Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

The Stylization of Solicitational Imagery

In Judith Butler’s third and final lecture, she spoke about images as ethical solicitations—ones that ask us to overcome our locality and “negotiate proximal quandaries.”  We are all familiar with the images of starving children that flash across our television screens, urging us to donate money to end the suffering of another.  We are also all familiar with media that glorifies the “beauty” of female models that often look as starved as the cover children of hunger campaigns.  Both types of images are solicitational and I am interested in the way that images are coded to elicit the correct solicitation and how different types of solicitation are necessitated by the needs of cultural norms.

Images, especially photographs and videography, tend to be associated with “the truth” and “reality,” but in actuality, a culture’s ideological needs and processes will dictate the truths and realities that are drawn from images.  Thus, there is an aspect of anticipated and retroactive performativity in the production of images; certain types of images are disseminated to answer a certain cultural call and upon receiving images, culture ultimately dictates the meaning that the image is performing.  For example, the proliferation of images of extremely thin models is answering the call for the patriarchy’s policing of women’s bodies and establishment of practically unattainable beauty standards.  These images perform for the patriarchy and in turn, the large majority of those that receive these images attach a performativity of beauty to them.

This exploration of imagery that solicits the making of meanings of female beauty as defined by patriarchal order is certainly not what Butler had in mind when she spoke about ethical solicitations.  I opted to go off on this tangent because I think it is an impossible task to pinpoint why humans empathize with others’ suffering and feel compelled to contribute to the remedying of their suffering.  I sensed that this is one of the things Butler was beginning to explore in her last lecture.  It seems to me like no amount of theory or academic inquiry is capable of capturing the source of moral responsibility or feelings of community that transcend time and space.

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