Gender Identity and Memoir: Judith Butler and Maggie Nelson in conversation

Gender Identity and Memoir: Judith Butler and Maggie Nelson in conversation
Art + Design Mondays @ BAMPFA
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Jan 30, 2017

By: Tonika Sealy-Thompson

IMG_9993It was January 30th. By 6:30 pm the queue was already wrapped around the railing of the Berkeley Arts Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It was starting to feel like a bit of a party. Like a good Aquarian I am prone to read auspiciousness into the fact of sharing my 40th year with the inauguration of the Spring 2017 Arts and Design Mondays series by Judith Butler and Maggie Nelson’s talk. 

Professor Shannon Jackson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Arts and Design, closed her opening remarks with a scintillating prompt: it lingered over the already thick anticipation hovering over Nelson & Butler and all of us:  ‘how do we as scholars, and artists, and organizers deal with the uncertainty of these times?’  On the center stage, Nelson and Butler were joined by Jocelyn Saidenberg, a Bay Area poet and a  PhD student in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.

Nelson took the podium first. She read some excerpts from both The Argonauts (2016) and from her earlier book The Red Parts.  Both are works of ‘auto-theory.’ In the former Nelson wrote about her experience of becoming involved in the case of her aunt’s brutal murder, the subsequent trial, and the strange assembly of people brought together by this tragic event.  At the podium Nelson’s body and words move with deliberation and without affect. Her prose is assembled in a frank conversational decant and framed by a series of questions  thick with ‘poethical’ vulnerability and daring, as Denise Ferreira da Silva’s apt phrase. In The Argonauts, Nelson writes about her lived experience of falling in love, marrying and making a family together with a transgender person. She describes  her work as being deeply bound up with theorizing about happiness, queerness, maternity. She speaks of thinking of pregnancy as a queer act, queerness as madness and queerness as realness. How do we form queer relationships, unpredictable and improvised without cynicism, incredulity nor stasis? How do we do family – how to the live with others? What is a practiced improvisation? How does the notion of trans hold gender and other binaries in place and how could it disturb categories, for example when we construct gender as ‘livable’ or ‘unlivable’? Could we construct pregnancy for example as gift giving rather than belonging?

Judith Butler I had never experienced as ‘a live act.’ She in many ways was as I expected: sharply coiffed, tailored and witty. But there was something else in her voice and in her gestures that I did not know to expect.  She possessed a kind of sincere and animated musing, a willingness to not pronounce but to probe, to ask, like a precursor to the most precarious of intellectual magnanimities – the admission of having been wrong, of changing one’s mind.

Butler opened with a reflection on “this current moment”. Indeed, it was 10 days after the inauguration of Trump. Thirteen days prior Butler had been one of the dozen faculty who wrote to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in support of student demands to cancel the visit of queer fascist speaker Milo Yiannopolis. Without mentioning any of this, the theorist cautioned us against the temptation to collapse the feeling of uncertainty with complacency and urged us to hold on to our capacity to be shocked.

Riffing on Nelson’s reasonings and readings, Butler asked us to reflect on the notion of orientation, of positioning : how to position yourself physically in the world at these times? How do we find a queer approach to orientation in these times of uncertainty; not a queer orientation but a way that is queer towards the notion of orientation? How can we arrive at such an orientation,  knowing that in this time, such a question is also about sexual desire? We have to arrive – but perhaps we need a new dynamic, a queer dynamic of arrival, Butler posits.

Butler was to my delight an amazing story-teller. We were treated to a recounting of a strange encounter with a hotel employee with a bad case of gender pronoun trouble: not knowing whether to address the guest as ‘Mister’ or ‘Madam’ and so this employee kept on nervously repeating Mr, Madam, Mr, Madam, Mr, Madam, Mister Madam,..err Mister… I mean Madam, I mean Mister Madam.  He continued until he put himself into some kind of cognitive short-circuited trance  state of repetition.  Butler used this story to help us to ask ourselves what a queer hospitality might look like? How could we make identity a question rather than an appellation? How can we establish personhood through non-normative categories? The story also reminded me of the fissures that can often be provoked in queer alliances over differing readings of Butler’s famous theorization around gender and performance.

Nelson herself cites this in the Argonauts :

The bad reading [of Gender Trouble] goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender: stylize it and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically, other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender, and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind if consumerism. When my whole point was that the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way – that gender is not to be clones and that performativity is not radical choice and its not voluntarism. … Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to re-signify. This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.’

In the closing synthesis, Butler and Nelson’s conversation turned to the idea of queer collectivity and alliances.  Nelson was interested in what a queer writing practice might look like when it was taken as a collective act, a social, extended conversation.  Butler was curious about the composition of strategic queer collectivity – would such a queering make space for alliances with groups that we might have set ourselves up in opposition to in the past? Here Butler makes reference to the LAPD, the Black Church, and anti-Semites as examples.

Three months later, as I write up my responses to these notes, I still feel Nelson and Butler left me with the gift of many treasured formations that have been generative for my own writing and thinking practice. Writing as a performance of its own legacy. The poem as a party | Writing in solitude and reading in community | Writing as an invitation to the party.

I am grateful to have been in a talk where I was reminded that while queer is a fissure in the heart of the normative, it can also be an accelerated pathway to it all the same.

I feel grateful for the invitation to wonder what a queer orientation to social forms might look like beyond mimicry.  I am grateful to have witnessed the deeply respectful familiarity among these three women, a kind of queer kinship formed through intellectual complicity and a shared desire to muse and marvel, to try to figure some shit out.

Together they ask: what would a queering of our current social narrative be?  Would it become a collective social act?  Could a queer narrative form therefore be a fissure in the genre of autobiography?  Living as a foreign student, a black woman in these uncertain times, I am compelled to heed Butler’s advice to keep my capacity for shock alive. Similarly, I am inspired to take up Nelson’s call to savor ‘every moment of uncounted pleasure in reflecting on how we do togetherness and fathom the world anew’.

Tonika Sealy Thompson is a PhD student in Performance Studies who is concerned with Caribbean cultural and political thought, multilingual/hemispheric Black diaspora studies, Gender Womens and Sexuality studies and Afro Asian connections She grew up in Barbados and has been living and working globally as a curator, festival director and cultural consultant on projects in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific regions. She has served as artistic coordinator of the Africa Caribbean and Pacific Arts Festival, and is the founder of the Fish and Dragon Festival a platform for creative exchange between the Caribbean and China.