Judith Butler’s talk yesterday afternoon surprised on two counts. First, there was the fact that the talk, ambiguously titled “Violence, Non-Violence” and delivered by a woman renowned for her work on gender theory, was actually about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, her presentation and the audience questions that followed employed the kind of calm, removed and intellectual language that, though common in academia, came as a shock for a subject that typically makes blood pressures and speaking volumes soar.
This is Butler’s first visit to Cornell as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large.
Prof. Jonathan Culler, chair of the English department, introduced her as an especially appropriate pick for the position because “far more than most academics, she is a professor who has been at large in the world, ranging freely outside the academic world.”
He noted that in addition to being a prolific and respected scholar in the United States, Butler “has also become a major public intellectual in Europe – even in France!”
Butler began by warning the audience of a couple hundred that her talk would deviate from her more typical subject matter.
“If you know me at all – or know this thing called ‘Judith Butler’ – it may be that you know me through my work on gender studies,” she said. “But for now I am interested in pursing Jewish ethics.”
As she spoke, Butler’s face was barely visible over the large wooden podium before her, but her presence nonetheless loomed large.
Calling for an open intellectual discourse about Israel, Butler lamented the strong emotions and stigmas that normally stifle such discussions. She said that many Jews feel as though they cannot express discontentment with Israel without first renouncing their Judaism, and that those who do are all too often labeled “self-hating Jews.”
She herself has fallen subject to the latter: “There are loads of Web sites that keep lists of all of the self-hating Jews and I think that I’ve made all of them,” she said.
Butler engaged the works of Edward Said, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas to explore identity in Israeli-Palestinian relations. In particular, she questioned Levinas’ claim that persecution is the core both of Judaism and of Israel.
Butler takes issue with “the idea that you can be persecuted for all of history without ever being viewed as the persecutor.” Such an interpretation, she argued, puts Jews in a position where they can always present their actions as self-defense, and thus never be blamed as the aggressors.
Butler also criticized Levinas’ disinterest in engaging with Muslims. She told a story of Levinas meeting with the late Pope John Paul II and the prominent anthropologist Clifford Geertz. When the Pope asked the men if it is possible to create dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims, Levinas responded that it would only be possible among Christians and Jews.
In addition to condemning those who dismiss Islam as a religion, Butler also questioned people who want to withhold rights from Palestinians to prevent them from outnumbering and overpowering the Jews.
“I want to call into question why the demographic advantage has to be preserved as a part of Zionism. It wasn’t always that way,” she said.
One audience member asked Butler under what conditions violence is justified, to which she responded that she is “not an absolutist in my ostensible passivism.”
Rather, she said she was mostly interested in arguing against revenge theory and questioning a state that would work to preclude the citizenship of certain groups.
Butler closed by urging people to come to her seminar today at 10 a.m. in Barnes Auditorium.
The auditorium was abuzz with discussion long after Butler stepped out from behind the dwarfing podium.
“She really embodies the role of public intellectual in the way that she brings her academic practice out to address current political concerns,” said Theo Hummer grad.
Ashley Puig Hertz grad also commented on Butler’s choice to apply her more abstract theories to current controversies. “She was talking about very charged, controversial issues, and discussing them in a way that was very enlightening,” she said.
Prof. Stuart Davis, English, said all he had to say was that “she was in rare and beautiful form.”
Archived article by Samantha Henig
Sun Staff Writer