Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

In Judith Butler’s “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” she unpacks another illusion for us: the difference between “seeing” and “reading.” We often think we’re doing the former, which suggests a neutral way of viewing an object, but more often than not, we “read” objects—that is, ascribe them with the culturally-sanctioned thoughts, values, and structures of feeling that we bring to the table. When it comes to race, what’s available for sight “within a racially saturated field of visibility” (205) is what has been made culturally legible by white systems of power. In other words, whiteness determines the visibility of other races, and the sanctioned visibility endorses structures that maintain white hegemony at the expense of oppressing non-whites.

Butler’s explanation of how we make race visible within a white framework reminded me of some work we’re doing in “Lesbian Immortal,” another (utterly fantastic!) course being offered in connection with Butler’s Flexner Lectureship. We recently read some of Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian, where Castle posits that history has repeatedly and continues to “ghost”—or make invisible—lesbians. Lesbians are continually assigned to the space of “the shadows . . . the margins, hidden from history, out of sight” (2) because lesbianism is culturally illegible in a heteronormative patriarchal time and place. Lesbians are made invisible through sanitizing history (Castle cites Eleanor Roosevelt as an example of such sanitization), and they are only made visible when it’s part of a larger project of denigration (for example, in the 18th century, political groups circulated propaganda about Marie Antoinette’s affairs with women—sexuality was made visible in a negative way to further a political attack).

While Castle’s polemic is exclusive to the figure of the lesbian, we can see how it’s part of larger projects of erasure: sexuality, gender, race, and class are all problematically “ghosted” in today’s world, fleshed only at moments determined by heterosexual, white bodies of a certain socioeconomic status when in the service of those same bodies. In Butler’s talk of visibility with race, I kept thinking of all the places where race (and both its parallels and intersections with sexuality, gender, and class) is (made) invisible. For example, this September 12th Washington Post article talks about the way minorities are invisible in STEM fields (or at least significantly less visible than whites). This finding is due in part to visibility issues with minorities in higher education—which may be because minorities aren’t visible in political spheres that determine education access, make laws, and allocate resources.  Compromised visibility begets even more compromised visibility. And the example of STEM fields is just one illustration, as there are many other sectors where these same projects of invisibilty occur. How do we render bodies visible in ways that don’t further white agendas? How do we resist the ways that society wants us to “read” bodies? How might we expand our field of visibility? When and how will we start acknowledging these ghosts and make them properly visible?

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