University News

Butler: Family matters not so matter-of-fact in ‘Bacchae’

Gender theorist unpacks Greek classic, kinship between ancient gods and modern mortals

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2014

“You can’t choose your family,” the saying goes. But kin relations are inevitably defined by participants and outside sources, said philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler in a Tuesday lecture entitled “Fallible Recognition: The Politics of Kinship in the Bacchae.”

Butler, a professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, was greeted by an overflowing crowd at the Granoff Center for the Performing Arts. Her talk, which focused on familial relations in the ancient Greek tragedy “The Bacchae” by Euripides, was preceded by a staged reading of the play at Leeds Theater.

Butler’s talk was this year’s edition of the annual Roger B. Henkle Memorial Lecture, which is sponsored by the Department of Modern Culture and Media, the Department of English and the Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Culture and Media Studies.

Butler delved into how kinship can be defined in various historical or mythological contexts. She described kinship as a way of organizing people generationally, based on reproduction, partriarchal lineages or freely chosen relations. Kinship is often defined as a binding, stable network of relationships, but this definition is defied by the relationships themselves, Butler said. The concept, she added, is haunted by “the possibility of faltering or fading.”

Butler said kinship is defined by recognition by its participants and society as a whole. In their dependence on acknowledgment, kin relations are fragile, as “recognition falters often,” she said.

While the primary subject of the talk was Euripides’s “Bacchae,” Butler also connected her lecture to her three great passions: queer theory, feminism and ethics. She pushed back against the feminist interpretation of the play that maintains that the Greek god Dionysus is a liberating force, noting that while the women of Thebes are freed from the dominion of their husbands and can indulge their sexual lust, they still have to obey Dionysus.

Contemporary perceptions of kinship are often rooted in heterosexual relationships, Butler said, but she added that shifting societal norms can create a space for the recognition of queer kinship.

Butler raised questions regarding categorical definitions and ethical dilemmas posed by the types of kinship networks featured in the play. Is order reestablished by limiting people to specific categories? Or “does order depend on traversals of gender, human, and animal?” For example, in the play, Agave, Pentheus’s mother, grieves at the mistaken murder of her son. But characters in the play do not seem to care as much about deaths outside of certain kinship networks, Butler said.

Butler’s hour-long speech was followed by a half-hour question-and-answer session in which audience members pointed out connections between the subject matter and contemporary life, bringing the topics of social media and friendship as well as the interplay between race and kinship systems into the discussion.

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