Interview with Judith Halberstam > Theorist - California
Karin Michalski, Teodora Tabacki and Nicolas Siepen
Teodora: Yesterday at the Clip Club you made an interesting distinction: in opposition to communities that can easily be realized, subcultures are profoundly artificial and therefore require a huge effort to make work.

Judith: Well, I think the distinction that I want to make between communities and subcultures has to do with the way in which community as a concept, has a particular history that has to do sometimes quite specifically with Christianity and communion and coming together and sometimes specifically to deal with the notion of how the family extends out into the world to make something bigger. And so when we want to refer to networks of association between people who are not connected either through the church or through the family, then I think the word subculture is very useful. Lots of people don’t like the term because it presumes that there is something over here called the dominant and something beneath it called the subcultural. But I think as long as you don’t have too clear of a distinction between what is dominant and what is subculture this can be a very good explanatory term for how particularly queer people work really hard to make spaces within which alternative culture can be produced. So I like the term; I use the term, I think it is theoretically a useful term. I think in a lot of queer communities people use the term to talk about themselves. They think of themselves of being in the subculture. When I say it is profoundly artificial I mean that people have to do a lot of work to make a subculture happen. It is not something that will happen just spontaneously or naturally, organically.

Nicolas: The main idea behind Assembly International is to do research on the specific qualities of self-organized production; a term that's maybe not so far away from what you call subcultures. Yesterday you said something about the specific way of subcultures function, and that they are more temporary spaces and social practices with a secret side but also moments of organization and a genealogy. My question is if you can see a way back from these levels of different subcultures to moments of political mobilization to formulate a critique or attack the structure of capitalism directly without establishing a central organization or representative, one-dimensional strategy?   

Judith: This is a big question about whether subcultures remain fractured and splinted and rather sort of committed to their own specificity whether there is a way in which these units can be mobilized which is a really important question. You know classically the subcultures when people began to use that term at least in Academia in the seventies and eighties in Britain, the term was used sort of in the way that you imply to say that there is a sort of class war going on between the working class and bourgeois society and that when working class youth enter in to adolescence in order to make sense of the world they enact a rebellion against what the British sociologists call the parent culture. And the sociologists at the Birmingham school suggested and implied that this was a sort of false rebellion because the kids don’t yet know that their real enemy is the bourgeoisie and not the parents and so they make a fake rebellion and that is the subcultures and it is easily contained and then having felt that they are rebellious and that rebellion is possible they believe themselves in the Foucault sense; to be free. And now they accept the larger structures which have remained blind to them in the subcultural frenzy. This is an interesting argument but in this argument the subculture is almost a conservative tool of manipulation that makes people think that they are engaged in rebellion when all they are really doing is sort of confirming the system. And I think this is wrong. The problem with an argument like this is that there is always a larger structure that the subculture is only one tiny piece of. And I am not sure if there is a larger structure and lots of little pieces. I think maybe there are only lots of little pieces. But I think even the dominant culture is made up of simply versions of and re-significations of subcultures. So rather than think about subcultures as being mobilized and coming together I would have almost a more anarchistic sense of maybe what could happen politically as being disruption in multiple sites. And then if you have a sustain sense of disruption, refusal, rebellion, alternative strategies then there is only so much disorder that a system can contain before the system is changed almost from within by this virus-like chaos. And that t is more of my sense of what political possibilities are within a subculture. I also think it is very difficult to predict political outcomes. Now I think we have to take political action without knowing in advance what the political effect will be. And we have to change our understanding of what we mean by political action. What happened last night at Clip Club to me is a political action; people come together and have an exchange of ideas. That is not possible in other venues. And having had that exchange of ideas you go on and do other things, so it is a process. So I don’t want to make a massive claim for the subculture in some sense I always want to make a small claim for the subculture and say that there are only small claims to make politically but the small claims have an effect in a more multiple way.

Karin: Reading your book, it seemed to me there is a tendency to romanticize subculture, and what it means to be a subcultural subject…like you're going out a lot, drinking alcohol, taking drugs and so on… I wonder if you could tell us something about queer practices regarding our own lives, I don't know, being in a relationship, maybe, working as a filmmaker or an academic, what is queer about it? What kind of queer practices are important to you?

Judith: Okay, that's a good question. Yeah, maybe in the book the subcultural just seems like a sort of idealist site rather than a practical place where these particular things happen. And I want it to be an idealist site, because I want it to be a place of imagination rather than simply a place of action. I think that's how it functions, that's how it functions for me. I have always been in some kind of subcultural space. When I was a young person I was very much into punk, and punk was the only thing that made sense to me in this weird English childhood of hetero-normativity and so on. And I remember it very much not so much having a sense of belonging but having a sense that things could be different. Just as simple as that. And, you know I think in a way that's all the claim you need to make for a subculture; it allows people to imagine that things could be different from the way that they are. Things could be otherwise. And then you set about in your own tiny way of imagining or realizing that difference. So that's the idealization. Concrete practices? I mean for me, yeah it is about basically just not having a life that is scheduled around a particular model of domesticity which actually when you are an academic that is how most of your colleagues live, what people do in academia is really different. For some people it is just a comfortable way to make money and have a family life where you have summers free to spend with your children and so on. For me being an academic is something about being an educator. It is not about the university so much; it's bout being both an educator and somebody who has a constantly interest in being educated, learning. I don't want to make any big radical claims about that, I just think that when you get to a certain point in your life maybe you have to have a logic for why you don't just want to be a homo, no, with children, going to work and coming home. Because that, truth be told, in middle-class western societies that is how most people live. So, but at the same time, I see people involved in all kinds of queer practices where they spend huge amounts of time and energy in things that other people simply wouldn't. So, for example in Hamburg where I've been staying for the last week, I went to visit this fantastic archive, 'Bildwechsel', where people have been collecting videos and media and all kinds of art works by queers and women for 15, 20 years. And there is no real pay-off for this. This is what in straight culture may be called a hobby, but in queer culture this practice of archiving is really, really important, and I would call that a queer practice.
There are lots of other queer practices that are associated with sexuality I guess, I mean there are lots of people who try to figure out different ways to have relationships and, at the bottom line, I think queers think very deeply and seriously about living lives differently.

Karin: But how is queer politics connected with other politics for you? Like feminist politics, gender issues, sexism still exists, there's racism, there's homophobia. How do you take this into account, incorporating it into your politics, looking for a queer time and place, ... how do you make an issue out of these points? Are identity politics still important for you?

Judith: Identity politics is very important for me and since I am constantly accused of doing identity politics I guess I am. I think, queer is- you know what Donna Haraway would call it- a situated set of knowledges. And it isn't separate for me from feminist knowledges. My understanding of feminism has always been linked to my understanding of queer. The other part of that is that in the U.S. in particular it's very hard to claim a radical politics of any kind without an analysis of race because your race is just a huge dividing line in the U.S. . It works differently in Europe obviously, but race has also been a dividing line, sometimes here it is called 'culture' whatever. And increasingly I do see that what I would call queer politics has a very clear emphasis on race and migration and there are all kinds of people working on analysis of neo-liberalism and the way in which neo-liberalism makes huge divisions between subjects like immigration and sexuality. And the project for queers is to bring these things back together. I am involved in putting together a new issue for a journal in the U.S. called "social text" and I've co edited it with David l. Eng and José Munoz called "What's Queer About Queer Studies Now?" and this is a set of essays devoted to looking at queer theory, queer studies, queer politics as a theoretical practice that anyway understands sexuality through race, through a critique of political economy and so on. So it's really, for me, I am trying to think of how to facilitate these spaces for theorizing which in a way don't exist because people do see sexuality as body politics and then see economy as something that is completely other and has a different set of political motivations and principles. 

Karin: I have another question regarding your new book: What is the concept of “queer time and place” and in what way is the category “sex” still important? It seems less important, because you address the unemployed also as “queer”, or their practices as a “queering of life time”. I think there are so many unemployed people here, many whom are conservative, so much into consuming, I can't really see the queering moment in that.

Judith: Okay, and maybe the word queer here is doing too much work, because what I am trying to say is not that there are these queer times, queer spaces, and we are all in them. I am saying that queer puts pressure on the way which we've understood time and space. And that there are normalizing practices associated with temporality and spatiality that need to be challenged; that we can do through queer studies. So when you look at the ways in which queers think about temporality differently or scheduled lives differently then the kind of temporalities that are infolded into reproductive schedules for example, then it's possible to also say there are a lot of lives that are lived outside of reproductive time, capitalist time. So it isn't just like: "Oh here is a group of queer people who like to party, drink and do drugs. And oh my, how interesting this is a different way of thinking about time and space", no, it's to say that our very understanding of time and space has been organized by hetero-normative logic. Queer studies offer the critique of that logic. No other sort of theory is going to offer the critique of that logic. Once you've offered the critique of the logic, then you can recognize the way in which capitalism asserts itself in all the people's lives through these naturalizations of time and space. So, this is how you should spend your time. You know you work 8 hours a day, your leisure should be structured and productive. So there are many Marxists who have pointed to this kind of capitalist organization of time. This is a huge topic within Marxism. But Marxists don't notice that that capitalist structuring of time and space also has its very normative, hetero-normative familiar dimension and this is where I try to bring a critique in. To make the association with other people who live with eccentric time frames is to say again: this would be one way of linking queer struggle to other kinds of struggles; to say that the ways in which queer people find themselves outside of family time or labour time or whatever could be linked to now the kinds of social positions that usually seem far a field of the queer. So that was sort of the point. The other thing that I do with space in the book is to say that queer people, gay people themselves have naturalized space. So we think that queer space is the city, and that there are no other places within which gay life can happen and we have this very urban-centric understanding of gay life. So in the book I use this motive of Brandon Teena, the story of Brandon Teena, to suggest that this urban-centric framework makes it very difficult to see all of these different understandings of sexuality and gender that might play out differently in different spaces like the rural.

