Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Health Care and the Production of Precarity

Judith Butler’s earlier work is often criticized for being too far removed from lived realities and not grounded in any sort of social activism.  From the first glimpse I had of Butler’s Bodies in Alliance lecture series this Monday, I would say that Butler is certainly answering this call for her theories to take a deeper root in lived social struggles.

Butler’s lecture this past Monday, Gender Politics and the Right to Appear, touched on concrete issues of health care, housing, militarism, animal rights, and kinship.   I am particularly interested in connecting a few of Butler’s main points in order to examine the role of our current health care system in producing and maintaining the precaritizing cruelties of neoliberal “morality”.

Butler illuminated the possibility within health care system to support “a more livable set of lives,” and the dire nature of its current existence, which is being contested at this time by those “amassing together in public” as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  This dire nature is one that has produced and upheld the fact that some populations are considered disposable.  Furthermore, the cloistered accessibility of health care, produced by the neoliberal market ethic, works to dispose of disposable populations.  To illustrate this, Butler reminded us of the horrifying moment in which the Tea Party implied that “those who have a serious illness and cannot pay for health insurance would simply have to die.”

Butler’s attention to gender politics and the right to appear highlighted the underlying crux of the health care system’s role in carrying out structural violence, being that today, sexuality, health and precarity are closely bound up in each other.  The emergence of medicine as a capitalist profession and enterprise necessitated the medicalization of human sexuality, one of many institutionalized measures that has been taken to “climatize” those identifying with marginal sexualities to an existence of precariousness.  This existence of precariousness is produced by framing those who engage in certain sexual practices as a type of social criminal, Butler suggests.  This criminalization removes these populations from being “eligible for recognition” in the eyes of the state and its social “services.”

Butler spoke of the fact that trans people often have to pass through a process of medical pathologization to “recognize their desire.”  This is an illustration of the way that the health care system and medicalization typically operate in a way that precaritizes those that rupture norms of gender and sexuality.  This precaritization is coupled with a diminished right to appear in a public sphere free of violence, both structural and physical.

As someone interested in pursuing a career and higher education in public health, at the end of the lecture I asked Dr. Butler a question about bridging academic and grassroots efforts to bring an end to the disposability and precarity of certain populations.  I asked: “How do you suggest that those of us involved in the academic realm of feminist and queer theory best support some of the struggles of precarity that we do not necessarily experience ourselves?”  Butler responded that our politics do not necessarily have to be based in our personal experiences and that displacing oneself from a position of privilege can be done through a commitment to a larger social alliance—a larger “we.”  She went on to suggest that being dedicated to social equality entails a displacement from one’s own experience as part of an ethical and political position that brings attention to the necessity for the larger “we” to have access to a “livable set of lives.”