Judith Butler
Feminism should not resign
in the Face of such Instrumentalization
Interview by Renate Solbach

Solbach: The liberal public sphere in the West has learnt, however superficially, the lessons of feminism: Whatever is of use to women is a good thing. Women have only limited power of defining what is of use for themselves, and ›women‹ as a universal figure has none at all. That's nothing new. What is striking is that even ›the new‹ wears off. Some days ago in this country, two schoolgirls came to class wearing a burka. The german public reacted as harshly and definitely as the school authority did. The bone of contention was the fact that the identity of schoolgirls who wear this garment cannot be determined and that their appearance gave offense to other schoolgirls. Women who ›spell‹ repression in a different context ›give offense‹. So is it not enough to study the others ›in cultural context‹? And what does it mean if intersexual provocation is employed as a potentially fatal weapon against the system that we are?

Butler: I think that in both France and Germany, for different reasons, the ›burka‹ has come to signify not only the threat of islam but a certain threat to secularism itself. I am not sure that the burka states identity any more definitively than an excellent dress by Christian Dior. Both are clearly means through which cultural belonging are signified or, rather, means through which that signification is attempted. I have heard debates in France, for instance, in which public intellectuals who support the ban on the veil (le foulard) argue that the veil has only one meaning. Then they (Elisabeth Roundinesco, most prominently), proceed to argue that it is (a) an assertion of female subordination within Islam (and so contrary to principles of equality that ostensibly characterize ›western‹ systems of justice, (b) an affiliation with Islamic fundamentalism (which is a joke, considering, for instance, the fashion in scarves that prevails in cosmopolitan areas such as Cairo), (c) an assault on secularism. Of course, if religious garb is the issue, then it would seem that Jewish men who wear the kepah (yarmulkah) would be also suspect.

But in actuality, the burka as well as the yarmulke have different meanings. It can be a sign of private faith; it can be a way of signifying a certain belonging to community; the burka can be a way of negotiating shame and sexuality in a public sphere, or preserving a woman’s honor, and even a way of resisting certain western modes of dress that signify a full encroachment of fashion and commodity dress that signifies the cultural efforts to efface Islamic practice. I cannot imagine that it only signifies one thing, and whatever it does signify cannot have any bearing on whether these individuals should be admitted into school. Even those who are in favor of integration and assimilation of Islamic communities into ›Europe‹ - that is, those who do not recognize that Europe is already constituted by numerous Islamic communities - should be in favor of opening the public schools to those who wear the burka, since it will be in those schools that cultural encounters will take place that allows both Islamic and non-islamic students the chance to learn something about how various people actually live, what form their beliefs take, and what politics do or do not follow from those beliefs. In the place of a phobic and reductive projection of Islam, we might then have a more knowledgeable approach to these matters, one that affirms the diversity of islams, the complexity of women’s place and agency within Islamic practice, and the particular cultural negotiations that an Islamic woman makes in the context of rural and urban Germany in these times.

Solbach: Since 9/11, since attacks in Madrid and London, the planned attack in Strasbourg, the murder of Theo van Gogh and the incitement to kill European journalists (the case of Salman Rushdie already belonging to a parallel universe, so it seems) being afraid of foreigners (of the unfamiliar) has two ›faces‹. One is the soft video-face of Bin Laden, who according to Oriana Fallaci has proved a great leader in bundling the hate of the Islamic world against the West. The other is the interchangeable pictures of the perpetrators whom we only catch sight of after their deaths, for which they are themselves to blame, as well as for the deaths of their victims. This fear in the face of the foreigner takes no account of what happens in these countries in the name of the West, world society, and our energy supply. People were shocked when the first female suicide bombers appeared on the scene. Women, it was said, give life, they do not take life. What is the meaning of such a sentiment against the background of women's identity politics and the toleration of ambiguous lifestyles? Is it a misunderstanding, or a characteristic ascribed to us from outside?

