U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“How does another time break into this time?” Judith Butler on Interruption

One of the pleasures of working in a weekly medium is the opportunity to revise ideas-in-progress. Thus, although I had thought I was more or less finished (for the time being, at least) with a series I had been writing about the “politics of interruption,” I am happy to have been jolted into the realization that at least one more entry is required.


The spur was a recent encounter with Judith Butler’s  Parting Ways (2009): a text in many ways organized around the theme of “interruption.”

Although much of the attention to Parting Ways has focused, logically enough, upon Butler’s interventions vis-à-vis the question of what it means to think “Jewishly” about Israel (that is, after all, what the book is “about”), Butler’s text also performs a series of operations that are of great value with or without any directly correlation to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, American foreign policy, or the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.  (Although I should say, for the sake of transparency, that on the “hot button” issues, Butler’s views and my own are very close).

In this essay, I wish to look at the work Butler assigns to “interruption” in Parting Ways, and try to establish why it is that Butler thematizes the term. My intention is not so much to read Butler’s “interruptions” critically (I don’t have many criticisms), but rather to get as close as I can to an understanding of Butler’s conceptual work.

The first cluster of “interruptions” occur near the beginning of Parting Ways, and speak to concerns of the ethics of what we might describe as the dramatized inter-subjective encounter: if I am not incorrect, we are, broadly speaking, in the realm of Hegel’s  master and slave, Buber’s “I and Thou,” Bakhtin’s dialogical partners.

There are many different ways to talk about ethics: imaginatively managing fantasized populations in a utilitarian fashion, playing around with hypothetical dilemmas, deferring to the authority of old rules (or making up new ones), thinking genealogically about where our moral reflexes came from, etc.

Butler is not thinking about ethics in any of these ways (with the possible exception of the final Nietzschean one). Instead, she draws on a strong Jewish tradition of conjuring the encounter of two dramatic, quasi-allegorical figures as they meet one another’s eyeline: the Jew and the Gentile, the Insider and the Outsider, the Home-dweller and his or her Neighbor, the Self and the Other.

Butler’s primary interlocutor here is Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), the Jewish French philosopher famous for articulating an ethical theory around the notion of the “face.” In extremely simplified form, for Levinas the ethical edict “Thou shalt not kill” corresponds to our experience of bearing witness to the other’s face (which refers not just to the eyes, nose, and mouth, but to indicia of the other’s humanness more generally).

Butler quarrels with Levinas, even as she seeks to keep thinking with him. At a certain point, what is radical about Levinas’s thought–its relationality–seems to settle into something more calcified and dangerous—a fixed ontology of self and other. The danger, here, is that experience of the other’s alterity might clamp us down in our contingent identities and convince us of their authenticity and durability. That is what we would want to avoid.

What Butler seeks in the Jewish tradition (this is what would be threatened by the work of some contemporary intellectuals to collapse “Jewishness” into “Israel” and vice versa), therefore, is a heightening of commitments to relationality and a full repudiation of ontological essentialism of any sort.

This is where “interruption” comes in. Whereas for the ordinary settler colonialist—say, the Englishman in India––the face of the other only serves to reinforce his internal sense of “Englishness”––a ratification of identity––the Jewish nomad confronting the other’s alterity serves as an interruption of identity. This interruption, Butler writes, is the condition of ethical relationality.

The question then becomes (for Butler): is this really a “Jewish” notion. I am not sure that this question can be properly asked, let alone answered; as I understand the reception of Parting Ways by Jewish intellectuals, there is a certain amount of frustration with the way Butler handles this particular “Jewish question.” If anyone knows these debates better than I do and wishes to fill in some of the blanks in the comments, I would be most grateful.*

From Levinas, Butler turns to Edward Said, and in particular to Said’s remarkable late work, Freud and the Non-European. It is in Said’s meditations on belonging and homelessness that Butler seeks an elaboration of what “interruption” as a condition of ethical relationality” might mean. After all, there is something apparently paradoxical about such a notion. “But to know that,” Butler writes, “we have first to consider what such terms mean.” They could mean a lot of different things. Butler is faithful enough to the demands of the disquisition, and to the deconstructive tradition more generally, to keep pushing the question in aporetic directions.

