An Interview with Judith Butler

Unexpected things:
Non-violence is compatible with murderous impulses
Sometimes doing nothing is more fruitful than doing something
Gender is not what you think it is
Neither is freedom
Even something universal differs from place to place

An Interview with Judith Butler

Unexpected things:
Non-violence is compatible with murderous impulses
Sometimes doing nothing is more fruitful than doing something
Gender is not what you think it is
Neither is freedom
Even something universal differs from place to place

An Interview with Judith Butler

Jill Stauffer
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

What is a human being? Are you sure you can tell the difference between who counts and who doesn’t? Philosopher Judith Butler throws a wrench into the works of what seems like a simple matter. She tells us that dominant assumptions about things like gender, race and citizenship cast those who don’t fit our preconceived ideas of those categories into a no-man’s land, where they are in danger of having their humanity left unacknowledged. And why does that matter? Butler proclaims that the answer to that question gets at the very possibility of war, and of a meaningful peace. It also directs us toward a renewed understanding of injury, and of what it means to grieve.

Perhaps best known for her pioneering work on gender, Butler is the author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Gender is not biological, she tells us, but rather is something assumed and performed, as well as cast upon bodies by norms and conventions that are larger than any given individual. Butler has also published widely in the arena of political theory, from her book Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative to recent articles in The Nation on the ramifications of the indefinite detention of accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. She is Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. This interview took place on March 22, 2003, in the Mission district of San Francisco. Judith Butler should be thanked for her patience with a cat named The Rhombus, who is not a human being, and whose contributions to the conversation have been removed. Ever the intrepid leaper, and more vocal than the average feline, he felt compelled to demonstrate his talents. No amount of reason could persuade him otherwise.

—Jill Stauffer

JILL STAUFFER: I was going to begin by asking you about your work on gender, and you indicated that you wanted to talk about philosophy and peace. So I guess it’s fair to ask: What does philosophy have to do with peace?

JUDITH BUTLER: I’m always glad to talk about gender—maybe we’ll get to that later. But it seems to me that, with the start of this war—which started just seventy-two hours prior to the start of this conversation—questions arise about how human beings characterize what they’re doing and, in particular, how people deal with violence: inflicting it, being on the receiving end of it, and how it gets made unreal somehow in the media. And I suppose these are philosophical questions if you ask at a basic level what our obligations are to other human beings and why it is that we may need to consider whether there are ever situations in which it is justified to do violence to another human being. This seems to me to be a very important philosophical question.

For instance, when you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems to me that both sides have reason to be absolutely infuriated and vengeful. But at a certain point it is absolutely ethically necessary, after one has been injured very deeply, that one not respond in kind. That movement of non-violence breaks the cycle of revenge. Many people consider that refusing to strike back is a masochistic way of handling oneself when one is in a condition of injury, or that such a refusal is tantamount to political paralysis, but I actually think it is an adamant and vigilant stand, a difficult stand against violence itself. The U.S. as well during these times is acting out of vengeance. It seeks to revenge the injustice done to it on 9/11 and it doesn’t care if those whom it destroys were not responsible for that particular injustice. It felt itself to be humiliated by those events, and now it seeks to “shock and awe” in order to “restore” its damaged sense of impermeability and supremacy.

JS: If revenge becomes cyclical because one strike leads to another ad infinitum, one way to stop the cycle is not to do what the cycle expects, which would be to strike back, but rather to do something else, or what a lot of people would call “doing nothing.” I think it’s counter-intuitive to many people to think that when one is wounded one ought to do nothing. But yet you’re saying something like “doing nothing” is not doing nothing but rather is a fertile kind of an action.

JB: Well, I think refusing to respond violently is doing something. It’s just not doing the thing that is expected. There was a brief moment after 9/11 when Colin Powell said “we should not rush to satisfy the desire for revenge.” It was a great moment, an extraordinary moment, because what he was actually asking people to do was to stay with a sense of grief, mournfulness, and vulnerability. Revenge tries to solve the problem of vulnerability. If I strike back, then I am not vulnerable but rather the other person is. I transfer vulnerability from myself to the other. And yet by striking back I produce a world in which my vulnerability to injury is increased by the likelihood of another strike. So it seems as if I’m getting rid of my vulnerability and instead locating it with the other, but actually I’m heightening the vulnerability of everyone and I’m heightening the possibility of violence that happens between us.

I think there is a way of living with vulnerability and grief that for most Americans is not easy. It’s not easy to abide with grief and not to resolve grief really quickly into action. Grief marks something. It marks loss. I think it was only September 21 when Bush said “We’ve finished grieving and now it’s time to act.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s not bad. Ten days of grieving and we’re done with it?” And then what? And then military action, striking back, doing harm to others in the way they’ve done harm to us.

The quick move to action is a way of foreclosing grief, refusing it, and even as it anaesthetizes one’s own pain and sense of loss, it comes, in time, to anaesthetize us to the losses that we inflict upon others. I think that an entirely different politics would emerge if a community could learn to abide with its losses and its vulnerability. It would know better what its ties to other people are. It would know how radically dependent it is on its interrelationship with others. I think that would lead in fact to a multi-lateral international understanding of justice, or at least it could. I think we would be able to understand something about the general state of fragility and physical vulnerability that people—as humans—live in. Our increased attunement to that could only make us more humane. But I’m afraid that we’ve gone in the opposite direction and sought to eviscerate our own vulnerability and to establish our own impermeability. What results is a kind of horrid masculinism. There, we got to gender pretty quickly, didn’t we?

JS: Ha! But first, you’re talking a lot about vulnerability and I think people don’t like to think of themselves as vulnerable and they certainly don’t like to talk about politics from the standpoint of vulnerability.

JB: Why not?

JS: Because politics is about making citizens feel secure, right? Isn’t security what a liberal politics aims at?

JB: Well, security is the banner right now. But is politics what makes us feel secure or is politics what places us mutually at risk?

JS: A good question. You said, in a recent talk you gave at Harvard, that “if we think that moral authority is about finding one’s will and standing by it, we may miss the very mode by which moral demands are relayed.” That, too—saying that will is not what gives us moral authority—is counter-intuitive to a lot of people, so I wonder if you could say more about what that means.

JB: The question is: What are the conditions under which we find that we are responsive to other human beings? Becoming responsive—seeing or sensing suffering, responding to it. I should say here that it’s not just responding to other human beings, it’s responding to an entire ecosystem that is also destroyed through war. It’s responding to the evisceration of the conditions of life itself, not only human life. So what are the conditions under which we care about the conditions of life itself? Why do we care about living beings including human beings? Where or how does that happen? I worry that if we locate notions of political responsibility in a willful subject, then we become preoccupied with our own willfulness and our own calculations, and that means we are not necessarily responding to what is outside of ourselves or understanding that outside—the world—as essential to who we are.

JS: The world and other people are outside of us and are the only reason why politics would matter in the first place.

JB: Yes, it seems to me that responsiveness is a better source for understanding what moral claims are and how they work upon us.

JS: And responsiveness relies on an “other,” because it responds to an other, and therefore it is related to vulnerability because it’s not something that you as willful human agent necessarily choose.

JB: Well, yes, I think we are affected by others in all kinds of ways. I do understand what it’s like to wish to control the conditions under which we can be affected by other human beings, but none of us really are.

JS: In control.

JB: No. We’re not in control, but that does not mean we don’t exercise a certain kind of conditioned agency. That’s what it means to live in a community. That’s what it means to live in society. We get jostled on the bus and so on. We could try to become rich enough so that we could completely control our environment. Right? So that, walking down the street, or there is no street—there’s only our privately owned driveway where we get in our privately owned car and someone privately drives us to wherever we privately go. There are people who are probably to some degree successful at controlling their environment. But even they have to go to the hospital at some point, or to the Department of Motor Vehicles. You know the Department of Motor Vehicles really lets you know the limits of will itself. [Laughs] There everyone is treated the same.

It just seems to me that there are ways in which we have to accept something like our own permeability to other people. We are affected by others. I mean, 9/11 was being affected in a very big way, in a violent way that we radically did not choose. But that doesn’t mean that we can now turn around and foreclose or somehow get rid of the fact that we are affected by others in ways we do not choose. We have to figure out what we can do in light of that very condition of vulnerability. That produces a notion of agency that is not the same as individual will.

JS: Okay. So it’s easy to see how one is affected by others despite oneself on a daily basis when one walks down the street and is ashamed that there are homeless people living in one’s midst or when one is angry because one’s neighbors constantly play their music too loudly. But what about when it comes to people whom we’ll never meet, who are really far away? Can I be affected by those people? How does one explain having a response, or a responsibility towards people to whom one has no formal, legal, or political obligation?

JB: Well, you know, in the current situation I would say the U.S. does have an internationally understood legal responsibility towards the people of Iraq. I think the U.S. has decided to suspend its obligations under international law. That didn’t just start with this war. It was true in Guantanamo Bay, when they suspended the jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions, and it was true when they withdrew from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. And the U.S. has refused to support the International Criminal Court, which is maybe the most flagrant of these ways in which it has absented itself from the international community. The U.S. has been straining its multi-lateral relations and suspending its obligations to international law for some time now.

But I find it interesting that National Public Radio and a few other media outlets find themselves running cultural stories on Iraq, asking “so who are the Iraqi people? Who are the Shiites and who are the Sunni and where do they live? And is it true that there is an extraordinary nightlife in Basra? What are those nightclubs like? What kind of music do they play?” Here we see some effort on the part of some Americans to figure out who the Iraqis are. And the descriptions we got, even yesterday, of the soldiers who were surrendering—what they were wearing, their old clothes, they hadn’t eaten or showered, they had old Russian rifles that don’t work very well anymore. In hearing this one could get a sense of the enormous poverty of that place and its broken infrastructure. The lights are off in Baghdad as we speak. One can’t help wondering what that is like, to live in a city without electricity, and wondering who needs the electricity for medical reasons, and what about the children whose milk is going sour. And then we hear about the dead children of Basra. Is this situation really so unthinkable to us? Do we really not, in some sense, know them? It seems to me there are certain shared conditions of existence that we have with these individuals. Grief equalizes us.

JS: Here we tend to think of this as the second Gulf War, but one could argue that in Iraq the war never ended, what with the first bombings and then the sanctions that followed. What we know about Iraqi life has a lot to do with information that we get from the media, or that is available to us in some other form, or that we bother to seek out.

JB: I think that’s true. And then we have to ask how the mainstream media works against certain kinds of identifications. What I mean is how the mainstream media makes it impossible for us to understand what the real human costs are, or the costs more generally to life, of this military bombardment. This whole strategy which they insidiously call “shock and awe” seems to me to exploit the visual aesthetics of the media representation of the bombing. So we get an aerial or otherwise distanced view of the bombings. You’re never going to see the bomb drop from beneath, only from above. And you’re never going to see any portraits of human beings as they run, or as they cower, when the bombs are dropped. And you’ll never see the decimated bodies. You’ll never see the close-up. The mainstream media won’t show this. It’s the panoramic aesthetic that allows for this nefarious sublimity, where you get “shock and awe” which is only possible from a distance.

And so it is important to remember that the dominant media has ways of closing that distance if it wanted to. But it won’t. In a certain sense the perspective of its camera identifies with the perspective of the bombers. So we’re in some sense posited as those who are above it all, producing it but immune from it, as if we ourselves don’t live on the ground.

However, the Internet has provided an important counter to the dominant media, since that is where one can get the stories, find the testimonies, that find no voice on the dominant airwaves.

JS: So “shock and awe,” seen from above, is a way of keeping us—if we’re kept—from seeing the suffering of people whose lives we can barely imagine.

JB: That’s right. So if you want to get back to the philosophical question, “what are our obligations to people we do not know?” or “why is it that we might have an obligation to follow an ethic of non-violence toward people we do not know?” we have to ask a prior question, which is “how does our relationship to those other people get represented for us in the media such that we cannot answer such questions?” What determines that those kinds of questions do not become salient questions for us? In other words, it seems to me that the philosophical question I want to pursue is being systematically undermined by the conditions under which “those other people” are represented to us, because they are represented at such an infinite distance and through a moral shroud of sorts.

JS: Bush claims to be protecting and liberating them.

JB: Yes, but we’ve not heard from them [Editor’s note: This interview took place March 22]. Bush is protecting and liberating a construction of them and their desires, a construction in which they had no part. We don’t have their voices, we don’t know their wishes, we’ve not been invited. And even the recent uprisings in Basra have no voice for us as of yet.

JS: We started out talking about philosophy and peace and now we’re talking about war. Does war have anything to do with peace?

JB: I think the Bush government, as conveyed in the words declaring the opening of the war, thinks that we’ll have this war, and that will lead to peace because we’ll uproot the sources of evil in the world and then there will be no more. That is of course a false argument. War begets war. It produces outraged and humiliated and furious people. That is almost invariably the case.

So no, I don’t think there’s any way that war can have a place in peace. I think that peace is the active and difficult resistance to the temptation of war; it is the prerogative and the obligation of the injured. Peace is something that has to be vigilantly maintained; it is a vigilance, and it involves temptation, and it does not mean we as human beings are not aggressive. It does not mean that we do not have murderous impulses. This is a mistaken way of understanding non-violence. Many people think, “Oh, we need to be non-violent; humans can somehow get violence out of their souls; we’re not constituted by aggression.” Rather, I think it is precisely because we’re constituted with aggression, it’s precisely because we are capable of waging war, and of striking back, and of doing massive injury, that peace becomes a necessity. Peace is a certain resistance to the terrible satisfactions of war. It’s a commitment to living with a certain kind of vulnerability to others and susceptibility to being wounded that actually gives our individual lives meaning. And I think this way of viewing things is a much harder place to go, so to speak. One can’t just do it alone, either. I think it needs to be institutionalized. It needs to be part of a community ethos. I think in fact it needs to be part of an entire foreign policy.

JS: Where would one begin to form such a foreign policy?

JB: I think it would begin in a new approach to internationalism, in what meanings internationalism can have for this time. Let’s look at it this way. In the U.S., Bush says, “just as in WWII, there was Hitler and he was a dictator and he killed segments of his population and the United States found it necessary to invade the sovereignty of that country in order to depose that tyrant, so now, we invade Iraq and seek to depose that tyrant.” The Europeans for the most part take a very different lesson from WWII.

If we were to see the European commitment to multi-lateralism in this time as a result of WWII, it would be precisely because they see that nationalism is a huge problem and that it fosters certain kinds of violence. They see that an international set of institutions, identifications, affiliations, commitments, is actually what keeps the prospect of peace alive.

JS: One nation acting on its own truth is decidedly not the answer.

JB: Right. Thus aggressive counter-nationalist trends in Europe tend always to be internationalist, so we get the World Court, the International Criminal Court, we get the Geneva Conventions, we get lots of different kinds of interesting bodies of law that represent a process of consensus among several nations, and require consensus for acts of war.

The idea is that any nation, any ruler, has to operate in consensus with others. Of course, committing oneself to that is committing oneself to a process that one may well lose, or in which one’s own parochial perspective may be disoriented by another perspective, such that the good of the whole prevails. That takes a certain amount of humility, to function within an international frame of that kind. It means that one cannot pursue one’s private or independent interests at all costs. It also means that you don’t regard an international body like the United Nations as an “instrument” through which you pursue your particular interests, but if that instrument doesn’t work you can turn to another instrument, like war. One has to view internationalism as furnishing norms that are binding, and view oneself as obligated to its consensus structure. That may well involve a sacrifice of one’s own particular interest, or the revision of one’s own particular interest in light of other’s interests. There is a kind of giving way, of yielding or submission, that I think goes against what I’m calling American masculinist military ideology right now. It would be appalling to such a view. But it is the international equivalent to what I mean by responsiveness at the individual level.

Also, do we understand the forms that political agency takes in a place like Cairo or in northern Algeria? What are the cultural means by which people express themselves or live their lives? What does freedom or self-determination mean to them? What are the means by which such values are made secure? I think Americans have certain ideas about freedom and rationality that we’ve inherited from classical liberal philosophy, but also from the American ideology that prizes individualism and self-determination. But I think agency—how a person acts as a person—is a broader word than individualism and self-determination allow. It allows us to imagine various kinds of practices that may well even be exercises of freedom that are not necessarily generated from the individual or from some kind of internal notion of self-determination.

JS: Like the freedom to wear a burka?

JB: Ha.

JS: In your Harvard speech you pointed out that not wearing a burka is not necessarily the liberation that we think it is. That something more ought to be understood by people who think that not allowing women to wear a burka is in itself the achievement of liberty.

JB: The person who has taught me most about this is Lila Abu-Lughod, an anthropologist at Columbia University. She has worked in Egypt as an ethnographer and has written extensively on women’s agency in Islam. Over against a certain feminist point of view that always thought that, well, women in Egypt are simply repressed, Abu-Lughod has shown that a lot of the poetry, for instance, that Bedouin women have sung turns out to be extremely politically subversive. More recently she has tried to make clear that the burka signifies lots of different things. It shows that a woman is modest, that she is still connected with her family, that she has not been exploited by popular culture, that she has pride in her family and community. It signifies modes of belonging to a wider network of people. To lose the burka is to undergo some loss of those kinship ties that is not to be underestimated. It can be a very powerful experience of estrangement or indeed of compulsory Westernization that leaves its scars. So we shouldn’t assume that Westernization is always a good thing. Very often it overrides important cultural practices that we don’t have the patience to learn about.

JS: So more than just enabling ourselves to see the loss of life and the suffering of people far away, we ought to be able to envision other kinds of loss, losses that are not simply of life—cultural losses imposed by an unwillingness on our part to expand our idea of what is a meaningful, and even a free, human life.

JB: This moves me to another point. I think that one of the tasks of philosophy—as well as of practicers of non-violence, of internationalism, and of a responsible media—would be to engage in a serious process of cultural translation, so that we might actually have a broader conception of how human beings do make meaning in their lives and what gives their lives meaning. I’m afraid that right now we’re living in a time when we’re imposing our ideas of what makes human life worth living at the very moment that we are undergoing, more generally, a desensitization to the problem. We’re imagining the worthy life as an American life where voting is the ultimate political act and consumer freedoms are the most important freedoms. But if we’re successful in imposing that idea on the people of Iraq then we will be decimating a culture without ever having known anything about how meaning is made and sustained within that culture.

JS: We need to get beyond requiring other lives we deem meaningful to fit into a frame we have approved beforehand.

JB: It has to do with humanization and dehumanization. How do people become humanized, how do we come to understand them to be human beings rather than some distant entity we could never hope or desire to understand? Let me try to explain what I mean. One thing that happened post-9/11 was that The New York Times ran obituaries. They appeared in every issue, with a picture. The person was always smiling, and then there was a vignette about them or something about their families. They always had hopes and dreams and they always came from some place, had hobbies. The loss of life was viewed, then, as a real grievous loss.

I think that public grieving is a good thing. People need to be grieved; loss needs to be acknowledged publicly, because it helps to confer a sense of reality on the loss but also because it makes it known that this was a real life. Obituaries do this. The life doesn’t simply get erased. It gets imprinted and remembered. This strikes me as a dignified thing to do…

Today, I heard a radio announcer read the names of the American soldiers who had been killed. Now supposedly there are already two hundred Iraqis who are dead but we will never hear those names. We’re never even going to learn how to pronounce those names. We won’t have little vignettes, narratives about where they lived, what they were doing and what they wished for in their lives, what their deepest connections were or their most passionate loves.

I think that manipulating the terms by which lives are acknowledged as lives, and deaths as grievable is part of a kind of effort to dehumanize those to whom we do violence.

JS: So that we can do violence to them without grieving!

JB: Yes. How can you eviscerate a life that is not considered a life? I worry about the obituary as a form of nation-building in this way. Here is a good example of what I’m getting at. An Arab Christian group in San Francisco submitted names to the San Francisco Chronicle of some Palestinians who were killed by Israeli violence. They put it in obituary form and submitted it to the paper. The Chronicle said that they couldn’t accept it without proof of death. Then the same group went and found the proof of death in Ha’aretz, which is a relatively progressive Israeli newspaper which reported these deaths. Once the proof of death was submitted, the Chronicle said, “Well, this doesn’t fit our obituary format”—no reason was given for why this was so—“but you can submit it as a memorial.” So then the same group wrote it up as a memorial and submitted it again. The submission was as follows:

