The Ethics of Making, Being and Staying in Trouble
In the 1990 preface to Gender Trouble, Judith Butler reflects on trouble and its value, concluding “that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it” (Gender Trouble, vii). With this statement, Butler introduces a central theme that continues to shape and motivate much of her work: learning how to make trouble and be in trouble are important tasks of the resisting subject. In this presentation, which comes out of a larger project on troublemaking as a virtue, I argue that Butler’s opening statement about troublemaking in Gender Trouble is not only a critical and provocative intervention into feminist politics as usual, but is an ethical gesture towards the dignity, desirability and necessity of troublemaking. This gesture, which is taken up more explicitly by Butler in Undoing Gender, points to two separate but related ethical projects involving troublemaking. The first project is concerned with making trouble and being in trouble in ways that extend and rework norms so that they make more lives possible and livable. The second project is concerned with exploring what is demanded of us as moral selves as we strive to stay in trouble. I will conclude my presentation by tentatively linking the second of those projects with my own work on troublemaking as a feminist virtue.
At first glance, Butler’s suggestion that “trouble is inevitable, the task how best to make it, what best way to be in it” seems to be the declaration of a disobedient child or a disheartened academic-activist. However, it is not just a rebellious claim, by a bad girl, thumbing her nose at the feminist establishment. Nor is it a pessimistic statement of resignation by an armchair academic about the futility of feminist politics. Instead, with this reflection on trouble, Butler is calling for an intervention into feminist politics ‘as usual’ and she is making a tentative ethical gesture towards the value—that is, the dignity, desirability and necessity—of making, being and staying in trouble.
Through her intervention into feminist politics as usual, Butler aims to trouble the heterosexist norms that explicitly and implicitly frame feminist politics and its construction of “woman” as political subject. She engages in a critical genealogy of key feminist thinkers and feminist concepts. And, she works to disrupt hegemonic understandings of who the subject of feminism is and how that subject should engage in politics. Through her ethical gesture, Butler aims to grant dignity to the practice of troublemaking—specifically gender troublemaking—and to point to its value both for her own theoretical activism and for those individuals and communities who fail to be fully intelligible in dominant discourses on gender.
Since Gender Trouble much attention has been given to Butler’s troublemaking as intervention. Her challenge to feminist identity politics and her reflections on drag as a subversive performance have been taken up by a wide range of thinkers and activists, some embracing her work as revolutionary and others rejecting it as apolitical and dangerously anti-humanist. She has been heralded as the saint of postmodern resistance and condemned as the ultimate sinner against feminist emancipatory politics. However, while much has been made of Butler’s ideas about gender trouble as subversive intervention, not enough attention has been given to the ethical possibilities of troublemaking that Butler gestures towards in Gender Trouble.
There are several reasons why the ethical possibilities of troublemaking have not been considered. First, the ethical moment in Gender Trouble is largely overshadowed by Butler’s troublesome critiques of some “treasured feminist values” and her difficult language and writing style. Second, the ethical moment is forgotten in the wake of the powerful theoretical shift in feminist and gay and lesbian politics that Butler helped initiate with this relatively small text that she imagined “maybe one or two hundred people might read” (UG, 207). Third and finally, the ethical moment has remained largely hidden because of Butler’s early resistance to ethics and ethical language and her seemingly singular focus on subversion and disruption as (gender) troublemaking. Largely for these reasons, Butler’s early ethical gesture, and the ethical possibilities within all of her writings, were mostly ignored throughout the 1990s.
In the time since 9/11, Butler’s work has become more explicitly ethical. Her promotion of accountability and precariousness and her emphasis on the livable life suggest that Butler is interested in taking up her early ethical gesture towards troublemaking in order to explore troublemaking’s ethical value. In her 2004 collection, Undoing Gender, her earlier resistance to ethics—as a turn away from politics—and to norms—as normalizing and oppressive—is replaced with an urgent (and passionate) plea for ethical reflection on how we are done and undone by gender norms and how we might rework and expand norms in order to extend the livable life to those who have previously been denied it. With a focus on the livable life and the achievement of that life by reworking gender norms, Butler places ethics at the forefront of her critical reflections on gender, sexuality and political transformation. Central to this critical reflection is the idea that finding the best ways to make trouble and be in trouble are not only political projects but ethical ones.
