Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I'm Not a Fan of Judith Butler, But I Guess She Can Be in My Thesis

I’ve been holding Judith Butler at arms-length all semester. Admittedly, I stay as far away from theory (and theorists) as possible, and the fact that Judith Butler has had a bandwagon following on my campus for the past few months didn’t help matters (let’s be honest – I’m clearly a nonconformist). So I wasn’t thrilled when my major advisor suggested I read chapter 2 (“Violence, Mourning, Politics”) of her 2004 book, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. But being the ever-dedicated student I am, I swallowed my theory-reluctance and broke the binding anyway. What follows is my attempt to a) debunk Butler’s complex academic writing and b) respond to her complex academic writing.
Butler had me interested for roughly the first half of her chapter. She writes that “[t]he body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well” (26). This concept seems to be contrary to how we humans typically view ourselves. Because we have individual perspectives (or assume we do, anyway), we believe we are all “I’s” looking out at the world, and we believe in a clear and evident separation between our own bodies and the bodies of those around us. By extension, this separation also guarantees the separation of our own identities from the identities of others. Our inclination is to view our bodies and identities as separate and to view group identities and bodies as secondary to our “selves”.
Butler is asking us to reverse our individualist thinking and see our bodies as having an “invariably public dimension” (26). Butler states, “[M]y body is and is not mine” (26), and that the existence of the individual’s body and identity is dependent on (and perhaps secondary in importance to) the existence of the collective body. Thus it is impossible to develop individual autonomy without considering the social environment within which the possible individual’s body may exist.
After she constructs her self-within-and-never-without-community argument, Butler extends herself by talking about representation of the self and how that self-representation risks violence to the community because it is inherently exclusive (28). If I perceive boundaries between you and I, she argues, then that creates room for me to other you. Only when we perceive shared boundaries (that, referencing the earlier part of her argument, are the only real boundaries since the self is derived from and dependent on the collective) can we eliminate “othering.”
But why would we want to stop othering people and groups we see as separate from ourselves? (I mean, apart from those ethical reasons.) Butler claims since that since each “individual” is the compilation of the larger community’s characteristics and influences, by dehumanizing those we perceive as “others,” we, in turn, dehumanize parts of ourselves. Since the individual’s identity cannot exist apart from the larger social context, and since the larger social context requires that each individual is inextricably connected, severing ties between the individual and those in the social context result in a loss of autonomy and individual identity.
Butler then moves into a discourse on violence how violence
is surely a touch of the worst order, a way a primary human vulnerability to other humans is exposed in its more terrifying way, a way in which we are given over, without control, to the will of another, a way in which life itself can be expunged by the willful action of another (29).
Violence, argues Butler, results from individuals refusing to perceive themselves as a collective, thus disrupting the precarious balance between the interwoven components of the community. On a grander scale, political violence then finds it source when an individual group (such as a nation or race) tries to exercise autonomy not within the collective context of humanity, but outside of it. It is in these instances that the othered become faceless and lose their right to exercise autonomy within the collective. While I understand what Butler’s attempting to say (I think), I can’t help but wonder if she’s taken her argument too far. How does she define individual collectives versus the entire collective? Surely the motives behind political conflict must be more complicated. 
I think Butler’s idea of the individual arising from and being defined by (and within) the collective is perhaps most interesting (and most useful) for my intended discourse involving development of narrative identity, mental illness, and feminist modes of discourse.  I’m not going to put this idea in the context of Hornbacher’s memoirs yet (although I’m itching to, I swear), but I do want to talk a little about where I might take her ideas. Over the next few days, I’m going to look at Margaret Price’s Mad at School, a book about disabilities in educational settings. Price has a chapter on pronomial identification, which I think might be interesting to put into a dialogue with Butler’s self/community arguments. I also want to look at Ochs and Capp’s article about the function of life stories and (if I have time) I’ll look at Twohig and Kalitzkus’ volume, Making Sense of Health, Illness and Disease. My goal is to put these theoretical texts into conversation with one another so that I may (eventually) find a solid theoretical lens through which I may deal with Hornbacher’s memoirs.

1 comment:

  1. As the major advisor who suggested you read chapter 2, I'm delighted you did, and delighted that, in doing so, you got right to the heart of Butler's argument: that we are all social beings, social before we are individual (remember, too, that that vaunted individuality is a very Western concept; that many cultures see identity as primarily social....).

    Where I want to "poke back" is @ your question whether "she’s taken her argument too far." Too far for what? Too far for your own valorization of the separate, isolated self? Oh, Ahab!