Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

November 10, 2011
by Alexander Brey
Comments Off on Archaeologies of Precarity

Archaeologies of Precarity

Archaeology has taken me to both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East: the summer before last I was excavating a late Roman fort in Jordan south of the Dead Sea, while this past summer I was working on an excavation in Tiberias/Τιβεριάς/טְבֶרְיָה/طبرية‎. The surplus of names and the site’s archaeological importance both stem from the fact that the city has been continuously inhabited since it was founded in 20 C.E, under Roman/Byzantine rule until the Rashidun conquest in the mid-seventh century, under the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Fatimids until the First Crusade, as the capital of the Principality of Galilee in the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem from the late-11th through the early-13th century, through centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman rule, and the comparatively short periods of the British Mandate and the state of Israel. Its location in northeastern Israel at the edge of the Golan Heights is a precarious one — the city was bombarded from the Golan Heights while the plateau was still in the possession of Syria, and as recently as 2006 Hezbollah fired rockets that hit the city and injured dozens of residents. On the drives through the Israeli controlled Palestinian territory between Tiberias and Jerusalem this summer, I could not have foreseen our current preoccupation with occupations, and I’m ambivalent about the excitement surrounding the term.

Much of Butler’s recent work on ethics is about learning to unsee the imagined boundaries that structure the world, and upon which injustices are frequently founded, whether they’re geographic, economic, cultural, or some combination of all of these and more. The ways in which these imaginary boundaries are reified in maps, peace talks, acts of violence, and the movements of militarized bodies naturalizes them, and I think it’s important to have Butler and critical thinkers like her poking us every so often to remind us that these are contingent, and to inspire us to imagine other ways, perhaps more ethical ways, of negotiating them. An archaeological or longue-durée approach to history has a similarly de-naturalizing effect: when you’re digging through layers of habitation, there’s no convenient sign to let you know when you’ve reached the layer of sand upon which a crusader fought and died, nothing to distinguish it from the layer of sand a few inches or feet below on which a mosque, church, or temple was constructed except for the garbage left behind. The more we know about the past, the more distance we have to step back from the present and consider alternatives.

It’s both tempting and frustrating to look to history for other ways of struggling against the precarity that founds institutions “too big to fail,” but the kinds of documents and objects that can hint at the precarious lives of the past are few and far between–in the scope of archaeological time, all but the most privileged lives look precarious. Although there were undoubtedly lived differences in historical experiences of precarity, the bodies that suffered and those that benefited are all so much dust today. While history can give us the critical distance to consider alternatives to current ways of being, its scale can also overwhelm the all-too-meager sense of hope upon which activism depends. We’re finding new ways to combat this. It’s difficult, for instance, to imagine a late-19th century archaeologist directing something called the Roman Peasant Project, but it’s also important to remember that the very conditions (economic, political, and cultural) under which archaeology is permitted to illuminate the marginal lives of the past are contingent.

November 10, 2011
by Vanessa Christman
Comments Off on Theoretical rock star or torch-passing prophet?

Theoretical rock star or torch-passing prophet?

As at the circus
There is excitement, glee, and,
Of course, performance.

What a thrill to enter Goodhart Hall for the first Flexner lecture last Monday evening. I had been reading and blogging in almost total isolation for a few months, but on Monday, hundreds of people were gathered around me, all focused on Judith Butler. Those unable to gain access to Goodhart watched a live simulcast of the lecture in another venue. Bodies, many bodies, were together to hear “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear.”

Although I admire Butler and have dwelt in her (written) company of late, I felt a little like an imposter as I took my seat in the theatre among so many of her faithful. But here’s the strange thing that happened: as the lights dimmed, the glee did too. The identity and relationship performance(s) around me became invisible in the dark. With nametag-bearing staff standing solemnly in the aisles, the audience was enjoined to refrain from texting and photography. And as President Jane McAuliffe introduced Butler in carefully modulated sentences, the excitement in the room seemed to diminish. C’mon—this was rock star Judith Butler! Where was the music? How about a follow spot as she made her way to the podium?