This taking up of the ethical gesture in Gender Trouble is not, as some theorists have argued about Butler’s recent work, a turn to ethics. For me, a turn to ethics implies two things. First, it implies a turn away from something else, in this case, a turn away from politics. But, in Undoing Gender, even as she places ethical questions of life, livability and norms at the center of her essays, Butler doesn’t eschew politics. She believes that troublemaking is fundamentally connected to radical democracy and ongoing participation in political life. Second, a turn to ethics suggests that prior to this turn, Butler’s work was not ethical. In focusing on Butler’s opening statement about troublemaking in Gender Trouble as an ethical gesture instead of a critical and political intervention, I am arguing that ethics has always motivated Butler’s critical projects. Undoing Gender, which expands upon Butler’s earliest articulations of this ethical gesture, provides us with an opportunity to rethink the significance of Butler’s notion of troublemaking not through its function as disruptive intervention, but through its role as an ethical practice and approach to one’s political life.
So, what is Butler suggesting when she claims that “…trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it?” Butler believes that making trouble and being in trouble are essential practices for the thinking and resisting subject. For Butler, the best way to make trouble is to refuse to accept that any categories—even the most fundamental categories of our social existence like “woman” or “human”—are unquestioned givens. And it is to subject those categories to critical scrutiny in order (1) to explore the limits of their ability to be inclusive and to be translated into a wide range of contexts globally and (2) to determine how they must be “expanded, destroyed or reworked in order to encompass and open up what it is to be human and gendered” (Undoing Gender, 38). This second aspect—the focus on expanding, destroying or reworking categories—frequently involves opening up and inhabiting categories in unexpected and unauthorized ways (e.g. international gay and lesbian groups claiming their rights are human rights).
If the best way to make trouble is to critically question categories like “human” or “woman” and to open them up to potentially new understandings, the best way to be in trouble is through a persistent examination of the difficult and frequently contradictory moments when we cannot easily read what is going on and when common sense, language and knowledge seem to fail us. Those moments that “make us wonder” and that “remain not fully explained and not fully explicable” (The Judith Butler Reader, 417) can generate some valuable and productive questions and debates about the limits and possibilities of fundamental categories like “human.”
Butler’s emphasis on these moments of unknowingness is evident in her work. As she demonstrates in her analysis of drag, of Antigone, of intersexuality and of gender and its relation to sex and sexual difference, she is drawn to those moments of degrounding and how they push at our “most sure ways of knowing.”
Because she gives so much attention to these moments of uncertainty and unknowingness, some feminists dismiss her troublemaking as lacking any political or ethical value or label her a hip defeatist. But, Butler argues that the making of and being in trouble is motivated by more than a desire to provoke for the sake of provoking. Individuals and/or collectives make trouble because they are already in trouble. For those who are unintelligible—that is, those who improperly inhabit their gender roles, whose desires do not follow proper patterns of sex and gender, whose bodies fall outside of the norm—for them, trouble is inevitable because the categories that are supposed to describe them do not or will not. They make trouble because they want to claim their own humanity in a system of norms that does not authorize those claims, that does not consider their life worthy and that banishes them to the realm of unspeakablity or to social death. And, they are in trouble because when they assert those unauthorized claims, they demonstrate the fragility and fallibility of those taken-for-granted norms about what and who is “human.”
This claim about the inevitability of trouble and the need to make and be in it so as to expand and rework previously unquestioned categories is crucial to understanding what kind of ethical gesture Butler first makes in Gender Trouble. In defending it against the charges that it is apolitical and unethical hip defeatism, Butler argues that troublemaking has ethical value. Making trouble by challenging categories and opening them up to think about them differently is not only about disrupting or rebelling or challenging. Making trouble is about “extending the norms that sustain viable life to previously disenfranchised communities” (UG, 225). It is about working to open up the category of human to be more inclusive. And, it is about ethics and asking, “from a position of power, …what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable” and possible and livable (UG, 17)?
While Butler explicitly uses ethical language and concepts in Undoing Gender, the idea of extending and reworking norms so that they make more lives possible and livable as an important ethical project was already present in and a central motivating factor for Gender Trouble. In the 1999 preface to Gender Trouble Butler reflects on her personal investment in troubling gender and how troublemaking might enable her to not only grant recognition but dignity to her family members by making their lives possible and livable. She writes that her troublemaking in Gender Trouble
was not done simply out of desire to play with language or prescribe theatrical antics in the place of ‘real’ politics, as some critics have conjectured. It was done from a desire to live, to make life possible, and to rethink the possible as such. What would the world have to be like for my uncle to live in the company of family, friends, or extended kinship of some other kind? How must we rethink the ideal morphological constraints upon the human such that those who fail to approximate the norm are not condemned to a death without life (xxi)?
