Thinking through Violence

In Monday’s lecture, Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, Butler characterized the financial crisis as an actively-waged neo-liberal war against democracy and the ethics of social interdependency that are inherent to it. This is what gives the notion of alliance its political power—pursuing alliances and recognizing already-existing alliances with others is a method for combating neo-liberal economic imperatives that aim to divide and conquer. Butler was keen to point out that all subjects already contain internal alliances, and that the act of alliance is latent at the level of subject formation itself. In her words, “the ‘I’ is already an assemblage,” of identifications, desires, languages, sexualities, beliefs, discourses, etc. Accordingly, “queer” refers not to any particular kind of sexual or gender identity, to a way or state of being or an “identitarian ontology,”  but instead to certain forms of internally- and externally-negotiated alliances. By containing a complex array of diverse, competing, and changing constituencies, the subject is thus always already a political entity, both singular and plural, much in the same manner as “we the people.”

Butler went on to pose a critique of Hannah Arendt’s political theory, focusing on Arendt’s formulation of the public and private spheres, which traces a genealogy of these concepts back to the Ancient Greek polis. Fellow bloggers have done a good job of summarizing the stakes of Butler’s critique, so I won’t rehearse them here. Importantly, though, she was keen to connect her argument to the explosion of mass protests sweeping the world, from Tahrir Square to Oakland. Of course, just a few hours later, Mayor Bloomberg sent in a militarized NYPD squad to violently evict the Occupiers from Zuccotti Park. This returns us to the fundamental problem of violence, a topic which Arendt tackled extensively and I hope Butler will expand upon in her next talk on the ethics of co-habitation. Are we to believe, with Arendt, that violence is not a manifestation of power, but instead signals its lack? Is non-violence an appropriate response to state-sanctioned police violence, like that perpetrated at Zuccotti Park early Tuesday morning? When Butler briefly addressed these questions, she characterized non-violence as a kind of “counter-performativity,” a refusal to act that disrupts and resists the established terms of political confrontation, citing the Tahrir Square protestors’ chant of “peaceful” as they marched through the streets under threat of police retaliation. As Occupy Philly faces its own impending eviction from Dilworth Plaza, the political, ethical, and philosophical implications of violence are increasingly urgent questions, ones that I hope Butler’s remarks will address next week.

Where and When Else Can be in Alliance?

This past Monday, Judith Butler discussed how coming together, occupying, and creating public spaces opens up possibilities because it allows bodies to enact the rights that they’re demanding but being denied. In this sense, alliances are acting outside of established temporalities because they’re performing rights that have yet to be (and perhaps never will be) codified into law, opening up a new time for these performative acts; one way to term that temporality is the time of interval. Butler employed the word queer to describe these alliances in public spaces, locating queerness not within the identities of those bodies allying, but in the joining, or perhaps more accurately, the product of that joining itself. This queerness is what produces political space; alliances are constituted by the spaces between people, and public spaces emerge from the gaps between bodies in alliance.

Butler’s terminology, particularly her emphasis on words like “between,” “interval,” and “gap,” interested me in light of work that we’re doing in  Lesbian Immortal, a course I’m taking in the English Department. The course comes out of a shift in queer scholarship, which has turned from locating queerness in subjects to focusing on queerness across temporalities and geographies. Butler discusses “bodies in alliance” and suggests how these bodies in alliance produce alternative times—the interval—and alternate spaces—the gap, and thus public space itself. The body still seems central in these alliances. It makes me wonder if we can expand who, what, and when can forge alliances—what other possibilities might open up if we also talk about “times in alliance” or “geographies in alliance?” How might alliances between times and spaces imagine and foreclose futures for the signs under which they’re allying?

I think that much political action and protest already utilizes temporal and geographical alliances (although perhaps some more consciously than others). History will often be mobilized to help present political action. For example, in the weeks leading up to outbreak of the Libyan Civil War last February, protesters demanding democracy restored the Libyan flag that was used before Qaddafi came into power, allying themselves with Libya at this time (despite the fact that Libya then was a monarchy with a poor standard of living). Alliances with time can mobilize political action and reconfigure understandings of the very time with which an alliance is being formed. Thinking about the potentiality of geographical alliances, I am reminded of a concept used in political science called the contagion effect, which is the phenomenon that political outbreaks in one place often spur outbreaks in a nearby location. For example, The Arab Spring is understood as a collective set of protests, but the protests have been country specific and began at different times. Why protests began occurring at the same time could be a result of the contagion effect, which seems to point to these alliances that can formed based on geography.

