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Niels Helsloot Niels Helsloot


Niels Helsloot, 'Who are the happy few? Judith Butler's constructive desire'.
Translation by Johan van Es.
Section 6. (pp. 193-195)
© 2004


The happy family

Alongside Butler's reference to unhappiness, her only relevant use of the word happiness is due to Hegel as well. As the earthly precursor of eternal happiness Hegel (1988: 292-304 [241-251]) sees the union within the state, which in turn finds a foreshadowing in the family. The relationship between state and family, however, is tense, as the state depends on the family for raising up an army. The love family members feel for each other is claimed by the state, which according to Hegel promotes male orientation towards the outside world, but forms an attack on the female orientation to the personal instead of the universal. Butler argues in this connection: 'The public sphere, as I am calling it here, is called variably the community, government, and the state by Hegel; it only acquires its existence through interfering with the happiness of the family; thus, it creates for itself "an internal enemy-womankind in general." [...] The effort to pervert by feminine means the universality for which the state stands is thus crushed by a countermovement of the state, one that not only interferes with the happiness of the family but enlists the family in the service of its own militarization.' (Butler 2000: 35-36). The relationships of love which in Freud are frustrated by the taboo on incest are thwarted in Hegel by the state, which for young men replaces 'womankind'.
   Butler deals with this competitive relationship in a small book on Hegel's interpretation of the Antigone. According to Hegel Sophocles's tragedy of this name expresses the tense relationship between female duties based on kinship (care for a family member) and male duties to the state (politics), between which Antigone is torn. Butler makes it clear that the Antigone does not make a sharp distinction between female 'happiness' and male 'pain'. Antigone adopts neither position, but shows that kinship must be thought of in terms of repeatability of norms getting divergent interpretations in concrete applications bound by time and place. The divergence could go so far that cultural comprehensibility falls away, which happens to Antigone with disastrous results. Gender trouble here coincides with kinship trouble (cf. Derrida's Geschlecht articles, 1987: 395-451), and Butler's way of handling both 'troubles' shows strong parallels: instead of the line drawn by Hegel from the apparently inviolable heterosexual family norms of his times, Butler pleads for openness to the changeability of kinship relationships, which can be interpreted in ways unimaginable to Hegel. The traditional family lapses with this as the breeding place for happiness, in so far as it could ever have been that, but again the question remains whether Butler would want to describe the ways of living together which take its place, in terms of happiness.

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