Judith Butler and Virtue: the starting point

Currently I am working on an essay in which I reflect on the ethical significance of J Butler’s cultivation and promotion of troublemaking. The first half of the essay, which I prepared for the FEAST conference last fall, focuses on the ethical gesture towards troublemaking that Butler makes in Gender Trouble. The second half of the essay focuses on linking that ethical gesture to virtue ethics and on developing my own claim that staying in trouble is an important virtue.

I haven’t fully developed the second half of the essay, partly because I haven’t had the time and partly because I haven’t had the inspiration. Sure I want to argue that troublemaking is a virtue, but how? And why virtue? While vague and unfocused answers to these questions have been swimming around in my brain for a few years now, the specific way to articulate my argument in relation to Butler and virtue ethics has eluded me.  But a few weeks ago, I began to envision an approach. Butler’s work over the past decade is filled with vague references to virtue ethics–she often refers to flourishing and the good life and links them with her ideas of persisting and the livable life (which are central to many of her recent works, including Undoing Gender, Precarious Life, Frames of War). She focuses some attention on Aristotle, particularly in her edited collection with Laclau and Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality. And she even devotes an entire essay to Foucault, virtue and critique (“What is Critique?” An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue“). I realized that one way to frame my discussion of Butler, troublemaking and virtue is to ask: why does she refer to virtue and draw upon virtue language frequently?

After pondering these questions for a few weeks I decided that I needed to carefully reread “What is Critique?” and think about how Foucault and, by extension, Butler are thinking about virtue. So, I reread it tonight. Cool. Very, very helpful. Since I plan to give the whole essay a lot more attention in the next few days (especially during my writing date with KCF!), I won’t write much now. Let me simply offer a teaser. Towards the end of the essay, after discussing how Foucault understands virtue as: a. a critical relation to norms, b. a way of re-describing resistance (outside of the autonomous self), and c. a self-making through the refusal to obey (that sounds familiar–didn’t I write about that idea here?), Butler offers this very brief aside:

I do not mean to rehabilitate Aristotle in the form of Foucault (although, I confess, that such a move intrigues me, and I mention it here to offer it as a possibility without committing myself to it at once) (319).

What do we make of this aside? Is she suggesting that troublemaking (in the form of critique–because she never uses the word trouble in this essay) is a virtue? Is she also suggesting that we might want to think some more about the usefulness of Aristotle’s work, particularly in terms of virtue/virtue ethics? Excellent. What would it mean to re-think Aristotle through Foucault and to imagine virtue in terms of trouble and critique? Does reading Aristotle through Foucault suggest a resignifying of virtue (that is, an inhabiting of virtues and virtue language differently)? Am I a nerd because I find this discovery of Butler’s aside to be truly exciting (or because I made a reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure)?

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