Butler talks about the hypertransposability of public spaces, and I wonder if the alliances themselves are hypertransposable, able to form among more than bodies, and what this reconceptualization of the possibilities of alliances could (or couldn’t) produce.

Bodies Traveling through Space and Time

Butler’s lecture this week Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street coupled with the news of Occupy evictions lead me back to a panel discussion I recently attended on website usability and designing for social change (much of which I, admittedly, barely understood).  I, who becomes wary at the mention of the Internet coupled with the words social change due to the removed nature of certain Internet-level relationships, found myself becoming more open-minded as I realized that my cut-and-paste-DIY-mail-art-riot-grrrl days of photocopiers and mixed-tapes intersected with the virtual anarchy of networks and representation on the Internet.  The day of the discussion, I sat in a room of people invested in connecting people of various interests in more meaningful and effective ways.  In my days of toiling away with rubber cement and typewriters when zines were used as a form of communication among those with a certain socio-political agenda, careful time was taken to clearly convey oneself and one’s ideas to others who may not know you.  Zines and letters were sent through the mail, sometimes taking a week to arrive at its destination, that spoke not only of the writer’s beliefs and personal lives, but also of events that had taken place days, weeks, or months prior to its being read.  With this in mind, how do we think about time and space with respect to the Internet and “politics of the street”?

I awoke the morning after Monday’s lecture to find posts on Facebook mentioning the police mobilization early Tuesday morning to evict protestors at the Occupy encampment in New York City.  Attached to a friend’s announcement of the eviction was a petition as well as a link to a live stream news feed that ran 24-hours a day (http://www.livestream.com/occupynyc) which, as some may know, also includes a live stream of commentary.  My mind swirled with themes from the lecture of the night before as I looked at these posts and listened to NPR’s reporting of the event.

Butler’s lecture addressed issues of public space, political action, rights, and visibility, among others.  I began to think about Butler’s use of Hannah Arendt’s theory that the space in between bodies is where “the action happens” or the politics.  However, through use of the Internet, this space becomes foreshortened or doubled exponentially due to both its instantaneous nature and its vastness.  So, how do we begin to think about bodies in alliance with respect to representation on the Internet as these spaces in between bodies collapse and fold in on each other while simultaneously expanding and changing as they are in Butler’s words both “here” and “there”?  I found myself on the Internet with multiple windows open on my browser and the radio playing in the background—receiving a variety of media portrayals of the event coming from numerous sources in concert.

My attention was drawn to how the public square was invoked in the use of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in New York City or City Hall, here, in Philadelphia.  As I watched images of these bodies being abused during their eviction, I kept thinking “I’m here but they are there” as I sit here and somewhat voyeuristically observe their action and their placement of their bodies in precarity as political actors in public space.   I thought about this experience in relationship to what Butler referred to as the “lived perspective of the body and the perspective placed on the body that the body is not aware of”.  I felt a connection to these bodies located in a different space and a different time experienced through their projection.  Along the lines of Butler’s argument, it is not only the bodies that are being projected but also the public square that becomes reinterpreted and reused both physically and metaphorically while reconfigured in its projection.  It is difficult to be aware of how one is experiencing what one is seeing when it is so immediate and plural in its representation.  How does the Internet become, in effect, another “street” on which political action takes place?

Public Square

Judith Butler’s discussion of Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “space of appearance” is incredibly timely with the movements happening around the world this year, and with Occupy Wall Street protestors being forced out of Zuccotti Park on Tuesday morning.

In her second lecture, Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, Judith Butler articulates that the “public square” is now hypertransposable because of media.  She suggests that as events travel, “the local will have to be established in a circuitry that is not local”— rogue media and private media have allowed the public square to become global.  Her lecture prompted me to revisit photographs that I took in Plaça de Catalunya while I was in Barcelona this past June.

These photographs are private media, but my capturing these images of a reconfigured public square allowed me to experience Plaça de Catalunya as a “refunctioned” political platform.  Indeed Plaça de Catalunya this summer was a very different space from that which I’ve experienced in years past.