For better or worse, by way of contrast, I’m lazy enough to seize upon the first attractive formulation that catches my eye and stick with it as long as it works. Thus, I think we could get quite a lot of mileage out of this passage:

[t]he kind of relationality at stake is one that ‘interrupts’ or challenges the unitary character of the subject, its self-sameness and its univocity.” In other words, something happens to the “subject” that dislocates it from the center of the world; some demand from elsewhere lays claim to me, presses itself upon me, or even divides me from within, and only through this fissuring of who I am do I stand a chance of relating to another.

Applying this interpretation to the example of traditional settler colonialism, we might say that our presentation above of the ratification of self-identity via the encounter with the other is itself a retroactive imposition of a certain order upon what is inescapably an interruption—this is, I think, Fanon’s argument in Black Skin, White Masks.

If Butler runs a risk here, it is of being read as arguing that the experience of “interruption” is uniquely Jewish, rather than universal; this would be a difficult argument to sustain. Perhaps the more useful frame would be one that looked to Jewish culture as marked by preferences for “staying in” the envelope opened up by the “interruption” for longer periods of time and at greater intensities: thus, the incredible stretches of irony and pessimism in Ashkenazic Jewish badinage, the never-resolved Talmudic debates, all the distinctive features of European Jewish music that drove anti-Semites (from Martin Luther to Richard Wagner) so crazy for so many years. It should be emphasized that if a propensity for the pleasures of interruption might be locatable in the archives of Jewish culture, such an identification would not imply that similar preferences are not at work in other cultures. I have a strong sense that most subaltern and nomadic collectivities develop traditions of “interruptive” ethics and aesthetics.

Butler moves on to consider Walter Benjamin on the “interruption,” ground that we have covered a bit in previous essays. What Butler highlights in this discussion is the messianic/kabbalistic character of Benjamin’s “interruptions”—the resonance of the Benjaminian “flash” that ruptures time’s continuity and provides a glimpse of an alternative present with the Zohar’s mystical vision of flying sparks, chips, and shards “flashing up, or flaming in ways that offer sudden, passing interruptions of present time.” For Benjamin, investments in the figure of the “interruption” that brings about a radical “now-time” signals a departure from Second International visions of linear historical progress.

“In fact,” Butler writes, “Benjamin makes clear in the seventeenth thesis that this flashing up makes possible an interruption of established forms of historical development; it constitutes a ‘cessation of happening,’ and so a calling into question of progressive historiography itself.”  It only such a “cessation of happening” that can produce a “revolutionary chance on the fight for the oppressed past.”

Butler concludes this reading of Benjamin and “interruption,” with which I hope to work much more closely, by thinking about parallels between messianic interruption and the question of “translation” (something of an obsession for Benjamin).

Butler’s presentation of Benjamin’s question seems to synthesize perfectly many of the things I have been trying to get at it in my attempts to wrap my head around ‘interruption” (it is thus a good place to end, for now).

“How does another time break into this time, through what vessel, and through what transposition?”

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. 2012.

On Levinas, see: Moyn, Samuel. Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas between Revelation and Ethics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Other-Emmanuel-Levinas-Revelation/dp/0801473667

* It goes without saying that if anyone wants to do the usual ad hominem and talking points stuff, from any side and towards any end, this is not the place for that.

11 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Hi Kurt. I haven’t read Parting Ways so I appreciated your critical review, specially your observations on how she reads interruption as uniquely Jewish. I was wondering if this is what Butler is trying to get at though, having read articles and interviews surrounding this question, it seems to me that her objective is understanding a particular form of interruption, very much like you tried to do with Chingo Bling. No?

    By the way, I am not sure it’s the best idea to post warnings about ad hominems et al. I understand where you are coming from and sympathize with you, having been also the object of them. But In the end, by contributing to public spaces we are always running the risk of being in the receiving end of such attacks. That’s part of our involvement, no? It’s our prerogative then to either ignore or put them on the spot.

