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  • Politics, Power and Ethics: A Discussion Between Judith Butler and William Connolly
  • Judith Butler (bio) and William Connolly (bio)

(Bill Connolly) One impressive thing about Gender Trouble was its creative and detailed elaboration of the Foucauldian idea that the demand to secure a “true identity” or “a core” identity is entangled with ugly processes that close off the development of a plurality of identities on the same social field. That which was thought by many to provide the basis and guide to ethics was, therefore, itself said to be entangled in the politics and power of ethics. One way of putting the point in Gender Trouble (1990) was to say that “the displacement of a political and discursive origin of gender identity onto a psychological ‘core’ precludes an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject and its fabricated notions about the ineffable interiority of its sex or of its true identity” (p.136). This book opened up important issues that had been closed down, including the possibility of pursuing a new plurality of sexual and gender practices. It also played a crucial role in helping to mobilize and energize an entire political movement. But it is has nonetheless been taken by some of its critics, even by some who support gay and lesbian rights, to have deleterious consequences. They sometimes assert that it treats all identity as if it were oppressive, or that it does not sufficiently appreciate the pleasures and attachments to identity we find ourselves implicated in, or that it diminishes the capacity to evaluate different claims to identity ethically, or that it makes it difficult to identify the political energies from which to proceed in pushing for a pluralization of identities, or that it makes it difficult to see how to mobilize such energies in dominant constituencies who are asked to respond to new pressures for pluralization.

There may be misunderstandings behind some of these criticisms, or they may reflect more basic disagreements about how power operates, how ethical responsiveness proceeds, to what extent an ethical orientation must be grounded in something fixed, authoritative or final to be informed, and how diverse a contemporary culture should strive to become. I hope you will take the opportunity as we proceed to respond to some of those questions. For example, would you now modify the idea that a challenge to the idea of truth in identity also necessarily involves a challenge to the idea of a “core” identity? Could one emphasize the contingent elements in the formation of identity and probe the fugitive possibilities of mobility that may inhabit it even while saying that identity often enough acquires a certain core?

One way to proceed, perhaps, is to consider an arresting moment in The Psychic Life of Power (1997). You have been examining the role that melancholy plays in consolidating heterosexuality out of a larger field of possibilities. There is unavowed grieving involved here, and this condition seems both to entrench the attachment to identity and to complicate the possible political relations between constituencies. A poignant formulation occurs:

This raises the political question of the cost of articulating a coherent identity position by producing, excluding, and repudiating a domain of abjected specters that threatens the arbitrarily closed domain of subject positions. Perhaps only by risking the incoherence of identity is connection possible

(p. 149).

I interpret this formulation to mean that people often become profoundly attached to the identities that inhabit them, that the abjection of some other identity possibilities often becomes tempting as a means to secure the self assurance of your own, and that an ethos of plurality is apt to be both fragile and uneven in part because people often refuse to run identity risks to cultivate connections across difference. This formulation, to me, addresses simultaneously the importance and difficulty of a generous ethos of public life, and it discloses the element of fragility that may persist in such achievements if and when they are achieved. The risks are more palpable than those acknowledged by many self-proclaimed proponents of public virtue. One thinks of liberal communitarians and neo-Kantians here. The theme also may also help to explain why some non-Kantian, cultural...

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