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How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler

Author(s): Irene Costera Meijer and Baukje Prins


Source: Signs, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1998), pp. 275-286
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3175091
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Irene

Costera

Meijer

B au kj e Pr in s

How Bodies Come to Matter:


An Interview with JudithButler
n May 1996Judith
Butlermadea shorttourthrough
Europe.It started

offwitha lightning
visitto theNetherlands,
whereherworkis followed
withmuchinterest.
Butlerwas theguestoftheDepartmentofWomen's
StudiesoftheFacultyofArtsat theUniversity
ofUtrecht.To us, herpresence in thefleshseemeda good opportunity
to put beforeherour questions concerningsuch complexnotionsas the performativity
of gender,
the construction
of sex,and the abjectionof bodies, as set out in Gender
Trouble(1990) andBodiesThatMatter(1993). Butler'stextsmakeforfascinatingreadingsbut also leftus withsome intricate
puzzles.So, just a few
hoursafterher arrival,Butlerfoundherselfassailedby two eagerDutch
It was the startof a rewardingand inspiringexchangeof
interviewers.
views. The followingday, an intensiveresearchseminartook place in
whichDutchwomen'sstudiesscholarsseizedtheopportunity
to pose their
mostpressingquestions.In theeveninghours,we listenedto a challenging
lectureon thelimitsof restraining
instancesof hatespeechby law.It elicited a livelydiscussionabout the differences
between,and the pros and
cons of politicaland constitutional
regulationsin, the United Statesand
theNetherlands.To us, theseeventsprovisionally
concludedan extended
and fruitful
immersionin Butler'sthoughts.
The followinginterviewis the resultof threeroundsof conversation.
To be well preparedforour confrontation
withButler,we spentseveral
animatedafternoons
and eveningsdiscussingherworkand itssignificance
forour own theorizingand research.The second roundwas in writing,
whereinButlergave elaborateresponsesto our firstset of questions.The
face-to-face
talkin Utrecht,finally,
enabledboth partiesto explainthemto
eliminate
and have a
selves,offerclarifications,
try
misunderstandings,
fewgood laughsas well.
The interviewconcentrates
on threeinterrelated
issues.First,we wonderaboutthestatusofButler'sworkand abouthow sheexpectsherreaders
to understandit. What are its feministand what are its philosophical
[Signs:Journal
1998, vol. 23, no. 2]
ofWomenin Cultureand Society
? 1998 byThe University
of Chicago.All rightsreserved.0097-9740/98/2302-0001$02.00

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276

Meijerand Prins

claims?Is it an exercisein carefulconceptualanalysis,or shouldwe readit


as politicalfiction?Is it a politicalcritiqueconcerningthe (un)repreof (some) bodies,or is it a deconstruction
of thenotionof repsentability
itself?Does itaddresstheepistemological
resentability
questionofhow we
canpossiblyknowour (sexed) bodies,or is itan attemptto understand
how
bodies
bebe
an
Butler's
can
which
would
(sexed)
ontologicalquestion?
responseis unequivocal:herprimeconcernsare not thoseof the"conceptuallypure" philosopherbut of a theoristin a much more politicaland
vein.She agreesthatherclaimsconcerningtheexistenceof abject
strategic
bodiesaredownrightcontradictory.
But,so shetellsus, theyarecontradicformulas,
theyaremeantto
toryon purpose:pronouncedas performative
see
Butler'sworkas
or
this
existence.
We
invoke
enforce
may
"impossible"
realize
that
it
offers
fictions
thatwant to
fictionas
as
we
political
long
bringabout "realities.'Second,we wentmoredeeplyintothemeaningof
thenotionof the"abject.?Whatkindof bodieswould countas abjectbodies? Tramps,transvestites,
madmen?The raggedbody,the disabledbody,
theveiledbody?It is clearthatButlerresistsgivingexamples.But she explainsin detailwhythatis thecase. Finally,theinterviewintroducesquesAre therenot otheraxes thatgovernthe
tionsof sex and heterosexuality.
and does one not runthe risk
exclusionof bodies nextto heterosexuality,
one
wishes
to weakenbypresenting
of strengthening
preciselythatwhich
matrix"as thesourceof all evil?Again,Butler'sresponse
"theheterosexual
refersto politicaland strategicratherthan to philosophicalor empirical
she admits,butI fearthatputtingothercategomotives:I mayexaggerate,
once againleads to the"abriesof exclusionon a par withheterosexuality
the
lesbian
and
the
homosexual
of
body.
especially
jection"
ofCommunication
Department
University
(Meijer)
ofAmsterdam
ofPhilosophy
Department
University
ofMaastricht(Prins)

IRENE COSTERA MEIJER and BAUKJEPRINS: Preparingforthisinter-

cameto wonderaboutwhatkindofa workBodiesThat


view,we repeatedly
Matteractuallyis: shouldwe see it as a philosophicalexercisein conceptual
projectofdeconstructivism?
analysis,as a politicalcritique,or as a strategic
of women'swriting,stated:
the
value
about
in
an
essay
CarolynHeilbrun,
"What mattersis thatlivesdo not serveas models; only storiesdo that.
And it is a hardthingto makeup storiesto liveby.We can onlyretelland

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S I G N S

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277

live by the storieswe have read or heard. We live our lives through
texts.... Whatevertheirformor medium,thesestorieshave formedus
all; theyare what we must use to make new fictions,new narratives"
(1988, 37). To whatextentdoes yourworkfitintosucha viewofwomen's
writing?Can yourprojectbe understoodas a wayoftellingus new stories
to live by?Or would you rathersee it as an attemptto give us feminists
tools to criticizeour lives?In otherwords,how would you
new analytical
want yourideal readerto read BodiesThatMatter: as a formof political
fictionor as a diagnosticphilosophicalinquiry?
withthedescriptionof myworkas
JUDITH BUTLER: I am sympathetic
is
but
I
it
think
importantto stressthatnot all fiction
politicalfiction,
citationfromCarolynHeilbrun
takestheformof a story.The interesting
thatsurvival
emphasizes"stories"and suggeststhatit is throughnarrative
forwomenis to be found.That maybe true,but thatis not quitetheway
in whichI work. I thinkthata politicalimaginarycontainsall kindsof
storiesbutwhichare
waysof thinkingand writingthatarenot necessarily
in thesensethattheydelineatemodes of possibility.
fictive,
withthe aim to expandand enMy workhas alwaysbeen undertaken
hancea fieldof possibilities
forbodilylife.My earlieremphasison denaturalizationwas not so muchan oppositionto natureas itwas an opposition
limitson gendered
to theinvocationofnatureas a wayofsettingnecessary
life.To conceiveof bodies differently
seemsto me partof the conceptual
and philosophicalstrugglethatfeminism
involves,and itcan relateto questions of survivalas well. The abjectionof certainkindsof bodies, their
to codes of intelligibility,
does makeitselfknownin policy
inadmissibility
and politics,and to liveas sucha bodyin theworldis to livein theshadowy
regionsof ontology.I'm enragedby the ontologicalclaimsthatcodes of
makeon bodies in theworld,and I try,whenI can,to imagine
legitimacy
that.
against
and not at all a story,
So, it is not a diagnosis,and not merelya strategy,
but some otherkindof workthathappensat the levelof a philosophical
one thatis deployedbycodes oflegitimacy,
butalso,one which
imaginary,
from
within
those
codes
as
the
internal
emerges
possibilityof theirown

dismantling.
ICM and BP: As we understandit, in BodiesThatMatteryou address
one of thethorniestproblemsfora radicalconstructivist,
namely,how to
conceiveof materiality
in constructivist
terms.Withthehelpof thenotion
of theperformativity
of language,you manageto evokean imageof both
the solidityand contingencyof so-calledhard facts.You build a potent
argumentwithwhichwe thinkhard-boiledrealisticargumentsabout the
of "Death and Furniture"can be countered(see Edwards,
undeniability

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278

Meijerand Prins

Ashmore,and Potter1995). In an attemptto capturetheargumentofyour


characterof discursive
book, we would say thatit shows the constitutive
underwhich
More
it
that
the
conditions
constructions.
particularly,shows
concerntheirexismaterial,sexedbodies come into beingsimultaneously
their
and
their
tence,
legitimacy.
knowability,
JB: I verymuchlikethislastsummaryof myclaims.However,I think
work
itmaybe a mistaketo claimthatBodiesThatMatteris a constructivist
terms.It
in constructivist
or thatit seeksto takeinto accountmateriality
would be equallyright--orpossible--to say thatit seeksto understand
debate founderson a paradox that
why the essentialism/constructivism
is
is not easilyor,indeed,not everovercome.Justas no priormateriality
accessiblewithoutthemeansofdiscourse,so no discoursecan evercapture
is not
to claimthatthe body is an elusivereferent
thatpriormateriality;
In
thesame as claimingthatit is onlyand alwaysconstructed. some ways,
a place,as it
it is preciselyto claimthatthereis a limitto constructedness,
its
limit.
meets
were,whereconstruction
necessarily
ICM and BP: In theprefaceto BodiesThatMatteryou admitthatthere
suchas bodto primary
is a certainnecessityand irrefutability
experiences,
ies living,eating,feelingpain, dying."But,"you continue,"theirirrefutthemand through
abilityin no wayimplieswhatit mightmean to affirm
whatdiscursivemeans"(xi). Here you suggestthatyou will addressqueseffects
thatis, concerningthe constitutive
tions concerningknowability,
and
irrefutable
their
of affirming
"being"
primaryexperiencesapartfrom
ThatMatBodies
that
On theotherhand,you regularly
emphasize
primary.
teris morethan"just"an epistemological
project.It appearsthatyou also
of how we
wish to addressquestionsof how theworldis,independently
we
were
In
this
it.
puzzled by youruse of the
respect,
perceive/construct
phrase"thereis."Most often,as in "thereis no doer behindthe deed,"it
is used in the negativemode. Withsuch phrasesyou intendto denythe
of theentityin question- not itsexistenceas such.But what
"originality"
such as "thereis a
thenis thestatusof "thereis" in affirmative
statements,
outside"(8)? Ifthey
matrixofgenderrelations"or "thereis a [constitutive]
matrixor the
oftheheterosexual
character
do not suggesttheprediscursive
to?
refer
do
what
constitutive
outside,
they
JB:This is a good question,one thatI am pleasedto havetheopportunityto respondto. For me, the questionof how one comes to know,or,
indeed,the conditionsof the possibilityof establishingthatone knows,
arebestansweredthroughturningto a priorquestion:Who are"we" such
thatthisquestionbecomesa questionforus. How has the"we" been constructedin relationto thisquestionof knowledge?In otherwords: How
does the epistemologicalquestionitselfbecome possible?Foucault pro-

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vides anotherstep,made possibleby the kindof workthathe does. This


