A Disciplinary Problem? The unruly child as troublemaker

In the documentary, Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind, Butler recounts details of growing up in Cleveland:

I was never very good in school. I was what they call a problem child. A disciplinary problem. And, uh, I would speak back to the teachers. And I would not follow the rules. I would skip class. I did terrible things. And, yet, I was apparently smart in some way. But I didn’t understand myself as smart. I understood myself as strategic. One had to get through. One had to find one’s way in the school and in the synagogue. And I didn’t really like authority. My mother was called into the principal’s office…the principal who runs the school in fifth grade, I think. Probably the age of 11. She was warned that I might become a criminal and at that point they told me that I couldn’t go to the school anymore, to the Jewish Education program anymore, unless I studied privately with the rabbi. So, this was for me, terrific because I loved the rabbi.

Now consider how Liz McMillen shapes those details (given to her by Butler in an interview from 1997 entitled “Berkeley’s Judith Butler Revels in Role of Troublemaker” for The Chronicle for Higher Education) into a coherent—and rather neat and tidy—narrative and origin story about Butler as a troublemaker:

Long before Gender Trouble caused a stir, and before she became a prominent theorist with a devoted graduate-student following, Judith Butler was a kid in a Cleveland synagogue who frequently got herself in trouble. She disrupted classes. She made faces during assemblies. Finally, she was kicked out and told that she wouldn’t be allowed to return to the school until she had completed a tutorial with the head rabbi. The rabbi sized the 14-year-old up and decided that it was time for her to get serious.

So what do you want to study? he wanted to know.”Holocaust historiography” was her quick reply. Martin Buber and existential theology. Whether German idealism was responsible in any way for the rise of fascism. This after-school punishment laid the groundwork for a scholarly career marked by extreme diligence — and a knack for making trouble.”I was always talking back,” she says.”I guess I’ve elevated it into an art form.” Once a disciplinary problem, always a disciplinary problem.

So, according to McMillen, Butler was an unruly child. A student who refused to play by the rules and got into a lot of trouble. A disciplinary problem. Now, she is an adult who gets into a lot of trouble. She disrupts widely accepted notions of sex and gender. She challenges feminism as identity politics. She refuses to merely accept any idea as common sense. And she encourages others to be critical of their most treasured values. It would seem that Butler willingly (perhaps even proudly) takes on the role of unruly-child-as-troublemaker. Her acts of trouble (which up to the point of the interview included: Subject of Desire, Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, The Psychic Life of Power, and Excitable Speech) are at least partially inspired by a desire to continue to be a disciplinary problem. She finds pleasure in instability, being uncomfortable, and pushing at the limits. She enjoys laughing at/mocking the system and causing trouble for all those who perpetuate it. She even mocks herself and refuses to cash in on her status as superstar academic.

Samuel Chambers and Terrence Carver reinforce this assessment of Butler as the unruly child when they write in their introduction to Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics:

how else to read the line that Butler leaves on its own as the fourth paragraph of the preface to Bodies That Matter, ‘Couldn’t someone simply take me aside?’, than with more than a touch of sarcasm and sass (x)? What other way to hear this question than as Butler’s declaration that she plans to continue getting into trouble, that she never expects to get out it? While her critics will persist in their desire to force her into line, she will continue to make trouble–and to trouble them (2).

And while they aren’t certain that she is actively taking up the trope of the “unruly child” (“We could ask her–she might even answer us,” they ponder, “but we’d still never know“), they do suggest that Butler’s role as the “disciplinary problem” is proof that she is a troublemaker. See, she disobeys. She disrupts. She sasses back. She must be a troublemaker. Immediately following this discussion, Chambers and Carver suggest that, while Butler is engaging in unruly behavior, her actions “prove to be of the far more sophisticated and important sort” (2). So, Butler is not just your average disciplinary problem, she is a serious and sophisticated disciplinary problem.

