Today, Judith Butler mocked me in front of 600 intellectuals.
Butler delivered a talk to a packed West Road Concert Hall on the body, vulnerability, street politics, and performativity. In it, she told the story of a hotel employee who came to check her minibar and kept confusedly addressing her as “Sir…Madam…Sir…Madam.” Butler pointed out to him that her gender was probably not relevant to the checking of the minibar. Butler did not argue this explicitly, but the story also showed – I thought – how attached to gender binaries and categorization most people are.
Then there came a time for questions. Two members of the audience gave speeches that did not end with a question mark. Butler seemed nonplussed. A third asked a question. Butler answered. I raised my hand, and they called on me.
I noted that “in the performance we’ve just witnessed,” Butler had given agency and concreteness to abstractions such as “the body” and “vulnerability.” I asked whether she could comment upon this practice, and what it did for “your rhetoric.”
It had seemed to me that Butler was perhaps attempting to challenge the clean break between the abstract concept and the concrete instances thereof. Conceiving of a person’s “body” as “a body” changes how you relate to it. I wondered whether she had refused to use the term “individual” – preferring “body” – because she thought the very term lent legitimacy to a neoliberal political vision. I wanted to know whether Butler saw these things in the same way, but in the interest of not seeming pretentious or speechifying like the people who had preceded me, I left my question open-ended, without offering my theory.
“Would you like to check my minibar?” Butler asked me.
I should have known this would happen. I am an intellectual historian of the culture wars. How, with the culture wars only in the recent past, could an apparently white male Cambridge student asking an eminent female post-structuralist a question about “abstractions” in her “rhetoric” be perceived as anything but a Sokal/Searle-like attack?
That I didn’t realize that this was how it would be perceived is perhaps an indication of how, as a white male who writes intellectual history, I am typically safer from culture warring attacks – and typically less at risk of having my arguments attributed a political expression of my gender – than a female post-structuralist like Butler. No wonder I didn’t think that that was how she would hear my comment; I would never receive a comment with that aggressive intent, so I could not hear the potential aggression present in mine.
How Butler responded was illuminating. Her rejoinder, and the laughter that surrounded me, made me feel humiliated. Small. Vulnerable. Whether or not Butler meant to do it, she forced me to attempt to imagine what it might have felt like to weather culture wars attacks. I was in a space in which the markers of my privilege did not work quite as much to my advantage as they do most spaces in which I move. I wish to make clear my understanding that, even in the moment of being humiliated by Butler, I remained deeply privileged. But given where Butler and I found ourselves, she was able to make me feel vulnerable, just for an instant. And that was itself instructive.