The desire for philosophy
Interview with Judith Butler, the American philosopher, during her visit to in Berlin, in May 2001, invited by the American Academy. The interview was conducted by Regina Michalik (LOLApress)
Judith, you call yourself a feminist – how do you identify your work? Do you see making philosophy as part of the feminist movement? Is it just your job? Or is it political?
Sometimes it is just philosophical work, sometimes it is political work. It is not only political I guess. Since I am very young I have being teaching feminism, writing feminist topics. I have written my dissertation on ‚desire’, which is a political question, but also a philosophical question. I have always been interested in the tradition of sexual freedom in feminism.
I have always been very worried about hops of feminism who are highly regulative or repressive towards. I am against normativities and for sexual freedom. I always hated this saying that feminism is the theory and lesbianism must be the practice. It desexualizes lesbians. I became a lesbian at the age of fourteen. And I didn’t know anything about politics. I became a lesbian as I wanted somebody very deeply. And then I became political about it, but as a result. I hate the saying as I believe that bisexual and heterosexual women within the feminist movement have to be respected, with their desires.
You are a protagonist of the queer movement* and see it as radically democratic and sexually progressive.
Yes, but it’s not always democratic. It can fall into the same patterns as all the other movements can.
When it emerged it was really suspending the question of identity. Some people say it is modern play, playing of the sexes and this kind of stuff. I don’t think that’s true. I think politically it is the bankrupcy of the politics of identity and the showing that we have to think coalitionally to get things done. That it doesn’t matter with whom we sleep with. The queer movement was anti institutional with a critique to normalization: that you don’t have to get normal to become legitimate.
My understanding of queer is a term that desires that you don’t have to present an identity card before entering a meeting. Heterosexuals can join the queer movement. Bisexuals can join the queer movement. Queer is not being lesbian. Queer is not being gay. It is an argument against lesbian specificity: that if I am a lesbian I have to desire in a certain way. Or if I am a gay I have to desire in a certain way. Queer is an argument against certain normativity, what a proper lesbian or gay identity is.
The American feminist movement had been an example for us for a long time. It was militant, it was strong. Now this kind of collective movement, does not seem to exist any more. It seems more as if individuals are fighting. Individuals working together time by time.
It depends where you are looking to find the movement. I would say that the movement to secure reproductive rights has been strengthened in a way by the conservative election. There are a couple of very strong national organizations which try to secure reproductive rights. And they are very effective. I think the national organization for women is very effective. And so are others. The problem is that there are some huge cultural differences between feminists. They have to do with sexuality and race. We always have the problem of the anti pornography movement and the question where it is within feminism and the sexual harassment movement They are very popular. Sexual harassment law is very important. But I think it would be a mistake if the sexual harassment law movement is the only way in which feminism is known in the media. They think it is a movement for sexual purity and not a movement for sexual freedom. The most popular media describes feminism as a sexual purity movement.
The other problem is that it has always been seen as a bourgeois white movement. If you look for the leadership it is almost sure but not completely true. There are two reasons for that: one has to do with anti-feminism within minority communities and the fear that feminism will take them away from there alliances to minority concerns. The second is that feminism has not made effectively coalitions with anti-racial groups.
Liberalism in the USA is very identity based. You belong to the women’s movement or to the national association for the avancement of coloured people. You always state: this is my identity and the basis where I belong to. So if you are a coloured woman you have to chose between. Or you have to go to more and more meetings until you are burnt out. The problem is that American liberalism makes everybody chose an identity too quickly, and a very narrow identiy. For example aids activism with the whole crisis in Africa about getting affordable drugs – there is not a main gay organization concerned about it. They are now trying to get marriage.
Isn’t it a problem of America as a whole which is very concentrated on itself, looking just at America – or even at their own single American state?
