Butler, J. - There is a Person Here- An Interview With Judith Butler

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International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1/2, 2001 Introduction “There Is a Person Here”1 : An Interview with Judith Butler Compiled by Margaret Soenser Breen2 and Warren J. Blumenfeld,3,4 with Susanna Baer, Robert Alan Brookey, Lynda Hall, Vicky Kirby, Diane Helene Miller, Robert Shail, and Natalie Wilson In this interview, the coeditors, along with other contributors, ask Judith Butler a variety of questions regarding queer theory, gender identities, scientific and
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   International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1/2, 2001  Introduction “There Is a Person Here” 1 : An Interviewwith Judith Butler Compiled by Margaret Soenser Breen 2 and Warren J. Blumenfeld, 3 , 4 withSusanna Baer, Robert Alan Brookey, Lynda Hall, Vicky Kirby,Diane Helene Miller, Robert Shail, and Natalie Wilson  In this interview, the coeditors, along with other contributors, ask Judith Butler avariety of questions regarding queer theory, gender identities, scientific and legaldiscourse, bodily abjection, race and class positioning, and political organizing.This range of subject matter suggests not only the breadth of Butler’s work, but also its applicability to any number of people, whose relation to theory ranges from highly politicized to politically indifferent. The interview demonstrates theresponsiveness of Butler’s work to cultural translation and political action. KEY WORDS: Judith Butler; interview; gender; queer theory. In designing this interview, we wanted to raise questions that foregroundedour own commitment to a queer praxis sustained by a number of cultural registers,including academic scholarship, political activism, and personal relationship. Weare very aware of writing at a time that begs the question: If one does not look queeroractqueer,isonereallyqueer.Itisatimewhensame-sexmarriage,militaryservice, and scout participation garner media attention, but do so at the expenseof issues and groups whose sexual practices, gender expressions, and politicalassumptions do not readily accord with those of a cultural mainstream. Currentpopular discussions of queerness are, in other words, not so very queer at all.Assimilation is in; queerness is out. As queer theorist Michael Warner (1999) hasobserved,“Increasinglytohavedignitygaypeoplemustbeseenasnormal”(p.52). 1 Judith Butler (1990, 1999). Preface 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity .p. xvi. 2 Department of English, University of Connecticut. 3 Social Justice Education Program, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts. 4 Correspondence should be directed to Warren J. Blumenfeld, P.O. Box 929, Northampton,MA 01061-0929; e-mail: blumenfeld@educ.umass.edu. 7 1566-1768/01/0400-0007$19.50/0 C  2001 Human Sciences Press, Inc.  8 Breen, Blumenfeld, Baer, Brookey, Hall, Kirby, Miller, Shail, and Wilson Given this current political mainstreaming of queerness, we wanted our interviewto focus on the radical political potential that informs Judith Butler’s work.We contacted Judith Butler and asked her if she would be interested in partic-ipating in an interview for the special double issue of the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies , and she agreed to answer our questions through anemailformat.Wethenreachedanumberofindividualswhohadexpressedinterestin contributing essays for the issue as well as others we were aware of who hadan interest and background in Butler’s work, and we asked if they would like tocraftquestionsfortheinterview.Afterwereceivedalloftheirquestions,wesortedthem into topic areas and transmitted them to Judith Butler for her response.Implicitlythroughouttheinterview,wehaveaskedButlertodiscussherwork in relation to “lived experience,” which our questioners have defined in variousways,includingintermsoftheory(questions1and3);genderidentities(questions6and12);scientificandlegaldiscourses(questions3,4,5, 5 and9);bodilyabjection(questions 5 and 8); race and class positioning (questions 2 and 8); and politicalorganizing (questions 10 and 11). Admittedly, “experience” is not a term that onetypically immediately associates with queer theory or specifically with Butler. Byinvoking it, we recognize an experiential ground to Butler’s work and suggestthe applicability of that work to any number of people, whose relation to theoryranges from highly politicized to politically indifferent; and from enthusiastic toskeptical. We also seek to argue against an understanding of feminism that doesnot include destabilized gender categories.So, the interview begins with a question regarding ideological exchange:Is it possible for lesbian and gay critics and writers who draw on experience-based models of gender to find connection with queer theory? We have also beenmotivated by an awareness of the critique at times levied against Butler, wherebyher rigorous prose style is viewed as implicated in normative academic practicesthat professionalize queerness and so further marginalize nonacademic sexualand gender minorities. The final interview question (question 12) addresses thisdouble concern with accessibility and political praxis. While we readily admit thatButler’s writing style is demanding, we wish to demonstrate, most immediatelywith this interview and more generally with the essay collection as a whole, herwork’s responsiveness to cultural translation and to political action. It is our hopethat this interview with Judith Butler will encourage conversation regarding theinclusiveness and relevance of her work for a wide-ranging audience.Thelistofparticipants(inorderoftheirquestions)includesMargaretSoenserBreen (University of Connecticut; Associate Editor, International Journal of Sex-uality and Gender Studies) ; Warren J. Blumenfeld (University of Massachusetts,Amherst; Editor, International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies ); Vicki 5 Afterrespondingtoquestion3,posedbyVickiKirby,JudithButlersuggestedthatKirbymightwishtoask a follow-up question, which she did. 5 is the additional question, which we subsequently insertedinto the srcinal order of interview questions.  Interview with Judith Butler 9  Judith Butler  Kirby(UniversityofNewSouthWales,Sydney,Australia);LyndaHall(Universityof Calgary, Canada); Natalie Wilson (Birbeck College, University of London);Susanna Baer (Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany); Robert Alan Brookey(Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona); Diane Helene Miller (Universityof Georgia, Athens, Georgia); and Robert Shail (University of Exeter, UnitedKingdom).  Margaret Soenser Breen and Warren J. Blumenfeld  * * * 1. Margaret Soenser Breen: One might say that there are sharp divisionsbetween queer critics or between writers of earlier times and those of the present.Yet, one might also speak of intergenerational indebtedness. Could you commenton the value of reading your work along side that of earlier, “essentialist” or“experiential” discussions of gender and sexuality? Judith Butler: It is difficult for me to know whether, in relation to yourquestion, I exist in the present or the past, since I think of myself now, ten yearsafter Gender Trouble , as already part of the earlier generation of queer writing. I  10 Breen, Blumenfeld, Baer, Brookey, Hall, Kirby, Miller, Shail, and Wilson do recognize, though, in what you say a tension between writers associated withgay and lesbian history, for instance, for whom the lives of gay people form thefocus of analysis and certain strains within queer theory, where conceptual andtextual analysis are more prominent. I’m not sure I would call the former “thepast,” however, since there are now historians doing such work and writers whowrite of their own lives, or the lives of others, such as Kate Bornstein or LeslieFeinberg or Dorothy Allison who are, in fiction and prose, having a profoundtransformativeeffectsontheculturesofgender.Iamcertainlynotopposedtosuchwriting, nor do I understand what I do to have surpassed that writing in some waythat might be tracked generationally. My sense is that theory is certainly borne of lives and passions in various ways, but it offers a refracted view on its srcins, andits srcins are perhaps not as salient as its effects. It would be an impoverishedworldifallwehadwerequeertheorywithoutbiographyorautobiography.SamuelDelaney represents, I believe, a form of experience-based narrative that is at oncepervasively theoretical. So your question catches me off guard.As for essentialism, I think that there have been strong arguments in favor of its reemergence in feminism, which Naomi Schor, Rosi Braidotti, and Diana Fusshavemadeperhapsmosteloquently.Igatherthatwhatisinterestingthereisthewaythatclaimstoessentialismcanbeseparatedfromclaimsofbiologicaldeterminism.Since those feminists, at least, have no desire to return to the biology is destinyargument. But even if they seek to protect their views against an assimilation tothatdisdainedargument,Iamnotsurethattheycankeeptheirviewfromacquiringthe same kind of function in political discourse.Thenotionthatsexualdifferenceisfundamentaltoculture,forinstance,whichbecame something like a structuralist truth that survives in Lacanian discoursetoday, has a way of making sure we consider as unintelligible forms of sexualdifferentiation that do not conform to the “sexual difference” at hand. Thus, Iwonder whether we can even begin to think transgender and intersex within such arestrictive framework. The point is not to argue that there are more than two sexes,but that we do not know what cultural variations differences may take. There arenot only important overlaps between the sexes, but people don’t always stay withthe sex to which they have been assigned. Moreover, if we take sexual differenceto be a foundation of culture, we cannot ask how the assignment of sex—which issuch a volatile political issue—takes place as a cultural practice. My view is thatit is crucial to understand sex as assigned rather than assumed, and to recognizethat there are a variety of ways through which “assignment” works culturally, andthat these are systematically obscured by the presumption that sexual differenceis a condition of every and all culture.I understand that the main way that essentialism has emerged within the gayand queer movements recently is through the gay gene debate. I’ve learned a lotfrom Ed Stein on this matter. I think that the assertion of such ostensibly “hard-wired” differences almost always takes place through metaphors, which belie a
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