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

80: Judith Butler part VI:
Promiscuous Obedience and What Is Critique?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay “Promiscuous Obedience,” (2000) Judith Butler makes some kinship trouble. In a similar way to her book Gender Trouble in which she showed that gender is a political imposition in this essay she shows that kinship is also a political imposition. She asks a rhetorical question: what if modern psychology had taken Antigone rather than Oedipus as its source and origin? (Q1) Perhaps instead of an Oedipus complex an Antigone complex would denote the multiplicity of kinship relations which are not “universal” or “normal” but can exist; some of which are becoming exceedingly more and more common in our world today (Q2)(Q3). However, Butler goes further: the norm in kinship relations also needs the perverse to define itself as normal – this is the generative nature of the law in which the taboo creates its own desire for the sake of repressing it. In this way we create the acceptable human: people who break these taboos are considered monstrous and the product of these relations ships are often considered monsters(Q4). What we call normal heterosexual kinship relations are founded on prohibitions (Q5). Perhaps it could be better to form healthy kinship relations on something a little less negative and more positive “If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws.”
         In Judith Butler's essay, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault's Virtue,” she asks three questions: 1) what does it practically mean to offer critique; 2) what counts as a subject and 3) what counts as a life?
         In the first question “One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives. The categories by which social life are ordered produce a certain incoherence or entire realms of unspeakability. And it is from this condition...that the practice of critique emerges....” In other words critique is trying to make sense of non-sense and there is more non-sense in the world than anyone person could ever hope to critique on their own.
         This leads to the ethical question what should I do? Which she breaks down into two question the “I” part and the “do” part. Recall from earlier that a subject is created by being called into being. Always and everywhere individuals are created subjects by the discourse of the age. But there is hope in the virtue of critique in which one “interrogates” the categories of the discourse that create subjects and stylizes one's ethics and morality in opposition to their codification and fastening (Q6). There is no escaping the discourse of the time; the most that we can do is destabilize it in ways that bring more justice and freedom.
         Q1 Modern psychology was invented by Sigmund Freud. He took Sophocles' character Oedipus as a model of people: Oedipus the king of Thebes had many great problems plaguing his kingdom and as he investigate why he learned that he had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Punishment for these sins were then plaguing his kingdom. According to Freud we are all like Oedipus: all the psychological problems in our kingdoms come from us not dealing with the fact that we want to kill our same-sex parent and marry our opposite-sex parent.
         Antigone was Oedipus' daughter/sister. In the original play two of Antigone's brothers have been killed fighting on opposite sides in an attempted coup d'état. Creon, Antigone's uncle, future father-in-law and the king of Thebes, decrees that one brother, Polyneices who fought with the insurgents, will be left unburied. Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother. For this she is sentenced to death but commits suicide before the sentence can be caried out.
         Butler uses this play to point out the contingent nature of father, brother and by extension the lack of fixity of all kinship relations. Is there any doubt in your mind as to what constitutes a brother, father and and Uncle? Consider the case of matrilineal societies in which a woman's brothers act like fathers and the biological father is usually a stranger or at most a trans-generational friend. Consider kinship relations in polygamous and polyandrous families. Consider also how African American slaves raised kids in community (due to the constant threat of any one member of the family being sold at any time). Butler's claim is that kinship relations are arbitrary cultural phenomena that are working less and are less relevant in the current world. Do you believe that the traditional family and traditional kinship relations are becoming less relevant?
         Q2 Are non-normal kinship relations becoming more common? If so which? Are there any that should never be accepted as normal? Butler would like the whole notion of normality thrown out because what we perceive as normal is actually a cultural creation. What is the difference in your mind of expanding normality versus eliminating a sense of normality? Which is the better goal to strive for?
         Q3 In our world of today we have an ever increasing array of different nuclear families: blended, single parent and gay/lesbian. Each of these cases provides real world examples of familial relations that are not normal but which Butler argues are still legitimate and should be recognized as such; not diminished or just tolerated as departures from a norm. Do you believe that having two moms or two dads is some how sub-normal; is having two moms or dads fully legitimate in our culture? And should it be?
         Q4 Today children born of incestuous parents are viewed as having a more likely chance of birth defects. But according to Nancy Thornhill, in “The Natural History of Inbreeding and Outbreeding,” this is only half the story: “Should a child inherit the version of homozygous alleles responsible for a birth defect from its parents, the birth defect will be expressed; on the other hand, should the child inherit the version of homozygous alleles not responsible for a birth defect, it would actually decrease the ratio of the allele version responsible for the birth defect in that population. The overall consequences of these diverging effects depends in part on the size of the population. In small populations, as long as children born with inheritable birth defects die (or are killed) before they reproduce, the ultimate effect of inbreeding will be to decrease the frequency of defective genes in the population; over time the gene pool will be healthier. In larger populations, however, it is more likely that large numbers of carriers will survive and mate, leading to more constant rates of birth defects” Her research suggests the politically very incorrect notion that incest could be beneficial to a population. If she is right what does this mean for the function of the incest taboo? Might there be a good reasons for incest in some cases? When anthropologist study primitive cultures the main reason for a man not to marry his sister is to get the alliances that comes with having brothers-in-law; this suggests that the incest taboo is part of the patriarchal system of domination. How does this notion strike you?
         Q5 Kids overcome their first desire to marry mommy or daddy through the discourse of the parents which tells them that it is not a good idea. This is how we transfer children's love interest. After all the socially unacceptable relations are eliminated the child is given tacit approval. Might there be a better way?
         Q6 Often a rejection of a term of sujectification is still sujectification because of the normal-abnormal dichotomy: You either accept the normal categories of subject creation (man, straight, doctor, Canadian, catholic etc.) and their imposed normality or you reject the normality and become abnormal. Becoming “abnormal” helps the normality by providing a bogyman for the normal (every category can define itself as not its opposite) or a goal to expand the normal by further marginalizing other groups (her reasons for being against gay marriage). Butler's meaning when she advocates the stylization of ethics and morality is to destabilize the existing ethics and morality; the existing categories of sujectification by exposing the limits of knowledge and power. For example: a man might say: I was bi-sexual before I married my wife but now that I am divorced I have committed myself exclusively to my new boyfriend. In this case the subject has stylized his response to the existing discourse while challenging the fixity of the subject categories Bi-straight-gay. How does this strategy strike you?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren