Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Ask, Tell, Applaud

I spent the last week in a program comprised of participants from the Class of 2015 and sophomore, junior, and senior student facilitators. The program, Dimensions of Diversity, featured workshops on religion, race, country of origin, gender, and sexuality. With the important contributions of guest presenters, my colleagues and I created a space for exploration, revelation, and affirmation.

So it’s a little hard, just days later, to go back to concepts like melancholia shaping identity, to ideas like “what is exteriorized or performed can only be understood by reference to what is barred from performance, what cannot or will not be performed” (253). I have just been in a room where people wept openly and nodded understandingly, and where hugs and applause welcomed the sharing of personal experience. The theory that “[t]he prohibition on homosexuality preempts the process of grief and prompts a melancholic identification which effectively turns homosexual desire back upon itself” (252) seems a little distant at the moment.

Our program included participants from multiple cultures—some in which there is never any talk of such topics, others in which there are more ways of articulating them than we have in the US. So while theory seems too removed from what we created in Dimensions of Diversity, I can at least appreciate its role in providing a foundation for our work together. It was good to have an historical and theoretical framework, so that we could have a common understanding of where our discussions of diversity and identity were coming from.

Still, I am, at the moment, acutely aware of where these students are. Last July, while they were choosing roommates and tackling summer reading assignments, President Obama, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs certified that performing gay and lesbian identities would not harm military readiness. Less than a month after the Class of 2015 arrived on campus, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell went into effect. With one of the last legal barriers to performing sexuality removed, it feels odd to return to the 1990s, when Butler published “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification.”

And it’s even odder to sit with Freud’s theories of a hundred years ago. How does the Freudian logic Butler examines on page 248 (a girl transferring love from her father to a substitute after first renouncing her love for her mother) play out when a member of the Class of 2015 chooses being genderqueer over being the “girl” in the construct? When a student has two mothers? Or when a freshman’s father is gay?

I know it’s important to acknowledge Butler’s groundbreaking theories. I do respect how she got us here. I guess I’m just thankful that when one of the Dimensions of Diversity participants borrows shrugs and shawls from his women friends when he’s cold, and when they look wonderful on him, that it just is. And—while we bring the theory with us and recognize the struggle that was and that continues—I’m grateful that my work is to create spaces in which our stories and identities are celebrated with hugs and applause.

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