The protest in Barcelona was part of nationwide protests in Spain this year over high unemployment and other social problems.  The space of appearance captured in Plaça de Catalunya is arguably the same as that of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States.  Certainly media allowed global alliances to travel vast distances.

Hannah Arendt describes the space of appearance as fragile, as it is “potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever” (Arendt, The Human Condition).  Butler’s stance appears to be that hypertransposability (via media) lessens this fragility.

Though Plaça de Catalunya was cleared later in the summer, the political space still exists virtually and has been reenacted in other countries.  Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park were evicted this week and are now prohibited from bringing tents and generators, but Butler suggests that the space of appearance has been made resilient.

In Defense of Anarchy

Photograph by: Ramy Raoof

On Monday Judith Butler presented what might be the most eloquent defense of anarchism that I’ve ever heard. Butler’s argument is grounded in the fact that in every political entity in existence today, there exists a disparity between the claims of universality upon which the legitimacy of the political order is founded, and the exemption of individuals from certain (or even all) rights within said political entity. The moment at which these individuals claim rights that have been denied to them is effectively a moment of anarchism: it is the moment and space of instability within which a new order is constituted, one that fundamentally, if perhaps only temporarily, denies the legitimacy of the larger political order. This is incredibly liberating — it’s the space of possibility through which we can effect political change that would be otherwise unthinkable. It’s also an opportunity for disaster — the only order that governs individuals within this space is ethical in nature. Butler hinted at the importance of self-restraint within this space when she lauded protesters in Tahrir Square for their deliberate resistance to the magnetic pull of militarism, and she suggested that we might further explore the ways in which resisting force requires force not against the other but within the self.

When Foucault wrote in his preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus that the book might justifiably have been titled an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life, he identified what has been the most important point in their work for me: that ethics today can be distilled down to the struggle against “the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” This seems to be exactly what Butler is cautioning us against when she emphasizes the importance of self-restraint within the space of anarchy that has recently become crucial to the revision of the political.

But then we have to step back and really think about ethics. For much of recorded history, people have looked to religion for the ethical frameworks that fill in the gaps left by (or deliberately produced against) the political. While secularism has gained momentum since the Enlightenment, atheism is still suspect, and it’s important to recognize that those who turn to philosophers like Butler and Deleuze for an ethical framework are massively outnumbered by those who have never heard of them. On one level this is fine, because an ethics of self-mastery has been advocated by almost every major world religion. On another level its incredibly problematic because most adherents of these religions do not or cannot take this ethical imperative at face value. I’m left wondering how inhabitants of such anarchic spaces cultivate this self-mastery, because what’s amazing is that sometimes, against all odds, they do. Part of this may be structural: if I’m denied rights I’m likely to be more sensitive to cases in which others are denied rights, even those in which I myself am participating in such a denial. That said, it can’t all be structural, otherwise every protest would blur together with every other protest in one huge non-violent coalition and this is, sadly (or perhaps merely practically), not the case.

Media, Technology, and Street Activism

I was pleasantly surprised to see the end of Judith Butler’s second lecture, “Bodies in Alliance & the Politics of the Street” take a turn toward an exploration of the role that modern technologies play in the politics of the street.  The topic of technology blossomed out of Butler’s consideration of the media’s role in the hyper-transposability of the Occupy movement.  “The street scenes become politically potent only when and if we have a visual and audible version of the scene communicated in live time or shortly thereafter so that the media does not merely report the scene but is part of the scene and action,” Butler asserted.  Thus, the media plays a key role in transmitting the images and sounds of the street beyond the locality in which they take place.  Movements gain momentum in the spacial and temporal transposability that is enabled by the media.  Butler acknowledged that the media can engage in the censorship of what kinds of images and sounds are set into travel and can just as easily oppose this censorship.  This is where the importance of personal, hand-held devices comes into play in limiting the censorship of the politics of the street and the bodies allied there.  Butler went on to say that the activation of technological devices becomes “part of the bodily action of the social movement.”

I think that Butler’s claims about the important role played by media and the technology-enabled global reach of street politics is complicated by the assertion that much of this technology is bound up in the neo-liberal profit ethic that the Occupy movement and other social movements are working to destabilize.  Butler did say she was not claiming that global media is ethically sound, but it is hard to reconcile the roots that camera phones and social media platforms have in both neo-liberalism and social movements that oppose systems of neo-liberalism.  The hand-held recording devices that Butler references, presumably camera phones and digital cameras, are products of neo-liberal multinational corporations, yet a politics opposed to neo-liberalism moves through this technology to gain political potency.  An illustration of this troubling dichotomy lies in the fact that AT&T and Verizon Wireless financially support the political leadership of the Tea Party.  Is the use of “neo-liberal products” to undermine neo-liberal “morality” an act of subversion and systematic erosion from within? Or is it a possible loophole in Butler’s argument?

How to be in alliance with each other

This week Butler asked one question that really resonated with me: what does it mean to ally with one another? Live with one another? This is a question that any movement has to wrestle with over and over again to evaluate if and how it’s serving the needs of the entire community.

As someone who’s active in the reproductive justice movement, I can’t help but make connections to intra-movement conversations taking place over the last two decades. There is a broad sense that the pro-choice movement, active since the 1960s and 1970s, has fought mostly for the rights of white, middle class, cis-gender women to have access to birth control and abortion. To put it in Butler’s terms, the pro-choice movement was not in alliance with the needs of all people, particularly communities of color, queer and gender non-conforming people, and poor people. The birth of the reproductive justice framework in the early 1990s, conceived by and for women of color, was a radical departure from the notion of “choice,” instead claiming that people (specifically, communities of color) must be empowered politically, socially, and economically in order to make decisions about when, if, and how to parent.

The reproductive justice framework changed the conversation, but it did not end the race and class tensions within the pro-choice and reproductive justice movements (and the feminist movement in general). One clear example is what happened when racist, anti-abortion billboards were erected in Georgia. Instead of all pro-choice and reproductive justice-related groups rising up to fight these billboards together, the burden was on women of color-led activists groups to fight to get these posters taken down. Very little support (that I know of) came from better funded, larger organizations, which could have helped exponentially. The absence of these more well-known groups in the fight specifically for Black women’s reproductive rights spoke volumes.

This is a lesson in how not to be in alliance with each other. Butler also noted that it is the duty of the franchised, more powerful group to refuse the terms of engagement if all groups are not granted human rights and social justice. If we are to truly be in alliance with each other, it may mean making bold and sometimes uncomfortable sacrifices of our own privilege in order to fight for a just society for all people.

Who is eligible to appear in activist circles?

I was thrilled to listen as Judith Butler discussed the Occupy movement during her first lecture at Bryn Mawr. To see her wax philosophical about the importance and profundity of this movement comforted me in that she continuously blurs the line between activism and academia, theory and action. She asked, which people are eligible for recognition within the sphere of appearance? I want to break that down a bit and ask who, exactly, is occupying wall street? What allows them to be there? Who isn’t being heard in this movement?

You don’t have to search very hard to find articles about problems of the Occupy movement, and not just from the right wing. Challenges come in all forms: racism, sexual assault, sexism, anti-semitism, and more. I don’t think Butler was holding up the Occupy movement as perfect, but it’s important to examine the facts. I was surprised to learn that according to some polling done on the OWS protestors here in New York, 33% are unemployed or underemployed (twice the national rate) and only 56% of them voted in 2008. Some say they are majority white and middle class (hence the uprising of Occupy the Hood), some say they are displacing the homeless people who were sleeping in parks before them.

Activism is a luxury. There’s no doubt that it’s easier to take up a cause when you don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck or not having a meal on the table for your kids. How do the Occupy Wall Street protests fit into this? Who is getting policed in their communities? Butler emphasized that they are in the streets demanding to be valued, demanding to have a livable life. But in doing so, are they creating another kind of disposable class of people—those who aren’t able to voice their concerns at an occupy protest?

Whose University?

This week I attended two Flexner-sponsored events, beginning on Monday evening with the first of Butler’s three public lectures. Then, on Wednesday afternoon I attended “Preoccupations: Looking at Pictures with Judith Butler,” a colloquium presented by the Center for Visual Culture that consisted of a conversation between Butler and her former doctoral student, John Muse, who is currently a visiting professor and liaison for exhibitions at Haverford. These events compelled me to reflect on their institutional setting, Bryn Mawr College, both in terms of the physical environment—its idyllic campus—and historic identity—as a leading liberal arts college that has maintained its original mission of single-sex higher education.

Higher education was, in fact, a recurring theme during the “Preoccupations” colloquium. John Muse had selected four blogs to look at with Butler, including “We Are the 99%,” a popular Tumblr site that collects photographic and written testimonials from those frustrated with our economic system, which leaves so many struggling with mounting debts (often from student loans), home foreclosure, unemployment, and inadequate or no health insurance. Muse scrolled through the images, typically webcam self-portraits of half-obscured bodies holding up hand-written messages that describe their current economic situation. As Butler observed, the testimonial mode of address often shifted between an individual “I” to a collective “we,” indicative of the principle of solidarity that characterizes “We Are the 99%” and the Occupy movement on the whole. The entire time, I thought about what kind of practice we were engaged in: what does it mean to sit in this darkened lecture hall and look at this slideshow, while noshing on these complimentary refreshments?

In my last post, I suggested that the nationwide Occupy encampments have something in common with college campuses. While there are clearly some key differences between the two, namely, resources and institutional authority, I thought it might be productive to think about the kinds of alliances, relationships, and discourses that are supported and legitimized by these two different forms of “living together.”

But last night, these rather amorphous thoughts about solidarity with the 99%, higher education, and public space came into sharp focus as I watched this video of riot police viciously attacking a group of UC Berkeley students, faculty, and staff who were attempting to erect an Occupy camp on university grounds and occupy campus buildings. The confrontation occurred on Sproul Plaza, located at the center of campus and known as a headquarters for student activism ever since the Free Speech Movement’s famous sit-ins almost 50 years ago. Of course, UC Berkeley is also Judith Butler’s most recent and longest institutional “home,” her place of employment for the past 18 years.

It is important to remember that this horrific display of force was no accident. It was intentionally authorized by the University in order to reprimand those who dared to think that there could be real solidarity between the campus community and the Occupy movement, beyond the platitudinous administrative rhetoric. On the one hand, this incident is a brutal reminder of how institutional power responds to disobedient subjects, and of the real risks entailed in appearing in public, even on a famously “progressive” university campus. But moreover, it demands a response from us all, as participants and stakeholders in the institution and industry of higher education. What are we doing here?

He, She, They, and the Silver Screen

In Monday’s lecture entitled Gender Politics, Alliance, and the Right to Appear, Judith Butler raised the question of who is recognizable and “what is read as non-gendered or genderless”?  She also discussed the politics of representation and the right to appear as being “shared” and “socially constructed”.  In declaring the very presence of gender, we also signify what is legible and therefore legitimate.  When we read gender we subsequently draw the perimeters around how gender is allowed to exist and identify itself.  What are the boundaries of the body when read as gendered?

During Monday’s lecture, I was reminded of an article that I read in the New York Times this summer entitled “When They Play Women, It’s Not Just An Act” by Erik Piepenberg (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/movies/new-roles-for-transgender-performers.html) that discusses transgender actors playing the roles of transgender characters in films.  The article looks at the casting for the film Gun Hill Road in which Harmony Santana, a transgender actor, plays the role of a transgender teenager.  I read the article shortly after watching Transamerica with Felicity Huffman who plays a pre-operative transgender woman who discovers that she has fathered a son. This film was mentioned in the article as an example of the tradition of portraying transgender experiences by having male or female actors play transgender roles.  In this article, the actor Lavern Cox said that she has trouble being cast in transgender roles because she’s been told that she is “too feminine”.  Her experience points to the assumption that transgender identity must be “read” in order for it to be legitimized through the act of being seen in the public sphere.  If the formally identified fixed markers of gender become illegible, blurring the lines that define socially constructed legibility, the power of reading gender fades.

Butler also discussed “modes of embodiment” in her lecture.  When I consider this term with regards to gender representations and performativity in film, I am forced to think about what enters into the sphere of the recognizable, and then how do exclusionary considerations of what will be read as legitimate by others become the very markers of authenticity.  Therefore, the implication is that in knowing that Felicity Huffman is a woman playing a transgender woman we consider it to be a legitimate representation and is celebrated by the public whereas, if Laverne Cox does not “read” as a transgender woman but instead as the woman that she is, she is unable to be cast in a similar role.

Note: The use of the word “actor” is used as gender neutral.