Reflections on Judith Butler and Kinship Trouble.

Last Wednesday I had the chance to travel to London for the 2017 Housman Lecture given by Professor Judith Butler, hosted by the Department of Greek and Latin, UCL.

For those not familiar with her work, Professor Butler is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work in Gender and Queer Theory, and has published much on these topics over the past three decades, as well as on psychoanalysis, power structures and identity politics.

The lecture was called “Kinship Trouble in The Bacchae”, a discussion of what we mean by “kinship”, how we form/break kinship bonds and, to keep in theme with the lecture series, how we can see these bonds and roles played out in Greek tragedy.

The lecture is available to stream (, and it is well worth watching if you get the chance, so I won’t repeat the content here, but there are a couple of things that, I think, are worth reflecting on.

Firstly, though it does not relate to the lecture directly itself, it was important the way in which Butler began by pointing out the fact that the lecture had been scheduled to be in a room with no disability access. There is a particular irony here, given Professor Butler’s lifelong work on bodies and how they affect identity politics, and the fact that she is a major influence on Disability Studies as a discipline. The room situation was not originally the case, but the university moved the lecture on account of so many people booking tickets. ‘Room for more people’ doesn’t seem to me, however, a good enough reason to deliberately exclude others based on accessibility, contravening the Equality Act 2010. The room we were in looked quite newly built (or at least newly redesigned), so one wonders why the room was designed without access for everyone in mind? Universities and institutions will use the excuse of old buildings and old designs as the reason why they are restricted in how they can design their rooms, but, in all the constant building work and redesigns that happen on campuses (and I think of our own Armstrong Building, which has been a building site for as long as I have been here), this excuse seems somewhat lacking. Butler explained that though the room was out of her control, she had made opportunities to meet with those who had been unable to attend, over the following few days. But this is certainly something we should probably all be thinking more about in planning and attending academic events.

The lecture itself was then a tour de force of Butler’s usual style of questioning norms and structures we presuppose to be in place by showing that, often, they are only retroactively seen to have been there when they are broken, or at least pushed to extremes. Kinship is more than just a biological, familial bond, a fact particularly prevalent in structures of ‘queer kinship’, but how far does it go, and why is it always necessarily so fragile? At what point does one become ‘kin’, and what effect does that have on the way we treat others? The lessons that Butler brought from Greek tragedy, particularly Euripides’ Bacchae, was that they make it evident we need laws about and knowledge of kinship, and kinship boundaries, in order to not commit violent acts against kin. But this opens a whole new set of questions, not least leaving us wondering if that, then, means it is okay to commit violent acts against non-kin; similarly, when we look at the number of domestic abuse cases, and the statistics of crimes committed by family members and loved ones upon each other, does knowledge of kinship really stop violent acts?

The title of the lecture was obviously referencing to Butler’s seminal first monograph, Gender Trouble (1990), and indeed the concept of kinship got the level of treatment given to the concept of gender in that earlier work. But what I found particularly interesting was the way Professor Butler brought the conclusions of these two lines of questioning. Gender Trouble has a feeling of dissatisfaction of the social structures that pervade and restrict certain people through enforcing conformation, and the lingering question of whether we really need them; “Kinship Trouble in the Bacchae” has a feeling of dissatisfaction at different social structures, but left the lingering question of whether we have a responsibility to operate and utilise those structures, extending the boundaries of “kin” to protect and help others on an immediate but also a global scale.

Chris Mowat,

And on that bombshell…

by Andrew Marriott (2nd year Archaeology PhD).

It’s difficult to proceed down PhD’s journey (what else is life these days?) without being reminded that the 21st-century scholar must make an impact. With my research, the North East’s First World War Trench Art, I should have something of a head-start. After all, there can be few events that have so profoundly affected the region, while the war’s centenary has placed events such as Ypres, Gallipoli and the Somme high in the public consciousness. Exploring one aspect of that conflict’s material culture (items used in the prosecution of war and now transformed into artistic souvenirs or agents of commemoration), is stimulating some novel investigative

A shell case in the Durham Light Infantry Museum. The cross and eagle had been incorrectly assessed as German. The piece was most likely owned by a British padre.
A shell case in the Durham Light Infantry Museum. The cross and eagle had been incorrectly assessed as German. The piece was most likely owned by a British padre.

approaches. My research is the first to be conducted through the interrogation of a detailed database of trench art which I am currently constructing. I am also applying an adapted form of an artefact-centred interview, a technique pioneered by Dr Jane Webster, Newcastle University. As I embark on my second year I thought I might share some issues around the idea of research impact.

Tilting at windmills or slaying dragons? The deeper we engage in scholarship the more we are entitled, indeed we have a duty, to challenge received wisdom in our particular academic discipline. Conflict studies in general, and the First World War in particular, is a land of windmills and dragons. In getting to grips with the context of my thesis, I am becoming increasingly aware of changing social agendas and the relativist interpretations of the Great War and its outcomes. Archaeologists love context. For a pot sherd recovered from a stratigraphic layer in a trench, context can be simple to establish. It’s a matter of understanding deposition processes and dating cues. However, my ‘trench’ is the war itself. Its context spans a century populated by academics, politicians, social scientists, poets and artists, all offering their own interpretations of war, its morals and dynamics. I see some of the war’s critique, especially that from the 1960’s, including Alan Clarke’s ‘Lions led by donkeys’, as a windmill and possibly no longer even deserving of a tilt. But what of the works of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, or more precisely, interpretations of their writing and how they have been deployed by those with a particular academic or cultural agenda? As I scan the horizon of my work I’m aware that I will need to navigate windmills and be wary of dragons. Why not find impact by slaying the more villainous?

Research suggests that these shell cases are associated with the engagement or marriage of a soldier on the Western Front and his fiancé who worked in a munitions factory in the North of England.
Research suggests that these shell cases are associated with the engagement or marriage of a soldier on the Western Front and his fiancé who worked in a munitions factory in the North of England.

Who wants impact anyway? It is a sad indictment of our times that our society is often careless of its heritage. I am working with a range of museums, libraries, local authorities, charities and community groups, indeed the Beamish Museum is a strategic partner. These bodies are essential in allowing me to establish a critical mass regarding my research data. They will also be important in disseminating my findings, allowing them to be of wider scholarly and social benefit. And yet, even now, one of my key sources, the Durham Light Infantry Museum, is threatened with closure. They need our impact if they are to survive.

And, as a counter to second-year stasis, I am very fortunate in the motivation I can gain from social engagement during research. As well as developing outreach activities, I have already been able, through examination of family-owned pieces of trench art, to establish more secure narratives concerning ancestors who fought in the war and, in one case, resolve for his descendant, the fate and final resting place of one veteran.

As we approach the century of the Battle of the Somme, I already sense a degree of First World War fatigue in some media and public organisations. As the subject’s novelty loses some traction, I see an opportunity to establish a more long-term and academically-founded interest in the material culture of the war and how successive generations approach it through its artefacts.

If you are aware of any trench art in the region that retains a family biography, I would be delighted to hear from you. Details can be found here.