has to do with askinghow it is thatcertainkindsof discourseproduce
or operatethroughthecirculation
ofontologicalmoves.
ontologicaleffects
In part,I see myselfas workingwithindiscoursesthatoperatethrough
ontologicalclaims "thereis no doerbehindthedeed" and recirculating
is"
in
a
to the dominant
the "there
orderto produce counterimaginary
the
Indeed, I thinkit is crucialto recirculateand resignify
metaphysics.
if
to
itself
as
a
contested
ontologicaloperators, only produce ontology
field.I think,forinstance,thatit is crucialto writesentencesthatbegin
with"I think"even thoughI standthe chanceof being misconstrued
as
the
to
the
deed.
There
is
no
to
counter
those
kinds
of
subject
adding
way
grammarsexceptthroughinhabitingthemin waysthatproducea terrible
dissonancein them,that"say"precisely
whatthegrammaritselfwas supare so
posed to foreclose.The reasonwhy repetitionand resignification
to
work
has
to
I
do
with
how
see
important my
everything
opposition
workingfromwithinthe verytermsby whichpower is reelaborated.The
pointis not to levela prohibitionagainstusingontologicaltermsbut,on
thecontrary,
to use themmore,to exploitand restagethem,subjectthem
to abuse so thattheycan no longerdo theirusual work.
Thereis, however,anotherpointhereto be made,and it relatesbackto
the questionof constructivism.
Phraseslike "thereis a matrixof gender
relations"do appearto refer,
but theyalso referlaterally,
withinlanguage,
to the conventionsof ontological ascription.They are philosophical
"mimes"in thesensethatIrigarayhasdescribed.Theyreferto certainkinds
of philosophicalconventions.But I also wantto claimthattheontological
claimcan neverfullycaptureitsobject,and thisviewmakesme somewhat
different
fromFoucaultand alignsme temporarily
withtheKantiantradition as it has been takenup by Derrida.The "thereis" gesturestowarda
referent
it cannotcapture,becausethereferent
is not fullybuiltup in lanis
not
the
same
as
the
effect.
There
is no accessto it outguage,
linguistic
side of thelinguisticeffect,
but thelinguisticeffect
is not the same as the
referent
thatit failsto capture.This is whatallowsfora varietyof waysof
to something,none of which can claim to be thatto
makingreference
whichreference
is made.
ICM and BP: The pun of yourtitleis veryfelicitous:"bodies thatmatter"simultaneously
materialize,acquiremeaning,and obtaina legitimate
status.Bodies thatdo notmatterare "abject"bodies. Such bodies are not
intelligible(an epistemologicalclaim),nor do theyhave legitimateexistence(a politicalor normativeclaim).Hence, theyfailto materialize.
Nevertheless,
yourclaimis also thatabjectbodies "exist, thatis, as excluded,
as a disruptive
power.At thispoint,we feela bitlost: Can bodies thatfail

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Meijerand Prins

to materializestill"be" bodies?If you intendthe conceptof the "abject"


to referto bodies that"exist,"would it not be moreadequateto saythat,
havematerialized,
and gainedintelalthoughabjectbodiesareconstructed,
to
as
In
still
fail
human?
other
words,is it not
ligibility,
they
qualify fully
thecase thatabjectbodiesdo "matter"ontologicallyand epistemologically
sense?
but do not yet"matter"in a normative-political
JB: Indeed, in a strictly
philosophicalsense,at once to say that"there
are" abjectbodies and thattheydo nothave claimto ontologyappearsto
contradiction.
be whattheHabermassianswould calla performative
Well,
you could become kindof medievaland scholasticabout thisand say,oh
yes,certainkindsof beingshavemorefullyontologicalbeingthanothers,
etcetera,etcetera.Then you would remainwithina certainkindof philoBut I would like
thatcould be conceptually
satisfying.
sophicalframework
kindof question,namely,How is it thatthe domain of
to ask a different
is
circumscribed
itself
by power?That is, How is it thatcertain
ontology
kindsof subjectslayclaimto ontology,how is it thattheycountor qualify
of ontological
as real?In thatcase, we are talkingabout the distribution
forpurposesof
of power,instrumentalized
whichis an instrument
effects,
and for
of
exclusion
also
for
and
and
subordination
purposes
hierarchy
of
domain
of
This
whole
domains
ontologythat
unthinkability.
producing
the good, the conceptuallypure, philosophertakesfor granted,is profoundlytaintedfromthestart.Now, we cannotlook at grammarand say,
ifI saythatthereare abjectbodies,thenI mustbe able to reasonbackfrom
theclaim"thereare"to a priorontology.Hardly,hardly.I could say"there
in whichI endowontolareabjectbodies,"and thatcould be a performative
dehas
been systematically
that
which
to
I
endow
ontology precisely
ogy.
is
a
of
The
of
domain
of
the
ontology regulated
privilege ontology.
prived
domain: what gets producedinsideof it, what gets excludedfromit in
of power.And the
is itselfan effect
orderforthedomainto be constituted
discourse
in
which
of
one
the
can
be
operationalizes
ways
performative
And
onpurpose.
a performative
contradiction,
power.So, I am performing
to confoundtheconceptually
I am doingthatprecisely
properphilosopher
statusof ontoland to pose a questionabout thesecondaryand derivative
if
I
"there
Even
are
a
me
not
is
for
It
abjectbodies
say,
presupposition.
ogy.
thatconthatdo not enjoya certainkindof ontologicalstatus,"I perform
of those
in
the
face
to
that
tradictionon purpose.I am doing
precisely fly
who would say,"but aren'tyou presupposing... ?" No! My speechdoes
haveto presuppose. ... Or,ifitdoes, fine!Perhapsit'spronotnecessarily
OK? And
of a presuppositionthroughits performance,
the
effect
ducing
an
to
is
it
it!
But
to
used
fine!
Get
that's
roundlyinaugurate ontological

