When does a brave act become ruthless

in: ak - analyze & kritik, Hamburg, No. 656, January 21, 2020, p. 34.

Notes on the uprising
In Judith Butler's new book, a lot is touched on and little is thought through to the end

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Perhaps it is publishing contracts, perhaps just the mixture of thirst for recognition and the compulsion to publish that is so typical of the scientific field that induce authors to write such books. Books in which essays are gathered that have little in common in terms of content, but which pretend to be a monograph. One such book has now been published by Judith Butler under the title “Ruthless Criticism”.
The title motif is the subject of the second essay and otherwise plays no role in the book. The American philosopher turns out to be a Marx connoisseur, which may surprise some, in this and in another text in the book. In a letter to the Young Hegelian Arnold Ruge in 1843, Marx had called for “ruthless criticism of everything that existed”. Butler interprets Marx as speaking in favor of a flexible but targeted questioning. He thus assumed a position between immobile dogmatists and disoriented anarchism - the “anarchists are confused” (74), paraphrases Butler Marx. More than their alleged aimlessness, however, Marx annoyed their spontaneous excessive zeal, which he wanted to counter with his understanding of criticism. Not everything that exists should ultimately be discarded - a demand that Marx puts in the mouth of the anarchists - but criticism consists in rethinking existing ideas through to the end and thereby, as Butler writes, "uncovering their contradicting character" (87). Only this could lead to a break with the past. Butler does not mention that Marx is still entirely a philosopher here and changes his mind at the latest with the work “Die deutsche Ideologie” (1845/46). In this, he scoffs at the “idealistic” notion that changing ideas can change the world and opposes it with the economic upheaval in conditions. With the early Marx, Butler holds on to the hope that the perfection of thoughts “leads to a realization of the principles which became clear in the course of the critical unmasking of an earlier project.” (96) From the unmasking of the one to the realization of the other Incidentally, this is not an unusual sequence in anarchism either.

From here there is also a transition to the third, by far the strongest text in the book. With Michel Foucault, Butler explores the conditions and meanings of resistant action. With Foucault's concept of parrhesia, of telling the truth, criticism is seen here as a courageous act. Anyone who criticizes ruthlessly could be said to be taking a risk. So criticism takes courage. Butler then wonders how it is possible to “convert” risky behavior from moral virtue to collective solidarity (112). Butler saw this collective dimension realized in the form of public meetings. In her head she had disenfranchised people protesting for a legal status. However, the marches of the far right, who want to restrict or even end the lives of others, did not fit into the concept. In this respect, she goes further in this text than in her book “Notes on a Performative Theory of Assembly” (2016). Because she wonders whether the characteristics of “courageous and radical democratic assemblies can be determined” (113) and can be distinguished from racially motivated marches. Your answer: the left-wing assemblies, firstly, themselves anticipate their egalitarian goals when assembling, and secondly, they are not directed against the weaker. This distinction between emancipatory assemblies and the Nazi deployment is central. It is just as important to point out that despite all the performative anticipation, what is strived for is still a long way from being realized. In other words: the acts of “political resistance against precarity” (123) are not themselves the realm of economic equality and social security that they strive for. It takes more than that.
Maybe a riot? Butler then devotes himself to the uprising in the last text, and in this the differences that have just been highlighted are unfortunately somewhat leveled out again. For the gathering that leads to the uprising, it is enough that there is collective advocacy for the end of suffering. The uprising arises from “a feeling of common indignation” (132) it is then again generally called. That reads like a commentary on the events of the last few weeks and months in Latin America. But defining uprisings as “expressions of the will of the people” (135) prevents us from distinguishing between the anti-neoliberal struggles in Chile and the uprising that led to the coup in Bolivia. Even if Butler makes it absolutely clear that the claim to speak for the “people” is always contested, she does not offer any criteria for clarification here. Butler complains that the uprising can be understood as “a collective and embodied political judgment” (137) even without communiqués, without decrees and programs. That is surely correct. From a perspective of criticism, however, the question should be allowed and - let's put it with Butler's Marx - one should think through to the end of what the judgment is made about and for what and against what it is directed.

What the Marxist state theorist Johannes Agnoli once said about revolts, Butler also writes about the uprising: Revolts always fail, otherwise they would be revolutions. Yet they are not in vain. Butler asserts that they can “become symbols and spark future uprisings” (143). And, of course, they can always encourage criticism - criticism of their own forms and criticism of the circumstances. To have brought criticism into play again as a “special relationship between the historical conditions of thought and the forms of judgment that intervene in historical life and want to change it” (16), the essays collected here are certainly good for that. To clarify the role and meaning of the terms that have been strung together in the subtitle - "body, speech, insurrection" - one would rather want a proper monograph.

Jens Kastner

Judith Butler:Ruthless criticism. Body, speech, insurrection. Konstanz 2019, Konstanz University Press, 160 pp., € 18 (D) / € 18.50 (A).


More on the subject:

The handle of the norm
Again there is the accusation against the philosopher Butler that theory and activism are inseparable for her. You should ask completely different questions.
in: taz, Berlin, September 28, 2019
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Solidarity of differences
Plea for an understanding of solidarity based on diversity
in: iz3W, Freiburg, No. 376, January / February 2020, pp. 13-16.
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Judith Butler: Notes on a Performative Theory of Gathering. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag 2017
in: Ne Znam. Journal for Research on Anarchism, No. 7, Spring 2018, pp. 217-221.
[download article as pdf]

Didier Eribon: Society as a judgment. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 2017.
in: springerin. Booklets for Contemporary Art, Volume XXIV, Book 1, Winter 2018, p. 75.
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