Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler


In my last post, I put forth a few questions about what Butler’s formulation of ethical obligations and the right to appear could imply for a society in which large segments of the population are subject to constant surveillance. I wondered whether the possibility of a person’s or group’s “right to appear” exists in inverse proportion to their observability, but also, whether the proliferation of surveillance technologies could actually contribute to increased political, cultural, and economic transparency, and thus to a more open, accessible, and fully-realized democracy. If we do indeed live in a society of control (according to Foucault, Deleuze, et. al.), how can and do the principles, methods and mechanisms of control become available for subversive appropriation? Here, I’m following ethical philosopher Peter Singer, who recently proposed that the “inspection principle, universally applied, could also be the perfection of democracy, the device that allows us to know what our governments are really doing, that keeps tabs on corporate abuses, and that protects our individual freedoms just as it subjects our personal lives to public scrutiny.” (“Visible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2011) The hitch, Singer provocatively suggests, is that we must give up our attachment to privacy as an inalienable right (and, one might add, as a form of private property) in order for the democratizing potential of these new technologies of transparency to be fully realized. To me, Singer’s argument resonated with Butler’s discussion of precarity. If we consider privacy not as a “right” but as a property or condition, the attainability of which is possible only through its lack of availability to others, or, in short, its unequal distribution, then the “right to privacy” would appear to have less to do with specific individual claims than with deliberate and enforced structural inequalities. In this regard, the controversial issue of corporate personhood is a prime example of how the distinction between “rights” and “property” is an especially fraught one.

The “right to appear” versus the”right to privacy,” both relating to the question of visibility in the public and private spheres; the problematic nature of corporate personhood; the potentially democratizing effects of increased economic and political transparency; all of these issues are at the core of the Occupy movement, which has strategically used public visibility–through encampments, mass protests, social media networking, and other means–as a platform for pushing these issues into the “public eye.” It’s no surprise, then, that Judith Butler has consistently integrated the Occupy movement, as well as the ongoing revolutions across the Arab world, into her recent theoretical exploration of ethics, appearance, and alliance, just as she has brought her theoretical insights to bear upon the evolving dynamics of these movements. In this sense, her analysis moves both ways, her theorizing informing her activism and vice versa, as can be seen in her recent contribution to the magazine “Tidal,” published by the activist group “Occupy Theory.” Thus, I see no contradiction between Butler’s activities as an academic and as a political activist–rather, these roles appear utterly complementary and mutually reinforcing. In fact, this is what I find most inspiring about her current work. More than anything, I feel fortunate that her visit occurred at a moment characterized by new and unexpected political possibilities, which allowed the implications and urgency of her new work to become even more apparent.

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