Sunday 21 March, 2021


Jacques-Alain Miller: My dear Éric Marty, I thought I would start with a little ‘speech’ [in English in the original]. Your book, I received it last Wednesday with a dedication that I could not decipher, I leafed through it for twenty minutes, and I thought of Marx’s sentence in The Holy Family about the reception by his contemporaries of the Essay on Human Understanding by John Locke, on which I did my dissertation in philosophy with Canguilhem: “It was welcomed enthusiastically, like a long-awaited guest.”[2]

I have been missing your book. It is something that I’ve come to realise since it first came out. Without knowing it, I had been hoping for it. And first of all because I have never looked into Butler’s work, in which Zizek, who was then my pupil in Paris, had tried to interest me, ever since the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990. A number of analysts, inside and outside of the École de la Cause freudienne, have since explored the maze of gender theory, not me.

However, this theory is now a worldwide phenomenon. You start your book with an emphatic phrase: “Gender is the last great ideological message from the West to the rest of the world”. The tone is “romantic”, to use one of Butler’s favourite —but in her eyes stigmatizing— words.

Is your sentence excessive? It is in any case indisputable that the ideas promulgated by the sectators of ‘gender’ have, to put it in the words of Chairman Mao, penetrated the masses and become a material force. These ideas are now de rigeur in the United States, they influence the evolution of social mores in all so-called advanced democracies, they inspire the legislation of several countries, including Argentina, where the influence of Lacan is so marked in intellectual life. In Europe, a law similar to the Argentine law is currently being discussed in Spain. Disciples of gender are active in France and had their richest days when Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was Minister of Education.

I am thinking of that sentence by Foucault that you quote on page 389, in which he confides his hope of producing “real effects on our present history”.[3] Well, this is what Judith Butler has done. I say, “Hats off!” And even, why not: “Well dug, old mole!”[4]

I had been put off from the start by the fact that Butler uses Lacan’s vocabulary over and over again, quite shamelessly and in a way that is decidedly wacky. You tell me that it isn’t. Her use, misuse, of the terms she borrows from Lacan and many others, amounts to a veritable method, a method of “disfigurement” duly claimed, which consists in appropriating concepts to divert them from their initial meaning in order to use them for other purposes. You quote it on page 74: “We actively misappropriate the term for other purposes”.[5] It is a utilitarian gesture that is not without grandeur, nor without cheek. Americans use a Yiddish word, Chutzpah. Butler does not exercise it only on Lacan, but on Derrida, Bourdieu, Foucault and tutti quanti. You say, the more conceptual a term is, the more she seeks to capture and exploit it, hence an attitude towards theorists that you qualify as predatory, see page 77. Through her many works you follow her trail, tracking the re-uses, displacements, diversions, divagations, mutations, reconfigurations, and project a harsh light on her modus operandi, always ingenious and imaginative, if sometimes muddled and confused. You thus engage in a meticulous “deconstruction”, to use Derrida’s famous word, of gender theory, a deconstruction respectful of its intricacies, but harshly critical of its inconsistencies. While this ideology readily arouses sarcasm and rejection out of hand among conservatives, reactionaries and supporters of common sense, you study it, you calmly unfold it in all its complexity, show its paradoxes and point out its theoretical dead ends, so that when I read you, I thought of Spinoza’s famous maxim[6] commented on by Nietzsche[7]: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.[8] You have laboured not to ridicule, lament or execrate gender theory, but to understand it and make it understood. Finally, in places, a sense of irony breaks through.

Of course, we must surrender to the word, if not to the concept of gender. It would not have this echo, it would not have become for many both a slogan and a self-evident fact, if it were not in sympathy, harmony, and did not resonate with what is shaping the present moment of our civilization, with its “discontents”, to use Freud’s term, or, as Lacan put it, with “what progresses in the depths of taste.”[9]

No, “gender theory” is not a conspiracy, it is not a sham, it says something very profound about our world today, about our modernity or postmodernity. It is all the more fascinating to see, by reading you, that these ideas, which today are triumphant, arise from an astonishing theoretical bricolage in unstable equilibrium, in which paralogism vies with fantasy.

There are those who will say that you explode the construction of the concept of gender without the possibility of return. Some, including myself, will nonetheless appreciate the power of the undertaking. Judith Butler was able to impose gender “almost universally as an unsurpassable signifier”, page 487, she is inventive, and she rectifies her conclusions without hesitation, until finally evacuating them sicut palea, like dung, the word Thomas Aquinas uses at the end of his life, as recalled by Lacan.

In fact, you have taught me that Butler was crowned Queen of Gender in 1994 by the person who could have been her rival, Gayle Rubin, whom you present on page 38 as “anthropologist, queer activist, lesbian and great friend of Michel Foucault with whom she shares the same taste for S/M”. But, the preceding year, Butler had reproached herself for having made gender “‘the identificatory site of political mobilizations at the expense of race or sexuality or class or geopolitical positioning/displacement’”[10] or equally “to the detriment of ‘subalterns’ a new alternative category created by Gayatri Spivak”. Intersectional thinking, which privileges race, has since taken, you write page 365, an almost hegemonic place for Butler. It seems that, for her, gender lasted barely longer than roses last, before wilting.

