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Judith Butler (non)thoughts's picture

As I sit and reflect on Judith Butler's opening lecture tonight, I find myself getting caught up in some tangential questions about the experience of seeing her speak. What does it mean to rally around a public intellectual with the fervor many in the audience(s) showed tonight? How did she convey authority through body language and actual language, and how did she try to connect with the audience on a less intellectual level occasionally (the Biblical joke in particular, coming early on, seemed to catch everyone off guard a bit). It has been/is/will be really interesting to see how people talk about and think about the person Judith Butler and the ideas of Judith Butler, and then transfer that into the experience of actually interacting with Judith Butler. I must admit that I ended up musing on these issues more than on the content of her lecture -- and while I was frustrated with myself for this partial inability to "rise to the occasion" and focus on the material, I think it has to do with the fact that I really have a hard time processing a lecture, especially one of that density, with no ability to take notes or even doodle while I listen.

Never more than tonight have I realized how important that writing/doodling aspect is to my ability to think -- if we had our class in the kind of darkness we experienced in Goodhart tonight I would retain very little, and I think I retained very little tonight -- and I found myself feeling panicky about it, and then pondering stupid things like the way she kicked up her leg behind her as she spoke instead of what she was saying. I might let someone else take my seat next week and watch from the more relaxed environment of Thomas, where presumably I could have a pen and notebook in hand. I guess this is another testament to how everyone has different learning styles and certain environments privilege certain kinds of learning over others. It kind of boggles my mind that something as simple as doodling makes such a difference in my brain's processing abilities, though. It's pretty crazy. Here are a couple of my doodles (from my class notes), just for the sake of sharing...While they may lack coherent academic content, I've definitely developed a new appreciation for their power! Maybe you can find some significance in them, I don't know...

One part of her talk I did manage to retain was her response to the question about forming our politics based on experiences that are not our own -- I loved the way she turned around the question, and made a bigger statement about rearranging the frame that creates the differences in the first place instead of even saying our politics should be based on the experiences of either "us" OR "them"....Also, the story about the unlikely activist alliances in Turkey seems like it will tie in well with our final activism-based unit. I kind of have to throw up my hands about that larger trajectory of her lecture, though -- I look forward to hearing other people's thoughts and hopefully reconstructing it to some extent (and of course, eventually reading it in some form).


sel209's picture

Some half-answers to non-thoughts

I picked up on Shlomo’s comment on this thread about the “vicious cycle” of gender performativity our society is caught up in, and I’d like to respond to her question about when and how we can break free of this cycle (which is going to inevitably echo ideas I previously asserted in my second web event). Early on in the lecture, Butler made the observation that gender is assigned to most of us as soon as we’re born by the doctor or nurse who checks off a “gender” box on our birth certificates: either male or female. From this moment on, we are labeled, and by someone who supposedly has the power and expertise to place this tremendously significant label on us, no less. While the word “cycle” implies that there is no distinct beginning or end to a given process, it seems as though we can pinpoint how we are first labeled with respect to gender: we’re labeled by a member of the medical community, whether it’s on a screen during an amniocentesis procedure or as soon as the baby emerges from the uterus. Medical professionals never exclaim, “Looks like you have a healthy child with a penis!” Nope, it’s “You have a healthy baby boy!” and suddenly, in that short sentence, or even in that one word boy, the child in question has a label that’s filled with expectations. And of course, this speaks directly to Butler’s question of how bodily acts become performative if performativity is considered linguistic. Our doctors label us on forms, then the forms with the checkboxes are sent to the state so that the government can label us, and then our parents and siblings and families and peers and everyone else follows suit until suddenly, we’re sitting in a delivery room labeling our own children. And so it continues, and continues, and continues.

Admittedly, we as a society are a long way from completely dispelling the notion that sex defines gender. It’s a very real societal norm, and I can’t realistically imagine a day in the near future when having a penis isn’t going to immediately categorize a baby as male until that person says otherwise. Yet, I think bringing a change in perspective to the medical field has the potential to begin breaking the cycle of gender performativity. We defer to doctors to define what is normal and healthy; if they no longer associated anatomy with identity, perhaps society would follow suit and there would be fewer expectations to live up to and less pressure to perform with respect to gender. While it’s not totally a solution to the questions of why and how that Shlomo asks, perhaps it’s a start.  

someshine's picture


Though determined to pay absolute attention to every word Butler uttered, I found myself equally distracted by the ambi(a/e)nce of Goodhart. I was last there for the 2010 Customs Week Hypnotist Show, so I found myself switching gears quite a bit as I entered to find a seat. The buzz of conversation all around (that I was of course straining to listen to) made me feel like an intellectual equivalent of a baseball fan waiting for the World Series to begin (minus the cheering).

Having read a bit of Butler’s work from my courses in Gender and Sexuality studies thus far, I was super-pumped to connect a voice to the text I’d been reading. Equally vying for my attention was my desire to hear if Butler spoke the way she wrote. I seem to be learning (slowly) that scholars and academics are supposed to/choose to read from previously prepared work as opposed to “winging it.” I understand in retrospect that Butler, as a Flexner Lecturer, would of course come with prepared written work to read to those of us assembled in Goodhart. In the moments that Butler temporarily diverged from her words on paper that even still these new words were as eloquent as everything I’ve read that she’s written. This dis traction was definitely part of the difficulty I had in absorbing as much of Butler’s first lecture as I could. That, in addition to the lighting, my awe of her in-person self, and what stood behind her.

My strongest place/point of dis traction was the projected electronic banner. Given that flash photography was restricted, I chose not to capture an image of the banner on my iPhone. Below is one of the poster publications associated with the 2011 Flexner Lecture series that helps get at the part of the image I found most dis tracting.

Bryn Mawr Home Page Judith Butler Flexner Lecture Image

The black question mark was positioned in the far right of the electronic banner this past Monday and was also displayed in white and yellow. I kept retreating to thoughts about why that question mark might be there. We knew ahead of time some of the details of her visit. The banner I posted here was up on the homepage for a while as well.

Image capture of the Bryn Mawr homepage

Is the question mark a trademark of the Flexner Lecture Series every year? The more time I spent thinking about it, the more I felt stupid for not paying complete attention to Butler. As a visual learner, I realize that visual presentation is something I think about a lot (and am left with long after attending an event), and I would have appreciated some kind of explanation behind the choice of having only the question mark accompany the text “2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler” on the banner. 

Though I'm left wanting an answer to this question, I'm still reflecting on the one clause I wrote down in my notebook during Butler's first lecture:

the bodies assembled say we are not disposable

In beginning to think about our third web event, this idea Butler presented is occupying my thoughts. How might assembled bodies at Haverford and/or Bryn Mawr say we are not disposable to the administration of institutions that are heavily student-run/driven/influenced? Where might there be the need for students at our colleges to build an alliance of right relationship? If either of you have thoughts about this, since my comment has trailed off a bit, feel free to share! That goes for anyone else reading my post... I'll keeping thinking about this...

Shlomo's picture

My nonthoughts on Butler

On the bus ride back from Butler's lecture, and I talked about our difficulties retaining the lecture, which is part of why I am posting my reaction as a response.  I had similar difficulties retaining what Butler had to say.  The darkness of the room, the brightness of the screen behind Butler that hurt my eyes to look at, and feeling freezing cold all made it shockingly difficult for me to focus on her words.  I have also realized that I really struggle to connect with lecturers who are basically reading scripts.  I don't know why this is, but I have several guesses.  First, the lecturer seems to adapt a lilting vocal rhythm that doesn't distinguish between important points, supplementary information, and comments that are merely parenthetical.  It for some reason takes a lot of mental energy for me to try and sort what the lecturer is saying as she lectures.  Second, there are few pauses throughout the lecture, which makes me feel like I am reading a dense book as fast as possible and lack the ability to reread a sentence I don't understand.  This problem is an escalating problem, because the lecturer continues to talk while I try to understand what she just said, causing me to fall more behind.  Finally, I struggle with strictly written lectures because there seems to be a lack of connection between the audience and the lecturer.  In actuality, I might as well be reading the lecture for all I get out of having the speaker in front of me.

Like, I found myself focusing on visual details of Butler's lecture.  These observations may be, as stated, stupid, but I found them interesting to ponder.  For instance, in a lecture about the right to appear, doesn't Butler's own appearance speak volumes?  She came onto stage hunched over (reducing her already short height into what could be called diminutivity), wearing a rather baggy suit.  The idea of women wearing suits is an interesting one.  Many women with "professional" jobs wear suits--traditionally masculine attire.  I have often wondered if this is to make these women seem or feel more powerful and more listened to (as if by dressing more like a man, you can become more like a "professional" man).  In any case, suits are a pretty societally accepted and standard dress form for women giving speeches.  But Butler's was so oversized that my initial impression was that she was hiding her body--an interesting thought in a speech about the right to appear without having to perform.  Then again, perhaps Butler finds that she doesn't have to perform an identity when she wears suits like the one she wore last night.

I want to close this post with one point Butler made that stuck with me.  I had never before conceived of the process of performing gender as a "vicious cycle."  In other words, we are told growing up that in order to be accepted and liked, we had better perform our gender well.  We in turn pass this (harmful) thought process on to our children.  When will we break free of this cycle?  How can we break free?