Judith Butler is one of the greatest leader of contemporary philosophy. Professor at Berkeley University, her works focus on issues of gender and feminism, but also on issues of contemporary politics. She published Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (Routledge,1990), Undoing gender (Routledger, 2004) and Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (with Athena Athanasiou, 2015). Her latest book, Rassemblement. Pluralité, performativité et politique (Fayard, 2016) is an opportunity for us to talk with her. (The French version is available here).
What were your motivations/reasons for working on these different dimensions of the gathering?
Judith Butler : Like many people, I was very interested in the demonstrations that took place in Morocco and Egypt in 2010 and then in Gezi Park a few years ago. I also supported the Occupy Wallstreet actions since they were bringing public attention to accelerating and gross economic inequalities. My book took shape in 2012-13 when I was trying to understand the importance of such social movements. Some people argued that Occupy did make any claims, but I thought that they were clearly making a claim to public space. Some of the demonstrations on my own campus, the University of California at Berkeley, were also « laying claim » to the university as a public space. So then the question arises, what form does a political claim have to take to be understood as a claim? Does it have to be a verbal act, a set of propositions, or can we say that bodies that assemble together « speak » even when they are silent. Some of the silent demonstrations in Gezi Park in Istanbul were most eloquent, especially when there was a ban on public assembly. I have since become interested in how the distinction between « rassemblement » and « manifestation » works in France under the prolonged state of emergency. What is so threatening about people gathering? And when we seek to defend democracy against those who would destroy it, do we not seek to defend the freedom of assembly?
Do you think there is a genealogy or a history of the notion of “gathering » that would unite different movements such as the French Revolution, Occupy, the manifestations of May-68 and the different gatherings of the Arab Spring?
I do not think that there is one principle or practice that would unify all forms of assembly. In fact, we may need a series of terms to adequately describe these forms in which humans come together to express their political views. We might distinguish among an informal and formal gathering, an assembly, a demonstration, an occupation, and an encampment. If we think about the forms of assembly that take place along the border of Europe under unwilled conditions, we find modes of political organizing a decision-making that are at once the effect of coercion and the expression of freedom. Indeed, there is usually a radically unwilled condition that prompts people to assemble to assert their power and their freedom. Of course, not all assemblies are in the service of democracy, and I do not celebrate all assemblies. Assemblies of fascists are to be unequivocally denounced. At the same time, there can be no democracy without the freedom of assembly.
One of the central theses of your book is the importance of the body in a gathering, because of their performativity and their vulnerability. What does the body express that oral language does not say?
The freedom of assembly assumes that bodies can assemble, that they can move and travel, that they are not forbidden to assembly by the threat or actions of the police. So we might say that the principle of freedom of assembly makes presuppositions about bodies. They come together, which means that there must be a space in which that gathering can happen, and that they come together as individuals with a common purpose. If the gathering is longer than a few hours, the needs of the body become important. Who will cook and who will sleep? Where is the food? And where are the toilets, and what, if any protection is there against weather, theft, or violent assault? In other words, all the material needs of the body are on display, displaced from the interior and domestic realm and lived outside, outdoors.
On the one hand, we can say that this public exposure of need and these forms of public interdependency are the result of the occupation or the encampment where there is no clear interior space, where we cannot find walls and roofs and floors, where no door can be open or shut. On the other hand, it is often precisely because these material needs are not being met by the economy or by the current political regime that people do come outdoors and expose the very fact that they are bodies in need, bodies in solidarity, bodies in resistance. The « eviction » movement in Barcelona is a dramatic case in point. Those people were forced from their homes when the banks foreclosed on their mortgages (after having demanded interest rates that were obscene). So they were living on the streets with their allies, or finding shelters, but also mobilizing, explicitly politicizing their abandonment to public space, their forced exit from their homes.
Many pages are devoted to the notion of people. Do you think that talking about « people » still makes sense? Should not the concepts of « community » or « coalition » be preferred?
Of course, I do think it is important that we continue to ask, who is the people? Who speaks in the name of the people? What do the people want? It is notoriously difficult to say with certainty who the people are, since every determination of the people is bound to leave some people out. This is probably why the question, who is the people?, has to remain an open one, a critical one. The notion of « community » is even more exclusionary than that of « the people » — and a coalition can build an idea of the people, but it can never fully represent the people. I know that some critics now dismiss the idea of « popular sovereignty » but I do not. Some are critical of « sovereignty » as term, believing that it belongs to a discourse of mastery. Others worry that « sovereignty » implies self-sufficiency and fails to recognize transnational forms of interdependency and alliance. But my sense is that popular sovereignty constitutes the right or the power to withdraw from a state when it is deemed to be without legitimacy. It usually works politically only on those occasions in which the police join the people, and the distinction between the two is minimized. If we hold that the sovereign power of the state is exercised when rights of citizenship are unilaterally suspended, we can hold to the idea as well that the power of the state to suspend citizenship depends in large part on the alliance between the state and legal violence. When people do overcome legal violence, agreeing to become « criminal » in their fight for democracy, then something called « the people » begins to be articulated.
You affirm that neoliberalism, by asserting the idea of individual responsibility, abandons the idea of collective responsibility. Would you consider that neoliberalism seeks to prevent, in a quasi-totalitarian way, any possibility of a « we »?
When people do bring down an illegitimate regime, they emerge as a form of sovereignty that is not fully controlled or instrumentalized by the state. Many indigenous movements rely on the language of popular sovereignty to express their anti-statist views. But nation-states as well know that their power does depend on the popular will. There is a gap between the popular will and the state, even when it is consistently covered over.
You write: « As long as the state controls the conditions of freedom of assembly, popular sovereignty is an instrument of state sovereignty, and the conditions for legitimizing the state disappear as soon as freedom of assembly is deprived of its functions Critical and democratic « (p. 204). Do you think that any gathering aiming at reforming or contesting the existing state political system is doomed to failure?
I have no doubt that neo-liberalism has decimated the basic institutions of democracy. I rely on Wendy Brown’s work, Undoing the Demos, for that argument. My own effort is to suggest that forms of solidarity and interdependency that form in the resistance movements that have emerged constitute ethical and political alternatives to neo-liberal forms of individualism and value. They are sites for imagining and enacting that alternative imaginary. If we think that neo-liberalism is so pervasive, that there is no outside, we dismiss these forms of assembly and resistance as useless or utopian. But there are reasons to hold out for ideals of democracy, even when, precisely when, they seem unrealizable. They often do account for mobilizations precisely under conditions when we think they are no longer possible.
Interview prepared by Jonathan Daudey
Talk gathered by Jonathan Daudey