Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Read the rest of this entry »

Forsaking Futurity and a Call for Feminist Theologies: A Response to Gender & the Studio, Part Three

Abstract: Rather than delve into the potential theo-logic of a Butlerian “constructivist” account of gender, this blog post proposes that we pause, and instead question the discursive operations undergirding the very idea of “the future of systematic theology.” The effort to secure the existence of systematic theology, I suggest, is idolatrous—rather, systematic theology needs to lose its own life in order to potentially save it, and can begin to move in that direction by attending to the concrete, historic, material, discursive realities of people’s lives, especially those on the underside. This “losing” is both practical and apophatic, in that it acknowledges that the task demands constant attention to the material realities of people’s lives and the discursive regimes that produce those realities, and that we cannot seek to grasp or claim or secure a telos or overarching discourse. I end, then, by turning briefly to the potentialities within a constructivist frame, and offering some suggestions for possibilities for Christian feminist theologies.

  Read the rest of this entry »

Gender and Theology (and the Theological Academy): A Response to Tony Baker’s ‘Gender and the Studio’- Part One

Part One: The Pink Penis on my Desk (A Lengthy Introduction)

In addition to the random smattering of papers, books, and other odd objects that are strewn across my desk at various points, there are a few items that are consistent adornments—there  are the practical things: the external hard-drive , the file folder, the stapler; and the sentimental things—a stained glass cross I was given upon graduating from div school, a wine cork that reminds me of a particularly happy time in my life, and a bedazzled pink penis.

Often, people don’t comment on the pink penis, probably because they’re embarrassed, or think I’ll be embarrassed. But occasionally, the bold ones will ask,

“Why do you have a pink dildo on your desk?”

I explain to them that, actually, it is not a dildo, but rather, a water gun. When this answer proves unsatisfactory or incomplete, as is often the case, I tell them a version of this story….

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Grading as performative speech act

In my feminist theology class last year, I had occasion to explain the notion of performative speech acts to them. I used the standard examples: an oath exists simply by virtue of someone swearing an oath, the act of getting married consists of saying “I do” (under the appropriate circumstaces), etc.

And then it occurred to me — their grades are performative speech acts as well. They get the grades they get by virtue of me, the recognized instructor of the course, saying that’s what they get. Read the rest of this entry »

Butler and Malabou on Hegel

A reader points out that the link to a review of Butler and Malabou’s dialogue on Hegel in my shared items is broken. Here is the correct link. If anyone knows details of a future translation, please inform the public in comments.

Zizek and Butler on Obama

Anthony has suggested, and I agree, that Zizek and Butler‘s articles on Obama might be productively compared.

More Violence

Without making this too much of an ad hominem, I often get the impression that theologians and other Christians who loudly proclaim that violence is a necessary evil are much more focused on the “necessary” part than the “evil” part. All the good ends that the “necessary evil” of violence is supposed to serve fade into the background, and the result is essentially an outright defense of violence as such. One begins to detect a fascination with violence, seeing in it a heroism that arises not from the athleticism of war but rather from a certain supra-moral “toughness,” a willingness to “get your hands dirty.”

Such a stance should be unsurprising: Is there anything more distinctively Christian than the fascination with motiveless malignity, the desire to violate the law precisely for the sake of violating the law? When it comes to violence, this Christian nihilism is even more dangerous because violence really is fascinating.

Once in a seminar discussing Butler’s Precarious Life, I said that if a situation arose where I was, say, about to be mugged but somehow managed to get the better of the mugger, I would be tempted to beat the shit out of him — almost glad that he had attacked me, so that I would have a justification. I don’t think I’m a uniquely violent person, but everyone else protested: “No, of course not, I would never have that attitude, I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

As I clarified after everyone defended their own peaceful instincts, I was trying to get at the point that it is naive to think that violence can be simply an indifferent “means to an end” — it has its own attraction. What possible meaning would the discipline of nonviolence have if not for this very attraction? If anything, a practitioner of nonviolence should be more conscious of the fascination of violence than an outright advocate of violence is — a practitioner of nonviolence precisely because everything in them wants to be an advocate of violence.

Butler and Anselm

After carefully reviewing the FAQ, I have determined that I am indeed allowed to post a PDF of my article entitled “The Failed Divine Performative: Reading Judith Butler’s Critique of Theology with Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil,” which will be appearing in the April issue of The Journal of Religion.

Butlerianism: On Elegant Couples

If one is pressed for time and can only read two books, it is my opinion that one can feel entitled to speak with a certain degree of authority about Judith Butler if one has read only The Psychic Life of Power and Precarious Life. No other combination of two books seem to me to deliver what this combination does — including any possible combinations of which Gender Trouble would be a member, since one would have to “waste” the second book offsetting one’s erroneous impressions of Gender Trouble.

This declaration gives me an idea for a potentially fun passtime that will help generate volume of comments I need to help me get through the remainder of this Butler paper (approx. 10 more pages). For any given author, what two books can one read to grasp the “whole” of the author’s thought in as elegant and economical a manner as possible? Bonus points for combinations that leave out the most obvious choices.

Here’s a stab at Kierkegaard: Repetition and Practice in Christianity.

(A possible drawback of this type of elegant combination: only after reading nearly all of an author’s work can one understand precisely why the elegant combination gives one the “whole.”)

Il n’y a pas…

[A footnote, recently composed as part of my seminar paper on Judith Butler. The topic of the paper as a whole remains secret.]

As one whose understanding of Lacan has primarily been mediated through Slavoj Žižek and other members of the Slovenian Lacanian school, I was initially baffled by Butler’s critiques of Lacan in Gender Trouble, as well as the critique of Žižek in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993) and of Dolar in Psychic Life of Power. A crucial difference between Butler and the Slovenian school is not so much their interpretation of Lacan as such as their decision of “which” Lacan to privilege as the interpretative key for his widely variegated body of work—for the Slovenians, it is the “late” Lacan of the 1970s and 80s, whereas for Butler it is the “middle” or structuralist Lacan appropriated by American scholars (particularly feminists).

The Slovenian approach to sexual difference is based on the famous saying that “there is no sexual relationship [il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel].” It is not that there is some positive model that every concrete expression of sexual difference somehow fails to attain, but rather that every concrete expression is an attempt to cover over the fact that no particular instantiation of sexual difference can “work”—it is impossible to find some kind of ideal “complementary” relationship between the sexes, despite our attempt to define “gender roles” and stereotypical qualities, etc. This insight seems to me to be compatible with Butler’s overall project, and indeed, in his chapter “Judith Butler as a Reader of Freud” in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology (New York: Verso, 1999), and in many other places, Žižek shows himself to be deeply sympathetic with Butler’s work.

The deadlock for Butler, which for me renders her critiques of Žižek and Dolar finally unconvincing, is that when she reads talk of “sexual difference” in these authors, she understands it to mean the immutable structuralist law of sexual difference that she (rightly) rejects as both implausible and damaging, whereas they understand it to mean a fundamental impossibility rendering every concrete instantiation of sexual difference illegitimate. Thus I would fault Butler for taking her own “structuralist” reading of Lacan for granted as an interpretative key for the Slovenian authors, especially given that Žižek has presented himself as “correcting” false impressions of Lacan (including, above all, the reception of Lacan among “postmodern” American academics) since The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989).

But in the last analysis, it may be more appropriate to attribute this non-encounter to the fact that il n’y a pas de théorie lacanienne—any reference to a unitary “Lacan” is marked by a constitutive failure.


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