March 13, 2003

Butler Lectures at C.U.

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Judith Butler, distinguished feminist philosopher, major contributor to queer theory, author of Gender Trouble and professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, gave a lecture yesterday afternoon to a packed Auditorium D in Goldwin Smith Hall entitled, “Precarious Life.”

The lecture was the first of the Feminist Theory Conference, sponsored by Cornell’s English department.

Butler incorportated the ideas of the philosopher Levinas into her many of her points.

She began by speaking about the humanities and their relevance to today’s society, a prominent concept in her work.

Butler went on to speak on the ethics of nonviolence by relating it to current world affairs. She connected a variety of her theories to promote a better understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the pending war with Iraq, the current situation in Afghanistan, and the foreign relations of the U.S. government.

Butler focused on the relationship between the representation attributed to issues by the media, and the subsequent humanization, or dehumanization, of an issue or public figure. She said the media makes biased choices about what issues to give a human face to, thereby setting the agenda for what will be “humanized” in the minds of the public.

She presented the example of the large number of children in Iraq who died in the Gulf War who did not receive an obituary or any identification through the U.S. media, in contrast to the detailed coverage and obituaries given to the September 11th victims. She said that in the latter situation, the media used “the obituary as an act of nation-building,” playing on people’s emotions and gaining patriotism in its audience.

She further illustrated her point with the example of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was killed while covering a story in Pakistan. She compared the coverage of this story with the number of Aghani deaths not given as much media attention, commenting, “Will they ever be as human to me as Daniel Pearl?”

Butler took a clear stance on the current conflict with Iraq when she commented that the U.S. “defies the United Nations and then demands its support.”

Butler related these issues to her philosophy on “the structure of the address.” She explained that in “some way, we come to exist, as it were, in the moment we’re being addressed,” relating this idea to how the public perceives images presented by the media.

The lecture was followed by a question and answer session, where Butler spoke further on her ideas of violence, as well as on the current movements and resistances around the world.

Audience members found Butler’s lecture to be insightful, but too dense at some points to follow clearly.

“I thought it was a very brilliant lecture in that she was addressing the crucial ethical, philosophical question and she didn’t stop there; she [bridges] it to current state violence…I’m deeply impressed,” said an anonymous graduate student.

Andrea Hektor ’06 said, “Shockingly enough, I understood about half of what he said.”

Colleen Cary, ’05 commented, “It was really dense language.” She added, “it was hard to absorb, though I did grasp most concepts; but definitely it was amazing.”

Archived article by Amy Green