Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Are All Demands Allowed to Appear?

Judith Butler’s lecture, “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear,” this past Monday imagined the possibilities for futures that could become available when bodies gather in public and make demands, for implicit in such joining together are the demands for recognition and the right to live a more viable existence. These demands become necessary because we live in a political and economic system that fails to safeguard those bodies who face inequalities, injustices, and have been repeatedly denied the right to appear (or whose ability to appear has been mediated, limited, and/or determined by the dominant order). Furthermore, if rights are granted or demands met, they often come at a cost. Negotiations and concessions in the service of hegemonic power may need to be made, such as in states where trans rights can only be secured after the identification of trans has been pathologized.

Mine and Sara's view as we waited for the lecture to begin

Butler suggests that we don’t have to accept these conditions that grant rights to bodies while simultaneously doing violence to those same bodies. Building alliances across precarious groups may be a way to begin opening up alternative and more viable ways of existing within these systems by transforming the spheres in which we appear and the spaces we occupy. She posits that these alliances are not rooted in identities, but rather can come out of a similar experience of marginalization and precarity under certain social, economic, and political conditions. Appearing together in public spaces to make collective demands disrupts the dominant’s careful orchestration over who is allowed to be visible when and under what conditions.

The power, possibility, and potentiality in these alliances are undeniable. While listening to Butler, though, I was thinking about some concerns that are connected to issues I raised in my last entry. When bodies come together to make demands, we need to examine which demands appear, or more accurately, which do not appear. Who decides what to demand, and which demands get space? Do certain demands become privileged over others, effectively marginalizing or making impossible others? I am specifically thinking of issues like gay marriage, gay adoption, and the gays in the military—fighting for these rights draws attention away from and can even disallow the possibility to fight for other rights that would make more viable other ways of existing for persons within these marginalized groups (for example, forming relationships and/or kinship structures in a way that doesn’t involve marriage). True, the demand for gay marriage and the demand for recognition of alternative relationships that don’t involve marriage are both demands that come out of experiences of injustice and precarity. However, when demands are called to be specified, certain ones (are allowed to) appear more than others.

One of Butler’s points is that demands don’t need to be specified—bodies coming together and appearing is a demand in itself for recognition. However, these experiences of inequalities and these demands to change inequality can and do become concretely articulated, and I would like to put pressure on what plays out when articulation happens—I feel perhaps it’s at this moment when collective power can become fractured because not all demands are articulated or allowed to appear equally, which can perpetuate exclusion and injustices.

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