Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Theoretical rock star or torch-passing prophet?

As at the circus
There is excitement, glee, and,
Of course, performance.

What a thrill to enter Goodhart Hall for the first Flexner lecture last Monday evening. I had been reading and blogging in almost total isolation for a few months, but on Monday, hundreds of people were gathered around me, all focused on Judith Butler. Those unable to gain access to Goodhart watched a live simulcast of the lecture in another venue. Bodies, many bodies, were together to hear “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear.”

Although I admire Butler and have dwelt in her (written) company of late, I felt a little like an imposter as I took my seat in the theatre among so many of her faithful. But here’s the strange thing that happened: as the lights dimmed, the glee did too. The identity and relationship performance(s) around me became invisible in the dark. With nametag-bearing staff standing solemnly in the aisles, the audience was enjoined to refrain from texting and photography. And as President Jane McAuliffe introduced Butler in carefully modulated sentences, the excitement in the room seemed to diminish. C’mon—this was rock star Judith Butler! Where was the music? How about a follow spot as she made her way to the podium?

Polite applause greeted our guest. The faithful and I, alike, were subdued. Those of us who wanted to take notes (our smart phones now forbidden) scribbled pitifully in the dark next to the bodies who were now invisible to us. And as Butler shared her thoughts over the next hour, the most boisterous thing that happened was a few people chuckling at some aside made from the podium. Where were the outbursts of applause? Until the rousing Anassa Kata at the end, all remained very, very civilized.

That’s not all bad: I don’t favor anarchy. But I was surprised and a little confused by the formal tone. I was also a little confused about what I heard. I was expecting, per the information on the Flexner site, that “Butler’s first public lecture and faculty seminar will consider Hannah Arendt’s views on the “space of appearance” that is necessary for political action” and that the lecture would present thoughts about the right to appear of “transgender and religious minorities.” I would have welcomed Butler’s in-depth consideration of these topics, which have ramifications for the Bryn Mawr community.

I can understand the desire to enfold new information of great import—how could Butler not have included references to the Occupy movement? But I feel she leapt repeatedly to the general concept of livable lives (which I embrace and admire), as well as the tension between performativity and precarity, and I would have liked more specific guidance, albeit theoretical, on the right to appear as sexual, gender, and religious minorities. While Butler referenced the work of Arendt and Elisabeth Badinter, I wish she’d lingered there, giving us more time to understand (and, likely, challenge much of) the historical and global perspectives of their work.

Although I was restless and a little perplexed, I still found much to inspire. Writing in the dark, I copied phrase after phrase, underscoring and starring them: “We are still here; we are not disposable,” “Alliances. . . among groups who otherwise do not find much in common,” “This more radical we,” and “Who I am is linked fundamentally to others.”

Perhaps, after all, this hushed environment was the best in which to have Butler put forward her newest thoughts on appearance, assembly, and alliances. The multitudes, listening and scribbling. The great theorist on the stage, light shining from her head. It was less like the rock concert I’d envisioned and more like watching a spiritual leader calling her faithful together to impart her final message. The theory has been written, the sermons delivered. It was as if Butler were saying, “I have paved the way; I have opened the door for you. Now, you will have to continue on together.”



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