Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Dismantling Melancholia

This week’s essay made me think of power and politics. I’m not going to pretend that I understood all of it, but two pieces stick out to me:

— Breaking news for homophobic, closeted politicians!: “The act of renouncing homosexuality thus paradoxically strengthens homosexuality...” (p. 252). What I didn’t understand was the latter part of that sentence: “but it strengthens homosexuality precisely as the power of renunciation.” What does this mean? How can we use this to point out the hypocrisies in people who are virulently homophobic and yet get caught in very public gay sex scandals? Or am I reading politics into theory when politics isn’t there?

— After describing the idea of heterosexual melancholia at length, Butler compares it to gay melancholy, which she says “contains anger that can be translated into political expression” (p. 255). Straight male and female melancholia is centered predominantly on grieving not being able to act on any homosexual desires (right? help me out here, other Flexner bloggers). If we are to buy into this whole melancholia business, there can’t be this simple dichotomy of two different types of melancholy: gay and straight. Butler gives a brief one-liner hat tip to bisexuality in the last paragraph of the essay, but that’s it. How can it be that straight melancholy isn’t also inherently political? Hello, history of the feminist movement, which has many queer and straight leaders? Or conversely (as horrible as they are), Men’s Rights Activists?

Butler describes the many facets of melancholy as it relates to performing gender or sexuality, but she doesn’t seem to take into account gender/sexuality beyond gay and straight. Am I missing something? How do we make sense of the absence of queer, bisexual, gender non-conforming folks, and everyone else she leaves out?

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