Feminist philosopher, queer theorist and writer Prof. Dr. Judith Butler was the guest speaker of 5th International Meeting Against Homophobia hosted by Kaos GL. This is the full text of her speech delivered on May 15th at Ankara University.
I am pleased to be here for this day, for this celebration, and for this moment of an increasingly important political struggle and would like in particular to thank Nevin from Kaos who has made this all possible. We are here to celebrate the courage of those who struggle for the rights of sexual and gender minorities, and we are here as well to remember that no disenfranchised minority is free unless all disenfranchised minorities are free. We are here to acknowledge and to oppose the violence done to transgendered people in Turkey and throughout the world, to insist that genders must be lived in freedom and with full public protection. This means that we must honor the lives of those who have been killed because of their gender difference, or the way they appear, or the threat they oppose to normalcy and conformity, and we must oppose the violent policing of minority populations. I speak about violent police, but let us be clear about what we mean. Those who insist that gender must always appear in one way, who seeks to criminalize or pathologize those who live their gender or their sexuality in non-normative ways, are themselves acting as the police whether or not they belong to the police force of the state. As we know, it is sometimes the police force of the state that does violence against sexual and gendered minorities, but sometimes it is the police force of the state that fails to investigate, fails to consider the murder of transgendered women as criminal, or fails to prevent violence against transgendered members of the population. In such cases, the police force of the state operates in complicity with the police force that seeks to keep gender norms in place, that grounds categories of women and men in nature or in tradition; in part, gender is an exercise of freedom, and that this exercise of freedom must be accorded the same equal treatment as any other exercise of freedom under the law. When the state police do violence to gender and sexual minorities or, indeed, to women of whatever kind, then the state police becomes the gender police. And when the state police fail to investigate, prosecute, or prevent such crimes, they support the gender police and its violence against minorities. Let us not become confused about what is and should be criminal. No one should be criminalized for his or her gender presentation. And if gender or sexual minorities are criminalized or pathologized for how they appear, how they lay claim to public space, the language through which they understand themselves, the means by which they express love or desire, those with whom they openly ally, choose to be near, engage sexually, or how they exercise their bodily freedom, then those acts of criminalization are themselves violent; and in that sense, they are also unjust and criminal. To police gender is a criminal act, an act by which the police become criminal. To fail to prevent violence against minority communities on the part of the state police is itself a criminal negligence, at which point the police become criminal.
What do we mean when we say that sexuality or gender is an exercise of freedom? I do not mean to say that all of us choose our gender or our sexuality. We are surely formed by language and culture, by history, by the social struggles in which we participate, by forces both psychological and historical. Indeed, we may well feel that what and how we desire are quite fixed, indelible or irreversible features of who we are. But regardless of whether we understand our gender or our sexuality as chosen or given, we each have a right to claim that gender and to claim that sexuality. And it makes a difference whether we can claim them at all. When we exercise the right to be the gender we are or when we exercise the right to engage in sexuality that causes injury to no one, then we are exercising a certain freedom. So even if you feel that you have not chosen your sexuality or your gender, that it is part of a fixed nature, it makes a difference that you claim this position in public, that you walk the streets as you do, that you find employment and housing without discrimination. At such moments, your public presentation and your actions are an exercise of freedom, one that deserves to be protected.
I suppose I would add here as well that when one chooses to be who one is, then one is, in fact, making freedom part of that very social project. It is not possible to separate the genders that we are and the sexualities that we engage from the right that each of us has to assert those realities in public, freely and with protection from violence.
In the language that has become central to many queer theories, one says that gender is performative; this means that it is a certain kind of enactment. We are born into the world in the midst of obligatory norms, but they do not always order us, and we do not always emerge in the image of what is expected; gender is prompted by obligatory norms that demand that we be one gender or the other (usually within a strictly binary frame); but the reproduction of gender is always a complex negotiation with power; indeed, in my view, there is no gender without this reproduction of norms that risks undoing or redoing the dominant norms in unexpected ways, opening up the possibility of a remaking of gendered reality along new lines.
We do not fully make the language in which we lay claim to who we are, to our desire, to our demands. We are reliant on many previous and simultaneous political struggles: we have to make use of the language of recognition, rights, freedom, equality, and justice. And we have to change the meanings of all those terms. So in one sense, we have to have the courage to make claims for just treatment and for freedom; but in other sense, we have to find our way within an inherited set of discourses. If we make political claims, we rely on language we never made, but we also make new use of that very language. In that sense, we are struggling within a situation that we have not fully made, but whose future we seek to make. We are free, but only within an historical situation that we did not make. And that history precedes us, but it is also being made. We make it actively now by positioning ourselves within the political field in the name of gender equality, anti-violence, and the protection of disenfranchised minorities.
I am referring to politics, but perhaps we can call “performative” both this political process by which we make a claim to equal treatment, protection from violence, and inclusion among the protected minorities of any given polity. But this performativity applies more broadly to the conditions by which any of us emerge as recognizable creatures in the world. The performativity of gender in particular might be understood as that exercise of freedom. We call for this freedom, and in calling for it together, we open the space of freedom – we institute that possibility, and we introduce and re-introduce that possibility into the world. Perhaps we thought we already know what freedom is, but have we really thought about what it would mean for transgendered people to be free of the threat of violence? Have we yet thought freedom in that way? And have we yet understood what it would mean for such a claim to freedom to apply equally to religious and racial minorities, to women, and to sexual and gender minorities? We cannot think it at all if we do not learn how to think it together. And we cannot think it together if we do not begin to acknowledge the differences among these oppressions, and then maintain the open-ended practice of translation that allows for alliance, coalition, and new conceptions of equality among the disenfranchised or among those whose lives are differentially exposed to precarious conditions.
In some ways the threat to the lives of gender and sexual minorities are very specific. Not all hatred is homophobia, and homophobia is a specific sort of hatred. Not all violence targets transgendered people, and not all violence targets women; but there are specific forms of transphobia and misogyny that do precisely that. As much as the specificity of homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny need to be understood, none of them can be understood well without reference to one another. They are not the same, and we cannot draw strict analogies between them, but they are profoundly linked in a world in which certain norms govern how bodies may and may not move in the world, how bodies must appear or fail to appear, how discrimination and violence takes place on the basis of how bodies and desires are perceived. So we would be mistaken if we failed to take into account how what happens to transgendered women on the street is linked with how other kinds of minorities are treated. What they each share is a differential exposure to violence, a lack of protection from police authority, a fear of the police, of the military rationale that pervades political power, and of being exposed to a condition of precarity without clear protection.
If performativity is the first term that I have suggested as a way of talking about a certain exercise of freedom in the midst of unfreedom, then precarity is surely another term that we must consider not only to understand the specific vulnerability of targeted populations, but to find out what they have in common, and on what terms potential alliance can be built. “Precarity” designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support more than others, and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death; precarity is thus the differential distribution of precariousness. Populations that are differentially exposed suffer heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and vulnerability to violence without adequate protection or redress. Precarity also characterizes that politically induced condition of maximized vulnerability and exposure for populations exposed to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression that are not enacted by states and against which states do not offer adequate protection. So by precarity we may be talking about populations that starve or who near starvation, but we might also be talking about transgendered sex workers who have to defend themselves against both street violence and police harassment.
Precarity is, perhaps obviously, directly linked with gender norms, since we know that those who do not live their genders in intelligible ways are at heightened risk for harassment and violence. We can see how gender norms differentially expose certain populations to precarity when it becomes a risk to appear in public space; We see this connection every time we ask, who will be criminalized on the basis of public appearance (something that continues to be done by police with the assistance of the Civil Misdemeanour Law); who will fail to be protected by the law or, more specifically, the police, on the street, or on the job, or in the home? A law that persecutes minorities is a criminal law, and those who uphold such a law, or enforce the law commit a crime against human rights. This is why we have to ask not only how gender and sexuality are formed, but how they are reproduced, and how the norms that govern gender and sexuality are enforced, not merely by attitudes, but sometimes, as we know from the myriad killings of transgender people [nefret Cinayetleri] in Turkey as well as so many other countries, by the military power of the police or by those who the police fail to charge those who commit such violence with a crime.