Polite applause greeted our guest. The faithful and I, alike, were subdued. Those of us who wanted to take notes (our smart phones now forbidden) scribbled pitifully in the dark next to the bodies who were now invisible to us. And as Butler shared her thoughts over the next hour, the most boisterous thing that happened was a few people chuckling at some aside made from the podium. Where were the outbursts of applause? Until the rousing Anassa Kata at the end, all remained very, very civilized.

That’s not all bad: I don’t favor anarchy. But I was surprised and a little confused by the formal tone. I was also a little confused about what I heard. I was expecting, per the information on the Flexner site, that “Butler’s first public lecture and faculty seminar will consider Hannah Arendt’s views on the “space of appearance” that is necessary for political action” and that the lecture would present thoughts about the right to appear of “transgender and religious minorities.” I would have welcomed Butler’s in-depth consideration of these topics, which have ramifications for the Bryn Mawr community.

I can understand the desire to enfold new information of great import—how could Butler not have included references to the Occupy movement? But I feel she leapt repeatedly to the general concept of livable lives (which I embrace and admire), as well as the tension between performativity and precarity, and I would have liked more specific guidance, albeit theoretical, on the right to appear as sexual, gender, and religious minorities. While Butler referenced the work of Arendt and Elisabeth Badinter, I wish she’d lingered there, giving us more time to understand (and, likely, challenge much of) the historical and global perspectives of their work.

Although I was restless and a little perplexed, I still found much to inspire. Writing in the dark, I copied phrase after phrase, underscoring and starring them: “We are still here; we are not disposable,” “Alliances. . . among groups who otherwise do not find much in common,” “This more radical we,” and “Who I am is linked fundamentally to others.”

Perhaps, after all, this hushed environment was the best in which to have Butler put forward her newest thoughts on appearance, assembly, and alliances. The multitudes, listening and scribbling. The great theorist on the stage, light shining from her head. It was less like the rock concert I’d envisioned and more like watching a spiritual leader calling her faithful together to impart her final message. The theory has been written, the sermons delivered. It was as if Butler were saying, “I have paved the way; I have opened the door for you. Now, you will have to continue on together.”



November 10, 2011
by Jessica Lee
Comments Off on Resettled, still precarious

Resettled, still precarious

In her lecture, Gender Politics and the Right to Appear, Judith Butler critiques the structural systems that marginalize and precariatize populations.  Thus, she expands her discursive inquiry to include minority and stateless peoples. Judith Butler’s lecture resonates with my clinical work, as precarity is very real for many of the refugee clients whom I serve.

Butler describes precarity as “a heightened sense of expendability or disposability that is differentially distributed throughout society.”  And she depicts precariatization as a process, which is “induced and reproduced by governmental and economic institutions that acclimatize populations to precarity and insecurity over time.”  Last week I discussed the case of one of my Bhutanese refugee clients, Bihan.[1]  This week I’ll introduce his son, Daya.

My mental status examination of Daya is as follows: Daya presents as a slight 14-year-old Nepali-Bhutanese boy.  He appears to be well groomed and slouches in trendy American clothing.  Daya is respectful and I observe him to be tense during our meetings.  Daya has a flat affect; I did not observe him smiling or frowning at any point during our encounters. He speaks succinctly—his English is at the intermediate level, so he and I can converse without a Nepali interpreter up to a certain point.  His speech is often interrupted by a dry cough.  He does not appear to have trouble expressing himself and provides pieces of personal information without being solicited.  When he speaks of his dislike for his school, he appears sullen.  IOM doctors diagnosed Daya with a mental illness in 2010 and so he needs to see a psychiatrist in Philadelphia.

Daya was born in a refugee camp in Nepal.  Bhutanese refugees are Nepali-Bhutanese and are referred to as Lhotshampa, a Dzongkha word that means “southerners.”  Due to “Bhutanization” laws and policies in the late 1970s and 1980s, these Nepali-Bhutanese people were revoked of their Bhutanese citizenship.  Growing up in a refugee camp is a precarious situation and the people living there are marked by liminality.  Daya is neither Nepali nor Bhutanese—he is a “stateless” individual.

Daya and his family resettled in Philadelphia on August 1, 2011.  And assimilating into America’s neoliberal morality has created new forms of precariatization for this family. Refugees face many barriers to health care, which is proving to be the case for Daya.  And Daya is precariatized by attending school.  In 2009, Asian students at South Philadelphia High School boycotted the school after a gang of students attacked 26 Asian students on December 3, 2009. http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/local&id=7156691

This is the school Daya currently attends, and according to him, fights erupt daily.  He and his classmates are “differentially exposed to violence” and are not adequately protected.

Butler points out that the application of market rationality onto social issues creates a system in which all people are expected to be self-sufficient. I agree with Butler when she says that neoliberal morality upholds an impossible ideal and produces “disposable people.”  There are no quick solutions to dispel precarity, but identifying the social conditions is a start. I hope in her upcoming lectures Butler will share ideas about how to enact systemic change so that all people can have “liveable” lives.

[1] Clients’ names have been changed to protect their identity.

November 10, 2011
by Elly Truitt
Comments Off on Being Human

Being Human

Judith Butler’s inaugural lecture, “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear,” was a scorcher, covering the limitations of later capitalism, the politics of precarity, and the fundamental basis of democracy: the right to appear in public.

At the heart of Butler’s lecture was a set of questions around the definition of the human. If certain populations are denied the right to appear in public, to claim “we are here, we have a voice” then those populations do not, officially, exist. Assembling in public—even without articulating a coherent set of “demands” (as Butler rightly pointed out in rebuke to those who oppose the Occupy protesters on the grounds that they lack a set of bullet points) is a shared social right and a way of participating in democracy. To paraphrase Napoleon and Woody Allen, 80 percent of personhood is being able to just show up. Public assembly—even without chants or demands—is a powerful way of demanding justice.

Those who cannot appear in public are denied the right to do so because they are not subjects, or even human. Visibility, then, perhaps rather than performativity, is one of the crucial markers of the human.

I found Butler’s talk stimulating for my own research, which deals with medieval definitions of the human and life, and how manufactured objects in human or animal form—robots—were used as tools to puzzle over these definitions and boundaries between human and machine, and between life and non-life.

November 10, 2011
by Mary Zaborskis
Comments Off on Are All Demands Allowed to Appear?

Are All Demands Allowed to Appear?

Judith Butler’s lecture, “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear,” this past Monday imagined the possibilities for futures that could become available when bodies gather in public and make demands, for implicit in such joining together are the demands for recognition and the right to live a more viable existence. These demands become necessary because we live in a political and economic system that fails to safeguard those bodies who face inequalities, injustices, and have been repeatedly denied the right to appear (or whose ability to appear has been mediated, limited, and/or determined by the dominant order). Furthermore, if rights are granted or demands met, they often come at a cost. Negotiations and concessions in the service of hegemonic power may need to be made, such as in states where trans rights can only be secured after the identification of trans has been pathologized.

Mine and Sara's view as we waited for the lecture to begin

Butler suggests that we don’t have to accept these conditions that grant rights to bodies while simultaneously doing violence to those same bodies. Building alliances across precarious groups may be a way to begin opening up alternative and more viable ways of existing within these systems by transforming the spheres in which we appear and the spaces we occupy. She posits that these alliances are not rooted in identities, but rather can come out of a similar experience of marginalization and precarity under certain social, economic, and political conditions. Appearing together in public spaces to make collective demands disrupts the dominant’s careful orchestration over who is allowed to be visible when and under what conditions.

The power, possibility, and potentiality in these alliances are undeniable. While listening to Butler, though, I was thinking about some concerns that are connected to issues I raised in my last entry. When bodies come together to make demands, we need to examine which demands appear, or more accurately, which do not appear. Who decides what to demand, and which demands get space? Do certain demands become privileged over others, effectively marginalizing or making impossible others? I am specifically thinking of issues like gay marriage, gay adoption, and the gays in the military—fighting for these rights draws attention away from and can even disallow the possibility to fight for other rights that would make more viable other ways of existing for persons within these marginalized groups (for example, forming relationships and/or kinship structures in a way that doesn’t involve marriage). True, the demand for gay marriage and the demand for recognition of alternative relationships that don’t involve marriage are both demands that come out of experiences of injustice and precarity. However, when demands are called to be specified, certain ones (are allowed to) appear more than others.

One of Butler’s points is that demands don’t need to be specified—bodies coming together and appearing is a demand in itself for recognition. However, these experiences of inequalities and these demands to change inequality can and do become concretely articulated, and I would like to put pressure on what plays out when articulation happens—I feel perhaps it’s at this moment when collective power can become fractured because not all demands are articulated or allowed to appear equally, which can perpetuate exclusion and injustices.

November 10, 2011
by Sara Alcid
1 Comment

Health Care and the Production of Precarity

Judith Butler’s earlier work is often criticized for being too far removed from lived realities and not grounded in any sort of social activism.  From the first glimpse I had of Butler’s Bodies in Alliance lecture series this Monday, I would say that Butler is certainly answering this call for her theories to take a deeper root in lived social struggles.

Butler’s lecture this past Monday, Gender Politics and the Right to Appear, touched on concrete issues of health care, housing, militarism, animal rights, and kinship.   I am particularly interested in connecting a few of Butler’s main points in order to examine the role of our current health care system in producing and maintaining the precaritizing cruelties of neoliberal “morality”.

Butler illuminated the possibility within health care system to support “a more livable set of lives,” and the dire nature of its current existence, which is being contested at this time by those “amassing together in public” as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  This dire nature is one that has produced and upheld the fact that some populations are considered disposable.  Furthermore, the cloistered accessibility of health care, produced by the neoliberal market ethic, works to dispose of disposable populations.  To illustrate this, Butler reminded us of the horrifying moment in which the Tea Party implied that “those who have a serious illness and cannot pay for health insurance would simply have to die.”

Butler’s attention to gender politics and the right to appear highlighted the underlying crux of the health care system’s role in carrying out structural violence, being that today, sexuality, health and precarity are closely bound up in each other.  The emergence of medicine as a capitalist profession and enterprise necessitated the medicalization of human sexuality, one of many institutionalized measures that has been taken to “climatize” those identifying with marginal sexualities to an existence of precariousness.  This existence of precariousness is produced by framing those who engage in certain sexual practices as a type of social criminal, Butler suggests.  This criminalization removes these populations from being “eligible for recognition” in the eyes of the state and its social “services.”

Butler spoke of the fact that trans people often have to pass through a process of medical pathologization to “recognize their desire.”  This is an illustration of the way that the health care system and medicalization typically operate in a way that precaritizes those that rupture norms of gender and sexuality.  This precaritization is coupled with a diminished right to appear in a public sphere free of violence, both structural and physical.

As someone interested in pursuing a career and higher education in public health, at the end of the lecture I asked Dr. Butler a question about bridging academic and grassroots efforts to bring an end to the disposability and precarity of certain populations.  I asked: “How do you suggest that those of us involved in the academic realm of feminist and queer theory best support some of the struggles of precarity that we do not necessarily experience ourselves?”  Butler responded that our politics do not necessarily have to be based in our personal experiences and that displacing oneself from a position of privilege can be done through a commitment to a larger social alliance—a larger “we.”  She went on to suggest that being dedicated to social equality entails a displacement from one’s own experience as part of an ethical and political position that brings attention to the necessity for the larger “we” to have access to a “livable set of lives.”

November 3, 2011
by Alexander Brey
1 Comment

Seeing Bodies

Yesterday I attended Professor Alice Donohue’s lecture on “The Lifelikeness of Greek Art” and I was struck by the ways in which the body in art is always a site of overlapping normative frameworks. There is of course the normative framework within which the artist works: we manufacture bodies that serve to perpetuate certain systems, practices, or regiments at the expense of others. But there’s also the normative framework of the critic, who, as he digs through the detritus of the past, sorts bodies into categories (beauty, perfection, culmination vs. stylized, idealized, exaggerated, decline) that simultaneously reflect and produce the norms of larger cultural institutions.

