Meeting Butler

Right now I’m slowly working on my intellectual history. It’s a daunting task. And I’m approaching it in a mostly undisciplined way. This morning, on the last day of 2012, I decided to look through my old notes to find evidence of my first encounter with the theorist, philosopher, troublemaking role model, Judith Butler. In my video introduction to this Trouble blog, I claimed that this first encounter occurred in the fall of 1996, my first year in graduate school. But this morning I discovered that I actually encountered Butler and Gender Trouble in February of 1997, in my Contemporary Feminist Theory course at Claremont Graduate School. According to the syllabus, I first started reading Gender Trouble on February 11th:


In my notes for that week, my favorite line about trouble being inevitable is the first thing I wrote:

But, even though this line gave me pause, it wasn’t what really moved me about her preface or the chapter on that day in 1997. I was interested more in Butler’s challenge to the subject/identity “woman” and her critique of feminist identity politics. And, having recently been exposed to deconstruction and postmodern critiques of the self, I liked her idea of politics as parody, her rethinking of agency through Nietzsche and her discussions of Luce Irigaray. I wanted to add in some links to a few of my papers from that year, but I’ll have to keep looking for them. Hopefully I have them in a filing cabinet somewhere.

Side note: In the process of looking for my papers, I found a syllabus for one of the other classes that I was taking that spring of 1997: Feminist and Womanist Theory with K. Baker-Fletcher and Karen Torjesen. We were engaging with Black Feminist Criticism the same week I discovered Butler:

The recommended reading is Barbara Christian. I don’t think I actually read her Black Feminist Criticism until Emory University in 2002 or 2003. I wonder if reading her Race for Theory and its powerful critique of the limits of theory, would have influenced my initial readings of Butler? It definitely helped to shape my doctoral exams and dissertation writing in 2003-2006.

A few responses to the AIC

I’ve been experimenting with various ways to organize and express my thoughts about my academic training and my experiences in the Academic Industrial Complex (AIC). Today, I decided to quickly (and perhaps inelegantly) compose a series of haikus. Then I tweeted them.

on learning

to learn is not just
to collect facts, earn degrees
but to engage life

on theory

theory works when it
heals pain, moves us to struggle
and creates new worlds

theory doesn’t work
when it alienates us
from that which we love

on graduate school

when I started school
my wonder was fueled with joy
but lacked direction

when I finished school
my wonder was directed
too much; it lacked joy

on meaningful gifts

Last year my dad’s wife encouraged him to convert several of his camcorder videos from the late ’80s/early 90’s to Dvd. For the past six months, I’ve been borrowing them and using bits and pieces in a few digital stories. I hope to do more with it in 2013. There isn’t that much footage, probably less than hour total, but what my dad did record is fascinating…and maybe a little bit embarrassing. I didn’t remember how obnoxious I was when I was 18. Wow.

One event that took up over half of one of the Dvds (12 out of 21 minutes), was Christmas 1992. 20 years ago. That’s a scary thought. Since I’m getting together with my sisters and their families (13 of us in all!) for Christmas next week, I wanted to create a digital moment out of some of the footage. The 12 minutes that my dad recorded (with a minute or two recorded by me), includes embarrassing footage of me being obnoxious (singing “let it snow,” hamming it up for the camera, being LOUD), awkward moments of my sisters feeling uncomfortable as my dad video-taped them, shots of my dog/my sister’s dog in a santa hat, and brief fragments of my mom expressing gratitude for gifts that she received.

Looking closely at the footage, I can imagine several different digital stories about holidays, traditions, family dynamics, and being obnoxious. For the digital moment that I created yesterday, I decided to focus on giving and receiving gifts. I was inspired by the revelation (for me, one of the more significant moments of this footage) that my sister Anne had given my mom—as gifts for Christmas and (probably) her birthday—many of the dragonflies that my mom had collected and that I had chosen to take as a memory of her after she died in 2009.

In a blog post on her birthday this past March, I reflected on how meaningful these dragonflies are for me and my memories/understandings of mom and her curious and playful spirit. As part of this reflection, I posted a poem that I found in one of her notebooks about dragonflies. Here’s her poem and some of what I wrote in that post:


Must you spoil my hours on the beach?
Just as I get my blanket straight
Wiggle my body into the accommodating sand
Comes movement like a spit-fire bomber
Zooming toward my head with the sound of a buzz saw
Swooping directly like a kamikaze pilot
And then instantly changing its course
Turning at a 90 degree angle toward the water.

Making me wonder about you dragonfly.

