Philosopher and professor in rhetoric at the University of California (Berkeley), Judith Butler, born in 1956, made her name in the English-speaking academic world a quarter of a century ago with the publication of her Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. This complex work, which has now become a classic, has nothing in common with the ‘gender theory’ recently invented by the opponents of gay marriage.
Far from having invented gender studies, which have been taught in American universities since the early 1960s and which sought to distinguish anatomical sex from socially or psychically constructed gender identities, Judith Butler was rather more of an iconoclastic heir to them. Basing herself on the French thought of the 1970s – from Simone de Beauvoir to Jacques Lacan – in her 1990 work she gave due focus to life on the ‘border lines’, arguing that sexual difference is always fluid and that transsexuality (the conviction that one belongs to another sex), for example, could be a way of subverting the established order and refusing the biological norm. Butler had herself very early in life found herself in a situation outside the norm, lacking in borders, on account of her identity as a Jewish woman raised as a Jew but critical of the policies of the State of Israel.
Judith Butler, author of Frames of War and Precarious Life, visited Occupy Wall Street to lend her support to the protesters there. In a rallying speech, amplified through the human microphone, she gave her thoughts on the reception of the movement and its demands.
I came here to lend my support to you today, to offer my solidarity, for this unprecedented display of democracy and popular will. People have asked, 'So what are the demands? What are the demands all these people are making?' Either they say there are no demands and that leaves your critics confused - or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands. And impossible demands, they say, are just not practical.
If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible. If the right to shelter, food and employment are impossible demands, then we demand the impossible. If it is impossible to demand that those who profit from the recession redistribute their wealth and cease their greed then yes, we demand the impossible.
But it is true that there are no demands that you can submit to arbitration here because we are not just demanding economic justice and social equality, we are assembling in public, we are coming together as bodies in alliance, in the street and in the square. We're standing here together making democracy, enacting the phrase 'We the people!'
A video of Butler delivering her speech at Occupy Wall Street is available below.
In a recent article for the London Review of Books, Judith Butler examines the political and cultural implications of the on-going trial in Tel Aviv to determine the future stewardship of boxes of Kafka’s original writings, the majority of which is currently unpublished. Butler discusses the claim of the National Library of Israel, which takes the position that Kafka’s writing is a cultural asset belonging to the Jewish people, and as such, rightly belongs to the Jewish state:
If Kafka is claimed as a primarily Jewish writer, he comes to belong primarily to the Jewish people, and his writing to the cultural assets of the Jewish people. This claim, already controversial (since it effaces other modes of belonging or, rather, non-belonging), becomes all the more so when we realise that the legal case rests on the presumption that it is the state of Israel that represents the Jewish people. This may seem a merely descriptive claim, but it carries with it extraordinary, and contradictory, consequences. First, the claim overcomes the distinction between Jews who are Zionist and Jews who are not, for example Jews in the diaspora for whom the homeland is not a place of inevitable return or a final destination. Second, the claim that it is Israel that represents the Jewish people has domestic consequences as well. Indeed, Israel’s problem of how best to achieve and maintain a demographic majority over its non-Jewish population, now estimated to constitute more than 20 per cent of the population within its existing borders, is predicated on the fact that Israel is not a restrictively Jewish state and that, if it is to represent its population fairly or equally, it must represent both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. The assertion that Israel represents the Jewish people thus denies the vast number of Jews outside Israel who are not represented by it, either legally or politically, but also the Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of that state. The position of the National Library relies on a conception of the nation of Israel that casts the Jewish population outside its territory as living in the Galut, in a state of exile and despondency that should be reversed, and can be reversed only through a return to Israel. The implicit understanding is that all Jews and Jewish cultural assets—whatever that might mean—outside Israel eventually and properly belong to Israel, since Israel represents not only all Jews but all significant Jewish cultural production.