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The Future of Sexual Difference: An Interview with Judith Butler and Drucilla Cornell

From: Diacritics
Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 1998
pp. 19-42 | 10.1353/dia.1998.0002

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Diacritics 28.1 (1998) 19-42

EG: Luce Irigaray's writings have always figured strongly in your works, probably more than in the work of other American feminist theorists. Out of all the feminist theorists you both interrogate, she seems to emerge as a kind of touchstone of the feminist ethical, political, and intellectual concerns to which you seem to aspire. Could each of you briefly outline how she figures in your work, whether your relations to her have changed, and if so, how?

JB: I think that probably early on, when I started working on French feminism as a graduate student in the early '80s, I was not interested in her at all because she seemed to me to be an essentialist and that was a term we used quite easily then, when we thought we knew what it meant. In the late '80s, I started to rethink my objections to her on that basis and found that she was, among the feminist theorists I had read, perhaps the most versed in philosophy and that her engagement with philosophy was a curious mixture of both loyalty and aggression. And it became very interesting to me when I started thinking about her whole practice of critical mimesis -- what she was doing when she was reading Freud, what was she doing when she was reading Plato -- and I read Speculum again and again, frightened by its anger, compelled by the closeness of the reading, confused by the mimetism of the text. Was she enslaved to these texts, was she displacing them radically, was she perhaps in the bind of being in both positions at the same time? And I realized that whatever the feminine was for her, it was not a substance, not a spiritual reality that might be isolated, but it had something to do with this strange practice of reading, one in which she was reading texts that she was not authorized to read, texts from which she was as a woman explicitly excluded or explicitly demeaned, and that she would read them anyway. And then the question is: what would it mean to read from a position of radical deauthorization in order to expose the contingent authority of the text? That struck me as a feminist critical practice, a critical reading practice that I could learn from, and from that point on, highly influenced by both Drucilla's work and Naomi Schor's work [see Schor], I started to read her quite thoroughly.

PC: Is this kind of relationship that she has with the philosophers she reads a sexual relationship? I am thinking of some of the sexualized terms you just used: loyalty and aggression.

JB: Yes, there is no doubt that there is an eros of a certain kind, usually the kind that frightens me, quite frankly. I think Carolyn Burke has made this argument that Irigaray has a romance with the philosophers [see Burke]. I think she has a certain masochistic-sadistic erotic engagement with the philosophers.

EG: Do you think it is sado-masochistic?

JB: Well, I think it was much more aggressive in Speculum of the Other Woman than it became in An Ethics of Sexual Difference. There, I think there is an engagement that is still very difficult, but at least there is evidence of a more loving engagement.

PC: I hope that we can return to the question of love at the end. Is this the kind of relationship that you have to her texts?

JB: No, I'm probably too frightened. [Everybody laughs.] And I don't engage them that closely, probably because I find it frightening to be in that particular knot. She doesn't actually have a chapter in any of my books. I think I can't quite devote a chapter to
her. . . .

EG: No, but you devote large sections of chapters. . . .

JB: That's true, but I can't stay there for a prolonged period of time [laughs], whatever that's worth.

EG: I'd like to come back to this later, because I think it is a really interesting reaction. . . . But first, Drucilla, what is your story?

DC: Well, I started out in a romantic relationship...

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