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an already
to
domain,itis notto presuppose
givenone.It is discursively
one.
institute
tograspthenotionofthe"abject"
difficult
ICM andBP: Still,itremains
abstract
character
ofmost
in yourwork,whichmaybe due to thehighly
Youseemsomewhat
reluctant
to give
anddescriptions.
ofyourdefinitions
ofwhatcouldbe considered
moreconcrete
abjectbodies.
examples
am.For,youknow,typologies
areusuallyexJB:Well,yes,I certainly
in
which
conferred:
is
consider
the
the
abjection
placeof tyactly way
to
within
However, prevent
anymispathologization.
pology
psychiatric
to sex
beforehand:
theabjectformeis inno wayrestricted
understanding
It relates
andheteronormativity.
to allkindsofbodieswhoselivesarenot
is understood
considered
to be "lives"andwhosemateriality
notto "matof
an
the
indication: U.S. pressregularly
ter."To givesomething
figures
isanother
non-Western
livesinsuchterms.
commoncanImpoverishment
as psychiatric
"cases."
didate,as is thedomainofthoseidentified
onthissubject
ICM andBP: Weagreethatbeingoutspoken
approaches
ofwhatcanbe spokenof.Still,couldyouelaborate
thelimits
on thisissue?
elseatthesametime.
JB:OK, I'll do that,butI haveto do something
I couldenumerate
what
I
be theabjection
of
of
take
to
manyexamples
bodies.Wecannoticeit,forinstance,
withthekilling
ofLebaneserefugees:
thewaysthatthosebodies,thoselives,don'tgetfigured
as lives.Theycan
there's
is
but
there
no
I have
getcounted,
outragegenerally,
specificity.
seenit in theGermanpresswhenTurkish
are
or
either
killed
refugees
maimed.
and
Veryoftenwe cangetthenamesoftheGerman
perpetrators
theircomplexfamily
andpsychological
butno Turkhasa comhistories,
or psychological
thatDie Zeiteverwritesabout,or at
plexfamily
history
leastnotthatI haveseeninmyreading
ofthismaterial.
So, we geta kind
ofdifferential
ofthehumanora differential
materialization
of
production
thehuman.Andwe alsoget,I think,
oftheabject.So, itis not
aproduction
as iftheunthinkable,
theunlivable,
theunintelligible
hasno discursive
life;
itdoeshaveone.Itjustliveswithin
as theradically
discourse
uninterrogated
andas theshadowy
contentless
forsomething
thatis notyetmade
figure
real.Butitwouldbe a terrible
ifone thought
mistake
thatthedefinition
oftheabjectcouldbe exhausted
thatI give.I wanttohold
bytheexamples
outfora conceptual
thatallowsfortheoperation
ofabjection
apparatus
to havea kindof relative
even
contentlessness-autonomy, emptiness,
so thatit is not captured
so thatitsexamples
precisely
byitsexamples,
then
become
normative
of
what
we
mean
don't
bytheabject.Whatvery
oftenhappensis thatpeoplegivetheirabstract
theories
ofsomething
like
thentheygivetheexample,
thentheexamplebecomesnormaabjection,

