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From Me to We

sel209's picture

I was all set to react to the second Butler lecture given on 11/14, but somehow her talk became entangled with ideas we’ve been playing around with in class and these two thoughts are the result of that entanglement...

 * I wonder if Butler can or does communicate her ideas to a wider audience than those at the highest levels of academia. This question stems from the prompt for our last web event, which asked us to direct our thoughts at a target audience and write in a way that was both educational and meaningful for that audience. Although I’ve had only limited experiences with Butler’s work, I’ve found much of it to be dense and difficult to unpack, even as a college student (and I’ve heard and seen echoes of that thought from my classmates).  What’s more, while I agree with some of my peers’ comments that her lectures seem a bit more manageable than her written work, I still found myself mulling over one deeply complex sentence as she moved on to the next. I wonder if she ever simplifies her work to appeal to people of various backgrounds? Or ages? Messages like, “everyone is entitled to a livable life” or “those who choose not to conform should still have the right to appear” are valuable for all people to learn, whether they’re kindergartners learning about tolerance and respect or middle schoolers learning about difference and discrimination or full fledged adults working and living in the “real world”.  It would be a shame if her ideas were only conveyed to those who had the maturity level and educational background to be able to understand them in their current format.

* We. It’s a powerful word that symbolizes a collective identity, some common trait or ideology that binds people together. Butler suggested in her lecture that we should broaden the definition of ‘we’ and in doing so we will expand alliances. For most collective identities, whether inherited (ascriptive traits like race) or acquired (anything from religion affiliation to sports team allegiance), there is a fairly obvious tie that binds. What, then, are the characteristics that exclusively define ‘women’ as a group? If one identifies as female, what does that mean, exactly? I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel some sort of camaraderie with others who identified as female, but I’d also be lying if I said I could explain what exactly we have in common that binds us. Some women I know can’t have children, so that’s out. Some don’t share my sex organs, so that’s out too. Some don’t wear dresses, some don’t like rom-coms, and so the list goes on until the last straw I grasp at is that all who identify as women do not identify as any other gender. But then, that’s not always true either. So what are we left with? What makes me part of a bigger WE? If I continually expand my definition of we, is my alliance as strong or as meaningful?

 Women Together


rachelr's picture

Chasing Pavements

Maybe it’s because I had never read Judith Butler before, and that my reading of her came after Barad, but I really didn’t find her work inaccessible at all. And I’ve never taken a gender class before. I felt that in the piece we read she went through a system of giving ideas and theory and then tying it back in with something tangible before moving forward to something new. I felt like I was swimming from rock to rock; sure the waters had currents running in them, but every so often there was something solid to grab onto. That was the opposite of how I felt reading Barad, where I felt lost in a hurricane, flying upside-down all over the place.

 Turning to the question of “we,” I believe that “we” is fluid. It’s all about context. “We” can be the members of this class discussing an issue at hand. “We” can be the 99%, the protesters on the streets who don’t want the US economically controlled by 1% of the population. “We” can be the scholars who read gender theory. “We” can be the socially at-risk. “We” can be humanity. In her second talk Butler gave several examples of how and why bodies take up space on the pavement and the power that presence brings with it. As long as there is at least one common link holding a “we” together, how much does the rest matter?

lgleysteen's picture

I agree with sel209 that

I agree with sel209 that Butler’s writing excludes a lot of people outside high levels of academia but I don’t think that she is writing to isolate people.  I think it would be difficult for Butler to water down all of her ideas into something that everyone could understand.  I also think that Butler performs differently for different audience.  We are reading her more difficult work and listening to specific lectures she has written because we are at Bryn Mawr and Haverford.  Two weeks ago, I was also frustrated by the difficulty of her writing but my opinion changed when she visited my Anthropology of the Body class.  After class ended, and most of my class left, someone asked Butler why she wrote in such an inaccessible way, and she responded by saying that she is writing in the same manner that a philosopher is meant to write.  She also said if someone felt like writing a “Judith Butler for Dummies”, she would endorse that.  Judith Butler’s writing has a lot of richness that would be taken away if she was to write in a simpler manner. I do think she should publish work that more people can understand but I appreciate a lot of her writing for the way that it is. Butler also performs differently when speaking for different groups.  In the clip below, she is speaking at Occupy Wallstreet, and she is not delivering a speech in the same manner as her lectures.


AmyMay's picture

Working out the "we"

I think this is a great point that really relates back to aybala50's second web paper on Women's Colleges.  I am coming more and more to love the word precarity, bacuase it so well sums up what unites different stigamtized groups into a "we" for collective action.  I think this might be an apropriate definition here-- the "we" of women includes all those individuals that share a common expereince of precarity based in their past or present status as femininely sexed or gendered.  This is a broad definition, and one which I think is very applicable to forming alliances of precarious bodies for activist purposes, and for policy practices surrounding women's institutions.  

However, one other thing I have been thinking about since Judith Butler's second talk has to do with the question posed by the undocumented student.  For people who have not yet seen the lectures, the student asked how she and other undocumented individuals organizing for the rights of undocumented immigrants should organize-- whether there is more empowerment in only included in having an organization organized exclusively by the undocumented for the undocumented, how to weigh this against the benefit of gaining allies, and how to also weigh these conflicts with the right to appear, when doing to might lead to devastating consequances, such as deportation.  Butler was frank and honest in her answer, telling the student that the legal dangers were a serious issue that her group should consider, and that it was purely a matter of risk that they as an organization (and as individuals) had to consider.  

As much as I love Butler's ideas about bodies in alliance as social power, I do have some reservations that that were well-expressed by this student.  I think that forming an alliance is another useful tool activists should have in their tool bag, but I also think there is a time and a place for exclusivity.  One example, as this student brought up, is when exclusivity can facilitate empowerment.  As Juliana mentioned to me a few class periods ago, it seems kind of weird to talk about "empowering" people.  Aren't actions that a more priviledged group does to an unpriviledged group to try and "empower" them inherently unempowering?  I am a big fan of bottom-up activism, and I think the relationship between the bodies in alliance needs to be examined carefully in each circumstance, so that members of the precarious group maintain a sense of agency through their activism.  I think a better goal of an alliance would be to work together in a way that facilitates empowerment.  I think activism itself is incredibly empowering, and I like the idea of bringing in alliances with others to facilitate the empowerment of precarious bodies through their own engagement in activism.  My recent bee-in-the-bonnet about sexual assault polices at Haverford has been empowering in this way.  From other survivors I've talked to, I can infer that I am not alone in this sentiment.

However, in talking about the "we," I have also begun to wonder (perhaps as you have sel209), is there a point at which alliances become so large as to be ineffective?  How do we form alliances between groups when the precarious group wishes to remain anonymous (as with the undocumented, or survivors of sexual violence)?  How do we stand together publicly while doing so anonymously?  How can these groups overcome the sheer power of appearing publicly while making demands?  These are some issue I have been grappling with in the concrete sense, as I design a plan of action for my final project.  So far, what I have come up with is that not everyone can be anonymous.  At least one person (me and my roommate in this case, and possibly others tbd) has to stand and speak, acting as a liason between the public eye and the anonymous precarious bodies.  As we talked about in the last class, I think the right no to appear, or to disappear, is just as important as the right to appear.  What activists for some precarious groups must grapple with is how to make the rights not mutually exclusive.  How can we assert our right to appear politically while maintaining our right not to appear personally?  I think alliances of bodies who do and do not wish to appear is essential to this aim.