Judith Butler Superstar

Last night I went to see Judith Butler speak live at the Volksbühne in Berlin. No doubt she has become the pop star of postfeminist theory, which is perhaps a postmodern phenomenon in itself, and consequently the auditorium was packed with intellectuals, queers and hipsters, and combinations of the three. Her lecture was called “Queere Bündnisse und Antikriegspolitik” (“Queer Alliances and Anti-war Politics”) and to my surprise she held the entire speech in German (and still did a better job than many native speakers I’ve had to listen to). I was also positively surprised by how constructive and applicable her speech was, unlike her usually quite abstract and inaccessible writing, for which she has often been criticized.

Her lecture was an appeal to everyone to fight for the rights of all disenfranchised minorities, and especially to reclaim public space for them. The queer community needs to form alliances in order to stop violence directed towards minorities such as transgendered people, and this venture goes hand in hand with fighting police power, militarism, racism and nationalism. She especially warned about the criminalisation and pathologisation of such minorities, as in some states transgendered people have to prove the ‘pathology’ of their ‘condition’ in order to receive benefits and legal rights. In that sense, violence can be experienced not just physically, but then again, it often is.

According to Butler, „gender is the exercise of freedom“, and part of this exercise is the ability to appear in public. However, it should be a choice to show one’s gender as much as it should be a choice to hide it and render it invisible for the public. I could not help but be reminded of the issue of the burqa at this point, and sure enough Butler mentioned the burqa ban during the Q&A session, and how it is not so much a consequence of fear of the unknown but of losing hegemony.

In another attempt to address contemporary issues, Butler stated how the Palestinians are being implicitly referred to as “socially dead” (“gesellschaftlich tot”). Even though all life should be worthy (of protection), war and militarism render this an impossibility by claiming that some life is more worthy than another. However, democracy means living with people of different opinions and acknowledging their rights as well. Butler claimed that the Israelis are instrumentalising the gay and lesbian community and advocating their separation from other minorities.

Butler’s main aim was to promote the forming of alliances. Freedom is more than individual liberty, and can only be achieved within a community. Our bodies and our selves are “enmeshed in sociality”; we are depending on and conditioned by others. Therefore, this human interdependency is the primary condition for our political lives, or, as Butler liked to put it with a wink: “We’re all over each other, from the beginning.”

Even though I don’t think Butler’s speech was overwhelming, since she didn’t present any particularly new or radical ideas, I still enjoyed it as an inspiring pep talk for everyone fighting for human rights and equality. Judith Butler sure is incredibly intelligent, an impressive personality, and I’m still a fan.

UPDATE: On Saturday the organizers of Berlin’s Christopher Street Day were going to honour Judith Butler with the prize for civil courage but during the celebration Butler refused to accept the award on the grounds that she considered the event too commercial and that it didn’t address issues such racism and islamophobia. You can read a more detailed description of the events in German on this blog:


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