Socialities of Reading: Reflections on the 2022 Judith Butler ‘Deep Dive’

An annotated page from Judith Butler’s 2003 article, “Violence, Mourning, Politics”.

Image by Aiswarya Jayamohan


Aiswarya Jayamohan


I am often alone when I read Judith Butler. This is sometimes by necessity – I can get quite rambunctious in front of Bodies That Matter (1996). Book open, pen in hand: I read sentences out loud, mutter rebuttals, let out a hmm or an oh, of course, and scratch impassioned notes. This solitary journey may stagger over hours or months, but presumably it always concludes the same way: I shut my book with not quite a bang and look up, bleary-eyed, to find myself in an empty library corner or a café at closing time.

Fellow graduate students will be familiar with the process of reading I have just described. This is one that privileges interpretation as a heroic act – that is, of the individual and of individuation – or what Timothy Aubry refers to as the desire to consume the text by “getting it”: right, first, by oneself, and so on. So, I say, “This is what I think Butler means by ‘relationality’”, but my I I I threatens to elide relationality itself: my dependence on Butler’s interlocutors (favouring some over others); my turn to colleagues for insight on a paragraph; my own fraught association with Butler-the-writer. In this way, reading Butler, and reading in general, may frequently feel like a lonely affair, but it is not. I find now that few things are, given what Butler has called “the fundamental sociality of embodied life, the ways in which we are, from the start and by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own.”

The ‘fundamental sociality’ of reading became most visible to me at the inaugural ‘Deep Dive’, organised by Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Reading Group with support from GENDER.ED and CRITIQUE. This reading group, propelled by lectures and a syllabus by Dr. Moya Lloyd, allowed readers to collectively ‘dive’ into Butler’s work each week. Whether you were new to Butler or were specializing in their field, and whether the text of the week was a classic monograph or an overlooked interview, the group was a space for us to learn, together, how to swim with Butler’s ideas, contexts, methods, and objectives.

The experience was all the more productive for our differences. My peers – specialising in sociology and politics – mapped out Butlerian concepts in ways that nudged me beyond my purview as a literary scholar. The ‘Deep Dive’ thus offered me the chance to return to a text like Bodies That Matter not as a lonely interpreter, but as part of a multidisciplinary collective of readers. How, indeed, might we deploy Butler’s conceptualisation of the body (as less of a passive surface upon which gender or race is etched, and more of what emerges out of political processes of materialization) within discourses of reproductive health or disability rights? What does it mean to ‘recognise’ these bodies: politically, artistically, or within a qualitative research context? What does it mean to ‘mourn’ them, across cultures? What are the kinds of rituals we construct with one another within ‘the fundamental sociality of embodied life’?

I was delighted to find that literary analysis complemented, and further illuminated, these socio-political discussions. I observed, for instance, how “Violence, Mourning, Politics” (2003) is often invested in troubling how we narrativise life and death in the public sphere. The text demonstrates how certain genres of mourning (such as the obituary) can appear neutral, even reparative, yet perpetrate their own violences by hierarchizing lives worth remembering and grieving. I noticed, however, that such a politics of relation and narration – of how we tell stories, of and to each other – emerge just as urgently in “Violence…” through Butler’s own mode of storytelling. As the ‘Deep Dive’ made clear, Butler’s writing style in “Violence…” is one that has markedly evolved since Gender Trouble (1990), both accommodating and shaping an increasing preoccupation with relationality. During our week on “Violence…”, I therefore drew attention to moments in the text where Butler leans into a rather intimate form of address: “For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you”. This use of the second-person voice, I argued, produces a network of you and I and we in the text, underscoring both the relational process of reading “Violence…” and the relational process of mourning it describes (“What grief displays… is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain”). As such, this stylistic performance of relation is also, in a sense, performative. The intimate proximity engendered between Butler and their reader, through style, briefly enacts the un-recountable and the un-explainable: that “fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility” of mourning, reading, dying, living.

Butler’s interdisciplinary scholarship – intersecting philosophy, linguistics, gender and sexuality studies, and area studies – is thus at its most rewarding when approached through a range of critical vantage points. This year’s ‘Deep Dive’ has, no doubt, been proof of concept. Our weekly meetings transformed Butler’s works from texts in need of individual interpretation into sites of real dialogue between enthusiastic readers from across research backgrounds. I am excited to now carry with me, to my doctoral research and to my teaching, the ‘fundamental sociality’ of our reading.


This is the second in the series of blog posts inspired by the Judith Butler ‘Deep Dive’ organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Reading Group.

Author’s Bio:

Aiswarya Jayamohan is a PhD candidate in English literature. Their doctoral project attends to minor subjectivities in modernist literature by way of ‘bad’ relational forms: being rude, cold, precocious, or embarrassing. Their research and teaching interests span twentieth-century British literary cultures, gender and sexuality studies, and aesthetics. They tweet at @ajayamoh.