Who we are or what we could become? Musing on a remark of Judith Butler’s

by | 26 Apr 2016

How should queer politics respond to the attachment some people feel to a stable gender identity? This is the question Judith Butler poses in discussion with Sara Ahmed in the current issue of Sexualities.

Who we are or what we could become

Butler asks:

If ‘queer’ means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is ‘unfixed’ then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? … some people very much require a clear name and gender, and struggle for recognition on the basis of that clear name and gender. It is a fundamental issue of how to establish and insist upon those forms of address that make life liveable… How do I name myself… and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me?

Butler’s question is one that, in different forms, has been much pondered over. Within trans politics, many proponents fiercely contest the queer assumption that gender must be fluid and non-binary, treating gender instead as a personal quality or property that is, really, nobody else’s business. If someone “born” a boy has his “male” wants and desires accepted as legitimate, why shouldn’t those of a transman be also?

Now this of course has generated a lot of argument from feminists who reject the notion of gender as personal property on the grounds gender is far more systemic and relational. But I don’t want to get into this argument here. What I want to explore, rather, is that part of the debate which concerns the attention paid to identities and interests of the present.

Judith Butler frames it as a question of supporting liveable lives. But is this right? What weight should be given to the feminist argument that people’s current gender preferences and desires should be transcended; that radical gender politics is not about respecting what men and women want and desire as gendered subjects (however voluntary the choice) but about creating new post-gender desires and ways of living?

Does the emphasis on respecting interests and desires as they are evacuate the space for imagining other kinds of subjects, of who we might be, what we might want and, as Judith Butler puts it, how we might come to “live with others”?

It’s not surprising that radical politics has moved in the direction of affirming the interests and desires people say they have given the twentieth century legacy of authoritarian socialism. We can see this in feminist debates over multiculturalism and power-transacting sex where affirming interests and desires that actually existed seemed to trump other feminists’ arguments that the interests and desires reproduced existing inequalities and violence.

But the battle-ground over whether genital cutting or the psycho-sexual desire for role-based sex should be affirmed or critiqued dragged attention away from another site of engagement, and that is the politics of imagining life lived otherwise.

Where does this fit in a radical gender politics? How does it relate to affirming the genders people say they are? Is the latter as far as a left politics should go?

Imagining life otherwise is the terrain utopian arts and thinking occupy. While much utopian work elaborates on the structured patterns, architectures and routines of living in ways that are more just and ecologically sustainable, one part of this project, as utopian fiction demonstrates, is reimagining what people might be like in worlds that don’t revolve around private property, markets, competition, monogamy or gender.

Imagining and forging new kinds of people was once a staple of left politics. In the left-wing British children’s movement I belonged to, Woodcraft, we sang songs about the “new man standing tall with his head high and his heart proud, and afraid of nothing at all”; a man who would emerge in “a world that is free”.

Uncomfortably sexist and eugenic (like much of the aspirational thinking of its time), today ideas of creating new kinds of people seems out of favour; certainly far too normative for the queer deconstructive politics Judith Butler discusses. But if we put to one side the notion of perfect humans being realised in some distant future, or better subjectivities designed and machinically created, what remains is a sense that the politics of who we could become enacts important political terrain.

What would it mean to be human in a world where today’s cleavages and distinctions, of gender, class, religion and race, either didn’t operate or operated very differently?

I don’t ask this as a predictive question. As Fredric Jameson has remarked on utopias, thinking life otherwise is inevitably anchored in the concerns of the present. With all its limits and pressures on what is thinkable, it cannot actually tell us what will come uinto being.

It’s also not an argument for argument. I don’t think we’d be better off fighting over competing images of the kinds of people who might inhabit our planet. At the same time, if we discount a politics of future subjectivities, do we risk entrenching and naturalising the identities of people as they now are; where our identities are all we can be or all that matters?

Creatively exploring other ways of being human (or post-human, animal or, indeed, merely living) highlights the contingent qualities of present-day attachments—that our genders or religious backgrounds, for instance, however deeply felt may not be attachments to defend as everlasting value—the question is what they do, for us and for others and how they evolve. Exploring other ways of living and being human also enriches our political thinking which needs more than critique; and it stimulates and develops our desire for change.

Utopian thinking is no longer about timeless perfection, universal agreement or programmatic change. It has evolved as far more complex, deliberately imperfect, agonistic, improvised and unpredictable. But despite the range of utopian celebrations, exhibitions and activities, evident especially now in the 500th anniversary year of Thomas More’s Utopia, all too often the utopian remains apart from political movements and grass-roots activism, as such its political charge is muted.

How might an exploration of new kinds of subjectivities be part of a radical politics? Can it be done in ways that tie it to the challenges and interests of subordinated people in the present? And in ways that avoid creating a battle-ground, in which some people’s identities (but not others) function as the terrain on which attacks and defences are played out?

Film, art, theatre, music and dance seem important sources in providing modes of exploration which approach new worlds and new peoples from usefully oblique and creative angles. The collaboration on Utopia 2016 with its range of London activities and events involving literature, fashion, art, design, film and other stuff, going on now, seems an interesting current example of this.

Play also provides a mode of self-making activity that foregrounds invention and takes the sting out of conflict. And alternative social spaces, from protest camps to democratic schools, local economic networks and even nudist communities, enable new interests and desires to develop. This doesn’t mean people suddenly become more communal or collectivist. In his writings on Summerhill School, founding head teacher A. S. Neill described how he reverted to a system of private property, in which kids used tool kits brought from home, because despite living communally, they failed to treat collective things with enough care.

How people respond to living differently, as Sasha Roseneil’s account of the women of Greenham Peace Camp exemplifies, will vary. But what everyday utopias and other alternative spaces demonstrate is that ontological change isn’t just an exercise in imaginary politics. Participating in unusual innovative practices, including inhabiting new genders, produces new wants and interests, even if these aren’t necessarily, or always, the ones political radicals intend.

Today, political critique on the left is incredibly developed and nuanced, built from the sediment of multiple generations of political activity. By contrast, a politics of what change could look like remains in its infancy—both in its details and in its form. Compared to our ability to critique, the left is far less sure how to engage politically and creatively with new ways of living as well as with new ways of being human.

How then can we face in both directions? Can we recognise and respect the cultural identifications which allow the subordinated parts of who we are to thrive in the present—identifications which may not be meaningful to future imaginings but which are important attachments now? And can we, at the same time, explore the richness of new identifications and attachments; these may not reflect the future ahead (a future also that is far from singular), nevertheless they extend our political commitments, experiments and aspirations?

Dav­ina Cooper is Pro­fessor of Law and Polit­ical The­ory at Kent Law School, Uni­ver­sity of Kent.



  1. Well said! Groups of feminist, gender and trans activists should be able to bring together people, first, who want to throw off gender, and second, who want their claim to be or embody a certain gender to be respected. The theorization of whether gender is intrinsic or relational should be a matter of strategy, of responding to the demands of a particular political circumstance. It would be esp. damaging if antiessentialist feminism disavowed trans people for aspiring to gender as a specificity or property. At a certain level, almost all trans people understand the argument about gender being relational. But this doesn’t diminish the strength of the desire to ‘be’ or pass in the gender to which they haven’t been assigned.

  2. Davina’s article thoughtfully asks how left critique can open itself to ideas of futurity. By definition, in the future there is nothing to critique; its forms of subjectivity, familial and sexual life and communal organisation have instead to be imagined. What I think is important, as Davina hints, is for this utopian imagination to resist any urge to be preemptive, foreclosing on emergent possibilities for gendered and sexual life. We have come to an understanding of many forms of injustice, but it is not clear–again by definition–whether future arrangements will inherit the ways in which these have unhappily been conditioned, or vitiated, by power. Critique should stay its hand, asking first whether lives in the future are happy and viable. Make mine a pina colada.


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