Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

The only position for women in the movement is ‘prone’

The title of this post refers to an infamous 1964 statement by Stokely Carmichael on the role of women in the civil rights movement. Since Carmichael was known to be supportive of women activists, it could be regarded as tongue-in-cheek, a bad joke taken out of context. But intentions aside, his statement is still considered emblematic of the entrenched misogyny of 1960s activist movements, which prompted the feminist critiques of the New Left that would later develop into the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s.

Carmichael’s oft-cited quote came to mind when I came across a blog entitled Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street, which claims to capture “The Sexy Side of Protesting Corruption.” Defenders of the site claim that it publicizes the Occupy movement and attracts would-be activists with the prospect of encountering “hot” women, and in any case, that the photographs are respectful and admiring. Besides the flawed, casuistic logic of its defense, the lingering issue of consent, and the potential that it could actually alienate women from the movement, this blog and the ensuing debate around it raise some important questions about public visibility, politics, gender, and the body—all major themes in the work of Judith Butler, particularly in her upcoming Flexner lecture series.

In fact, in Butler’s stirring address to protestors gathered in Washington Square this past Sunday (transcribed below), she explicitly attends to the question of the body—as a political, desiring, interdependent, even vulnerable entity: “It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public. As bodies we suffer, we require food and shelter, and as bodies we require one another in dependency and desire. So this is a politics of the public body, the requirements of the body, its movement and its force.”

If the Occupy movement is largely concerned with establishing political visibility by populating public spaces together with our bodies, then what does it mean to explicitly frame the protests, as does “Hot Chicks of OWS,” in terms of a heterosexual scopic economy? I’d argue that the women pictured on the site are understood primarily as sexual objects instead of as political subjects—and that this “eye candy” angle risks designating them as cheerleaders for a movement of which they are not true constituents. At the same time, I’m wondering how we might funnel this desire to see and to physically encounter others, this erotic dimension of political action, into alternative forms of social relationality that could potentially counterbalance the atomization and fictional sense of connectivity enabled by social media. As Butler reminds us, “we require one another in dependency and desire,” we are bound by mutual obligation, and in this sense we are all vulnerable and all experience varying degrees of “precarity,” to use one of her preferred terms.

I think that the dynamics of the Occupy movement bring this essential interdependence that Butler describes into stark relief. To have solidarity is to insist on standing together, to demand that no one be allowed or required to remain “prone.” The necessity of solidarity is one of the major ethical and strategic lessons of past political movements, and, I suspect that it also underpins Butler’s understanding of the connections between gender, precarity, and political power. Therefore, I’m especially thrilled that the opportunity to critically engage with Butler’s work, as afforded by the Flexner lectures, happens to coincide with such an historic political moment, one brimming with possibility, hope, and togetherness. In future posts I’ll attempt to bring Butler’s current work to bear on the emerging movement, in hopes that examining theory and practice together will prove mutually illuminating.

My transcription of Judith Butler’s speech at Washington Square, 10/23/11

“Hello everybody. I’m Judith Butler. I’ve come here to lend my support and offer my solidarity for this unprecedented display of popular and democratic will. People have asked: so what are the demands that all these people are making. Either they say, “there are no demands,” and that leaves your critics confused. Or they say that demands for social equality, that demands for economic justice, are impossible demands. And impossible demands are just not practical. But we disagree. If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible. If the right to shelter, food, and employment are impossible demands, then we demand the impossible. If it is impossible to demand that those who profit from the depression redistribute their wealth and cease their greed then yes, we demand the impossible. Of course the list of our demands is long. These are demands for which there can be no arbitration. We object to he monopolization of wealth, we object to making working populations disposable, we object to the privatization of education, we believe that education must be a public good and a public value. We oppose the expanding numbers of the poor, we rage against the banks that push people from their homes, and the lack of health care for unfathomable numbers. We object to economic racism, and call for its end. It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public. As bodies we suffer, we require food and shelter, and as bodies we require one another in dependency and desire. So this is a politics of the public body, the requirements of the body, its movement and its force. We would not be here if electoral politics were representing the will of the people. We sit and stand and move as the popular will, the one that electoral politics has forgotten and abandoned. But we are here time and again, persisting, enacting the phrase ‘we the people.’”

3 Comments

  1. My first instinct is to historicize – which leads to some weird places. Can we see a similar thing happening in the French revolution? When the leaders of your movement are not normatively attractive (see: Danton, or Robespierre), it seems to be an easy rebrand to use “hot chicks” in your propagandart. Allegory is less trendy these days, so we only get the lingering perfume of Lady Liberty and Lady Justice as we click through the blog.

  2. But perhaps the political force of Delacroix’s Liberty is actually contained by its allegorical character? She’s certainly a fierce image, the woman at the barricades “leading” the people, with her bare breasts signifying (re)productive rather than erotic power. Though, the comparison isn’t exactly fair–“Hot Chicks” is more like broadsheet cartoon than history painting. Something for us art historians to puzzle out. But above all, I think this kind of comparison points to the lack of dignity and gravitas in the photographs–and makes me wonder where to look for our own history painting.

  3. So this is a response to Johanna’s observation of criticism of the Occupy movement for “its supposed lack of stated goals, political demands, coherent rhetoric or cohesive structure” and then her question asking “how might the work of a theorist as politically and rhetorically consistent and intellectually demanding as Judith Butler contribute to our understanding of this nascent movement, with its as-yet unarticulated aims and aura of energetic though hazy idealism?”

    Butler answered this question in effect during Tuesday’s Flexner Faculty Seminar and here is what I gathered from this very helpful discussion. Occupy’s lack of a clear demand or precise goals and its geographic dispersal has led some to equate the movement to rioting. Butler wonders what it is then that distinguishes well-organized assembly from not well-organized assembly. Although what we have here is not a traditional union-based or goal-oriented protest, Occupy enacts the Constitutional phrase “We the People” to rail against the economic system accelerating the current untenable condition—the condition of the rich becoming fewer and richer, and the poor becoming greater in number and poorer. How, Butler asks, would we itemize or enumerate as a list of precise and discrete demands our protest against this irreducible condition? We are not railing against a set of subjective positions, but the character of the current system. Inasmuch as “we demand the impossible,” the conditions of our economic life as they stand currently are also already fundamentally impossible. As one Bryn Mawr faculty member aptly articulated, the criticism against Occupy is a “demand for a demand,” and as such presumes a separate authority with the power to bestow what is demanded. In order to circumvent the ratification of such a separate authority which is by nature the very regime we aim to disrupt, in order to repeal any reinstatement of power to those being petitioned to grant that demand, we denounce without itemizing. In the end what Occupy makes evident through enactment of “We the People” is not the feature that places the ninety-nine in opposition to the one. In their fanatic obsession with self-securitization via the accrual of wealth, the one-percent has managed only to demonstrate overwhelmingly the charge which the ninety-nine percent has leveled from the beginning—that (in Butler’s words) you are precarious, too.