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Judith Butler on "building a world together"


In The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, Stephanie Berbec interviews Judith Butler about her latest book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, and recent protest movements in the US like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. In the interview, Bulter reflects on the ethics of nonviolence, precarity as a shared condition, and the urgency of creating political alliances across race, gender, and class lines. Here’s an excerpt:

TOJ: You make mention of the rise of the sans papiers or others within the “shadowy domain of existence” who, radically deprived of recognition, are beginning to enter into the sphere of appearance by way of mass demonstration, attempting to lay claim to space and demanding the right to appear, to say that their lives matter and that they exist. This brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work of the body as a “gaping wound.”4 In this sense, protest, as bodily enactment and bodily vulnerability in the street or in the square, is essentially a visible exclamation and reminder that all is not well in the world. How might this conception mesh with your own in terms of how we think about the visible appearance of bodies in the public sphere? And what’s made available to us or overlooked here as we seek language that may aid in the destigmatization of fear that is associated with a large group of bodies assembled and the misconstrual of protest as innately violent?

JB: I am sure that Merleau-Ponty is in the background of my thoughts, for he is the one who tells us that the limits of the body do not contain us but expose us to a world without which our living is not possible. Indeed, we are given over from the start, so to have a body is already to be in the care of the other or to be in need of such care. We cannot separate our idea of a persisting body from networks of care in this regard; when infrastructures fail and falter, so too do we.

I am open to a world that acts on me in ways that cannot be fully predicted or controlled in advance, and something about my openness is not, strictly speaking, under my control. That opening toward the world is not something that I can exactly will away. This social character of our persistence and our possible flourishing means that we have to take collective responsibility for overcoming conditions of induced precarity. Demonstrations that oppose evictions in Barcelona and demonstrations that oppose police brutality against black men and women in the United States are making claims of justice; they are documenting the failures of justice, and they are part of our political freedom and even our political hope. I see how often those demonstrations are called “riots” or “unrest” and how quickly they can be shut down for reasons of “security.” But without the freedom of movement and assembly, we lose our very character as a democracy.

I was in a cab the other day in New York City passing a demonstration against Trump on West Fourth Street. I said to Oscar, the cab driver, “They will be there every week.” He responded, “And then they will be there every day and every night,” at which point I was reminded how revolutionary movements for social justice emerge.

Image of Judith Butler via