Classically Inclined

February 24, 2017

Some thoughts on Judith Butler and kin

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 7:46 pm
Tags: , ,

I was in a packed house a few weeks ago to hear Judith Butler speak about kinship trouble in the Bacchae. I livetweeted it under the hashtag #housman and will pull have pulled together the tweets into a Storify, I suspect, but (as will probably come as little surprise) there was more about kinship as broadly defined than there was about the Bacchae – the play became the case study for, oooh, the last quarter or so of the paper, after the general ideas had been outlined and Butler had looked at some other Greek tragedies.

For those of you who haven’t come across Butler, she is a very influential thinker in the gender studies world and beyond – in particular, her Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender kind of rocked my world when I was a graduate student, not least through the notion of gender performativity (which in some ways I now take completely for granted). She has since published important things on war and grief and many other things which I haven’t read, but I do need to catch up, and indeed to return to the familiar scholarship for a refresher. It never hurts to have a reminder of the ideas you found so exciting.

I wanted to muse a little on the concept of kinship that Butler sketched, because to my surprise I found myself thinking about its applicability to the Roman world as well as the world of the Bacchae (and indeed Butler herself framed the project within the scope of a wider interest in kin in the modern world, not a purely ancient one). Starting from the anthropologists and good old Levi-Strauss, she noted that kinship is often seen and employed as a way to control and define relations, with an underlying assumption that kinship is a stable thing – you are my brother, she is my mother, he is my father, and that leads us into a series of laws and regulations that govern how we behave towards these kin, and that lay out the punishments if we disobey these laws (and thus, as usual, we come to the incest taboo, but never mind).

Butler, however, wants to poke that lazy assumption with a stick, and points out that actually, if you listen to conversations on public transport and also read Greek tragedy, a lot of the dialogue around kinship involves uncertainty, disavowal, fractures – she mentioned children’s books where tiny animals go around asking a surprisingly wide variety of big animals whether they are their mothers, despite clear visual evidence to the contrary. She also used Oedipus to show how Oedipus’ family relations are only created, really, by the drives of sex and violence that cause him to kill his father and sleep with his mother, and that the revelation of the kinship relation relies on an authoritative voice explaining these previously unthinkable connections to him – and rejecting the previously authoritative story he had grown up with. Similarly, Agave in the Bacchae has to hear her father’s authoritative voice before she recognises that the young mountain lion she has so proudly killed and her son are one and the same. Kinship is not, actually, stable, fixed and firm; we rely on being told how it works, but the authoritative narrative we accept can be mistaken, and there is always scope for fractures within the kin structure (‘I love them all so much’/’if I stay in this house I’ll go mad’).

On first inspection I rather like this approach to kin, that sees it as fundamentally double, containing both the bonds that tie it and the frustrations that break it in the same neat package. One of the reasons I quite like it is that I suspect it gives a much more helpful way to think about how the Romans view kinship than the traditional anthropological models, which (as Butler noted) get terribly interested in marriage and procreation as the locus of kin and sort of don’t quite know what to do with other stuff. I don’t mean to suggest that Romans weren’t terribly concerned with procreation – the legal texts, at least, make it clear that marriage and procreation were both vitally important, and the concern with continuing the family line and leaving descendants who could imitate you as you had imitated your ancestors is definitely there in our other sources. (This is a highly simplified and generalised view, but bear with me here.) But there are other things that make family family, besides the legal structures.

This idea of kin, too, helps us think a bit about why the term frater, brother, was so much used by members of the army to talk about their brothers-in-arms – and indeed why we still have that idiom. The kind of ‘can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em’ mentality typical of Butler’s idea of kin becomes suddenly rather literal when the ‘them’ in question are the people you are relying on to save your life in battle – and with whom you share potentially very cramped, very uncomfortable living quarters. Rubbing up next to each other creates kin at the same time that it abrades it.

I’m also thinking about notions of kin in elite Roman families, particularly given the frequent deaths, divorces and remarriages that rearranged the constellation of precisely who was related to whom at any given moment in legal terms, but never really manages to erase the family relationship that had previously existed. I’m thinking about Butler’s idea that kin is known in the breach in terms of knowing who your kin are only after one of these major reshufflings, of continuing to feel and perform kin despite not being familia. I don’t know how this stands up in practice, and I’d have to look at the sources in more detail, but it feels potentially promising.

Finally, I’m thinking about what happens next between me and Seneca. As you may have seen, the book is finally published (hurrah!) – which means I’m thinking about what to do next, or rather after the Monster book. The plan is to go and look at Senecan tragedy and see what happens with family there. I’m wondering, particularly after teaching the Thyestes to my first years this week, if the Butlerian approach might not be an interesting doorway into this next project. Something to ponder as I focus on my monsters. Who may also be kin, I suppose.

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