Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

77: Judith Butler part III:
The Force of Fantasy and Racisim

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay “The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess,” (1990) Butler gives us her take on the censorship, pornography debate. She claims that fantasy is absolutely necessary to have a concept of what is real. A standard technique of definition is to name the opposite: the real is what is not fantasy. In this sense the concept of the real cannot exist without its negation: fantasy. Most activist, including feminists, implicitly use fantasy to sketch a world which they would like to see come about. In that way fantasy is a tool to bring about social change. Yet those same activist that push for censorship are also working against the use of fantasy in their attempts to limit its expression – The very thing they condemn the ruling powers to be doing. In this way activists employ the tools of repression. (Q1)
         Now in certain cases the attempt to limit and control the “bad” social imaginary and expression of “bad” fantasy result in the propagation and promotion of the fantasy. In particular, when fantasy is thought of as a part of the real in which representation equals or causes action. There is some evidence of the truth that fantasy causes actions; as in most instruction manuals. However the point Butler questions is whether it is necessarily true of depictions of activist or erotic fantasy. Supporters of censorship should claim fantasy leads to or causes some bad action as the justification for the censorship of “negative” (from the point of view of the would be censor) fantasies.(Q2)
         If this view is true then it raises many problematic issues. If fantasy is the cause of action then all depictions of fantasy would seem to be subject to only one (or one similar set of) interpretation that leads to a course of action. (Q3)
         This assumption of one set of interpretations is the fundamental problem with censorship according to Butler. By banning certain politically incorrect depictions of fantasy we limit the range of possible interpretation and responses (just like with the notions of sex and gender which cannot in their current form tolerate a plurality). Censoring of pornography (especially homosexual depictions – as her example) freezes sex and gender norms as they are today: binary; and delegitimizes other forms of relationships. The same is true for most forms of censorship.(Q4) More insidiously censorship creates a social imaginary based on the fantasy of the censor. In Butler's example Jessy Helms, the censor, links homosexuality with sadomasochism and pedophilia. This link is in the fantasy of the late senator much more clearly and fully than in reality. However the privileged position of Helms as a law maker makes his fantasy have much more force in that he created a legal definition of “obscene” in the social imaginary. He is in fact spreading a fantastic pornographic imaginary; the very act he is trying to prevent the NEA from doing.(Q5)
         Now that the law has passed, Butler believes that the political goal is to develop and promote discourses that contest and dramatize opposition to the prohibitive law: to take advantage of the eroticization of prohibition for the public welfare.
         In her essay “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” Butler analyzes the infamous Rodney King beating video, the statements of some of the juror and the aftermath of the riots. Butler describes the video as showing “a man being brutally beaten.” Then she contrasts this with some of the comments of jurors: “Rodney King was not being abused. Rodney King was directing the action.” and “he [Rodney King] never lost control …. he was in complete control.”
         How did seeing the video lead to these kinds of statements? Her answer is that there is an episteme (a body of ideas that determine the knowledge that is intellectually certain at any particular time). This white racist episteme includes the following: 1) a white body is helpless in relation to the black body: the black male body is stronger more virile and a constant threat to the white male body; 2) the virgin sanctity of whiteness will be endangered by the proximity to blackness; 3) whiteness (and its connotations of goodness, purity, cleanliness etc.) must be protected. According to this racist episteme, one white police man could not handle one black man therefore a whole troop of police officers were needed to ward off his continuous threat; every blow that King suffered was justified based on the possible and continuing threat he posed by virtue of being black; and since the public (read: the holders of the white racist episteme) must be protected everyone must be brought into complicity through a radical reevaluation and reconstruction of the events(Q6). Thus every movement that King made was interpreted by the defense lawyers as defiance of the police (read white people) that must be subdued; every blow that was dealt was a justified retaliation for blows King could have made by virtue of his blackness. Therefore every move that King made put him in control of the situation; every move he made brought on to himself more punishment because he is a threat (read: because he is black): King was the active agent; the police were passive responders.(Q7)
         This white racist episteme played itself out in the aftermath of the acquittal. In the riots that took place most people who where hurt and killed were blacks at the hands of non-black police officers. In a sense “...replaying, intensifying, and extending the scope of the violence against Rodney King.” and further giving state sanction to police brutality. The white racist episteme was proved right: the black people did pose a threat to the whites. The media fanned this by airing only images of black rioters and looters (there were white rioters and looters too); showing only white business being looted by black mobs; President Bush senior condemned the violence of the people (not the police) and the damage to property (not the lives of people) – thus giving more state support to the racist episteme.
         Video, which is considered the gold standard of evidence, was commandeered to server the aggressors through a reinterpretation. The lesson is that nothing can speak for itself – everything can be used against its intended purposes.(Q8)
         Q1 What do you understand by fantasy? Is fantasy essential to limiting and defining what is real? Should we censor some fantasies? How should we chose which to censor and which not to censor?
         Q2 Is it ever true that fantasy necessarily leads to action or is it better to say that fantasy can lead to action?
         Q3 Butler's claim that any visual image (pornographic or otherwise) can and should lead to a multitude of possible responses; that by assuming one identity as a response we hobble ourselves in seeking possible solutions while imposing one solution (or lack of solution) on the rest of us.
         Q4 Censorship creates a fantasy that expands and perpetuates itself. Consider the notion of “terrorist” this fantasy was radically promulgated after the 9/11 attacks to the point where no one could possibly defend terrorism of any kind: this is a kind of censorship. The result is that the mere label makes anyone undefensible – this is a useful tool: one that is being used on people who disagree with the government and conduct peaceful protests (eg 82 year old catholic nun convicted of terrorism) – while at the same time the rebels in Syria who are doing many terrible things are called “our friends.” Does one interpretation lead to more abuse or less abuse of censorship?
         Q5 Are Jessy Helms' actions similar to a pornographer like Larry Flynt in that they both create a fantasy of sexuality that is not very close to reality?
         Q6 Do you believe there is a white racist episteme at work in the USA? What about in other countries like Canada?
         Q7 If there is a white racist episteme does this logic make sense? How could such an episteme be created in the first place? Could it be challenged, if so how?
         Q8 Always tell your side of the story. Because if you do not then someone else will tell it for you. Do you think that to be a successful interpretation you must tell the story?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren