Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler


Reviewing my fellow bloggers’ posts from last week, I saw that I wasn’t alone in noticing the coincidence between Judith Butler’s Bryn Mawr residency and the emergence (or rather, eruption) of the Occupy movement. A number of our posts included a link to the video of Butler addressing a group of protestors gathered in Washington Square, in which she expressed her solidarity with the movement in no uncertain terms. Butler’s participation in the protests seems to have produced some ambivalence, particularly evident in Vanessa’s and Sara’s posts, over what we might call the pragmatic value of her work, and academic work in general, especially when it comes to grassroots activism like the Occupy movement.

This movement reflects a groundswell of mainstream opposition to corporate capitalism. While it was initially framed as a protest against Wall Street greed and corruption, the longevity and intensity of the countrywide Occupations suggests an even deeper-rooted dissatisfaction with the global economic system. Though it has been criticized on all sides for its supposed lack of stated goals, political demands, coherent rhetoric or cohesive structure, it could be argued that these qualities have contributed to the movement’s ongoing success. Yet, how might the work of a theorist as politically and rhetorically consistent and intellectually demanding as Judith Butler contribute to our understanding of this nascent movement, with its as-yet unarticulated aims and aura of energetic though hazy idealism?

As a student of art history, I’m compelled to look at phenomena in terms of form vs. content. Since the political “content” of the movement is still unfolding, I’m reticent to try to capture it in words and thus risk foreclosing on unanticipated possible outcomes. More readily observable is the movement’s “form”: the physical presence of encampments that have taken shape in cities across the country. Makeshift yet often highly organized, many sites, including Occupy Philadelphia, offer basic services like warm meals, potable water, medicine, sanitation, and free libraries. They experiment with organized communal living and exercise direct democracy through open general assemblies. By physically occupying “the commons,” the protestors perform a radical domestication of the public sphere, establishing a hybridized public/private space not unlike that of a college campus.

The collective disenchantment with financial institutions currently fueling the Occupy movement was prompted by the home foreclosure epidemic. In this sense, the fact that the protests take the form of temporary residential communities could be considered a logical (though certainly quasi-utopian) outgrowth of the economic crisis and its domestic fallout. To me, this incursion of the private sphere into public visibility constitutes the movement’s most radical tactic. It also recalls the efforts of earlier mass movements—namely, Women’s Liberation—to politicize domestic space and labor, in part by demanding public visibility. Thinking historically helps us to see the intrinsic connections between economic, racial, and gender-based oppression, but I think that it also demands that we re-consider and exert pressure on the established terms of political discourse and resistance, much in the same manner that Butler insists upon challenging the hegemonic terms of equal rights and assimilation in “Competing Universalities.” If, with Butler, “we demand the impossible,” we must first begin by thinking the impossible, and then inventing a new language to describe it.

Under the auspices of the month-long Flexner Lectureship, we’re being offered a crash-course in Butler’s ideas via public lectures, related programming (like the event next Wednesday at 12:30PM that this post borrows its name from) and ancillary endeavors like this blog. Following Vanessa, I hope that we can also use this opportunity to spark a campus-wide conversation about the College’s role in fostering dialogue, inclusivity, and the creation of safe and comfortable spaces, not just on-campus, but also farther afield—including at City Hall.

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