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Why what Judith Butler has to say means more than what I do

by Shamser Sinha
2 Nov 2007 • Comments (5) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

On the 30th of October 2007 Judith Butler gave the annual British Journal of Sociology lecture at the London School of Economics. It was called, ‘Sexual Politics: the limits of secularism, the time of coalition’.

Judith claims that the War on Terror has provided a climate where the sexual freedoms she and others fought for are now misused to symbolise the shining, gleaming modernity of the West. The backwardness and inferiority of ‘others’ is counterposed and underscored against this. She maintains this is instrumental to liberal-democratic state aggression. One example she gave was sexual torture in Abu Gharib. Another was the Dutch Civic Integration exam where applicants for citizenship are asked what they think of a photograph of men kissing. Judith criticises the dual implications that those who object should be denied citizenship and that homophobia isn’t part of the Dutch socialscape. She says such state measures are used to reinscribe a nasty, closed minded liberalism that wants to degrade and exploit ‘others’. She’s right as well but its hardly news. She argues that this state coercion provides and necessitates a time for coalition politics that reforms teleological ideas of progression. For her it could involve Neo-liberalism’s ‘others’, including Muslims, alongside feminists and LGB activists. Not exactly philosophical rocket science or headline material I thought…But to the particular intelligensia turning up to the LSE this was news.Why?

Because they ignore the politics that is bursting at the seams in London, in Nairobi where I’ve just returned from and almost definitely in San Francisco and Berkeley where Judith works. From Primary Care Trusts in East London formulating faith-based sex education to Housing Associations where Muslims, Lesbians and everyone else share tea, cakes and car lifts to monthly meetings, to youth groups and social health programmes – we live coalition politics, its difficulties, its failures and its gains on a daily basis. We chronicle it too! and how we make progress that is different to the Eurocentric telos of Progress she is rightly critical of. Pointedly she only gave examples of where a common interest in a counter hegemonic block lay, rather than giving any examples at all of where such a politics is actually enacted. Oblivious to Judith’s eyes, this politics is not only possible since the War on Terror but has been a daily occurrence since it began. Previous to this context, coalition politics has been central to the banal routines of living in the city for as long as I can remember. But although we live and say this exists it doesn’t start to count until Judith says this politics is possible. Our insights into what this means for democracy and replacing Progress with progress don’t count.

That so many people at the event found it thrilling, that it is the central piece of a British Journal of Sociology special which other eminent academics have been invited to discuss within its pages, says something about academia’s violence: (1) that the Whitelands of North American and European feminist and lesbian academia need someone of their ‘own’ to tell them coalition politics is possible (even if they haven’t twigged that its happening) and (2) that who you are dictates what you can say and how valid it is with a wildly out of touch Academy. And writers who don’t suit the photo-fit should know their demeaned place within white sociology. Racist, no?

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5 Responses »

  1. I agree with Shamser’s points (academics usually fail to see what is under most activists’ noses, and the deification of the chosen few means that their platitudes get inordinate praise). Maybe I’m becoming too tolerant, but I’d just like to say that Judith Butler’s critique of a politics which she and her co-thinkers have contributed to – which has promotoed separatism – deserves a small cheer. And anything which makes sociologists think a bit about politics has to be worth a gentle clap, doesn’t it?

  2. Shamser

    Interesting piece. I haven’t got access to the original lecture so will be responding mostly to your ideas….

    On the hand, I’d agree with you that sometimes ideas of coalition politics hit the academic radar late compared to the pace at which they are taking place – that would make sense, after all, ivory towers take longer to accept and circulate ideas than the activists on the ground. Living in the city, and some parts of the city in particular, necessitates coalitions, negotiating every day encounters, and building alliances to just get by… let alone reflecting on coalitions for writing papers on causes.
    On the other hand, I read ages ago something by Derek Gregory on how organized political violence has been legitimized through complex imaginative geographies. It seems to me what Butler is alluding to, liberal academic complicity in the war on terror, which isn’t rocket science to you, but is to lots of people. How many people would agree Orientalism is revived and called the War on Terror – not many I imagine.

    For me, though, Judith, and her peers, are possibly wondering what they have contributed to over the past decade, possibly a Frankenstein, and are exercising some reflexivity and critical thought on how to engage with politics of progress without letting these objectives be used and hijacked by their opponents. This seems to me, the major challenge of the day for left-leaning academics: how to avoid academic violence and complicity in the War on Terror.

    I very rarely comment or criticize on women’s rights in Afghanistan, Iran or elsewhere, or the space for LGB in the Muslim world. I am deeply committed to minority rights, and remain concerned about its abuse, but I’d maintain that these not the only stories that represent the narratives of Afghanistan, Iran, or China.

    And, too, right, the emerging armies of black and Asian academics should stop taking on research looking into ‘women’s abuses’ in Tower Hamlets or Pakistan as part of the same regime that creates a landscape that eventually justifies intervention and legitimating political violence. Not agreeing or disagreeing with the intervention, but merely pointing out that we should all be aware of our complicity and actions.

    For academics to engage in politics for progress – it might be better to comment, say, on freedoms in London’s (or Paris, New York) streets than elsewhere – where actually the moral high-ground for whether we should intervene in the globe, is won or lost. That’s where the real battles for hearts and minds is taking place – not in Baghdad or Kabul. You are doing this everyday, and others will be reclaiming and fighting in every day spaces, as you say, in a myriad of ways.

    Who you are matters more than what you say is problematic and worrying if we want to see change take place quickly. But perhaps not a white thing, more to do with knowledge, discipline and power. Some, including Judith Butler, might say knowledge and discipline for years was a way of controlling ‘race’ and sexual politics. Is still.

    On a parting note, I always maintain that this sort of critical self reflection is best done by those who are part of the academic/race hegemony, than those outside it, it goes something like the principle that I’d rather a ‘white’ person be a champion for ‘race’ than a black colleague – you know what I mean?

  3. Shamser

    Some interesting points there. I agree with much of what Pink Cloud of Death has already said very well so I won’t repeat it again! I think critical reflection on one’s work and its consequences is important, and that this is that case for academics (and practitioners such as social workers) at all levels and of all backgrounds. External critique also has an important role to play because as your article highlights, our experiences and social location shape our perception and knowledge of the world around us. But I guess your point is that some people’s critical reflection gets more attention and acclaim than others. I’d be interested to hear more about what you think can and should be done about that. Do you think this is something that is ever likely to change in a hierarchical setting like academia?

  4. Pink Cloud is right to remind us we must not become the accomplices of those whose main aim is to preserve their power to dominate and exploit and therefore maintain their wealth and power. But that must not stop us opposing those whose ideology and methods of exerting their own opposition to those same forces that we oppose are absolutely at variance with our ideology and methods. It doesn’t automatically follow that if an academic (or anyone else) exposes the oppression of some Muslim women and gays in some parts of the Muslim world they are necessarily supporting the US government and its allies. That oppression has to be opposed, and it is not difficult to make the case for gender and sexual justice in terms which are quite different from those used by the ruling elites. We only become accomplices if we replicate or otherwise support their practice.

  5. Max

    Interesting and your arguments make a lot of sense. Yet this complicity is something I continue to struggle with, and thinking through, is part of my own critical reflection on where to go.

    A long time ago Spivak talked about reducing internal fragmentation in the left on matters of race, as part of our commitment to resisting hegemony. She called it ’strategic essentialism’. I wonder if we could take this idea a little further, push a bit more and see where it takes us.

    Butler for example, seems to have been arguing about the limits of secular(ism) and the need for coalitions as a specific tactic of resistance. Shamser points out this coalition politics has been going on for a while now- and it’s nice that liberalism and feminism is joining the streets.

    The debate seems to point to tactics of resistance.

    Could we say, given the current climate where we play into geo-politics ( on a global scale) and a progressive denigration of Muslims ( on a national , global or local scale ) we might want to strike a strategic silence – not because we cannot accept the logic that oppression has to be opposed, irrespective of 9/11 geo-politics, but because we might agree that we are living through a terrible time at the moment, and one tactic of resistance, at this given time/place and geography, might be to remain silent. Kinda like a different play on the phrase, ‘Not in my Name’. I am thinking here of smart acts of resistance, a clearly thought out, strategic politics to counter the hegemonic exploitation of our own fight for freedom and rights. Just a thought.

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