You are right. Sometimes it is looking at other countries, speaking about the whole human rights issue. But then it tends to impose its own cultural program on other countries. And as an American doing international rights activism you have to be extremely careful and have to learn how to do that. When something as an ideology of internationalism takes place it is almost always an ideology of Americanism. It is almost always the notion that America knows what human rights are despite its own racist culture – and they really export this. The others have to be grateful for this exportation. I think it has to deal with cultural translation: how we come across what it means to learn not just another language, but another political idiom, how people organize, how they function politically, how they make their claims.
Even in one country there are big differences. There is not AN American women’s movement as there is not A German women’s movement. We had the experience with Western Feminist thinking that they should tell Eastern German women what to do and what feminism is. So: how to work together with such a lot of different feminist movements? What could be the common point?
There are some differences which probably won’t be overcome. But the point is for feminists to work in coalitions. There is a tradition of it in the civil rights movement in USA coalitions with church groups, with radical groups which are entirely anti religious. They managed to overcome their differences to combat racism
because they understood what their common goal was. This idea of coalitions is not common in the women’s movement. It is not just the fault of the women but of the government, the way you get entitlement, the way you get recognition. The government produces lobbies over agreement based interest groups. And that works against coalitions. I think this is not true in most European countries. You have to make coalitions to get the votes you need.
Another main difference between Europe and America is about liberalism.
In Europe especially the Italian feminists from Milano said: Some rights are specific. Sexual difference is a crucial part of human nature and therefore women have to be given a certain number of positions. Women have been historically deprived of these positions. And it is now the obligation of the government that they can achieve equality.
The struggle for rights and entitlements in the USA is liberal in another sense. It isn’t liberal in the sense that liberalism means freedom. It is liberal in the sense that it is not radical. It is not interested in radical social transformation. It is interested in getting access to existing rights. And making sure existing rights are equally distributed. And when politics becomes rights based in the US it is usually very very normalizing. This is the problem for gay marriages now. That the drive for gay marriages has made almost invisible all other reflections on what kind of sexual arrangements do human beings want to have, what kinds of kinship are there. We should think more radically about the social transformation of institutions.
What about biotechnology as a means of social transformation? Feminists are against biotechnology and the possibility of producing children technologically. But shouldn’t there be a feminists fight for biotechnology and having children on our own and so trying not to reproduce the binary thinking of male and female, the old heterosexual system on and on?
No. Not for me. I am against what we call social engineering of all kinds. We shouldn’t be selecting what kinds of human beings should be made. And I think we shouldn’t fight for biotechnology in order to overcome heterosexuality. My point is only: the heterosexuals make use of reproductive technology all the time. When a heterosexual couple wants to have children they get usually access to reproductive technology in one way or another. The only question I have is whether gay couples or single women are not given the same access to that kind of technology. For me it is a question of politics of access.
How the child is raised maybe makes the difference of how they see gender, or roles mothers or fathers have. What I find really sad is that often gay or lesbian women or single women are prohibited from adopting children, any refugee children because of international adoption policies. International adoption organizations will not consider a lesbian couple or a gay couple. They will not consider single women, or just sometimes. But two women will have to lie that only one of them is adopting the child what produces lots of problems, legally and psychologically. But when you see the number of children who need a home and the number of gay and lesbian couples who want to adopt children, it is terrible that there is no institutional means by which this match can be made. I think many times lesbians go to reproductive technology because they are prohibited by the law from adopting. Or they can not find an agency which will represent them. Some women want to have their own biological child for whatever reason. I have to say I have never understood it. But it obviously has to be respected. There are alliances with gay men. That gay men offer there semen and can be part of the extended kinship. She doesn’t have to have intercourse with him to have the semen. That is a new kinship system which is extremely interesting. I am not interested in social engineering. I am interested in equal access to reproductive technologies. And I am interested in new forms of kinship.
What is the legal situation like in the USA?
It differs from state to state. When you are a lesbian mother in Virginia, and get in trouble with the law the judge can take your child away as you are an ‘unfit’ mother. There you can not adopt as your lesbianism is known.
I am living in Northern California. I live in heaven. But even I had to be denied by the social service agency that considered me as they had no category for me when I adopted my son. They said: ‘You look like a great parent. But we don’t have a category for lesbians to adopt. So we can’t accept you.’ And the judge had to overturn the denial. So in my case I was lucky. But I could have been in another part of California where the judge says no.
Feminism changed a lot: there are less women on the street, less concrete action, less manifestations, less militancy in this old sense. Do you think we need more thinking, more philosophy? Should the feminist movement invest much more time in philosophy?
I never expected my work to be read by very many people. I am dense, I am abstract, I am esoteric. Why should I become popular? But politically it is important that people ask the question ‘what is possible’ and believe in possibility. Because without the motion of possibility there is no motion forward. The idea that people might live their gender in a different way, or they might live their sexuality in a different way, that there might be room for a livable sustainable pleasurable happy politically informed life out of the closet. Philosophy makes people think about possible roles, it gives people the chance to think the world as if it was otherwise. And people need that. During my work in the human rights movement I saw that activists got burnt out very quickly, they became totally exhausted and then they always want to go back to school, they want to read. And then the readings brought them back to what they believed. It gave them some image and vision of the future. And I think a movement that is alive has to have an intellectual life otherwise it will just repeat some of its terms. It should try to revise its own beliefs in the light of new political circumstances.
Do you think that the political impact of philosophy is underestimated?
Oh, Marx was a philosopher. And Engels. And Emma Goldmann. And Rosa Luxemburg.
You are right. But speaking about Rosa Luxemburg, it was not her philosophy, but her concrete action on the street, which had the impact on politics.
Yes, that’s true. But it was an action performed by principle. Where do we get our principles from? There is a desire for philosophy, a very popular desire.
And you as a philosopher are very popular as well.
Yes, I know. But not always in a positive sense. Sometimes people use me as a kind of example for monstrosity. It has to do with a homophobic or explicitly anti-semitic or explicitly misogynist view. May be people care that I am so clearly a lesbian and not a feminine lesbian. My thesis’ on social construction seems to be very frightening to people: the idea that sex is culturally constructed. They seem to fear that I am evacuating any notion of the real, that I make people think that their bodies are not real or that sexual differences are not real. They believe that I am too charismatic and that I am seducing the young. But as well that I mark a generation between older feminists and the younger generation of queer thoughts and they fear that there might be a split. I am anti puritanical, I am not the typical professor. I became a professor at a very young age, at 34.
And there is a kind of anti Americanism of people although I think it might be a mistake to fold me up as an example of American imperialism or American cultural imperialism.
And the Jewish part is very important as well.
Is it important for you, personally?
It performed my ethical and political framework and it still does.
I am not religious really. But I do practice some. And I want my son to learn it and I continue it as a cultural tradition more than as a religious practice.
I am a nice Jewish girl from the Midwest who has quite a good education. My family was from Hungary and from Russia. And they maintained ties to Europe. And many of my family lived here through the 30ths and died in the War. My grandmother was always very clear that I should go back to Europe to study and so I came to study in Heidelberg in 1979. My mother and her generation were worried whether I should go to Germany and that could be difficult being Jewish. But my grandmother said: “Yes, you go to Germany. Jews always went to study in Prague, in Berlin, yes, you go!”
And here you are again. Thank you for coming, Judith.
Judith Butler is Professor of Philosophy in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley (see: cinemaspace.berkeley.edu/Film_Studies/Rhetoric/dept/rhet-home.html).
Note from the editor:
The conventional translation of queer would be “homosexual”, however in this context it is referring more to a “non conformist” or “dissident” attitude.
“Queer” is a term that has been generated in a different culture, which in its Spanish use does not have an immediate equivalent to the meaning that is implied in English. The “queer” movement refers to a school of thought and studies for the understanding of the diversity of sexualities and cultural expressions. The defining element of the queer studies arises from a position of resistance.
(Taken from “Feminist Debate” Year 8, Vol. 16, October 1997, Mexico)