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  • Left Conservatism, II
  • Judith Butler (bio)

I’m pleased to be here, I had no idea this was a conference, I thought we were coming to a workshop—a small “cozy” workshop—to talk about things. So what I have with me is a paper that I gave at the Rethinking Marxism conference in December, 1992 and which is presently being published by Social Text (52–53) and New Left Review. I’m going to try to talk from it a little bit today.

I wanted to say first of all, that I’m not an organizer of this conference. Chris (Connery) organized it. I know that some of the emails have been burning up with distortion. I’m not an organizer of this conference. And if I had organized it—indeed, even if I had been given Chris’s pamphlet before signing on, I would have said, “Chris, let’s take some of those names out of the conference description,” because I object to seeing prominent feminists being targeted as exemplary of left conservatism, feminists I respect, even though some of them, unfortunately, don’t return the sentiment. Being put in a list with Jacques Lacan is humbling to me, though not offensive, and I’m not even a Lacanian.

I also wanted just briefly to say that I agreed at least with this part of Paul Bové’s remarks, that anti-foundationalism cannot secure a politics, that there is no political position that follows necessarily from anti-foundationalism, nor does it necessary destroy a politics. Its relationship to political formations strikes me as very different. It cannot be a foundation. This is an important point. If anti-foundationalism is what secured a politics, it would be taking the place of a foundation. If it is that which destroys a politics, it would still be in the place of that which ought to be a foundation. In other words, the whole debate concerning the politics of anti-foundationalism takes place within a foundationalist imaginary, which I think is the problem.

I also want to make just a few remarks about Chris’s introduction. He said that Left conservatism was an act and not an identity. I appreciated the citation of queer theory there. But I think that if that is true, then probably we ought not to be so concerned with the names of those who are exemplary of those concerns. Name-calling runs the risk of collapsing a complex body of scholarship and political work into a symptom, and I don’t want to do that. On the other hand, it struck me coming in here that whereas I don’t particularly like that part of the way in which this event is framed, I also thought that this interesting flyer that we received [from protesters of the workshop] was equally problematic. The flyer implies that if the organizers had their way, those who remain disinclined to accept poststructuralism, or rather, those who remain disinclined to be incorporated within something called “the postmodernist paradigm,” would be excommunicated from the left, or denied tenure or job possibilities by those who work within such paradigms. This charge strikes me as off-base, offensive and sad, sad for all of us. If what worries those who wrote the flyer is that certain kinds of premises on the Left are being opened to inquiry, are being questioned, are being called into question, and are thus not being understood as foundational, does that mean that such terms are useless? To call into question the foundational status of such terms is not to claim that they are useless or that we ought not to speak that way, that terms like “objectivity,” “rationality,” “universality” are so contaminated that they ought not to be uttered any longer. A serious misunderstanding has taken place. Calling the foundational status of a term into question does not censor the use of the term. It seems to me that to call something into question, to call into question its foundational status, is the beginning of the reinvigoration of that term. What can such terms mean, given that there is no consensus on their meaning? How can they be mobilized, given...

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