Gender norms are at play when we ask, who will be stigmatized and disenfranchised at the same time that they are treated as the object of fascination and consumer pleasure? Who will have medical benefits before the law? Whose intimate and kinship relations will, in fact, be recognized before the law or criminalized by the law? When the French government forbids the veil in public spaces, it restricts the freedom of women who wear the veil to be part of public life. And when it turns girls away from schools who wear the veil, the government undermines the capacity of Muslim girls to acquire the education to which they are entitled. In my mind, we cannot call feminist the expulsion of women from the public sphere or from education. But perhaps this right to appear in public in ways that affirm one’s religious belonging are related to other kinds of rights of public appearance. There is no one way for the body to appear, and there is no one idea of the nation that the body must reflect. The right to appear in public is fundamental to any notion of democratic politics.
Let us then return to the question of norms and how they govern who will be considered intelligible or admissible into public space. We know these questions in part from transgender activism, from feminism, from queer kinship politics, and also from the gay marriage movement and the issues raised by sex workers for public safety, health insurance, and economic enfranchisement. So these norms are not only instances of power; and they do not only reflect broader relations of power; they are one way that power operates, and it may not be possible to describe the operations of power without taking into account the way such norms work. After all, power cannot stay in power without reproducing itself in some way. And every act of reproduction risks going awry or adrift, or producing effects that are not fully foreseen. Power works not only by making certain kinds of subjects, but also by regulating the conditions of their reproducibility. This was surely Marx’s point in The German Ideology when he drew attention to one feature of materialism: the reproduction of persons.
It seems that we must do this in order to understand those forms of living gender, for instance, that are misrecognized or remain unrecognizable precisely because they exist at the limits of established norms for thinking embodiment and even personhood. Are there forms of sexuality for which there is no good vocabulary precisely because the powerful logics that determine how we think about desire, orientation, sexual acts and pleasures do not admit of certain modes of sexuality?
The performativity of gender is thus bound up with the differential ways in which subjects become eligible for recognition. Although of course I accept that full recognition is never fully possible, I also accept that there are differential ways of allocating recognizability. The desire for recognition can never be fulfilled – yes, that is true. But to be a subject at all requires first complying with certain norms that govern recognition – that make a person recognizable. And so, non-compliance calls into question the viability of one’s life, the ontological conditions of one’s persistence. We think of subjects as the kind of beings who ask for recognition in the law or in political life; but perhaps the more important issue is how the terms of recognition – and here we can include a number of gender and sexual norms – condition in advance who will count as a subject, and who will not.
So it is, I would suggest, on the basis of this question, who counts as a subject and who does not, that performativity becomes linked with precarity. The performativity of gender has everything to do with who counts as a life, who can be read or understood as a living being, and who lives, or tries to live, on the far side of established modes of intelligibility.
I am mindful that I am a U.S. citizen and I come to you with limited knowledge of your history, your movements, and your contemporary situation. But I have been grateful to all the people who sent me articles and for all the extraordinary work that has been produced by feminist and queer scholars here in Turkey. When I am in some European countries, I am faced with a very different understanding of secularism and religion than one finds here. And in those contexts, I have tried to argue that it is most important for religious and sexual minorities to find ways of acting in coalition with one another. I am aware that here secularism has become identified with certain forms of state power, nationalism, and military power, and that the Muslim community is internally complex, with its own range of political positions and alliances. In the Netherlands, one is told that gay and transgendered people are threatened by religious minorities, presumably Muslim, but this view is meant to recruit gay libertarians to the cause of Dutch nationalism and to a conception of an ethnically cleansed Europe that would exclude countries like Turkey. So it is important for the rest of the world to see that these matters are treated very differently here, that you have a very different history of secularism, and that the Euroatlantic distinctions between the secular and the religious are provincial distinctions after all. This becomes most important when we see how many feminist have decided that secularism is a neutral stance and the only one by which feminist aims can be advanced. They clearly have not grasped the profound historical link between secularism and militarism here. Any queer or feminist movement, any strong movement for human rights, any powerful opposition to crimes against humanity, any struggle for gender equality and gender non-discrimination has to affirm an opposition to militarism and to forms of state power that efface the murders they have committed, whether it is the history of the decimation of the Armenian people in 1915 or the killing of transgendered women on the streets of Ankara. Anyone who opposes this militarism belongs together in a strong and radical democratic movement.
