Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Media, Technology, and Street Activism

I was pleasantly surprised to see the end of Judith Butler’s second lecture, “Bodies in Alliance & the Politics of the Street” take a turn toward an exploration of the role that modern technologies play in the politics of the street.  The topic of technology blossomed out of Butler’s consideration of the media’s role in the hyper-transposability of the Occupy movement.  “The street scenes become politically potent only when and if we have a visual and audible version of the scene communicated in live time or shortly thereafter so that the media does not merely report the scene but is part of the scene and action,” Butler asserted.  Thus, the media plays a key role in transmitting the images and sounds of the street beyond the locality in which they take place.  Movements gain momentum in the spacial and temporal transposability that is enabled by the media.  Butler acknowledged that the media can engage in the censorship of what kinds of images and sounds are set into travel and can just as easily oppose this censorship.  This is where the importance of personal, hand-held devices comes into play in limiting the censorship of the politics of the street and the bodies allied there.  Butler went on to say that the activation of technological devices becomes “part of the bodily action of the social movement.”

I think that Butler’s claims about the important role played by media and the technology-enabled global reach of street politics is complicated by the assertion that much of this technology is bound up in the neo-liberal profit ethic that the Occupy movement and other social movements are working to destabilize.  Butler did say she was not claiming that global media is ethically sound, but it is hard to reconcile the roots that camera phones and social media platforms have in both neo-liberalism and social movements that oppose systems of neo-liberalism.  The hand-held recording devices that Butler references, presumably camera phones and digital cameras, are products of neo-liberal multinational corporations, yet a politics opposed to neo-liberalism moves through this technology to gain political potency.  An illustration of this troubling dichotomy lies in the fact that AT&T and Verizon Wireless financially support the political leadership of the Tea Party.  Is the use of “neo-liberal products” to undermine neo-liberal “morality” an act of subversion and systematic erosion from within? Or is it a possible loophole in Butler’s argument?

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