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ZEIT ONLINE: Why did you decide to write a book about public assemblies right now? 

Judith Butler: I suppose I started to think about them during the Arab Spring when some debates started on whether or not public assemblies were a pure form of a democracy, suggesting: "This is the people and they are throwing-off an unjust regime". And of course that raises all sorts of questions, like: who are the people really? Is it important that they are showing up in the street, are the bodies in the street representing all the people? What about those who are not in the street?

ZEIT ONLINE: Why were you so interested in the role that the body plays in assemblies?

Butler: There was also another debate related to the Occupy movement where some people were saying "they don't have any demands, they are just occupying space", so I was trying to say: "No, that is a way of making a demand, it is a way of saying this space belongs to us or this space should be public". But it does not have to be verbalised for that claim to be made; I thought they were making it with their bodies or through the way their bodies were occupying space. I wanted to make the case that bodily action or gesture is also politically significant. It occupies the space to which it lays claim, and so embodies the claim.

ZEIT ONLINE: One could read an implicit sympathy towards assemblies into your book. Some people fear them.

Judith Butler: "Anmerkungen zu einer performativen Theorie der Versammlung", Suhrkamp, Berlin 2016, 312 S., 28 Euro. © Suhrkamp Verlag

Butler: Maybe it is the word assembly that we have to think about. There could be mass gatherings, there could be mass movements, there could be riots, there could be mobs. The mob is probably what we both fear. That does feel like violence could ensue. It is not a deliberate, it is not politically minded. Assemblies are different. There people come together and deliberate. And it is important that they come together, that they appear for one another. I mean, for someone like Hannah Arendt the assembly in Greece and in Rome was an important part of the inception of democracy. And I think we continue to need assemblies to realize democracies. We have to be able to distinguish between assemblies that are self-reflective and are inclusive – seeking to exemplify modes of democratic participation and debate, – and those who are giving up on democracy.

ZEIT ONLINE: You write that assemblies allow people to enter the public space who are usually excluded from it. Is that true in the case of Pegida?

Butler: There are principles of radical democracy at stake in the kind of assemblies that I support. If a group of right-wing racists get together and say that they have been excluded from a public space that does not accommodate racists, then they are actually asking for a right to exclude others. They are trying to assemble and achieve public space for the expressed purpose of a racist and exclusionary project. That is hardly democratic in intent or in effect.

ZEIT ONLINE: How do we decide which assemblies "we need"? An assembly might be inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Over the years in Tahrir Square in Cairo, countless women suffered sexual assault.

Butler: I think assemblies pose different kinds of risks for different kinds of people. If you are a woman or trans or if you are a migrant, you are probably at risk in a public assembly because public assemblies do involve physical and public exposure. You don't always know who you are next to, you don't always know who will exploit that proximity for the purposes of injuring you or someone close to you or someone on the other side of the crowd. So there is always a risk in public assembly.

ZEIT ONLINE: Would you like to see more bodies on the streets?

Butler: No. I do not think that the more bodies there are on the street the better our lives become. By the way, I don't think you can separate what the bodies are doing from language. Bodies are expressive – they signify.

ZEIT ONLINE: Can one differentiate what a Pegida expresses through movement and gesture, from what a democratically-minded assembly expresses?

Butler: I think you could. I don't think we can just decontextualize gesture and movement. The question is how it is contextualized. Those are generally racist and anti-migrant assemblies with a specific politics. We have to understand what they are doing, and then judge them accordingly. That is very different from new migrants taking to the street and asking for inclusion. If you have been prohibited from arriving in public because arriving in public is against the law, then arriving in public is to take up a relation to that law.

ZEIT ONLINE: But that can be true of far-right populist demonstrations.

Butler: Yes, but we are also saying that state violence and state censorship and racist popular movements all work against the claim to democracy Those who lay claim to white privilege, for instance, may claim that they are "excluded" by migrants, but they actually worry about losing their privilege. That is the context and that has to be the context by which we understand all of these gestures, movements and verbal claims.

"Reactionary populism wants to restore an earlier state of society"

ZEIT ONLINE: In your book you critically assess Hannah Arendt's distinction between the public and the private sphere. What is problematic about it?

Butler: In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt clearly makes a distinction between private domestic activity – reproduction or sleeping; all those activities that are meant to reproduce the body are not political – and the political domain is one which figures the presumably well-fed body. Arendt's idea of democratic principles assumes that food is distributed, that food is available, that somebody is going to be sheltered, that they are not going to be ill without available healthcare. But the problem is of course that, given the times of precarity we live in, there are so many of the basic requirements of life for which we are struggling: Who has shelter, who has healthcare, who can move through a border? These are all political issues that pertain fundamentally to bodily sustenance and bodily mobility. We cannot have freedom of association or assembly or even speech without presupposing embodied life.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is there greater precarity now?

Butler: I think precarity has become a more important political concept. The scholar Isabel Lorey suggests that it is an economic and political condition that actually belongs to our present moment. The proletariat, those are workers who are not getting paid enough to eat or live well, but the precariat is a different category. The precariat may not have jobs at all. They may have a job and lose a job in quick succession. They may be transient labourers. They may have shelter and lose it the next day. The future is radically unpredictable.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is that?

Butler: I think as labour is becoming increasingly temporary and precarious so that markets can expand without impediment, public obligations towards working people and a liveable wage become increasingly threatened. So we do see more and more people who are abandoned and dispossessed, in a certain way. Post World War I, post World War II we saw tremendous numbers of people dispossessed, but dispossession was of a different kind. Dispossession today is also happening through war, but also through fiscal policies, Neoliberalism, and its effect on working conditions and housing, on housing market and housing possibilities, but also on food. I don't think we have to go very far, to see that many populations are suffering with very basic questions.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you think the current rise of populism is connected to the fact that there are more people who think of themselves as – but are also part of – this new precariat?

Butler: I do think there are still good reasons to distinguish between right-wing and left-wing populism, like movements in South America, for example in Argentina. For Ernesto Laclau, who was interested in these kinds of movements, populism was a positive concept, or could be made one.


Butler: Because different people, who are rallying around different causes and different kinds of identities, link with each other. They start to see a common condition, and they seek to understand each other's situation. Through those links a new sense of the people emerges, or can emerge. So for Laclau, populism held out a left-wing promise. He did not understand populism to stay as an extra-parliamentary political movement; he actually saw its possibility to transform into elective assemblies, representative democracy, even state power.

ZEIT ONLINE: So how do you differentiate this apparently positive form of populism from a negative form of populism?

Butler: Perhaps we have to understand it before we start discriminating between its good and bad forms. After all, one we might call "good" can in time turn into one that we call "bad". There are kinds of populism that are aimed against all state power, hate all state processes, and want to remain in the extra-parliamentary domain. I think that there are forms of right-wing populism that we are seeing now that object to laws that were securing equality between men and women, laws against racism, laws that permit migration and even affirm an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous population. And that kind of reactionary populism wants to restore an earlier state of society, driven by nostalgia or a perceived loss of privilege. They want to take down state power for the loss of their former world.

ZEIT ONLINE: An argument that is often made in Germany is: Some people support AfD because they feel they are pushed to the margins of society and left alone in their precarity. Do you agree?

Butler: Sometimes a right-wing group might feel that they are excluded, but what they really mean, is that their privilege has been lost. Their privilege, their white presumption, is being shaken. And you know what: Yes they are losing their privilege, they are losing their white privilege. They are losing a former world in which white privilege could be assumed. Yes, they are losing and it is their job to adjust, to accept their loss and to embrace a larger, more democratic and heterogeneous world.

ZEIT ONLINE: But you would not include them into your notion of the precariat?

Butler: The problem is, neoliberal economics produces precarity throughout the population without discriminating between right and left. So there are some right-wing people, or people who have become more right-wing, because they are blaming the migrants for taking their position, but they are not identifying the root of their problem, which is an expanding precarity that cuts across economic class, though the very rich continue to profit. They have decided to blame the migrant rather than to look more carefully at some fiscal and financial policies that are actually jeopardizing the well-being of increasing numbers of people.

ZEIT ONLINE: Could you say a similar thing about Trump supporters?

Butler: Oh, the Trump supporters….

ZEIT ONLINE: … something that is very interesting to Germans.

Butler: Well, it is all rather unfathomable. I think there is an economic component to the support for Trump. For some of his supporters government has gotten in the way of their capacity to make a good living and to succeed financially, so they are against regulations, against government. And that can include paying taxes and workplace regulations meant to secure the health and safety of workers. They applaud the fact that Trump has not apparently paid federal taxes and they think: "Yeah, I want to be that person".

ZEIT ONLINE: There is a lot of rage?

Butler: I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.

ZEIT ONLINE: What about his overt sexism and racism?

Butler: What Trump is emancipating is unbridled hatred and, as we see recently, forms of sexual action that don't even care about anybody's consent. Since when did we have to ask women whether they are okay with being touched, or why? He does not actually say that, but that is exactly what he is indicating. It liberates people, their rage, and their hatred. And these people may be wealthy, they may be poor, they may be in the middle; they feel themselves to have been repressed or censored by the left, by the feminists, by the movement for civil rights and equality, by Obama's presidency, which allowed a black man to represent the nation.

"We are shocked when violence gets close to us"

ZEIT ONLINE: Some Trump supporters say he won't act upon his hateful presumptions should he get into power.

