Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Being Human

Judith Butler’s inaugural lecture, “Gender Politics and the Right to Appear,” was a scorcher, covering the limitations of later capitalism, the politics of precarity, and the fundamental basis of democracy: the right to appear in public.

At the heart of Butler’s lecture was a set of questions around the definition of the human. If certain populations are denied the right to appear in public, to claim “we are here, we have a voice” then those populations do not, officially, exist. Assembling in public—even without articulating a coherent set of “demands” (as Butler rightly pointed out in rebuke to those who oppose the Occupy protesters on the grounds that they lack a set of bullet points) is a shared social right and a way of participating in democracy. To paraphrase Napoleon and Woody Allen, 80 percent of personhood is being able to just show up. Public assembly—even without chants or demands—is a powerful way of demanding justice.

Those who cannot appear in public are denied the right to do so because they are not subjects, or even human. Visibility, then, perhaps rather than performativity, is one of the crucial markers of the human.

I found Butler’s talk stimulating for my own research, which deals with medieval definitions of the human and life, and how manufactured objects in human or animal form—robots—were used as tools to puzzle over these definitions and boundaries between human and machine, and between life and non-life.

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