Butler on nonsystematic writing

I’ve been re-reading Butler’s work lately because I’m thinking about political mimesis, and I was struck along the way by her very frank and admirable comments about the fact that if you write a bunch of things over time, you don’t necessarily want to go back over them to make sure that your view is the same everywhere.

She starts out by commenting on the sad fact that one rarely has any clue how anyone will read anything one writes:

One writes without knowing whether the reader will read closely or not, whether the work will be understood in terms of what came before, and for the most part, one is content with being read intermittently, partially, and perhaps even relieved that no one will look too closely. I don’t have the luxury of that relief with either one of these essays. Oddly, in being asked to respond to them, I am also asked to write yet more precisely on the occasion when it seems to me that, surely, I have already written too much.

Then she continues with a reflection on the inconsistencies that emerge from writing that develops over time:

Further, I’m in a particular bind, since it never occurred to me to try and establish an internally consistent philosophical position. Because I am, as I write, a living being, I develop new views, call some of the old ones into question, change tracks, return to older problems in new ways. But I have never, I think, sought to reconcile the writing that I have done at one time with the writing I have done at another. In part, I do not want to look back too closely, since I am living and thinking now, but also because whatever I am living and thinking now emerges from that “before” and in ways for which I am surely grateful, but for which I have no ready account. That others seek to take account of what I have written across several works is surely a gift to me, though it is not one I could or would give myself, and so not one that I can offer in return. My response will have to be something other than an account in any systematic sense. After all, one writes and then writes again, but it is probably not the case that what one writes first serves as a set of philosophical premises from which the later work is derived. There is perhaps a different kind of temporality at work, a circling back to issues left unprobed, new efforts to approach a set of problems, the exercise of a certain possibility of repetition that does not seek to produce a seamless continuity between what is past and what is present. Indeed, the discontinuities allow for the possibility of starting anew, starting again, with some of the same problems with which one began.

If one wanted an accessible image of the difference between systematic philosophy and critical theory, this is probably as close as one can get.

(From “Reply from Judith Butler to Mills and Jenkins,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18(2):180-195.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *