In Conversation with Judith Butler

Since the launch of The Feminist Killjoy Handbook in March of this year, I have been taking #FeministKilljoysOnTour to share some #KilljoySolidarity.

I am looking forward to the US edition of #FeministKilljoysOnTour to coincide with the publication of the handbook by Seal Press on October 3rd. I will share details on my website in September.

I am pleased to share the audio recording of an event from the earlier tour, a Conversation with Judith Butler that took place on April 28th at Cambridge University.  It was a warm, uplifting and rather overwhelming experience. I was originally intending to transcribe the conversation, but I realised so much of it would not be captured by being written up. So you can listen here.

This conversation gave me another chance to thank Judith Butler for the gift of their work.

What a killjoy joy it is to know you are out there.

I am sharing below my introduction to our conversation.

And thanks to Lucy Van De Wiel for this photo taken just after the conversation.


Thank you for being here, for being part of this conversation. My name is Sara Ahmed and today I will be in conversation with Judith Butler and we hope as well to leave time and space for you to join in the conversation if you so wish, to share thoughts and feelings.  A conversation needs a space. Thank you so much to Q+ for providing this space, for providing so many queer spaces, so we can assemble together. I think of queer spaces as small pockets we open up within institutions so we can breathe more easily within them. If we need these pockets to survive the institutions that remain hostile environments for many of us, it is still work, institutional work, even, to make them. Thanks especially to Sarah Franklin and Lucian Stevenson for that work. Creating queer space is precious and painstaking work and it can also be a source of queer joy, or what I sometimes call killjoy joy, the joy of crafting worlds by making room for those who are not accommodated.

A conversation needs a space. A conversation is a space. I feel as if I have been in conversation with Judith Butler in one way or another since I took up my pen and began to write my way into existence.  Judith and I previously had a conversation almost a decade ago, over email; the editors of the journal Sexualities asked me to ask Judith about Gender Trouble. I remember so well your response to the first question, which was that you found questions about Gender Trouble “odd” because you “never reread” your own books. I remember being rather impressed by the firmness of the “never”!  And yet we talked of how books have many lives in part because of where they go, who they find. Maybe today we might talk of how our own lives become entangled with the lives of books as readers, as writers, as both. Most of my conversations with Judith, admittedly, though, have been inside my own head. Some of these conversations came out in words, on pages, as citation. Concepts can be craft: the concepts Judith has given us, shaped and sharpened by use, provide materials to help us to do our own work. I think of how I reused your definition of performativity from Bodies that Matter to describe what I called non-performativity: how words do not bring into effect what they name (words like diversity, for instance).

To be in conversation with someone else’s work over a sustained period of time can be a queer kind of intimacy, you are not on the same page but you catching something, a thought or an idea that does not come to you with crisp edges, as clarity or revelation, but more slowly or gradually in turning the pages, by sustaining the engagement. Perhaps how we write together sometimes in proximity, sometimes not, is another way of talking about the project of living together. In Undoing Gender, you write “I am speaking to those of us who are living in certain ways beside ourselves, whether it is in sexual passion, or emotional grief or political rage. In a sense, a predicament is to understand what kind of community is composed of those who are beside themselves.” You keep teaching me in your work, including in your most recent book, What World is This?  In which you use the phrase, “strangers in grief,” that collectivity can be a way of being beside ourselves, beside each other, responding as best we can to a crisis that is shared. Sharing is not always warm or fuzzy, or happy; it can be hard and painful and bumpy.

Still, I have killjoy joy to be speaking with Judith in person, to be sharing this space with you all. The impetus for this conversation is the publication of my book, my first trade book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook.  In the last month or so, I have been taking feminist killjoys on tour, visiting bookshops and theatres; where I go, feminist killjoys are coming with me. The handbook is a collection of killjoy stories, assembled because of how many of you came with me, stories of how we become the problem when we point to a problem of we when give that problem its name, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism. I call this a killjoy truth: we have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. But we are heard as the ones repeating ourselves, a broken record, stuck on the same point. We don’t even have to say it before eyes start rolling. I turned that into a killjoy equation: rolling eyes equal feminist pedagogy.

And yes we do laugh. And we say it more. And we need more to say it. That more can be who is behind us. Citation is feminist memory. The handbook brings together many authors who have given me killjoy inspiration. Judith’s work appears throughout and I also include Gender Trouble and Precarious Life in my recommended reading list for feminist killjoys at the end of the handbook (I only allowed myself to pick two for any author). Sarah Franklin introduced Judith on Wednesday by reading out the first paragraph of their PhD dissertation. I am not going to go that far back, but I do want to read out two sentences from the preface of Gender Trouble. Judith wrote, “To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do, precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble.” Judith taught me that we need to be in trouble or to be the trouble we are assumed to cause, to trouble the prevailing laws, the rules that tell us where we can go and who we can be, even if being in trouble is to risk being reprimanded, caught up in the same terms. Perhaps we become trouble makers, queer trouble makers. Queer troublemakers, feminist killjoys, we are assembled here. I know I could only write The Feminist Killjoy Handbook because of who is assembled here, because of all the trails that have been left behind by those who deviated from the paths they were told to follow.

Trails, and other queer tales. We will begin the conversation with Judith asking me some questions about The Feminist Killjoy Handbook. Judith has a book coming out next year Who’s Afraid of Gender, which is also their first trade book, which they spoke about with such feminist and queer fierceness on Wednesday.  This book is going to be such a gift for us, helping us to handle something, the anti-gender, anti-trans and anti-queer and neo-fascist movements as they manifest globally, by giving us to the tools to diagnosis how they work. So, the conversation might also move to the act of sending work out into the hostile environments that work is about. And then, who knows, we will follow a queer feminist trajectory, which means ending up in unexpected places. Over to you, Judith.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply