Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler

Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231134071
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2006
Series: Gender, Theory, and Religion
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ellen T. Armour is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Associate Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School and is the author of Deconstruction, Feminist Theology, and the Problem of Difference: Subverting the Race/Gender Divide.Susan M. St. Ville is a therapist at the Madison Center and is a coeditor of Transfigurations: Feminist Theology and the French Feminists.
Ellen Armour is the department chair in religious studies at Rhodes College. She is the author of Deconstruction, Feminist Theology, and the Problem of Difference (Chicago, 1999). Susan St. Ville, formerly on the theology faculty at Notre Dame, is an independent scholar. She is the editor of Transfigurations: Theology and the French Feminists (Fortress, 1994).

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Bodily Citations

Religion and Judith Butler


Copyright © 2006 Columbia University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13407-X


Our prefatory account of Butler's work has begun to indicate, we trust, its rich and varied potential as a resource for scholars of religion. Indeed, the essays gathered here reflect in their complexity the many directions this intersection can take. Multiple themes run through and overlap in these pieces. For heuristic purposes we have grouped these essays into three sections representing the main topics of textual interpretation, agency and religious subjectivity, and prospective theoretical directions. The essays, however, refract each other in varied ways and so, in Butlerian fashion, could be grouped and regrouped to provoke still further avenues of inquiry.


We begin with three articles that draw on Butler to interpret religious texts, in each case finding unexpected meanings in works that have been influential in both Eastern and Western religious traditions. Susanne Mrozik, a scholar of Buddhism, reviews the Sanskrit tale of Rupavati, a narrative that in its unfolding offers teaching on what is required to attain a virtuous state. Mrozik finds useful analytical resources in Butler's theories of the materialization of bodies via the citational process as well as in the production of theabject. Appropriating these insights for her own purposes, she critically reassesses the formation of "virtuous bodies" as these are exemplified by the Buddha and his precursor the Boddhisatva. Mrozik's creative reappropriation works to uncover unexpected depths in Butler's views as she extends them to fit Buddhist contexts, allowing her to produce interpretations that challenge normative assumptions in Buddhism that routinely equate the ideal of virtue exclusively with the male body.

As Mrozik reminds us, the attainment of Buddhahood evolves through a process of birth and rebirth. The story of Rupavati outlines three successive lifetimes of the founder of Buddhism. The tale is particularly useful for Mrozik because it offers multiple accounts of sexed bodies and their alterations. To point to only a few, the Buddha first appears in this story in the form of a woman, Rupavati (Beautiful Woman). In the course of the narrative Rupavati, in an act of generosity, mutilates her body by cutting off her breasts to feed a starving mother. Her breasts are eventually restored only to be lost again when she is reborn as a Beautiful Man (Rupavata), and as successive male Boddhisatvas, in the end attaining Buddhahood. While traditional readings have interpreted Rupavati's excision of her breasts as a moment when her body becomes male (thus in line with the ideal that equates virtue with the male body), Mrozik sees in this mutilation an embracing of the abject and the emergence in Rupavati's altered form of alternatively sexed beings. With this reading in place, the way is opened for a proliferation in interpretations of the Buddha as, in Mrozik's terms, "omnibodied" and for a more fluid reconceptualization of the Buddhist community as well.

Authors Ken Stone and Teresa Hornsby draw on Butler's writings to interpret the Hebrew Bible and New Testament respectively. Stone focuses his attention on the two creation accounts found in Genesis. Noting the tendency of queer critics to concentrate on undermining biblical passages that explicitly condemn homosexuality, Stone takes a different tack. He argues rather for the importance of calling into question those texts like the creation stories that, while silent on homosexuality, exert force by working to establish and secure the norms of binary sexual difference and compulsory heterosexuality. His review of the priestly account in which God creates humans in the divine image as male and female demonstrates the ways the text has prompted biblical interpreters as disparate as Karl Barth and Phyllis Trible to find a divine sanction in sexual dimorphism. When Stone turns to the Yahwist account, however, he follows Butler's interpretive lead to locate instabilities and ambiguities in the text that call into question the totalizing reach of the Scriptures' assumed heteronormativity. In this passage, where God first creates a single human being who only later is divided into two, Stone suggests questions of sex and gender are more ambiguous than most interpreters have acknowledged. Stone finds, for example, in the undefined sex of the initial human creature a space where alternative models of subjectivity might proliferate. His reexamination of these central scriptural passages leads Stone finally to a consideration of the task of queer biblical interpretation and the transformative effects that are opened, in this case for gay male readers who continue to engage and be shaped by these texts.