This desire to live, to make life possible, to create a world that grants dignity to others who have been denied it and extends to them the possibility of having their own livable lives, is an ethical gesture, by Butler, towards the value of troublemaking. Making and being in trouble has the potential to open up and rework categories like the “human” in more inclusive and life-affirming ways and to contribute to an ethical vision that contains the normative aspiration of giving people room “to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live” (Undoing Gender, 8).
The ethical gesture here is towards a project that is both political and ethical in scope and that is concerned with developing and assessing a wide range of practices in a wide range of contexts to determine troublemaking’s effectiveness for producing more expansive and less violent understandings of who/what is intelligible. To be sure, there is much ethical value in thinking about troublemaking as contributing to a larger ethical project in this way. This is a project that must remain central to any feminist ethics. However, there is another way in which to read what Butler is doing (or what we can do) with her early statement about troublemaking; there is another ethical project being called for (albeit tentatively).
Butler’s ethical gesture towards the value of troublemaking is not just about making and being in trouble, it is about staying in it. When Butler concludes that trouble is inevitable and that we must find the best ways to make and be in it, she is not just promoting making trouble, she is arguing that trouble always already exists (it is inevitable) and that our task is to find out how to stay in it in productive and potentially transformative ways. Indeed, the central task for Butler in Gender Trouble is not to make trouble for categories like gender by disrupting or calling into question their stability and “realness”. The central task is to ensure that those categories continue to make trouble for us (and that we continue to make trouble for them) so that the regulatory practices of sex/gender/desire that produce them are not concealed and presented to us as unquestioned truth.
This idea of staying in trouble becomes a central project for ethics because staying in trouble—remaining in that space of our unknowingness and uncertainty where we push at the limits of our most sure ways of knowing—enables us to “think critically and ethically about the consequential ways that the human is being produced, reproduced and deproduced” (Undoing Gender, 36). When we rush to get ourselves out of trouble we foreclose the possibility of thinking about how we have constructed our knowledge of the “human” or what counts as life and how we might think about those constructions differently. And when we rush to get ourselves out of trouble and the trouble that is caused by thinking differently (and with openness) about the “human” we do violence to those who have not only been denied a livable life but have been written out of life by the constructions and assertions of the “human” that are predicated on their very unintelligibility.
The ethical gesture here is towards a project that is focused on an exploration of what is demanded of us as moral selves as we strive to stay in trouble. This project is not concerned with developing the best possible practices of troublemaking, even as that is a very important project, Instead, it is about reflecting on how we might resist the urge to shore up our unknowingness and assert our “truths” in violent ways and how we might learn to “know unknowingness at the core of what we know, and what we need…” (Undoing Gender, 227).
The question of how to stay in trouble is a primary preoccupation of Butler’s in the post 9/11 world. In Precarious Life, staying in trouble is described in terms of grief, vulnerability and precariousness. And, in Undoing Gender, staying in trouble is described as being done and undone by gender norms. In both of these reconfigurations, the ethical value of staying in trouble, first gestured towards in Gender Trouble, is central to Butler’s own thinking about how moral selves should function ethically in the world.
But, although Butler takes up her ethical gesture from Gender Trouble and makes it more explicitly ethical in recent works like Undoing Gender and Precarious Life, she still only points to the ethical possibilities of troublemaking. Much more work needs to be done in order to flesh out the idea of making, being, and staying in trouble as ethical practices and projects.
In concluding this presentation on Butler and the ethical value of troublemaking, I want to make my own ethical gesture towards troublemaking as staying in trouble. Thinking about troublemaking as staying in trouble can shift our ethical attention away from developing the practices or rules that should always guide our troublemaking and towards cultivating qualities of character that encourage us to approach a wide range of activities with a troublemaking (that is, critical, thoughtful and questioning) spirit/ethos. One potentially fruitful way to think about this troublemaking spirit is as a feminist virtue, that is, as an ethical way of being, a mode of relating to the world, a quality of character, a disposition, or an attitude that influences our ethical/political understandings and shapes our ethical and political development. Thinking about troublemaking as a virtue encourages us to ask after how we should live as troublemakers and what kind of (moral and political) selves we need to be in order to stay in trouble. And, it enables us to value troublemaking as an important quality of the moral self.
So, that’s it. The ending is a little abrupt; I was planning to have some informal remarks in which I talked more about what staying in trouble might mean for feminist ethics.