Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Rethinking Relationships Between Theory and Action

Over the last few months, I’ve struggled with how to reconcile the seemingly wide terrain between theory and activism. I’ve been frustrated by Judith Butler’s tendency to be overly verbose, her penchant for extremely hypothetical discussions, and the disconnection between her writing about marginalized groups and the social justice work necessary to create change by/for/with marginalized groups. Watching Butler tackle some of these issues on stage at Bryn Mawr was wonderful, but left me with more questions than answers.

Watching Butler in one breath both tell a hilarious joke and unravel complex ideas like precarity is humbling and also illuminating. I don’t know why I expected her to have all the answers, and she is more self-aware than I give her credit for. While she didn’t come out and say it, I got the sense that she knew that the folks occupying Zuccotti Park aren’t spending their time constructing and deconstructing the politics of their occupation. What Butler is doing, explaining these activists in academic-ese, is legitimizing Occupy Wall Street to those who speak and respect her language (those with power, or, in the language of the movement, the 1%). Is Butler on the streets every day occupying Wall St? No, but perhaps what she’s doing, making those in power pay attention, is equally as valuable to the movement.

There is a lot left to be done to make theory more accessible to those who can use it to further their activism. While Butler may not be specifically committed to this task, I don’t think that should discount her work from contributing to the lexicon of social justice activism. As much as Butler needs to think and rethink how her work contributes to advancing justice, those critical of her (myself included) need to think and rethink how we define activism, what we term “meaningful” activism, and who gets to participate in these activities. I’m so grateful to have had this time to think and process this, and look forward to seeing what Butler admirers and scholars do with her thoughtful engagement with the occupy movement.

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