Demonstrating Precarity: Vulnerability, Embodiment, and Resistance

LARB's Philosophy & Critical Theory editor Arne De Boever interviews Judith Butler about her 2015 CalArts lecture series, Demonstrating Precarity.

March 23, 2015

    ARNE DE BOEVER: You’re in LA to give four public lectures, titled Demonstrating Precarity: Vulnerability, Embodiment, and Resistance. Readers of your work will probably hear an echo of one of your recent books, Precarious Lives: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Can you talk about how you arrived from that book to these lectures?

    JUDITH BUTLER: My public lectures tend to be concerned with the idea of public assembly and what it means when bodies come together to protest or assert certain kind of demands, or to object to certain social conditions. And in the last year I’ve been particularly interested in demonstrations against precarity, or sometimes in the European context, demonstrations against austerity, which obviously reference fiscal policies that produce rather stark economic consequences for a vast number of people. In general the right of public assembly has been with us for some time, I think originally posited as a right on the part of laborers to assemble and decide whether or not they wanted to be part of a union, or to negotiate their wages. That right of assembly has often been understood as an abstract right, without thinking about the fact that it requires bodies to come together, and it’s a right that presupposes mobility, the freedom to gather and the freedom to speak. Rights of assembly struck me as different from rights of association or rights of free expression. They fundamentally involve the body in a collective, embodied set of acts.

    Your first lecture, “From Performativity to Precarity/Acts of Resistance,” reached far back into your oeuvre, back to your classic text Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. How did a theorist of gender end up writing about public assembly?

    Well I think back in 1988 or 1989, when I was writing Gender Trouble, I was certainly interested in social movements, and I was watching gay and lesbian movements emerge in certain forms and take particular shape in relationship to what was then understood as an HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States and in some other places like the UK and France. And yet the theory of gender performativity that emerged in the course of those reflections was very often understood to be a theory that focused on individual acts, acts by which you perform a gender or take on a gender. And some people thought it was a highly volitional view, that is to say, we are utterly free to take on any gender that we want, and also that it was an individualistic view, so you’re free to take on your gender and I’m free to take on my gender and that’s part of our individual liberty. So that was a little distressing, that there was one way of reading the text. I understood why people might want to read it that way, but was nevertheless somewhat distressed, so in the years that followed I tried to return to the theory of performativity in order to show its political and social dimensions more carefully. It’s true that performativity broadly understood comes from a theory of language that talks about how language makes things happen, how certain categories can bring social realities into being, or produce certain kinds of effects. It’s a theory that in some way underscores the powerful effects of discourse, but there’s a question: how is it that we embody discourses, especially the discourses of gender? And what can we do, what kind of agency do we have in relationship to the categories that inhabit us, and that we in turn inhabit.

    So for me, that meant thinking about what happens when we act in common, what happens when we act in concert. Hannah Arendt’s views have been important for me as I try to think about what performative action looks like, and demonstrations are of course a key way in which that happens. And when people are demonstrating about precarity, for instance, it’s not just that they get up and say, “We’re against precarity.” They are also embodied creatures in public space who are calling attention to the embodied character of their lives: this is a body that doesn’t have shelter, or this is a body that deserves shelter, or this is a body that ought not to be hungry, or this is a body that ought to have some sense of future, about its work or possibilities for flourishing. In other words, the body is not just a vehicle for the expression of a political view, but it’s the common corporeal predicament of those who need to be supported by proper infrastructure or social services, proper economic conditions and prospects. So that struck me as another way of making this point, and one that, I guess, for obvious reasons, is as important to me as it is to many other people at this point.

    You focus a lot on this notion of “We the People” in your lectures, especially in the second lecture that you gave at CalArts, which seemed especially concerned with popular sovereignty versus state sovereignty. You seem to thereby reverse a move that is made in Michel Foucault’s work, who said that at some point in the history of sexuality we ought to cut off the head of the king and instead look elsewhere in our analysis of power, toward political issues and the field of sexuality and race. And it seems like Gender Trouble very much came from there (even though you are critical of his reading of Herculine Barbin among other things). But now the concern with sovereignty seems to be coming back into your work, is that a fair characterization? Was Foucault too quick in calling for us to abandon the issue of sovereignty?

    No, I think Foucault was perfectly right, but I think I’m probably meaning something very different from the concept of sovereignty that he had in mind. The sovereignty of the king is of course the sovereignty of the human figure that stands for state power, and that is state power. And of course it’s possible to model state sovereignty on the implicit or explicit figure of the king, but when you talk about popular sovereignty it seems very different. We can’t say that the people who exercise popular sovereignty are a unified subject; in my view they are not a unified subject, there’s no way they are unified. They are instead a discordant and cacophonous set of voices and demands that nevertheless can coalesce in the exercise of popular sovereignty. So one question is whether the idea of sovereignty, even in popular sovereignty, is so wedded to the idea of a unified master subject like the king that we can’t use it, it’s too contaminated by that history. But if we think about distributed sovereignty, or shared sovereignty or divisible sovereignty, which can simply be a way of naming that complex situation in which rights of political self-determination are exercised without there being a presumption of a unified subject.

    And that kind of sovereignty is preferable to notions of the multitude?

    I mean surely the idea of the multitude is an important one, and if one goes back to look at Spinoza’s work on the theological and the political, one finds a really interesting set of formulations, and many people have thought about it, including Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. But also Étienne Balibar and others, whom in some ways I think are a little more distinct from the Hardt and Negri view. The multitude, I think, is a way of naming the complex affective political movement of people who are not a unified crowd or subject, but I’m not sure it leads us to the kinds of democratic and parliamentary outcomes that I’m also interested in. In other words, I don’t necessarily want to understand assembled action or even the popular will as something that has nothing to do with representative democracy or parliamentary changes of a significant kind. For me there’s a kind of blurring between those lines. I do think that if we could talk about the will of the people, I don’t think it’s ever fully represented by a particular parliamentary or state structure, and at the same time I don’t think we can have a way of thinking about the legitimacy of state structure without there being some recourse to the popular will, which is necessarily outside of it. So those are complex interrelationships and I want to be able to think about those, and I’m not sure the multitude lets me do that.

    So the will of the people is never fully exhausted by the representative structures that claim to voice it, or concern themselves with it?

    I think that’s a kind of necessity that democratic theorists generally acknowledge, that even when the people vote and put someone in office, or when they accept a ruler or even found a state, the minute they actually start instituting their will the will becomes less complex and vanishes to some degree. There’s always an abbreviation of the will in the effect of the will. That seems right. But the idea that there could be withdrawal of the will of the people from rules, from laws, even from an entire state apparatus, remains a really important one, and I don’t want us to give up that notion, that people do have the power to withdraw their consent and that that can have fairly powerful consequences.

    That seems to be, and I’m not sure if this is the correct way to put it, a kind of negative way to build a grouping or a community. In your second lecture, someone brought up “Je suis Charlie,” and I think a problem comes up with having positive identification with Charlie. Whereas one might want to withdraw from the terroristic act that was committed there, that can’t necessarily be equated with a positive identification with Charlie, which might be offensive or problematic for many believers. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    Well it’s always curious to me why people think that asserting identification is the way to show solidarity. It could be that when someone says “Je suis Charlie” they mean “It could’ve been me” or “I stand with him” or they could simply be saying, “I think that the assassinations are absolutely wrong and I wish to make my views known.” And that’s really a condemnation of those assassinations. I’m not sure that the language of identification is always the best way to do that, because I gather that if one’s going to be consistent, one would be against the assassination of any group of people who are working in a political venue, or who are engaged in the formulation of political or satirical work. One might need to say in the same breath that all kinds of assassinations are wrong, to generalize the claim. Otherwise it seems like a very particularistic term, like I’m only against the assassination of those working for Charlie Hebdo. I mean, no one wants to say that. We appeal to general principles, the rights to be protected from assassination, the condemnation of assassination. And then the question is how expansive are our principles. Do they include all kinds of groups? Do they also include Arabs working in France who are putting out publications whose views are not particularly welcome? Is assassination the correct political response to views you disagree with? No. So trying to generalize the claim seems very important. Otherwise it seems like one’s making a cultural identification of a certain kind, and suggesting that those people who belong to that identifiable cultural affiliation ought not to be assassinated. But really, no one should be assassinated.

    A lot of this resonates in The New York Times interview that’s been making the rounds, where you analyze the “All Lives Matter” slogan as a response to “Black Lives Matter” slogan. In that essay you make a case against using the universal claim, because it seems to be important to convey that not all lives matter, or that black lives seem to be treated differently.

    But I would say there’s still an aspiration toward the universal in that piece. Black lives tend not to matter when police who kill unarmed black men are exonerated. Black lives should matter; they should matter as much as any other life matters. Actually all lives should matter equally, we should be radical egalitarians when it comes to the question of whose lives matter, and yet we fail in that egalitarian project. We fail to universalize that claim time and again because we have very specific cultural ideas of what a valuable life is. So if we say that only certain kinds of lives can be publicly grieved, or the assassination of certain kinds of lives should be publicly condemned while other lives remain unremarked, or perhaps the loss of those lives is not so important, or maybe they deserved it anyway — whatever that moral confusion is that pervades responses such as those, they suggest that we actually do have cultural prejudices, presuppositions about what a valuable life might be or a grieved life might be. So we should make sure that in saying “Je suis Charlie” that we’re not saying that those of us who come through the tradition of French republicanism hang together and “we” deserve not be assassinated for furthering the tradition of Voltaire. I mean of course that’s right, but it’s also right that those lives, from that tradition, should matter equally to any other set of lives, including lives that don’t come through that tradition. So one needs to be attentive, I think, to the cultural prejudices that inform our ideas of which lives finally matter.

    You have a notion in your book Frames of War where you propose we think about the human as a differential norm. Can you talk about what you mean by that notion?

    You know I picked up a journal and I saw an article on Butler’s New Humanism and I thought, “Oh that’s very funny, I guess it was bound to happen.” It’s because I’m willing to talk about the human as a category, and we’re supposed to be post-human or to have transcended the human. I think there’s no way to talk about the human outside of a field of power. (I suppose I’m still a proper Foucauldian in certain ways.) Whenever we’re talking about the human, it seems we have to ask which version of the human is at stake, or how is it being circumscribed, and through what exclusions and with what consequences. I don’t believe we can dig deep and find the ontological version of the human that is absolutely true for all humans; that’s not my aspiration, it’s not even my expectation, but I accept that the category of the human is a very powerful norm and it influences so much public debate and public policy and theoretical reflection that I don’t think we can do without it. Indeed sometimes I worry that those who feel like we’re contaminated by humanism, who are too cool or post-structuralist, who can’t talk about it, they don’t see that categories like this can be revisited. We can ask about their genealogy, we can ask about how they’ve been formulated, through what occlusions, with what effects. It seems like that’s a critical approach. I think a lot of it is happening now in animal studies or even in technology studies, like how do we think of human life in terms of living processes more generally. In each of these cases the human is not a self-sustaining category for sure; it’s sustained through its embeddedness in a whole set of relationships, but that gives us something to think about and it strikes me as very important. And yet there are ideas of the human that insist upon its isolation, its normativity, its ideal status, and there again I’m concerned about which version of the human gets elevated to the status of the human as such, and can we think more critically in genealogy in order to uncover those biases.

    And that seems to be an important component of your work on Israel/Palestine?

    Do you mean to say that the category of the human figures in my work on Israel/Palestine?


    Well I think one thing we find in war, and I think we can find this in several scenarios of war, especially those that are engaged by first-world countries or in the name of Western civilization or European values, that very often the fate of the human seems to be at stake in the war. The enemies are not exactly humans, they are the threat to the human and the human that’s being defended is very often a very culturally specific idea formed by ideas of manhood, informed by ideas of reason, of autonomy, of civilizational norms, and of cultural and educational formation. So in those cases it’s very hard to talk about human rights or crimes against humanity when those who have, in fact, inflicted those crimes don’t understand the beings they have destroyed or displaced. I think that’s a way that civilizational politics plays out in war scenarios.

    I think in your last lecture you’ll talk about nonviolence. I remember, actually, taking a seminar with you on Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” at Cornell, and wondering now so many years later, does your thinking about nonviolence still come from that Benjamin essay? How might it have changed over time?

    It’s interesting that I’m actually teaching Benjamin’s critique of violence this semester at UC Berkeley, so I guess I keep returning to that. And every time I read it I get something new. I myself defend a principled account of nonviolence. It’s not easy to do, especially in light of the kinds of challenges people present to me, but I think the world would be a poorer world if no one were defending nonviolence. It’s not for that reason alone that I defend nonviolence, but I do think that it’s important to think about what the justifications for violence are, and what kinds of contradictions they entail. What interests me in part is how nonviolent action is sometimes called violent, and even Benjamin in that essay sometimes seems to be naming what is violent and what is nonviolent. If you look closely you see that within the perspective of a certain legal regime, any challenge to the legal regime is called violent. And what’s being opposed in naming a resistance to the legal regime as a violent one is the loss of the monopoly on violence that the state has. In fact, many nonviolence resistance movements are called violent, not because they use force or even have violent aims, but because their effects, say their delegitimating effects, are understood to be destructive in some more amorphous sense.

    Also protocols of nonviolence on US campuses are no longer recognized or honored by police, and the police are very often trained in military methods, and not so much in nonviolent disobedience protocols. About five years ago at Berkeley we saw people who were offering their hands to be handcuffed in a very well-known gesture of nonviolent civil disobedience, who were thrown to the ground at that moment. People going limp and offering themselves to be taken away or arrested who were nevertheless beaten in their limp state. So there’s a general question of what has happened, such that police practices such as those no longer give credence to nonviolent civil disobedience. The police in those instances can say that those people were violent, or a threat to security, but again we’re talking about an amorphous zone where, yes, a protest on a university campus in opposition of tuition hikes or increased privatization, that might get large enough to cause a problem for security, but it’s not as if it’s necessarily a violent one. Some people enter into protests with violent aims and I think do derail some of their most important directions by engaging in violence, and I don’t think that’s helpful or useful. There’s a lot of more I could say about this but I don’t know which direction you’d like to go in.

    Well, I was actually thinking to wrap up here as you’ve been very generous with your time. I was just wondering, will the LA lectures be collected in a book?

    These lectures are for the most part coming out in a book called Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly to be published by Harvard University Press later this year. But the work on nonviolence will come out separately, and I’m not yet quite sure where.


    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!