“[the college news is] great”: An Intimate Sojourn with Judith Butler

Posted December 8th, 2011 at 5:24 pm.

By Maddy Court ’12 and Mary Zaborskis ’12
Originally published in the
college news

Fig. 1:

“I swim every day, I drink good Italian wines, I have a network of friends, many of whom are not in the academy. I like old movies—melodramas and film noir—and I travel,” says one Judith Butler, nonchalantly sipping her coffee.

The late morning sun filters through the crystalline windows of Wyndham House and casts a rosy glow upon Butler as she speaks candidly about her theories, hobbies, and favorite wines. Indeed, these are conversations she’s been having during her residency these past few weeks.

“Bryn Mawr impresses me as being intense, intimate, and dedicated to serious study and conversation. I’m impressed with students and faculty who care a lot about their classes,” she says, also noting in particular how “dedicated” the faculty are to their teaching.

Examples of the kinds of conversations she has been having with students are encapsulated in the range of topics that were covered at “Conversations with Judith,” an intimate gathering featuring comestibles and Judith apparel in the opulent Dorothy Vernon Room.

“It was friendly and covered a wide range of concerns, some very academic: Lady GaGa, Occupy Wall Street, retribution and forgiveness, the status of racial minorities at Bryn Mawr . . . the Israel and Palestine conflict . . . the issue of transgender and popular representations,” Butler recalls.

We inquire about Butler’s feelings on women’s colleges at a time when single-sex institutions have to evaluate their policies and potentially archaic definitions of gender to remain inclusive.

“I think women’s colleges serve an important function,” Butler begins.

She thinks that women’s colleges provide “small classes in which women are free to speak, formulate ideas, and gain a sense of self and confidence.” Butler finds these skills particularly important to cultivate considering her own experience in college.

“I remember not speaking as an undergraduate,” she shares.

Butler explains that she attended Bennington, a women’s college that had just become coeducational when Butler arrived, for two years. She then transferred to Yale and remembers, “I didn’t speak—philosophy seminars were male-dominated and it took me a long time to figure out how to enter those conversations . . . it wasn’t simple for me.”

She then turned from the personal to the political implications of women’s institutions.

“The global issue of women and education is an important one. If you look at the global statistics on literacy, women are the most illiterate  . . .  strong institutions that represent women’s education as a goal and value are extremely important for both women who go there and women globally.”

Still, she cautions women’s colleges to retain a porous understanding of what being a “woman” means.

“The category of ‘women’ is a complex one,” she explains. When the category is used for “separation and exclusionary purposes,” that is when problems can arise. But when “‘women’ is regarded as an open category, people can collect under the sign of women, [people] who may or may not be biologically female.”

We asked if she thought that the name “women’s college” is problematic. Butler didn’t think it necessarily had to be, as long as we are vigilant to keep “‘women’ an open and inclusive and historically developing” category.

“And this can only happen if there is an ethos of communication,” Butler expands. She posits that “people can ally with the goal of a women’s college who are not necessarily women.”

She offered similar musing when we asked her about the future of queer studies and gender and sexuality studies, which are facing particularly scrutiny in the academy during a time of budget cuts and a false sense of being post-gender.

“[These disciplines and methodologies house] very specific bodies of knowledge that have emerged and need to be brought together and studied in their own right,” she firmly states, adding that within the academy, queer studies “should be a program and a methodology, and it has a place in many discussions—that has to be said.”

She sees the unsure future of queer studies as “tied to a broader struggle to preserve the humanities, arts, and kinds of critical approaches whose value is not precisely quantifiable.” She explains that “as institutions move to more quantifiable values,” those whose values are not quantifiable become at risk. She urges for “Queer, gay, and lesbian studies . . . to make sure [they] have really strong alliances with other groups.”

While these modes of thinking may not be “precisely quantifiable,” Butler sees them as absolutely invaluable and necessary tools. She explains how liberal arts colleges are important institutions that sustain these values, and shared what she thinks are the most important tools to gain from a liberal arts education.

“Simply put: critical thinking  . . .  and values—what do I want to be, how do I want to contribute to our world  . . .  some of the practices that one acquires [from this education] are the capacity to read closely . . .  listen to opposite views, converse, see an issue through, [and] see how issues are formed in popular discourse.”

“Being critical is not being negative—it’s asking under what conditions people form views, what’s left out [from these views], how we might re-view, and how we might bring that kind of thinking into other domains of life,” she elaborates.

As she prepares to leave, we bestow upon her clippings of the college news’ well-received “Jammin’ with Judith” column [in which Zaborskis published Butler-inspired parodies of popular-song lyrics]. We take a snapshot for posterity (see figure 1) and it receives 22 comments and 55 likes on Facebook.

We say our final farewell to Judith and make our way out of Wyndham House’s storied doors. Outside, we are greeted by the late autumn sky and a blanket of crisp leaves. It is a new day full of promise and sunlight.


Q & A: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Judith But Were Too “Afreud” To Ask

“Who were your Judith Butlers?” Her academic celebrities when she was an undergraduate:

  • Angela Davis: “It dates me terribly, but I think I felt that way about Angela Davis, who is now a personal friend  . . .  she also studied philosophy, [and] she developed a stunning academic and activist career.”
  • Monique Wittig: “When I was an undergraduate, the work of Monique Wittig, the French feminist, was very important to me  . . .  I would drive miles and miles to hear her when she spoke in the United States, and I tried to track her down in Paris.”
  • Michel Foucault: “I never met him . . .  I have nostalgia for that.”

When did she become a gender theorist?:
Perhaps when she was a baby. “I think when people are born, gender is presented right away  . . .  we get messages before we can speak  . . .  I speculate that gender assignment probably registers first and foremost as a kind of noise, [in the sense of] ‘What’s being said to me?’ [about my gender]. The noise in that direction later turns out to be something like gender. From the start, there is confusion about what that noise is. Infants are already gender theorists because they are confronted by insurmountable noise and try to make sense of it for the rest of their lives.”

Is she a feminist?:
Without a doubt. “I will no longer be a feminist when there is absolute equality between men and women in the workplace, or when women no longer constitute a disproportionate number of poor and illiterate, or when sexual violence against women ends-I’ll be glad to give up my feminist credentials when all of that happens . . . I’m upset when people call me a post-feminist-I am not  . . . [there are just] some forms of feminism that I disagree with.”

Languages Judith knows:
German, French, and Spanish. She can also read a newspaper in Dutch and Italian, but “doesn’t consider herself fluent.”

The craziest thing a fan has ever done for her:
“What is really nice for me is someone who reads my work really well and is critical and engaged and is a real interlocuter . . it’s that kind of engagement [that I] consider appreciative . . Someone who thinks my work is worthwhile but presses me to do something new or different  . . .  I’m sorry I didn’t answer your questions, but I took the occasion to think of alternative routes to fandom.”

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