Judith Butler at Bryn Mawr College: The 2011 Mary Flexner Lectureship

Judith Butler looking thoughtful

Preeminent gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler holds the 2011 Mary Flexner Lectureship at Bryn Mawr College, joining the ranks of some of the world’s most influential humanists in presenting significant new work at Bryn Mawr.

During her three-week residency in November, Butler is giving a series of three public lectures titled Bodies in Alliance, the first presentation of new work by Butler that is to be published by Harvard University Press. Bryn Mawr faculty members and graduate students join Butler to discuss each lecture after it is presented. Butler has also visited class meetings of five undergraduate courses that incorporate Butler’s work and are being offered in conjunction with the lecture series this fall. Other activities associated with the Flexner Lecture Series include a film series, several informal opportunities for students to meet and talk with Butler, and "Preoccupations: Looking at Pictures with Judith Butler," a colloquium sponsored by the College’s Center for Visual Culture.

Bodies in Alliance: The 2011 Mary Flexner Lecture Series

Through her three public lectures, Judith Butler will “consider implicit social regulations as well as explicit legal constraints that govern who may appear in public, and who may not.” Butler posits that “How we are interpellated into gender through various public discourses determines to what extent any of us will appear as intelligible before the law, in the media, in various forms of intimate and public life.” She furthers her argument by suggesting that “the struggle with explicit law, but also those mental health regulations governing appropriate gender and sexuality are essentially linked to a political right to appear.” She explores this concept by making connections with other social groups by saying “this right is fundamental not only to sexual and gender minorities, but to undocumented immigrants and racial and religious minorities, forming a potential basis for a new form of social alliance, however uneasy and unexpected it may seem, and a new way of thinking about media and public space.”

Lecture 1: Gender Politics and the Right to Appear

Butler’s first public lecture and faculty seminar will consider Hannah Arendt’s views on the “space of appearance” that is necessary for political action. Considering various efforts in the international arena to protect transgendered people against violence and discrimination, we will ask how the right to appear challenges certain conceptions of the public sphere, and why gender and sexuality are crucial for thinking about what counts as public, and whose actions are considered political. We will consider as well religious minorities, the regulation of public veiling, and the sometimes inconsistent claims of secular democracy as it seeks to separate the public sphere from religion at the same time that it is bound to protect the rights of religious minorities. How might thinking about transgender and religious minorities as they challenge us to think about the right to appear during these times?

Lecture 2: Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street

Butler’s second public lecture and faculty seminar will offer a way to think about political mobilization that does not stay restricted to the specific interests of a given identity. Rehearsing the important distinction between “queer” politics and gay and lesbian rights frameworks, we will ask whether there can be a mobilization for the right to marry without a critique of the institution of marriage, or a right to serve in the military without a critique of contemporary forms of militarization. One form of politics makes the demand for inclusion in existing institutions by those who claim that sexual identity ought not to be a ground for exclusion. But do such politics become grounded in group or individual identity, and how would one move from such a politics to a broader struggle for social justice? Are there ideas of freedom that form an alternative to libertarian forms of personal freedom and that are bound up with equality and social justice? Why should those who struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom care about racism, militarization, and issues of global justice?

Lecture 3: Toward an Ethics of Co-Habitation

Butler’s third and final lecture and faculty seminar will explore the argument that new forms of alliances are often based on converging experiences of precarity, conceived as economic, social, and cultural. Populations who cannot appear in public are subject to street violence or police harassment, arrest, or deportation by the state and all negotiate the politically volatile character of appearing in public. They are rendered precarious both by appearing and by not appearing, a double-bind with serious psychic repercussions. Without the right to appear in public, populations become precarious, deprived of legal recognition and enfranchisement, but also subject to social and psychic forms of injury. If we consider the precarity of populations who suffer deprivations such as these, we are confronted with “queer” – in the sense of unexpected – alliances.