I am a troublemaker

In an interview from 1997 entitled “Berkeley’s Judith Butler Revels in Role of Troublemaker” for The Chronicle for Higher Education, Liz McMillen offers up a story about Butler’s troublemaking origins:

Long before Gender Trouble caused a stir, and before she became a prominent theorist with a devoted graduate-student following, Judith Butler was a kid in a Cleveland synagogue who frequently got herself in trouble. She disrupted classes. She made faces during assemblies. Finally, she was kicked out and told that she wouldn’t be allowed to return to the school until she had completed a tutorial with the head rabbi. The rabbi sized the 14-year-old up and decided that it was time for her to get serious. So what do you want to study? he wanted to know.”Holocaust historiography” was her quick reply. Martin Buber and existential theology. Whether German idealism was responsible in any way for the rise of fascism. This after-school punishment laid the groundwork for a scholarly career marked by extreme diligence — and a knack for making trouble.”I was always talking back,” she says.”I guess I’ve elevated it into an art form.” Once a disciplinary problem, always a disciplinary problem.

Liz McMillen

This story of Butler as an unruly child seems to function as an origin story for her political and ethical project of troublemaking. To the question, where did troublemaking come from, we get the answer, a problem child who skipped class, made faces at assemblies, and did other terrible things. So, according to this line of thinking, troublemaking as a concept/practice/action is produced by someone who does it in order to disrupt/unsettle/disturb. And this disruption that they do takes some very particular forms: skipping class, disrupting assemblies, being kicked out of school, all of which conjure up images of the juvenile delinquent. But, is this the only source of troublemaking and the only way to imagine how children engage in it? Is the troublemaker fundamentally a bad girl (or bad boy) who willfully flouts the rules?

As a child, I was a troublemaker. But, what does that mean? Well, I had a lot of teachers who really didn’t like me (from elementary school through high school). Not because I acted out in class. I didn’t. Not because I made faces in assemblies. I didn’t. And not because I “did really terrible things.” Because, I really didn’t. No, they disliked me because they could sense—somehow—that I saw through their bullshit (for more on being a bullshit detector, see here) and that I wasn’t going to simply believe that what they said was the “Truth.” I guess I was a threat to their already tenuous hold on the classroom.

As an adult—and teacher and parent to my own ‘lil troublemaker— I can see how complicated and tenuous the role of an authority figure can be. So, I don’t want to simply dismiss the anxieties and frustrations that my teachers probably experienced when confronted with me and my various practices of refusal and resistance. But, as someone who continues to trouble and question authority-as-Authority and who repeatedly felt and feels de-valued within the academy, I don’t want to let them off the hook either.

I asked a lot of questions (and not hostile ones. Just lots and lots of “why” questions). I always wanted to know why things worked the way that they did. I liked exploring ideas without immediately placing judgment on them. And even though I looked the part of the good little white student, I refused to fully buy into the rules and norms that undergird the white suburban school and its goal of molding the minds of children into good little consumer citizens.

So, when I think of my own troublemaking “roots” it is not through the tradition of disrupting class or being disrespectful to teachers. For me, troublemaking was never about breaking the rules (even though I can see why many rules need to be broken) or rebelling against authority/authority figures. No, the tradition of troublemaking that I draw upon in my own understanding and practice of being in/making/staying in trouble is the tradition of posing questions…and lots of them. The question that I used to pose a lot as a kid, and the question that Butler suggests is the first act of disobedience, is “why.” As in, why is something this way and not that? For Butler, to ask “why” is to introduce the possibility that something could be otherwise, that the way things are is not they only way that should or could be. It is to open up the possibility of making ourselves into subjects-who-disobey instead of subjects-who-merely-obey.

Of course, “why” is not the only question many of us do—or should—ask. With my training in feminist/queer/critical theory, the question that I pose a lot now is “at whose expense”? This question seems to infuse the somewhat innocent “why” with an awareness of oppression and a desire for justice.

In an interview from 2009, Butler discusses the value of wondering why:

But in the moment we begin to ask ourselves about the legitimacy of this power we become critical, we adopt a point of view that is not completely shaped by the state and we question ourselves about the limits of the demands that can be placed on us. And if I am not wholly formed by this power of the state, in what way am I, or might I be, formed?  Asking yourself this question means you are already beginning to form yourself in another way, outside this relation with the state, so critical thought distances you to some extent.  When someone says “no” to power, they are saying “no” to a particular way of being formed by power.  They are saying: I am not going to be subjected in this way or by these means through which the state establishes its legitimacy.  The critical position implies a certain “no”, a saying “no” as an “I”, and this, then, is a step in the formation of this “I”.  Many people ask about the basis on which Foucault establishes this resistance to power.  What he is saying to us is that in the practice of critical thought we are forming ourselves as subjects, through resistance and questioning.

Judith Butler

Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

Posing “why” and later, “at whose expense” questions to myself and to others got me in a lot of trouble. A lot of that trouble was bad (such as teachers hating me, dismissing and discounting me as a problem—not so much a disciplinary problem but just a problem), but a lot more of it was good (as in helpful/productive/motivating for me). The refusal to merely accept and the desire to remain open to other ways of being (instead of just fixing in on the way I am supposed to see and/or act in the world) shaped who I am and have, I think, made me a better (happier, more responsible, aware and just) person.

I am drawn to Judith Butler’s work because one primary aspect of her philosophy/ethos/system of thought is the value of asking (and never stopping your asking) of questions. When I look to Butler it is this important strain in her work that resonates with me. Not the acting out (and acting up) that is reflected in the narrative about her as a “disciplinary problem.” This single-minded reduction of troublemaking to bad behavior and the revaluing of “being bad” as good doesn’t work for me. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences. And, it is not, in my opinion, a helpful resource for my vision of a feminist or queer ethics.

Butler’s emphasis on always asking questions helped me to understand what I had been doing for so long when I was younger. When I was a kid I felt the pressure of opposing forces: 1. a family of intellectuals who encouraged me to think and question and challenge and care (about justice, from my dad the ethicist, and about the world and imagining it otherwise, from my mother, the artist/dreamer/social historian) and 2. the (almost completely) white suburban, conformity-imposing, competition-driven public schools that I attended from fifth through twelfth grade. From my family (and my position as white and middle/intellectual-class), I inherited a strong sense of entitlement–of course, I should ask questions and think, I could do anything and be anything! But from the schools I attended in suburban D.C. (in Northern Virginia) and suburban Des Moines (the insurance capital of the Midwest!), I was reminded everyday that I could ask some questions but only if they were framed in the right way and only if they furthered the goals of success in the forms of being better than everyone else and of acquiring the most stuff (status, possessions, awards, knowledge-as-commodity).

It has always been a struggle to navigate these forces. Why did I have to make everything so difficult? I would sometimes ask myself. Why can’t I just participate in the system like a “good girl”? [Of course, as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, I was a “good” and proper girl and my choice to not fit in was always just that…a choice. I always had the privilege to pass and fit in as normal, even if I often felt like I couldn’t force myself to do it.] How can I reconcile the desire to care about others/the world/justice that my parents instilled in me with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) command by many teachers/adults/”society” to care only about myself and how I could fit in and be very successful? Of course, this was definitely not how I phrased it as a child. But the language of feminist and queer theories and of Butler’s (albeit underdeveloped) notion of  troublemaking have given me a way in which to understand and articulate what was (at least partially) going on with my struggles to care but fit in, to question but not to outrage or alienate, and to stay open to new possibilities of thinking, being and doing.