Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Overwhelming obligations, small acts

A couple weeks ago, there was a reception for Judith Butler in the Wyndham Alumnae House. Both excited and terrified that I might finally meet her, I asked for a glass of wine and engaged in enjoyable conversations with colleagues while I waited for an opportunity to say hello. Eventually I took the plunge, sidling up to our Flexner lecturer. When I replay the scene in my head, I can see that, at the same time I was approaching her, she was moving toward either the crudités on the buffet or a gaggle of students next to it: in either case, I am certain that I inserted myself between her and her desired destination. Sigh.

What did I even have to say to her? Nothing. But having spent so many months in her (textual) company, could I pass up the chance to say hello?

I introduced myself and explained that I worked in Intercultural Affairs. And then I gave a charming smile, which has often helped me in awkward situations. Not this one. I soon felt a little like I was dancing with a scorpion. I was bigger, yes, but she flicked a barbed tail at me: “How’s that going?”

“Oh, quite well!” I chirped. What I thought might be a cheery opener to a lovely and long discussion beginning with Bryn Mawr’s diverse student body, touching on the small number of hurtful incidents of late/our successful cohabitation and culminating with the number of philosophy students being encouraged to pursue Ph.D.s through the Mellon Mays Fellowship, fell flat. And I felt foolish.

She asked about the student who revealed herself to be undocumented in a question following her second lecture. We shared an acknowledgment of that student’s bravery and her plight, but by now my “Quite well!” response seemed like a sticky candy covered in pocket lint. Our conversation over, Butler headed toward the students near the buffet.

If I had a chance to perform the scene again, I would do so bearing the insights from Butler’s last lecture. (Since this is fantasy, chronology has no relevance.)

Vanessa:          “Hi, Dr. Butler. I’m Vanessa, Acting Director of Intercultural Affairs here at Bryn Mawr.”

Judith:             “How’s that going?”

Vanessa:          “Well, since we are born into a world whose hands we require, I am glad our office can act as those hands for so many in the community. We are, after all, a we who is constantly in the making, right? And, as I always say, we must continue to look for the unanticipated dimensions of other people.”

Judith:             “You don’t say that. I say that. Or rather, I’m about to say that in the question and answer period next Monday.”

Vanessa:          “Gulp.”

Even in my fantasy, I end up looking like an idiot.

Maybe it’s because it’s hard to talk about ethics and work that matters on a small scale. Helping people to live in a diverse, self-governing community pales in comparison to such large-scale events as Adolf Eichmann’s trial and West Bank violence, both referenced by Butler in her final lecture. In the historical, political and theoretical, everything seems so big and important. Yes, we are “ethically overwhelmed” visually and aurally. Yes, suffering, whether distant or near, makes an impact, and we have an ethical obligation to address it. But our small daily acts of community building make a difference too, right?

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