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Judith Butler Goes to Norway

A guest post from Ida Roland Birkvad. Ida is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. Her thesis interrogates the concept of Aryanism, which she understands as a set of contingent and contradictory relations connecting India and Europe. Her broader research interests include global intellectual thought and history, and postcolonial theory.


Butler, Judith. 2020. Kjønn, Performativitet og Sårbarhet. Preface by Stine Helena Bang Svendsen. Translated by Lars Holm-Hansen.Oslo: Cappelen Damm, Cappelens Upopulære Skrifter. (147 pages)

For the very first time, the work of philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler is being translated into Norwegian, in a publication encompassing extensive excerpts from her books Gender Trouble (1990), Giving an Account of Oneself (2005) and Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (2018).

Why is it that we had to wait until the year 2020 to be able to read Butler in Norwegian? One way to think about that question might be to interrogate the unheimlich nature of her work in a Norwegian context. How does Butler’s theories of the performativity and fiction of gender fare in Norway, a country where the most successful feminist movements have been those predominantly reformist in nature, concentrated around state-centric demands for ‘gender equality’? How is Butler read in a country whose feminist imaginaries can be said to be particularly ‘womb-centric’, with an often inbuilt ontological scepticism of genderbending impetuses such as Butler’s (Jacobsen in Bendixsen, Bringslid, and Vike 2017)? Poststructuralism, the theoretical impulse most central to her work, has also been comparatively late to arrive in Norway (Riiser Gundersen 2016). And when it appeared, along with its queer theoretical descendants, it was highly contested (Danbolt 2012).

This piece invites us to consider these questions, thinking both with Butler and her critics to examine the potentials and pitfalls of contemporary Norwegian political discourses on the relationship between political emancipation and ‘the body’.

The Norwegian translation starts off with what continues to be Butler’s seminal book, Gender Trouble. Here, she presents us with her theory of gender performativity, further elaborated on in the publication’s second excerpt, from Giving an Account of Oneself. As will be known to many of TheDisorder’s readers, Butler’s theory of performativity does not take gender to be a noun – something fixed and stable that one can be, but rather as a verb – something contingent and open-ended that we do or become through the constant re-iteration of dominant norms, bodily practices, and expected social behaviours. Resistance is inherent to her notion of performativity because gender can always be ‘done’ differently. By interrupting, subverting, and changing its script, subversion is made possible. These ideas have had profound effects on political and cultural critique, especially in the Western world. This is in part because Butler’s theory of performativity has proven highly generalisable: its analytical framework and strategies for resistance forms a powerful tool for more general calls for societal subversion.[1]

With Butler’s more recent publications she continues to interrogate the body, but here no longer primarily as an entity who’s purported biology and attendant sexuality should be questioned. Increasingly, Butler is rather concerned with how the body is constituted through relationality; its existence not so much instituted by individual repetition of socially produced signifiers, but more as a body connected to other bodies through shared experiences of vulnerability. This development in Butler’s thinking is often understood as being reflective of a more general turn in poststructuralist thinking towards ethics and ideas of precarity and interconnectedness. In the present translation, this preoccupation is reflected in the book’s third and final abstract, from Butler’s Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Notes henceforth). Inspired by mass movements across the world, starting with AIDS activism in the US in the 1980s and ending in the protests at Cairo’s Tahrir square and New York’s Occupy activists, Butler hones in on what she sees as instances of a kind of literal ‘body politics’; where bodies, vulnerable and exposed in sites of state and capitalist violence draw their strength from the political nature of their own mass, as bodies linked together.

How might this longer arc of Butler’s thinking speak to current developments in Norwegian spaces of political and cultural critique? To anyone following Norwegian debates in recent years, a discursive turn to the body, and a language of bodily precarity and vulnerability, is undeniable. In 2017, Norway’s most prominent centre for literary and political debate, the Oslo-based House of Literature, marked its tenth anniversary with the ensemble performance ‘The Political Body’ (Den Politiske Kroppen).[2] Centring the relationship between heteropatriarchy, whiteness and corporeality, the artists mobilised a language of relationality and vulnerability as constitutive elements of their own personal experiences and political reflections. Similarly, the language of other cultural productions such as the 2018 dance performance ‘The Black Body’ (Den Svarte Kroppen)[3]and the proliferation of, especially among Norwegian activists and artists of colour, the term melaninrik[4](‘melanin rich’) to denote racialised difference, points to similar preoccupations with the body.

Curiously, the discursive move made apparent by the term melaninrik seems to paradoxically re-essentialise and re-inscribe ‘race’; not as a historically and socially produced category of differentiation, but as an evidentiary, visually observable feature of the body. How can we understand this particular focus on the connection between politics and the corporeal, and its attendant insistence on the body as something ‘real’?

This centring of the body must be read, I think, in the context of what the Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad has described as an ‘imagined sameness’ constituting Norwegian ideas of self and community. To Gullestad, sameness was always coded ‘white’, with Norwegian social-democratic discourses of equality premised on the persistence of cultural and racial homogeneity (2002). The focus on the body in contemporary critique can be read as a reaction to these oppressive logics: an insistence on the body is an insistence on the difference, not sameness,constitutive of Norwegian social life – refracted through raced, gendered and classed logics. The discourses at play in the cultural productions referenced above can also be understood as attempts to escape the confines of poststructuralism’s focus on discourse, instead searching for a kind of ‘jargon of authenticity’ (Vishmidt 2020, 34) based on structures of affect and ideas of ‘lived experience’.

To Butler, it is the space in-between bodies that makes up the site of politics, with a sense of shared vulnerability and interdependency constituting its affective and material glue. And while difference (understood through a range of socially produced categories) is irrefutable, Butler still insists on foundational, shared experiences – we are all bodies in political space. Bodily precarity, in other words, becomes the category which transcends other categories of identification. Further developing her older work on performativity in Notes, this shared bodily experience of precarity seems to work simultaneously to produce its own contours as well as its potential for disruption.

Contrasted with the exclusions made possible by Norwegian ‘imagined sameness’, Butler’s idea of embodied, empathetic universality undoubtedly offers us a more inclusive notion of political community. However, scholarship critical of Butler’s ‘turn to ethics’ have argued that this preoccupation, where political horizons often seems to be premised on the creation of ‘empathy’, upholds an ahistorical approach to processes of difference produced through colonialism and racial capitalism (Danewid 2017; Kramer 2015). Can the world truly be imagined as ‘one’? Indeed, black feminists have for a long time reminded us of how notions of ‘race’ and racial difference are from the very beginning constitutive of the category of the ‘human’, and ideas of ontological universality (Weheliye 2014).

What is at stake in a language of affect, bodily vulnerability and ‘authenticity’ as the premise for emancipatory political imaginaries in Norway today? In its search for a political horizon grounded in Norwegian minorities’ liveddifference and the materiality of their affective experiences, the body is a tempting rallying point. Yet these same impulses might lead us to a paradoxical re-inscription of the biological; an insidious dynamic that once counted Judith Butler as one of its most prominent detractors. The slippages between corporeality, embodied precarity and biological essentialism, possible to glean both from Butler’s thinking and that of Norwegian discourses of counter-interpellation, run the risk of aligning with a contemporary resurgence of eugenicist and medicalised discourses of, exactly, ‘the body’.

References

Bendixsen, Synnøve, Mary Bente Bringslid, and Halvard Vike, eds. 2017. Egalitarianism in Scandinavia: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. London: Routledge.

———. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.

———. 2018. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Danbolt, Mathias. 2012. “Tilbake Til Fremtiden.” Vagant, December 2012. http://www.vagant.no/tilbake-til-fremtiden/.

Danewid, Ida. 2017. “White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History.” Third World Quarterly 38 (7): 1674–89.

Gullestad, Marianne. 2002. “Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, Nationalism and Racism.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8 (1).

Jirde Ali, Sumaya. 2018. Melanin Hvitere Enn Blekemiddel. Oslo: Aschehoug.

Kramer, Sina. 2015. “Judith Butler’s ‘New Humanism’: A Thing or Not a Thing, and So What?” PhiloSOPHIA: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 5 (1).

Mahmood, Saba. 2006. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.

Riiser Gundersen, Bjarne. 2016. Da Postmodernismen Kom Til Norge: En Beretning Om Den Store Intellektuelle Vekkelsen Som Har Hjemsøkt Vårt Land. Oslo: Flamme Forlag.

Vishmidt, Marina. 2020. “Bodies in Space: On the Ends of Vulnerability.” Radical Philosophy, no. 2.08.

Weheliye, Alexander. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press.


[1] This framework of ‘resistance’ is not without its detractors. For a powerful critique of the Eurocentric presuppositions of ‘agency’ inherent in Butler’s theory of performativity, see (Mahmood 2006).

[2] The ensemble included the French author Édouard Louis, the Swedish author and activist Athena Farrokhzad, Norwegian author Kristina Leganger Iversen and musician Sandra Kolstad. A recording of the performance can be accessed here: https://litteraturhuset.no/arkiv/jubileumsforestilling-den-politiske-kroppen/

[3] See https://www.dansenshus.com/artikler/den-svarte-kroppen for details.

[4] Norwegian author and activist Sumaya Jirde Ali’s critically acclaimed, debut collection of poetry ‘Melanin hvitere enn blekemiddel’ (2018) could be a potential starting point for tracing a genealogy of the term ‘melaninrik’ in Norwegian cultural discourse. For further examples of discourses emblematic of this turn to ‘the body’, see various works by author Kristina Leganger Iversen, e.g. her 2016 ‘manifesto’. It can be accessed here: https://www.nrk.no/kultur/eit-manifest-av-kristina-leganger-iversen-1.12831680

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