‘Academic interest’



In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probably introduced because there was a ban on the use of megaphones. During Butler’s speech, the repetition by the human microphone helps. It produces for us the image of her words being taken up by the public (so that we see philosophy as a public act) and we, her listeners, also get a chance to think through her words in the process. Critics of the Occupy Movement, Butler says, either claim that the protesters have no demands or that their impossible demands are just not practical. And she then adds, “If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.”

Butler’s performance as a public intellectual is impressive because she is both lucid and difficult. (Is difficult really the word I want?) Put differently, I’m struck by her quick arrival at a knotty question and then the magnificent unfurling of, as if it were a flag being waved at the barricades, the repeated phrase about demanding the impossible.

Less than two years after that speech she read from her phone at Occupy Wall Street, I found myself seated next to Butler at a dinner at Vassar College. I asked her about that speech, and Butler said that she had written it “on the subway between West 4th and Wall St.”

I could not reveal at dinner that the reason I had asked Butler about her speech was my interest in having her talk to me more about the truth and pitfalls of the charge that academics are bad writers. In her performance on Wall Street, I had seen a retort to those accusations. Later, I sent an email asking Butler if she could help unpack the meaning of the phrase “of academic interest.” I chose that phrase because it seems to gather together rather succinctly the general dismissal of the work we do, or the questions we ask, and even the language we use.

Soon I received a response. This time Butler wasn’t addressing a crowd of protesters, and the register was understandably different. She wrote that “the phrase presumes that there is a firm line that divides the academy from the real world, and it is a way of marking a certain uselessness to what academics do or what happens inside the academy.” The phrase implied that what academics do makes sense only within their own, closed-off world, but, of course, part of what happens in the academy is the development of a set of questions about the world. Butler pointed out that the academy is sometimes the place where we call into question what we know and our sense of the world that has become naturalized over time. This leads to a certain disorientation that might be resisted by those who wish to remain in what Husserl called “the natural attitude.” Those who dismiss academics, Butler wrote, “fail to see that a reorientation toward the world” is also taking place within academe, one marked by greater knowingness and a heightened ethical or aesthetic responsiveness.

What form might this reorientation take?

In the documentary film Examined Life, we see Butler walking with the artist Sunaura Taylor in a wheelchair. Butler says to Taylor, “I thought we should take this walk together” and talk about “what it means for us to take this walk together.”

Taylor, who was born with arthrogryposis, says that she goes out for walks nearly every day, and that, like other disabled people, she always uses that word: “I’m going for a walk.” Butler asks her about the environments that make it possible for Taylor to take a walk, and in describing urban features like curb cuts and public transportation, Taylor explains how physical access leads to social acceptance. Butler’s questions help develop a discussion not only about what she calls the technique of walking but also a proposition that calls into question the alleged self-sufficiency of the able-bodied person.

For me, this is philosophy in action. In a discussion that is less than 15 minutes long, we have moved from what was a deceptively simple question about going out for a walk to a place where the ideology of individualism has been effectively challenged. Academic work here is embodied and urgent — and its language is as simple, and as complicated, as taking a walk.