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May 16, 1997

Judith Butler is alarmed about the growing American tendency to ban offensive words. Kate Worsley talks to her.

Imagine you are taking a domestic flight across the United States. The seatbelt signs are off, the inflight movie is playing, you tune your headphones in. As you stare blearily at the small screen and see a person mouth the word "abortion" all you hear is a bleep. You've been PC'd, well and truly.

Until it was struck down recently by the Supreme Court as a violation of free speech, for a few months a US government provision did in fact treat the word abortion as obscene speech, prohibiting its mention in a public setting to which children might have access. "Isn't that shocking? Unbelievable," laughs American philosopher Judith Butler. "People were just amazed."

But it is a sign of the power of language and the difficulty in disentangling, particularly in a postmodern age, the distinction between words and the actions they represent or the feelings they arouse in others.

Now 41, and professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at Berkeley, Butler made her name with her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. In it she argued that feminism was wrong to look to a natural, "essential" notion of the female, or indeed of sex or gender.

Masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed. Words such as "female" are "performative" speech, they create their own meaning and consolidate it by their repetition. Because terms such as "gender" are relative, Butler concludes, they can be disrupted by "parodic practices" (drag, cross dressing), thus subverting and giving them a new meaning.

Despite its lack of concrete examples of such practices, Gender Trouble struck a chord in the US, coinciding as it did with the igniting of queer studies as an academic hot spot. For a time enthralled graduate students ran a fanzine dedicated to Butler, called Judy! Butler laughs almost shyly at the memory. "I don't seek to be a public author," she says. She was taken aback by the response to Gender Trouble, and is relieved that the fandom has now died down.

Yet outside the nascent field of British lesbian and gay studies, her profile this side of the Atlantic comes no way near that of louder, angrier American feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, who found it too "uncomfortable" to comment on Butler's work, or law professor Catherine Mackinnon, with whom she has major differences of opinion.

Language is at the root of the latter dispute. While MacKinnon has campaigned passionately for laws to outlaw pornography as representing a reality of sexual degradation for women and children, Butler resists the need for legislation, arguing instead that pornography is a "speech act" and, as such, relatively harmless. In response to MacKinnon's 1983 Only Words, which insists that pornography is both speech and conduct, Butler argues that speech and action cannot be simply conflated. As in the case of the bleeped word "abortion", the right to freedom of expression, protected by the United States' powerful first amendment, comes into play.

In her latest book, Excitable Speech: a Politics of the Performative, Butler explores how language, meaning and agency are related, dividing speech acts into what she calls the perlocutionary, which initiate consequences ("Hands up! This is a raid") and the illocutionary, which produce effects ("I sentence you to jail"). She holds that treating a speech act as illocutionary, as MacKinnon and co do pornography, and then censoring it, only means people will talk about it more, so that whatever such laws seek to forbid becomes part of common parlance.

We rush too quickly to blame language for social ills, thinks Butler, "maybe because it's something we can point to, we can grasp it as a concrete act that someone performed. In a large part we lack the capacity to look at problems like racism along more systematic lines - asking how it's produced institutionally, economically".

She thinks, tentatively, that "the turn to language may be in some ways a sign of a certain exasperation about not being able to offer a more comprehensive social analysis" now that Marxism has been devalued. We end up with the view that the biggest threat to the dignity of women is African American men who sing rap songs with crude lyrics. An economic dimension to any socially progressive analysis is "absolutely crucial", she believes.

But Butler does draw the linguistic line at what she calls "hate speech" - racist or sexist abuse, which in some circumstances (when it incites violence, for instance) is illegal, at least in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, she argues, such abuse is best countered, not by legislation, but by "the heretical misappropriation of hate speech by those who are seeking to counter its force." She cites gangsta rap, with its repeated use of "nigga", and lesbian and gay activists who deliberately call themselves "dyke" or "queer", wearing the derogatory label as a badge of celebratory pride. "There is a worry that you can't even use those terms, that they are so injurious that to use them is to become guilty of the harm that they cause. There's a kind of self paralysis in that posture that I think has to be overcome."

Insurrectional possibilities, the importance of maintaining openendedness, are mentioned at the end of almost every chapter of Excitable Speech. Butler chose the title, a US legal term defining a confession made when a person is not in possession of their faculties, and therefore invalid, because "there is something about that non-deliberative or unintentional effect that characterises all kinds of speaking". She "was trying to suggest that a great deal of speech is in fact excitable", she says.

Butler's writing is not easy. It is, rather, unrelievedly dense and abstract and preoccupied with the cultural extremism of contemporary North America. Her intellectual reference points are Foucault, Freud, Hegel and Lacan, and her cultural ones Anita Hill and US military ordinances (which have recently prohibited the self-declaration of homosexuality). The British cultural commentator, Marina Warner, overwhelmed by the prospect of "whole conferences with lots of students discussing Gender Trouble", dismisses the "fine tuning of postmodernist texts as the worst kind of 12th-century scholasticism." "If students start with Gender Trouble they'll end up on a course in accountancy", she warns.

Philosophy might be more likely. For Butler's roots are in philosophy - she took a BA, an MA and a PhD in the subject at Yale. "Initially conservative," she says it took a while to figure out how to reconcile her training with her politics. "Gender Trouble was the first time I brought together my feminist and queer interests with my philosophical education," she says. Her Judaism plays a part too, in the form of "a very strong super ego.

"There's a kind of Old Testament God in there. The way in which I believe language can't really give us what it tries to name, there's something in there that's related to a Judaic notion of the limits of representation," she concludes.

Excitable Speech, Routledge, Pounds 35.00 and Pounds 12.99.

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