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Giving Away, Giving Over:

A Conversation with Judith Butler
Over the course of several months, Thomas Dumm, for
the Massachusetts Review, engaged Judith Butler in an
exchange concerning her work.The format was written,
the communications occurred over the e-mail. But it
was an e-mail exchange that assumed the form of a
conversation: even as a series of questions were posed,
the spirit became one of collaboration, or as Butler
might put it, a giving away, a giving over.
MR: There is a temptation to imagine continuities and discontinuities in the
works of serious thinkers. And so we have been presented with the young
Marx, concerned with issues of alienation and dialectics, engaging directly
with Hegel, Feuerbach, and others, and the later Marx, who gives us the
critical works on political economy. Or the early Heidegger of Being and
Time, overtly concerned with the question of Dasein, who then has a "turn,"
becoming more and more interested with our embeddedness in language,
worried about the human itself and its technological overcoming. Or the
early Foucault, the archeologist of knowledge who was concerned with
epistemological breaks and the institutionalization of human sciences, the
middle Foucault, the genealogist of power and resistance, and the late
Foucault, concerned with the technologies and care of the self.
As valuable as such tracings of trajectories might be, if one engages in
such an exercise, of course, one usually misses crucial continuities in the
works of thinkers, and perhaps misunderstands them in significant ways.
Such an exercise might be attempted with the body of your work to date.
One could say that there is an early Butler, the Butler who, deeply schooled
in French thought, after her first book on the influence of Hegelianism on
twentieth-century French thought {Subjects of Desire, 1987), turns to the
study of gender and in an explosive book. Gender Trouble (1990), sets a new
agenda for feminist thinkers and activists. Too simply put. Gender Trouble
introduced a series of conceptual tools for the critical analysis of the politics
of engenderment, rendering new distinctions between sex and gender,
introducing ideas concerning performance to the subject of identity, giving
rise to new possibilities in the politics of representation. In subsequent vol-
umes in the '90s, Bodies That Matter (1993), and Feminist Gontentions (1995),
the representation of a 1991 through 1993 set of exchanges with Seyla
Benhabib, DruciUa Cornell, and Nancy Fraser, seemed to solidify your rep-
utation as a leading feminist philosopher. But then a shift seemed to occur.
While your ongoing interest and concern with issues of engenderment and
pohtics remained palpable and deep, especially in Excitable Speech (1997),
your most explicit statement on the politics of the performative, in which,
among other matters, you engage the arguments of Catherine Mackinnon
concerning speech and pornography, in that very same year you published
The Psychic Life of Power (1997), which while it is, as the title suggests, quite
interested in the issue of power, approaches the question of power through
a critical engagement and juxtaposition of Freud and Foucault. That study,
followed up by Antigone's Claim (2000), seems to indicate a shift in your
concern and interest, or better, a deepening of your theoretical concerns,
addressing questions about melancholia and gender, the structure of families
and states, in ways that speak directly to more traditional canonical concerns,
not beyond gender, but beside it, perhaps. Followed up by your engagement
with Laclau and Zizek concerning the problematic of universality
{Contingency, Hegemony, Universality [2000]) there seemed to be a movement
away from the immediacy of political engagement.
And then came the events of September 11,2001.Your political interven-
tions and actions since then seem to have made you much more of a public
intellectual. For example, you have written in both the New York Times and
The Nation, venues that once were hostile to your work.You have taken on
Larry Summers when he declared critics of Israel's Palestinian pohcy to be
anti-Semitic "in eifect."You have been tireless in your opposition to the Iraq
war and its consequences. Your books seem to have followed this path to
your concern with the politics of war and trauma. In Precarious Life (2004)
you directly address the issue of national trauma, and offer your own version
of a Levinasian ethics to inform an alternative national politics. And in
Giving an Account of Oneself {2005), you further explore the question of the
relation of ethics and violence, asking how we might evade the anachronistic
violence that attends the moment when an ethos begins to face and must
shore itself up with codes of morahty. These books, as their subjects seem to
indicate, don't seem to focus on issues of gender, even as they explore the
constitution of subjectivity out of loss and trauma. They seem to indicate a
An Interview with Judith Butler
turn away from where you started, a new^ heading for your thought that
leaves questions of engenderment behind.