In loving memory of Kamla Abu Sa’id, 42, and her daughter, Amna Abu-Sa’id, 13, both Palestinians from the El Bureij refugee camps. Kamla and her daughter were killed May 26, 2002 by Israeli troops, while working on a farm in the Gaza Strip. In loving memory of Ahmed Abu Seer, 7, a Palestinian child, he was killed in his home with bullets. Ahmed died of fatal shrapnel wounds to his heart and lung. Ahmed was a second-grader at Al-Sidaak elementary school in Nablus, he will be missed by all who knew him. In loving memory of Fatime Ibrahim Zakarna, 30, and her two children, Bassem, 4, and Suhair, 3 all Palestinian. Mother and children were killed May 6, 2002 by Israeli soldiers while picking grape leaves in a field in the Kabatiya village. They leave behind Mohammed Yussef Zukarneh, husband and father and Yasmine, daughter and age 6.

The memorial was rejected with the claim that the Chronicle was worried that if they published this memorial it would offend a certain number of their readers, that it would be publicly offensive.

This makes the point in a rather outrageous way, since it seems to me we have to ask, Under what conditions does the grieving of lives become publicly offensive? In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon didn’t allow the public grieving or burial of Polynices, his nephew who attacked the city, and that ended up bringing down his entire kingdom.

JS: Because Antigone could not be commanded not to grieve.

JB: Yes, well-put. There is no commandment that can outlaw grief, even as it seeks to outlaw its public form. I think we’re in a similar situation. Because if it is the case that those Palestinians, including young children, can’t be named—we can’t know what school they went to or what they were doing when they died, what their aspirations were, because it might offend us to know who has been killed—then we’re basically saying that if we are pro-Israel, or if we identify with the Israeli cause, then we don’t want to know anything about the actual human lives of those Israel has killed. The San Francisco Chronicle assumes this about people who may well be attached to the state of Israel, but my guess is that many of them would reject this attribution or, at least, I hope they would.

JS: We can’t be commanded not to grieve, but we can be complicit in producing ideas of persons for whom no grief is necessary.

JB: For me, as a progressive Jew, that would just be the death of Judaism itself, since, in my mind, one of the most valuable things about Judaism has always been its insistence on public grieving, and its insistence that an entire community needed to come together to grieve. It won’t do just to grieve one’s own. We need to extend our notion of who is grievable so that we are not just grieving on the basis of established identifications. Until we learn that other lives are equally grievable and have an equal demand on us to be grieved—especially the ones that we’ve helped to eliminate—I’m not sure we’ll really be on the way to overcoming the problem of dehumanization.

JS: This reminds me of your article in The Nation about prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay (“Guantanamo Limbo,” 4/1/02). You pointed out that the prisoners weren’t offered the kind of protection that the Geneva Conventions ought to offer them in part because they weren’t acting on behalf of a recognized state and the Geneva Conventions are bound up with an idea about state sovereignty. So you showed that there’s a way in which we’ve failed to expand our conception of human rights to include those whose values or affiliations may well test the limits of our own. This is like the question of who can be grieved, a question of what is intelligible within our framework of justice. In the article, you wrote, “Whether we continue to enforce a universal conception of human rights at moments of outrage or incomprehension”—that is, whether we take human rights to apply even to those who have acted outside what we usually consider the sphere of human behavior—that “is a test of our humanity.” In other words, no matter what someone else has done, it still matters how we treat people. It matters to our humanity that we treat offenders according to standards that we recognize as just. Justice is not revenge—it’s deciding for a solution that is oriented toward peace, peace being the harder but more humane way of reacting to injury. That is the very basis of the idea of rights.

JB: Rumsfeld has said that human rights are all well and good, and rights that are guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions are all well and good, but every nation has the right to put its own security above any other right, and that the suspension of constitutional rights—not just international conventions, in this instance—was justified by virtue of putting national security first. And of course he made sure that Guantanamo Bay is outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S., so that an appeal wouldn’t be effective here. U.S. Courts simply say they have no jurisdiction. And by a sleight of hand, he argues as well that these were illegal combatants and so not covered by the Geneva Conventions or international law.

