tearing down judy b

the theory nerds broke my damn heart this evening.

for the “performance of politics” class i’m taking with tavia nyong’o and eric lott semester, we are assigned a book a week. the book we discussed this week was judith butler’s notes toward a performative theory of assembly.

butler is dear to me. i am hopelessly uncritical of her work, so basically unable to have a scholarly conversation about it. i remember following the knots of her thought through gender trouble in undergrad. i had never read anything like it. i had never read gender. i had never read or thought queer anything. i watched youtube videos of her lectures and was tickled by her pacing, her patient picking apart in language that was so bizarre but the only language that would work for the thing. she reads like a poet.

a few years later, i read hannah arendt’s eichmann in jerusalem, another life changer. i came to know arendt better through butler. and primo levi. and levinas and benjamin. edward said. i’m doing other reading/thinking at this point in my life, but when i come back to those thinkers, and i definitely will, it will have been because of her. parting ways: jewishness and the critique of zionism led me to jewish voice for peace, an organization that (re)shaped my life in profound ways for the years i lived in seattle.

butler is not as much a theorist for me as a rabbi, a person whose primary concern is how to live ethically, how to be in the world with others in the right way. what it means to do this as a jew. what queerness tells us about this. i am only grateful that she has found better editors or at least clarified things for herself somehow over the years. whatever the thing is that has made her so much more legible, digestible. although sometimes i miss the feeling of rocks in the stomach grinding, roughly, over her ideas.

all of which is to say, it was hard to sit in class tonight and hear very eloquent arguments about why this book is not a book of theory, to wonder why she would choose arendt (so racist! so elitist!), to contest her claims about humanism (she says she’s not a humanist, but she is!), to note the limitations of her thinking about allegiances and coalitions (why didn’t she anything about reparations?). none of which, in the end, is actually off-base at all or even really a threat to what she is or what her thinking is.

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