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

78: Judith Butler part IV:
Melancholy and Injurious Speech

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech,” (1997) Butler gives us her take on how it is that racial, sexual and sexist speech hurts; who gets hurt and who ought to be punished? She considers this question by first considering the creation of the subject: the subject victim and the subject perpetrator.
         For Butler everything starts with action; the action calls a subject into existence: when a police officer calls out “hey you” and you turn around, “you,” as a subject of the the law, is created (Q1). Likewise with all hate speech the subject is created by naming. But it is not guaranteed outcome. The call does not usually necessitate only one particular response (if there were only one possible negative response then such speech may be a legitimate candidate for censorship). It is this last point, the number of the possible responses, that determines when the government should step in and censor something (Q2).
         For Butler censorship must be the very last resort because it does not stop the desired action; censorship only recreates and preserves the existing discourse by giving official sanction to the discourse.
         The goal of excitable speech is to create the subject; only in this way can a slur have its effect. The effectiveness of a slur to create the raced or gendered subject is dependent on the existence and strength of the re-citation (how well the speech cites its own discourse of the past). Therefore burning a cross on a the lawn of an African-American family should be censored (but it is not: it is protected under the First Amendment); whereas things deemed “obscene” can be censored and seized because they are not protected under the First Amendment (Q3) (Q4).
         Butler's message to anti-pornography feminists is to realize that there is not only one response to depictions of feminine sexual exploitation (if there were only one then Butler may call for censorship too if the response were a negative response). Other responses can prove more fruitful in creating a more inclusive and less violent world. “What pornography delivers is what it recites and exaggerates from the resources of compensatory gender norms, a text of insistent and faulty imaginary relations that will not disappear with the abolition of the offending text...[re-reading the text]... raises the possibility of re-signification as an alternative reading of performativity and of politics.” (Q5)
         In Butler's essay “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification,” (1997) we look at how we become a sexed and gendered subject from a psychoanalytic perspective. She begins with Freud's definition of melancholia: the unfinished process of grieving that helps form the ego: “Identifications formed from unfinished grief are the modes in which the lost object is incorporated and phantasmatically preserved in and as the ego.” Essentially when we lose a love object it is kept as a desirable memory – thus a part of us and our identity. This self-identification with the lost object becomes a psychic way of preserving the lost object and thus avoiding a total loss. We feel better keeping an image of the lost object than forgetting it entirely (Q6).
         In our heterosexist culture we find two taboos that help gender us: the prohibition against incest and homosexuality. Everyone's first love object is the mother (or the woman that breast fed us). But the taboos force us to transfer our love to people outside the family. Our parents are our first lost sexual love interests.
         Since we cannot love our mother and/or father sexually due to the incest and homosexual taboo we incorporate our lost love for our parents in our identity through melancholia. There are many ways to experience this loss: each of the emotions: anger, pride, filial love etc.; actions such as competition, avoidance etc. the whole host of intergenerational human relations (Q7).
         Butler showed earlier that masculinity and femininity are political imposition on (achievements not dispositions of) individuals as they struggle to fit into the molds of the privileged ideal type. This explains everyday forms of gender anxiety such as fear of not being seen as the right gender; fear of homosexual attraction etc. These fears are evidence that there are more ways than the two orthodox ways of experiencing (not expressing) gender and sexuality; that binary sexuality is limiting and confining to our desires and wellbeing. Identity is being used to oppose desire; repudiation is being used to fuel outside imposed desire (Q8). This in wrong and creates far more psychological problems than benefits to society.
         Q1 Most people believe that we are conscious subjects that act; that there is an “I” that does things. She believe this view to be a figment of our imagination. There is no continuity or consistency in our “selves” from one moment to the next and at every event of our lives we are a different (and sometimes changing) person. Which view do you hold?
         Q2 When someone makes a derogatory or inflammatory comment is there only one emotional or active response? If anger is the only response; is there only one type of angry response. Can you think of an act by someone that necessitates only one possible response?
         Q3 Can burning a cross on a black family's yard do anything other than create fear in the people for whom the message is directed? Butler answers because of the history and the symbolism used in America a black family could only feel fear. The same act on a white family's property or in Africa would not necessitate only one response. Therefore burning crosses on black property in America should be censored but not anywhere else. How do you feel about this logic?
         Q4 Can derogatory, perverted, humiliating sadistic (the worst you can imagine) depictions of women in pornography generate one or many responses? Butler would argue that many responses are possible from women who are offended by such displays and therefore censorship should not be imposed. How do you feel about this?
         Q5 She holds out hope for revaluing based on images and the change in meaning of the word “queer” and the general acceptance of gay pride is an example of how derogatory ideas were re-branded and attitudes changed. Can exploitative pornography be used to improve awareness of sexual assault and make the world a better place?
         Q6 Is it true that we prefer to remember a lost love object rather than forget it? Is it better than a total loss?
         Q7 Is it believable that in our culture the whole range of intergenerational relations are attempts to sublimate our lost sexual love for our parents?
         Q8 Do you see something wrong with having an outside identity imposed on you and then using that identity to limit your desire? Is there any reason why identity should be linked positively or negatively with desire?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren