Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

December 9, 2011
by Johanna Gosse
Comments Off on Occupy/Theory


In my last post, I put forth a few questions about what Butler’s formulation of ethical obligations and the right to appear could imply for a society in which large segments of the population are subject to constant surveillance. I wondered whether the possibility of a person’s or group’s “right to appear” exists in inverse proportion to their observability, but also, whether the proliferation of surveillance technologies could actually contribute to increased political, cultural, and economic transparency, and thus to a more open, accessible, and fully-realized democracy. If we do indeed live in a society of control (according to Foucault, Deleuze, et. al.), how can and do the principles, methods and mechanisms of control become available for subversive appropriation? Here, I’m following ethical philosopher Peter Singer, who recently proposed that the “inspection principle, universally applied, could also be the perfection of democracy, the device that allows us to know what our governments are really doing, that keeps tabs on corporate abuses, and that protects our individual freedoms just as it subjects our personal lives to public scrutiny.” (“Visible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2011) The hitch, Singer provocatively suggests, is that we must give up our attachment to privacy as an inalienable right (and, one might add, as a form of private property) in order for the democratizing potential of these new technologies of transparency to be fully realized. To me, Singer’s argument resonated with Butler’s discussion of precarity. If we consider privacy not as a “right” but as a property or condition, the attainability of which is possible only through its lack of availability to others, or, in short, its unequal distribution, then the “right to privacy” would appear to have less to do with specific individual claims than with deliberate and enforced structural inequalities. In this regard, the controversial issue of corporate personhood is a prime example of how the distinction between “rights” and “property” is an especially fraught one.

The “right to appear” versus the”right to privacy,” both relating to the question of visibility in the public and private spheres; the problematic nature of corporate personhood; the potentially democratizing effects of increased economic and political transparency; all of these issues are at the core of the Occupy movement, which has strategically used public visibility–through encampments, mass protests, social media networking, and other means–as a platform for pushing these issues into the “public eye.” It’s no surprise, then, that Judith Butler has consistently integrated the Occupy movement, as well as the ongoing revolutions across the Arab world, into her recent theoretical exploration of ethics, appearance, and alliance, just as she has brought her theoretical insights to bear upon the evolving dynamics of these movements. In this sense, her analysis moves both ways, her theorizing informing her activism and vice versa, as can be seen in her recent contribution to the magazine “Tidal,” published by the activist group “Occupy Theory.” Thus, I see no contradiction between Butler’s activities as an academic and as a political activist–rather, these roles appear utterly complementary and mutually reinforcing. In fact, this is what I find most inspiring about her current work. More than anything, I feel fortunate that her visit occurred at a moment characterized by new and unexpected political possibilities, which allowed the implications and urgency of her new work to become even more apparent.

December 8, 2011
by Mary Zaborskis
Comments Off on Academic Alliances

Academic Alliances

When I began this blogging journey back in July, I could not have anticipated how dynamic the conversations we’ve had in this digital realm would be. Looking over my own entries, it’s exciting to see the range of issues touched on: gay marriage, Occupy Wall Street, childhood sexuality, the Libyan conflict, cohabitation and women’s colleges, and cyber bullying, just to name a few. In my own conversations with Judith Butler over the course of her residency, I was able to talk with her about work on temporality and queer studies in my Lesbian Immortal course one day and another day get her perspective on Lady Gaga. (Some illuminating tidbits regarding the latter: “I’m glad she’s bringing 80s dance music back…the VMA performance was a problem…no, I don’t identify as a monster, but I like some of her lyrics.” See picture below as well.) Each of these issues explored in the blog or in discussion were examined through a lens offered by Judith Butler, which I think helps support this idea that some of my fellow bloggers have explored: activism and academics aren’t enemies, but are in alliance with one another. Strengthening these alliances can only enhance the work the both are capable of achieving.

After the Lady Gaga conversation, I asked Judith Butler to sign my t-shirt. This may or may not be my new favorite article of clothing.

