Jacques-Alain Miller on Eric Marty’s Judith Butler [1]

Éric Marty et Jacques-Alain Miller: Interview on “The Sex of the Moderns”

Unofficial translation

First appeared in French in Lacan Quotidien, №927 — Lundi 29 Mars 2021–20 h 56 [GMT +2]

Sunday March 21st, 2021

Éric Marty

The Sex of the Moderns

Neutral Thinking and Gender Theory

Threshold Fiction & Cie Collection, March 2021

Jacques-Alain Miller:

Dear Éric Marty, I thought about a little speech to begin. I leafed for twenty minutes through your book, which I received last Wednesday with a dedication that I could not decipher, and I thought of Marx’s sentence in The Holy Family about the reception of the Essay on Human Understanding by John Locke, by his contemporaries, on which I had done my dissertation in philosophy with Conguilhem: “he was greeted with enthusiasm, like an impatiently awaited guest.”

I missed your book since I noticed it first appeared. Without knowing it, I hoped to. And first of all because I never entered into the work of Butler, which Zizek, who was once my pupil in Paris, had tried to interest me in since the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990. Since that time, a number of analysts, inside and outside of the School of the Freudian Cause, have explored the maze of gender theory, but not me.

However, this theory is now a worldwide phenomenon. You start your book with an emphatic phrase: “gender, gender, is the last great ideological message from the West to the rest of the world.” The tone is ‘romantic,’ to use a favorite word of Butler, but, in Butler’s eyes, stigmatizing.

Is your sentence excessive? It is in any case indisputable that the ideas of the cultists of the genre, to put it in the words of Chairman Mao, have penetrated the masses and have become a material force. These ideas are imposed by the United States, they weigh on the evolution of mores in all advanced democracies, they inspire the legislation of several countries, including Argentina, where the influence of Lacan is so marked in intellectual life. In Europe, a law similar to Argentina law is currently being discussed in Spain. Followers of the genre are active in France, and they had their richest hours when Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was Minister of Education.

I am thinking of that sentence by Foucault that you quote on page 389, in which he confides in his hope of producing ‘real effects on present history.’ Well, this is what Judith Butler did. I say, “Chapeau!” And even, why not, “Bien creuse, vieille taupe!”

I was put off from the beginning by the fact that Butler used Lacan’s vocabulary over and over again, with great shamelessness and in a wacky way. You tell me that it’s not. Her use, misuse, of the terms she borrows from Lacan and many others, responds to a real method, a method of ‘disfigurement’ duly claimed, which consists in appropriating concepts to divert them from their initial meaning in order to use them for other purposes. You quote it on page 74: ‘we actively misappropriate the term for other purposes.’ It is a utilitarian gesture that is not without grandeur, nor without cheek. Americans use a Yiddish word, Chutzpah. Butler does not exercise it only on Lacan, but on Derrida, on Bourdieu, on Foucault and tutti quanti. The more conceptual a term is, you say, the more it seeks to capture and exploit it, hence an attitude towards the theorists that you qualify as predatory, see page 77. Through its many works you will see it. Following along, tracking re-uses, displacements, diversions, ramblings, mutations, reconfigurations, and you project a harsh light on Butler’s way of doing things, always ingenious and imaginative, so sometimes confused and confusing. You thus engage in a meticulous ‘deconstruction,’ to use Derrida’s famous word, of gender theory, a deconstruction respectful of its meandering, but severe because of its inconsistencies. While this ideology willing arouses sarcasm and rejections from conservatives reactionaries, supports of common sense, you study it by calmly unfolding all of its complexities, displaying its paradoxes, and pointing out its dead ends. I thought when reading of Spinoza’s famous maxim commented upon by Nietzsche: “do not laugh, do not cry, do not curse, but understand.” You don’t make fun of the genre, you don’t deplore or hate it, you understanding, and make it understood. Finally, in places, irony breaks through.

Of course, we must surrender to the word, if not to the concept of genre, gender. It would not have this echo, it would not have become for many a slogan as well as evidence, if it was not in sympathy, harmony, resonance, with what is working at the present moment of our civilization, with its malaise, to use Freud’s words, with ‘what walks in the depths of taste’ as Lacan says.

No, ‘gender theory’ is not a conspiracy, it is not a sham, it says something very profound about our current moment, modernity or postmodernity. It is all the more fascinating to see when you read yourselves that these now triumphant ideas originate from an astonishing theoretical tinkering in an unstable equilibrium, where paralogism quarrels with fantasy.

It will be claimed that you are ruining the construction of the concept of gender. Some, including myself, will nonetheless appreciate the power of this business. Judith Butler was able to impose the genre ‘almost universally as an unsurpassable signifier,’ page 487, she is inventive, and she rectifies her conclusions until finally evacuating them like sicut palea, like dung, from Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life, recalled by Lacan.

You have indeed taught me that Butler was crowned Queen of Gender in 1994 by what could have been her rival, Gayle Rubin, whom you present on page 38 as ‘anthropologist, queer activist, lesbian, great friend of Michel Foucault with whom she shares the same S/M tropism.’ But, from the previous year, Butler was reproached for having made gender “a priority identification site, at the expense of race, sexuality, class or the functioning of geopolitical placements, or also to the detriment of subalterns, a new alternative category creating by Gayatri Spivak.” Intersectional thinking, which favors race, has since taken root as, you write on page 365, an almost hegemonic place in Butler. We should believe that for Butler, the genre lasted barely longer than roses last, before wilting.

You make it understood at the same time that there is a chaotic destiny for thinking this genre, which forbids itself to ever settle, which leads it to diversify and to split up without respite, so that its intellectual field and activist seems ravaged by a war of all against all. This is also the time to remember that the name ‘gender theory’ results from a forcing, since those who work in the discipline disqualify it. According to them, it stems from a unitary, authoritarian, hegemonic conception of intellectual activity, which they abominate, preferring to devote themselves to the shimmering, abundant, lawless multiplicity of thinking. The One is dead, long live the Multiple! The genre does not recognize itself as a queen. This dynamic is, from a certain vantage point, in accordance with this so called ‘not-all’ logic that Lacan had come to formulate as specific to the feminine position, and which today prevails everywhere in civilization, at least in ours.

This bias of the Multiple-without-One makes the field of gender studies a labyrinth, or rather maquis, a jungle, and I got lost in it, or rather, I did not even enter it, if you had not taken me by the hand like Virgil. My Butler will be Eric Marty’s until further notice. I hope your book will be translated in the United States, I will be curious to see how Butler reacts to your work, and also her brothers and sisters in arms. Will you be the homage, or the femmage, or a well-argued controversy?

However, your book is not just a sensational deconstruction of the genre according to Judith Butler. It also offers an unparalleled panorama so far, at least to my knowledge, of a remarkable slice of intellectual life in France in the second half of the last century. Everyone at the time was talking about structuralism, whether it was to condemn it or to pretend to go beyond it. You cast particular glances on Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, on their complicity and their quarrels, muffled or explosive, a very intense and fruitful period if we compare it to the sluggishness of intellectual exchanges, which is poorly masked by agitation. Eugénie Bastié, journalist at Le Figaro, claimed last week that “our public debate is characterized by relativism (each has its own truth) and intolerance (my truth cannot be disputed).” It was very “gender,” this situation.

You come back to these four big names in the course of your deconstruction of the genre, many times in a scholarly intertwining, which sometimes transforms into tangles. I would like to take these names one by one with you, if you don’t mind. And finally, there is Lacan. He inspires Butler, whose work Butler does not know, since Lacan died in 1981. He is very present for our Big Four, he also inspired them, and he himself reads them, invites them, takes this into account. But your book shows how different it is from the Quartet. At least, I don’t see any trace in Lacan of this “thought of the Neutral” that you detect in the four, so as to oppose it to the theory of gender. In any case, after 1968, when Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, without forgetting Foucault, undertook to make psychoanalysis obsolete and, to put it bluntly, to ruin it in the public mind, Lacan threw on them a net, a tunic of Nessus, which he called “the discourse of the University,” from which he strongly distinguished “the discourse of the Analyst.” And there was a parting of the waters. Among the Lacanians, we stopped reading “the academics.” And they moved further and further away from their old companionship with the psychoanalyst who had kept them so busy.

There you go, I’m finished. It’s a big book, so rich, so thick, 500 pages, a fresco, a carnival, with its procession of castrati and travelos, sado-masos and pseudo-schizos, both US festival and French Pride parade. It’s a breathtaking conceptual epic, and, in short, a work that, I bet, will remain memorable.

Associate Professor of Sociology & Psychoanalyst