  2. Khalil, as always, thanks for this. You are correct on both counts–the talk around the book certainly seemed to be edging in the direction of “interruption” as a political activity, the wake, particularly, of Operation Cast Lead. My own deconstructive urge, I suppose, is to read the margins–in this case, the question of Jewish identity and the constitutive role of the “interruption”–as the center. Your comment has made me think, too, about how such a slantwise reading is also a generic procedure in intellectual history. Politically engaged writers are in the midst of some contemporary crisis, and for a variety of reasons, the result is book on Moby Dick, Greek architecture, changes in feudal land tenure, etc.

    On the asterisked note, I take the point. No doubt this is me being both a little paranoid, and a little domineering, but I am okay with that if that is the sum of the ethical tort. Of course, I have no power to prevent such comments, but I also think that the rhythm of commenting and responding can sometimes work to validate the whole process–to suggest that all parties are sharing in the joy of tearing each others’ limbs off. I merely wanted to point out that I do not enjoy any part of that, that I prefer not to be involved in such things, that such things are better pursued elsewhere.

    I’d be very curious about your further thoughts on this!

    Thanks again for a great comment .

    • I get a little paranoid too myself! This is of course more visible in Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Claire Potter recently wrote an interesting column about the culture of rage in political/scholarly cyberspaces. I do wonder if by posting the asterisked note you may be interrupting–pardon the appropriation–the flow of comments, even from those who might not go the ad hominem route. I confess I actually liked reading what the socialist feminist had to say about Grant’s book, even if her comment wasn’t framed in an ideal manner. It pointed me to critiques of Grant that are quite valid, even if one doesn’t fully agree with them. I was also left wondering about what happened, in reference to the Twitter block (you don’t have to explain this of course).

      I confess I enjoy a bit of heated polemic, and the space of a blog lends itself to a more informal style of conversation that opens itself to interventions that push our buttons. There are different ways of interrupting the culture of polemics when it veers into sardonic, destructive attacks (in the case of a certain troll, I commend what you did). Anyhow, it is an interesting point of departure to think of spaces like this, not just as sites of collaboration and dialogue, but also in terms of negative affect and conflict.

      • Great points, yes.

        So, for example, I had no urge to discourage such comments in regard to Gira Grant’s book (in fact, I tried, without any success, to get a prominent “anti” who was yelling at me on social media to do the yelling here).

        My blocking of the person in question had to do with the fact that the critique of MGG was extremely personal and slanderous. (It was also completely upside down on all the facts). The linked article was extraordinarily weak, embarrassingly so.

        I have met MGG once and had a lovely brief exchange; we’ve emailed two or three times. She is a friend and comrade of many friends and comrades. I have great admiration for her. I think she is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and she writes and agitates in a a way that inspires me. So I am not open to a discussion on the topic: “MGG is the worst.”

        I guess I draw the line at critiques that attempt to negate the person whose work is being critiqued. I just don’t think “Melissa Gira Grant” is up for discussion. If I granted a critic the right to say “oh, check out this (dubious) skeleton in her closet,” I could not object to someone pointing out to the many skeletons in my closet. Besides the fact that such juvenile politics degrade everyone involved: the problems facing the world right now are actually too pressing to waste so much time with this nonsense. That’s why the anti-Greenwald-ites drive me so crazy. They do see, at some level, that what the NSA has been up to is absolutely bananas? And we wouldn’t know without this rather heroically brave person risking quite a lot to tell us?

        Put more forcefully–I think we must create an intellectual culture on the Left where “Melissa Gira Grant” or “Glenn Greenwald” is never up for discussion. Like wrapping paper, unlike Bigfoot, they exist.

        One of the other reasons I blocked the person I blocked is that I found her whisper campaign to be extraordinarily gendered–only a move or two over from “Psst! She slept with the boss” or “Psst! She was a spousal hire” to “Psst! She wrote an article for Reason.” This kind of stuff does not, for the most part, happen to men. Whether it comes from a man or woman is immaterial. We have to draw the line.

  3. Kurt – Leaving the intrigue and scary skeletons aside — a naif’s conceit for sure — I’d like to ask a question [no, really].

