Laureation address: Professor Judith Butler

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Leters 
Laureation by Professor Lorna Hutson, School of English

Friday 13 September 2013

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and in the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California at Berkeley. By all the usual criteria of academic distinction – visiting professorships, honours and awards, widespread publication and translation – Judith Butler’s career has been exceptionally dazzling. She has been the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School and has held visiting professorships at Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Yale, NYU, Cornell, Princeton, Amsterdam and Paris. Across the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis and gay and lesbian studies she has received numerous awards and invitations, including the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities, the Adorno Prize, the Oscar Sternbach Award for Psychoanalysis and the Brudner Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to Gay and Lesbian Studies. Her books have been translated into languages too numerous to mention, though a very abbreviated list would include Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, French, Italian, Korean, Spanish, Swedish, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Slovenian and Turkish.

All this, in the currency of academic recognition, defines brilliant achievement in the humanities that is, in itself, honoris causa enough for St Andrews to recognise as a part of its 600th Anniversary celebrations. Yet what has made Judith Butler’s work so remarkable, so outstanding among much distinguished contemporary work in the humanities, has been the fact that it has been the exceptional, uncompromising and academic rigour of her arguments that has enabled her work to move decisively beyond the academy and into the public sphere, transforming the lives of ordinary people who have been, or would otherwise be, subject to violence or social exclusion because of their bodies or sexual orientation. Judith Butler’s work belies the idea of the ivory tower, the popular notion that difficult, abstract ideas and rigorous academic debate have no purchase in the world, no transformative capacity. On the contrary, she shows us that there is no substitute for the challenge of thought. Throughout her career, she has shown a bracing readiness to court controversy and make intellectual trouble, whether in relation to feminist theories of subjectivity, to the American and British post-9/11 discourse of a ‘war on terror’, or to Israel’s claim to act in the name of the Jewish people, conflating Judaism and Zionism. Springing from her political activism outside the academy, Butler’s work has nevertheless shown the effectiveness of the academic, the power of pure argument to transform the conditions of our lives and enlarge our humanity.

Certain concepts in Judith Butler’s thought have been at the heart of this transformative capacity. One has been her – at first sight, surprising – emphasis on the conditions that make a life intelligible and that make it what she calls “grievable” – that is, the conditions that make it possible for one to grieve in public over the loss of another’s life. Another important emphasis has been her challenge to the spatial metaphor implicit in the notion of the “public sphere”. Rather than a place, the “public sphere”, she argues, denotes the changing conditions of our “knowability” to one another – it is shaped and constituted again and again by what we are permitted to see, hear and make sense of. And, just as Butler challenges the spatial metaphor of the “public sphere”, so she challenges the temporal metaphor implicit in the idea of law. We speak of a law prohibiting something, as if that thing existed in its prohibited form before the law spoke. Much of Butler’s brilliant critique of structuralist psychoanalysis and its feminist developments depend on her ingenious reversal of this temporal relation. It is not, to take a Freudian example, that ‘primary sexual dispositions’ existed before a Law of the Father repressed and prohibited them, but that the fiction of such a law produces the idea of certain kinds of sexuality as ‘primary’ and so as unintelligible, unliveable.

These three related emphases – on the conditions that enable lives to be intelligible and publicly grievable; on the ‘public sphere’ as the changing site of such intelligibility; and on the constitutive anteriority of ‘law’ to that which it prohibits – have been central to Butler’s work, from the ground-breaking Gender Trouble of 1990 to her most recent work criticising Zionism. In a moving and elegant short book Butler wrote on Sophocles’ Antigone, she epitomises the complex critique at work in Gender Trouble.

Antigone, you will remember, disobeys her Uncle Creon’s edict against any burial rites or public grief for her brother, Polyneices, who has been killed in battle. Because of her disobedience, Antigone is entombed alive and her childless, living death has been taken to allegorise the prohibition against incest that marks the threshold of what Lacan called the ‘symbolic’. The question here, as Butler observes, is whether by making Antigone’s death-in-life stand for the incest taboo that inaugurates the symbolic order, psychoanalysis has also foreclosed and entombed, or made unintelligible and ungrievable, all the forms of kinship that do not conform to the model of heterosexual, nuclear family. We do not need, that is, to keep burying Antigone alive; we do not need to assume that an incest taboo limits the imaginable forms of kinship to modes of heterosexual reproduction.

But of course, the reach of Judith Butler’s critical thought is not limited to the ethics and politics of gender and sexuality. In Precarious Life, a brave collection of essays written after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, she challenged the US government’s heightening of nationalistic discourse and extension of surveillance mechanisms, as well as lamenting the wavering of journalists and public intellectuals as a result. In these essays, once again, Butler posed the questions of “who counts as human?” and “what makes for a grievable life?”, contrasting the public narrativisation of individual lives lost in the Trade Center with the publicly invisible deaths of countless millions of Iraqis.

I called Precarious Life a brave collection, but really every essay and every book Judith Butler has written has been brave. She knows all too well the risks of speaking out. For example, her most recent work insists on the importance of being able to imagine and understand the suffering, not just of one’s own people, but of others. She seeks and finds in Jewish intellectual traditions – in the thought of Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin – an embrace of diasporic ideas of living among others, of unchosen, inclusive and plural cohabitation. Interpreting and debating these intellectual traditions is essential to academic freedom, which in turn raises the level of debate in the ‘public sphere’.

Ten years on from the writing of Gender Trouble, Judith Butler observed that the book had sprung from the difficulty she experienced in living both as a philosopher and as an activist in a gay and lesbian community. “It began for me”, she wrote, “with a crossing-over, sitting on Rehoboth Beach, and wondering whether I could link the different sides of my life”. The Hebrew name ‘Rehoboth’ means, appropriately, ‘wide expanses’ – in linking different sides of her own life, the inimitable Judith Butler has widened and expanded the possibilities of life for us all.