How to ask some questions the Butler way

Ahmed, Sara. Interview with Judith Butler.

Sara Ahmed asks: What kind of questions, concerns, interests, directions would for you be the ones that would keep Queer Studies alive as a project?

Judith Butler responds: Here are some questions that I think are really important*:

  1. How do we understand those desires that we might call abiding, persistent, and that for many define their basic sense of self?
  2. How do we even understand that basic sense of self, when it exists or when it struggles to exist?
  3. How is that sense formed, and when does it take hold, if it does?
  4. Under what conditions is it dismantled or even shattered?
  5. And how do we live in ways that request that this sense of self, these abiding and obdurate desires, be recognized?
  6. How do we account for those whose experience of desire does not ‘settle’ in this way, so that either desire may contest a basic sense of self or may establish the self as changeable or alterable?
  7. How do we tell the stories about how we came upon our desires, how we came to negotiate the basic ways in which both gender and sexuality were ‘assigned’ against our will at the same time that we insist on the enduring or bedrock quality of the category that describes who we have become?
  8. How do we still value becoming without losing track of what grounds and defines us? How much of our self-definition is found and how much is made, and under what conditions do new naming practices offer us a chance to be who we wish to be?
  9. How do we think about the doubleness of the self that wants to be who it is?
  10. Is that doubleness fully overcome when we say that we have arrived and that we are now that being what we always wanted to be?
  11. What lingering disappointments or doubts follow, and are we still living when we have decided on who we are? How can a sense of living be preserved within the terms of decision, so that ‘deciding’ does not put an end to the processual quality of life?
  12. Conversely, if we never decide who we are, are we at risk of becoming dispersed in ways that make life unlivable?
  13. How do we think about those self-naming and self-defining practices that take place in concert with others in a world in which the language we use is itself in a process of change?
  14. What if we shift the question from ‘who do I want to be?’ to the question, ‘what kind of life do I want to live with others?’?
  15. It seems to me that then many of the questions you pose about happiness, but perhaps also about ‘the good life’ – very ancient yet urgent philosophical questions – take shape in a new way. If the I who wants this name or seeks to live a certain kind of life is bound up with a ‘you’ and a ‘they’ then we are already involved in a social struggle when we ask how best any of us are to live. It is of course especially difficult to ask this last question, what kind of life do I want to live with others, if the life that we are seeking to live is not regarded as a life at all?
  16. How do these philosophical desires become compromised or complicated if a life is considered a non-life under regimes of racism?
  17. How do we account for the experience of someone crossing national borders only to find that they are racialized in ways that never existed before? A sudden, unexpected interpellation.
  18. How does the issue of race divide those queer activists and writers who ally with struggles against racism, nationalism, war, and occupation from those who think that queer ought to become its own identity, its own discipline, and so differentiated from these other concerns and struggles? It seems to me that queer has to be part of the weave of a broadening struggle.
  19. Important also is to ask: Whose stories do we read, and how important might the story be in telling a history, in explaining how science changes, or in making clear how a philosophical concept works, or can work?
  20. How do we think about bringing feminism into a closer relation with queer and trans and with anti-racist struggles, without letting those who conduct transphobic diatribes monopolize the meaning of feminism, or those who continue to believe that feminists must defend themselves against the claims of cultural difference?
  21. Can we still own queer – or any of these terms – without letting them monopolize difference, allowing for a certain movement of thought that is grateful to its critics for letting us think something new, that is glad to be in the mix of emerging alliance and not the ultimate sign of its unity?


Note: Butler’s questions are not in list form in the published interview. But, because I’m into lists these days, I wanted to put them in that form. Click “continue reading” to read the text as it was published. Back to text.

Continue reading How to ask some questions the Butler way

What Do You Mean?

In a powerful post about microagressions and casual racism at the dinner table, Nicole Chung discusses her troubling and conflicted feelings about how to respond when a guest asks her a racist question while at a dinner party with mostly friends and family. After reflecting on what to do, she poses the question:

Do I really want to force all the people at this table to choose sides in the ultimately unwinnable “was or wasn’t it racist” debate?

Ultimately she decides to do nothing but shrug off the question. Her response haunts her:

When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?

The comments to this post were almost all positive and supportive. Many included discussions of how they struggled with similar experiences or strategies for handling future racist questions and comments. I was particularly struck by Loren_Ipsum’s technique of persistently asking, “What Do you Mean?”:

I wanted to share one satisfying method I’ve found to dealing with them: say, politely, “What do you mean?” and repeat it as necessary. Because, eventually, the person will have to articulate aloud those asshole beliefs — all Asian people look the same, all women are inherently dumber, etc. — that they’d only implied before. And once they do that, it’s much easier for you (and others) to respond with “what on earth is wrong with you?” without seeming like the bad guy. Or the person will give up in frustration, and that’s a win too?

What do you mean? I like this question. I think I’ll add it to my list of questions that one should ask on a regular basis, along with Why? and At whose expense?

Another important “why” question: “why not?”

note: I wrote this post in the last week of September, but never finished it. It’s still not completely finished, but I wanted to post it anyway.

This blog post is inspired by my visit to FWA’s 3rd grade classroom last week. In one corner, the teacher has posted a quotation from George Bernard Shaw:

Some look at things that are and ask “why?”. I dream of things that never were and ask, “why not?”.

At first when I saw this quotation, I was a little annoyed. I like the question “why?” a lot. And I’ve written about its value a lot on this blog (like here and here, for example). Asking “why” is crucial to being curious about the world and to refusing to uncritically accept “common sense” assumptions about the world and how it functions. Asking why can give us critical distance from those ideas/ideologies that shape and regulate our behaviors. Why can encourage us to ask questions and to be open to other ways of being and doing. So, why diss on “why”?

Having spent a little time reflecting on this quotation, I’m not as bothered by it. In fact, I really like Shaw’s promotion of imagining other worlds and ways of being. To me, it speaks to our need to be creative and imaginative and encourages us to develop the skills for transforming our worlds in ways that could potentially make them better (more just, more beautiful, more caring). But, I wonder, why does the critical (the “why”) have to be in opposition to the creative (the “why not”)? In my own work/life/practices, I’m currently struggling with putting my critical and creative spirits together—or least finding ways to put them beside each other. Maybe I should explore this struggle in the winter, when I have more time to write?

feeling trouble and troubled in the classroom, part one

Way back in May, before the intense heat and the unexpected canceling of kids’ camp sessions, I (too) optimistically promised to post a lot about my pedagogy this summer. Ha! Oh well, I still have the month of August. Once I work out some technical details, I hope to add a page here with lectures, syllabi, assignments, etc. For now, I want to start by articulating my feminist pedagogy of troublemaking. I am doing this partly because I want to have a clear and well thought-out teaching/troublemaking statement on this blog, and also in preparation for an article that I am submitting for consideration in a special issue on pedagogy.

Since I’m having some difficulty starting this process (I think I’ve spent so much time thinking/writing/teaching about troublemaking in the classroom that I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of articulating it in a succinct and concrete way), I thought I would use this blog entry to help me out. I frequently find that blog writing, which encourages me to just start writing (and ramblin’), frees me up to write a lot and helps me to formulate my thesis and framework for a more formal essay.


  • CURIOSITY (more than confrontation)
  • UNDISCIPLINED (sometimes unruly)


  • bell hooks (talking back, teaching as practice of freedom, engaged pedagogy, need for critical awareness/consciousness)
  • Paulo Freire (problem-posing pedagogy, pedagogy of asking questions)
  • Kevin Kumashiro (troubling education)
  • Megan Boler (pedagogy of discomfort)
  • Suzanne Luhman (quering/querying pedagogy)
  • Judith Butler (of course)
I think this passage speaks to some of my key pedagogical aims. It’s from Freire’s Learning to question:

I want my students to not only learn how to ask questions, but to develop the habit/virtue of asking questions. This development requires not just learning how best to ask questions, but also how best to feel (experience) “the force of the question and the challenge it offers.” To effectively feel the force of the question, one needs to learn more than how to make trouble, but how to stay in that space/moment that trouble creates. My approach to assignments, discussions, readings is frequently motivated by my interest in giving students tools for both creating and inhabiting troubling spaces. On a side note, thanks to my use of the word “force,” the theme from Star Wars is now going through my head. 

So, why should students (and teachers) stay in troubling spaces? Freire argues that asking questions and being curious enables us to resist the banking model of education in which passive students receive knowledge transmitted by teachers. It also enables us to engage in praxis where we critically and collectively reflect on the connections between our words and actions.


  • few lectures…lots of online lectures as blog posts
  • huge blog/twitter component
  • ask lots of questions without giving answers
  • devote time to reading about/reflecting on feminist/queer pedagogical practices of curiosity and unknowingness
  • put together readings that don’t offer easy assessments and that offer messy (and sometimes conflicting) perspectives
  • develop assignments that not only emphasize engaging with other students (and collectively producing new knowledge), but making visible and documenting that process on the blog (diablog) and (Queer This!)
  • develop assignments that encouraged students to be curious (this is a feminist issue because…)
  • frequently pick readings/topics that are new to me too…creates teacher discomfort
  • pushing to make ideas/readings/class connected to everyday experiences (how? need to think about that more)

*a tentative list. I need to spend a lot more time thinking through this…

Can asking “why?” lead to resistance and social transformation?

For some time now, I have been interested in thinking through the potential ethical and political value of asking “why.” Cultivating selves/communities who persistently ask “why” (along with “at whose expense”) is a central part of my own feminist ethico-political project. Recently I came across a children’s story, “Why?” from Fairy Tales for Workers’ Children (1925). I found the story in the recent (and totally awesome) edited collection of Radical Children’s Literature from Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel: tales for little rebels. When I first wrote this paragraph, I incorrectly identified the book as tales from little rebels. Wouldn’t that be a cool book? Tales of resistance from little kids? Hmm…what would that look like? I’m sure that kids could have a lot to say about rebellion and resistance…and a lot that they could teach us (well, at least me).