Understanding this alliance has been an integral part of my work in English. Each class I’ve taken has been allied with theory, history, and critical lenses that have shown me how my work in English is practical, engaged with political issues, and has real world implications. Literature is a site where cultural work occurs, and I’m interested in how conceptualizations of gender, sexuality, and race are instantiated in literature. Throughout my major, I have been drawn to courses that are allied with gender and sexuality studies, and moving forward, I imagine myself seeing what other alliances can be built through examining unanticipated or underexplored intersections. The English department has already helped me understand why this work matters, and Butler’s visit has helped strengthen this understanding and has helped me become even more excited about my future academic work, as well as how this work can be utilized in realms beyond the academy.

December 8, 2011
by Elly Truitt
Comments Off on Fin


The past five months have been some of the most exciting I’ve had on Bryn Mawr’s campus. Judith Butler’s visit—the lectures, faculty seminars, classroom visits, screenings, receptions, lunches, and dinners—injected a sense of extraordinary anticipation and vibrancy into the campus community. I overheard groups of students buzzing with enthusiasm over Butler’s lectures, discussing her ideas and work with ease and expertise. That Butler’s visit coincided with the groundswell of the Occupy movement added to the urgency and timeliness of her lectures, and did so, I think, in a way that was appreciable to the undergraduates.

I am grateful that I’ve been able to be a part of this excitement and enthusiasm by writing the bi-weekly blog entries. The role of Flexner blogger has allowed me to be more invested and tuned-in to what has been going on on campus over the past semester. It’s also been a privilege to be a part of this virtual community of articulate and thoughtful bloggers. I’ve found myself challenged, stimulated, and entertained by my fellow bloggers and the commentariat. Thank you.

Lastly, I would like to thank Beth Shepherd-Rabadam, the Assistant Provost, for giving me this opportunity, and Tracy Kellmer, our fearless blog wrangler!

December 8, 2011
by Steph Herold
Comments Off on Rethinking Relationships Between Theory and Action

Rethinking Relationships Between Theory and Action

Over the last few months, I’ve struggled with how to reconcile the seemingly wide terrain between theory and activism. I’ve been frustrated by Judith Butler’s tendency to be overly verbose, her penchant for extremely hypothetical discussions, and the disconnection between her writing about marginalized groups and the social justice work necessary to create change by/for/with marginalized groups. Watching Butler tackle some of these issues on stage at Bryn Mawr was wonderful, but left me with more questions than answers.

Watching Butler in one breath both tell a hilarious joke and unravel complex ideas like precarity is humbling and also illuminating. I don’t know why I expected her to have all the answers, and she is more self-aware than I give her credit for. While she didn’t come out and say it, I got the sense that she knew that the folks occupying Zuccotti Park aren’t spending their time constructing and deconstructing the politics of their occupation. What Butler is doing, explaining these activists in academic-ese, is legitimizing Occupy Wall Street to those who speak and respect her language (those with power, or, in the language of the movement, the 1%). Is Butler on the streets every day occupying Wall St? No, but perhaps what she’s doing, making those in power pay attention, is equally as valuable to the movement.

There is a lot left to be done to make theory more accessible to those who can use it to further their activism. While Butler may not be specifically committed to this task, I don’t think that should discount her work from contributing to the lexicon of social justice activism. As much as Butler needs to think and rethink how her work contributes to advancing justice, those critical of her (myself included) need to think and rethink how we define activism, what we term “meaningful” activism, and who gets to participate in these activities. I’m so grateful to have had this time to think and process this, and look forward to seeing what Butler admirers and scholars do with her thoughtful engagement with the occupy movement.

December 8, 2011
by Sara Alcid
Comments Off on Judith Butler: A Superstar at Bryn Mawr

Judith Butler: A Superstar at Bryn Mawr

One Bryn Mawr student's artistic celebration of Judith Butler's lectureship. Photo taken by English professor Bethany Schneider outside of English House.



A flurry of extended excitement could be detected at Bryn Mawr from the moment Judith Butler’s Mary Flexner Lectureship was announced until many students had their parting words with the scholar at the book signing on November 21st.  I shared this excitement with my peers and think it is certainly a testament to the intellectual curiosity and passion that makes the Bryn Mawr student body so unique.  Learning never stops here; the dining hall is just as filled with academic chatter as the classroom.  This is one of the central reasons I chose to transfer to Bryn Mawr and one of the things that I will miss most when I graduate next week.  I look forward to the day that my Judith Butler themed Flexner Lectureship t-shirt is acknowledged and complimented outside the Bryn Mawr bubble and desperately hope that it is even a possibility.

Myself and Judith Butler

As one of the student coordinators and attendees of the “Coffee Hour with Judith Butler” and “Conversations with Judith Butler” dinner events, I was fortunate enough to witness the humorous and down-to-earth sides of the scholar we mostly associate with lofty theory and sharp intellect.  Interacting with Butler’s theory and critical analysis as a Flexner Book Club blogger posed an interesting contrast with conversations I had with her about Lady Gaga, fine dining in Philadelphia and her affinity for the Bryn Mawr gym.  She quelled the worries of skeptics like myself that her work is detached from grassroots activism and spoke at length about her personal involvement with a number of social justice movements to create a more livable set of lives.  In fact, she told me that remaining engaged with feminist theory will help fuel my activism and advocacy work; she sees academia and activism as collaborative and co-supportive.

At the beginning of her final lecture, she said: “It will change my thinking and writing that I have spent time here.”  And it is certainly safe to say that my journey as a Flexner Lecture Book Club blogger engaging with Butler’s work has changed my thinking, writing and approach to feminist activism.

December 8, 2011
by Medb McGearty
Comments Off on Theory and Practice: Friend or foe

Theory and Practice: Friend or foe

In completing my final exam for the semester, I began to think about how I wanted to end this series of posts. I read over past entries while contemplating the themes that Butler has raised in this lecture series. In my last post I addressed concerns of applying Butler’s theories to the populations that I have worked with during my social work education. My final exam highlighted some of Butler’s reccurring themes of precarity, visibility, and alliance through vignettes drawn from case examples of various populations and settings common to social work practice. In reviewing any case example, social workers derive conclusions regarding case formulation and intervention options by reviewing the client in the context of their socioeconomic status, gender identity, culture, ability, etc. We frequently use theory to inform our work.

I began to think back to Butler’s theory of the politics of visibility and social action, and the impact that visibility has on the populations I have worked with. A social work tenet is to address issues of social justice—setting the field apart from other mental health professions. The social justice component was the most important piece in my decision to pursue this career. Finding the intersection between Butler’s quite heady arguments and the lives of those whose experiences with precarity exclude them from participating in these very conversations can, at times, feel like a stretch. However, as she so aptly commented in one Monday lecture that often academics leave academia to go out in the world and impact change directly, but frequently find their way back to academia in search of theories to inform and support their work. I see that through my own application of theory to social work practice, I am better equipped to address the needs of my clients.

Attending this lecture series and participating in this blog has allowed me to fully appreciate the need to employ a multidisciplinary approach to social work. This experience has enriched my own work when considering my clients who experience various forms of precarity, and the ways in which I align myself with them across boundaries of class, race, religion, and gender.

December 8, 2011
by Jessica Lee
Comments Off on Unchosen Cohabitation in Real Life

Unchosen Cohabitation in Real Life

I’ve been mulling over Judith Butler’s ethics of cohabitation. Sorry to be such a social worker, but I’m having a hard time understanding how she envisions this cohabitation to emerge in terms practice and policy.

To revisit her exploration of Arendt’s work, Butler states that none of us has the prerogative to choose with whom to cohabitate the Earth. “Heterogeneity is an irreversible social condition.” We are bound in plural action, and without this plurality we have no freedom. I found her discussion of Arendt’s writings on Jewish and Palestinian refugees to be illuminating for my work with refugees resettling in Philadelphia. Arendt’s work emphasizes that refugee populations are continually created. Butler’s ethics of cohabitation thus suggests that the formation of refugee and stateless groups is avoidable. Butler and Arendt both believe that the establishment of a sanctuary for Jewish refugees was important, but Arendt argues that the founding of Israel on principles that restricted citizenship and depossessed land from another people was unethical. So where does Butler presume refugee groups are entitled to gain statehood?

To discuss the plight of Bhutanese refugees again, these individuals have been living in a liminal state for two decades after they were forced to become refugees in the 1980s. Residents of the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal have been classified into four groups: bona fide citizens; those who had surrendered their citizenship and would have to apply again; non-Bhutanese who would not be allowed to go back; and criminals, who would face trial if they returned to Bhutan. And so, many refugees are choosing to resettle elsewhere, and approximately 30,000 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the U.S.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s mission is to provide “people in need with critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society.” Refugees are given social security numbers, time-limited federally-funded resources, and are taught to assimilate into the American mainstream. But do refugees ever lose their status of statelessness when their only option is to assume that of a completely foreign context? What would the ethics of cohabitation look like applied to their real lives? Often, social workers are judged as lofty idealists, but the nature of our work forces us to be mindful of real life practice and limited resources. So, for now I conclude that Butler’s affirmation of interdependency is a beautiful utopian notion that can only exist in the theoretical.

December 8, 2011
by Vanessa Christman
Comments Off on What a long, strange trip it’s been

What a long, strange trip it’s been

First, there was the buildup. Then, Judith Butler was here! Now, she is gone. The College’s website bears witness to the actuality of her visit, but all those months of personal involvement with her appearance on campus now seem like a dream. And while at times, in the process of parsing Butler’s writing, it seemed like a nightmare, I’m glad I accepted the challenge of being one of the Flexner Lecture bloggers.

In preparing for my regularly scheduled blogs, I engaged with the most difficult pieces of writing I have encountered since taking philosophy courses in college. I think the writing was even more challenging for me than the political science textbook I studied from my junior year—in France. Struggling with a long passage in The Judith Butler Reader, I would often rant to the room around me, “Speak English!” and “Really? That’s a word??!”

It wasn’t just the difficulty. A small piece of my frustration stemmed from having been assigned certain chapters to read. Not since grad school had I been in that situation. While I was interested in Butler’s theories, I felt a little put upon. I have selected what I read for the last few decades, and it felt very odd to have my reading options decided for me.

The impact of Butler’s work is indisputable. Her writing has influenced the work of our office and guides us still: we have obligations to support individuals, to minimize their precarity and to endorse their visibility and right to appear. Butler additionally challenges us to not just support individuals, but also to encourage the formation of “queer” alliances.

Yet, it is not only I and my office that are impacted by Butler’s time on campus, but the whole community. The worth of the Flexner Lectures is partly in extending the influence of the chosen lecturer. While this has been the aim in years past, this year, with the blogs and with so much excitement surrounding Butler’s visit to campus, there was truly a feeling of broad impact.

So while the whole experience still seems a bit like a dream, I feel encouraged to know that Butler happened here. And that her visit is likely to have an ongoing impact on our community.

December 8, 2011
by Alexander Brey
Comments Off on A prescription for description? Some concluding thoughts…

A prescription for description? Some concluding thoughts…

The conclusion of my last post was totally dodgy, for which I apologize, but blogging is all about thinking in public so this time I’ll shoot for something slightly more articulate. I left off with this tantalizing and mildly idiotic gem: “I think maybe what I’m trying to suggest is that these unchosen alliances present us with a kind of post-ethical problem.” What does post-ethical even mean? Nothing, that’s what. So here’s take two.

At first I was a little thrown by Butler’s vocabulary. Did we really hear the same person who refused recognition in Berlin, who seems to carefully curate her alliances, advocate unchosen alliances? But here I think I was hearing “unchosen” in a different way than Butler intends it. Her use is limited to the fact that the world as it exists and is populated is unchosen by any one person or group, and no one has the right to deny existence to anyone else. The principle of equality implicitly emerges from this flat ontology of unchosen existence. We dip into beautiful Enlightenment political theory for a moment: No one has the right to deny rights unless the rights in question impinge on the rights of others. And then we fall out of grace.

What happens when competing ethical frameworks produce disagreement on the very question of what constitutes justice, harm, or a right? Butler has actually addressed this problem in her essay in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech (a fantastic, thought-provoking book that anyone interested in politics, religion, or representation should read) and it’s clear that there are no easy answers to a question that marks something akin to the shift from classical/Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics. We’re beginning to realize that justice behaves like both a wave and a particle, that injury is both dead and alive inside that box. Political theory is slowly shifting from a deterministic model to a probabilistic one. (For more on this check out The Immanent Frame)

Let’s take the recent elections in Egypt as an example. Theocratic political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party together received about 65% of the votes in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, a fact that has prompted musings on whether such political groups can or will actually do anything about the issues, largely economic, that prompted the revolution in the first place. In the days leading up to the elections, more pro-democracy oriented protesters reoccupied Tahrir Square in an attempt to call attention to the fact that the military has increased its already considerable power in the wake of the revolution. It’s easy to see how these groups have diverged, but it’s still hard to understand exactly what brought them together. Both of these groups were occupying Tahrir Square in an unchosen alliance (albeit a much higher level one than the fundamental human condition Butler discusses): they have quite different long-term goals for the country. One could argue that it was corruption in the Egyptian government that produced these unexpected allies, although I think multinational corporations and NGO’s played an equally, if not more, important role in producing a network of economic exchanges that both systematically excluded Egyptians and inspired them to seek admission to such networks at any cost. In this sense, the different groups that rallied to bring down Mubarak were actually responding to things bigger than Mubarak, perhaps bigger than they themselves could even perceive.

But it’s important to note that these larger institutions did not intend to produce a revolution in Egypt. Most were simply serving their own interests. Some were actually dependent on the status quo, fearful that any change in Egypt would have direct or indirect consequences for their ability to function (here I’m thinking of all of the diverse and sundry nations, corporations, and NGO’s invested in the Middle East peace process). As corporations are acquiring rights traditionally associated with individual subjects this all becomes so much more complicated. So I’m interested in how Butler’s intensely personal, one might even say individualistic, approach to an Ethics of Cohabitation could play out in the context of these corporate and non-governmental assemblages.

Finally I wonder about the place of Ethics in philosophy. Is it perhaps a fossil in an age when most approaches to the thoughtful consideration of human behavior have shifted from prescriptive to descriptive models? If conscious will is an illusion, could it all just be so much rationalization of our actions after the fact, and what do we gain from (or lose) with such rationalization?

December 2, 2011
by Medb McGearty
Comments Off on Musings on Mental Illness and the Ethics of Co-Habitation

Musings on Mental Illness and the Ethics of Co-Habitation

In Judith Butler’s final lecture “Towards an Ethics of Co-Habitation” she presented ideas of co-habitation and ethical responsibility to others.  In weaving the threads of her argument, she pointed out our interconnectivity as social beings who are now, more than ever, connected in more expansive networks which shape our involvement with one another.  For Butler, this reality raises the question, “to whom, then, are we bound?”

Through my social work training at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, I have had the opportunity to work with those who truly exist on the margins or, perhaps, even beyond the margins—those who are diagnosed as severely mentally ill.  I understand that there exist pejorative connotations to this title, but for the purposes of this post I am referring to those whose mental health diagnosis impacts their ability to function appropriately according to society’s standards, and who often are unable to care for themselves without the support of professionals.  This is a population that is not only disenfranchised, but has also become completely dependent on social institutions and their employees.

According to Butler’s lecture we are often implored by images of injustice and suffering in other places, which draw on an ethical obligation for engagement or support, however we can also distance ourselves from the very real problems that are happening in our communities.  People in other countries who are subjected to certain horrors of war, famine, and other forms of precarity may be more legible than the mentally ill.  How can people appear if they are not even “seen”?

The public often finds it difficult to share space with this population and finds them threatening in their unpredictability.  This is a population that despite their perceived limitations, have often found ways to navigate a complex health care system because there are few people that are, in Butler’s terms, “overwhelmed” and therefore “mobilized” to action on their behalf.  Social workers and their allies and colleagues are the few people that engage with this population and help to advocate for their needs and rights.  They are invisibilized, shunned, and excluded from society, and yet impacted daily by policy and dependent on a system of care that often fails them.

So, my question is where does this population factor into Butler’s argument?  I appreciate her presentation of Levinas’ principle that ethical relations are “symmetrical not reciprocal”, which is important to consider with regards to health care and the impact that managed care has had on our society.  According to Butler’s lecture, if we are bound to others by our sociality as humans, mustn’t we then all contribute to the better good or health of each other?