A Gender Theorist and a Drag Performer Walk into a Theater

Judith Butler and Monique Jenkinson at CounterPulse. Photo courtesy of Hope Mohr Dance

As audience members proceeded to their seats at CounterPulse on Friday, November 3, diamond-shaped lights ‘polka dotted’ the walls, ceiling and stage floor. They were reminiscent of reflections of a disco ball, only the ball had stopped turning and its projected lights were still. There was a small table, two chairs and water on the table, but they had been pushed aside, against a wall. Conjuring the ambiance of a club, the tone was set for a non-conventional format of discussion between theorist Judith Butler and performer Monique Jenkinson.

Projected in a loop, a video featured excerpts of Butler’s written work (from Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence; Gender Troubles: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity) and excerpts of Jenkinson/Fauxnique’s performances (Am I Square; The F Word; C*NT, or, The Horror of Nothing to See). Acting as a prologue to the performative conversation, the multi-media presentation alluded to intersections between the hosts’ background (academia and theory for Butler, dance and drag performance for Jenkinson). One quote from Butler -“Perhaps non-violence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief”- echoed Jenkinson’s feminist rage in C*NT. Another excerpt of Butler’s work evoked the destabilization of gender roles inherent to drag performances and the oppression intrinsic to patriarchal power structures, themes often explored in Jenkinson’s work. Additionally, Butler -who is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California Berkeley- has written extensively about performativity; And Jenkinson often incorporates theory in her work — C*NT referenced the writings of French feminist theorists Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray- to the point where Butler, questioning Jenkinson about her background, genuinely asked: “When did you become a theory queen?” Jenkinson beamed as she loudly whispered: “Judith Butler just called me a theory queen!”

After Hope Mohr’s introduction of the evening (which was part of Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project, dedicated this year to Radical Movements: Gender and Politics in Performance) Butler and Jenkinson entered the dance floor, and started their conversation dancing to Hercules & Love Affair’s song Blind. Jenkinson wore a silver sequin top, black harem pants and high heels; Butler wore black pants, shirt and sneakers. Jenkinson commented that a lot of conversations happen while dancing — thinking and moving connected- and announced: “We’re queering the conversation!” The audience cheered.

More connections between Butler and Jenkinson were drawn out. Jenkinson mentioned often being brought back to 2003 by people who remember her as the first woman to win the Miss Tranyshack Pageant (“Aren’t you the woman who…”). Similarly some can’t seem to get passed Judith Butler’s iconic Gender Trouble published in 1990. “People don’t realize that we’ve done a lot of work since then!” Jenkinson joked. (full disclosure: despite the title I gave this post, I do realize that Butler is much more than a ‘gender theorist’ and Jenkinson much more than a ‘drag performer’).

Both Butler and Jenkinson went to Bennington College, in Vermont — albeit at different times. Butler evoked classmate and friend Wendy Perron, now a long-time dance critic based in New York City. Butler recalled walking in West Soho together in the seventies, while she was a student and Perron was dancing for Trisha Brown and starting to write dance criticism. They would launch into impromptu performances: Pressing their hands and upper bodies against the window of a posh restaurant, they would slowly collapse to the floor. Butler recalled that none of the “bourgeois” patrons ever came out to ask if they were ok.

Butler, joined by Jenkinson, revisited these impromptu performances by collapsing against the wall, which prompted a conversation about falling, surrendering and the possibility of being held. “As a dancer you learn to surrender to gravity and it is empowering,” Jenkinson commented. Butler intervened: “It also changes our idea of performance. Performance is not always action.” Non-action and mere presence became radical when the performers literally “took a minute.” After asking audience member Cara Rose DeFabio to set her phone timer, Jenkinson stood center stage, her body slightly diagonal, looking straight. After a minute was over, Butler took her turn. It was a moment of incredible simplicity– two women occupying the space with their bodies, in stillness and silence. In the light of the current harassment and sexual abuse scandals, the space they occupied transcended the theater stage to become the larger political sphere — their silent exposure a powerful act of voicing both their vulnerability and strength and reclaiming a space that has been corrupted, violated or taken away for many.

It was somehow coincidental that Butler mentioned Perron because the dance critic was one of the curators of the recent exhibition and catalogue Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972, that explored the ways in which the work of these three dance makers created a radical rupture and influenced many artists from their generation and the following ones. The radicalism of these dance artists –and many others- in the 60s and 70s seems to be embodied in a refusal of conventions established by ballet and modern dance, a renunciation of some form of individual authorship to embrace collective agency, and a breaking down of dominant structures. In 2017, what constitutes a radical movement?

Dance writer Kate Mattingly’s review of Radical Bodies pointed to how defining a movement or an artist as ‘radical’ can perpetuate existing power structures. Mattingly quoted UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Tria Blu Wakpa: “If we position certain artists as ‘radical,’ where are the spaces for those who are intervening in ways that challenge the dominant order by calling attention to ongoing injustices and inequities? It is important to consider how archives can reproduce and reinforce hierarchies.” Mattingly argues that, in the context of the curation of Radical Bodies, identifying these three dance makers as ‘radical’ reinforced existing white Eurocentric power structures and did not acknowledge artists or movements with a radical practice that are not part of the dance canon: “Radical Bodies adds to a growing collection of research about three artists who are part of the dance history canon, who are frequently studied and written about, and who made significant projects during a time of intense changes in American cultures. I hope we can also examine those artists who are much lesser known, who are not acknowledged in our dance history textbooks, and who inspire us to look more deeply at the structures and criteria that decide who is “radical.”

Mattingly’s reflections served as a lens through which to appreciate Jenkinson and Butler’s dialogue, in particular the definition of ‘radical’ that transpired from their performative conversation. At the beginning of the piece, a video featured an excerpt from Butler’s chapter entitled Violence, Mourning, Politics which reminded of the interconnectivity between all beings:

“It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.”

Juxtaposing the interconnectivity that exists at the individual cellular/physical with the interconnectivity that exists within the larger body of society, Butler alluded to questions of precarity and vulnerability, and the absence of support systems for a growing number of people. Maybe in 2017 a radical body is one that bears the marks or acts for the bodies of those which have been denied a net of support by national and international policies that maintain dominant structures and discourses in pursuit of larger profit– the bodies of those who are dispossessed, in detention, separated from their community, or disfranchised.

Butler and Perron’s seemingly inconsequential performances — the “choreography of collapse” they performed in New York in the seventies- generated important questions in that regard: “Will someone catch you when you fall? Will there be a floor to receive you?” For Butler, these questions logically extended to the realm of policies — the pressing questions of health care a current example– and the realization that “we depend on all kinds of floors and grounds:” Literal floors for pedestrians and dancers alike; metaphorical floors or larger systems of support for all of humanity. The need and responsibility to support each other in a context of growing disparities and violence emerged both in discourse and action, when Jenkinson and Butler took turns holding each other’s head, an exercise of somatic connection that Jenkinson often teaches to students. Bringing up the question of “What is the radical body?” Jenkinson proposed: “One person’s radical is another’s ordinary.” Butler agreed and continued: “Maybe we can find the radical in the ordinary, and help each other persist.”