As Donohue pointed out, there’s an infinitude of natural variation within human bodies, so it makes little sense to try to pin down a physical feature as “stylized,” “affected,” “idealized,” or “exaggerated” (and implicitly undesirable) only to send someone (who may just happen to desire it) on a quest for a real body with precisely that “unrealistic” feature, and yet for a long time this is precisely what art historians and critics did. Entire conceptual frameworks like Mannerism have been built around fundamentally untenable judgments of bodies.

Butler’s book might have been titled Bodies Matter, but its actual title, Bodies That Matter, suggests that not all bodies are made to matter, or are made to matter in the same ways. These qualitative differences come to the fore in the art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (as the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, well, rechristened its Islamic art collection), which, at certain moments, adopts an aniconic stance in the realm of religious imagery. This has important repercussions for how we understand recent scandals like the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and Wednesday’s attack on Charlie-Hebdo. Butler’s recent work has touched on the issues at the core these controversies, and I hope to explore them more over the next few weeks. But as I listened to Professor Donohue’s lecture, I realized that first as a medievalist, and now as an Islamicist, I’ve been moving steadily away from the quagmire of the “realistic” body and its alarmingly disciplinary role in visual culture.

While it’s probable that the cartoony bodies of medieval art in general, and Islamic art in particular, played largely the same disciplinary role as their more realistic predecessors, contemporaries, or successors (even these seemed astoundingly lifelike to a contemporaneous viewer), they seem to have escaped, or perhaps resisted, the other half of the equation: art-historical analysis qua production of the normative body. This may partly be because they were created by and/or portray the bodies of various Others—they’re only useful for the orientalist fantasies of romantic reactionaries (let’s go play dress-up in the Alhambra), and can play but a limited role in constructions of the normative body. But I would argue that their divergence from what we currently call “realism,” indelibly marked by the invention of the photograph, is crucial to their failure to act either as ideal or as abject bodies in the dominant communal, regional, national, or transnational visual cultures that we encounter on a daily basis.

I’m also in the process of working on a dissertation proposal, and it looks like I’m going to be spending the next few years thinking very hard about the bodies of animals in early Islamic art. While these bodies may have mattered a great deal, as I will argue, the systems that depended on them for meaning would have been threatened or destabilized by the recognition of this dependence. Which is a long way of saying that I find myself in the curious position of studying bodies that don’t matter, or perhaps are only beginning to matter in some curious ways.

November 3, 2011
by Johanna Gosse
Comments Off on Pre(Occupations)


Reviewing my fellow bloggers’ posts from last week, I saw that I wasn’t alone in noticing the coincidence between Judith Butler’s Bryn Mawr residency and the emergence (or rather, eruption) of the Occupy movement. A number of our posts included a link to the video of Butler addressing a group of protestors gathered in Washington Square, in which she expressed her solidarity with the movement in no uncertain terms. Butler’s participation in the protests seems to have produced some ambivalence, particularly evident in Vanessa’s and Sara’s posts, over what we might call the pragmatic value of her work, and academic work in general, especially when it comes to grassroots activism like the Occupy movement.

This movement reflects a groundswell of mainstream opposition to corporate capitalism. While it was initially framed as a protest against Wall Street greed and corruption, the longevity and intensity of the countrywide Occupations suggests an even deeper-rooted dissatisfaction with the global economic system. Though it has been criticized on all sides for its supposed lack of stated goals, political demands, coherent rhetoric or cohesive structure, it could be argued that these qualities have contributed to the movement’s ongoing success. Yet, how might the work of a theorist as politically and rhetorically consistent and intellectually demanding as Judith Butler contribute to our understanding of this nascent movement, with its as-yet unarticulated aims and aura of energetic though hazy idealism?

