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

Mourning Becomes the Law

From J Butler’s Mourning Becomes the Law:

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through.  It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement.”

On Being Capacious

Last year, J Butler spoke about the continued need for the humanities. I was particularly drawn to her use of “capacious.”

Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world — in short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and our acting.

To be capacious is to be generous when listening to others’ perspectives, to be willing to take seriously ideas and experiences that we don’t understand or with which we don’t agree. I love the idea of valuing capaciousness. It fits with making and staying in trouble because being capacious (creating/inhabiting roomier, more generous spaces of understanding and engagement) demands that we push ourselves to think deeply and critically, especially about our own actions and ideas.

Judith Butler on debate and academic freedom

Since I’m busy working on my intellectual history project right now, I don’t have time to critically reflect on Judith Butler’s recent remarks to Brooklyn College on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement). But, I wanted to link to it and mention a few passages (bold emphasis is mine) that seem noteworthy and consistent with themes in her work that I’ve been teaching, researching and writing about for years.

on academic freedom and the importance of democratic debate

“The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.”

on exercising critical thinking/judgment

“But I would like briefly to continue with the question, what precisely are we doing here this evening? I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered. In other words, you come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear. These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

not pro or anti but we

“One could be for the BDS movement as the only credible non-violent mode of resisting the injustices committed by the state of Israel without falling into the football lingo of being “pro” Palestine and “anti” Israel. This language is reductive, if not embarrassing. One might reasonably and passionately be concerned for all the inhabitants of that land, and simply maintain that the future for any peaceful, democratic solution for that region will become thinkable through the dismantling of the occupation, through enacting the equal rights of Palestinian minorities and finding just and plausible ways for the rights of refugees to be honored. If one holds out for these three aims in political life, then one is not simply living within the logic of the “pro” and the “anti”, but trying to fathom the conditions for a “we”, a plural existence grounded in equality.”

re-imaging justice

“What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war, ask for a new constellation of political life in which the relations of colonial subjugation are brought to a halt. My wager, my hope, is that everyone’s chance to live with greater freedom from fear and aggression will be increased as those conditions of justice, freedom, and equality are realized. We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together. Perhaps the word “justice” will assume new meanings as we speak it, such that we can venture that what will be just for the Jews will also be just for the Palestinians, and for all the other people living there, since justice, when just, fails to discriminate, and we savor that failure.”

On Chewy Writing

Yesterday, I wrote about my pithy writing as a graduate student. Today, I’m discussing my shift from pithiness to chewiness.

But, slowly and gradually, as I studied more critical theories that challenged claims for clarity, common sense and singular narratives/reading and as I became more immersed in feminist challenges to theorizing in the academy as a Ph.D student at Emory University, my writing style began to shift. Or, at least my understanding of it did. My purpose in writing was no longer simply to clearly explain (or report/summarize) an author’s ideas, raise a few critical questions to those ideas and then tentatively provide my own proposals for future work. Instead, it was about crafting sentences that packed a punch, that pushed the reader to think and question and that required me (as the writer) to devote a lot of attention to processing and reflecting on the ideas and theories that I was writing about. My writing, although still direct and efficient, was becoming increasingly dense and packed with ideas, questions and provocations. It wasn’t just pithy, it was chewy too.


In 2001, I presented at the National Women’s Studies Conference in Minneapolis. Before attending the conference, my dad agreed to read it. My dad was always awesomely supportive of my academic work. Other than my committee, he might the only person that read my dissertation. When he returned it to me, he added the following post-it note: Winner of the 2001 Chewy Bagel Award


I loved that he posted that on my presentation! I can’t remember exactly what he said as an explanation for his award, but his idea that my work was “chewy” stuck with me. After earning my Ph.D and starting to teach and research at the University of Minnesota in 2006, I embraced my chewiness. I often told my students the story about my dad and talked about the importance of writing chewy papers. And, when we encountered a particularly challenging text (like one by Judith Butler or Jasbir Puar), I often opened our class discussion with, “Wow, that was a chewy bagel!”

Chewy writing is dense and requires that both the writer and the reader devote substantial time to thinking through the ideas, theories or experiences that are being written about.Unlike some pithy writing, which is aimed at getting to the point quickly and efficiently so that the reader can easily digest the ideas, chewy writing is aimed at encouraging (or forcing) the reader to stop and engage in slow and careful rumination (chewing) on ideas, words, and claims. Here is what Butler says in “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” about the need for chewiness and how it enables us to patiently and persistently think and reflect:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

A dense, chewy bagel cannot easily be consumed. It requires effort to be eaten. A chewy bagel text is the same way. It is not meant to be easily understood or digested. It demands that we devote some serious time and effort to engaging and processing the ideas that it presents.

For now, I’m a little stumped on how to connect this chewy conversation back to my continued love of pith. And I want to incorporate a discussion of the limits of dense, chewy writing (too time consuming, can turn us into annoying and exhausting over-thinkers, inaccessible) with J Butler’s discussions of difficult writing. I just posted notes from one of my class discussions about it on Undisciplined. I also am debating whether or not to bring in a discussion of the negative connotations of being “pithy”—too easily consumed, flattens complexity, is a buzzword for Bill O’Reilly and in the title of his upcoming book (ugh). 

UPDATE (January 11, 2013): Last night my sister texted me to let me know that it was not my dad who created the post-it note and put it on my presentation; it was my brother-in-law. After exchanging a few texts, we determined that my dad had declared the presentation “a chewy bagel,” and then, as a goof, my brother-in-law created the post-it note. I really appreciate that my sister regularly reads this blog and alerted me to my memory fail. Part of the reason that I’m doing my “giving an account” project is so other people who read my accounts can challenge, correct or contribute to my memories of past experiences and events. While the exact details (facts/Truth) of stories/memories aren’t as important to me as what they’ve come to mean, I still appreciate having a more accurate account of what really happened. It can help me to rethink my understanding of an event or to clarify my perspective.

For example, my sister’s correction is enabling me to reflect some more on my thoughts on being a chewy writer and receiving the chewy bagel award. I can’t remember what I was exactly feeling when my dad told me my presentation was a “chewy bagel.” I probably was a little annoyed. Was that all he said about it? It seems that calling it a chewy bagel could have been a way to dismiss discussing it. I might have also been a little frustrated and filled with resignation. Describing my work as chewy might have been his subtle way of admitting he didn’t understand it and so he was unable to engage with it. I was used to that.

Over the years, many people have been unable to understand my perspective and how I articulate it in my writing. Why? For a long time, I struggled with believing that it was all my fault. I just need to explain it better, I thought. But, as I discuss in my post on pithiness, being clear and direct has never been a problem for me. My teachers consistently praised me for my clarity, economy of words, and ability to zero in on the most important points of an argument. Now, I still accept responsibility when others don’t understand me, but I also recognize that their failure to understand could also be a resistance to my work and ideas. Maybe they don’t want to try to understand it because of the trouble it might cause to their ideas/ways of being or because the perspective that I have is so radically different from theirs? Maybe they don’t have time to understand what I’m writing because it’s too dense and demands that they stop and think (ruminate) for longer than they’d like?

But, since my memory seems to fail me so much, I can’t remember what my reaction to my dad was or the various reasons why he labeled my presentation “a chewy bagel.” I do believe that his feedback was intended to be useful and not dismissive. On a certain level, it doesn’t matter. I like writing chewy bagels. And I like embracing labels (like chewy) that others might interpret as negative or dismissive. My blog is about making trouble and my online identity is Undisciplined, after all.