Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Learning How to See: An Interview with Judith Butler

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Learning How to See: An Interview with Judith Butler

Article excerpt

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984. She is the author of several books: Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (1997), Excitable Speech (1997), Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning (2004); Undoing Gender (2004), Who Sings the Nation-State?:Language, Politics, Belonging (with Gayatri Spivak in 2008), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), Is Critique Secular? (co-written with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, and Saba Mahmood, 2009), and Sois Mon Corps (2011), coauthored with Catherine Malabou. Her most recent books include Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, co-authored with Athena Athanasiou (2013), Senses of the Subject, and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015). And in 2016, she published a co-edited volume, Vulnerability in Resistance, with Duke University Press. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Gayle Salamon is associate professor of English and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. Her research interests include phenomenology, feminist philosophy, queer and transgender theory, psychoanalysis, visual culture, and disability studies. She is the author of Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (Columbia University Press, 2010), winner of the 2010 Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies. Her second book, The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia, is forthcoming from New York University Press in 2018. She is currently at work on a manuscript exploring narrations of pain and bodily disability entitled Painography: Metaphor and the Phenomenology of Chronic Pain.

Gayle Salamon [GS]: In his introduction to Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Maurice Natanson writes: "At issue in any teaching and learning is the ability to see that something is the case; indeed, the primordial demand is the seeing of something."1 Can you talk about what, as your teacher, Maurice Natanson helped you learn how to see?

Judith Butler [JB]: Maury died twenty years ago. The Olympics were happening then. I was spending time with him and he had this idea that he wanted to watch television, he wanted to watch the Olympics on TV. So we found a television and hooked it up. He was quite ill at the time, so we had to decide on a comfortable viewing position for him. And he did not generally watch much television-it was a strange world for him. When we turned on the event, the coverage moved quickly from one sport to another, sometimes within a few minutes or a few seconds. He did not understand the quick succession of images, the way that the channels cut from one event to another without quite introducing what was happening or who was playing.

GS: The quick editing.

JB: Yes. Editing for quick transitions, as if we ourselves were on an exhilarating ride. We zoom in on swimming, and at the end of the swim race we cut over to soccer, or we go to track and field for a brief moment, and then cut. Sometimes there are multiple images on the screen at once; he was completely disoriented and upset by that visual experience. He actually had to turn it off, because it was finally just a form of suffering for him.

GS: Too fragmented or fragmenting?

JB: He could not understood what was going on, and was dismayed that the presentation was not interested in enhancing understanding. He was disturbed by the speed and the violence of the cut. Because for him, if you think about it, phenomenological forms of seeing involve a certain kind of exfoliation of the object, into different kinds of sequences. …

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