A certain M. has long been known to blog scans of post-it notes from reading sessions [Queering Desire Fall 2010], and it is with inspiration from this history of sharing one's notes (specifically notes on Butler and this first chapter from Undoing Gender) [Queering Theory Fall 2009] that I present the first page of "Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy" as it appears in my worn copy of Undoing Gender, with both new and original notes (from Fall 2009). I hope that M. isn't too horrified by the minimal scribbles in my book. At least she can't see the highlights.
Central to this chapter are the ethical questions that Butler is asking around the figure of the human and the many possible ways in which it may be recognized, remembered, understood (or not).
Back in 2009 in an entry titled "Beside Myself", M. was already curious about these kinds of questions, and I remember so was I. She wrote:
"What constitutes the Human... and what does not?"
-- a question for ethics: whose lives count as lives?
As pictured above, Butler is already making clear on pages 17-18 that this (these) "question(s) of the human" are where she wants to venture. She writes:
I would like to start, and to end, with the question of the human, of who counts as the human, and the related question of whose lives count as lives, and with a question that has preoccupied many of us for years: what makes for a grievable life?
Sprinkled throughout these first pages: livable, bearable, valuable, grievable, vulnerable. All of these are themes which we've already explored this semester through Butler's newer works, the main difference being that in this chapter Butler specifically looks to the limits of gender (un)intelligibility in order to explore, in short, who counts as who does not. Alongside these questions, Butler more broadly encourages consideration of what it means to be tied to, beside, or undone by each other. This comes close to the idea that, as Leslie Feinberg has said, "My right to be me is tied with a thousand threads to your right to be you."
In this way, Butler also reflects our ongoing conversations in relation to intersectionality, assemblage theory, and Cathy Cohen's essay "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens." She explains that, "In a sense, the predicament is to understand what kind of community is composed of those who are beside themselves" (Butler 20). I wrote a note in 2009 asking myself if this might be one place to explore connections between grief and desire and across "individual" bodies. How do we talk about and understand movements toward and away from self? Other?
Another related passage that captures the feel of this whole chapter is this bit from near the middle:
I suggested... that the way in which the body figures in gender and sexuality studies, and in the struggles for a less oppressive social world for the otherwise gendered and for sexual minorities of all kinds, is precisely to underscore the value of being beside oneself, of being a porous boundary, given over to others, finding oneself in a trajectory of desire in which one is taken out of oneself, and resituated irreversibly in a field of others in which one is not the presumptive center. (Butler 25)
...and what does this mean? In a blog engaging with JHalb from Fall 2010, I write about a similar process as interbeing. Interbeing does away with the ridiculous notion of "individual" autonomy and opts instead for seeing those threads so precious to Feinberg, the ways that we are all interdependent on one another in our very existence.
If many of this chapter's queries are ethical, then it is also noteworthy the way that Butler later discusses the real and true. "The question of who and what is considered real and true is apparently a question of knowledge. But it is also, as Michel Foucault makes plain, a question of power" (Butler 27). This "nexus of knowledge-power" is explained through the inseparability of the two terms, and finally the way they work together to determine the very ways this world may be thought. This is how reality is determined-- and Butler also notes that reality claims made by those ascribed to unreality cannot be simply explained as assimilationist. Something different happens to norms in such a scenario. Their instability, emptiness, tenuousness, can be made visible, and they may even become "open to resignification" (Butler 28).
Along with questions of ethics, this chapter articulates quite clearly Butler's position on (gendered) possibility. In response, she writes:
Some people have asked me what is the use of increasing possibilities for gender. I tend to answer: Possibility is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread. I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is most urgent.
It is my hope that together we can explore more of what Butler is getting at in this passage and how it relates back to the terms of livability, bearability, grievability, and vulnerability. How best to rattle the norms of gender in order to open possibility, "space to breathe"?