Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Whose University?

This week I attended two Flexner-sponsored events, beginning on Monday evening with the first of Butler’s three public lectures. Then, on Wednesday afternoon I attended “Preoccupations: Looking at Pictures with Judith Butler,” a colloquium presented by the Center for Visual Culture that consisted of a conversation between Butler and her former doctoral student, John Muse, who is currently a visiting professor and liaison for exhibitions at Haverford. These events compelled me to reflect on their institutional setting, Bryn Mawr College, both in terms of the physical environment—its idyllic campus—and historic identity—as a leading liberal arts college that has maintained its original mission of single-sex higher education.

Higher education was, in fact, a recurring theme during the “Preoccupations” colloquium. John Muse had selected four blogs to look at with Butler, including “We Are the 99%,” a popular Tumblr site that collects photographic and written testimonials from those frustrated with our economic system, which leaves so many struggling with mounting debts (often from student loans), home foreclosure, unemployment, and inadequate or no health insurance. Muse scrolled through the images, typically webcam self-portraits of half-obscured bodies holding up hand-written messages that describe their current economic situation. As Butler observed, the testimonial mode of address often shifted between an individual “I” to a collective “we,” indicative of the principle of solidarity that characterizes “We Are the 99%” and the Occupy movement on the whole. The entire time, I thought about what kind of practice we were engaged in: what does it mean to sit in this darkened lecture hall and look at this slideshow, while noshing on these complimentary refreshments?

In my last post, I suggested that the nationwide Occupy encampments have something in common with college campuses. While there are clearly some key differences between the two, namely, resources and institutional authority, I thought it might be productive to think about the kinds of alliances, relationships, and discourses that are supported and legitimized by these two different forms of “living together.”

But last night, these rather amorphous thoughts about solidarity with the 99%, higher education, and public space came into sharp focus as I watched this video of riot police viciously attacking a group of UC Berkeley students, faculty, and staff who were attempting to erect an Occupy camp on university grounds and occupy campus buildings. The confrontation occurred on Sproul Plaza, located at the center of campus and known as a headquarters for student activism ever since the Free Speech Movement’s famous sit-ins almost 50 years ago. Of course, UC Berkeley is also Judith Butler’s most recent and longest institutional “home,” her place of employment for the past 18 years.

It is important to remember that this horrific display of force was no accident. It was intentionally authorized by the University in order to reprimand those who dared to think that there could be real solidarity between the campus community and the Occupy movement, beyond the platitudinous administrative rhetoric. On the one hand, this incident is a brutal reminder of how institutional power responds to disobedient subjects, and of the real risks entailed in appearing in public, even on a famously “progressive” university campus. But moreover, it demands a response from us all, as participants and stakeholders in the institution and industry of higher education. What are we doing here?

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