Living and Grieving beside J Butler

My mom died last year on September 30, 2009. Diagnosed with an especially nasty form of cancer, pancreatic, back in October of 2005, she had defied the odds by living for four years–that’s 3 1/2 years longer than was expected.

When she was diagnosed, I was pregnant with my second child and was frantically trying to finish up the final chapter of my dissertation. That chapter was about feminist virtue ethics and Judith Butler’s work in both Precarious Life and Undoing Gender on the livable life. I wrote part of it on my laptop at the hospital while the doctors were attempting to remove my mom’s tumor (and half of her stomach). My dissertation chapter was not on grief; it was on life and how to live.  And my reading of Butler was not motivated by my recent entry into the state of impending loss–my realization of how I was undone by my mom’s not-yet-death,  but by my urgent need to make sense of what kind of life my mom could expect to have if she lived past this risky surgery.

By the time my mom died in 2009, I had spent a lot of time living with Butler. I had read, written about, presented on, and taught Precarious Life and Undoing Gender many times. And as I had watched my mom slowly, and then rapidly, deteriorate I had thought about the livable life and how she was able to hold on to so much of it for so long even as it was being stripped away from her in many big and small ways. As she refused (or was unable) to die that last six months of her life, after the second round of chemo made her too weak to even walk, I thought about Butler and I wondered about the value and limits of grieving and staying in a state of grief for too long. I even wrote about it here on this blog.

In many ways, Judith Butler has been a part of my living with and grieving the death of my mom. It is not so much that her work has comforted me (although it has), or allowed me to fully make sense of my mom’s illnesses and death (what could, really?), but that her work has always been a part of this process for me. When my mom was diagnosed I was reading and writing about Precarious Life. When my mom died I had just completed (but couldn’t give) the draft of a presentation on Butler, Undoing Gender, and the virtue of staying in trouble. And for much of the time in-between those years of diagnosis and death I was reading and thinking about Butler and making and staying in trouble.

What, you may ask, is the significance of this confession (or story or account?)? I need to think about that question some more. And I hope to write about it throughout the summer. For right now, I feel compelled to mention this connection because I randomly came across a special cluster on grief and pedagogy in the journal, Feminist Teacher. In that cluster was a moving essay by Blaise Astra Parker entitled “Losing Jay: A Meditation on Teaching While Grieving.” At the beginning of the essay, Parker recounts her experiences reading and teaching Undoing Gender in a summer seminar, “Reading Judith Butler,” which took place right after the death of her partner. Discussing the first chapter of the book, which is about mourning, she writes:

Suddenly, strangely, I was reading Butler writing about me. My physical condition–“I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why” (18), and my emotional turmoil–“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something…” (19).

In the midst of grieving for her loss while teaching, Parker finds in Butler a resource for describing her experiences of coming undone and losing all control over her body and her emotions. My experiences with reading, teaching and thinking about Butler are different, yet this essay speaks to me, conjuring up emotions and thoughts about my mom, grieving, teaching while grieving (I taught my feminist pedagogies class on the day my mom died). And it makes me wonder, Just how does Butler fits into all of this? How has her work, particularly her ideas about the livable life and grieving, affected how I have reacted to and dealt with the impending and then eventual loss of my mom? And what do I mean by making the title of this essay, “living and grieving beside j butler”?  More to come…

5 thoughts on “Living and Grieving beside J Butler”

  1. Wow. I’m glad I thought to wander back to your blog in order to form some thoughts on queering The Brady Bunch– but that’s not why I’m typing so quickly now.

    Thank you so much for sharing these experiences so openly on your blog. I’m always fascinated by the ways we as readers may be undone by Butler, but I must admit that I’ve probably always thought of it almost exclusively in terms of (trans)gender… that is, I’ve been notably influenced by experiences of reading Butler as a trans-identified person and “reading Butler writing about me” in at least a couple of (gendered) senses. Unlike the trans scholars that we know take so much issue with Butler and then dissect the text for error, I get quite inspired to spin-off some trouble. So, maybe I’m the “gender-transgressing and body-shifting beside j butler” to your “living and grieving beside j butler.” In any event, there seems to be a lot of exploring where you’re going.

    I’m not sure this makes any sense, but I suspect that there are plenty of folks who would find no comfort in Butler, or think of wading through such dense language as part of the process of their own life and death and those of the beings around them. But by taking life and grieving beside Butler as you seem to have, I think you have another way to bring together trouble and care (a venture I enjoy very much). To care about those close to us. To trouble the separability of bodies and beings. To become undone by one another.

    Does Butler also come in and interrogate what lives are grievable? What could it mean to grieve for lives to which we DON’T see immediate connections? Are we undone in ways we may not even consciously understand?

    I’m excited to see some answers to some of your questions. More questions would also do.

  2. Thanks Remy for your response and your great questions. After next week, I hope to devote some serious attention to answering and asking more questions about this. Maybe we should devote some time to it next semester too?

  3. Oh, I really hope we can work with more of these questions next semester! Once I dig my way out of finals, I’m going to ponder more what would be fun to read… but I will say I have J Butler’s Frames of War and am hoping to explore it sometime. It has barely been cracked open.

  4. I’m so happy to hear that my article about Jay’s death and my subsequent struggles was compelling to you as well, and how interesting (though not surprising, at least to me) that another person experienced a relationship with Butler’s work as part of the grieving process.

    I stumbled across this while vanity googling and it really made my day. I would be happy to talk more about this via email if you’re interested… I am not good about returning to comments, but I left my email addy for you. Write me if you’d like! And thanks for your kind words. 🙂

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