    I haven’t read Butler’s book and am not familiar with the discussion it’s provoked, though I do know she’s been deconstructing essentialist identities for 25 years or so. Nor do I have any idea whether Jews have a possibly unique “propensity for the pleasures of interruption,” as you speculate, but I believe that at least as far back as the 1950s, they exhibited a strong interest in discourses of identity. A fascinating article in this regard is Noah B. Strote, “The Birth of the ‘Psychological Jew’ in an Age of Ethnic Pride,” New German Critique, Winter 2012, adopting a term from Philip Rieff’s intellectual biography of Freud.

    But, more on point, I’m confused about the connection that Butler [and you? — you don’t have to answer!] want to make between the critique of “a fixed ontology of self and other,” and Benjamin’s flashing up of interruption. Could one say that in both cases an identity of some kind is being “interrupted,” so there are comparisons to be made, or analogies drawn, between, say, individual collective identity, and the coherence of a historical moment or context, or the unifying continuity of a historical period, or teleology? Do interruption and identity then become a conceptual pair, a binary opposition? Something then that calls out for deconstruction?

    Beyond that, are you thinking of “interruption” as event or encounter, as “’something [that] happens…some demand from elsewhere,’” or is it more a conceptual move, or re-framing?

  4. Bill, thanks so much for this comment.

    Of course, the speculation re: Jewish culture is worth the paper it’s printed on, though there are all sorts of sources, as your comment hints at, from Freud to Paul Buhle, that would support this kind of interpretation.

    I appreciate greatly the Strote cite–looks very fascinating. Will check it out immediately.

    Okay–the question is related to the critique of a “fixed ontology of self and other” (I do sign on to this critique, I am *against* a fixed ontology of self and other, though I think that certain nationalist movements seem to have needs for a “strategic essentialism” at certain points in the de-colonizing process; I also think that that “strategic essentialism” almost always becomes a non-strategic one with the capacity for great harm–again, no one wrote about this better than Fanon) and Benjamin.
    I am a bit confused by what you mean by “in both cases” here? I can be a little hard of comprehending–would you mind reminding me what the two cases are?

    If I am reading one part of your question correctly–would I feel comfortable drawing an analogy between the two parties to an encounter and larger social totalities? On the one hand, yes, I think that’s what being a Freudian entails. On the other hand, I see the dangers of such an approach–very central to political theology–in reducing all social processes to 2 parties (sounds a bit like orthodox economics!). The real challenge is to think past 2.

    “Do interruption and identity then become a conceptual pair, a binary opposition? Something then that calls out for deconstruction?”

    Wonderful point–and I think the answer is yes. Not only that, I think the “yes” to this question is very meaningful. For example, if identity is only constituted by its interruption, then we could move beyond certain discourses of continuity and security. Instead of a dreaded interruption being feared as a new trauma, we could acknowledge that identity is nothing but this kind of trauma.

    As far as “interruption” as event or encounter–I think that, as historians, we are probably most likely to see “interruptions” in discrete events or encounters–so there is a pragmatic bias towards thinking of “interruption” this way. The danger here, and I am glad you brought it up, is that for Benjamin and for Butler, the “interruption” is also–maybe primarily–a heuristic model. When we say that a certain historical process goes “from A to Z,” we don’t assume that, as on Sesame Street, we are going to encounter oversized foam “As” and “Zs”–we are using the alphabet’s set of 26 letters as a heuristic that helps us understand an abstract concept. The “interruption,” I think, should be thought of in the same way.

    An interesting final note that this great comment brings up is the question of Althusser and the interruption–after all, Althusser’s interpellation or act of “”hailing” is crucial to Butler’s earlier work on gender. For Althusser, it is the provision of an identity by an authority figure that interrupts the otherwise underdetermined or fluctuating subjectivity of the subject and fixes it. Here, I think, we are dealing with the photographic negative of the Althusserian interpellation–the “interruption” hails us, not the “identity.”

    • I like the distinction you make regarding interruption as event / as heuristic model; it also leads us to think about Foucaultian approaches to historical events as ruptures and discontinuities. In the end, if we are paying attention to those interruptive events, we are imposing a heuristics of interruption to some extent, since said events are always constructed through human perception, no? Bill’s comments about interruption through deconstruction bring up another interesting element: does interruption follow a dialectical logic? Following Benjamin and Althusser, this would be so, but in the case of a Butlerian reading, and even more so in a Derridean reading, dialectics go out the window, interruption and difference would always be inscribed in the chain of meaning from the get go.

  5. Kurt – Thanks for the reply to my question. I don’t like zeros either.

    I got lost in your original post where you transitioned in the paragraph starting with “Butler moved on to consider Walter Benjamin…,” and I couldn’t see the connection between the critique of individual or collective identity and “interruptions of present time.” Those are the two cases I was thinking might be compared: interruptions of personal or social identity, and interruptions of “the coherence of a historical moment or context, or the unifying continuity of a historical period, or teleology.”

    If interruption is to be taken heuristically, what is the concept it helps us understand? That was the point of my asking whether it’s to be thought of over against different kinds or forms of identity, which might lead to a “binary opposition” that itself becomes open to interruption. In this vein, it occurs to me that interruption closely resembles deconstruction.

    I guess we are using “identity” in different senses here: for me it’s associated with what you call “discourses of continuity and security,” while for you it’s the post-interruption realization “that identity is nothing but…trauma.” [But earlier you did refer to it as the “interruption of identity”]

    I wasn’t asking about comparisons between individual and collective identity, but since you brought it up, I agree that Freud does that sort of analogizing, especially after his turn to social theory, though to me it’s not quite “what being a Freudian entails.” Anyway, to me representations of individual and group/society in terms of each other — micro/macro, heuristic, metaphor, modality, methodological holism, fallacy of composition, collective memory, culture and personality, national character, Westphalian sovereignty, corporations as persons — is one of the great undiscovered topics of intellectual history. Your point about two-actor interactions is a part of that I guess.

    • I can’t tell if we mostly agree or disagree? I don’t want to be “Mr. Last Word-itis.” As I see it, we agree on what identity means, but disagree on its process of becoming, perhaps. I think the thing that is stable, and repeated, is nevertheless constituted by interruptions, in the manner, perhaps, of a baseball or football game.

      I also agree that we are talking about “deconstruction,” but I shy away from that term in all but intellectual-historical contexts because it means, as I see it, two different things: 1) an epistemological orientation (often adopted by adherents in an all-or-nothing fashion) and 2) a method of closely reading texts, used almost always in conjunction with other methods. I find the first version off-putting (and without any apparent advantages over old-fashioned Pierce/James/Dewey/Holmes pragmatism, which is the true philosophical home planet of Judith Butler, I think), and the second version useful, if conducted thoughtfully.

      As far as interruption as “heuristic”–the concept it would illustrate would be the discontinuous, aleatory, plastic, traumatic character of human experience in duration. As Brian Wilson once sang: “hang on to your ego!”

  6. Kurt – I was using “identity” to refer to the coherent, continuous individual and/or collective [similar to what’s constituted in Althusser by the hailing trope] that exists prior to, and that may resist but subsequently experience, interruption. You seemed to use the term that way when you spoke of “identity” being interrupted by a certain kind of relationality.” That might have been what led me to ask whether identity and interruption might be opposing principles, even mutually exclusive.

    But I should have been reading more closely, since twice you spoke of an identity “constituted” through interruption, albeit “stable and repeated,” as if interruption were a form of identity.

    I liked the example of a baseball or football game, which got me wondering: does constitution by interruption mean or include times of play, when the clock is running, punctuated by the other times when it’s stopped, which are also identifiably part of the game. Does it include the commercials, pre-game discussion, player warm-ups, instant replays, endless loops during and after, memories and conversations years later about the game, etc? What sorts of interruptions would not be part of an ongoing constitution, say, a bomb explodes and stops the game? Are there any that are truly outside, breaks, subversions, transformative events, or another or counter-game that transverses it? If all interruptions are by definition part of the game, there is no exit, and that’s a politics too. Finally, there’s the important distinction between “the” game and a/any particular game at a specific time and place, and which would be interruptive, the structure or the incident?

    I’ve enjoyed this exchange, and thanks.

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