How do you respond to this characterization? What does it capture con-
cerning the trajectory of your thought? What continuities and concerns
does it miss?
JB: Of course, I am very poor at giving an account of myself, and the text
by that name ends on an appeal for forgiveness precisely on that score. That
said, one needs to try to do something. I think it may be important to note
that the work on gender continues in Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2004),
and more recently I've written an unpublished essay on "transgender" and
another on sexual politics, secularism, and debates on new immigration. So
I don't think that the work on gender is precisely over, but I am aware that
I am not theorizing gender anew. I'm commenting on new political issues
regarding gender, but I am not actively theorizing the performativity of gen-
der these days. In fact, it may be that over and against a certain view of per-
formativity, understood as active self-constitution, I've been compelled by
many forces (critics as well as historical and political events) to consider what
it is to be "acted on" at the same time that one is acting. I've been concerned
to try and stay away from a strict polarity between passive constitution and
active self-constitution, and I've tried to find a language to describe that sit-
uation of being impinged upon by norms, but also by the ethical claims of
others, at the same time that one accounts for responsiveness, if not respon-
sibility. I experience my own work as returning time and again to Hegel, to
problems of recognition and desire, and so I am not sure there is an early
and a "later" Butler, but I do think that I have been compelled to take
account of that part of my work that gave rise to the voluntarist reading, and
to work against some of the relentless activity of Gender Trouble. I've also
sought to extend the analysis of grief and melancholia that emerged first in
relation to foreclosed mourning within the heterosexual matrix and then
foreclosed public mourning in the early days of the U.S. AIDS crisis. This
reflection led me to consider the prohibited mourning that one sees in
Antigone, and against which she fatally struggles, but also in the media rep-
resentations ofthe current U.S. wars. So there seems to be some way that I
am renewing my understanding.
I also want to consider recognition again, and to avoid the two extremes
that would say that recognition only and always confers value or that recog-
nition is nothing other than a slave morality. My sense is that it is vexed,
since recognition only takes place through social norms, and it can be a way
of subjugating or acknowledging, and sometimes it can be both at once.
Giving an Account of Oneself returns to Hegel briefly to consider how to
rethink that problem, and ends up suggesting that ethics and social theory
are necessarily joined through the practice of critique. I'm not sure this
answers your question, or whether I am the one to answer it!
MR: Your struggle with the question of grief and prohibitions of mourn-
ing, as you note here, and as is revealed extensively in Precarious Life, entails
a series of other questions that at least implicitly direct us to look beyond
the current war and the post-9/11 American scene. It is as though^please
forgive me if this is too crude or totally off point^you hope to illuminate
a way in which there may be a certain productivity in grieving, a way
through grieving that tarries with it, almost in an instrumental sense, for the
value of it leading to a better poHtics. It is as though you want to recast the
famous last words of Joe Hill"Don't mourn, organize!" But how you
would recast that call to action doesn't seem as direct or clear.
