Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Butler Affair and the Geopolitics of Identity

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Butler Affair and the Geopolitics of Identity

Article excerpt

The Adorno Prize

In Frankfurt on 11 September 2012, for her contributions to critical social theory, Judith Butler was honoured with the Theodor W Adorno Prize. While the citation noted that current discussions of gender, the subject, and morality, and even some parts of modern literature, film, theatre, and the visual arts have been decisively shaped by Butler's work on identity and the body (City of Frankfurt, 2012), the protests against the award were both about her most recent work on what we might call the geopolitics of identity and illuminated by it. On the face of it, Butler was an entirely appropriate choice having engaged with the work (Butler, 2005) and preoccupations of Theodor Adorno. In her acceptance speech Butler (2012a, page 10) took up Adorno's claim that "the quest for a good life is a quest for the right form of politics."

Butler developed the argument in two ways. She suggested that the vital aspects of the question were not explicated by Adorno. More particularly she proposed, as she had in Precarious Life (Butler, 2004a) and in Frames of War (Butler, 2010a), that in modern societies some lives are so devalued that mourning their loss is foreclosed (Debrix, 2011). Accepting what Butler (2012a, page 15) calls 'precarity'; that is, our interdependence and our vulnerability before others, animates our search for mutually 'liveable lives', recalling to us that our individual good life presumes communal support for, and validation of, a diversity of lives and life choices. In the face of institutional violence, the flourishing of diverse people is simply impossible and many are denied the possibility of a good life, leading Butler to the paradoxical question of her talk: "Can one lead a good life in a bad life?" Reflecting upon Primo Levi's account of his survival of Auschwitz, Butler (2012a, page 12) concluded that even "under conditions of extreme peril and heightened precarity, the moral dilemma does not pass away; it persists precisely in the tension between wanting to live and wanting to live in a certain way with others." For Butler, then, the politics of a good life are about biopolitics, nonviolence, and the preconditions of mutual flourishing.

The second way that Butler engages Adorno's notion of politics is through an examination of resistance. Adorno had responded to the direct action of students in 1967-68 with an angry denial that he had ever "supplied the model for any acts or political actions whatever" (Muller-Doohm, 2005, page 477). Adorno worried that in attacking the German state as fascist, the students would produce the kind of authoritarian reaction that really would install what they claimed to be attacking (Kundani, 2009, page 58). In short: "At the present moment, no higher form of society is concretely visible" (Adorno, 1991 [1969], page 202). In these circumstances thinking was its own form of resistance and capable, he thought, of sublimating anger: "Such thought is happiness, even where unhappiness prevails" (page 203). Against this, Butler insisted upon the social character of resistance, proposing that in acting together within a social movement we improvise new forms of community.

These issues of biopolitics and of the utopian potential of new social movements are central to the work of Butler and, as Eva Illouz (2012) insisted, "[n]o one can ignore her staggering influence in renewing the critical theory of Theodor Adorno." But Illouz went on to criticise Butler for her "unworthy" political positions before insisting that these should not disqualify her from being honoured with the Adorno award since "there is no direct continuity between Butler's analysis ... and her political positions." Other commentators were less charitable, arguing that a prize named in honour of a Jewish scholar forced to leave Germany by Nazi persecution should not be given to someone critical of Israel.

Butler was attacked for supporting the Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, for identifying Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the global Left by virtue of their opposition to Israeli colonialism, and for the alleged anti-Semitism of her criticisms of Israeli state violence. …

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