As a student of art history, I’m compelled to look at phenomena in terms of form vs. content. Since the political “content” of the movement is still unfolding, I’m reticent to try to capture it in words and thus risk foreclosing on unanticipated possible outcomes. More readily observable is the movement’s “form”: the physical presence of encampments that have taken shape in cities across the country. Makeshift yet often highly organized, many sites, including Occupy Philadelphia, offer basic services like warm meals, potable water, medicine, sanitation, and free libraries. They experiment with organized communal living and exercise direct democracy through open general assemblies. By physically occupying “the commons,” the protestors perform a radical domestication of the public sphere, establishing a hybridized public/private space not unlike that of a college campus.

The collective disenchantment with financial institutions currently fueling the Occupy movement was prompted by the home foreclosure epidemic. In this sense, the fact that the protests take the form of temporary residential communities could be considered a logical (though certainly quasi-utopian) outgrowth of the economic crisis and its domestic fallout. To me, this incursion of the private sphere into public visibility constitutes the movement’s most radical tactic. It also recalls the efforts of earlier mass movements—namely, Women’s Liberation—to politicize domestic space and labor, in part by demanding public visibility. Thinking historically helps us to see the intrinsic connections between economic, racial, and gender-based oppression, but I think that it also demands that we re-consider and exert pressure on the established terms of political discourse and resistance, much in the same manner that Butler insists upon challenging the hegemonic terms of equal rights and assimilation in “Competing Universalities.” If, with Butler, “we demand the impossible,” we must first begin by thinking the impossible, and then inventing a new language to describe it.

Under the auspices of the month-long Flexner Lectureship, we’re being offered a crash-course in Butler’s ideas via public lectures, related programming (like the event next Wednesday at 12:30PM that this post borrows its name from) and ancillary endeavors like this blog. Following Vanessa, I hope that we can also use this opportunity to spark a campus-wide conversation about the College’s role in fostering dialogue, inclusivity, and the creation of safe and comfortable spaces, not just on-campus, but also farther afield—including at City Hall.

November 3, 2011
by Medb McGearty
Comments Off on Perversion, Prohibition, and Abercrombie and Fitch

Perversion, Prohibition, and Abercrombie and Fitch

Recognizing the absence of something points to its very existence, or, to follow Butler’s use of the Lacanian theory of desire, to deny something is to reference it.  Butler relates this theory in The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess to censorship and prohibition by looking at the line between what is fantasy and what is real.  Butler connects her critique of Helm’s censorship of Mapplethorpe’s photographs to feminist efforts for the censorship and prohibition of pornography stating that, “prohibition appears to precede fantasy and to structure it essentially” (p.190).  According to her argument, the feminist claim that pornography subjugates and objectifies women, in fact, ignores the possibility of women identifying with other aspects of the pornographic text/scene as either the subjugator or with the entire scene itself.  Butler states that, “the possibility of a cross-identification spells a kind of gender trouble that the anti-pornography analysis fully suppresses” (p.193).

This essay reminded me of a conversation that I had over the summer with a friend about the representation of children in art.  My friend had an art show in Los Angeles, which received a glowing review in a respected newspaper.  On congratulating him, my friend pointed out that the critic had referred to the possible homoeroticism he found in the collection of paintings.  My friend was upset by this comment, as he had not intended that to be a message people took away.  He was further concerned by what the critic had said because the subjects of several paintings were adolescent boys playing together.  While he was trying to capture the innocence and electric energy of children, he now recognized that there was the potential for the public’s misreading of “homoeroticism” in the paintings which can be translated, as Butler suggests, to the idea that “homosexuality becomes thinkable only as the forbidden and sadomasochistic exchange between intergenerational male partners” (197).  My friend feared that the comment by the critic may have undermined the work he was doing by pointing to another more socially accessible theme which establishes perversion as the centerpiece to representations of children in art created by homosexual men as Butler examines in her notes on Mapplethorpe’s work.

My friend and I went on to discuss the hypersexualization of gay men and of children in American social consciousness as evidenced in the media.  When these two populations intersect the relationship lends itself to further reading of an innate perversion of this relationship that, perhaps, the critic was pointing to.