Butler: In a way, we are confronted with the problem that Susan Sontag identified some years ago when she argued that war photography has the power to shock, but not to instruct. I wonder to what extent some of the photos you mention are part of a culture industry that keeps us in a state of shock and fear, and which compels us to give up any effort at understanding global events. It is as if we, those of us in Europe and the US, predominantly white and secular, are asked to give up the practice of thinking and, indeed, the practice of critique itself, in the face of this fearful, new reality against which we can only hope for ›security‹. We are rendered docile in this regard, and in the US, at least until recently, it has led to a willingness to give up constitutional liberties for ourselves and those we imprison, to subject ourselves to illegal surveillance, and to live in an ethos of xenophobia. I do not think we can appeal to some non-violent disposition of women in order to oppose the latest version of the war industry. It is important to remember that Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Condoleezza Rice both have perpetrated wars, and there is nothing internal to women as such that keep them from embracing destruction as a political policy. On the other hand, there are important movements, such as Women in Black, that suggest that the social labor of mourning falls upon women differentially, and those groups work to derive a politics of non-violence from the cultural experience of mourning. But this kind of movement result from the social division of emotional labor, the traditional place of women as the ones who mourn their fathers and brothers. But if we think about one such mourner, Antigone, we find that her sorrow is mixed with rage, and that it leads her to break the law, assume a certain ›criminality‹ in relation to an unjust law. It is not too difficult, then, to understand how sorrow and rage might work together to dispose a woman to become a suicide bomber, if she understands that the life she leads, and the life that her people are leading, is already a non-life, a life that is as good as dead. I think that suicide bombing is a social commentary on a social death that has already taken place. This does not justify it. I hope for other kinds of political interventions, and my own dispositions are non-violent, even sometimes unrealistically so. But I think we should not be surprised to find women, educated women, who make that choice.

Solbach: Demographic reason anticipates a decrease in population in western societies as well as those ›infected‹ by the West. In some, this is a threatening development. Russia is the latest example; Putin has announced drastic steps to increase the birth rate. Germany has just introduced a bill to help young mothers while other funds for them have been cancelled. The context is the ›It is same in each case‹: population figures represent resources of survival and power, and since there is suspicion that immigrant minorities will become majorities whose interest in becoming citizens (›citoyens‹) assimilating the spirit of public institutions (›Esprit des Lois‹), and perpetuating them rather decreases in the course of development, immigration seems to be no longer a reliable alternative to indigenous reproduction. Given such large developments, is a specifically women's policy possible at all? If so, is it bound to be merely ›cosmetic‹? What do you think of the so-called women's birth policy, as distinct from the practice of maternal selfmystification promoted by legal stature, something you once reproached Julia Kristeva for?

Butler: I think what you bring up is very important. But let’s consider that the practice of establishing the demographic advantage of a certain nationality is an old one. It is one that Hannah Arendt quite forcefully criticized in her essay The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man.*
I would be in favor of an Arendtian feminism, if we can have one, on this issue. Since the point is not to mystify women as mothers, but to understand that reproduction is a politically invested site because it is the means through which race and nation are reproduced (or not). Of course, the State of Israel has an explicit policy regarding the demographic advantage of Jews, and though such a principle works in opposition to democratic notions of equality, it is assumed by many to be justified because it reproduces the Jewish people. Had the Jews not been subject to the massive exterminations under National Socialism, this argument would not have any currency within contemporary politics. But perhaps we could understand contemporary politics at all outside of this legacy. It seems to me that in the European Union, and in Great Britain, the worries about miscegenation come from those who would uphold national and cultural purity, and this can only be understood as a racism. As a result, one has to be careful when such countries suddenly offer benefits to women who reproduce or, in Israel, when the state proves miraculously tolerant of gays and lesbians reproducing Jewish families through whatever means possible. Our ›freedoms‹ are in some sense deployed by such racialist projects, and so it becomes crucial to fight for reproductive freedoms, greater access to reproductive technology, liberalized adoption law, health care, state assisted childcare, but to fight as well those regimes of bio-power that seek to establish the demographic advantage of a dominant race. The consequence of all of this is that there can be no radical sexual politics that does not oppose racism.

Solbach: It is said that feminist theory is oblivious to children. Maybe that is a misunderstanding or prejudice. But in a society like ours considered childless, young women, well educated, raised since kindergarten by feminist mothers, in academic positions - actually tend to ›spell‹ the relation between the sexes in terms of the interest of the child. There is a new branch of psychology that deals with gender experiments and one-child-constellations. Stability of gender roles, it now seems clear, is less important to adults than to the nurturing of children. Is it possible that a theory which gave its attention to the research and combat of mechanisms of repression between the sexes has unwittingly cut the chord with the children? But surely the children are not the enemy? What does that say about such theory?

Butler: I think that there are some theories that are explicitly opposed to the ›child‹ as an ideological problem, but for the most part, it seems to me, that the thinking of new kinship arrangements, of blended families, of new forms of community and friendship outside of conjugal marriage are quite central to new thinking in feminism and progressive sexual theory. I suppose that the question of what a child needs has become central to debates on lesbian and gay parenting. There are some psychological theories that reserve a rather large place for the ›father‹, understood both empirically and symbolically, for the reproduction of both masculinity and culture for the boy child. Such theories also sometimes insist on the primacy of the biological mother as a precondition of acculturation. But I think that these are theological positions that mask as psychological theories, and they imagine time and again the heterosexual nucleus as the only possible social structure that would keep a child’s orientation and development intact. I think we have to make use of studies in anthropology and sociology that actually consider how a child comes to negotiate the gayness, the lesbianism, the genderqueer dimensions of a parent’s life or world. These are nowhere near as traumatic as they are imagined to be, so we have to ask why this imagining becomes so fixated, fearful, and phobic. What social structures does that phobia keep in place? And which ones does it seek to foreclose? When it masks as theory, it acquires the tone of a paternalistic scientificity that needs to be brought down through laughter, outrage, and oppositional movements of all kind.

Solbach: While the feminist project grinds to a halt, willingness to use women as a weapon increases on both sides of Huntington's clash of civilizations. This much was conspicuous during the Afghan campaign, when temporarily the impression was given the US Army was fighting for the rights of Afghan women to wear jeans and get jobs. Since then, such matters have been hushed up, for reasons that everyone knows. On the other hand, our media discover the traditional, mostly Turkish immigration family is a bastion of female persecution, meaning that it must be leveled so that the integration of younger Turks to German social norms might be accomplished. Such an approach neglects the fact that such families (women and men) are in defensive reaction against such just western norms. In many cases, the provocative choice of garment worn in public by Muslim women can be understood as a deliberate provocation. Cultural alterity and the repression of women thus become synonyms on both sides. Must feminism give up in the face of being used in this way?

Butler: I am quite sure that feminism should not resign in the face of such instrumentalization. You are right to describe it as such, but there are many ways to take issue with this situation. I think the first point would be to ally with women’s movements in Afghanistan itself, and to see through what terms they are articulating that struggle. The opposition to torture and rape seems crucial in this regard, but here we have to consider the vulnerability of newly liberated Afghan women to US violence as well. The sudden ›unveiling‹ of Afghani women on the pages of The New York Times when the US moved into that country was juxtaposed with an image of men suddenly released into a pile of pornographic images. It raised the question of whether the Times was itself performing or lauding pornography. I do not want to get in a debate about pornography here, but would only suggest that we have to wonder whether the ›freedom‹ that the US defends in its military ventures is not one that involves making women more available to sexual appropriation rather than less. In this sense, it is not about women’s sexual freedom, but about men’s, and about a certain masculine notion of appropriation that is very much linked to military conquer and the assertion of nationalism. 

I think that when the media focuses on the subordination of women within Turkish immigrant communities, it very often is trying to announce the ›superiority‹ and ›more enlightened‹ status of German culture. But it also authorizes its own paternalistic policies, including means of forcible integration. I think that ›integration‹ as a model has to be opposed. It belongs to a framework in which there is either separatism or integration. And both of those options miss the possibility of cultural difference, of cultural heterogeneity, as being precisely what is German now, and certainly what is European now. It sets up both the German and the European as nostalgic and racialist ideals to which new immigrants are compelled to conform. So feminism, once again, needs to care not simply about the status of women, but about opposing forms of national and racial purity and superiority. There can be no feminism within the contemporary global situation that does not actively contest the kind of nationalist violence that pervades immigration policy in Europe right now.

Solbach: You brought to feminism, it is widely considered, acquaintance with semiotics and the strategies of poststructural subversion and deconstruction. In Bodies that matter you write that one has no instrumental distance from the terms that wound. As those terms hold of you, but you also take possession of them, you run the risk of agreement, repetition, a relapse into wounding. Presumably you do not mean some ›psychological‹ thing, but a structure, a figure of repetition. What you are describing here links most of us with descendents of the formerly colonized. Used by instrumentalities of power, we take possession of them by reproducing the hate and the contempt. Such is the position of the majority seeking to be represented? Do you see the possibility of representation beyond this figure?

Butler: Perhaps we can think here of Fanon’s relation to the terms that wound him. If you read Peau noire, masques blancs, you will see that the racist interpellations are the ones that he has to struggle with and against. He must find a way for blackness to signify beyond and against dehumanization and emasculation, and sometimes he succeeds, but most of the time there is an ambivalence in the terms themselves. This kind of repetition is different from a reproduction of racist terms that simply consolidates and extends racism. The struggle against those terms must sometimes pass through them, work their internal ambivalence. This is surely true for words like ›queer‹ in English, but it is also the problem with hate speech more generally. It is terribly important to distinguish between forms of repetition that undermine the force of the racism itself and those that simply reproduce and extend its power. This is something that happens at a discursive and a psychic level. I’m not sure one can distinguish the two.

Solbach: My questions point to aspects of ethics accentuated in your discussion of Kafka and Lévinas, and against Hegel and a specific version of psychoanalysis: a subject that never can be completely transparent to itself needs someone to address itself to, in order to constitute itself through its story. To search for this addressee in a ›we‹, that ruthlessly lays out all parameters of self interpretation, just means just missing the subject. What we experience is the return of the ›religious sect‹ in which all arrangements are already settled. Does the most deadly threat to the subject occur at the historical point of its fragile, fluctuating and scrupulous self examination? It cannot yet be predicted, if and when the denied subject will attain better conditions for development. Finis philosophiae?

Butler: If you are saying that to seek recourse to a ›we‹ who already knows all the rules by which it plays, who already knows in advance what every communication can and will be, then we are speaking of a totalitarian ›we‹ who is defined by its lack of openness to any alterity. ›Alterity‹ in this sense means both the notion of the Other, but also the possibility of a future that is not fully calculable or knowable. I am not sure what you mean by the ›tödliche Bedrohung‹ [most deadly threat], but I think that there are surely forms of self-examination that are performed with and for another, and that these do not shut down or shut off the subject. They are, emphatically, modes of relationality that are modes of possible social transformation as well. I think Foucault in his late work came to understand the transformative conditions of address, and he changed his mind about the scene of ›confession‹ as a result. If I speak about myself to someone, then the address is as much the structure of this ›subject‹ that I am as what I say. This moves us toward a social and relational view of the self.

Solbach: An attentive reader finds in your papers the trace of the normally concealed, sexually connotated and ›executed‹ racism, which applies the ground to the ›biopolitics‹, as Foucault called it, of the modern state in the private lives of people. You pursue the analysis to the point where the heterosexual man who forbids himself the body of the ›foreign‹ woman comes out as the true homosexual, and vice versa. If we take a look back to the ›marked woman‹, we realize that for her ›identity regime‹ is replaced by an ›identity politics‹ strictly directed by her own interests. The male equivalent of this is found in Castells and others who advise young men to abstain from women until the situation stabilizes, recommending a kind of temporary homosexuality. What is omitted is the ideal of an intersexual homeostasis. Why is that?

