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  • Antigone’s Claim: A Conversation With Judith Butler
  • Pierpaolo Antonello (bio) and Roberto Farneti (bio)

This conversation was held in Pordenone, Italy, in September 2008, during a major cultural event that takes place every year. What follows is an expanded version of our conversation, including a few questions she received from the public and a few more questions that Judith Butler kindly took from us after the event. As she writes on contemporary politics, literary theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminism, our interview was conducted with little regard for academic boundaries. Butler’s work is sliced by problem, not by discipline, and she masters different languages which, once specialized and authoritative within a given field, can be merged and applied to the discussion of such issues as the American wars, the nature of democracy, the Israeli/Palestinian schism, and the politics of gender. The authors of this interview—a literary theorist and a political theorist—prepared their questions so that realms could be straddled, boundaries dissolved, and theory restored to its original architectonic task. The choice of the topics to be discussed offers a biased and selected view, and our conversation remained focused on issues that Butler has critically explored in her recent writings: war, precarious life, and the subject(s) of responsibility.

We would like to go right away in medias res and ask you something about where you locate yourself intellectually. You engage with a number of European thinkers, especially in your recent work. For example, in Giving an Account of Oneself, you dialogue with such figures as Levinas, Hegel, Adorno, Cavarero, Laplanche, Foucault, etc. You studied with Gadamer in Germany and visit regularly European academic institutions. Is it correct (or does it make any sense) to call you an American philosopher?

It is true, though, that I studied European philosophy but I don’t know whether I could describe my thinking as belonging to a nationality. Of course, I am a US citizen, and that accounts for many things, including my mobility and privilege. But even the notion of “America” is problematic for many reasons, as it includes Latin America, Canada, the Caribbean, and because it does not describe very well the differences it includes and effaces. So, I am not sure that I would choose nationality as a way to describing my thinking. Others may well describe me in that way, and that is their prerogative. It is true though that as I trained in philosophy in the US, I can surely make use of European philosophy in a freer way. I can and do work on Foucault without being a Foucaultian, I worked with Gadamer without becoming a Gadamerian, I could bring Adriana Cavarero together with Levinas. Because the link is productive for me. So, for some, it might be a kind of intellectual promiscuity that characterizes some kind of thinking in America, but let us not call it “American” thinking. Although my own formation is in European philosophy, the foci of my political analyses tend to be U.S. and this affects the lexicon that I use. Maybe it is the conjunction of the two that characterizes what I do, but these terms are too large for me, and get easily lost here.

Some people (in America) have argued that many American intellectuals visit (figuratively) the graves of the European ‘mighty dead’ because they need to ‘romanticize’ their intellectual outlook. Rorty, for one, thought that the American philosophical discourse had become just too academic, too dryly professional…

I don’t think I’ve dug up the mighty European dead from their graves. And it is not that I want to live in the shadow of a certain patriarchal lineage of thought; rather, I want to mobilize some of the resources that we might find, say, in German Idealism for the purposes of thinking politics and culture in new ways. Maybe Rorty was thinking about a certain masculine club, but I do not seek entrance there. Indeed, the most important question for me is transposition and translation, in effect, how to bring certain intellectual traditions into the present, or how to discover their active traces there. For instance, I do think that some European traditions, some...

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