Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Armchair Activist

I wasn’t able to attend Judith Butler’s second Flexner lecture in person; my body, at that moment, was in alliance with a dozen or so parents at the Haverford Township High School, where I hold a leadership position in the Parent Teacher Student Association. But thanks to Bryn Mawr’s department of Multimedia and Audio Visual Technology, I was watching Butler’s lecture in my house less than 24 hours later.

I have to say, it was a funny thing. I was deeply appreciative of the time and skill put into this video, glad I could witness the event even though I’d not been able to be there in person. And I loved being able to go back and get precise quotes or listen again to Butler’s aside about Adele. But it was kind of eerie watching her talk with and relate to an unseen audience. And on my laptop screen, the combination of Butler’s clothes and the stage/lighting gave a sepia tone cast to the video. Was I watching something from the past? The present? Or the future? The more I watched, the more I regretted not having been part of the real-time experience (even though taking notes was easier, now that I was not in a dark theatre).

I was an armchair audience member.

And then, I was an armchair activist.

As I was reviewing “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” I received an email from a friend, requesting that I ask my elected officials to co-sponsor the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2011, which would enable contributions to tax-free savings accounts—similar to 529 funds for college savings—for people with autism and other disabilities. The bill is endorsed by Autism Speaks, National Down Syndrome Society, The Arc, Collaborations to Promote Self Determination, National Disability Institute and The National Fragile X Foundation. I know several families with an autistic child (who doesn’t?), and the act’s goals are so important and socially just that endorsement seemed all but assured. All I needed to do was nudge.

As I clicked on the link to begin nudging, I took note of the whole picture: there was bipartisan support in both houses of Congress; an alliance of organizations was endorsing the bill; I was in alliance with them. I know it was corny, but in my emailed appeals to my legislators, I wrote: “I do not have any family members who would benefit, but I am standing in alliance with those who do, so that they have the same rights to save for their children’s futures as I do.”

Within minutes, I received a reply: “Thank You for Taking Action.” I was sitting in my armchair with the cat in my lap, not occupying a public space or marching. Had I indeed taken action? Are all forms of “action” equally effective?

Judith Butler’s second Flexner lecture detailed the importance of appearing in public, of making use of space. Whether public space or the space between bodies that is “like a force field,” Butler posited that it matters that we stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle. And she specified that the opposite of precarity is not security (remember, I am very secure in my armchair with the cat as I review her lecture online) but “the struggle for an egalitarian social and political order. . . a livable interdependency.” Clearly, I was not on the pavement, whether Butler’s, Adele’s or Arendt’s. But it seemed to me I had taken action in my private sphere; in this sphere, I had done something besides child rearing and cleaning. Did I need to appear in the street to join “the social network of hands that seek to minimize the unlivability of lives”? Do I? Must my “body. . . appear for politics to take place”? Or can I effect change from my armchair?

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