Tag Archives: postmodernism

Judith Butler Superstar

Last night I went to see Judith Butler speak live at the Volksbühne in Berlin. No doubt she has become the pop star of postfeminist theory, which is perhaps a postmodern phenomenon in itself, and consequently the auditorium was packed with intellectuals, queers and hipsters, and combinations of the three. Her lecture was called “Queere Bündnisse und Antikriegspolitik” (“Queer Alliances and Anti-war Politics”) and to my surprise she held the entire speech in German (and still did a better job than many native speakers I’ve had to listen to). I was also positively surprised by how constructive and applicable her speech was, unlike her usually quite abstract and inaccessible writing, for which she has often been criticized.

Her lecture was an appeal to everyone to fight for the rights of all disenfranchised minorities, and especially to reclaim public space for them. The queer community needs to form alliances in order to stop violence directed towards minorities such as transgendered people, and this venture goes hand in hand with fighting police power, militarism, racism and nationalism. She especially warned about the criminalisation and pathologisation of such minorities, as in some states transgendered people have to prove the ‘pathology’ of their ‘condition’ in order to receive benefits and legal rights. In that sense, violence can be experienced not just physically, but then again, it often is.

According to Butler, „gender is the exercise of freedom“, and part of this exercise is the ability to appear in public. However, it should be a choice to show one’s gender as much as it should be a choice to hide it and render it invisible for the public. I could not help but be reminded of the issue of the burqa at this point, and sure enough Butler mentioned the burqa ban during the Q&A session, and how it is not so much a consequence of fear of the unknown but of losing hegemony.

In another attempt to address contemporary issues, Butler stated how the Palestinians are being implicitly referred to as “socially dead” (“gesellschaftlich tot”). Even though all life should be worthy (of protection), war and militarism render this an impossibility by claiming that some life is more worthy than another. However, democracy means living with people of different opinions and acknowledging their rights as well. Butler claimed that the Israelis are instrumentalising the gay and lesbian community and advocating their separation from other minorities.

Butler’s main aim was to promote the forming of alliances. Freedom is more than individual liberty, and can only be achieved within a community. Our bodies and our selves are “enmeshed in sociality”; we are depending on and conditioned by others. Therefore, this human interdependency is the primary condition for our political lives, or, as Butler liked to put it with a wink: “We’re all over each other, from the beginning.”

Even though I don’t think Butler’s speech was overwhelming, since she didn’t present any particularly new or radical ideas, I still enjoyed it as an inspiring pep talk for everyone fighting for human rights and equality. Judith Butler sure is incredibly intelligent, an impressive personality, and I’m still a fan.

UPDATE: On Saturday the organizers of Berlin’s Christopher Street Day were going to honour Judith Butler with the prize for civil courage but during the celebration Butler refused to accept the award on the grounds that she considered the event too commercial and that it didn’t address issues such racism and islamophobia. You can read a more detailed description of the events in German on this blog:

http://imgartenmitsatie.twoday.net/stories/6388559/

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Book Review: Riki Wilchins “Queer Theory, Gender Theory. An Instant Primer”

One thing I have often asked myself while studying culture and gender-related topics: This is all very well, interesting and enlightening, but how can I explain this to my friends and family that are not studying in these areas?

Naturally, I have the desire to promote the eye-opening discoveries I make whilst reading feminist theory beyond my circle of academic friends and acquaintances. In fact, no one is safe from my feminist convictions if they confront me with related topics, neither friends nor co-workers nor the obnoxious drunk at the subway station. But making provocative statements is one thing; if someone actually wants me to explain my views I start to ramble without really getting my point across. The subject just seems too complex and broad to be summed up in a short conversation and people are likely to lose interest after listening to my long-winded explanations of theories that I had to read two or three times to really understand.

Now I have found a better solution. I just give potential disciples a book to read:

Riki Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory. An Instant Primer.

Wilchins’ book is the perfect introduction to Gender and Queer Theory, even for people who haven’t previously encountered these topics in their lives. The book was written in 2004 and remains very up-to-date. In fact, it doesn’t omit any of the recent discourses and addresses issues that are still controversial.

At 170 pages, it is a quick but dense read. While Wilchins’ book features chapters about highly complex theorists such as Derrida, Foucault and Butler, it doesn’t attempt to briefly introduce and sum up their thought (which would naturally lead to failure) but instead outlines their importance for gender theory and the feminist discourse in academia and beyond. Therefore it would be a stretch to claim that one will understand Derrida after reading this book, but one gets an idea about the theoretical influences of gender and queer theory and how they shaped feminist thought.

At the same time, Wilchins occasionally uses little stories and situations from her life to illustrate the points she makes, without becoming too anecdotal or personal. People who identify as part of marginalized groups, such as homosexuals or transgendered, will most likely find their own experiences represented by these anecdotes, but even those who don’t belong to any minority will surely observe that they have encountered gender issues in their lives as well. However, many of them might not have given it much thought as they often don’t realize that these issues are systemic:

“Sometimes, doing gender activism feels like doing therapy,” Wilchins writes. “Almost all of us have stories […], but because gender is such a personal thing, we think our experience reflects our own personal shortcomings. We were ridiculed for being a geek or a fag or for throwing “like a girl,” or we were too aggressive and athletic or too old to be a tomboy.

When these things happened, we assumed the problem was us, not the gender system. We kept it to ourselves and we felt shamed. Because gender expression has never been framed differently, that it ought to be a civil right, never occurred to us.” (p. 19)

Wilchins goes about introducing the method of deconstruction, which she then applies to the categories gender, sex and even race. The case of intersexed people, meaning human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female, becomes her prime example to illustrate society’s shaky claims for universal categories.

Even though Wilchins is a devoted third-waver, her book cannot be described as unreflected praise of postmodernism’s benefits. The chapter Postmodernism and its Discontents reveals some major flaws within postmodern thought, especially when it comes to reconciling its distrust of shared norms and structures with the need for political action:

“[…], it [postmodernism, my insert] is unable to propose any notion of group action that is positive and rewarding. Such freedom as postmodernism envisions is the purely negative freedom found in isolation and separation, in strictly private acts and meanings.

[…] In this, we realize that postmodernism is still lacking any vision of constructive social engagement and political action. Indeed, it is innately suspicious of mobilizing communities for political action. For activists whose task is organizing for political change, this is a serious shortcoming.” (p. 100-101)

However, Wilchins herself seems to have found a way to reconcile the two within her own life. The last chapter of the book is devoted to her personal political activism. In it, she describes how she founded GenderPAC (the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition), what goals this organization is working towards and what problems they encountered along the way. Again, Wilchins is critical and reflective, even concerning her own actions, but throughout the entire book she doesn’t lose her sense of humour, thereby emphasizing Judith Butler’s statement that “laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable to feminism.” (Gender Trouble)

Wilchins’ attitude towards the future is hopeful and optimistic, especially when looking at today’s youth. While I might be slightly less enthusiastic than her, I absolutely agree with her final statement which should become my final words to whomever I shall have a discussion about feminism and gender issues with:

“This is a movement whose time has come. Join us. If you’ve read this far in the book, it’s an issue that speaks to you too. Don’t let gender rights stay “just theory.” Get involved. Because gender rights are human rights, and the time for them is now.” (p. 157)

[Riki Wilchins: Queer Theory, Gender Theory. An Instant Primer, Los Angeles 2004.]