Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

December 1, 2011
by Johanna Gosse
Comments Off on Ethics and Appearance in Surveillance Society

Ethics and Appearance in Surveillance Society

Butler’s final lecture “Toward an Ethics of Co-Habitation” was a tour de force. It would be difficult to summarize the full range of conceptual work performed in the talk, although the other posts have done an admirable job of capturing some of the major ideas. Zooming out a bit, I want to shift from discussing the specific content of the final talk to consider the longer conceptual arc of Butler’s lecture series, which discussed (in order) the right to appear, queer alliances, and ethical obligations. In between these weekly lectures, Butler also participated in a number of other on-campus events during her residency, including discussions on visual media topics, such as web-based photography archives, and the documentary film Paris is Burning.

Throughout Butler’s residency, I thought about how her discussions of “the right to appear,” audibility and visibility in the public sphere, and the ethical solicitation that an image can (im)pose, might help us understand the contemporary media landscape. In particular, I’ve been wondering how Butler’s formulations relate to the ever-expanding role of surveillance in everyday life. What does it mean when the public “space of appearance,” which Arendt says is a necessary precondition for political action, is subject to perpetual monitoring by distant entities, both known and unknown? Might it be that a population’s “right to appear” exists in inverse proportion to their observability? And, on the other hand, what does it mean when this scopic power relation is inverted and the observers become the observed, when protestors use camera phones to record police brutality, WikiLeaks releases thousands of pages of secret diplomatic cables, or Anonymous hacks into a corporate server?

Though Butler (along with photography theorists like Susan Sontag and Ariella Azoulay) has written at length on the ethics of photographic images, I’m curious about whether the same kinds of ethical obligations adhere to surveillance images, which are often characterized by hazy, pixilated aesthetics, aerial or otherwise non-human perspective, ambiguous content and fully-automated (disembodied) reproduction. Listening to Butler describe Levinas’ insistence on the face-to-face encounter as the basis for ethics, I was reminded of the deliberately blurred-out, anonymous faces of these Google Street View Portraits by German photographer Michael Wolf. If the surveillance image has no face, can it pose an ethical solicitation?

December 1, 2011
by Vanessa Christman
Comments Off on Overwhelming obligations, small acts

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?

December 1, 2011
by Mary Zaborskis
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Ethics of Cohabitation and Women’s Colleges

During the question and answer portion of the last lecture, a student asked Judith Butler to expand on what an ethics of cohabitation might look like at a women’s college/single-sex institution like Bryn Mawr. Butler first explained that there was an inherent issue with the question—it asks one to assume that what being a “woman” is, or what being the “same sex” is, is some universally shared definition. She then moved on to say that when we talk about cohabitation in any community, we have to have a flexible, dynamic understanding of how that community functions. Butler says that any institution “has to be porous”—as people move in and out of communities, we have to allow “porosity” because that’s what “cohabitation is all about.”

I think, in practice, Bryn Mawr is a “porous” community. While we remain, in name, a women’s college, we that constitute the community demonstrate that the definition of “women” is not a strict category, but rather one whose bounds are constantly expanding and shifting. As Butler explained in her “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” piece, it’s okay to gather under a sign, as long as we share an understanding that that category isn’t fixed. However, gathering under the sign of “women” might be problematic because not everyone shares the same understanding of the bounds of those categories under which we collect. Problems can also arise when one is told that they belong under a sign, effectively being hailed as a gender with which one does not identify. What does cohabitation look like at a women’s college when not everyone who attends that college identifies as a woman? What does cohabitation look like at a women’s college when community members identify as men?

When activist and artist Kate Bornstein came to campus back in 2010, she challenged us to consider what we call single-sex institutions. Women’s colleges were founded to provide an education for those who had previously been denied access to institutions because of their gender; if we live in a time and place where others besides women are experiencing precarity because of their gender and/or sexuality, then might it be productive and inclusive to officially change women’s colleges into women and gender minorities’ colleges? Such changes would allow for gender minorities to appear, becoming recognized and given an institutionally-sanctioned space to occupy; would such changes help contribute to an ethics of cohabitation?

Based on what I’ve read of Butler over the course of this blogging, I would imagine that the names and labels themselves aren’t as important as our actions. In practice, I think Bryn Mawr is an inclusive community, and our campus is engaged with asking ourselves how we can continue to be so. The community now appears very differently than the community 100 years ago; the ethnic, socioeconomic, and sexual makeup of the campus is more diverse than previous generations, demonstrating an ability for Bryn Mawr to be “porous.” Our community is constantly becoming, and we have to continue to ask what kind of institution we will become as we examine—and put into practice—how to remain inclusive and receptive to evaluating the boundaries of our categories.

December 1, 2011
by Jessica Lee
Comments Off on Toward an Ethics of Cohabitation—Because we don’t have a choice?

Toward an Ethics of Cohabitation—Because we don’t have a choice?

The questions Butler raises in her final lecture are intriguing: What are global obligations near and far? What makes these ethical encounters possible? What does it mean for our ethical obligations when we are joined to those we did not choose?

Butler’s ethics of cohabitation sound deontological (at times theological) and sum up to two points:
1. What happens there happens here.
2. Unchosen cohabitation implies equality but also precarity.

Butler argues that images of distant suffering impose an ethical solicitation on us the viewers by compelling us to negotiate questions of proximity. They make us question, “If I did not make this suffering occur, am I still somehow responsible for it?” Ethical implications span across time and space, according to Butler.  She describes how media brings far away suffering near and how it can make what is proximate appear far away.

Butler references Susan Sontag, who writes in Regarding the Pain of Others that a photograph “has only one language and is destined potentially for all” (2003, 20). Photographs, Sontag suggests, can be “read” by anyone, but she distinguishes who has the right to look: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering … are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be” (2003, 42).

Sontag’s essay suggests that the viewer of an image of suffering wields much power. Butler takes a different stance. She deconstructs the reading of images with the argument that the viewer is “imposed upon.” According to Butler the images have agency, because media “addresses” the viewer, who has not freely chosen to see what she is seeing. Butler states that responsiveness precedes the ego, thus the unchosen force of the image acting on this receptivity indicates an ethical obligation—what Butler deems a “global responsibility.”

Butler then turns to Jewish ethical reflection through dizzying expositions of Levinas and Arendt. Butler maintains Levinas’s notion that we are acted upon ethically, prior to any choice. More important than proximity and sameness in bonding us to one another is the otherness of the other. The other has priority over oneself and ethical relations are asymmetrical. According to Levinas, we are vulnerable to the other and yet simultaneously responsible to the other. Boundaries are a space of adjacency where we are exposed to the other and made precarious. Levinas argues that we are called upon by a claim that cannot be anticipated. Thus, ethical responsibility presupposes an ethical responsiveness, thereby preceding any individual sense of self.

Butler discusses Arendt’s political stance as a Jewish refugee—“We are all the unchosen together.” Arendt upholds an unchosen condition of freedom and plural action. Butler interprets this as “social belonging,” which obligates us to preserve the lives of the global population. She supports Arendt’s criticism of the formation of a Jewish state, which dispossessed the Palestinian people of their land. Butler agrees with Arendt’s claim that Israel’s Law of Return should be coupled with a right to return for the Palestinians.

Butler concludes by returning to her earlier affirmation of interdependency (I’m still trying to make meaning of this).  Butler calls for sustainable interdependency on egalitarian terms, so that we can minimize precarity and uphold our global obligation.

December 1, 2011
by Elly Truitt
Comments Off on Towards a Cohabitation of Ethics

Towards a Cohabitation of Ethics

Butler’s third and final lecture, “Towards an Ethics of Cohabitation,” was the final piece in her troika on visibility, personhood, and democratic participation. Taking the notion of queer alliances—those alliances of groups or individuals with divergent or different attitudes and aims for furthering shared goals—a step further, Butler examined how visibility can force and also confound ethical behavior.

But what *is* ethical behavior? In a country as diverse and divided as the United States, is it even possible to talk about shared ethics? The Tea Party and Occupy movements—in their own queer alliance—maintain that the bank bailouts in 2009 were unethical, either because they were a meddlesome intervention into the free market, or because they rewarded reckless and possibly criminal behavior. Yet the board members of those financial institutions as well as a number of policymakers argue that bailing out the banks was completely ethical (as well as necessary). The existence of the Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine demonstrates that ethics among readers of the New York Times are various and often in conflict with one another.

The ethics of cohabitation seems to be less important than the cohabitation of ethics. Otherwise, how can the United States as a country (or global alliances) move forward and make headway against the many challenges now facing it? It’s also possible that forcing potentially mutually exclusive ethical ideals into alliances just won’t work. Perhaps, as Anand Giridharadas suggests, ethics (or principles) should be subordinated to facts, and we should all just “get over ourselves” and our precious ethics in order to get along and get ahead.

December 1, 2011
by Sara Alcid
Comments Off on The Stylization of Solicitational Imagery

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.

December 1, 2011
by Alexander Brey
Comments Off on The Strange Fates of Levinas

The Strange Fates of Levinas

I was left a little puzzled by Butler’s lecture last Monday evening. The bulk of the lecture was devoted to a deconstruction of Levinas’s and Arendt’s ethical approaches to alterity. The first is a radical prioritization of the other, the latter little more than an insistence on the other’s right to life. Although I strongly advocate reinforcing the fact that genocide is unacceptable whenever possible, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. Butler’s decision to read these authors against themselves in order to arrive at a more rigorous ethical position — one free of their respective inconsistencies — is a legitimate, even interesting exercise, but perhaps a deconstruction of more recent attacks on such ethical positions would have been useful. Her argument rested on a lot of assumptions that don’t seem to be shared by Certain Important People, including, for example, the Republican presidential candidates, so to formulate an argument that’s politically legible right now we need to stake out the legitimacy of these assumptions.

I think Levinas might be a problem (none of the presidential candidates are openly advocating genocide…yet). His ethics of alterity is both brilliant and beautiful, but it hasn’t gone unchallenged. The most popular opposition may just be Ayn Rand, with her articulation of Objectivism. But it’s important to realize that Rand’s “rational self-interest” actually incorporates a quasi-Levinasian ethics in a kind of beautiful Hegelian synthesis. It perversely posits itself as an ethics of alterity: we can’t tax the wealthy because the fate of the entire economy, for both poor and rich, depends on their continued, undiminished acquisition of wealth. This veneer of Levinasian obligation to the other scratches off pretty easily, but it’s just tricky enough to keep people talking in loops, and to shift the terms of the debate away from truly ethical possibilities. Lisa Duggan’s work on neoliberalism pretty much consists of exposing precisely such rhetorical strategies for what they are, and I’m surprised the Duggan’s work wasn’t referenced in any of Butler’s lectures (at least in any way that I could perceive).

The fact that people are capable of refusing this ethical obligation suggests we need to look elsewhere for the tactics that would allow us to come to terms with the unchosen coalitions that Butler is investigating. I think maybe what I’m trying to suggest is that these unchosen alliances present us with a kind of post-ethical problem.

December 1, 2011
by Steph Herold
Comments Off on Ethical Solicitation and Activism

Ethical Solicitation and Activism

Judith Butler’s most recent lecture was fascinating to watch on Thanksgiving, a national day of (supposed) reflection and gratefulness. She made astute commentary on ethical obligations, ethical solicitation, and how people are moved to action. She asked, are we ethically overwhelmed with sensory images? She referred specifically to photos of a police officer pepper spraying students at UC Davis. Is this photo ethically overwhelming? What does it mean to be ethically overwhelmed?

I agree with Butler that being moved by photos like this (whether ethically or emotionally) can be a positive force that drives people to action. But what does it say about the nature of activism that we need this uncomfortable push towards it, that we have to be “acted upon” by an image or outside force in order to be motivated to create change?

Despite these potential positive effects, being ethically overwhelmed can also be paralyzing and demoralizing. While the now-iconic UC Davis pepper spray photo may inspire some people to support the occupy movement, for others, it represents the continuing legacy of police brutality, specifically in response to social justice movements. I’m thinking specifically of this seminal photograph documenting police brutality during the Civil Rights movement. This photo may have brought racist police actions to light for those who didn’t live it day to day, but for others, it represents an every day experience of oppression. How can we account for the fact that for some, usually the privileged, a photo may be “ethically overwhelming” in a way that awakens them to action, while for others, a photo may be documentation of their lived experience, a mere glimpse into their everyday lives.

Is being ethically overwhelmed really coded language for people of privilege getting a peek at how the other half lives, so to speak? Or, to use the language of the occupy movement, forcing the 1% to see a tiny piece of what being part of the 99% is like?

November 18, 2011
by Elly Truitt
1 Comment


Butler’s second Flexner lecture, Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, discussed the power of alliances, especially “queer alliances” to disrupt and challenge the chokehold of neo-liberal policies and politics. When people come together in public spaces in unexpected ways, they publicly insist on their personhood and their rights, which they are being denied in the public sphere. While Butler, and my fellow bloggers, discuss the ways in which these alliances are currently being played out in a series of historical moments in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and cities across the United States, I have found myself wondering more about the alliances of a different sort, particularly alliances that promote violence, and reinforce and reward adherence to existing and harmful power structures.

Yes, I am talking about the PSU child rape scandal and cover-up.

A group of men, all in positions of relative institutional and economic power, chose their existing alliances–to the institution of Penn State, to the multi-million dollar semi-professional football team, to the “brand” of the institution, and to the myth and mystique of Joe Paterno’s leadership–over alliances to the powerless and economically disadvantaged children that Sandusky, the defensive coordinator for the football team (allegedly) raped. Furthermore, the men involved in the scandal and its atrocious mishandling (at best) and cover-up (sinister worst) allied with each other to protect the sexual prerogatives and preferences of another man, even when that man was credibly believed to be a sexual predator. One of the two eyewitnesses to Sandusky’s criminal activities, Mike McQueary, was rewarded for his complicity in Sandusky’s rape of a young boy. By going to Paterno instead of the police, he allied himself with the powerful men in charge of PSU’s football program, and was eventually promoted to a senior coaching staff position.

The details of the criminal activity and cover-up will continue to emerge in the coming weeks and months. Even the cost of this toxic alliance isn’t yet fully apparent. What is apparent, however, is the entrenched nature of alliances among those in power, and the ways in which they have acted, in this case, to render children as not fully human. What we can do is ally ourselves with the community at PSU who gathered for a silent, public, candlelight vigil for the victims and their families, insisting on the humanity of children and of the economically disadvantaged, and of the necessity to fracture toxic misalliances whenever we encounter them.

November 17, 2011
by Vanessa Christman
Comments Off on Armchair Activist

Armchair Activist

I wasn’t able to attend Judith Butler’s second Flexner lecture in person; my body, at that moment, was in alliance with a dozen or so parents at the Haverford Township High School, where I hold a leadership position in the Parent Teacher Student Association. But thanks to Bryn Mawr’s department of Multimedia and Audio Visual Technology, I was watching Butler’s lecture in my house less than 24 hours later.

I have to say, it was a funny thing. I was deeply appreciative of the time and skill put into this video, glad I could witness the event even though I’d not been able to be there in person. And I loved being able to go back and get precise quotes or listen again to Butler’s aside about Adele. But it was kind of eerie watching her talk with and relate to an unseen audience. And on my laptop screen, the combination of Butler’s clothes and the stage/lighting gave a sepia tone cast to the video. Was I watching something from the past? The present? Or the future? The more I watched, the more I regretted not having been part of the real-time experience (even though taking notes was easier, now that I was not in a dark theatre).

I was an armchair audience member.

And then, I was an armchair activist.

As I was reviewing “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” I received an email from a friend, requesting that I ask my elected officials to co-sponsor the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2011, which would enable contributions to tax-free savings accounts—similar to 529 funds for college savings—for people with autism and other disabilities. The bill is endorsed by Autism Speaks, National Down Syndrome Society, The Arc, Collaborations to Promote Self Determination, National Disability Institute and The National Fragile X Foundation. I know several families with an autistic child (who doesn’t?), and the act’s goals are so important and socially just that endorsement seemed all but assured. All I needed to do was nudge.

As I clicked on the link to begin nudging, I took note of the whole picture: there was bipartisan support in both houses of Congress; an alliance of organizations was endorsing the bill; I was in alliance with them. I know it was corny, but in my emailed appeals to my legislators, I wrote: “I do not have any family members who would benefit, but I am standing in alliance with those who do, so that they have the same rights to save for their children’s futures as I do.”

Within minutes, I received a reply: “Thank You for Taking Action.” I was sitting in my armchair with the cat in my lap, not occupying a public space or marching. Had I indeed taken action? Are all forms of “action” equally effective?

Judith Butler’s second Flexner lecture detailed the importance of appearing in public, of making use of space. Whether public space or the space between bodies that is “like a force field,” Butler posited that it matters that we stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle. And she specified that the opposite of precarity is not security (remember, I am very secure in my armchair with the cat as I review her lecture online) but “the struggle for an egalitarian social and political order. . . a livable interdependency.” Clearly, I was not on the pavement, whether Butler’s, Adele’s or Arendt’s. But it seemed to me I had taken action in my private sphere; in this sphere, I had done something besides child rearing and cleaning. Did I need to appear in the street to join “the social network of hands that seek to minimize the unlivability of lives”? Do I? Must my “body. . . appear for politics to take place”? Or can I effect change from my armchair?