Having and Being Judith Butler

Judith Butler & Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political

Polity Press, 240pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780745653815

reviewed by Sarah Keenan

I had high hopes for this book. Iconic critical theorist and public intellectual Judith Butler teaming up with exciting young feminist theorist Athena Athanasiou to work towards an understanding of dispossession beyond the logic of possession. That is, to seek an understanding of, and take a normative stance in relation to urgent political issues of dispossession (such as forced migration, homelessness, foreclosures, and extreme disparities in wealth) without resorting to an argument that rests on a counterclaim to possession of whatever is ‘lost’. This is an excellent and worthwhile project, necessary for the progress of debates on property that move past liberal solutions of redistribution, and helpful in thinking through issues of settler colonialism and seemingly incommensurable competing claims to the same areas of land. The book also promised engagements with recent uprisings from Cairo to Zuccotti Park in a discussion of the politics of street protest.

Butler and Athanasiou deliver on this ambitious project to some extent, but on the whole this book is more of an in-depth intellectual conversation on performativity, precarity and ‘protest’ rather than a real engagement with the various lived and conceptual aspects of dispossession. Dispossession does not really make an argument, but rather is written as a conversation between the two writers, AA and JB riffing off each other to some extent in short chapters that cover topics from ‘The logic of dispossession and the matter of the human (after the critique of metaphysics of substance)’ to ‘The university, the humanities and the book bloc’. I say ‘to some extent’ because the conversation does often, understandably, become more of a discussion between Butler and Athanasiou about Butler’s previous work, rather than a more equally weighted back and forth. The two rarely disagree, although they do have points of divergence, which they elaborate on in productive and interesting ways.

The conversation is an engaging read, though somewhat unwieldy in its breadth of subject matter. The text is at its strongest when the authors are directly addressing the question of dispossession. Their questioning of how one can be against both the possessiveness of property and also against land theft and territorial dispossession leads to interesting discussions on biopolitical governmentality and the overlap between having and being (a distinction which is also discussed by many feminist property theorists who do not get much of a mention here). Troubling ideas of ownership, they argue that we owe ourselves to others, and that this ‘debt’ leads to vulnerability. To be dispossessed is to occupy the proper place of non-being, and thus to be precarious. Dispossession implies ‘our relationality and binding to others’ and ‘our structural dependence on social norms that we neither choose nor control.’ Those social norms – the spatial and temporal conditions of dispossession – include gender and sexuality, and must be understood as forms of power that are both constitutive and regulatory. These discussions on the concept of (dis)possession of the self and its relation to broader political issues of territorial dispossession are worthwhile and interesting.

From this framing of the question of how to re-conceive dispossession the authors turn to ‘performativity’. This comes as something of a surprise in a book that is expressly representing itself as addressing broad global political concerns of land theft, territoriality and mass demonstrations. For the authors, performativity ‘names the unauthorised exercise of a right to existence that propels the precarious into political life’, but while their conceptual discussion of performativity is very rich here, their application of it to the Occupy movement is a little romanticised. The authors approach spatial political issues through the concept of performativity but without really addressing the issue of space. They attempt not only to theorise dispossession and relate it to performativity, but also make it relevant to what they construct as a particular point in history - the Arab Spring, Occupy and other anti-neoliberal public demonstrations. To do justice to this project, the pair might need to write a manuscript rather than publish their (albeit compelling) conversations around the issues.

The conversation regularly comes back to recent high profile protests. Although there is reference to a number of activist groups and actions, the discussion does not really engage with those groups and actions, and so comes across at times like Judith Butler’s answer to Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (Verso, 2012). The problem here is that these arguments try to make a very wide range of political activity fall within a particular theory and temporality, when in fact the divergent groups protesting each have their own time and space and many have been fighting for the same causes for decades. To bracket them into a particular ‘moment’ is inaccurate at best and appropriative at worst. I couldn’t help but feel that this project was in part a way for Judith Butler to solidify her ‘on-the-ground’ political relevance without doing the on-the-ground work that such relevance requires if it is to be genuine.

This is epitomised in the closing pages of the book in which Butler throws in a reference to ‘the UK riots’ in a sentence about Occupy Wall Street and ‘demonstrations without demands’, saying that the riots’ political significance ‘cannot be underestimated when we consider the extent of poverty and unemployment among those who were rioting.’ This statement misrepresents the riots in significant ways – they were not UK-wide, but only occurred in England; the rioters were not all poor and unemployed; the riots were a direct reaction to the police killing of a young black man, and they were the latest in a series of riots that over-policed black communities in England have engaged in since the 1960s. It is important not to attempt to make the riots legible to critical theory by casually referencing them at the end of a book about performativity and political protest that has otherwise barely dealt with issues of race or policing.

This study does an excellent job of articulating, in various ways, the need to conceptualise dispossession outside the logic of possession. It is well worth reading for those working on concepts of performativity, precarity and, to a lesser extent, protest. However those seeking an engagement with political issues of territorial dispossession, land theft and property may be disappointed.
Sarah Keenan teaches law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.