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Meijerand Prins

tiveof everything
else. It becomesparadigmatic
and comesto produceits
own exclusions.It becomesfixedand normativein therigidsense.
ICM and BP: So, abjectionis a process?A discursiveprocess?
JB:I thinkso! I thinkit has to be, yes.
but about theways
ICM and BP: So, it is not about bodiesthemselves,
bodies figurein discourse?We, forinstance,asked ourselveswhetherthe
oriental,theveiledbody,thefemalebodythatis veiledwhen she/itenters
publicspace,countsas an exampleof the abject.We hesitatedabout this,
because this body,this woman, acts accordingto an establishednorm.
Somehowwe could not combineabjectionand normativity.
issues.So, let me give
JB:This questionopens up a couple of different
I
think
thatdiscoursesdo
is
that
a
of
answers
to
that.
One
you couple
in
fact
in
bodies
live
in
bodies.
carrydiscourses
actually
Theylodge bodies;
as partof theirown lifeblood.And nobodycan survivewithout,in some
sense,beingcarriedby discourse.So, I don'twantto saythatthereis dison the one hand and a lived body on the other.But
cursiveconstruction
the otherpoint,whichmaybe more importanthere,is thatwe also have
to worryabout certainways of describingorientalismand especiallydescribingorientalismas it pertainsto women,women'sbodies,and womFor instance,thereare manydebatesabout the
en's self-representations.
veil.And thereare some scholars,feminist
scholars,who have arguedthat
theveilis actuallyverycomplexand thatveryoftena certainkindof power
thatwomen have withinIslamic countriesto expressthemselvesand to
exercisepoweris facilitated
bytheveil,preciselybecausethatpoweris deflectedand made less easilyidentifiable.
So, ifyou wereto sayto me, "the
veiledwoman,"do we mean in Iran?Do we mean a woman of a certain
class?In whatcontext,forwhatpurpose?What is the action,whatis the
practicethatwe are thinkingabout?In whatcontextare we tryingto decide whetheror not theveiledwoman is an exampleof theabject?WhatI
worryabout is that,in certaincases,we would see thatas an abjection:in
the sense thatthiswoman is literallynot allowed to show her face and
hence enterinto the public domain of facedhumans.On anotherlevel,
a certain
aremisrecognizing
however,we mightsaythatwe as Westerners
thathas been a
a certainculturaland religiousinstrument
culturalartifact,
debateoverthe
traditional
wayforwomento exertpower.This particular
debates.The questionis: Arefeminists
veilhas plaguedfeminist
beingorientalistwhen they assume that the veiled woman is always an abject
woman?I wantto keepthatquestionopen; that'swhyI thinktheremust
elaborationof abbetweenthetheoretical
be a relativeincommensurability
the
be
that
exampleworksin
jectionand the examples.And it maywell
some contextsand not at all in others.

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G N S

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ICM and BP: Now thatyou mentioncontext,is thisnot theotherside


of the"thereis" question?As you said earlier,one of thefunctionsof the
"thereis" formulais thatyou engageyourself
in a debateabout ontology,
of what is and what can be thought.In GenderTrouble,
you intervenein
of genderidentities.As you noticehere,
the debate on the construction
"theinternalcoherenceor unityof eithergender,man or woman,thereby
That institutional
requiresboth a stableand oppositionalheterosexuality.
both
and
the
univocityof each of the
heterosexuality
requires
produces
terms
that
constitute
the
limit
of
gendered
genderedpossibilitieswithin
an oppositional,binarygendersystem"(22). Our questionconcernsthe
assumednecessity
of the heterosexual
characterof practicesthat generate
stableidentities.Does the heterosexualmatrixnot also obscurethe performative
powersof thesexualdivisionsamongwomen?Feministhistorians have shownthatthe stability
of genderidentitiesdoes not automation
heterosexual
cally depend
negotiationsbut also on the differences
between
women
and
other
women, between"proper"men and
"proper"
othermen (CosteraMeijer 1991).
To call the normativity
of heterosexuality
into questionis a powerful
but
does
it
not
obscure
the
fact
that
gesture,
people constructnotionsof
difference
not only throughgenderbut by sexual(izing)divisionswithin
gendersthroughcategoriesof race,class, or physicalabilities?Disabled
womensuffer
frombeingstigmatized
as lessfeminine
thantheirmoreablebodied counterparts.
On theotherhand,blackwomen aresometimesstereotypedas more female,whereasin othercontextstheyare considered
lessladylikethanwhitewomen.The construction
of genderidentities,
we
was
made
not
the
difference
between
female
suggest,
only by repeating
and male,femininity
and masculinity
but also by constantly
the
affirming
hierarchicalopposition between femininity
and unfemininity,
between
and unmasculinity.
What are yourthoughtsabout the claim
masculinity
thatthe oppositeof femininity
is oftennot masculinity
but unfemininity
and thatthesetwo notionsoftendo not coincide?
is not
JB: I verymuch like the idea thatthe opposite of masculinity
I
have
no
with
that.
But
the
necessarily
femininity.
problem
relationship
betweensexualityand gender,theway thatyou frameit hereis based on
BodiesThatMatter.
In fact,in GenderTrouble
I wrotesomethingverysimilar
to whatyou suggesthere.AlthoughinBodiesThatMatterI emphasizethat
sexualityis regulatedthroughtheshamingof gender,thatof coursecould
not workifgenderwerenot itselfrenderedproperonlyin thecontextof
a certainregulationof sexuality.So, I see no problemthere.But I have
readmuchfeminist
historythatassumesthatboththeproperand the"unarekindsofheterosexuality
proper"in women'ssexuality
(withinmarriage

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284

Meijerand Prins

and outsidemarriageor domesticand prostitution).


The questionI want
to pose has to do withwhatis leftoutsidethesebinaries,whatis not even
speakableas partof the unproperor improper.I fearthatthe question
of femalehomosexuality
becomesmutedpreciselythroughthosekindsof
feministhistoricalframeworks
attachedto those
thatremainuncritically
kindsof binarisms.
I suppose thatyou wantto suggestthatunpropersexualityis a larger
rubric,one thatmighttakeintoaccountall kindsof sexualpractices.But I
am worriedthatthe proper/unproper
distinctionseeksto elide the questionof homosexuality.
And I thinkthereI am probablywillingto commit
a sortof rhetorical
excessin orderto keep the questionof homosexuality,
and lesbianismin particular,
alive.Whichis not thesame as sayingthatall
to
do
that
or thatit is the primaryoppression,or the
scholarshipought
key,or whatever.It ratherindicateswhereI enterinto criticaldiscourse
thesedays.
at the center,do you not
ICM and BP: By puttingheteronormativity
Is
it
not a relapse?When we
runthe riskof reproducingits importance?
wantto studytheconceptofwomanin a certaintimeand place,whenwe
want to know who countedas a woman and who did not, would it not
to look "sideways"forinstance,at thenotionof the
be moreinformative
unwomanlyor unfeminine?
JB: Well,you know,whatI worryabout is this.If lesbianismwere to
thentherelationbe understoodas one amongmanyformsofimpropriety,
and genderremainsintactin thesensethatwe don't
shipbetweensexuality
get to ask underwhat conditionslesbianismactuallyunsettlesthe notion
of gender.Not simplythequestionof whatis a properwoman or an improperwoman,but whatis not thinkableas a woman at all! This is where
we come back to the notion of abjection.I thinkthatabjectiontriesto
signalwhatis leftoutsideof thosebinaryoppositions,such thatthosebinariesare even possible. Who gets to count as an "improper"woman?
Who gets named as the improperin the textthatthe historianstudies?
What kindsof actsget classifiedor designatedor named?And whichare
thattheyare improperto theimproper,
so unnameableand unclassifiable
to actsthatconstitute
thattheyareoutsideof theimproper?I am referring
betweenimthe
distinction
conditions
that
of
a domain unspeakability
properand proper.
We arestillnot able to accountforthoseactsand practicesand waysof
livingthatwere wildlyexpelledfromthe verybinaryof the properand
the improper.They are not its benignprehistory
but, rather,its violent
to turnto.
to
continue
I
want
what
And
that's
underside.
unspeakable
ICM and BP: So, we come backto theabject.

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S I G N S

Winter 1998

285

is how you do a
JB: I thinkso. What'sgoing to be reallyinteresting

of that;thetracesofwhichhavebeen,or areforthemostpart,
history
erased.Thatis a veryinteresting
fora historian.
How to readthe
problem
tracesofwhatdoesgetspoken.I don'tthink
itis impossible
to do it,butI
thinkits a reallyinteresting
how
to
do
a
ofthatwhich
problem:
history
wasneversupposedto be possible.
ICM andBP: In yourdesireto extendthedomainof"bodiesthatmatter"youarenotalone.Thisambition
is sharedbyintellectuals
whocome
fromquitedifferent
We
think
philosophical
backgrounds. especially ofsciencestudies
scholars
suchasDonnaHaraway
andBrunoLatour.However,
theirproposalsto broadenour mindson thisissue are not exclusively
fo-

cusedon thedomainof(whatcouldqualify
as) humanbodies.Theyalso
wishtotransform
ourviewsof"Nature"
and"Things,"
inordertodevelop
moreradicalaccountsof ecologyand technology.
For thatreason,they
thenotionofthe"actor"to the(humanist)
notionofthe"subject."
prefer
to
is
not
the
ofhumans.
Animals,
Contrary subjectivity,
agency
prerogative
thathasan impacton or affects
trees,machines,--for
example,
anything
else- canbe perceived
as an actor.BothHarawayandLatour
something
usethenotionofthe"hybrid"
to refer
to thisvastrealmofactorsthatare
not (seenas) human.How do youassesstherelationship
betweenyour
owntheorizing
ofabjectbodiesas disruptive
to
what
countsas
challenges
human
and
the
affirmation
of
actors
fully
(nonhuman)
hybrid
byscience
studiesscholars
suchas HarawayandLatour?Forinstance,
doesyourconfornonhuman
ceptof"abject"bodiesleaveroomtoincludethepossibility
bodiesto cometo "matter"?
Or doesit remainrestricted
to therealmof
whatis "livable"
as fully
human?
I
think
that
the
workofHarawayandLatourisveryimportant.
And
JB:
I don'thavea problemwiththenotionof theactor.Still,I thinkthereare

reasonsto workwiththenotionofthesubject,reasonsthathaveeverythingto do withthewayin whichit is boundup withthelegaciesof


humanism.
I wouldsuggestas wellthatthenotionofthesubjectcarries
withit a doubleness
thatis crucialto emphasize:
thesubjectis one who
is presumed
to be thepresupposition
ofagency,
as yousuggest,
butthe
is
also
one
who
is
to a setofrulesor lawsthatprecede
subject
subjected
the subject.This secondsenseworksagainstthehumanist
conception
of an autonomousselfor self-grounded
humanactor.Indeed,"actor"
carries
a theatrical
resonance
thatwouldbe verydifficult
formeto adopt
withinmyownwork,giventhepropensity
to read"performativity"
as a
on a maskor electing
to playa role.I
Goffmanesque
projectofputting
to workthelegacyofhumanism
andI think
thatsuch
prefer
itself,
against
a projectis not necessarily
in tensionwiththosewho seekto displace
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286

Meijerand Prins

humanismthroughrecourseto vocabulariesthatdisperseagencyacross
theecologicalfield.Theyaretwo waysof undoingthesame problem,and
who workat bothends of
it seemsimportant
to havescholarsand activists
theproblem.
References
New
and theSubversion
Butler,Judith.1990. GenderTrouble:Feminism
ofIdentity.

YorkandLondon:Routledge.

Limitsof"Sex."New Yorkand
.1993. BodiesThatMatter:On theDiscursive

London:Routledge.
On the
MakestheDifference?
CosteraMeijer,Irene.1991. "WhichDifference
DeFeminist
In SharingtheDifference:
Conceptualizationof Sexual Difference."

32-46. New
vanLenning,
batesinHolland,ed. JokeJ.HermsenandAlkeline
YorkandLondon:Routledge.
Potter.
1995."DeathandFurandJonathan
Edwards,
Derek,MalcolmAshmore,
ofBottomLineArguments
andTheology
TheRhetoric,
Politics
niture:
against
Relativism."
8(2):25-49.
History
oftheHuman Sciences

Press.
a Womans
G. 1988.Writing
Heilbrun,
Life.London:Women's
Carolyn

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