Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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Genealogy

When I was taking Judith Butler's course back in 1993, I had the daunting task of giving the first in-class presentation. I went to see her in office hours -- a rarity in my scholarly existence -- and followed the instructions she gave me to the letter. In the hours before class I went to the reading room in Doe Library and inhaled line after line of Foucault until I'd achieved one of the best intellectual highs of my life. I was sure I was on to something. By the time I got to the presentation itself, however, I was coming down fast and far less certain of my ideas' brilliance. The fact that the course included a number of graduate students whose nose was perpetually in the air didn't help.

Still, I soldiered on. And Butler seemed pleased. But she also said something that has haunted me ever since. "You completely ignored the concept of genealogy." True, I had. Even though my topic was Foucault's approach to modern history, I had skirted the whole issue of the relationship between genealogy and historiography. I had a reason, too. Although I had been reading Foucault for several years and had a pretty good handle on the distinction between his early, middle, and late work, I had always thought that his favored terms "genealogy" and "archaeology" were too nebulous to be much help.

Butler's comment changed all that, at least where genealogy was concerned. From that point on, I embarked on a quest to figure out why someone as smart as her would see the idea of genealogy as the key to unlocking Foucault's work. I read his references to the term over and over. I read the Nietzsche texts that inspired him. I even spent time researching the sort of genealogy that results in family trees in the hope that it would provide me clues to the significance of the theoretical definition. At the end of all that labor, however, I was only half-pleased with my understanding of the term.

And that remained the case until today, when I revisited the introduction to Butler's landmark 1990 book Gender Trouble. There it was, like a lightning bolt from a bright blue sky: the most compelling description of genealogy that I'd ever encountered:
A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin.(viii-ix)
All of a sudden, my favorite passage from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals about the doer and the deed was revealed to be the foundation for genealogical critique as Butler understands it. What is more, the bit about "multiple and diffuse points of origin" puts into prose as clear as a mountain stream the diagram I taught myself to draw for students when they asked me about genealogy, in which each step back leads to a greater number of sources. For the past decade, I have explained that genealogy seeks to show how the positing of any one origin, in the face of so many possibilities, is an arbitrary act of will. That's not exactly what Butler is arguing, but her account dovetails beautifully with the one I've invested so much energy in constructing. Best of all, I read this passage in Kim's copy of Gender Trouble, where it was duly underlined -- I don't underline my books anymore -- and the recipient of a "This is particularly important" checkmark as well. There's nothing better than discovering that the rose-petal strewn path to illumination has been trod already by one's partner for life.
Tags: autobiography, theory
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