My friend told me that the last time he was in Italy, children’s bathing suits were sold primarily as just bottoms since children typically do not wear tops to the beach or swimming pools, and sometimes neither do the women.  I find it interesting that we sell tops to two-piece bathing suits for very young girls in America.  The indecency implied by the covering up reveals both the eroticism and the subsequent desire society is attempting to control but is in fact creating.  As some of us remember, even the retail clothing company Abercrombie and Fitch designed and sold padded bikini tops to children as young as 7 years old http://jezebel.com/5786039/abercrombie–fitch-introduces-padded-bikini-top-for-girls.

By covering up the torsos of young girls whose breasts have not developed, we are, in fact, pointing to their sexualization.  What are the societal impacts of socializing young girls to experience themselves as potential sexual objects?  This message then becomes internalized, and creates a scenario in which they are seen as objects of desire.  This form of censorship or covering up leads to the very perversion that it hopes to prevent.  Butler challenges the very terms that shape arguments in favor of prohibition and censorship, and argues not to solve the “crisis of identity politics” but to expand representations and states that,

“if prohibitions invariably produce and proliferate the representations that they seek to control, then the political task is to promote a proliferation of representations, sites of discursive production, which might then contest the authoritative production produced by the prohibitive law” (p.197).

November 3, 2011
by Jessica Lee

Externalized Pathology and Internalized Identity

I work with refugees in Philadelphia. Butler’s chapter Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification makes me reconceptualize my clients’ struggles in the resettlement process. Butler expands on Freud’s idea of melancholia into a discussion of melancholic incorporation, arguing that identity results from disavowed grief. She states, “the lost object is, in that sense, made coextensive with the ego itself” (p. 247). Many of the refugees I encounter exhibit melancholia—where they are “unwilling to avow and hence grieve” the loss of their homeland. For these refugees, perhaps melancholia is what enables them to internalize their national identity.

As an example I’ll discuss one of my clients, a Bhutanese refugee I’ll refer to as Bihan. Bihan’s presenting problems involve a chronic health condition and his family’s difficulty adjusting to life in Philadelphia. Bihan is 46 years old and was born in Bhutan. He and his family fled to Nepal in the 1990s, where they lived in a refugee camp until their arrival in Philadelphia on August 1, 2011. Bihan has a cheerful disposition and is usually wearing Western clothing and a jaunty hat—either a cerulean knit cap or a dhaka topi. He does not speak English, so I rely on Nepali interpreters to communicate with him. Bihan is preoccupied with his health and his employment. He is reluctantly employed at a meatpacking factory and has been facing conflict with his employer because of absences. A few days ago, Bihan saw a doctor, who addressed his health concerns, but also diagnosed Bihan with anxiety and prescribed him an SSRI.

I really question the validity of this diagnosis. I speculate that underlying Bihan’s “adjustment difficulties” is unresolved grief over the loss of his home and national identity. Bhutanese refugees are Nepali-Bhutanese people, ethnicized as Lhotshampas. They made up about 35% of Bhutan’s population until the government introduced a series of “Bhutanization” policies in the late 1970s and 1980s, which led to the exclusion of the Nepali-Bhutanese people. The Citizenship Acts of 1977 and 1985 enabled the Bhutanese government to revoke citizenship from the Lhotshampa people. By the early 1990s the majority of Nepali-Bhutanese had left Bhutan; most settling in refugee camps in Nepal. Nepal and Bhutan are unwilling to give citizenship to these people. The Bhutanese government denies Nepali-Bhutanese people reentry, claiming that they were never Bhutanese. Some government officials go as far as to say that the Nepali-Bhutanese people have “willingly” left Bhutan.

By revoking these people of their citizenship in such an insidious manner, the Bhutanese government made their exile into an ungrievable loss. Butler writes that “if melancholia appears at first to be a form of containment, a way of internalizing an attachment that is barred from the world, it also establishes the psychic conditions for redaring “the world” itself as contingently organized through certain kinds of foreclosures” (252). Clinical social workers and health care providers are often quick to identify pathologies and dispel symptoms. But in reading Bulter’s chapter I wonder if melancholia is an important lived experience. Perhaps Bihan’s “signs and symptoms” are externalized manifestations of a melancholia that is necessary for the perpetuation of his national identity.