Butler: I am not sure that I know these arguments. The term ›intersexual‹ in my view has to do with a biological or morphological condition of being born with a body that does not conform with existing designations of female or male. But I do not understand it metaphorically, much less as a name for a certain kind of sexual politics. So perhaps I do not follow you well here.

I certainly don’t think that there are ›true‹ heterosexuals or ›true‹ homosexuals, and my sense is that miscegenation and cross-racial sexual politics are part of contemporary life and need to be lived more fully in the open. I think that such relations can sometimes contest forms of national and racial purity, and I am in favor of the impure. I believe Stuart Hall said that the future belongs to the impure. I certainly don’t think that forms of sexuality should be judged according to political norms, so I am more of an observer to such debates than a participant.

Solbach: A question concerning a person like Bin Laden: Why does no charismatic female ›leader‹ of this kind, as eloquent and insistent as this ambivalent, irritatingly connotated man, confront him to cross the inhuman and destructive game, that the leaders of the Islamic struggle and its western foe have been fighting? Maybe such a question seems either naive or cynical, but at the moment the war profiteers have their say on the exploitation of women by the enemy on either side. How asymmetrical are the games of power? On which side are women not involved?

Butler: I think that we have not to play the game of the charismatic leader, since if it is a man who leads with his charisma, he does not lead because people have weighed his views or the reasons for what he believes. I think we have to move away from charismatic power, and remember its deep links with fascism. For this reason, I would not be happy to find a charismatic woman with the power to counter the charisma of Bin Laden or, indeed, Bush/Blair. I think that women’s political power is in organizations, collectives, and that the more thoroughly we can link feminism with anti-racist politics and politics that seeks to enfranchise new immigrant communities, the better off we will be. There also have to be women’s groups that object to rape and violence, but they must formulate their views within the parameters of contemporary bio-power. This is why feminism has to be involved in anti-war mobilizations, in the politics of demographics as well as the politics of reproduction. This will be a matter of overcoming parochial networks to reach global ones, and of recasting our analyses transnationally, to bring in strong numbers and cast our positions broadly in light of the contemporary organization of power and violence. We cannot afford to be narrow, identitarian, or culturalist at such a juncture.

Solbach: Following the train of thought in your books, an historic peace settlement between men and women would appear impossible. What would it be based on? Still, if you were to offer a formula for solidarity between men and women, what would it look like?

Butler: I think perhaps the question is not the right one. And I hope that this gentle rebuff does not offend you. We have yet to learn what women are and what men are, and whether such categories actually work to describe the gendered populations that are subject to contemporary forms of bio-power. In my view, there are people who do not fall easily into either category, and so when we start with such a question, we start with a consequential effacement of the reality of gender cross-identifications, of trans communities, of butch and femme practices, to name a few. I think we need to think more carefully about the sexual division of labor, but not assume that we know, sociologically, who women are, and who men are. After all, the categories, and the subjects whom they structure, are being made as a consequence of this sexual division of labor. We need to think again about the sexual division of war: who supplies, who fights, who mourns, who decides? My sense is that feminism does not belong to women, but to anyone who believes that equality and justice should prevail, regardless of gender. And if these means that men, women, trans people, the genderqueer are ›feminists‹, then so be it. Most important is that we see that gender politics are working in the middle of the politics of war, of new nationalisms, of racism, and of new immigration politics, and the problematics of displaced peoples. So such a broad-based movement would involve men and women and others of every gender because what would be most important would not be ›our identities‹ but the world we are trying to make, unmake, and remake together.

*Hannah Arendt, The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man, see:chapter 5 of Imperialism.

(Die Fragen lagen Judith Butler in Deutsch und Englisch vor.)