At the same time, you make it understood that gender theory has something like a chaotic destiny, which forbids it from ever settling into something fixed, leading it to diversify and fragment without respite, so that its intellectual and militant field seems ravaged by a war of all against all. This is also the time to remember that the name “gender theory” results from a forcing, since those who work in the discipline disqualify it. For them, it stems from a unitary, authoritarian, hegemonic conception of intellectual activity, which they abominate, preferring to devote themselves to the shimmering, abundant, lawless multiplicity of studies [English in the original]. The One is dead, long live the Multiple! Gender does not recognize any Queen. In a certain way, as one could certainly develop, this dynamic corresponds to this logic known as the “not-all” that Lacan came to formulate as specific to the feminine position, and which today holds sway everywhere in civilization, at least in ours.

This bias of the Multiple-without-One makes the field of gender studies a labyrinth, or rather a maze, a jungle, and I got lost in it, or rather, I wouldn’t even have considered entering it, if you had not taken me by the hand, like Virgil. My Butler will be that of Eric Marty until further notice. I hope your book will be translated in the United States, I will be curious to see how the interested party reacts to your work, and also her brothers and sisters in arms. Will you be given a homage, or the femmage, for a well-argued position in a controversy?

However, your book is not just a sensational deconstruction of gender according to Judith Butler. It also offers what at present amounts to an unparalleled overview, at least to my knowledge, of a remarkable slice of the intellectual life of France in the second half of the last century. Everyone at the time was talking about structuralism, whether it was to vilify it or pretend to go beyond it. You especially shed light on the intellectual crossover between Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, on their complicity and their quarrels, muffled or explosive. It was a very intense and fruitful period if we compare it to the lifelessness of intellectual exchanges today, which poorly masks an agitation of mediocre quality, which last week made smart media observer, Eugénie Bastié, a journalist for Le Figaro, say “our public debate is characterized by relativism (to each his own truth) and intolerance (my truth cannot be disputed)”.[11] It’s very ‘gender’, this situation.

In the course of your deconstruction of gender, you make these four big names come back many times in a scholarly intertwining, which sometimes turns into entanglement. I would like to take each of these names with you one by one, if you don’t mind.

And finally, there is Lacan. He inspires Butler, whose work he cannot have known, since he died in 1981. He is very present for our four Greats, he inspired them too, and he himself read them, spurred them on and took account of what they wrote. But your book shows just how different he was from the Quartet. At least, I don’t see any trace in him of this “thinking the neuter” [pensée du Neutre] that you detect in the four others in order to oppose it to gender theory.

In any case, after 1968, when Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, without forgetting Foucault, undertook to kick psychoanalysis out of fashion, to make it obsolete and, to put it bluntly ruin it in the public mind, Lacan threw a net over them, a shirt of Nessus, which he called “the discourse of the University”, from which he sharply distinguished “the discourse of the Analyst”. And there was a parting of the waters. Among the Lacanians, we stopped reading “the academics”. And these moved further and further away from their old companionship with the psychoanalyst who had kept them all so busy.

There you go, I’m done. It’s a big book, so rich, so thick, 500 pages, a fresco, a carnival, with its procession of castrati and transvestites, sado-masochists and pseudo-schizos, both US festival and French Pride parade. It’s a breath-taking conceptual epic. In short, a work that, I wager, will remain in the mind for a long time to come.


Translated by Philip Dravers



Translator’s Notes:

[1] Le sexe des Modernes. Pensée du Neutre et théorie du genre [The Sex of Moderns. Thinking the Neuter and Gender Theory], Seuil, Fiction & Co Collection, March 2021. This is an excerpt of the interview originally published on March 29th 2021 in Lacan Quotidien n° 927

[2] Karl Marx, “The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Reason (1844)”, in Marx on Religion, ed. John Raines, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2002), p.104.

[3] Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits, 1964–1988, Ed. Daniel Defert et Francois Ewald avec Jacques Legrange, 4 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), vol 4, pp.40-41. Published in English as “Truth is in the Future”, in Foucault Live: Interviews 1966-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989, p. 301.

[4] An expression used by Karl Marx in The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, after Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Well said, old mole! Canst work i’th’earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!” (I.v. 169-170) Hamlet’s words to his father’s ghost also find echo in Hegel’s Lessons in the History of Philosophy, where the aside, “You have worked well, good mole”, reflect the work of the ‘Spirit’ in the ‘subsoil’ of history.

[5] From Judith Butler’s book Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, (Taylor & Francis, 1997), p. 139 (reissued by Routledge in 2021): “Although the psychoanalytical use of foreclosure is richly complicated I propose that we actively misappropriate the term for other purposes, transpose its proper meaning into an improper one, for the task of rethinking the way in which censorship acts as a “productive” form of power.”

[6] Benedict de Spinoza, A Political Treatise, trans. Robert Elwes, (…) p. 4.

[7] Fredrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Science, trans. R. K. Hill (London: Penguin, 2018), p. 210.

[8] The full sentence “Sedulo curavi, humanas actiones non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” is rendered in this mid-C19th translation as: “I have laboured carefully not to mock, lament or execrate, but to understand human actions”.

[9] Cf. Jacques Lacan, “Kant with Sade”, Écrits, (London/New York: Norton, 2006), p. 465.

[10] Marty quoting directly from Butler’s Bodies that Matter, (New York/London: Routledge, 1993), p. 116.

[11] Eugénie Bastié, “Il n’y a plus de dialogue possible entre les partis idéologiques opposés”, interview given to L’Éxpress (18/3/2021) about her book, La guerre des idées. Enquête au coeur de l’intelligentsia française, Paris, Robert Laffont, 2021.