Neutering politics

20 October 2005
I promised Cindy I would elaborate on Judith Butler’s lecture “On being beside oneself: on the limits of sexual autonomy”, and why I think it is relevant to her post about the cultural sphere. (The lecture is published in this book.)

To recap: she was concerned with how gendered and sexualised people outside the mainstream challenge mainstream understandings of women, peace and security, and how film and web interventions break past conventional understandings of where politics occurs. She also raised the issue of “what women stand for”. (I think the idea of how a woman “looks presidential” on TV is interesting here, how a fictional TV show might impinge on real politics, in fact how “reality TV” affects lived realities…)

Butler says, in discussing international human rights, “I think we are compelled to speak of the human... And to find out how human rights do and do not work, say, in favour of women...” While her version of ‘human rights’ is one open to change, they are also an eternal truth claim and must be negotiated peacefully.

For her, there are norms acting in the term ‘human rights’ which need questioning. “I served for a few years on the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission… What astonished me time and again was how often the organisation was asked to respond to immediate acts of violence against sexual minorities… I had to reflect on what sort of anxiety is prompted by the public appearance of someone who is openly gay, or presumed to be gay, someone whose gender does not conform to norms… The desire to kill someone, or killing someone, for not conforming to the gender norm by which he or she is ‘supposed’ to live suggests that life itself requires a set of sheltering norms, and that to be outside it, to live outside it, is to court death… The negation, through violence, of that body is a vain and violent effort to restore order, to renew the social world on the basis of intelligible gender, and to refuse the challenge to rethink that world as something other than natural or necessary.”

She asks, “what if the very categories of the human have excluded those who should be described and sheltered within its terms?...Have we ever yet known the ‘human’?”

In relation to peace and security, I think she has a valuable point to make about the ethics that arise from our physical existence, how, as bodies, we are already in some ways simultaneously autonomous and ‘for others’, through desire, grief, rage, physical relationships and physical vulnerability: “The particular sociality that belongs to bodily life, to sexual life, and to becoming gendered (which is always, to a certain extent, becoming gendered for others) establishes a field of ethical enmeshment with others and a sense of disorientation for the first person, the perspective of the ego. As bodies, we are always something more than, and other than, ourselves.”

This condition leaves us open to degrees of definition and redefinition by others, especially in those moments, such as grief or violence, in which others’ power over us is manifested. She connects physical to social existence. “The struggle to survive is not really separable from the cultural life of fantasy, and the foreclosure of fantasy – through censorship, degradation, or other means – is one strategy for providing for the social death of persons.”

Why is this important in building peace and security? 'Human rights' is one of the conceptual tools in this struggle. Butler identifies “a critical democratic project, one which understands that the category of the ‘human’ has been used differentially and with exclusionary aims, and that not all humans have been included within its terms, that the category of ‘women’ has been used differentially and with exclusionary aims, and that not all women have been included within its terms, and that women have not been fully incorporated into the human, and that both categories are still in process, underway, unfulfilled, that we do not yet know, and cannot ever definitively know, in what the human finally consists.”

This is the level of the profound challenge women’s relationship to politics and security seems to pose - the challenge Cindy mentions, of those outside the mainstream testing the very limits of what is considered political, or politics, normal or needing to be sustained. It suggests some of the orders of difference gender might make. Perhaps it explains in part why “rewriting” occurs, and “fantasy” is neutered – the challenge is genuinely disorienting.

In concluding the lecture, her final articulation of the challenge observes that “to live is to live a life politically, in relation to power, in relation to others, in the act of assuming responsibility for a collective future… Contestation must be in play for politics to become democratic. Democracy does not speak in unison; its tunes are dissonant and necessarily so. It is not a predictable process; it must be undergone, like a passion must be undergone. It may also be that life itself becomes foreclosed when the right way is decided in advance, when we impose what is right for everyone and without finding a way to enter into community, and to discover there the ‘right’ in the midst of cultural translation. It may be that what is ‘right’ and what is ‘good’ consists in staying open to the tensions that beset the most fundamental categories we require, to know unknowingness at the core of what we know, and what we need, and to recognise the sign of life in what we undergo without certainty about what will come.”
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