There is a certain lack of clarity in
Judith Butler’s remarks at Brooklyn College, not so much in her words, but in
what actions they may license or lead to. I have been discussing this with
Sergio Tenenbaum, and here is what we do not understand. (Thanks to Mark Lance for helping clarify the
Butler says, first:
academic and cultural boycott seeks to put pressure on all those cultural
institutions that have failed to oppose the occupation and struggle for equal
rights and the rights of the dispossessed . . . When those cultural
institutions (universities, art centers, festivals) were to take such a stand,
that would be the beginning of the end of the boycott
I take it that universities rarely take a stand about
such matters, and especially not publicly funded universities. Who has ever
demanded, for example, that the University of Texas should take a stand on the
death penalty in Texas? (Very few people, if any, advocated sanctions against
Witwatersrand University or the University of Cape Town during apartheid,
though they may have been fairly adamant about not consuming South African
products or attending sports events involving South Africa.)
Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.
The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.
You know, the freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system, and take that away and higher education in this country would certainly die.
This is a city that loves and protects freedom—academic freedom, religious religious freedom, sexual freedom, cultural freedom, political freedom. We are the freest city in the world, and that’s why we’re the greatest city in the world.
This is a simple, powerful talk by Judith Butler at OWS, calling upon the classic "very well then, we demand the impossible" trope, and ending with the wonderful line, "we're standing here together, making democracy, enacting the phrase, 'We the People'."
And here's the text of a longer talk by Butler in Venice about constituting political space while acknowledging the material precarity of bodies, developed alongside a critical analysis of Arendt's notion of a political "space of appearance." The overall aim is set forth here, I believe:
a different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives.
A brief excerpt from the beginning of the talk sets out some of the main lines of thought:
assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment. And when crowds move outside the square, to the side street or the back alley, to the neighborhoods where streets are not yet paved, then something more happens. At such a moment, politics is no longer defined as the exclusive business of public sphere distinct from a private one, but it crosses that line again and again, bringing attention to the way that politics is already in the home, or on the street, or in the neighborhood, or indeed in those virtual spaces that are unbound by the architecture of the public square....
But in the case of public assemblies, we see quite clearly not only that there is a struggle over what will be public space, but a struggle as well over those basic ways in which we are, as bodies, supported in the world – a struggle against disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment.
I'd like to add something here about the way the human microphone works, quite literally, to amplify the constitution of political space by assembled bodies. The human microphone offers an entry into examining political affect in the enacting of the phrase "We the People" at OWS. It shows us how direct democracy is enacted by producing an intermodal resonance among the semantic, pragmatic, and affective dimensions of collective action.
Over at Unemployed Negativity, friend of the blog (and sometimes even co-blogger) Jason Read writes on a new book by Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou, Sois mon corps: une lecture contemporaine de la domination et servitude chez Hegel. Order the book here. Read's post is here. First two paragraphs:
In the history of philosophy there are some texts that are difficult to say anything new about. These texts are so dominated by one influential reading that it becomes difficult, even impossible, to say interpret anew. Paradigmatic in these respects is the brief section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit known as the “master slave dialectic” or “lordship and bondage”.This section is so dominated by Kojeve’s canonical reading that is almost as if his words were already there on the pages of Hegel’s text.
This is one reason why Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou’s exchange on “Domination and Servitude” published in French as Sois mon corps: une lecture contemporaine de la domination et servitude chez Hegel is engaging. It is a reading of this all too well known section of Hegel’s text, but one that dispenses with the preoccupations of a previous generation in order to reread Hegel. Butler and Malabou each address Hegel from their particular philosophical commitments and engagements: Butler’s intervention is framed by her reading of Hegel in The Psychic Life of Power and Malabou continues her development of plasticity in her reading of Hegel.
UPDATE (JP): I reviewed Malabou's Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing for NDPR in Feb 2010.