That said, I do understand that it is not always easy to work together. I was alarmed to read about the statements made by the Turkish Health and Family Minister Ms. Aliye Kavaf when she suggested that homosexuality is a sickness that should be cured. Was she expressing her free speech, or was she speaking the language of the state that seeks to pathologize its citizens, without understanding that sexuality, as well, is a domain of freedom of expression that calls for radical protection. Or was she speaking out of private, moral beliefs? We must ask, what is the relation between attacks on transgendered people, arrests on the street, efforts to close or restrict various organizations like KAOS GL (Ankara) and Pembe Hayat (Pink Life ) in Istanbul. When the Minister of Health speaks, she speaks from her office, and as her office, and if the government does not dispute her, her language becomes the declaration of the state. If the state declares the pathology of homosexuals and the police attack sexual and gender minorities, or conspicuously fail to pursue charges of criminal acts against such minorities, then we are really talking about a systematic attack on communities that are in need of political recognition and enfranchisement.
Now of course, it is possible to say that lesbian and gay people are sick and should be cured, but we have to ask: is this kind of speech part of a pattern of discrimination, one that tends to de-realize or dismiss the criminal actions against sexual minorities? Let us remember that citizenship involves not just the right to be protected by law – and not persecuted by law – but also the right to participate in an open democracy, which means, the right to enter the street without fear, the right of assembly, of freely associating with those with whom one chooses without intervention. We make a mistake if we fail to understand that the psychiatric pathologization of sexual minorities works in tandem with their political enfranchisement. And especially where nation-states are invested in asserting masculine power, in showing military strength, and in building an idea of the nation as a masculine fortress, it is inevitable that sexual minorities who challenge these deeply entrenched gender norms will come under attack.
But even if one disapproves of homosexuality or transgender, even if one has strong feelings of aversion toward such people or such practices, one still has to ask, what kind of world do I want to live in, and what does equal treatment before the law mean? And one should really go further, and ask what anxieties and fears inform such judgments, and what injustice is committed when such fears are transmuted into public policy? What does it mean to live in a democracy that assumes that we are differentiated by gender, by ethnicity, by religion, by sexuality and race? To be committed to living in a democracy means that I, that you, agree to live with those we never chose, to be bound by obligations to those who are not fully recognizable to us, to honor the rights of those who unsettle our assumptions about what it means to be a body or what it means to be a gender. Whatever personal struggles or aversions we might have do not form a legitimate basis for a political position. The only position that affirms democracy is the one in which I remain obligated to the stranger, the one who is strange to me, whom I do not yet fully know or understand; and when we consider what it means to live in a radical democracy that includes sexual and gender minorities, we acknowledge that we must honor our obligations to those who challenge our way of seeing, who ask us to understand the domain of human life, of human sexuality, desire, and love; in effect, we agree to live in our discomfort and in our anxiety because that is what it means to live with those who are not immediately like oneself, who challenge us to think anew about human possibilities that are not our own. We struggle in this way when we seek to understand religious traditions that are not are own, social histories that are invisible within our own, sexual practices and identities that are not what we have always known. To affirm radical democracy is to be open to a future of what is not yet fully known about the other and perhaps never can be. Perhaps if there is an ethics to democracy, it is one in which I never fully capture or know another who is unlike me, but I commit myself to honoring that life, and to insisting on the value of that life, which is the life of embodied freedom and its permanent claim to equality and justice.
In some parts of Europe and surely in Israel as well, I see how the rights of homosexuals are defended in the name of nationalism, but there are reasons to be very skeptical of such a link. Those efforts to recruit gay people for the purposes of building nationalist and xenophobic cultures invariably reduces gay people to individuals who are propertied, male, and bound by national allegiance. This interpellation is one way of asking gay people to break ranks with other minorities, and to disavow the principles that would commit a queer politics to the struggle against racism and militarism, one that must be undertaken with feminist allies. Although we hear about freedom of expression, and freedom from censorship, in some of these debates in Northern Europe, it is important to remember that freedom of expression has clearly been a queer value since the outset of the movement. The movement for sexual freedom has required freedom of expression, and that means not only that I am free to speak, freely, and without harm, but that I and we are free to move, that our freedom of movement is linked to our freedom of expression, and that we are free to assembly, to ally with those we choose, and that our right to public space is equal to any other person’s right. Of course, we have to continue to struggle against those modes of censorship that have inhibited the efforts of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex, and queer people to publish, to assemble, to document and publicize their history, to organize and express their desire.
For all these reasons, we have to be clear about what we mean by freedom, since from the beginning, freedom is not the same as the liberty that belongs to the individual, but something socially conditioned and socially shared. No one person is free when others are not, since freedom is exercised as a consequence of a certain social and political organization of life. It is only on the condition that we are bound up with others that we stand any chance of exercising freedom. This means moving beyond the idea that queer is an identity. It is a dynamic and differentiated movement with certain clear political aims in mind. Conceived transnationally, the queer movement has also sought to fight homophobia, misogyny, and racism, and has operated as part of an alliance with struggles against discrimination and hatreds of all kinds. The emergence of a queer politics was meant to confirm the importance of battling homophobia no matter what your identity was. And as I understand it, since the 1990s, certain feminist movements have stood with transgender activists in Turkey opposing police violence and new modes of military nationalism. Who supports Pink Life when they petition to the Human Rights Presidency of the Prime Ministry to stop police harassment of transvestites and transsexuals? Lambda Istanbul, Feminist Women’s Environment, the Socialist Feminist Solidarity Organization, and Amargi. These are the signs of a vital alliance, one that crosses difference, and which maintains the goal of promoting radical democracy against police and military violence.
A strong alliance on the left requires a commitment to combating both racism and homophobia, combating both nationalist politics and various forms of misogyny. I’m not willing to participate in an alliance that does not keep all of these forms of discrimination clearly in mind, and that does not also attend to the matters of economic justice that afflict sexual minorities, women, and racial and religious minorities as well. Moreover, I want to call attention to the importance of the critique of state coercion and state violence for a robust left political movement. This means that we have to ask how the configuration of debates, the ways in which they are framed, sometimes works in the service of occluding reference to state coercion and state violence more generally.
Of course, state coercion is supported by organizations who fail to criticize this coercion. How many organizations censor themselves, fail to speak, because they understand themselves as part of the state, or because they aspire to gain status within the apparatus of the state? Does belonging to the state require speaking as the state speaks, which means not speaking if the state does not want you to speak? At what point does any organization sacrifice its principled commitment to democracy, freedom, and equality, when it fails to defend any minority against arbitrary state violence? Perhaps the censorship we have most to fear is that which emerges from our own silence. This is as true in Turkey as it is in Honduras or in various parts of the United States.
Speaking out, coming out, showing up in public, and transforming the public sphere itself is part of what is necessary to radical democratic politics. And this means as well transforming the distinction between what is private and what is public. It is important that we be able to conduct ourselves in private as we wish, but that is not enough. There will be no protection of the private domain without a radical transformation of public norms. And these norms are invariably bound up with those norms that govern the intelligibility of the body in space and time. And by ‘intelligibility’ I include ‘readability in social space and time’ and so an implicit relation to others (and to possibilities of marginalization, abjection, and exclusion) that is conditioned and mediated by social norms. Such norms are made and re-made, and sometimes they enter into crisis in the remaking; they are vectors of power and of history. There are those who have limited access to “intelligibility” and there are others who epitomize its symbolic iconography, so the reproduction of gender norms within ordinary life is always, in some ways, a negotiation with forms of power that condition whose lives will be more liveable, and whose lives will be less so, if not fully un-liveable. These are the norms that determine whose lives will be grievable, and whose will not. But let us remember that if a life is not treated as if its loss would be terrible, then its loss is already built into the notion of the life. This is why a life must be regarded first as grievable in order to be treated as a life at all. What we see when we consider the deaths of transgender people, the differential violence against women, and homophobic attacks, is the notion that life is differentially valued, and that certain lives are considered more grievable than others. Systematic attacks on minorities produce ungrievable populations. And so when they are murdered, there is no crime and there is no loss. It is against this situation that we must find and sustain our outrage and our intelligence to form and sustain a new movement for social justice. But we can only do this by entering publicl space and transforming the norms that govern who is intelligible and who is not.
But how do any of us ally with others in public when the field of social relations is fraught with so much danger? Where do we find trust, support, and alliance? We would not be so vexed by this situation if we were not struggling for a world in which thriving becomes an equal right, and where the livability and grievability of lives are no longer distributed differentially. It is on the basis of this commitment to equality that we exercise our agency. Of course, I am not suggesting that we all become equally imperiled, but only that we need to take the condition of precariousness as something that binds us to those we may not know, and whom we have never chosen. In other words, we are bound not only to the stranger as a figure, but to understanding and taking apart that entire spectral demographics in which certain populations are regarded as liveable lives, and others as unliveable and, so, unmournable.
So perhaps all these terms: freedom, survival, and thriving all depend upon the situation in which the body never fully belongs to itself. The body is one’s own and one has rights to be protected as an individual. But when we lay claim to those rights, we address a broader community, and our body is there, in that address as well. If I say, I am here to live and to be treated in a just way, I say it to someone or to some world of others, to a “you” and so in my very address show myself to be an invariably social being. None of us stands a chance of surviving without an ec-static existence in sociality. How can autonomy and responsibility be re-thought on the basis of this socially ecstatic structure of the body? The body invariably, necessarily comes up against an outside world is a sign of the general predicament of unwilled proximity to others and to circumstances beyond one’s control. This “coming up against” – and being that which others come up against - is one modality that defines the body. And yet, this obtrusive alterity against which the body finds itself can be, often is, what animates responsiveness to that world. That responsiveness that may include a wide range of affects: pleasure, rage, suffering, hope, desire – all of which belong to the domain of sexual politics.
Precariousness as a generalized condition relies on a conception of the body as fundamentally dependent on, and conditioned by, a sustained and sustainable world; responsiveness—and thus, ultimately, responsibility—is located in the affective responses to a sustaining and impinging world. In other words, my ability to be sustained depend more broadly on there being sustainable forms of life. In the context of war of the heightened military power of the state, it is necessary to consider how responsibility must focus not just on the value of this or that life, or on the question of survivability in the abstract, but on the sustaining social conditions of life—especially when they fail. This is why it makes sense that there should be queer activism on Gaza, but also against the escalation of war in Afghanistan, that there is queer anti-militarism in Germany and Turkey, and queer anti-racism in the UK and Spain, and why queers are under an obligation to oppose all efforts to recruit us to the task of building up the nation-state, the securitarian state, and all forms of militarism in contemporary political life.
Perhaps these are some of the questions that queer alliances must continue to ask: How does the unspeakable population speak and makes its claims? What kind of disruption is this within the field of power? And how can such populations lay claim to what they require in order to persist. The point is to struggle for those modes of recognition that ameliorate precarity and to fight against those dominant norms that expose us to a precarity with no recourse to political agency or protection. It is not only that we need to live in order to act, but that we have to act, and act politically, in order to secure the conditions of existence. Sometimes the norms of recognition bind us in ways that imperil our capacity to live: what if the gender that establishes norms require in order for us to be recognizable also do violence to us, imperil our very survival? Then the very categories that appear to make life possible actually take our lives away. The point is not to accept such a double bind, but to struggle for modes of life in which the performative acts struggle against precarity, so that we might live in new modes of existence, on the critical edge of the recognizable, and still live.
Survival depends not so much on the policing of a territorial boundary—the strategy of a certain sovereign in relation to its territory—but rather on recognizing how we are bound up with others. This is why we have to conceptualize the body in the field of politics. We have to consider whether the body is rightly defined as a bounded kind of entity. What makes a body discrete is not an established or known morphology, as if we could identify certain bodily shapes or forms as paradigmatically human bodies. I am quite sure we cannot and should not identify a paradigmatically human form. This view has implications for rethinking gender – transgender , disability, and racialization, to name a few of the social processes that depend upon the compulsory reproduction of bodily norms. And as the critique of gender normativity, able-ism, and racist perception have made clear, there is no singular human form, and no single way for those forms to appear in public space. We can think about demarcating the human body through identifying its boundary, or in what form it is bound, but that is to miss the crucial fact that the body is, in certain ways and even inevitably, unbound—in its acting, its receptivity, in its speech, desire, and mobility. It is outside itself, in the world of others, in a space and time it does not control, and it not only exists in the vector of these relations, but as this very vector. In this sense, the body does not belong to itself and never can. Indeed, and when it exercises autonomy, it does so precisely as a consequence of this ecstatic and bounded relationality.
The body, in my view, is where we encounter a range of perspectives that may or may not be our own. So the norms of gender through which I come to understand who I am and whether I might survive are not made by me alone. I am already in the hands of the other when I try to take stock of who I am. I am already up against a world I never chose when I exercise my agency. It follows, then, that certain kinds of bodies will appear more precariously than others, depending on which versions of the body, or of morphology in general, which versions of dress, and for whom, support or underwrite the idea of the human life that is worth protecting, sheltering, living, and mourning. These normative frameworks establish in advance what kind of life will be a life worth living, what life will be a life worth preserving, and what life will become worthy of being mourned. Such views of lives pervade and implicitly justify contemporary war. Lives are divided into those representing certain kinds of states, and those representing threats to state-centered liberal democracy, so that war can then be righteously waged on behalf of some lives, while the destruction of other lives can be righteously defended.
It is not as an isolated and bounded being that I survive, but as one whose boundary exposes me to others in ways that are voluntary and involuntary (sometimes both at once or in ways that are indistinguishable), an exposure that is the condition of sociality and survival alike. The boundary of who I am is singular, but the boundary of my body never fully belongs to me. Survival depends less on establishing a boundary to the self than on negotiating the invariable sociality of the body. But as much as the body, considered as social in both its surface and depth, is the condition of survival, it is also that which, under certain social conditions, imperils our lives and our survivability. Of course, the fact that one’s body is never fully one’s own, bounded and self-referential, is the condition of passionate encounter, of desire, of longing and of those modes of address and addressability upon which the feeling of aliveness depends – and pleasure, to be sure; sensateness, receptivity, activity. We cannot will away being affected by others; and it is only by being affected that we have any chance of exercising our freedom. Indeed, we exercise our freedom as passionate beings, and we are only passionate in relation to a world that affects us in surprising ways. So how do we oppose violence without making ourselves into bounded pieces of property and territory? Can we remain open to the surprise of the world after we have found ourselves unexpectedly attacked or when we live in a world in which unexpected attack has become part of ordinary life? The situation of being bound up with one another is the condition of freedom, and this exposure or dispossession in the midst of sociality is precisely what is exploited in the case of unwilled coercion, constraint, physical injury, violence. Contact, unwilled, unexpected – it crosses at least two ways, in the direction of insupportable pain and injury; in the direction of sudden discovery, falling in love, unforeseen solicitude. These are the risks of putting ourselves out there, on the street, in the world, among others we cannot know and fully predict. If we cannot take this risk, we have lost our freedom altogether. And there is no exercise of freedom without some element of this risk.
Finally, then, if we return to the question of precariousness and the implications it has for living socially, then it follows one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of others; even when I extend my own hand, it is as one who has been handled, sustained, that I may offer something sustaining. We are all over each other, and from the start. This implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know. These are not necessarily relations of love or even of care, but they do imply obligations toward others, most of whom we cannot name and do not know, and who may or may not bear perceivable traits of familiarity to an established sense of who “we” are. Indeed, it may be that what this notion of ethics requires is that we no longer know precisely who “we” are or to whom we sustain obligations. We could say that “we” have such obligations to “others” and act as if “we” know who “we” are. But if there is another notion of sociality at stake, and another future for global obligations, then the “we” has to come up against its own limits where it does not, cannot, recognize itself. Something queer happens then, happens here. Or so I hope.
My own affiliation with “queer” is meant to affirm the politics of alliance across difference. Broadly put, a strong alliance on the left requires, minimally, a commitment to combating both racism and homophobia, combating both anti-immigrant politics and various forms of misogyny and induced poverty. Why would any of us be willing to participate in an alliance that does not keep all of these forms of discrimination clearly in mind, and that does not also attend to the matters of economic justice that afflict sexual minorities, women, and racial and religious minorities as well? It is perhaps important to remember the importance of the critique of state coercion and state violence for a robust left political movement, even as we recognize that transnational economic, including state institutions, are responsible for differential and widening poverty levels.
Whatever freedom we fight for must be a freedom based on equality. Indeed, we cannot find for the one without the other. Freedom is a condition that depends upon equality for its actualization. At stake is rethinking and opposing the processes of minoritization under new global conditions, asking what alliances are possible between religious, racial, and sexual minorities (when these “positions” are less identities than modes of living in relation to others and to guiding ideals). Then perhaps we can craft constellations where the opposition to racism, discrimination, precarity, and state militarism and violence remain the clear goals of political mobilization. This would mean that the opposition to war and heightened militarization is a way to exercise freedom in conjunction with equality, and, through stopping the state machinery of violence, to reanimate and sustain the social life of the body – its desire, its form, its claim on the future and on justice.