Since the inception of this research/writing/thinking/engaging blog back in May 2009, I have positioned my vision/version of troublemaking beside (in relation to) kids; much of my work is inspired by my desire to make sense of my own experiences as a troublemaking kid (and the experiences of my daughter whose image serves as the mascot for this blog). It is also inspired by a desire to develop methods for promoting feminst curiosity and wonder in children. I think that this edited collection for little rebels might be an excellent resource as I continue to think through my project/s.

Before moving into a discussion of the story, “Why?,” here are a few passages from the introduction of the collection that I would like to spend more time reflecting on in some future post:

On the difference between politics and morality: Children’s literature is necessarily involved in both morality (making distinctions between right and wrong) and politics (which are about the power to effect change). Teaching children to obey a higher authority may be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson (1).

On the presence of politics in children’s literature: For those who would argue that politics have no place in children’s literature, we maintain that there is no way to keep politics out. Stories that uphold the status quo (arguably the majority of works published for children) may not seem political, but they represent efforts to teach children that the current social, political, economic, and environmental orders are as they should be (2).

What sort of literature is appropriate for children? What responsibility do adults have to children to keep them informed about critical issues of the day, such as global warming, terrorism, political corruption, and corporate greed? At what point must an ideal of “protection” end and one of preparation necessarily begin (5)?

So much that I want to discuss here in terms of how to distinguish between ethics and politics (and whether or not we even should); how to create/bear witness to stories for kids that don’t perpetuate the status quo; and how to think about the roles of protection and preparation in children’s literature (are these the only roles)?

Now, onto the story: “Why” from Fairy Tales for Worker’s Children (1925). This story is the first one in Mickenberg and Nel’s section on Imagination.

Once upon a time there lived a little boy named Paul who had no mother or father. He was very curious and liked to ask “why” all of the time. He was also very poor and never had enough food to eat. All of the people in the town were very old and very unhappy; they really didn’t like Paul always asking “why” and trying to figure out the cause of everything. The Matron would say: “You mustn’t always ask why. Everything is as it is, and therefore is right” (141).

Here’s a passage that I particularly liked: “Keep quiet, you good-for-nothing! Leave me alone with your eternal questions.” The fat woman was quite red with anger, because she knew no answer to Paul’s questions, and nothing angers ignorant persons more than to be forced to say, “I don’t know” (141).

…back to the story. One day, after asking too many questions and being slapped for it, Paul runs away.

First he runs to the chicken yard and happens upon the chickens just as they were laying eggs. Paul asks a hen, “where do all of your eggs go to?” After being told that all of the eggs go to the rich people in the city, Paul asks: “Why don’t I ever have an egg?” When the hen replies that he is a “poor Have-nothing” Paul asks, “Why am I a poor Have-nothing?” Angered by his bothersome questions, the hen shoos him away.

Second he runs to a cowshed where he happens upon the cows. He asks one of the cows for some milk. When the cow declines, explaining that the milk belongs to the farmer and that it will be sent to the city for rich people to drink, Paul ask, “Do the poor children there get any of the milk?” The cow chastises him, describing how the milk will be used for making delicious whipped cream for cakes and puddings for the rich. When Paul wonders if the poor children will get these treats too, the cow tells him to stop asking so many questions and to go away before the farmer comes and beats him.

Third he runs to a wheat field. Paul pesters the wheat about who will get to eat the bread that is made from them. When he is again told that the food is for rich people he exclaims, “Ah, again the rich people! Does everything in this world belong to the rich people?” When the ears of wheat softly buzz, “everything, everything,” Paul cries, “WHY?” They laugh at him for asking such a stupid question.

By this time Paul, who is near tears, angrily demands an answer to his questions. He is told to seek out the Owl for answers. The Owl happens to be a mean and imperious She–are Owls usually gendered as “she”? This Owl seems to represent tradition and knowledge here. Reminds me of an earlier entry I wrote about the Sour Kangaroo in Horton Hears a Who as the bearer of tradition and that which gets in the way of innovation, change and critical thinking. The only other wise Owls I can think of are the male Owls in Winnie the Pooh and the “how many licks?” commercial.

Anyway, the Owl, who doesn’t want to “waste her precious time on such a stupid child as Paul,” is too busy focusing all of her attention on a more important question, “Why are people so stupid?” She is particularly interested in examining why poor people, who work very hard, yet never seem to get anywhere, are so stupid. She is not interested in talking with Paul about his questions, and sends him away.

Totally depressed, Paul sinks down in the ground. Suddenly a fairy asks him, “why are you crying my child?” When Paul laments how lonely and sad he is because he seems to be the only person who ever wonders why, the fairy comforts him and tells him that if he listens really closely, he will hear poor people all over the world repeatedly asking why. Here are a few of her comments from page 145:

With her final statements I think the fairy is offering one answer to the question I pose in the title of this entry: Can asking “why?” lead to resistance and social transformation? Yes, potentially, with the help of consciousness-raising and collective awareness. I have a few issues with this story (singular focus on class, reliance on older woman as perpetuators of status quo–the old lady who laughs at Paul, the hen, the wise Owl), but I do appreciate the connections that it draws between curiosity, education and justice. I think I want to read this story to my kids to see what they think. Hmmm….

More links to check out: