Julie Phelps Interviewing Judith Butler
Original Interview conducted on July 18, 2013
On Friday, November 3, 2017, renowned gender theorist Judith Butler will be conversing with Monique Jenkinson, the artist behind the cis-female drag persona Fauxnique in an evening entitled “Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body” at CounterPulse.
Let’s take a look back to 2013 at CounterPulse’s 16th Dance Discourse Project, a conversation between Judith and Julie Phelps. The two respond to contemporary Bay Area body-based performance as it resonates with Foucauldian notions of body erasure, social gender performance, and their own work.
Julie Phelps: I’m really excited for the opportunity to engage with you. I was revisiting my undergrad capstone and found multiple quotations of your work. It made me realize how much you’ve influenced my thinking and that of so many others. The thrust of this conversation is going to be centered around your work on performativity and gender and unpacking how it intersects with performance making. Could we begin by hearing about the role of the performing arts in your life and how it’s influenced your theories?
Judith Butler: You know, I could tell a story like “Well I grew up and this is when performance came into my life.” But the fact of the matter is that everyone around me was involved in intense performances and I had to figure something out for myself.
Every day my mother would say that she’d have to put on her face, and I was like “I thought her face was on.” But no, as a woman you go in front of the mirror and put vast amounts of chemicals and lotions on your skin and then something called a face is produced as a consequence of this elaborate daily ritual. And as I watched as a child, I was kind of like an ethnographer visiting a foreign country and trying to figure out people’s rituals.
I’m not sure I ever really got past that place. My theory is really from the point of arrested development.
JP: Your readers are familiar with your theory of gender as performativity. As you see it, how are the compulsory aspects of performativity reinforced or destabilized by the agentive act of performance making?
JB: One thing I appreciate about performance art and it’s cultural focus is that it understands that performance is not restricted to the stage. Something like a stage extends way beyond the proscenium stage. So what’s performed on a stage can be extremely important and can give us a way to grasp and be riveted by what people are doing with heavily laden norms of gender or race or disability or any number of social issues that can be performed on stage. So for a while, as an audience, we approach those issues differently.
But when we talk about gender performance broadly, we’re talking about it beyond the stage, in the audience, what we were doing before the show, on the streets and in the public, at the thresholds of public and private, within the home or within the shelter or within the privacy of one’s own bathroom or somebody else’s bathroom that your borrowing for the moment.
Where are we spatially when we talk about performance? Performance gets inflected differently depending on what space we’re in, but we have to see it as something that crosses those spatial divides. It’s not just on a stage, it’s part of our daily practices that traverse and transform space.
For instance, certain gender performances are acceptable in one context are not okay in another; and then the question is why? And how to struggle against those limits?
Performance art has been super important in bringing the body into focus as the site of art. What’s the relationship between contemporary performance art and some of the body art traditions that we know? Body art was considered super scandalous when it started happening, in the wake of abstraction, like we’re only supposed to make art on a canvas. The body was supposed to be at a distance. There’s that spectatorial distance for the body to become something with which art is made. I mean dancers and actors have known this forever.
I think for a lot of people, the question is “Where do we find art and who makes it?” Are we crafting art ourselves in daily life? If so are we all body artists? Can you even have a gender without being a body artist?
JP: That gets to some of my questions around intentionality and the body as passive. In Gender Trouble you discuss Foucault’s ideas around erasure of the body through inscription, of becoming what we’re defined as by propagating inscribed ideas of ourselves through compulsory rituals….
But it seems like you’re saying the body isn’t actually just a passive element written upon by social ideas of what the body is and is not, but that the body actually can have agency. So how would you address intentionality or this idea that in staged performance, even as an observer, there’s an assumed script that’s in place and as an observer you can say “these are intentional choices that are being made” and so then you can asses whether or not these were successful representations of a woman. As where in daily life there’s an assumed neutrality to that read.
JB: Hmm, okay I’ll say one properly academic thing. After I published Gender Trouble, which was 22 years ago, people said “Ah, Butler thinks the body is constructed, that means we have no agency” or “Butler thinks we have agency and doesn’t realize that we are radically constrained by cultural laws, etc.” Okay so both things happened, I thought ‘Oh god, these are bad readings” and then I settled down and thought “I think I probably lend credibility to both theses.” Interesting little split…time to go see a therapist.
Look, we all emerge in the world entangled, like being caught in a web of gendered meanings, like this is what is a woman, this is what is a man, and there are norms and constraints and also ideas of pleasure.
And yet what’s really interesting is what people do in the middle of that web. It’s not like it’s forcing you to be one thing or another, or that you don’t have a choice or there’s no room to play. There is room to move and work in it and cut holes through it. So although we’re born into a sometimes a very contradictory set of gender norms, they don’t determine who we are. We’re able to exercise what I would call agency in the midst of that entanglement.
So I don’t know about intentionality. I can intend something, but I may well have more of an impact by virtue of what I never intended because somebody else read me in a certain way and did something else with it and it’s like well that wasn’t my intention but it happened.
So the unpredictable and the unintended seem to me to be the space where certain kinds of serious challenges and changes take place.
JP: And then once we start talking about agency and intention, I’m led back to the fact that these agentive acts are actually happening in a much more complicated social grid, where people have more or less limited options available to them for their agentive use. So in particular, how do you see other issues around race or class intersecting with the idea of agency or intentionality?
JB: When most of us live our bodily lives in public, we’re identified and racialized through that identification. We may be regarded as people with disabilities, we may be regarded as non-gender conforming, we may be regarded as trans, or maybe the regard doesn’t know what to do with us.
JP: A lot has shifted since you began writing about gender. In particular, the struggle for equality around marriage. How would you say that the developments in the public landscape around non-normative identities has shifted and what utility do you see in this anti-oppressive struggle? In short, now we can get married, but is this a victory, or are we acquiescing to recognition under the state and where have we left our brothers and sisters?
JB: Look, if there’s going to be marriage there should be marriage for everyone, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. I’m not sure why it’s just restricted to two people, like why can’t more than two get married? I mean is this like a mathematical issue? I think that we have to think more broadly about where marriage fits in terms of how household politics and community and kinship. And sometimes that works within the marriage form or the family form and sometimes it really does not. And I just want to make sure that even as we fight for equal rights to marriage, we’re not forgetting that there’s a broader kind of politics of the household that needs to be thought about for people who are not in that form. And there are a lot of queer kids and aging people who need kinship and community and support networks. I think that we need to hold onto the idea of kind of more radical kinds of kinship that are not defined necessarily by biological or conjugal ties. If we give up that vision then we really have lost our radicalism. But if marriage can be understood as an option within that more radical trajectory, then great.
JP: I agree Judith. So we’re at the tail end of the interview. Thank you so much for letting us hear from you, Judith, in this forum.
The Dance Discourse Project is a far reaching, far ranging, and ambitious project that aims to articulate in a cohesive and coherent way, from the participants themselves, what is happening in contemporary dance in the Bay Area and beyond.
Listen to Judith Butler and Monique Jenkinson in “Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body” Friday, Nov 3 at CounterPulse as part of Hope Mohr’s 2017 Bridge Project.