Celebrating Refusal: The Complexities of Saying No

23 Jun

By Jasbir Puar

Bravo to Judith Butler for turning down the Berlin Pride “Zivilcourage Award”. As Tavia writes, Judith Butler 1, Homonationalism 0. But is this really a victory for the anti-racist queer groups of color who Butler named as the truly courageous? Who are the other winners and losers in the collision of European anti-racist political activism with US academic notoriety? What are the conditions of possibility for this event to have happened at all? Let’s think for a minute about the lead up and repercussions of Butler’s refusal.

On Thursday, June 17th, e-mails started circulating among transnational queer and trans activists and academics regarding Butler’s acceptance of the award. This spontaneous surge of energy, driven in part by the Berlin Academic Boycott, resulted in many letters to Butler which elaborated the problems with the Christopher Street Day (CSD) Pride, noting that the CSD has espoused explicit anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, practices of exclusion, and homonationalist complicity. After meeting with local groups and being apprised of the history of tensions and grievances, Butler responded by offering the prize instead to GLADT (Gays and Lesbians From Turkey; www.gladt.de), LesMigraS (anti-violence and anti-discrimination support group for migrant women and black lesbians; www.lesmigras.de), SUSPECT (a queer anti-violence movement-building group), and ReachOut (a counseling center for victims of right-wing violence; www.reachoutberlin.de, with mention of the coalition work these groups do with Transgenial CSD, an alternative Pride-event (See English translation of her speech: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/articles/i-must-distance-myself/).

In essence, local queer groups of color did a tremendous amount of last-minute, frenetic labor, meeting with Butler just days before the award ceremony in order to alert her to the intricacies of the Berlin scene, drawing upon Butler’s own commitment to queer anti-racist coalitions to do so.

Let’s recognize, as Tavia notes, that Butler put her celebrity-theorist status to good use. But let’s also celebrate what she directs our attention to: the hard groundwork of queer of color, anti-racist organizations that put their lives on the line everyday, for whom violent retribution is a reality. Pointing to a primary facet of homonationalism — the manufacturing of a global progressive image through the negation of national difference — Butler states in an English interview after the award ceremony, “They didn’t need to look all the way to the United States to find someone with civil courage.”  (For the audio of this interview, go to http://www.blu.fm/subsites/detail.php?kat=Gesellschaft&id=4035).

Indeed, Butler’s naming of anti-racist queer groups -– and her refusal of the award — were also made possible by several decades of work by activists and theorists of color, and a representation of and for them that Butler, out of necessity, relies upon to make her stance. This structural power grid is a prime example of the dynamics between “Darstellen” (representation as portrait, as a “re-presentation”) and “Vetreten” (representation as proxy, as someone who is a representative) elaborated upon by Gayatri Spivak. According to Spivak, both forms of representation are inseparable from each other, intractable and also immanent to any process of political address. Cultural capital accrues to those who represent the “Others,” rather than to those who are represented, producing a version of what Michel Foucault calls the “speaker’s benefit.” In representing these organizations (Butler as proxy for queers of color), Butler is also perforce re-presenting herself (Butler as portrait).

Unfortunately, media portrayal in this instance only extends the structural inequities of representation by omitting mention of the groups that Butler hails and citing solely the Transgenial CSD, an alternative but nevertheless white-dominated Pride event. (See press release by SUSPECT for more details: http://nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/judith-butler-refuses-berlin-pride.html).

Despite the best efforts of individuals and groups, there is a danger that the structural positionings of privilege may rearticulate themselves. The real potential of Butler’s refusal will be revealed in its impact upon activist and institutional organizational relationships in Berlin as well as transnationally. The initial press statement released by SUSPECT has been translated into several languages and has generated statements of support from queer of color as well as straight and queer migrant and anti-racist movements internationally — from groups as diverse as X: Talk Migrant Sex Worker Rights Project in London, Asian Arts Freedom School, the Safra Project, Blockorama Toronto, and the list is growing (To contribute a letter of support, go to http://nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/).

Finally, and most crucially, this event has succeed in opening up critique of the citational practices that continue to fuel academic/activist hierarchies that often ignore (or trump) foundational and risky work by queers of color. To clarify genealogies of terms and conversations circulating among different media and social and national locations, SUSPECT has generated a website listing activist and academic work by queers of color. (For the growing bibliography see http://nohomonationalism.blogspot.com/2010/06/activist-writings-for-organic.html).

In reference to the celebration of Gay Pride, Butler states, “I’m all in favor of getting happy. But I am also in favor of the struggle for social justice.” (http://www.blu.fm/subsites/detail.php?kat=Gesellschaft&id=4035). SUSPECT and other queer of color activists and academics remind us of the complex assemblages of knowledge production, alliances, and circuits of power that inform this struggle, offering hope and new possibilities for radically transformed political futures that resist militarism, homonationalism, and gay racism and imperialism.

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18 Responses to “Celebrating Refusal: The Complexities of Saying No”

  1. jo novelli June 23, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    thanks for great reading for my wednesday morning.

  2. sarah Schulman June 23, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    YAY. This is exactly what was needed- transparency and logical sequence of events. Also the ever present problem of substitutionalism, and the longstanding trajectory of how and why Academic credibility overwhelmed grassroots. Very helpful. Thank you SS

  3. ronak kapadia June 23, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

    Nicely put, JKP! Thanks for laying it out so clearly.

  4. Greta LaFleur June 23, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    this is an extremely apt response to what feels like an internet-wide celebration among left-ish thinkers in response to what was a totally decontextualized action on Butler’s part. I really appreciate the gesture of generating exposure for the enormous amount of time, work, thought and mobilization on the ground that played an important role in Butler’s decision.

  5. marc June 25, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    i too really appreciate jasbir P’s intervention here, particularly her outlining of the events –the organizing among local activists–that led Butler to make the important decision she did. I know I’m responding a bit late to this debate but, since media reports and blog posts continue to misrepresent it and to individualize it (folding it back into the myth and mystery of the great or, depending on the report, greatly misguided academic celebrity), I thought I’d add my two cents.

    I just want to mention what some non-Berliners might not know: in Butler’s lecture in Berlin at the Volksbühne on June 18 (two days before CSD) in which she attempted to lay out the importance of uneasy coalition building, anti-militarism, and anti-racism for queer politics, she explicitly referred to the pioneering significance of Puar’s work on homonationalism and terrorist assemblages. In fact, Puar was the only scholar she mentioned in the lecture. (Derrida and Arendt came up but only in the discussion afterwards.)

    Of course, Butler doesn’t deserve praise for acknowledging her debt to Puar’s important work. And, of course, the fact that she did quote her doesn’t in any way challenge Puar’s above critique of “the structural positionings of privilege” that enable Butler’s name and celebrity status to circulate in media articles and blog posts at the expense of GLADT, LesMigraS, ReachOut and Suspect.

    But since Puar refers above to “citational politics” and since some bloggers/commenters are actually turning Butler’s action of deferral to local queer of color groups into a sign of Butler both usurping the position of such groups and appropriating queer of color scholarly work, I thought it important to point this out.

    As I understand it, Puar’s intervention above is not a critique of Butler’s refusal of the prize and statement. Instead, it is a critique of the structural dynamics in place that allow a white academic celebrity’s actions of granting a Civil Courage prize to local anti-racist groups NOT to become a media story about racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism and Islamophobia.

  6. sangeeta ray June 26, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    Jasbir and Marc: brilliant responses both!!

  7. Debanuj DasGupta June 30, 2010 at 2:29 am #

    Thanks Jasbir for the clarification. Truly the hierarchy of both academic citations and non-profit CV complex has worked in tandem to silence both activists/academics of color (many of whom are migrants).
    Thanks for your continued work in both the spheres.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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