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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 8. (pp. 197-200)
© 2004



From the passing nature of the mentioned references it is very clear that happiness is not an important theme to Butler. [*] Yet the passages mentioned give an unambiguous answer to the question 'Who are the happy few?'. They are successively a form of consciousness that the subject will never have, an idealised kinship relationship never realised without deviations in historical practice, and a speech act occurring under conditions that can never be met. The happy few are always conditions in which 'everything is right as is', never individual subjects. Through such happiness the subject only attains his or her appointed place. He or she suffers from this and can only hope to escape this suffering in so far as the maintenance of happiness always allows some margin for change. I am inspired by Butler's work especially because she unfailingly remains hopeful of this margin for play.
   In the case of marriage Butler searches for another way out: radical refusal. As far as I have been able to verify, this is the only case where she explicitly decides to plead against the idea that she generally supports: the idea of a 'political performativity which holds that it is necessary to occupy the dominant norm in order to produce an internal subversion of its terms.' 'Sometimes,' she says, 'it is important to refuse its terms, to let the term itself wither, to starve it of its strength.' (Butler, Laclau and Žižek 2000: 177). There is much to be said for this. But why exactly in this case? Does the army place the alliances hoped for by Butler in less danger than marriage? [**] And the distinction between men and women? It is quite possible that in different contexts there are reasons to act differently. But I have not been able to find such reasons up to now in Butler's work. My guess is therefore that her position is changing, which not only would agree with her ideas on repeating one's own subject position, but also gives many reasons to keep on following her work with interest.
   Pending further development, I close this argument by trying to progress a step further and take seriously both possibilities seen by Butler in her resistance to repressive interpellations. Repeating the norm and refusing the norm are different cultural constructions, each with its own (dis)advantages. The most important difference is that in the case of refusal one does not expect any good to come of going on searching for translations anymore. A line is drawn beyond which conventions offer no support for contact, so that coalitions with certain groups are simply beyond reach. Drawing such lines rests on a fundamental inability: the impossibility to be 'everything'. A – more Nietzschean than Hegelian – endeavour to love what is different without incorporating that difference, requires great enthusiasm for what lies beyond one's own bounds. This demands a surrender which at times proves unliveable. But such bounds are never fixed. It is easily understood that for Butler marriage goes too far, but as it is there is no reason why marriage could not be parodied – in many ways. That Butler makes an exception on this point shows nicely that her hope for change from within the norm offers no answer to all questions. Such a universal solution does not exist. Repetition of her quest for indeterminacy in repetition requires translations to concrete people in concrete situations. This also requires a certain surrender. There are always situations where this results in too much pressure and in which the striving to be understood turns into a desire to be left in peace. Sometimes then breaking radically is the best obtainable outcome.
   The debate on happiness could turn out in two ways as well. There are various reasons to refuse happiness. It is a repressive category that has many dropouts. If someone could have been among the 'happy few', then even calling him by his name – her by her name?! – would already have thrown up a barrier against happiness. Recall that calling names means being abusive (Butler 1997b: 2). Just like abusive words, proper names lay restrictions on what one could comprehensibly be. They bind someone to ethnic, religious and national traditions, and are masculine or feminine. Such labelling also occurs with the attribution of the characteristic 'happy'. Every interpretation implies a limitation of the ways in which happiness can be understood. Starting from Butler, a plea can now be made to prefer cultivation of desires. By giving them a livable, seductive and enthusing form, the straitjacket within which everyone should be happy becomes less irksome. But Butler's line of approach does not exclude the possibility that happiness could be translated as desire. In that case, both concepts do not oppose each other, but are inextricaby interwoven. Separate to the question of whether in this context the word 'happiness' is so happy, we know exceedingly little of what kinds of marriage partners, coalition partners or other prizes could still be won. Many unknown forms of 'happiness' can still be realized – which, as their precondition, will still require many unknown forms of suffering. Butler's approach provides an incentive not to give up hope even under the most dead-end circumstances.

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   *   Other uses of 'happiness' (199b: 96, 2000: 62-63, Butler, Laclau and Žižek 2000: 265-266) are if anything even less emphatic.
**The wish of gay people to serve in the army is not questioned in Excitable Speech, and in the debate with Laclau and Žižek it is criticised only in passing (2000: 160-161, 175).

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