October 8, 2013

Judith Butler, Leading Philosopher, Speaks to Crowd of 400

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In a world where populist movements increasingly dictate social discourse, Prof. Judith Butler, rhetoric and comparative literature, University of California at Berkeley, spoke about what it means to represent “the people,” to an audience of more than 400 people at Uris Hall Tuesday.

Butler, a leading philosopher who has written about issues of gender and sexuality, feminism and politics, was introduced as a “powerfully transformative thinker” by Prof. Brett de Bary, Asian studies.

“It’s difficult when introducing Judith Butler not to slip into grandiose rhetoric,” said de Bard, who is acting director of the Society for the Humanities, which sponsored the lecture. Butler started off her speech asking the audience who the “we” is in the idea of “we the people.”

As a practical launching point for a very theoretical discussion of what it means to represent the public, Butler noted various movements that have been classified as populist, referencing the Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York City and protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt and Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul.

Butler said she questioned whether these movements — or even any movement — could truly represent the public, since there will always be people who are unable or unwilling to participate. She explored the concept of freedom of assembly through the way it is constructed and the ways in which it is claimed.

Although the government protects the right to assemble, if that right is collectively exercised, the government could be threatened as people could overtake the government — a phenomenon Butler described as paradoxical.

“There’s a risk in this formulation from the start,” Butler said. “Freedom of assembly has to precede and exceed any form of government. … [This] may be a precondition of politics itself.”

Butler also discussed the relationship between democracy and the public exercising its will. Though the consent of the people is necessary to establish a democratic government, Butler said that the power of the populace cannot be fully transferred to the electorate, saying that there is “something in popular sovereignty that is untransferrable.”

Butler said that, ultimately, it is impossible for both social movements and democratic governments to fully represent the public. She questioned the theoretical underpinnings of the concept of the public, saying that no group of people would show up and say “hey, we’re the people.”

Eliciting laughter from the audience, she added that such an occurrence would be “odd, if not terrifying.” “People don’t need to be united on every issue,” Butler said. Nevertheless, she added, “the name of the people is always at risk of being expropriated.”

She said political representation is a method by which the people are “abbreviated and nearly lost.” A more extreme version of curtailing the public is by removing members of the public from the public sphere through imprisonment, she said.

The prison serves at the “limit of the public sphere,” according to Butler, with “freedom of assembly haunted by imprisonment.” “Privatization and prison work together to keep people out of places they believe they belong,” Butler said, pointing to people who protest without permits as an example.

Students had mixed responses to Butler’s lecture. Suli Can, grad, Binghamton University, said she thought Butler’s talk was “theoretically significant” but “problematic at some points.”

“It was a good analysis of recent demonstrations in general, but I think it was very theoretical-based and left off some very important distinctions among all these movements,” Can said. “I think it was very important part was her theorizing who the people are in terms of assembly, future assembly and who the public is.”

Jevan Hutson ’16 said he was pleasantly surprised by the talk, since he didn’t know what to expect going into the lecture because the title — “Plural Action” — was “rather vague within the context of her work.”

“I thought [the lecture] was profoundly necessary,” Hutson said. “We, especially as members of the U.S., tend to understand and value democracy on a superficial level. We don’t think critically about our society — why it exists, why it is the way it is. … When we proclaim ‘we the people’ we blindly stand behind this grandiose, beautifully worded ‘thing’ without truly understanding its meaning and importance or even how it functions in a broader social context.”