So, as the story goes: once upon a time there was a little girl from Cleveland. She always got into trouble…big trouble. She challenged authority figures. Disrupted class. And got kicked out of school. Everyone thought she was a disciplinary problem. Then, she grew up and became an academic superstar. She learned how to turn her knack for troublemaking into some serious and sophisticated scholarship about troubling sex, gender and sexuality. And she remained a disciplinary problem.

Sounds great, right? I like the idea of rethinking what it means to be a disciplinary problem (and I can relate to it, having gotten into trouble a lot as a child), but this narrative (particularly about Butler’s beginnings and more generally about the origins of troublemaking for theory and politics) raises some red flags for me.

The purpose of the narrative
First, the story offers some background on Butler. It demonstrates that she is a person and not just a theorist. In the McMillen interview, Butler reflects on the desire, by her readers, to know who she really is:

I was so theoretical in my presentation in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter that you barely got a glimpse of who I was, which then produced this desire to expose this hyperintellectual, you know, hidden person.

Second, the story also offers some background on Gender Trouble and the idea of troubling gender. They come from someone on the outside, from a problem child, who always challenged authority. Gender Trouble, according to the story, is just one more (perhaps more sophisticated and “grown up”) example of how a “problem” child acts.

Finally, this story provides both Butler, as a queer theorist/theoretical activist/political thinker, and her work in Gender Trouble and beyond, with some credibility in queer activist communities. Butler isn’t just an academic who writes esoteric and overly complicated books like Gender Trouble; she is a bad girl! A rebel! She makes trouble for the establishment! She resists and fights back! And, where did it all start? When she was (*gasp*) a juvenile delinquent!

How much control has Butler had over the shaping of this narrative and the image of her as feminism’s and queer theory’s bad girl? Is the playing up of her as a problem-child a marketing ploy by others to sell more books? Or, could it be an attempt to discredit her work in troublemaking as childish? Oh, don’t bother with her, she’s nothing but trouble!?

The person as Subject/the author as Agent
The story, particularly the one articulated by McMillen, feels a little too neat and tidy. There appears to be a seamless connection between (1) the person who made trouble as a child with (2) the author who not only writes about trouble but makes it too (!), and (3) the book that successfully makes trouble for our understandings of gender/sex/sexuality. But, does Butler-the-person really fit that neatly with Butler-the-author? Does the move from Butler-the-person to Butler-the-author work that easily? And, does Butler-the-author have that much control over what her book did/does?

In the first chapter of Gender Trouble, Butler famously invokes Nietzsche and argues that “there is no doer behind the deed” (34). She challenges the idea of the agent as willful subject who has (total) control over their actions. She offers in place of the person who does, a subject who is created/perpetuated through the process of doing. Where might the story of Butler as a troublemaker fit in here? Is it reinforcing the notion of the person-as-willful-agent?

And, what about the connection between author and book? What control does Butler-as-author really have over what her writings do and mean for others? I need to think through theses ideas some more, but I wonder what we might make of this narrative in relation to Butler’s word at the end of Bodies That Matter. She is discussing the troubling question, “How will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose” (241)? In her reflections, she discusses her writings and the effects they might have on others:

The reach of their signifiability cannot be controlled by the one who utters them. They continue to signify in spite of their authors, and sometimes against their authors’ most precious intentions.…This not owning one’s words is there from the start, however, since speaking is always in some ways the speaking of a stranger through and as oneself (241-242).

Finally, in offering up this story of herself (through her written and spoken words) as an unruly child who turned into a troublemaking adult, what is Butler doing? Or, conversely, what is being done to her? In one of her more recent works, Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler argues that “telling a story about oneself is not the same as giving an account of oneself” (12). So, which is it–is the tale of Butler-as-unruly-child a story/narrative or an account? I am eager to re-read Butler’s ideas in Giving an Account to find out what she might say about all of this.

Okay, she was a disciplinary problem, but why?
The story of Butler as a disciplinary problem is compelling, but it leaves a lot out in the telling. Why was she considered a disciplinary problem? Or, more pointedly, what caused her to make (and be in) trouble? In “What is Critique?,” Butler writes:

One does not drive to the limits for a thrill experience, or because limits are dangerous and sexy, or because it brings us into a titillating proximity with evel. One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis…(307-308).

What sorts of crises did Butler run up against that made her push at the limits (against authority figures, etc)? Without a discussion of why, we are left with a narrative that is too easy and that could too easily become a story of a girl who was bad (maybe born that way?) and then found a way to continue to be bad (and earn money doing it!) as an adult. There is much that should be said/written about what causes girls to act out and/or to be dismissed/punished as troublemakers. In fact, the specific ways that gender and trouble get connected is part of the reason Butler wrote Gender Trouble. Take a look at her discussion of “female trouble” in her 1990 Preface for more. Of course, Butler speaks to the “why” in many of her writings. So, why is it left out of the narrative of unruly child–particularly the one shaped by McMillen?

*Note: At this point, I must veer off into a discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry about half-pint and the episode, “Troublemaker.” I promised to watch it and report back. I watched it yesterday morning. Actually, I had intended this article to be about Laura as one example of the “unruly child” and what kind of trouble they cause (or are accused of causing). As you can tell, this entry has gone in a different direction. I enjoyed the episode–aside from the fact that it convinced me that Mrs. Oleson is just plain evil. I was surprised out how much room there is for a feminist interpretation of how/why Laura is labeled as a troublemaker. I would like to devote an entire entry to it (and perhaps include the recent New Yorker review article about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane and some other thoughts from Little House in the Big Woods). Anyway, my point in referring to Little House and Laura here is that the “Troublemaker” episode offers one example of how/why a little girl might be dismissed and also punished for being a troublemaker. The (how/why) reasons have a lot to do with the fact that she is a poor little girl with no money who has very little status or, in Bourdieu-speak, cultural capital. The narrative of Laura as troublemaker in this episode has as much to do with how she has been labeled a troublemaker (and the consequences of that labeling) as it does with what kind of trouble she makes. What would a narrative of Butler that linked her troublemaking with her experiences growing up in Cleveland look like? Butler only hints at that in her 1999 Preface to Gender Trouble.

The origins of troublemaking:
The story of Butler as an unruly child seems to function as an origin story for gender trouble, both as a book and as a concept. To the question, where did gender trouble come from, we get the answer, a problem child who skipped class, made faces at assemblies, and did other terrible things. So, according to this line of thinking, troublemaking as a concept/practice/action is produced by someone who does it in order to disrupt/unsettle/disturb. And this disruption that they do takes some very particular forms: skipping class, disrupting assemblies, being kicked out of school, all of which conjure up images of the juvenile delinquent. But, is this the only source of troublemaking and the only way to imagine how children engage in it? Is the troublemaker fundamentally a bad girl (or bad boy) who willfully flouts the rules?

At this point, I have to stop writing this entry. I have more to say, but have run out of steam. I do like my final thought here. I will return to it an upcoming entry. The question becomes: is troublemaking all about daring to be bad (this is a reference to Alice Echols’ book) or could we think about it as daring to be good (another reference to the edited collection by Ann Ferguson and Bat-Ami Bar On)? What would that look like and what possibilities for ethics does it open up?

Can you ever really have too much trouble?

default_coverLast year I found this wonderfully titled article by Claudia Schippert in Theology and Sexuality: “Too Much Trouble? Negotiating Feminist and Queer Approaches in Religion.” (I also mention it here.) I have wanted to read it for a long time but, with all of the other things I have had to read, I just never got around to it. Now thanks to the summer (which is going by way too fast) and this blog, I have time and a reason to read it.

Schippert begins her essay by discussing the “troubling” relationship between queer-as-resisting-norms (Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet ) and ethics. She ponders two questions (actually, the same question, just worded differently): 1. “Are opposition to normativity and work in feminist ethics mutually exclusive endeavors” (47)? and 2. “Does Michael Warner’s well-known definition of queer theory as resistance to ‘heteronormativity’ contradict/preclude the doing of ethics or other engagement with norms” (48)?

The popular answer to this question, she argues, is yes. Many theorists believe that queer, as a practice and approach, is empty of ethical content. As a result, few studies of queer ethics exist (remember, this essay was originally a presentation at the American Academy of Religion conference in 1998). Even those ethical and/or queer theorists who answer “no” do so in a somewhat superficial way by merely replacing gay/lesbian with queer and simplistically equating it with defiant (52).

Linking her project with Janet Jakobsen’s essay “Queer is? Queer Does?” (which I discuss here), Schippert contends that queer ethics is possible but only by directly engaging with the tension (between resistance to norms–the queer project–and the production/analysis of norms–the ethical project) and by exploring the “specific practices of enacting and deploying norms” (53). She also refuses (in a wonderful moment of troublemaking) to offer a clear and final resolution to the tension between queer and norms. In particular, she does not want to resolve that tension by finding “better” norms (norms that are not heteronormative/oppressive/restrictive). She wants to shift attention towards: 1. examining “other” sites where the troubling of norms (through taking on the abject position) has been successful and 2. thinking through what those sites might have to offer scholars in their development of an ethics that takes queer resistance seriously.

Huh? I think I understand what she is saying here. Central to her argument is the concept of taking on the abject position. First, by abject she means the “realm of unintelligibility which contains that which is cast out” (58). The abject position is inhabited by those who don’t make sense, whose experiences/bodies/identities/practices aren’t recognized as normal or coherent and who exist outside of the dominant framework of white and heterosexual. By “taking on” the abject position, she means two things: 1. embodying or taking up the abject position and 2. defying/resisting that position. This abject position, which she discusses in relation to Evelynn Hammonds and her article, “Black W(holes) and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality,” and Judith Butler and her notion of “reworking of abjection into political agency” in Bodies That Matter, is not quite a position (because it is untelligible).  But, in taking it on, it is possible to attend to the material effects of those norms that produce one as abject (taking on = embodying) and to reject/disavow (taking on = defiance) those norms.

Ummm…I thought I understood what she was saying, but now I am not so sure. I think I am almost there but her argument (which connects Butler, Hammonds and Katie Cannon with ethical critiques of queer and the citing of queer in religion) seems a little too crowded here. I do like her final paragraph (even as I am not quite sure how she gets there–almost…but not quite):

Expanding the very meaning of what counts as valuable bodies…

Wait, what does she mean here? Let me look at her earlier argument again. I think she is arguing, by drawing upon Katie Cannon and her work in Womanist Ethics, that taking on (embodying) the abject position but refusing to fully inhabit it (taking on as resistance) enables us to rework norms and open up new positions and understandings of what counts as normal/valued/valuable bodies.

…will, without a doubt, get us into more, and different kinds of, trouble.

Trouble in the form of disrupting disciplines (like religion/religious ethics), reworking what counts as resistance and a resisting position, and disturbing traditional notions of what counts as a valued and intelligible body.

But, finally, to answer the other questions I asked earlier [is trouble worth it?]: yes, it definitely would be worthwhile (63).

I like her emphasis on trouble in this essay. Trouble as having ethical possibility. Trouble (through taking on the abject position) as reworking/expanding our understandings of normativity and as attending to material effects of that normative process. As I mentioned before, I still feel as if I have a tenuous understanding of her argument.  Maybe I need to turn to a later version of it in “Turning on/to Ethics” from Bodily Citations.

This essay is from 2006…8 years after the first article. At first glance, Schippert seems to be offering a very similar argument using Butler, Hammonds and Cannon again. Yet, one key ingredient is missing: trouble. Schippert has shifted her argument away from a focus on trouble (as that which connects the readings, as a popular and important way to think about Butler’s work and queer theory’s relation to ethics, and as the useful product of exploring tensions between queer resistance and norm production). The title of the essay is now, “Turning on/to ethics” and refers to how Butler’s work is not a turning on (as in evading, defying, betraying) ethics, but a turning to it.

Why does Schippert move away from the language of trouble? Could this shift reinforce my belief that one popular reading of Butler’s recent work as a turn to ethics is actually a turn away from the immature/youthful/anti-ethical ideas about trouble-as-disruption-and-subversion that permeate Gender Trouble? Sigh…Wait, could this move from “Too much trouble?” to “Turning on/to Ethics” play a key role in my analysis of Butler’s so-called shift? I think so. Excellent.

Of course, I still need to figure out exactly what Schippert’s argument is in both of these articles. More on that soon….

Thank you Mr. Mailman!


Today I received two really cool books in the mail: Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler (and here is her giving a lecture based on it) and Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility by Annika Thiem. While I have been wanting to get Butler’s book for a couple of months now, I had not heard of Thiem’s book until the other day when I was looking on amazon for something else. Excellent. Yet another book that explores the ethical (and moral) implications of Butler’s work.

I must admit, I was a little disheartened after reading Thiem’s dis(mis)sing of virtue ethics in the beginning of the introduction (that’s how far I am right now). She writes:

Moral conduct cannot be reduced to what we owe others, to duties and obligations, and also not to VIRTUES, which can have equally restraining effects (1).

Oh well, I am still excited to read it and curious to find out how she links Butler’s ethical, political, and moral vision with critique and responsibility.

Oh, and as an aside: My wonderful neighborhood mailman retired today after 30 years. He really did give me a great parting gift!

Word Count: 196 words

Is trouble an adjective, a verb, a noun, or what?

I was very excited to see the subtitle of this book by Samuel A. Chambers and Terrell Carver: Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics. Like me, Chambers and Carver are interested in giving serious attention to Butler’s idea and practices of troublemaking. Excellent. As political theorists, their focus is on the politics of troubling. Connected but different, my approach is on the ethics of troublemaking and troublestaying.

Check out their description of the goal of the book:

Our goal in this book is to explore the types of trouble that Butler has got herself and her readers into, to investigate the manner in which she has made trouble and to track the effects that her troubling has had on politics and the political. In so doing we seek to bring Butler into clearer view as a political thinker–to bring to light her political theory as a politics of troubling and troubling of politics (2).

I find their discussion of troubling, especially in the introduction, to be very helpful in clarifying how troubling functions within Butler’s work. In that introduction, they offer three different ways in which to understand troubling politics

Cov_118221First, the troubling in troubling politics is an adjective. The vision of politics that comes out of Butler’s work is troubling (as in worrisome, disturbing, unsettling, problematic) to many theorists/activists. These critics describe Butler’s politics as troubling to indicate that there is something not quite right about her project, especially her understanding of the political subject. Sure, she might develop a vision of politics and political action, but that vision produces a politics that is troubled/troubling and that, according to some, doesn’t ultimately work. And because it is troubling to others/doesn’t really work, Butler’s vision of politics gets her in trouble.

Second, the troubling in troubling politics is a verb. Through her interrogation of feminist politics and her challenge to gender, Butler is destabilizing feminist politics as usual with the aim of transforming it. In this sense, Butler is engaged in the act of troubling politics and the term troubling describes that act.

Third, the troubling in troubling politics is a noun. Throughout Gender Trouble and beyond, Butler has developed a political vision that is predicated on (it is its groundless ground perhaps?) troubling everything: subjects, identity categories, politics, ethics, democracy, The Brady Bunch (oh wait, that’s me, not Butler). Troubling is not a description used to modify and undercut politics (adjective). Nor is it something that one does to politics (verb). Instead, it is “its own politics” (9).

Exactly. Could there be a correlation between these three types of troubling and my versions of trouble on this blog (that is, making/being in/staying in trouble)?

  • Does trouble as an adjective describe the state of being in trouble?
  • Does trouble as a verb describe the act of making trouble?
  • Does trouble as a noun describe the ethics of staying in trouble?

