Theory in Studio: Judith Butler and the Politics of Images

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Cartoon courtesy National Archives at University of Maryland College Park.

Political cartoons are an ordinary part of American life. For years, if not centuries, Americans have picked up the paper and chuckled at these images. Above, from 1907, is a wonderful example of an editorial drawing criticizing the meat packing industry of Chicago. It seems common sense to call this cartoon political, but this presents a riddle: What exactly about this cartoon is political? One obvious possibility is that the subject of the picture refers to a topical political issue. Alternatively, and more provocatively, the drawing may be considered political because it helped sway public opinion, in turn leading to greater food safety in America. We must then ask if there is something political in the image itself or in its subsequent effect? This is not a question just for cartoonists but a question for anyone interested in socially engaged art. One solution to the riddle, what makes political art political, comes from the gender theorist Judith Butler and her engagement with British linguistic philosophy.
Judith Butler is one of the most celebrated and outspoken scholars of the last 25 years. Her works, Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993), have become foundational texts in women’s studies, gender studies, and queer studies, making powerful interventions into national debates on race, class, disability, and sexuality. While it is easy to see the political character of her work, it is not immediately clear what her philosophy has to say about art. Butler has never provided an explicit theory of art, but in her 1997 book Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative there emerges an implicit theory of images worth considering in this article. In Excitable Speech Butler appropriates the philosophy of J.L. Austin, who is often referred to as an ordinary language philosopher. She uses his technical distinction between linguistic illocution and perlocution to analyze the political impact of obscene and offensive imagery. In the process she makes an unexpected inversion: Butler argues that the subject of the image is determined by its social effect, and not the other way around.
Judith Butler at a lecture at the University of Hamburg, April 2007. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Butler on Austin
J.L. Austin was an Oxford professor of philosophy just after WWII. He wrote very little, but his impact on later philosophy has been immense. In a series of lectures, posthumously published as the book How to do Things With Words, he introduced the idea of “performative sentences.” Austin was interested in instances of language where words function as actions. For example, in the sentences “I promise…”, “I marry thee…”, or “I name this ship Jeremy…”, these sentences when uttered are themselves actions; they do the work of promising, marrying, and naming. This was a radical idea, as previously logicians had assumed that sentences could only refer to actions, but were not themselves actions.
Cover of J.L. Austin's How To Do Things With Words. Image courtesy