We have to ask, however, whether the demands of security actually do mean that we are somehow entitled not to let prisoners have legal counsel, or that we are somehow entitled not to follow the humane treatment protocols established by the Geneva Conventions, that we can deprive prisoners of rights of redress or even rights to know of what they are being accused. I think what has happened is that Rumsfeld and others—obviously the Administration in general—think that the demands of national security, the “state of emergency,” justify the suspension of basic human rights. And yet my understanding of what human rights do is that they are supposed to act as durable safeguards precisely during states of emergency. They are supposed to be there during situations of extreme duress when everything in a government tends to militate against them. They’re there to check that aggression in the name of a notion of justice that is broader and more binding than any national security policy.

JS: Okay. So human rights check aggression in the name of justice and thus are a source of peace. That would follow if we accept your argument that peace is the more difficult but more just reaction—more difficult but more just than war—to the human condition of vulnerability.

JB: Exactly. I suppose this relates to the ethic of non-violence I was talking about before. Human rights emerge precisely in a context in which a given nation—or government—has been injured or worries about its security or has enormously vengeful feelings and wants to be able to override legal protocol but is checked, is stopped, is forced to resist acting on its aggressions, precisely because there are certain kinds of legal rights that pertain to individuals and protect them no matter how heinous their putative acts may have been.

JS: I think people are wary of universalist arguments, as if such claims might themselves be culturally insensitive. How is universalism—as in human rights as a universal value—compatible with tolerance, multiculturalism or a heterogeneous world society?

JB: It is a question of cultural translation. My sense is that when we try to figure out what rights are universal or ought to be, that we also have to figure out what the meaning of those rights are for various kinds of peoples. Those rights can’t remain completely abstract. We actually have to find out how they are lived. For me, the process of finding out what meaning they have, and in what idioms they are understood in various cultural venues, constitutes the work of universalisation itself. That is how something that has to differ from region to region can still be something on which we all agree, or that becomes a topic for an ongoing, sometimes antagonistic, interpretative practice among us.

It seems to me that if we don’t want a universal right to be an imposition of a Western culture on everyone, then we have to understand that what is “universal” is constantly being made, it is constantly being articulated and re-articulated, under conditions of cultural translation, where different governments and non-governmental organizations are involved in complex questions regarding, say, what would the right to personal liberty look like? Or what would the right to bodily integrity look like?

Or what would the right to protection from violence look like in a given culture? How would that right be implemented and what effects would it have? What kinds of tensions would emerge between the assertion of that right and local traditions or national laws? It seems to me that the struggle there, the struggle between those competing notions or competing frames of reference is essential to the practice of trying to make certain rights universal. To my mind that practice of cultural translation is the alternative to a brutal imposition of dominant culture on its “others.”

JS: What relation does the work you’ve been doing currently bear to the work on gender for which some people would say you are better known?

JB: Well, I’ll probably always be better known for that. I think that the work on gender was and is concerned with figuring out how we’re made by norms and conventions that precede us and that are larger than us, and also what possibilities of agency exist for us, of becoming different genders or becoming gendered differently, given how we are made. I’ve always been concerned to understand subjective agency, that is, the agency we have as persons, as both constrained by certain kinds of cultural forces but not determined by them, and also open to improvisation and malleability and repetition and change.

Early on I felt—and I suppose in my book Gender Trouble I wrote this explicitly—that our notions of what a human being is problematically depend on there being two coherent genders. And if someone doesn’t comply with either the masculine norm or the feminine norm, their very humanness is called into question.

So I suppose the corollary to that is to say that those who are challenging traditional ideas about what gender is are also challenging us to refashion our notion of what is human. I think our current political dilemmas are also challenging us to refashion what is meant by the term “human” so that it becomes more encompassing and more capacious, and finally more human, perhaps in a sense we have only begun to imagine.

More Reads

An Interview with Kumar Pallana

Eli Horowitz

An Interview with Beth Orton

Beth Orton has made three albums—Trailer Park, Central Reservation, and most recently, Daybreaker. The music will not be described in any way here, because you know what it ...


An Interview with Terry Gilliam

Salman Rushdie