I’m presenting this Saturday at the Midwest Society for Women in Philosophy tomorrow. I really enjoy going to/presenting at Midwest SWIP. I receive lots of great feedback and have some great conversations. I’m particularly excited about presenting this time because I have been working on my project on troublemaking and virtue for too long and I’m ready to get it out there so I can push it further and get it ready for publishing.
Warning: This presentation is LONG–so long that I might have to start a new tag: ridiculously ridiculously long entries. It’s over 6500 words!
This presentation is part of the mash-up series that I started way back in June. It includes parts of several different entries about virtue, troublemaking, Foucault and Butler. I hope you enjoy it!
Troublemaking as a Virtue?
Reading the Ethical Significance of Gender Trouble through Aristotle and Foucault
Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble).
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)
(Judith Butler, “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”).
What should we make of these passages? And how are they connected? The former, which is one of the opening lines to Gender Trouble, seems to exemplify Judith Butler’s early work on gender performativity and her playful desire to trouble the (gender) establishment. While the latter, a brief aside at the end of an essay on Foucault written ten years later, seems to foreshadow the increased interest in ethics that is present in much of Butler’s post 9/11 work. I juxtapose these passages because together they serve as one potentially fruitful way in which to think about the ethical significance of trouble: making it, being in it and staying in it.
With her statement about trouble in Gender Trouble, Butler makes an ethical gesture towards the value of making and being in trouble. This gesture, which was largely ignored (by critics and in Butler’s work) throughout the 1990s, was finally taken up explicitly by Butler in her writing after 9/11. In taking up the gesture, Butler doesn’t link it to her passage about rehabilitating Aristotle through Foucault. Instead, she reads it primarily through Levinas and his language of responsibility and non-violence. But what might happen if we connect these two passages and envision the former, a gesture towards the dignity of troublemaking, as being read through the latter, a rumination about the possible value of Aristotle and virtue ethics? What if we imagined the claim that trouble is a task that we need to learn how best to make as a project for virtue ethics? In other words, what if we thought about troublemaking as a virtue? What are the implications for how we understand virtue ethics and the ethical significance of troublemaking (and troublestaying)?
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, 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 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. It is this project that Butler has taken up in her work on an ethics of non-violence that she reads, at least partially, through Levinas and against Habermas. The second project is concerned with exploring what is demanded of us as moral selves as we strive to stay in trouble. Although still present in her work, this second project has not been explicitly taken up by Butler. After discussing Butler’s ethical gesture and her larger vision of troublemaking, I will argue that the second project is equally important and is best read through Butler’s brief aside about Aristotle and Foucault and her larger argument about virtue in “What is Virtue? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue.”
Before moving into my discussion, I want to take a minute to explain the structure of this essay. My first part takes a more traditional form; it was always intended for an academic audience and it is a product of several years of critically working through the implications of Butler’s work for ethics within (mostly) traditionally academic spaces. The second part of this essay, the part on Butler, Foucault and virtue as critique, is culled from my research/writing/thinking blog, making/being in/staying in: Trouble. Much of what is written in this section was originally posted, for a wide audience of academics/non-academics alike, on that blog in several entries, including: “Judith Butler wants us to disobey. Why? Exactly,” “Once More with Feeling: Aristotle Remix” and “My 100th Post, or the Winner of the Chewy Bagel Award for 2010”
Part One: The Ethical Gesture in Gender Trouble
Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble).
At first glance, Butler’s promotion of troublemaking in Gender Trouble 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” (Undoing Gender, 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. I want to rethink the significance of her 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.
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” (Undoing Gender, 225). It is about working to open up the category of human to be more inclusive. And, it is about ethics and asking, “what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable” and possible and livable (Undoing Gender, 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 or 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 and is, in fact, central to much of Butler’s recent ethics work (in Precarious Life, Giving an Account of Oneself, and Frames of War: What Makes Life Grievable).
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. Butler’s ethical gesture towards the value of troublemaking is not just about making and being in trouble (or about the most effective ways to do it), 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—that is, 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 make, be in and stay in trouble. This project is not concerned with developing the best possible practices of troublemaking, even as those projects need to be developed and are necessarily connected to how we understand our moral selfhood in concrete situations and practices.1 Instead, this project is about reflecting on what moral resources we might draw upon to help us resist the urge to shore up our unknowingness and assert our “truths” in violent ways and what type of character we must cultivate in order to embrace “unknowingness at the core of what we know, and what we need…” (Undoing Gender, 227).
