Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

In Defense of Anarchy

Photograph by: Ramy Raoof

On Monday Judith Butler presented what might be the most eloquent defense of anarchism that I’ve ever heard. Butler’s argument is grounded in the fact that in every political entity in existence today, there exists a disparity between the claims of universality upon which the legitimacy of the political order is founded, and the exemption of individuals from certain (or even all) rights within said political entity. The moment at which these individuals claim rights that have been denied to them is effectively a moment of anarchism: it is the moment and space of instability within which a new order is constituted, one that fundamentally, if perhaps only temporarily, denies the legitimacy of the larger political order. This is incredibly liberating — it’s the space of possibility through which we can effect political change that would be otherwise unthinkable. It’s also an opportunity for disaster — the only order that governs individuals within this space is ethical in nature. Butler hinted at the importance of self-restraint within this space when she lauded protesters in Tahrir Square for their deliberate resistance to the magnetic pull of militarism, and she suggested that we might further explore the ways in which resisting force requires force not against the other but within the self.

When Foucault wrote in his preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus that the book might justifiably have been titled an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life, he identified what has been the most important point in their work for me: that ethics today can be distilled down to the struggle against “the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” This seems to be exactly what Butler is cautioning us against when she emphasizes the importance of self-restraint within the space of anarchy that has recently become crucial to the revision of the political.

But then we have to step back and really think about ethics. For much of recorded history, people have looked to religion for the ethical frameworks that fill in the gaps left by (or deliberately produced against) the political. While secularism has gained momentum since the Enlightenment, atheism is still suspect, and it’s important to recognize that those who turn to philosophers like Butler and Deleuze for an ethical framework are massively outnumbered by those who have never heard of them. On one level this is fine, because an ethics of self-mastery has been advocated by almost every major world religion. On another level its incredibly problematic because most adherents of these religions do not or cannot take this ethical imperative at face value. I’m left wondering how inhabitants of such anarchic spaces cultivate this self-mastery, because what’s amazing is that sometimes, against all odds, they do. Part of this may be structural: if I’m denied rights I’m likely to be more sensitive to cases in which others are denied rights, even those in which I myself am participating in such a denial. That said, it can’t all be structural, otherwise every protest would blur together with every other protest in one huge non-violent coalition and this is, sadly (or perhaps merely practically), not the case.

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