Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California-Berkeley and present recipient of the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. Butler gained public recognition in 1990 with the publication of her book “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” a now-seminal text in gender studies classrooms worldwide.
Butler has since written numerous books on gender politics, antiwar politics, Judaism and 19th-century philosophy.
Butler is also a longtime activist and a recent participant in the Occupy movements in Oakland, New York and, most recently, Philadelphia. She's recently held the 2011 Mary Flexner Lectureship at Bryn Mawr College, speaking on the importance of bodies coming together in forms of collective political struggle, including in the series of global political uprisings that have occurred throughout Europe, the Middle East and here in the United States. Butler sat down in Philadelphia to discuss the interconnectedness of political uprisings, focusing on the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the political challenges that exist in collective politics.
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Kyle Bella: This year has been a year of global revolution. How do you think the Middle East, in particular, has informed revolutions in Western countries?
Judith Butler: I think we have to be careful because there are different kinds of demonstrations and uprisings that are happening. I'm sure they are in a contagious relationship with one another, even though the forms they take are very different. Tunisia and Egypt were tied up with issues of economic justice because wealth was criminally amassed at the top. This is related, in my view, to the emergence of new forms of capitalism, including neoliberalism.
And one of the things that neoliberalism does is, it relies on flexible workforces who are hired and fired at will and who are basically disposable labor. You can use them. You can get rid of them. They have no rights; they have no security. Their lives and well-being are made and unmade at the whim of those who are exercising the calculus. So, instead of looking at the institution and objecting to that kind of organization, people just go, “I'm a failure;”; “I'm not working hard enough”; or, “I'm not as smart as the next person.”
KB: But obviously this has been going on for a long time …
JB: Neoliberalism has taken new forms since the demise of the Fordist concept of labor and with the emergence of what is understood as flexible labor. This has really come to be the dominant form for about the last 20 years.
KB: Protests in Wisconsin occurred earlier in the year against the antiunion policies. Do you think that particular event has helped shape some of this response to these economic policies, particularly in the Occupy movements?
JB: An effort was made by the governor to relieve the state of its obligation to unions, and that took a specific form in Madison, where a lot of the unions rose up and said, “No. We object to this.” The recognized unions are protected by law and have important functions in protecting the rights and interests of labor. Another problem was the effort to privatize the University of Wisconsin. So, what we were seeing was the demise of a public education system, especially at Madison, where there was a proposal to sell off parts of the university to corporate control.
What happened at Madison also resonated with what was happening in Rome and the UK, where there were huge demonstrations objecting to cuts in public education and the establishment of neoliberal standards of excellence for countries in the European Union. Individuals, programs and universities were suddenly being rated by their profitability using quantitative methods.
KB: Then Occupy Wall Street emerged. It obviously started as Occupy Wall Street, which was in one city, in one very defined area, but has since become a global phenomenon in such a short period of time. Why do you think this has occurred?
JB: They saw the Mubarak regime fall because people refused to move. They set up their camp in the middle of the public square. They laid claim to the public as their own and asserted a popular will against the regime, which they did bring down. We have this extremely graphic, nearly hallucinatory, image of the power of the people in public assembly to stop a regime. Now, how you stop an economic regime, if it is actually global, is a much harder thing. We don't have a monarch; we can't just ask them to resign. It's not the same. So, it needs a different kind of tactic.
At the same time, it is important that Occupy Wall Street started with the collection of people, all of whom had slightly different things to say: “My house has been foreclosed and I was living there for 40 years.” Or, “I can't make my payments and I had to give up my car.” Or, “My job was suddenly destroyed and I can't find another.” All different stories, at a very individual level, came together to produce a kind of mosaic picture of how this economic suffering has been lived.
KB: How does this mosaic of individual experiences come together to actually drive a movement? Can politically coherent messages actually exist that encompass the diversity of these individual experiences?
JB: Well, let me say this: I think there is a demand. The demand is for a radical economic and political restructuring of the world. And most people would say that's impossible. And it may or may not be achieved, but I think that's less important than articulating what a just and fair world can be. This can't be the kind of movement where you have your six demands. Who would you turn to? Who would be able to be your negotiating partner? There is no one individual who runs it. It is a structure, a system.
KB: Are you saying, then, that the idea of a new economic system and political alliance as something new and different is the most important aspect of Occupy?
JB: Not quite. What I'm saying is that when you have all of these people gathered in so many cities, they're testifying in a bodily way, saying, “We're the ones abandoned. We're the ones left out. And no democratic system can abandon its people when it claims to represent its people.” So, the real question is: Who is this group? What is it articulating? It's articulating a new idea of who people are. We are still the people, and we'll build, in a kind of microcosmic form, a community that takes cares of each others' needs, that abandons no one and is based on horizontal relations of equality and respect.
KB: To me, there is an absolutely clear tie between the demands of Occupy and the demands of the SlutWalk movement. Both seem to work in tandem by laying claim to public space, even though one is very specifically focused on sexual violence and rape.
JB: When I was in Ankara, Turkey, and I was on a march with a group of transgender women, queer activists, human rights workers and feminists, people who were both Muslim and secular, everyone objected to the fact that transgender women were being killed regularly on the streets of Ankara. So, what's the alliance that emerged? Feminists who had also been dealing with sexual violence on the street. Gay, lesbian, queer people, who are not transgender, but are allied because they experience a similar sense of vulnerability or injurability on the streets.
SlutWalk is another way of doing this by working together in modes of solidarity that insist upon walking freely without violence and harassment. And I think we can trace those kinds of walks with other kinds of moving assemblies throughout the history of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement, as well as the movement of the enfranchisement of sex workers.
KB: You're obviously getting at an idea of a collective empowerment through these movements. But we've also seen where that sense of collectivity falls apart …
KB: One particular incident that stands out occurred during the New York SlutWalk in October 2011, when a white woman held a poster, which read, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” much to the ire of black feminist activists involved with the movement. How do you address moments of using what many would consider hate speech in the context of these larger movements?
JB: I know that the three Occupy movements that I have spoken to are all trying to figure out how to develop an ethos in the movement so that the people there are not just fighting economic inequality and injustice, but are trying to produce a community that manifests the values of equality and mutual respect that they see missing in a world that's structured by neoliberal principles. Everyone is asking, “To what ideals do we pledge ourselves?”
And there is open antagonism about these issues, and there will continue to be some antagonism. But I think that groups such as these have to go through that struggle, though they have to oppose all forms of discrimination. They just do. It can never be the case that someone can trump this by saying that it is my individual right to discriminate. If you believe that, you belong with the Tea Party or another political movement. And people do get ushered out, and have to get ushered out, if they spread hate or injury.
KB: At the same time, how do you translate the movement to educate people in neighborhoods like North Philadelphia, which are predominantly black working poor families?
JB: I know that Occupy can move. In New York, for instance, Occupy could move to Harlem. They've already done an Occupy event with local grassroots organizations in the community. It's a moveable feast; it doesn't have to always stay in one place. The way that is moves to different places is precisely a way of responding to local concerns. But I have not seen that as the issue in Oakland. There was a huge, predominately black, march to the port.
It's not been my own experience that there has been an insensitivity to issues you're talking about that has played out in any of these locations.
KB: It's not so much an insensitivity as it is the fact that the movement claims to represent the 99 percent. As such, 99 percent of the population is being invited to participate. And while there have been very large marches, it seems that not as many people have been involved as their either should be or could be …
JB: What's really funny about you saying this is that it's the largest series of mass demonstrations this country has seen since 1968. For you to be looking at it and saying, “Why aren't there more people?” it's like saying, “Well, okay, but this is more people than we've seen since '68. This is more than the recent antiwar mobilizations. This is more than those that came out for Obama when he got elected.” It doesn't seem like this historical fact is being taken into consideration.
KB: But the movement is comprised of a lot of young people who have never really seen any sort of mass protests before, particularly those protests in the 1960s. How do you develop this sense of historical consciousness?
JB: I don't know if they need to right now. Maybe at some point they will want to. But it seems that they're finding they're own forms. So, I guess I'm not too concerned about it. Do you think I should be pounding the table and saying, “You're forgetting your ancestors!”?
KB: Don't you think that there is a very rich history of political struggles?
JB: Yes, it's a fabulous history.
KB: But isn't that valuable?
JB: Yes, it is valuable. But what if they're actually going to be more effective than some of us were in our earlier days? We stand to watch and see how they're doing.
KB: Does that mean this should become more of a history conversation? As if we're asking, “What do you remember from when you were involved in the 60s?”
JB: I think that there are people coming in who are bringing whatever wisdom they have. When Angela [Davis] was here she said, “Look. Make sure that whatever communities you are forming are safe and hospitable for racial minorities, women, lesbian, gay, queer, bi and the disabled.” Of course, there is always the risk that it will become another boy-driven movement and forget these communities.
KB: Finally, is there one piece of advice you feel is most valuable that you could offer to anyone involved in any ongoing social or political movement?
JB: I don't know what I can give. But I wrote a book on Antigone once. And the problem with Antigone is that she stood up to the despot Creon, but in such a way that she ended up dying. So she bought her defiance with her death. The real question I ended up asking, after studying that play for some time, was, “What would it mean for Antigone to have stood up to Creon and lived?” And the only way she could have lived is if she had had a serious social movement with her. If she arrived with a social movement to take down the despot, maybe it would have taken 18 days only, like in Egypt. It's really important to be able to re-situate one's rage and destitution in the context of a social movement.