Butler: I think that people who say that to you are disavowing the truth, in the sense that they don't want to appear to you as if they like all the hateful things he says. They just think: He will close the borders, he will go to war, or he will cut through the red tape in government. But the fact is: they are willing to live with the hateful things he says. They don't necessarily agree, but they accommodate it, which means that they do not object. They are implicitly lending their consent to that discourse. Many people are taking private pleasure in his discourse. They may not be able to say that out-loud, because we are supposed to be ashamed of being racist, or being sexist, or being homophobic. But they harbour those feelings privately.

ZEIT ONLINE: The Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that when we face the other, that encounter places immediate moral demands upon us. You extend his theory and come to think of bodies in public assemblies encountering each other and placing a sense of moral obligation upon each other. What kind of political implications would the ethics that you envision here have?

Butler: I would say, no, you can't take the model of interpersonal contact, body to body, as the model for larger political relationships. However, you can derive some general principles from those smaller encounters that can be translated into larger structures. And among those principles would be interdependency. Global interdependency, which includes consideration of climate change and food distribution. But also, for instance, the United States can't make a war in the other side of the world without suffering the repercussions on its own territory, because we do, in fact, share a world, even with those we have sought to destroy. I think those of us, who live in first world situations, where we enjoy our freedom and our relative safety from direct violence, really like it. We are shocked when it gets close to us: What is this doing here, this is Brussels, this is Paris, this is London, this is New York. Those who target those cities seek to attack our presumption that we can take distance from the kinds of destruction that others are made to suffer.

ZEIT ONLINE: What does that imply for domestic politics?

Butler: For me, the ethical is not absolutely separate from the political. There are ethical principles that should inform our public policies. And that does include – and I guess what concerns me most – the way in which we dwell in our own geopolitical zone, sometimes not caring about what happens to the lives of others, not considering those lives grieveable, not considering those lives equal or equally meaningful. So the obligation is to extend equality beyond our limited national and linguistic field.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you think we currently consider Syrian lives less liveable or grieveable?

Butler: I do think that if those were white Europeans trapped in Syria or trapped on the border with Turkey, there would be general outrage, because the identification would be immediate.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is Angela Merkels "Willkommenskultur" an expression of this kind of ethics you envision?

Butler: Yes. I think I see it in two different stages. On the one hand, what we call hospitality or "Wilkommenskultur", is extremely important. I also think that accords with international law and asylum law. And we can see it in places like Hungary, that are closing their borders and refusing all "Willkommenskultur". Germany is debating the question, "What are the limits of hospitality?" I think, however, there is a second step, which is: Asking who we are, who the Germans are now.. When we speak about hospitality, it is always this "we" that extends hospitality to "them". But once "they" are inside, who is now the "we,"? Does that "we" change? Are they then part of the "we"? Full inclusion means accepting - and affirming - a racially and ethnically diverse Germany.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is that difficult?

Butler: Yes, to say: We are now Muslim, Christian and Jew. We are now white, black and brown, multi-cultural, multi- racial.

ZEIT ONLINE: Currently there is a rise of right-wing populism and the discourse in Germany becoming much more islamophobic.

Butler: I think the way that hospitality has translated into programs that seek to adapt migrants into Germany: they are not programs that are focused as intensively on combatting new racisms in Germany. Those who object to new migrant communities becoming an integral part of Germany also have to go through a change; changing their very sense of what Germany now is, and who it includes. To do that, the Germans would have to learn about these communities, adapt to these communities. This is more than hospitality: it is changing the sense of who "we" as a country are. And it is this second part, the step beyond hospitality, that would lead to a multi-national, multi-racial country that houses many kinds of religions.

ZEIT ONLINE: So how can we extend that notion of "we"?

Butler: I think it is the question of how you live with people, a question of cohabitation. Do you also seek to learn their lives, to learn their languages? Do you always treat them as a recipient of your generosity, or do you come to regard them as your equal? Do you accept that German is not the only language that is spoken in Germany? Do you accept that assistance and support needs to be given to various religious communities and that they should not just feel welcome, but also part of what Germany is and is becoming? I think that too often there has been this effort to adapt the migrant to German culture as it is.

ZEIT ONLINE: You can see it in the Trump rhetoric, you can see it in Brexit, you can see it in right-wing populist language, there is a move back to an ethnic understanding of nationality. Why?

Butler: Hannah Arendt should be our guide here: As long as one functions within the notion of the nation-state, one is basically asking for a specific nationality to represent the state and for the state to represent that nationality. That means that there will always be the minorities and those excluded, those who do not conform to the dominant idea of the nation: they will be ineligible for full rights, or stripped of rights, or even expelled. That is why for her plurality is so important. And I guess I could translate plurality into racial and ethnic heterogeneity. But heterogeneity is where Europe is right now. It's the new Europe.