Reflections on Judith Butler

chelseam's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed Butler's talk tonight. It was also my first time in the Goodhart Auditorium, which is gorgeous! I think it will take me a little time to form some more complete thoughts, so for now here are some musings. I think my favorite moment of the evening was when Jane McAuliffe was mediating the questions and requested that speakers "identify themselves." While Butler emphasized that relaxing norms/categories/definitions is not the same as transcending them, it seemed somehow ironic to me that the moment the official lecture ended, we were confronted with the question of identity. During the lecture I also found myself reflecting on my own relationship with gender. Butler discussed the notion that our genders are "proclaimed" for us when we are born and suggested that perhaps this is not the best way to go. This made me wonder how individuals would gender themselves if it stopped being done for them. Clearly we all have a different way of 'being' in our gender - performing our gender per se. I personally feel that a large part of my identity is rooted in my gender - in woman/she/her, but its interesting to look back on the ways I have "performed" that woman-ness over the years -including the short haired, baggy clothes tomboy days of elementary school. While I've never really questioned my woman-ness, I agree with Butler's idea that there is a way in which we all wonder if we are "doing our gender" well enough. I also thought it was interesting how Butler discussed "his or her gender presentation," because even in a lecture related to relaxing the gender binaries, Butler still talked about gender in terms of his/her - which I suppose goes back to her point that embracing the leakiness of these categories is not the same as abandoning them.

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Anne Dalke's picture

The delicious irony of the call to "identify yourself"!

This is such a great perception, chelseam!--your observation made me realize how problematic it is for the College to make ourselves a "destination location" (notice on NPR: the "hot" event you can't get tickets too...so everyone who listens knows something big is going on @ Bryn Mawr this month...) by hosting talks by an intellectual whose work is all about questioning the ways in which institutions "interpellate" (="hail us" into certain performances). So there's a particularly delicious irony here that, @ the end of a talk asking us to question such identity-formations, the president of the institution asked each speaker to "identify" herself. (Even more deliciously ironic: the first student questioner gave only her first name and said, "Is that adequate?")

Butler's work is all about the possibility of MISrecognition between an institution (like a school) and the subject it compels. We can HAIL you to a certain performance,  but you can also not respond as we expect/hope--there's always a range of disobedience possible here, and hailing us to perform a certain way can produce a set of consequences that exceed/confound all “disciplining intentions.” The "hailing" of the institution creates more than it means to, an excess of its intent, and it is the slippage which has always interested Butler, this ambivalence of what it means to be socially constittued: what happens if you enter social life on terms that both enable-and-violate you? How can you occupy the interpellation in order to resignify it?

Butler writes about this in many places, but perhaps most compellingly in her essay, "Is Gender Burning?" This is a reading of the film Paris Is Burning. And that film will be shown, in the company both of Butler and director Jennie Livingston, in the McPherson Auditoritum @ Goodhart from 7-9 on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Be there or be square!

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