To better understand these performatives Austin came up with terms to differentiate their impact as actions. One such concept is illocution which designates an action that is immediately enacted by the performative, like saying “I promise to meet Jeremy at five.” By uttering this illocutionary sentence I have enacted a promise. A related concept is perlocution, which designates an action that occurs as a result of the performative, such as actually taking the steps to meet Jeremy at five. The perlocutionary element of the sentence is derived by its subsequent effects. This is an important distinction between illocution and perlocution that Butler will make much of.
From Performative to Image
Butler deploys Austin to intervene in an ongoing discussion by anti-pornography activists. A central issue is if obscene and offensive imagery should be treated as speech. Currently such imagery is legally protected under the first amendment, and as such, is considered free speech; however, if offensive imagery could be considered as hate speech, then it would not be protected and could be prohibited. Butler is skeptical of this association between images and hate speech and applies Austin’s linguistic concepts to show its weakness.
Catharine MacKinnon speaking at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA. 8 May, 2006. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Feminist philosophers Catherine MacKinnon and Rae Langton serve as the primary targets of Butler’s argument. For Mackinnon and Langton pornography is bad in itself. By its very existence it subjugates women or, in linguistic terms, is adversely illocutionary. They cite a hypothetical in which a woman is unable to articulate her no as a no – where a hypothetical male will understand it as a yes or a maybe. What they contend is that the illocutionary power of pornography saps the illocutionary power of a woman’s no and renders the hypothetical woman helpless. Here illocutionary power is positively related to authority, and authority in turn is directly proportional to agency as a political subject. Such a breach to a subject’s freedom to act, even as illocution, is for Langton and MacKinnon constitutionally impermissible. In this way pornography is closer to fighting words or hate speech, which are not protected by the first amendment.
Butler is wary of the implication of this legal theoretical position and writes, “If we accept that hate speech is illocutionary, we accept as well that words perform injury immediately and automatically.” It is this conviction that Butler will reject both philosophically and as a matter of practical politics. Butler soberly reevaluates pornography: “It makes little sense to figure the visual field of pornography as a subject who speaks and, in speaking, brings about what it names; its authority is decidedly less divine; its power less efficacious.” Butler thinks images are not as immediately powerful as MacKinnon and Langton would suppose. To treat offensive imagery as intrinsically powerful is to attribute to pictures a divine-like power akin to an icon that is presumed to perform miracles. Butler offers an alternative understanding for hate speech which does not rely on illocution.
Butler reveals a curious circular relationship between hate speech, the political subject, and the state (as manifest in the judiciary). According to Butler, this relationship is such that “The sanction utterance of the state…produces the act of hate speech…that the utterance of hate speech precedes the utterance is precisely the reverse of the logical relation in which there is no hate speech prior to the decision of the court.” In this example the state creates the discursive space in which hate speech can even appear, by adjudicating speech as being hateful. Butler shows then that what was presumed as the illocution of hate speech is really just a perlocutionary effect of legal discourse. This same legal discourse gives hate speech a power traditionally associated with the state apparatus itself. This is the power to injure with utterances (traditionally this is the job of proclamations, resolutions, and judgments). In hate-speech performatives, the power of the state is shifted to the bigot, or the individual spouting such language. But this power is completely derivative of a broader context of legal structures that name and validate speech. In MacKinnon and Langton the force of an utterance was based wholly on simple illocution. Butler changes this and says the illocution of politically charged speech or imagery is not self-contained but is contextualized by legal discourse. The performative must cite its power from outside itself.
Butlers Reversal
Butler in her rejection of MacKinnon’s and Langton’s call to legislate obscenity seems to be at odds with her own conviction that injurious speech needs to be legislated. Her ability to reconcile these disparate conclusions depends on re-evaluating illocution and perlocution.
“…I am not opposed to any and all regulations,” notes Butler, “but I am skeptical about the value of those accounts of hate speech that maintain its illocutionary status and thus conflate speech and conduct completely.” The notion of an immediately powerful illocution is for Butler both impossible and undesirable. It is impossible in that intentions are never purely played out without variation; it is undesirable in that variation itself grants the chance for reinterpretation. Reinterpretation can in turn be used to resignify sexist and racist speech. In an interview Butler says that MacKinnon’s view “scares me…It scares me because it means that we have no interpretation to perform…”
Butler advocates, “maintaining the gap between saying and doing, no matter how difficult.” Illocution must be rethought, since for Butler it is no longer an originary site of authority. Butler wants us to instead interpret illocution, making it an effect of subsequent thought. Illocution is sapped of any of its supposed power and, just as in the example of the state, it becomes itself a perlocutionary effect. This is the radical reversal she accomplishes. With her privileging of the perlocutionary Butler admits that adverse perlocution still exists and would suggest that, “regulations must remain restricted to hate speech as a perlocutionary scene, that is, in which the effects of such speech must be shown, in which the burden of evidence must be assumed.”
Re-evaluating Political Art
Returning to our initial problem, locating the political in political art, we can now follow Butler’s lead. If we posit an illocutionary force to political images, this aligns us with Langton and MacKinnon. For Butler this commits us to a politics without interpretation and sediments certain structures of power. If we instead accept the priority of perlocution, this implies a politics of change and constant interpretation. In art there should be no presumed illocutionary power. Its political efficacy must play itself out over time and bear the burden of proof. This implies that not all political cartoons are actually political. Putatively, political art can only be evaluated after its social effect has been interpreted. It is only those artworks whose perlocutionary effect creates demonstrable political change that count as political works. In reversing and subverting the roles of illocution and perlocution Butler gives us an a posteriori approach to evaluating images and their social impact. Though we casually use the term political cartoon or political art, perhaps we should be more selective of what ultimately receives that title.
Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.