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A Carefully Crafted "F**k You:" An Interview With Nonviolence Theorist Judith Butler

"The issue is to become less ferocious in our commitments, to question certain forms of blind enthusiasm, and to find forms of steadfastness that include reflective thought."

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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. Her work over the last few years has been devoted to challenging the Bush/Cheney-era torpor that came over would-be dissenters in the face of two wars and an acquiescent electorate. She does so not with policy prescriptions or electoral tactics, but with an analysis of the habits of thinking and doing that stand behind them. It is in response to the suffering of others, she insists, of innocent victims in particular, that we must come to terms with the world as it is and act in it.

Butler is, at University of California at Berkeley, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature. Her reputation is secure as the most important theorist of gender in the last quarter century, thanks to books like Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993). The thrust of her contribution is to destabilize—to queer—identity by disentangling the fragile performances that give rise to it. Whether in gender politics or geopolitics, her analysis shows how failing to grasp these sources of identity blinds us to the common humanity of others.

Her latest book, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), reflects on the past decade’s saga of needless war, photographed—even fetishized—torture, and routine horror. It treats these practices as issuing from a philosophical choice, one which considers certain human beings expendable and unworthy of being grieved. The concluding chapter confronts the paradoxical nature of any call for nonviolent resistance—paradoxical because the very identities that we claim and resist on behalf of were themselves formed by violence in the past. Butler does not mistake nonviolence for passivity, as so many critics do. At its best, she writes, nonviolent resistance becomes a “carefully crafted ‘fuck you,’” tougher to answer than a Howitzer.

Many of Frames of War’s reviewers comment about the difficulty of Butler’s prose. It certainly departs from the usual terms of debate about the subject—say, troop levels or international law—in order to point toward something more fundamental. Her books are notoriously dense, but the sensation of density stems from the very expectations we hold that she is trying to challenge. Butler has written about J.L. Austin, who taught philosophers in the deepest throes of the linguistic turn “how to do things with words,” and that is what she does. Reading her prose is a feat, an act. It is performative, in the sense that the text aspires to change us, not simply inform or explain. Apparently clear language can be more misleading than purposeful obfuscation; clarity sometimes depends on the assumptions and vocabulary that deliver us into war after war, or hate crime after hate crime, or refusal after refusal to admit the personhood of another.

Butler’s sentences are an invitation to refute those mistakes, to rethink, and to start again. Whether her particular performance, or philosophy in general, can make any dent in the war machine remains to be seen—though its influence may finally be too subtle to detect.

We had this exchange over a series of emails, during which she traveled to the West Bank and back on a research trip.

—Nathan Schneider for Guernica

Guernica: This book, you write, is a response to the policies under the Bush administration. How different would a book about the Obama administration be? Have we learned at all how to expand our circle of grief? Have we adjusted our frames?