In "The Annoying Woman: Biblical Scholarship After Judith Butler," Teresa Hornsby considers the ways in which Butler's insights raise the stakes for feminist biblical interpretation. Butler's observation that even our most subversive actions emerge from the web of cultural discourses and so are prone to unwittingly perpetuate its ideologies leads Hornsby to question what remains possible for feminist biblical interpretation. She explores this question through a consideration of Luke 7:36-50 in which an unnamed woman anoints the feet of Jesus. While Hornsby is drawn to the powerful physical and erotic overtones of this story, she observes that traditional interpretations routinely cast the woman as a prostitute or as otherwise guilty of sexual transgression or excess. Further, feminist scholars have been no more effective in finding positive value in this figure. More commonly, they have critiqued Luke for undermining the anointing woman by casting her as silent, nameless, and subservient. In so doing, Hornsby charges, feminists reinforce reigning assumptions that equate silence with powerlessness, overlooking the force of the woman's physical actions and the possibility that a more radical meaning might be found in her seemingly subordinate stance.

To chart a different course, Hornsby uses interpretive tools exemplified in Butler's reading of the classic Antigone story. Like Antigone, she suggests, the anointing woman can be viewed as a liminal figure who because of her very anonymity cannot easily be placed in the social structure. Butler cautions against the desire to fill in the outlines of such an undefined figure and in so doing to seek a representative model for behavior. Rather she recognizes the lack of definition as opening a space for the generation of unexpected possibilities.

For Hornsby, viewing the silence of the anointing woman in this way draws attention more fully to her actions, particularly to the erotic physicality or desire that plays between the woman and Jesus. Where earlier interpretations skirt this aspect, or note it only to quickly condemn or restrain it, Hornsby is able to call it to the fore. She demonstrates how this desire works in the text to give the lie to the stability of social and sexual standards that have heretofore held place. Still, Hornsby ends with a cautionary reminder that her own reading, too, functions as a performance that is subject to unexpected appropriations. Though her reading cannot then effect a full-scale revolution, its disruption of norms makes a beginning.


The four papers comprising the middle section of the collection use Butler in different ways to ponder questions of agency. In "Disturbingly Catholic: Thinking the Inordinate Body" Karen Trimble Alliaume critically analyzes orthodox Catholic teachings against women's ordination as well as feminist responses or challenges to the magisterium. She finds Butler useful as she untangles the "web of symbolism" that links Jesus's corporeal body to the constitution of the corporate body of Christ that is the Church and does so in such a way that women, precisely because of their bodies, are excluded from leadership roles. Tracing how "gender matters" in the formation of Roman Catholic women, Alliaume suggests that Butler helps us to see the full extent of the violence inflicted on women through the Church's teachings. She observes that at its deepest levels Christianity is structured according to a "logic of imitation" wherein Christ stands as the model believers must mimic in order to be saved. And yet, given Catholicism's official insistence on gender complementarity, this is an imitation from which women will always fall short.

In her article Alliaume details how this logic of imitation marks the magisterium's teaching that priests must be male because only men can adequately resemble the male Christ. Still further, she contends that feminist challenges to this teaching unwittingly continue to employ its underlying logic when they advocate copying the humanity of Christ. Following Butler, Alliaume then turns to imagine the possibilities that open when the relationships between Christ, believers, and the church are rethought according to a logic of citationality. Such an emphasis shifts attention from the figure of Jesus, which is rooted in the past, to the ongoing communal process of seeking to both follow and reembody the living Christ. It is sustained by the recognition that it is through these citations that Jesus's body, as well as the bodies of believers, is continually materialized. As with all performative processes, Alliaume observes, the re-citation of Christ would be marked by an openness to multiple and unexpected redeployments-in this case to the multiple ways in which Jesus could be re-presented by Church leaders to the faithful. Such an openness, she suggests, offers renewed pathways for women's agency within Catholicism.

Christina K. Hutchins writes "Unconforming Becomings" in the context of debates over the inclusion of gays and lesbians in Christian church communities. As she notes, these often contentious discussions have brought concreteness to issues of identity politics more often discussed in the abstract. As a minister in the United Church of Christ and as a lesbian, Hutchins is well aware of the immediacy of these questions. She frames her article with reflections on the ambivalence she feels when asked to speak as a representative of gay members of her church. Hutchins traces this discomfort to the fact that such efforts at inclusion tend to assume an essentialist understanding of gay identity that, however defined or understood, is inherently reductive and inevitably reinforces a binary opposition between homosexuals and heterosexuals. She is thus led to explore the alternative models of subjectivity proposed in Alfred North Whitehead's process metaphysics and Judith Butler's theory of performativity. While there are important differences between these thinkers, Hutchins finds in both a vision of the subject that both honors engagement with concrete experiences and emphasizes openness to change and renewal. These more fluid models of identity, she asserts, avoid or deconstruct the binarisms of essentialism that fund the logic of exclusion. Furthermore, both theorists locate the subject's agency in what Butler terms its capacity for "subversive resignification." Significantly, both characterize this tendency of the subject toward the unexpected in positive terms as a movement toward or capacity for pleasure.

With these models of subjectivity in hand, Hutchins proceeds to articulate the implications they hold for a theologically disclosive politics of inclusion. While it is important to maintain identity categories (e.g., lesbian) so that visibility is secured, she argues that it is equally important to highlight the instabilities of all identities. By giving full and public recognition to the incompleteness in their midst, religious institutions become part of the movement that enables structural transformation. Hutchins moves beyond Butler (though with Whitehead) to claim that this dynamic process evidences the presence of a holy and creative love. She concludes with the suggestion that the process leaves believers with dual directives of responsibility and hope. Responsibility resides in the call to remain attentive to possibilities for change in the face of an unexpected future. Hope in turn is found in the excess that lies always beyond what is actualized.

Claudia Schippert finds in Butler's writings a valuable resource as she begins to envision the shape a queer ethics might take. Against those critics who have discounted Butler's usefulness for ethics because she deconstructs the voluntarist subject, Schippert argues that performativity provides an alternative form of agency that can fund the moral decision making of those who are rendered invisible by the dominant culture. In particular she highlights suggestions in Butler's texts that the realm of the abject holds open such possibilities. To build on those suggestions, Schippert conducts a rereading of Katie Cannon's womanist ethics through a Butlerian lens. She finds in Cannon's description of the moral wisdom of African American women a realization of the radical promise that might reside in a realm that both exceeds and forms the "constitutive outside" of the dominant culture. Suggesting that a queer ethics can be developed along parallel lines, Schippert offers the phrase "taking on the abject" to describe its character. As the dynamic constitutive of queer moral agency, "taking on" connotes both embracing that which is excluded and countering that which is normative. Such agents, and this ethics, Schippert imagines will function according to "a different geometry," one more akin to that evidenced in black holes where what is invisible exerts decisive influence.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood takes up the question of agency in the context of her study of a contemporary women's mosque movement that is part of the Islamic revival in Egypt. Movements such as this-in which women intentionally engage in practices from study to prayer to veiling in order to cultivate more modest and pious selves-have most often been dismissed by Western feminists as examples of the repressive reach of religious conservatism. To Mahmood, however, such critiques reveal more about liberal conceptions of freedom and agency that have predominated in feminist theory than they do about the subjectivity forged by the women of the mosques. She turns to Butler's performative subject as a model that is better able to honor the historical specificity of this movement. At the same time, her ethnographic research rooted in Islamic women's descriptions of their desires, practices, and goals sheds a critical light, revealing blind spots and gaps in Butler's theory. She notes, for example, that in her writings Butler tends to develop the concept of agency primarily in the context of supporting resistance against social norms (e.g., her reading of drag's significance). Yet Butler neglects to articulate other ways beyond conformity or conflict in which subjects come to inhabit social structures. Mahmood deepens her critique of Butler by suggesting that the gaps in her theory result in part from Butler's tendency to conceptualize performativity in terms of signification. She sketches a broader notion of performativity informed by ritual theorists and Aristotelian notions of habitus, which she contends is better able to capture the nuances of the bodily practices and disciplines of the women in the mosque movement that enable the cultivation of a particular subjectivity.

Mahmood's analysis carries implications for contemporary feminist theorists as well as a broad range of scholars of religion. Recognizing that our conceptual formations have been decisively shaped by a progressive political agenda leads to important questions: what is elided from view by these formations, and what forms of implicit and explicit violence are wrought as a result on those whose lives are not shaped in accord with Western political ideals? Mahmood's article serves as a call to keep feminist political and analytical work open to challenges arising from the multitude of socially specific sites. As she observes, this call is of particular importance in this historical moment when religious difference takes such a prominent and problematic place in international affairs.


We conclude with two pieces more directly concerned with theoretical questions posed to Butler, particularly as these center on the controversial relationship between the discursive and material realms. Rebecca Schneider's training as a scholar of performance studies allows her a unique perspective from which to reflect on the status of language and the body in Butler's theory of performativity. She does so through a close reading of Butler's 1997 Qui Parle article "'How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are Mine?'" and a passage in Excitable Speech in which Butler interprets a traditional folk parable.


Excerpted from Bodily Citations Copyright © 2006 by Columbia University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Mark D. Jordan

Bodily Citations accomplishes its prophecies. It uses Judith Butler to startle righteous complacencies across religious traditions, and then it invites Butler herself to avow the religious origins and impulses of her past thinking—and her thinking to come.

Janet Gyatso

The lively and incisively intelligent essays in this volume offer a lucid account of the key notions in Judith Butler's thought-among them, subjectivity, performativity, abjection, agency, resistance, subversion, and the materializing power of the body. But not only do the authors engage and apply these notions to a variety of debates in religious communities across the world; they also critically assess them, and every one of these original studies has profound implications for the future viability of sex, gender, queer, and feminist theory.

Kelly Oliver

Critically engaged with the work of Judith Butler, the essays in this fascinating volume offer creatively queer readings of the Bible, vital supplements to church doctrine, and original theories of ritual. This collection is exciting, timely, and provocative.

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