Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Butler vs. Reality

When I was a senior at Bryn Mawr, my sister was a freshman at Columbia University. I was jaded, ready to get out of academia, and even moved off campus and got a full-time job by the middle of my senior year. I was sick of theoretical discussions that had very little to do with the reality I lived and worked in—at the time, as a counselor at an abortion clinic. I wanted to stop arguing about literature and remain firmly in the real world, where I dealt every day with women who could barely afford a legal medical procedure.

Did my patients care about gender theory? For the most part, no. When you don’t even have money to feed your own children, you don’t spend your time analyzing Hegelian Spirit and desire.

My sister claimed her women and gender studies major and immediately challenged me. While I shrugged off theory (yes, including Judith Butler) as ivory tower pretentiousness totally divorced from reality, she embraced it, saying that my activism could be informed by theory, even deepened by it. We had heated debates about poverty, gender, and social justice, and slowly but surely she convinced me, a little bit anyway, that theory had some stock in making social justice more meaningful.

Reading this week’s Butler essay on Hegel took me right back to where I was before these discussions. I haven’t studied Hegel and found myself turning to Wikipedia and Google more than I’d like to admit. I became more and more frustrated with every sentence. I felt like my 21-year-old self, writing in the margins, “what?!” after a whole paragraph of what might as well have been written in hieroglyphics.

And then I called my sister. She talked me through my frustration and told me that sometimes it takes a professor, an expert, to help you make the connection from theory to reality. She also pointed out that this particular essay is part of Butler’s dissertation, written specifically for an academic audience familiar with the canon of German and French philosophers.

My question to my co-bloggers is this: Is there a way for us to read Butler outside the canon, in a way that meaningfully connects with our own non-academic lives?

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