Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Where and When Else Can be in Alliance?

This past Monday, Judith Butler discussed how coming together, occupying, and creating public spaces opens up possibilities because it allows bodies to enact the rights that they’re demanding but being denied. In this sense, alliances are acting outside of established temporalities because they’re performing rights that have yet to be (and perhaps never will be) codified into law, opening up a new time for these performative acts; one way to term that temporality is the time of interval. Butler employed the word queer to describe these alliances in public spaces, locating queerness not within the identities of those bodies allying, but in the joining, or perhaps more accurately, the product of that joining itself. This queerness is what produces political space; alliances are constituted by the spaces between people, and public spaces emerge from the gaps between bodies in alliance.

Butler’s terminology, particularly her emphasis on words like “between,” “interval,” and “gap,” interested me in light of work that we’re doing in  Lesbian Immortal, a course I’m taking in the English Department. The course comes out of a shift in queer scholarship, which has turned from locating queerness in subjects to focusing on queerness across temporalities and geographies. Butler discusses “bodies in alliance” and suggests how these bodies in alliance produce alternative times—the interval—and alternate spaces—the gap, and thus public space itself. The body still seems central in these alliances. It makes me wonder if we can expand who, what, and when can forge alliances—what other possibilities might open up if we also talk about “times in alliance” or “geographies in alliance?” How might alliances between times and spaces imagine and foreclose futures for the signs under which they’re allying?

I think that much political action and protest already utilizes temporal and geographical alliances (although perhaps some more consciously than others). History will often be mobilized to help present political action. For example, in the weeks leading up to outbreak of the Libyan Civil War last February, protesters demanding democracy restored the Libyan flag that was used before Qaddafi came into power, allying themselves with Libya at this time (despite the fact that Libya then was a monarchy with a poor standard of living). Alliances with time can mobilize political action and reconfigure understandings of the very time with which an alliance is being formed. Thinking about the potentiality of geographical alliances, I am reminded of a concept used in political science called the contagion effect, which is the phenomenon that political outbreaks in one place often spur outbreaks in a nearby location. For example, The Arab Spring is understood as a collective set of protests, but the protests have been country specific and began at different times. Why protests began occurring at the same time could be a result of the contagion effect, which seems to point to these alliances that can formed based on geography.

Butler talks about the hypertransposability of public spaces, and I wonder if the alliances themselves are hypertransposable, able to form among more than bodies, and what this reconceptualization of the possibilities of alliances could (or couldn’t) produce.

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