Gathering and Assembling: Judith Butler on the Future of Politics


Judith Butler in 2013. Photograph by University of California Berkeley.

by Angela McRobbie

Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly,
by Judith Butler,
Harvard University Press, 257 pp.

It is impossible to under-estimate the exceptional contribution to political understanding provided in the writing of Judith Butler. Her work, which is never loud, bombastic or self-aggrandising, has for over quarter of a century played a major role in the re-imagining or re-inventing of a leftist politics of non-violence.

Emerging out of feminism and queer theory, this form of politics has the human body at its core, and therefore our common state of dependency on each other as human beings, our vulnerability to injury, and our need for protection and care even when there are such cruel disparities between those who can afford to inure themselves against the prevailing forces of insecurity and precarity on the one hand, and those men, women and children at the other end of the spectrum who find themselves pitching in the inflateable dinghies in the desperate hope of making it to the shore.

Sometimes Butler’s texts are difficult and protracted. They require a lot from the reader who accompanies the author in her dense arguments with figures including, in her most recent volume entitled “Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly,” the social and political philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and  Hanna Arendt. In this book we find Butler undertaking three inter-related tasks.

First, as though in response to an often answered question, she wants to explain to her readers how she can connect her earlier writing on gender’s performativity—the way it comes into being during the processes of being enacted as a matter of enforced repetition—with her last decade of writing on precarious lives. She also explores how our rituals of mourning and grieving that manifest most in times of war and conflict tell us as much about those whose lost lives remain un-grieved or un-grievable. That is to say, at the heart of her inquiry is a consideration of contemporary ‘biopolitics’ and the management of populations, including the awarding or withholding of various forms of statehood and their attendant protections.

The second task Butler sets herself in this set of essays is to offer a series of reflections on what she calls “spaces of appearance,” and on what it means to gather and assemble in the ways we have seen from the Occupy movement to the uprisings of the Arab spring to the often silent gatherings that have occurred in places such as Gezi Park in Turkey.

Finally she asks us to consider the possibilities that new publics can come into being by means of concerted actions such as these and others including, for example, the spontaneous vigils which took place in London last week following the Orlando shooting and the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.

How are these three tasks related to one another? Butler makes the link explicit between the performativity of gender and the increasing precarity of many people’s lives. If the designation of seemingly fixed gender categories renders those who fail to inhabit these new spaces somehow unintelligible, then they become socially disenfranchised. Impoverished, they find themselves unprotected by the kinds of provisions which are allocated as a matter of fact to those who are capable of comfortably recognising themselves within the gender binaries of male and female.

In her 1993 book “Bodies That Matter,” Butler provided a compelling analysis of a documentary by Jennie Livingstone entitled “Paris Is Burning,” which focused on the voguing balls and fashion shows enjoyed by impoverished and mostly Latino transgender people—a subculture which, as is well-known, provided Madonna with a good deal of material in the early days of her career. However as later came to light, most of the dancers were dead just a few years after the film was made, either through violent attacks or from untreated HIV.

What does Butler mean by “spaces of appearance?” The ways in which gatherings and assemblies offer a critique of contemporary political culture lie precisely in their transience, their sudden appearance and disappearance. Such spaces inaugurate modes of opposition which have a prefigurative role, but they don’t necessarily rely on words and speech. They can be silent performances of lying down in the street as in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations or in Turkey, when young people, on being refused the right to assemble, stood at a sufficient distance from each other to evade the charge of being part of a crowd.

Often these improvisational comings together are inflected in their critiques against the values of the neoliberal order, which requires of populations such untenable degrees of self-responsibility and which denigrate the very idea of dependency or the need for support. Butler emphasises that these are not necessarily physical spaces so much as lines which function to permit new social relations to be established between the bodies that are gathering together, and which in so doing are able to “make a call for justice” as she puts it in her book.

The publics which have the potential to be formed through these assemblies are defined precisely by the non-violence of the actions—things like hand holding, lying down, and public gay kissing as in the demonstrations that took place in Turkey last week. Without necessarily saying so out loud, these actions speak of ways of doing politics that make a claim on our vulnerability. In so doing they bring into view the everyday violence of contemporary culture which nowadays is so normalised and quotidian as to be easily tolerated or overlooked.

The Black Lives Matter campaign, for example, foregrounds the seeming disposability of racialised populations that are deemed surplus to the needs of neoliberal societies. This point could not have been made more clear to me on a recent trip to Portland, Oregon—a liberal city with a left leaning population that has embraced Obamacare rather than seeing it as a good reason to vote for Donald Trump in the November US Presidential elections.

Yet thousands of ‘street people’ of overwhelmingly African American origin live in states of abjection, clustered under bridges and alongside the waterfront, while joggers in their lycra carefully skirt round the trolleys of these dispossessed persons. Do these people have papers? Who in officialdom or in the social work department knows who they are?

And who buries them when they die?

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License
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About the Author:

Angela McRobbie is Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College, London, and the author of Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Polity Press 2015).