JB: These are complex questions, and I hope to begin to do some justice to
them, although I worry that I am somewhat unprepared to think them
through more systematically. Let me explain why I have some trepidation. I
think we have to consider a difference between monumental grieving, the
kind that demands spectacle and repetition, in the context of war. So there
is a kind of spectacular public grief for those who died in the attacks on
the World Trade Center, one which has become ritualized in the media, and
which is invoked as a rationale for security, aggression, the abrogation of
sovereignty. At the same time, there are refusals to grieve that take place in
the midst of spectacular grieving, and which might be said to be the pre-
condition of this kind of spectacular grieving. First, those whose deaths are
mourned (or the curtailment of w^hose lives are grieved) are consistendy
transformed into "grievable beings," model U.S. citizens with property and
dogs and happy marriages. And those who were noncitizens or whose lives
could not be transformed into ideals were certainly subject to less public
grieving, if not a full effacement. So we have to consider whose lives are
"losable" and whose lives are grievable in this context. On the other hand,
I would object to any position claiming that, on the basis of an instrumen-
tal and expoitative public grieving process, there should be no grieving, or
that all grieving is therefore suspect. This would be a fatal conclusion. It is
one thing to exploit loss for instrumental reasons, even for the purposes of
producing nationalist idealizations that foment war, and quite another to
grasp the sudden expungibility of lives that such attacks foreground. Those
attacks in some ways delineate the precariousness of life, the fact that it can
come into being and exit firom being in profoundly unexpected ways. This
is not to say there are no "causes" for birth or death, but only that embodi-
An Interview with Judith Butler
ment carries with it an exposure to sudden harm or illness that cannot be
fully or effectively contained. If we were able to contain or neutralize that
exposure, we would not be embodied. To be embodied is to be exposed to
unwanted or unanticipated modes of address, and surely "violent attack" is
one kind of'address" (one that seeks to eradicate the conditions of address),
and seduction might be quite another.
In any case, I think that it is one thing to be involved in a process of
grieving, and quite another to discern firom within that process the condi-
tions of grievability that belong to embodied life and that indicate some-
thing about the precariousness of life and, consequently, its value. The refusal
of grief can take many forms; there are forms of melancholy that refuse to
acknowledge the loss of what is lost; there are forms of denial that seek to
reassert human control over matters of Hfe and death (and violent revenge
can be motivated by this aim). I'm aware as well that many people are
"af&onted"by the demands of grief, since grief undoes agency in some con-
sequential ways. For instance, one seeks to "act" in the face of loss, but the
loss is itself a form of impingement, a confrontation with a deprivation or a
violence that is precisely against one's will or indifferent to one's will. So
grief limits the will, and this "affront" sometimes leads people to insist upon
immediate forms of activism, not only to take revenge, but to reassert the
mastery or agency ofthe "I". So I guess I am somewhat opposed to the idea
that one should cease grieving and organize. In the same way, I was opposed
to Bush's time-limit on grieving (ten days, I believe), after which he
"resolved" on war. Maybe what needs to be "tarried wdth" is that experience
of being impinged upon in ways one never chose, and to think through
what this means about how profoundly affected by others' lives we are. This
could, in turn, lead to a different conception of intersubjectivity and even, I
believe, a consideration of global interdependency. One would have to "stay
with" the thought of un'wanted impingement in order to get to these social
and political conclusions. Otherwise, we end up reasserting the ego and its
mastery, and the hyper-agency (perhaps manic) of hberal individualism and
masculine nationalism wins the day.
MR: Your account of a good kind of public grieving as involving " 'staying
w^ith' the thought of unwanted impingement" seems to be a statement that
initiates a new ethical project for you. (It also seems to connect to earlier
questions and concerns you have had about melancholy and gender.)
Knowing of your ongoing interest in the difficult and deeply entwined fates
of the Palestinians and Israelis, I am wondering if you can think of a good
exampleeven a speculative oneof how such an enactment of "staying
with" might unfold. The reason I ask is because it seems to me as though it
is through this process of grieving that so many of your Unes of thought come
together, even to the point where the more constructive elements of your
recent work entail a sort of resting at the point of dissolution, as in Giving
an Account of Oneself in which you present the contrast between violence
and nonviolence this way: "If violence is the act by which a subject seeks
to reinstall mastery and unity, then nonviolence may well follow firom the
persistent challenge to egoic mastery that our obligations to others induce
and require." (64) Or as you eloquently put it in Precarious Life, "Let's face it.
We're undone by each other.And if we're not, we're missing something." (23)
JB: I appreciate your way of putting things, and sometimes one needs a
reader like you in order to begin to grasp certain changes in one's work. I
think that if one considers the theory of performativity in Gender Trouble,
then there is an emphasis on activity, even relentless and repetitive activity.
The sections on performativity are not fuUy thought together with the sec-
tions on melancholy, and so one might refiect upon a certain gap there, one
that I have been trying to attend to ever since. If grieving is refused through
a certain manic action, one that seeks to deny or magically overcome the
loss one has endured or, simultaneously, the blow to one's efficacy that loss
entails, then maybe one has to undergo the deprivation and the humility
that loss requires. I am tempted to ally nonviolence with a position of
humility. It is very hard to do, since so often violence justifies itself through
recourse to self-preservation. This impulsive recourse to self-preservation is
somewhat suspect in my view, since in its quickness and urgency, it fails to
ask "which self" it seems to preserve, and "at what cost." We tend to think
of self-preservation as that w^hich underwrites any ethics: I have to first sur-
vive in order then to ask which Hfe I ought to live. But I think that this mis-
takes the demand of ethics, which is really to ask the question of how to live
precisely at the moment in which it appears that one's survival is at stake. We
see this point made poignantly in the work of Primo Levi, for instance. What
he portrayed time and again when he wrote his portraits of characters in the
camps were the kinds of decisions that are made precisely under conditions
of extreme duress. Sometimes one drinks the water at the other's expense,
but other times, someone yields his or her bread to another, and these acts
are to some degree ineffable. I am mindful of Hannah Arendt's remark that
once the greatness of the Jewish people consisted in its belief in God, and
now they believe only in themselves! She said this in response to Golda
Meir, it seems, and Arendt was clearly questioning whether people seek to
persist in the name of particular values. If "survival at all costs" becomes an
ethical norm, it is the end of all ethical normsas Levi points out in the
experience of the concentration camps. This lesson seems^to have been for-
An Interview with Judith Butler
gotten when "self-preservation" becomes an infinitely expandable justifica-
tion for all acts of violence. I am not saying that there should never be acts
of violence in the service of self-defense, but I worry when self-preservation
or self-defense becomes a reckless instrumentality.
The "self" at issue is, in my view, one that is always impinged upon by
others, one that is exposed to its own radical sociality in moments of loss.
This may seem strange, since we think of the grieving person as wishing
isolation. But if Freud is right, then the isolation is a way of harboring the
lost other, and it avows the ways in which that other constitutes the self. To
"undergo" grief is also to be exposed to that kind of experience that is not
directed by the ego, the kind of experience that shows up the limits of mas-
tery of all kinds. And yet some other kind of "achievement" is possible
through such grieving, since what can become heightened is the way in
which every being, embodied and disposed to love, is open to a transfor-
mative affliction. One is transformed by the other, by the loss of the other,
by the prospect of that loss, but alsoand this is the part that moves beyond
the purely personalone can come to see what "sociality" might mean
when it is precisely not a collection of egos, but a set of relations by which
we are, as it were, done and undone.
MR: This idea of sociality seems both richly complex, but also available to us
in an immediate, almost intuitive, way. Again, in Precarious Life, you write,"It
is not as if an T exists independently over here and then simply loses a 'you'
over there, especially if the attachment to 'you' is part of what composes who
'I' am. Ifi lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss,
but I become inscrutable to myself.Who 'am' I, without you?... At another
level, perhaps what I have lost 'in' you, that for which I have no ready vocab-
ulary, is a relationality that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor
you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated
and related." (22) A sociality that moves beyond the purely personal seems to
put you in touch with the associated concept of impersonality, which various
thinkers, such as Emerson, Simone Weil, and others, have employed in their
attempts to develop moral ways of being in the world. You seem to be very
attracted to the thought of Levinas for reasons that touch upon this as well.
Would this be a fair way of thinking of this movement in your thought?
JB: I find myself stalled in relation to the answer, but maybe because, in the
end, you return to this question of "my thought" and ask me, respectfully,
whether it would be fair to characterize the movement in my thinking this
way I am gratefial for the gesture, of course, but perhaps I need gently refuse
the position of the one who can finally say whether such a movement
belongs to me or not. I think that you are reading, offering something, and
if what I have written prompts this in some way, then that is its own event
or consequence. It might be a mistake to return it to me, as if it were my
possession, or something I might rightfully guard. So perhaps if at this
moment I give away my thinking or, rather, recognize that it is already not
mine, then we approach this question of sociality fi-om a different perspec-
tive. After all, a text is not just published, but given away and given over, and
that is done without quite knowing what use will be made of it. I have no
rights over its use! But this means, conversely, that some kind of sociality is
entered that is not quite governed by a rights discourse, and where writing
becomes the venue for that exchange. If I could recognize myself in the ver-
sion of myself that you return to me, then nothing will have happened, and
I will have lost the chance to be transformed by the social exchange in
which I participate. Perhaps this question of "who am I" that takes place on
the condition of loss simply references this way in which the "I" is bound
up with the other and with temporality in a way that resists the language of
individual rightsand the modes of individualization that such a language
entails. If I am bound up with the other, that is as true by virtue of my
dependency (my continuing infancy, psychoanalytically understood), as it is
by virtue of my responsibility (my continuing adulthood). I think, surely,
Simone Weil understood what it was to undergo dispossession of the self in
the course of an address, but I worry that for her the ethical bind of that sit-
uation was unlivable (not only for her, but for anyone). I suppose I would
say that this situation, this bind, that we are tracing (that you have traced), is
impersonal to some extent, since it is indifferent to us personally. But it is
also personal in the sense that the ways in which we are implicated in the
bind are singular, and they form some of what we might call our most per-
sonal passions. So I am not sure how or whether to come down on one side
or the other of that divide. I do think that we have to begin to think about
obligation and responsibihty fi^om dispositions that are not simply resolute
and heroic, but which avow those forms of sociality and interdependency
that are perhaps offensive to our sense of individualism. Perhaps this means
losing some pride or finding some mode of humility that stays on this side
of humiliation. Whatever it means to have or pursue a moral mode of being
in the world, it w^iU not be something that is exclusively "mine" and so wiU
have to be a mode of being that is bound up with others with all the diffi-
culty and promise that implies.
MR: It is strange, once you highlight it, to speak of something called "your
thought," while engaging in a conversation. Maybe the better way to
approach it is to ask the straightforward question: "What do you think?"
An Interview with Judith Butler
As you tack from the impersonal to the personal, your response evokes
for me a sense of what the process of conversion, in its most serious and
hopeful mode, might be about. Stanley Cavell, in his various readings of
Emerson, also emphasizes the continued vacillation between childhood and
adulthood, how we may, as he quotes Emerson, be "reborn into this new
yet unapproachable America." In a sense, while we are condemned to give
an account of ourselves that will never be complete, that will always be part
of the process of our becoming, that will always remind us that we have
another turn we must make, there is some comfort in realizing that we
don't have to be doing it alone.
Many people, particularly in the world of political theory, seem dubious
about how such a moral mode can be enacted. They would, I suppose, point
to Simone Weil as representing exactly the destructive power of such a self-
challenge. They would claim that some sort of institutionalization of some-
thing like Rawls's theory of justice is the best we can hope for. I myself think
such a claim hides a certain cynicism, but the difficulty stiU lies in trying to
persuade people to think about a moral mode versus a moral code. In that
sense, I am wondering if you worry in the same way about communicating
that difference. What you suggest evokes for me something akin to what
Cavell has called the conversation of justice. Only I think that one of your
deepest resources in drawing out such an ethics is the work of Emmanuel
Levinas. I wonder if you could explain a httle bit about how Levinas has
come to inform your mode of being moral.
JB: Well, I have some question about whether I have a mode of being moral,
so let's just say, perhaps more modestly, that there are certain moral questions
or concerns that drive me or that recur for me, and that these are mainly
quandaries. So I am much further fi-om the "code" than I am from the
"mode" but even there I am unsure. My sense of Weil is that she offers us
an understanding of what it means to address another and to be dispossessed
in the course of that address. I think that this clearly resonates with Levinas
and, in particular, his notion that we address another because we are called
upon to do so.This having been "called" to respond to another suggests that
there is a bond with the other that constitutes who we "are" and that we are
not simply talking about how conversations occur, but of who we
becomeand how we are undonein the course of that address. In other
words, once we accept that we are called upon by others, that we are bound
ethically to them, then we can no longer hold to a certain idea of sovereign
selfhood. In that sense, a certain presumption ofthe self is "undone." But to
the extent that we respond or, rather, try to cultivate a mode of responding,
then it seems we enter into a kind of practice or what you have called a
moral "mode." I know that critics sometimes claim that Weil leads us to self-
destruction and that Levinas leads us to an uncritical acquiescence to the
other, but maybe those critics miss the point of the challenge. Although Weil
might be said to have destroyed herself, it is not clear to me that her reflec-
tions on ethical matters lead necessarily to self-destruction. Indeed, one
might consider the particular challenge she offers as one in which a certain
self-dispossession is undergone at the same time that one responds to the
sufferings of others. It seems to me we've barely begun to think about this,
but it would be a mode of responding that would engage humility over and
against moral self-righteousness. Similarly, for Levinas, how does one
acknowledge that condition of being bound to others at the same time that
one thinks critically in its midst? These seem to me to be two inheritances
that are worth thinking about. They are perhaps not "modes of being" or
even "modes of becoming" but recurrent quandaries that estabhsh the prob-
lematic of ethics for us in the midst of social life.
MR: It occurs to me that you seem to be seeking an alternative to the ethics
of sacrifice, and emphasize an alternative that would be rooted in the
demands of the everyday, in a recognition of the fact that we are always in
the midst of social life, but that the ethics of sacrifice, given its long history
of attachment to the politics of domination, ought to be avoided. Hence,
for you the idea of responsiveness to a call assumes great importance. The
risk would seem to be understanding when and how a call is being made,
and how^ to respond. Perhaps that is a question of politics? Knowing when
and how we are being called upon, and when we are being manipulated or
otherwise exploited?
JB: I do not know precisely, but I am thinking that perhaps you,Tom, have
a way of thinking about Cavell on the "everyday" in a way that resists the
path of Simone Weil. I am perhaps a little less certain of the "everyday." I
understand the importance of that Wittgensteinian inheritance and certainly
it ofFers Cavell much to work with. But I am probably closer to Kafka and
the sense that the everyday carries within it so many moments of incom-
municabUity and inaccessibilityI can find no grounding there, but neither
is there any other place to find a grounding. I do think we are called upon,
but I am not always sure we know by whom we are called, or what we are
called to do. I think of this moment as one of anxiety, of having to wrestle
with what one knows, and of not being ever certain that one has decoded
the demand w^eU enough. Of course, to think politically and even to act
politically, we have to make demarcations, and so in effect we have to decide
to what kind of call we wiU be responsible. I don't think it can only be the
An Interview with Judith Butler
call of the ones who are most proximate, since suffering at a distance has to
elicit our response as well. But to be effective or responsive really does mean
limiting the domain to which one is answerable. This is, in some ways, an
arbitrary moment, but it is one that helps to make one's future actions less
arbitrary. I am not in favor of those modes of sacrifice that would paralyze
our agency for any future purpose. And I'm certainly not in favor of those
forms of radicalism that claim that any participation in existing structures is
crude reformism and, hence, to be resisted. I don't think there is purity in
the domain of political commitment. I'd like to think that there are ways of
acting with others or, as Arendt says, acting in concert, that require neither
unity nor atomism, in which w^e're neither merged with a collective nor
stand as "pure" individuals, contractually engaged. My sense is that this is
firaught territory, and that there is always a question of whether we are being
instrumentalized or whether we are being called upon in w^ays that demand
political responsibility. I'm not sure we can even know, in advance, whether
there are sure ways of making this division, and it may be that we have to
live with not knowingand perhaps not caring too much^about whether
we are instrumentalized or whether others are in solidarity v^dth us.
Sometimes one has to lend oneself for use, and this is not exacdy sacrifice,
but a certain yielding of oneself for the purposes of social and pohtical trans-
formation. How would we understand this precisely? Maybe political
alliance always ruins one's sense of sovereignty, and this is not an altogether
bad thing.
MR: Thank you very much for sharing so generously.