Wow. I need to think about this some more. How do these three understandings of trouble work together/against each other to form a more systematic politics and ethics of troublemaking? Are there other ways to describe trouble? How is my vision of troublemaking connected/disconnected from Chambers’/Carver’s vision here? Is it helpful to think about trouble in this way or do I just like it because of my fixation on things-in-threes (I am my father’s daughter) and things-that-fit-in-neat-packages? Ah well, three is a magic number…

in honor of my 50th post!

Yes, this is my 50th post. 36,301 words, give or take a few. Not that I am counting or anything. In honor of this very “important” occasion I want to do a series of entries on my theory of the ethics of making, being in and staying in trouble. Rather fitting since making/being in/staying in trouble is the theme of this blog, don’t you think? Okay, there is another reason why I am posting these entries now. I am presenting on this subject at the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference in September and I need to start polishing my remarks. I thought working through them on the blog might be helpful.

Initially I was planning to post the entire presentation on here–in chunks of course. But, now I am thinking it would be better to pull out some troublesome bits (as in parts that I want to flesh out/clarify)and reflect on them. But in this entry, I think I will just introduce my project. Here is the abstract for the FEAST presentation:

ABSTRACT: 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.

9780415389556I am exploring the ethical possibilities of Butler’s work on troublemaking. It is exciting to see the recent interest, both by Butler and those writing about her, in connecting her work with ethics. For too long, the popular (among academics, that is) understanding of Gender Trouble is that is was not only counter but harmful to ethics/ethical projects. I remember this happening a lot in grad school. Ah, grad school…On the first day of every semester you had to go around the room and give your little spiel about what your academic interests were. Although I tried to mix it up, I usually ended up saying something about the ethical possibilities in the work of Judith Butler. One time, after giving my spiel, the professor sarcastically uttered, “good luck with that.” Oh bother. Anyway, the tide has changed and more scholars are writing and thinking about Butler and ethics. Moya Loyd writes about it. So do Samuel Chambers and Terrell Carver and Gill Jagger. Butler writes about it here, here, here, and with Catherine Mills and Fiona Jenkins here.

But, even as scholars have begun to think about ethics and Butler, their attention has frequently been on Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself. What about Gender Trouble? Does it have anything to offer to ethics, feminist, queer or otherwise? Or is it part of a different stage in Butler’s thinking? On one hand, I can appreciate the need to turn to other texts. It is true, as Samuel Chambers and Terrell Carver suggest in their introduction to Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics, that an overemphasis on Gender Trouble (which is often the only book that some people think Butler wrote) can obscure our understandings of Butler’s contributions to political [and ethical] thought beyond gender and gender performativity (5). However, failing to consider the ethical import of Gender Trouble could be sending the worrisome (well, at least to me) message that troublemaking/troublestaying, which is first and most directly articulated in Gender Trouble, has no ethical value. And often implied in that message is the idea that engaging in the troubling of gender is something that Butler used to promote–that is before she grew up and turned to more serious matters, like ethics and morality.

This idea that Gender Trouble and troublemaking is immature and therefore unethical raises several questions for me: 1. As Butler (and her work) has grown older, has she matured beyond Gender Trouble and troublemaking? Has she replaced her “childishness” and lack of seriousness (playfulness?) with more weighty matters–like being undone, normative violence, grief?; 2. Does one have to be “serious” and mature (that is, not young and immature) in order to engage in ethics? Can we imagine ethical visions that are not predicated on this equation of  maturity + seriousness = responsible/accountable and ethical?; and 3. Is troublemaking too playful, too immature, and therefore not ethical?

In my own work, I offer a very strong “No!” to this last question. Indeed, I am devoting a huge chunk of this blog to the idea that troublemaking, as a practice and an approach to life, has much to offer to feminist and queer ethical visions/projects. And in my presentation at FEAST I argue that Butler plants the seed for her future work on troublemaking as ethical in Gender Trouble. It is my contention that Butler’s recent work on ethics is not so much a turn to ethics (and a turn away from all that playful/immature performativity of her past) but a return to or maybe an extension of the ethical gesture towards troublemaking/troublestaying that she first makes in the 1990 preface to Gender Trouble.