Judith Butler: Scary, Kick-Ass Smart

I went to see Judith Butler last week at UIC. This is not something I would typically do of my own volition, sad to say. I’m not at all motivated on a sunny, 70 degree Friday afternoon to go and sit in a crowded room full of smart-people wannabes and listen to highfalutin esoteric theory. But I made a deal with a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in awhile and I couldn’t bring myself to cancel just because I’m an intellectual couch potato. So I went. Of course, I’m glad I did.

Judith Butler is kind of a god in her own right. Her work spans about three or four academic disciplines, it’s objectively brilliant, and she writes the greatest most convoluted sentences known to all people-kind. She’s one of those people whose names gets thrown around by lesser-known but desperately jealous theory-ophiles who want to sound really “in the know.” She’s important. So just for celebrity factor alone I thought it would be interesting. And it definitely was.

I’m sorry to say but I do give UIC a thumbs down for how the event was planned. Not enough seating, no microphones for the audience, and a blazing hot room made the event indicative of every academic lecture I’ve ever been to. But JB herself was somethin’ else. Diminutive in stature, she packs a walloping philosophical punch. From the minute I laid my eyes upon the short, salt and pepper bowl haircut, parting of its own will in a conveniently placed center spot on her forehead and the square, shoulder-padded black blazer, I knew she was intellectual royalty. She had on the “smart woman’s” dress code. Two thumbs up (but with tongue slightly in cheek) on the fact that she read one of her more recent papers…and I mean read it. So to listen to her meant focusing on every single word in order to quickly, efficiently move it into a place in the sentence that made sense. Since each sentence took roughly five minutes to complete, at about minute 3 you realized that you couldn’t get lazy now…you had to hear that last part of the sentence or all that hard work would be lost.

But despite all of that which was so wonderfully, typically “intellectual” about her presence, that’s not why she’s a smart woman. She blew me away with her topic: Her ultimate question was how we come to decide which lives (from the Iraq war and the images we use to translate that war) are “grievable” and thus, human. How is it that we come to understand that the lives of women and children, of those of a particular nationality, color, or creed should be grieved over when lost while others deaths mark a kind of poetic justice or ring with righteousness? Even more intense, how does the way in which these images that create categories like “the tortured” or “the victim” intersect our lives so essentially that they literally and efficaciously change who we understand to be human, including ourselves.

While she introduces us to these questions under the guise of “the effects of media,” her argument turns to a deeply embedded, real effect that these images have on the human condition. It’s not like watching a tree getting blown in the wind; the bent tree and rustling leaves are an effect of the wind but once the wind dies down the tree returns to its original state. Her argument is much more sophisticated and, frankly, scary. These images of war, “frames of war” she calls them, essentially change who we are. We are not trees bending in the wind; like a nuclear holocaust, this wind–these images–is essentially changing what it means to be human and we’re growing into a species we’ve never been before. Nothing will “return to normal” when (and if) this war ends…because the images of Abu Graib and the images of the caskets returning home indelibly etch into our minds who “deserves” to be mourned; they determine for us whose lives are legitimate enough to mourn and whose lives are deservedly taken from them.

From a sociological standpoing, we can critique this up and down. I won’t because I think she’s frying a much bigger, more important fish. And aside from that, I think this kind of questioning signals a special kind of brilliance. I’ve forgotten the joy of being in the presence of someone who is obviously so vigilantly, stridently, assertively creative. Just being able to share her worldview for a short time on a Friday when, admittedly, I wanted to be elsewhere just made me remember the joy I find in turning the world on its head and making sense of the ways in which the pieces of the puzzle re-align. I don’t get this close to Scary Smart too often. And it was like a breath of fresh air. I felt challenged. At strangely at home there.

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