Editor’s Note: This past December, Larisa Reznik of the University of Chicago organized a panel discussion of Judith Butler’s controversial new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Our editor Vincent W. Lloyd, one of the panelists, arranged to have the panelists contribute blog reflections arising out of this discussion. He now contributes our final post.
Several of my friends joined a Facebook meme soliciting a list of the ten books that most influenced you. I thought myself too cool to participate, but if I had, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble would have been on my list. I devoured it one winter break when I was home from college. At the time, I was fascinated by the world of feminist theory to which Butler introduced me, theory that she made meaningful by showing how it spoke to the pain and injustice faced in queer women’s lives. In retrospect, I think I used the violence faced by queer women as a proxy for the violence I faced because of my own racially liminal position – not white enough, not black enough.
Now, twenty years later, Butler writes explicitly about race, or something like it. Gender Trouble marshaled a group of feminist theorists to provide intellectual resources for a community, criticizing the notion of “woman” (female sex, female gender, and desire for men aligned) as natural and turning our attention to ways that gender is performed in everyday life. Those performances make it seem like “woman” is natural, and those performances, when altered as in such practices as drag, can short-circuit the naturalness of “woman”, creating new possibilities for bodies and desires. Parting Ways similarly brings together a group of Jewish theorists to offer intellectual resources for a community, criticizing the notion of Jewishness (race, religion, and nation aligned) as natural. Just as the concept “woman” does harm to lesbians, Jewishness today does harm to Jews who do not fully support Israel, who are not religious, or who are not part of the “race.”
Butler’s solution is to embrace diaspora and relationality as definitive of Jewishness, just as she urged that performance be understood as definitive of gender. But the implications of this proposal are unclear. For gender, a woman wearing men’s clothes undercuts the naturalness of “woman” – the personal is political. But diaspora and relationality are exemplified for Butler by poems and prose, together with an avowed commitment to a one state solution in Israel/Palestine. The distance between theory and political practice is uncomfortably large. The place for developing strategy and tactics that would flow from theory in light of material realities is absent.
In Israel/Palestine, it is dangerous to say that the personal is political. It leads to equalizing, ignoring the asymmetry of money, munitions, and power. Butler ends her book with poetry that she thinks exemplifies her theory of diaspora and relationality, commenting, “Who can say these lines? The ones who are within the State of Israel: surely. The Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza: surely. In refugee camps in southern Lebanon: yes.”
Having thought more about what it means to be a Black American, having learned more about the history of anti-racist struggles in the US and abroad, having encountered more police officers who must have flunked sensitivity training, I now hear Butler as a reformist, not a revolutionary. I hear her speaking from a position of privilege, urging the privileged to acknowledge what they share with the disenfranchised: the metaphorical exile that constitutes the human condition. I think my youthful infatuation with Gender Trouble, too, may have resulted from my refusal to think more radically about the roots of injustice. Patriarchy, it must be noted, persists in an era when drag has become unremarkable.