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*:
- How do we understand those desires that we might call abiding, persistent, and that for many define their basic sense of self?
- How do we even understand that basic sense of self, when it exists or when it struggles to exist?
- How is that sense formed, and when does it take hold, if it does?
- Under what conditions is it dismantled or even shattered?
- And how do we live in ways that request that this sense of self, these abiding and obdurate desires, be recognized?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- How do we think about the doubleness of the self that wants to be who it is?
- 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?
- 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?
- Conversely, if we never decide who we are, are we at risk of becoming dispersed in ways that make life unlivable?
- 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?
- 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?’?
- 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?
- How do these philosophical desires become compromised or complicated if a life is considered a non-life under regimes of racism?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.