Sapphire blue wings of gossamer
Sprinkled with bits of glittering silver
Catching the sun like crystal mirrors
Ringing your wings like horned rimmed glasses
Around the delicate eyes of a sunbather.
Black, wormlike body directing your movements
Deliberately investigating creatures in your territory.

Pondering why your image sticks in my mind so long.

Crystalizing years after our close encounters
The intricacies of your insect nature
Finding that you are incredibly pleasing.
Recalling out of all of images of childhood
That of my beach time and your constant interruptions
Into my safe and secure world of dreams
Allowing me now the fun of investigation into your domain.

Realizing that it is indeed wonderful to be my age…

Now I actually thrill at learning about your unique jaw
And the playful nature of your buzzing and stunt pilot
Tricks which are really means of survival and territorial claims.
Not feeling ashamed but amazed by your water life
And stages of development and not least of all your
Incredible desire and instinct to eat the bane of
Minnesotan’s north wood’s life–the Mosquito!

Feeling gratitude for dragonfly antics on the beach.
Judy Puotinen
April, 1987

Wow, I love this poem and how it illustrates some of the qualities that I loved and valued most about my mom: wonder, curiosity, playfulness! How I deeply and desperately miss sitting beside her, maybe on the beach in the Keweenaw Peninsula, sharing in those qualities! This poem is especially valuable to me because it also speaks to my mom’s love of dragonflies. When my sisters and I were dividing up her stuff, I decided to take her dragonfly pin collection. I wasn’t quite sure why I picked it, but after discovering her poem in a random notebook, I know why. This poem and these pins enable me to bear witness (at least in memories) to my mom and her vibrant, joyful, creative/imaginative, always-questioning-and-wondering life. It’s nice to feel joy on her birthday, not just grief.

Part of my mom’s collection

It was a powerful revelation to learn that Anne had made a big contribution to my mom’s collection. Why? I’m not quite sure how to express it so I won’t try (at least, not right now). Instead I’ll just offer up the digital moment and my gratitude to Anne for giving such meaningful gifts to our mom.

oh snap!

For some reason, I’ve started saying “Oh snap!” a lot. Why? No idea. It’s a little embarrassing because: 1. I can’t pull off the attitude that it demands, 2. It’s a really old expression, and 3. Usually I utter it when it doesn’t fit the situation. My misuse of “oh snap!” seems to be a glaring reminder that I’m getting old(er).

Today, as I was searching through my messy computer files, I found an image of a flow chart from 2006 that offers some helpful advice on how/when to use “oh snap!”. I thought it would be fitting to post it here:


As a sidenote, this image was originally posted on Flickr. This seem important to note on the day (December 18, 2012), when everyone is freaking out about Facebook’s new changes to Instagram.

Addendum: After posting this image a few hours ago, I became curious about the origins of “oh snap!” I found this post. My favorite use of the phrase is in Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” video from 1989 (click here for the verse in which Markie utters the phrase. Did you know that you can create/share links for your desired spot in a video on YouTube? Pretty cool):

Beside/s: What is (your) theory for?

Currently, I’m in the process of crafting an autobiography of sorts over at my new site, UNDISCIPLINED. I haven’t written much about the new site on this blog yet because I’ve slowly been working on adding and creating content. My focus for the last few days has been on my experiences with the AIC (the academic industrial complex). As I was revisiting some lectures notes from Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism, I came across this passage from Shaunga Tagore in A Slam on Feminism in Academia:

some of us need to engage with feminist theory
so we can ground it in our community activist work
our creative works
our personal relationships
for our families, communities and histories
for our own fucking deserved peace of minds
maybe we need to know how to make sense of oppression
because we’re so heartbroken we don’t want to end up being locked away in psychiatric institutions
or in a hospital overdosed on pills, getting our stomachs pumped
because we don’t know WHY all this shit is constantly driving us CRAZY (Tagore, 40)

Powerful. I want to think more about how this passage resonates with my own experiences and my own increased resistance to the academy and academic thinking/theorizing. But for now, I want to put it beside another passage that I’ve just started writing about, bell hooks eloquent description of the healing power of theory in Theory as Liberatory Practice:

I found a place of sanctuary in “theorizing,” in making sense out of what was happening. I found a place where I could imagine possible futures, a place where life could be lived differently. This “lived” experience of critical thinking, of reflection and analysis, became a place where I I worked at explaining the hurt and making it go away. Fundamentally, I learned from this experience that theory could be a healing place (61).

When taken together, these two passages make me wonder:

what is (your) theory for?