Karin: So queer people are gay and lesbians and trans-gendered people; can heterosexual people be queer too?

Judith: Well, queer is a critique, I mean queer isn't just like you sleep with somebody of the same sex. So, I mean, there are lots of trans-men who are with women who seem heterosexual, are they heterosexual or …. Heterosexual is a clinical term rather then a political description, you know. So I don't think the question is 'can heterosexuals be queer?' it's, 'what's queer about heterosexual practices or heterosexual modes of identification?' I am not particularly bothered about having a membership policy for queer. I am trying to make queer into a useful term, a politically useful term rather than simply a category where I say, 'yes I identify or no, I don't.'

Teodora: Initial Assembly questions had this one chapter that dealt with the lived experiences of subculture or community as a limitation, as sometimes autistic practice or very easy to recuperate. When you spoke yesterday those elements where not that present, it all sounded very idealized, and then I later thought that maybe what you do is not just theorizing a certain scene in the sense of producing a certain history but exactly making certain utopia that is in a way mobilizing. Did I get it right?

Judith: Yeah, in academia at any rate to do this kind of idealizing or utopia project is seen as being very naive. People are just saying: "This is naive, you are not taking power relations into account", or whatever. I think people get very stymied when you have these theories that basically make it seem as if everything can only be the way it is that there is no possibility of change. And recently you have seen that there are books that are trying to theorize the possibility of transformation, like for example the Hardt/Negri book, 'Empire' and then the second volume, called 'Multitudes', it is a sort of a global theory of neo liberalism, global capitalism and the resistance to it. I think it is a very brave book in a way and it is very brave to try to take stock of the current situation and see whether there are possibilities of resistance. If we did not think that there are possibities that things could be resisted or changed or different then why do we even have our political groups? People don’t go through all this trouble to make films and archives and put things on the internet and interview each other and talk and go to clubs if they think nothing can be done. Recently I began to think maybe what I do is I want to call myself "a theorist of the alternative." there are many many many theories of the dominant: psychoanalysis is a theory of the dominant, Marxism in many ways is a theory of the dominant, structuralism very much a theory of the dominant. Post-structuralism is an attempt to see that there are possibilities of re-signifying and so on. So theories of the alternatives will always have some kind of utopian principle and that utopian principle will always be naïve and it will always in a way fall short. But it is also a risk that I think is worth taking. To just say: "It isn't an utopian project where you say if we do this, then this will happen, or we are creating an utopian culture by creating x, w, and z. It is more of an epistemological project where you know that things can be different. And you begin a work of enacting that or imagining it or something.

Nico: What do you think about people like Slavoj Žižek who obsessively try to establish a contradiction between Marxism and so called micro-politics, post-structuralism, queer theory and so on?

Judith: Yeah, yeah…..

Nico: … to argue heatedly that these practices does not resist the logic of existing social hegemony but rather reproduce new forms of flexible subjectivities. From this point of view they are a sort of a role model for the neo-liberal world.

