- A Conversation with Judith Butler
Freud’s thought has been a great influence for your work, but your concerns have been political. How do you incorporate Freud’s legacy into your political thinking?
I suppose my concerns are philosophical and political, and that my work belongs to a broader field of critical theory that accepts that our thinking is situated in our historical world, and that one of its tasks is to find the best way to think about and evaluate that world. Freud has always been important for me, at least as far back as I can recount my trajectory as a person who likes to read books about life and the mind. When I was young, I had the same prejudices against psychoanalysis that many people have, namely, that it would reduce all desire and ideation to a crude account of the oedipal structure. But the more I read, the more I came to understand psychoanalysis as a practice of interpretation, and that changed my mind. When I say it is a “practice” of interpretation, I mean to call attention to both the theoretical and clinical dimensions of psychoanalysis. In a way, psychoanalysis stages its own debate on theory and practice. It asks about what is “acted out” in the world, and that includes the sphere of politics. But the two main questions that have drawn me to psychoanalysis have to do with (a) sexuality, [End Page 51] its variations, and its non-teleological structure, and (b) loss and destruction, including the question of why people go to war, and how best to understand and criticize the exhilarations of sadism and the failure to mourn.
What Freudian ideas or formulations do you find the most significant for your thinking? Why?
Perhaps melancholia has been the most important Freudian concept in my published work. My effort all along has been to see how melancholia operates not only in the constitution of the ego (as demonstrated in The Ego and the Id) but in the “malaise” (Unbehagen) of culture itself. The strict taboos on same-sex love still prevalent in many parts of the world mean that there is very often no readily available language through which to acknowledge a love or a loss. Indeed, if melancholia is the failure to acknowledge or register a loss, we can and must ask what languages are available in which to make that acknowledgment. If the languages pathologize or criminalize the love, then to openly mourn the loss of that love is to establish oneself as a criminal or pathological character in public discourse. This is a terrible bind, but also a radically unethical cultural consequence of homophobia.
rmr: Working with psychoanalysis as a theory to think the political and social realm, the question or critique I have come across the most concerns the “extrapolation” of clinical thinking toward the social and political. Nonetheless, I think that there is no extrapolation, because the Freudian psyche is a social and political organization from the very beginning.
We can agree that the Freudian psyche is a social and political organization to begin with but still ask in what sense it is social and in what sense it is political. In other words, there may be a distinct sense of the social and political character of the psyche that belongs to its own organization, and quite another sense that belongs to the way that psychic dynamics take form in the world, [End Page 52] in the form of discourse, silence, institutions, anarchy, policy, politics, and even revolution. In other words, how do we think about an “uprising” in psychoanalytic terms? We have to consider many different factors but also the relation between longing and destruction, to begin our analysis. We cannot stay only with the social and political structure of the psyche, but must ask also, “How does the psyche inform and animate—even destabilize—social and political structure?”
I also believe that in your book The Psychic Life of Power you work with the idea of subjectivity as a reflexive itinerary, and that is why you work with Althusser, Lacan...