Twice Judith Butler in Brazil

Judith Butler’s second visit to Brazil has again a double mark, as in her first visit, two years ago. She comes on occasion of the release of two of her books in Portuguese: Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism — Caminhos Divergentes — judaicidade e crítica ao sionismo (Boitempo Editorial), together with a lecture on Monday, the 6th, at UNESP; and The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection — A vida psíquica do poder — teorias da sujeição (Autêntica). These are titles regarding distinct moments in her work: the first dates from 2012 in the USA and discusses issues related to State violence; the second was originally published in 1997 and is part of the theoretical outcomes demanded by issues which have been open since the late 1980s, when Gender Trouble — Problemas de Gênero (1989 in the USA, 2003 in Brazil) was published.

New Judith Butler’s books in Brazil

One is mistaken, however, if one wishes to establish a theoretical split from the time spam between the 1997 book and the 2012 book. In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler is animated by the readings of Michel Foucault’s literature, in which the theme of power is central in the building of the individuals, in subjectivity, in the Subjection — assujettissement. Butler starts from this apparent paradox of the individual’s term, which, at the same time means constituting oneself as ‘I’ and being subject to a power structure, to revisit different thinkers — such as Hegel, Althusser, Nietzsche and Freud -, and continuing the inaugural theme of his work, the individual’s constitution in the contemporary philosophy.

As of 2001, more precisely as of September 11, 2001, Butler sheds light to the State power over individuals. The theme of Parting ways (Caminhos divergentes) then emerges alongside the seminar that accompanies it, The ends of democracy, in which Butler debates together with her partner, Wendy Brown, who is also a critical thinker of the north-American democratic model, whether for the failure of multiculturalism and its consensus and tolerance policies, or by its neocolonial expansion in a foreign policy based on violence, wars and invasions.

Parting Ways is, therefore, a great contribution to the debate on what a State is allowed. Inspired by her critics to the Israeli State violence, already criticized as anti-Semite, Butler faces the challenge of collecting Jewish sources to criticize the Israeli policy and affirm that criticizing Zionism is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. Thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Walter Benjamin are mobilized. From Benjamin, Butler recovers the important Critique of Violence (1921), in which the German thinker notices State Violence is supported by the tripod militarism, police and death penalty. It is also there that Benjamin thinks violence as constituent of the modern states legal framework.

It is true that, as Butler observes, Benjamin’s critic was discredited throughout the 20th century for a group of thinkers that wished to affirm law as a mechanism through which one could face the rise of fascism. But it is also true that, for other authors, among whom I would locate Giorgio Agamben, law does not provide enough instruments to fight the state of exception in which it takes part, as a government paradigm, in modern democracies.

It is here perhaps that Butler’s Parting Ways is closer to the misleading paths taken by contemporary Brazilian politics, which makes her presence in Brazil so more important. Not because it is useful to us to discuss north-American foreign politics, although for sure it affects us more and more in its neocolonial expansion. Parody, however, seems to be the point that touches us the most in Butler’s diagnosis: ‘parody of constitutional and international law defines the USA’s foreign politics in its practices of war, torture and illegal detention’. It is interesting, above all, to the Brazilian moment, the first part of the quote — parody of the constitutional law -, which has meant the disregard for individual freedom and for all the democracy apparatus that Brazil seemed to have built over the last decades. She has been a target for this very diagnosis, in the countless protests against her visit to the country, which ignore freedom as a fundamental right. Finally, on the first time she has been in Brazil, in 2015, Butler released Frames of War — Quadros de guerra (Civilização Brasileira) and Giving An Account of Oneself — Relatar a si mesmo (Autêntica), the first was published in the USA in 2009 and the second in 2005. Her talks in Salvador, at UFBA, and in São Paulo, at Sesc Mariana took audiences aback, especially because they still expected the author of Gender Trouble, but they found a philosopher who proposed paradoxes that still defy theorists and militants: how to keep mobilizing vulnerabilities in order to ask for state protection to the same State that is violent with the most vulnerable individuals? For the great part of militants who expected the mere adhesion of a queer philosopher, it was a surprise to hear Rethinking vulnerability and resistance.

Now, radical right-wing groups insist in finding in Butler what she is not: neither the first and main developer of the queer theory nor the inventor of gender as a social construct. In the ambiguity of the seminar’s title (The ends of democracy) is a possible response to the noisy and uninformed opponents: we are facing the ends of democracy, whether because we should rethink its objectives and political methods, or because it is urgent to find ways of replacing representative democracy as a failed government model, to the point it destructed its most dear value, freedom.

Portuguese version here:

Carla Rodrigues is a professor of Ethics in the Philosophy Department at UFRJ. She has Specialist, Masters and PhD degrees in Philosophy from PUC-Rio and Post-Doctorate studies at IEL/Unicamp. She coordinates the research lab Writings — philosophy, gender and psychoanalysis.

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