Judith: I think so is the position that Žižek lays out. To have a bunch of white men who are the same subjects… the same heroes of theory in each generation; same guys telling you that you in a way are the problem and that they, because they think big, have the solutions. I think it is a dead-end because in the book I tried to go after in the introduction people like Jameson and Harvey for being so focused on the structure. There is no understanding of those micro sites, where in fact change does happen permanently. We are not in a place any longer where we believe in change as some revolutionary wave that sweeps across a large population. And we don’t believe that because there is a way in which we have read Foucault and we see that populations are very managed in a way that they would not have been even 150 years ago. And a management of populations through governmentality and through these power- networks is not going to then be responsive to a revolutionary wave. Foucault himself is pointing to the importance of each little node in the network would have to be altered or tweaked to a change slightly. The popularity of Butler is that she is a theorist of the dominant who sees and acknowledges alternatives; she is not trying to say this is what we could do but every now and then there is this moment in her texts where she will give alternative examples of alternative practices like drag, which she links to repetition, iteration, re-signification; these are the kind of tools that deconstruction has handed on. And I do think that those are sort of the weapons of the weak, or those are the places where neo-liberalism can not immediately sort of reconstitute itself. It would be a mistake for someone like Žižek to imagine that his discourse is outside a neo-liberalism. This is a guy who casts identity politics as the real enemy. And what does he call identity politics? Usually he gives an example like a black welfare mother talking about welfare. To my mind a black welfare mother talking about welfare would be revolutionary. Why don’t we have more of that instead of having a white guy talking about; basically: Lacan. (laughs) Lacan is not going to be some kind of grand answer to neo-liberalism. I am not interested in big answers I am really interested in tiny little answers, I really am. I don’t think that the challenge should be to think big. I think we should learn how to think small. Very small.

Nico: It's funny that Beatriz Preciado said the same thing that we have to make holes in reality but very small and nearly invisible ones.

Judith: Tiny, pinpoint; pinpoint. That is exactly right.

Teodora: Žižek once told this joke, very Lacanian joke, it's all about a beer commercial where a beautiful princess kisses a frog and the frog turns into a beautiful prince and then the beautiful prince kisses his bride and she turns into a beer bottle. Yeah, you could take it to be the tragedy of heterosexuality.

Judith: Exactly, that is actually nice; it is the tragedy of heterosexuality. Politically I think to be in this position of the queer is to have a different angle and it is an angle that is packed with critic I mean we benefit from that. These guys are just completely blinkered and when you are blinkered you can look up and see a huge arena, a huge sky, but you can't see the local.

Nico: It is strange that a lot of people now try to turn it into an enemy construction. On this level there it is already a power struggle in the field of theory going on. They really think there is this strange perverse anti-Marxist micro stuff which believes blindly in its revolutionary potentials, but it's actually the opposite.

Judith: Yeah, but you know what the problem is?  It's that people like Žižek, Jameson, Harvey. These white guys who have become cosmopolitan intellectuals flying all around the world demanding huge amounts of money for their services and so on. They don’t read any of the people who they are accusing because there is still this scale problem, we are talking about big thing, you are talking about small things. They will read Judith Butler, they read Spivak, but that is it; that is as 'low' as they would go. And it is a problem of exchange because someone like me I have to read these people and my students need to read them but the exchange is not there, they are not teaching the materials they are critiquing even. So their students get the critic without the materials. My students get the materials and the critic. And it is a completely unreciprocated relationship. So this is what keeps queer bound into a smaller frame; it is not simply its own concern with the microcosm but the constant vicious casting of queer, the feminist, the anti-racist as being only about something little that therefore they have already encompassed. There are no theories of race and no theories of the body and no theories of sexuality in this particular version of Marxism. And in this day and age I just don’t see how you can have a theory of global capitalism that does not take those things into account. It just can not be useful.

Karin: But it is also in leftist spaces that again lesbian and feminist politics are missing or are fought against. I don't understand why this happens, the world doesn't really change, despite of many little changes and interventions.

Judith: But the world does change! Okay, so we've been making these little changes and nothing changes. You know, how were we to measure; with what instrument do you measure change, this kind of change? Of course it changes, things change all the time. I mean, the left, what we mean now with the left is not what we meant 10 years ago, certainly it is not what we meant 20 years ago. So, everything has changed. And the people, who are behaving like an old left, are really not the left. We are the left in some sense. And here I sometimes think we need different terminology because the terminology is outdated for the forms of political protest that are in existence. So, yes, if you are just talking about the left, probably, you know what I mean, if we'd have to say what we even meant by it. But, I think the left means something very different in Europe than it means in the U.S., as well.

Karin: Yeah, it's more like I don't understand why sexism and homophobia, especially against women, still exists. I stick to my identity politics because I am not willing to accept that women and lesbians are not represented in the same way and don't get the same space, the same resources and so on.

Judith: I'm not sure that the goal is the elimination of sexism, racism and homophobia because I don't think this is possible as long as we live out our differences there will be problems that people have with difference. And other contestations will take place across difference. So for me it is more about changing, slowly changing the structures so that people who want to express their understanding of difference through racist kind of discussion or language are marginalized rather than us being marginalized. It is more a shifting. I think when we are trying to shift, shift dimensions, relations, oppositions, hierarchies, rather than just say we have to get rid of sexism; you can't get rid of sexism. I mean really. I think that would be a big project.