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 and situations with a troublemaking spirit or ethos. One potentially fruitful way to think about this troublemaking and troublestaying spirit is as a 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 shapes our ethical and political development. Thinking about troublemaking as a virtue encourages us to ask after how we should live (as opposed to what we should do) 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.
Troublemaking is not easily defined by a practice or set of practices. It is an approach–a critical/attentive/curious approach–to life and to ideas, beliefs, and practices. As a result, we cannot simply say that the ethical value of troublemaking is found in this or that practice. Instead, we need to talk about how our way of engaging in any given practice–are we aware of the limits of that practice, are we attentive to the effects of that practice on others, are we open to other ways of practicing?–enables us to be more or less virtuous. This approach allows for a more expansive definition of what counts as troublemaking because it is not reduced to any practice or practices, and provides for the opportunity to think through how a wide range of practices might be or might not be troublemaking in a virtuous sense.
Thinking about troublemaking as an attitude or approach to one’s actions, does not suggest that becoming someone who engages in virtuous troublemaking and troublestaying is as easy as “changing your attitude.” When we link the idea of attitude with character, excellence and virtue, we can see that troublemaking as a virtue is not something that we easily and immediately are able to do. Instead it requires tremendous effort: training, repeated practice (habit) and the striving for a balance between being deficient and excessive in one’s troublemaking practices.
But, wait: troublemaking as a virtue? How do we get from trouble to virtue? Doesn’t troublemaking (and disrupting, unsettling, resisting) run counter to ethics? Isn’t the aim of much troublemaking (daring to be bad) in opposition to ethics and its command to be good? In the second section of this presentation, I want to consider what troublemaking as a virtue might look like by turning to Butler’s analysis of Foucault and virtue in “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue.” It is in this essay that Butler utters her confession about being intrigued by the possibility of rehabilitating Aristotle.
Part Two: Staying in Trouble as a Virtue
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) Judith Butler, “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue”).
This passage comes towards the end of Butler’s essay on Foucault and the virtue of critique. What I find most significant about it is not how it raises the possibility of rehabilitating Aristotle through Foucault, but how it signals a call to imagine troublemaking-as-critique in relation to virtue ethics. While Butler claims in this confession to only be intrigued but not invested in virtue ethics, she still manages to lay some useful groundwork via Foucault for how we might re-imagine virtue in the context of troublemaking.
Butler’s essay on Foucault’s “What is Critique?,” which was originally a lecture given in 2000, then revised and published in 2002, foreshadows her explicit turn to ethics. Indeed, in this essay Butler aims to demonstrate how Foucault’s ideas of critique and the critical attitude, ideas that figure prominently in her work, have important ethical and political value. Her demonstration involves rethinking critique and then linking it explicitly to a vision of virtue as the practices of making the self into one-who-doesn’t obey.
First, Butler offers up some ways in which critique is often understood…
- as a judgment
- as a way of evaluating ideas or norms
- as centered on fault-finding
- as distanced from actual practices
…and then contrasts those ways with how Foucault envisions it:
- as the suspending of judgment
- as only realized in concrete situations and practices
- as aimed at exposing the very framework of evaluating good/bad, right/wrong, productive/unproductive
Then, she takes up the claim that critique is (a) virtue. She offers three preliminary ways to think about virtue in relation to Foucault and critique:
1. Virtue is about an attribute or a practice of a subject OR a quality that conditions and characterizes a certain kind of action or practice (308)
So, it is an approach or an attitude. A quality of character. A practice/set of practices. This disposition and/or practices determine the ethical quality/value of a subject or a practice.
2. It is not only a way of complying with/conforming to norms, but a critical relation to those norms (308)
It enables us to do something different with norms. We have a critical relation to them. This is different from blindly/faithfully/properly following them. It is also different from wholly rejecting/ignoring/denying them.
3. It is a stylization of morality (308)
This suggests that ethics is concerned with how we engage in practice/practices and not how we follow rules. And it is concerned with the repeated/deliberate practices involved in crafting a moral self.
This critical relation to norms is about not fully complying with those norms and about questioning their validity and their limits. This questioning is not meant to merely refuse or resist a norm–in the case of this essay, Foucault positions his argument in relation to the norms of governmentality/what it means to be governed, or “how not to be governed” (312). Instead, a critical relation to the norm (to being governed) is to ask after why one is governed in such a way and “how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like that, not for that, not by them” (Butler, 312).
For Butler, raising these questions concerning how not to be governed goes beyond calling out a form of being governed as invalid; it marks the limits of how governing is established and calls into question “the epistemological orderings that have established rules of governmental validity” (313). In other words, to question the rules of governmentality is to do more than find fault with that particular rule (a “traditional” role of critique); it is to question and expose how governmentality has been ordered in a particular historical/cultural moment. And it is to open up a space for critically exploring how the system of rules is ordered and how that ordering shapes the very subjects that are governed.
A critical relation to norms is not just a rejection of or a judgment against those norms. Throughout his work, Foucault discusses a number of reasons why he isn’t interested in rejection or judgment. First, he doesn’t think that one can ever fully reject and be free of norms because it is through those norms that we come to exist (and be produced) as subjects; to reject those norms is to reject the terms “within which existence will and will not be possible” (314). Second, he dislikes how judgment usually takes the form of polemics that discourage thought and prevent engagement with ideas and with each other. Finally, he is not interested in determining what is good or bad because that type of judgment shuts down action.
So, instead of rejection or judgment, a critical relation to norms is about something else. It is about virtue as “a non-prescriptive form of inquiry” (308) that is not based on rules or on training one’s character to properly submit to those rules, but on cultivating/crafting a self in response to those rules (a response that makes possible a critical relation to those rules). Foucault’s idea of virtue is about the “the art [stylizations/repetitions] of not being governed, or, better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost” (312).
Foucault and Butler want to distance their version of virtue from obedience to rules and the idea that virtue/virtue ethics is the training of one’s character so that it properly (and effortlessly) conforms to the standard/norm of what is “good” or what leads to happiness. Instead, they envision the practice of virtue to be concerned with the transformation of the self into a person who not only questions the rules, but who questions their own relation to the rules and persistently asks:
- How have I been produced in relation to those rules?
- How do these rules determine whether my life is possible or not?
- How might I live otherwise in relation to these rules?
Here’s how Butler asks these questions:
What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose world is legitimated as real? Who can I become in such a world where the meanings and limits of the subject are set out in advance for me? By what norms am I constrained as I begin to ask what I may become? And what happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place within the given regime of truth (314-315)?
The key here (and the key, I think, for my own ideas about why troublemaking is a virtue and why virtue ethics are important for envisioning projects like Butler’s as ethical projects) is that a critical relation to norms or being critical of authority necessarily demands the transformation of the self into one-who-doesn’t obey or one-who-questions. Butler writes: “To be critical of an authority that poses as absolute requires a critical practice that has self-transformation at its core” (311). Transforming one’s self into one who questions or who refuses to accept authority as absolute requires training that self through repeated practice (habit) of questioning and interrogating the limits of that authority. Butler describes this repeated practice in terms of Foucault and his idea of “the art of voluntary insubordination” or the styling of the self, through the cultivation of a particular set of practices, into someone who resists and thinks otherwise.
Butler wants to distinguish the art of insubordination from other forms of practicing virtue and virtue ethics (like Aristotle). She suggests that Foucault’s stylization of the self is not done by an autonomous self who can easily or fully reject authority or whose ability to resist can be derived from an autonomous will or some inner essence that is free of the power that she resists. The person who transforms themselves into one who resists/who questions/who doesn’t accept authority as absolute does so within a limited frame of what is knowable/livable/acceptable/recognizable, and they risk a lot in the process. Their habits of voluntary insubordination position them precariously, at the limits of knowing, where their insubordination has the potential to render them unintelligible as a subject/self. This risky process produces a self in which being crafted (as in, being formed through rules/norms) and crafting (as in, transforming self into one who doesn’t obey) are not easily (or ever fully) distinguished. Yet is through this risky process that the self opens up space for being in relation to norms differently—not as one who merely accepts, but as one who resists, questions, and never simply obeys.
So, to recap: For Foucault via Butler, virtue is: an attitude/approach, a critical relation to norms (not a rejection, not simply following), and a set of stylizations/repeated practices. These practices are risky and they place us in a precarious position. As a result, the goal of engaging in these practices is not reassurance; developing a critical attitude and maintaining a critical relation to norms will not give us the right or proper answer for how (or even why) to act. Instead, these risky practices are intended to do something else—to open up a critical relation to norms and to cultivate spaces of resistance to merely following those norms. And, they have the potential to do one other important thing, particularly in terms of my project of staying in trouble as a virtue: these repeated practices can enable us to shape/craft our moral selfhood—we can become selves-who-don’t-obey. In this way, our critical relation to norms/ideas is not found in brief/fleeting moments, but in our repeated and daily habits of resistance, questioning and not-obeying. This move to promote the ethical importance of not merely obeying norms demands that we re-imagine what ethics should do (or what we should do with ethics).
While Butler describes how Foucault understands this critical relation and refusing to obey as virtue, she is reluctant to claim it as virtue herself. Instead, she offers her brief confession about rehabilitating Aristotle without ever taking it up. But, what if we read her more recent work, the “more ethical” work through Aristotle via Foucault (at least her version of Foucault in “What is Critique?”)? And what if we used the virtue of staying in trouble as a way to think about Gender Trouble and troublemaking ethically? What sort of ethical project could we imagine?
Having almost run out of time in my presentation, I can only provide some brief thoughts about this ethical project. In various ways my research on troublemaking takes up this project as I explore the larger ethical vision that should/could undergird virtuous troublemaking. Central to this ethical vision are explorations of: 1. troublemaking as a form of curiosity-as-care, 2. how to read flourishing beside the bearable/livable/good life and against happiness, and 3. moral education and asking questions. Instead of a conclusion, I want to end my presentation by offering up a few thoughts about the moral value of asking questions, which I consider to be one important habit (repeated practice/stylization) of staying in trouble that contributes to the development of our moral selfhood. My discussion comes from a blog entry that I wrote about Butler and the issues of dis-obedience and self-making entitled, “Judith Butler wants us to disobey. Why? Exactly.”
In a recent interview, Butler talks about disobedience and how we can shift from being obedient subjects who willingly accept and follow the rules/regulations by those in power to being critical thinkers who, through the process of questioning and wondering, become disobedient troublemakers. She writes:
But in the moment we begin to ask ourselves about the legitimacy of this power we become critical, we adopt a point of view that is not completely shaped by the state and we question ourselves about the limits of the demands that can be placed on us. And if I am not wholly formed by this power of the state, in what way am I, or might I be, formed? Asking yourself this question means you are already beginning to form yourself in another way, outside this relation with the state, so critical thought distances you to some extent…Many people ask about the basis on which Foucault establishes this resistance to power. What he is saying to us is that in the practice of critical thought we are forming ourselves as subjects, through resistance and questioning.
So, when we begin to ask about why the rules exist as they do, we create a critical distance from those rules. This distance enables us to (occasionally or more frequently) resist those rules and it also prevents us from being completely shaped by them (or in the shadow of them) into good little obedient people/subjects/citizens. Instead of being overly influenced by the rules, we can be shaped by our questioning of them into critical thinkers who disobey and never merely accept anything without questioning it once or twice or three times, etc.
Here Butler is linking disobedience with critical thinking and turning the simple asking of “why” into an act of resistance. The mere (or not so mere) act of wondering why something is the way that it is or why it isn’t any other way opens up distance between you and the things (like regulatory power) that shape you. It gives you an “outside” perspective from which to reflect on your own experiences. And it allows for the possibility of an alternative idea of the subject/self–not as one who is wholly constructed by the norms and regulations that surround us and give us meaning but as one who is constructed as a being-in-resistance, a self-who-questions.
Here, let me explain that idea in another way. Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful. No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-making—a ha, here’s where virtue comes in and the crafting of the self through repeated practice.
Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time—those habits of questioning!
Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents and teachers and other adults, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.
The “why?” is our chance to disobey (more precisely, to not obey) and to make a claim as someone who questions, who resists being fed easy answers, who is willing to make trouble and stay in trouble for the sake of learning and understanding more. Of course, the asking of “why” is not enough to transform the world or to topple unjust ideologies and institutions. But, it is a good start. And, it is something that almost all of us do—or at least used to do, when we were kids–all of the time. Many of us are taught (directly or indirectly) that asking “why” is tedious, disruptive and only productive up to a point. What would a moral education that took asking questions seriously look like? What would an ethical project that imagined the critically questioning of norms (through asking why) as productive and central to our moral development?
Congratulations! You made it all the way through my presentation (all 40 minutes of it!). Just as an aside: I am trying something new for this presentation: I plan to read the whole thing off of my iPad. I “published” the presentation and put it into iBooks. I will try to comment on how it worked out.