler: Ethics Law Politics (Loizidou: 2007), Judith Butler from Norms to Politcs (Lloyd: 2007), Unbecoming Subjects (Thiem, 2008) Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative (Jagger: 2008).
Judith Butler though is not just a mere academic philosopher. On the contrary Judith Butler does not rest at the shores of the teaching room or her office. She is a political activist, voicing her critical thought against the
Let’s see though why Judith Butler renders such respectful comments as the ones offered by Schneider above.
It is worth noting that performativity is a practice of citationality by ‘which discourse produces the effects it names’ (Butler, 1993: 2). ‘Gender performativity’ is also a practice of citationality, though this time discourse produces bodies ‘as already sexed’ (Ahmed, 1998:113); that is, as having a sex prior to naming. As you can see, language, and more specifically a critical analysis of the way language operates, is at the centre of
Her ‘subject’ as you may have gathered is not created ex-nihilo. It rather depends on an ‘outside’ (norms, culture, society) for its formation. It is an ex-static subject. And indeed interdependence shapes Judith Butler’s work. It is the ‘scaffolding’ that holds her work together. She demonstrates that interdependence is inevitable; no subject is autonomous (
Judith Butler’s conceptualisation of the subject (as argued by Loizidou, 2007) is inextricably linked with the problematic of life. In Subjects of Desire (1999b) she offers a reading of desire that is linked to life. In Gender Trouble (1990) life takes the form of gendered life, as in Bodies that Matter (1993) and Undoing Gender (2004b). Excitable Speech (1997) reflects upon injuries inflicted on lives by speech acts. In more recent work, Antigone’s Claim (2000a), Giving an Account of Oneself (2003; 2005) and Precarious life (2004a) as well as Frames of War (2009), she shows the limits that the ethical, political realm imposes upon life. Through the concept of ‘life’, Butler presents to us the practices involved in draining out, restraining, or even destroying ‘life’, as well as possible ways in which we may continue ‘resisting’ restrictions imposed upon us by state apparatuses (such as governmental officials and legislative limitations), disciplinary regimes and norms, so as to be able to have livable lives.
When considering possible ways through which we may open up a space for a better life, Butler directly confronts realms of ethics, politics, law, realms that stage a claim on life (via responsibility, decisionism, justice) and in certain circumstances, such as those of a state of emergency (but not only), tend to threaten or totalise life. In confronting these stakeholders of life (ethics, politics, law) she demonstrates, in the same way she did when she deconstructed gender, how each one of these realms tries to lay a total claim over life, and how such an act exposes that they are interdependent. How may it then be possible to subvert and transform such violence you may ask? In An Account of Oneself (2003) she points out that the practice of deliberation may be a possible way of opening a space for an ethics of recognition, a space that under totalising circumstances may not exist. In most of her work she talks about subversion as a way of combating normative assumptions regarding subjects. In ‘Competing Universalities’ (2000b: 136-181) she invokes translation, mediating between competing universal claims. These three practices, have a common aim; to sustain an agonistic relationship between legal, political and ethical spheres, prevent the totalisation of one sphere over the others and create at least the background conditions for a more ‘livable and viable life’. As each sphere or realm of life depends on each other to sustain its goals regarding life, any possibility for a better life necessarily has to retain an open and agonistic relationship between these spheres of life.
Her engagement with aesthetics has been lesser. In her latest work we observe, though, a subtle and refined engagement with this realm. In Frames of War (2009) she picks up scenes of war, killings, displacement, prisoners of war, incarceration and poetry, to expose and depict what the frame of main-stream media pushes out, but moreover to raise through ephemeral images our interdependence on this earth. What may be the significance of seeing these images through Judith Butler’s eyes and to see the vulnerability, precariousness and interdependence that people on this earth have with each other? What does she hope that the scene of art may offer? Let’s hear her:
…the utopian perception that sometimes breaks through the realm of art is one in which a notion of time emerges that counters and destroys the time structured by retribution and atonement. It constitutes a form of forgiveness that offers no understanding of the guilty deed, but rather the obliteration of the mark of guilt itself. This power of obliteration constitutes a certain kind of violence, but it is important to understand that this is a violence mobilised against the conception of violence implied by retribution. Understood as ‘a critical violence’, it is mobilised against the logic of atonement and retribution alike.
As I was writing this commentary, I found myself visiting an old family friend at the
Ahmed, S (1998) Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism,
Brownwyn, D (eds) (2008) Judith
Chambers, A.S (2007) ‘ Sex’ and the Problem of the Body: Reconstructing Judith
Derrida, J (1992) ‘Before the law’, in Attridge, D (ed), Acts of Literature,
Edwards, J. (2008) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: 1 (Routledge Critical Thinkers) Londo,
Fraser, N (March-April 1998) ‘Heterosexism, Misrecognition and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler’ NLR I (228): 140-149
Hughes, A and Witz (1997) ‘A Feminism and the Matter of Bodies: From de Beauvoir to
Jagger, G (2008) Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative
Kirby, V (2006) Judith Butler (Live Theory)
Lloyd, M (2008) ‘Towards a cultural politics of vulnerability: Precarious lives and ungrievable deaths’ in Carver, T. and Chambers, A.S Judith
Lloyd, M (2007) Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics (Key Contemporary Thinkers)
Loizidou, E (2007) Judith Butler: Ethics, Law, Politics
Loizidou, E (June 2008) The body figural and material in the work of Judith Butler’, Australian Feminist Law Journal 28: 29-51.
McNay, L (1999) ‘ Subject, Psyche and Agency: The work of Judith Buter’ , Theory Culture & Society 16 (2) :175-93.
Mahmood, S (2006) ‘Agency, Performativity and the Feminist Subject’ in Armour, T. E and Ville, M. St. S (eds) Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler New York: Columbia University Press.
Nussbaum, C M ((22nd February) 1999) ‘The professor of parody: the heap defeatism of Judith Butler’ The New Republic 37-45.
Rothenberg A. M. Embodied Political Performativity in Excitable Speech:
Salih, S (2002) Judith Butler: Routledge Critical Thinkers
Salih, S. (2004) The Judith Butler Reader
Schneider, N ‘A Carefully Crafted F**k You’,
Sedgwick, E K (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity,
Thiem, A. (2008) Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility
Zerilli, M.G.L (2008) ‘Feminist Know not what they do: Judith Butler’s gender trouble and the limits of epistemology’ in Carver, T. and Chambers, A.S Judith
Butler Symposium at the Centre for Gender & Sexuality, Law at
Judith Butler. ‘Cohabitation, Universality and Remembrance’ Birkbeck College,
Judith Butler. ‘Hannah Arendt, Ethics, and Responsibility.’ European Graduate School.
Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben. ‘Eichmann, Law and Justice.’
Judith Butler ‘I must distance myself’
Elena Loizidou is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck College,
 Schneider, N ‘A Carefully Crafted F**k You’, Guernica: A magaizine for art & politics, March 2010. http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/1610/a_carefully_crafted_fk_you/
 Butler (2003:19-21)
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV9dd6r361k ; For the speech itself see http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-must-distance-myself/ and for a reporting and discussion of this see http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/judith-butler-1-homonationalism-0/.
 It is worth noting that Judith Butler in the 10th anniversary edition of Gender Trouble (1999a) states that she ‘took … [her] clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law”’ (1999a: xiv). You can find Derrida’s essay in Derrida (1992).
 Sedgwick introduced the concept of ‘peri-performative. The ‘peri-performative’ relates to the context and audience of a performative and invite us to think of how ‘performative utterances’ affect those that find themselves in the context of such an utterance, instead of merely engaging with the response to such an utterance. See Sedgwick (2003) and Edwards ( 2009: 77-92)
 At the core of all these criticisms there is a skepticism as to the concreteness and facticity of Judith Butler’s work. They argue that the linguistic emphasis that the performative carries with it, eaves behind a detailed engagement with, social facticity (Lloyd:2008b); (McNay;1997), religious differences (Mahmood:2006, 177-224), materiality and capital (Fraser, 1998); (Nussbaum : 1999) , historicism (Rothenberg:2006) and the sexed body (Hughes and Witz:1997) (Chambers:2007). For a response to such criticisms see Loizidou (2008).For a response on criticisms on materiality see Butler (2001). For a response on criticisms on the social see (Butler: 2004c:2009a).
 For a recent explication of how Butler see interdependence as a integral part of her work see (Bell, 2010).
 For an explication of the use of subversion see (Butler, 2006: 276-291).
 Butler (2009a:2-5)
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