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Judith Butler on “The Academy” and the Galvanizing Power of Poetry

judith butler

Poet’s Country No. 2 will celebrate its launch this Sunday at the Bowery Poetry Club.

Following my work on a nationwide campaign for the legal recognition of teaching, research, and administrative work done by graduate students at private universities, I was seeking to understand the relationship between creative and critical forms of writing, and between poetry and political action. I was also reading Judith Butler’s lesser-known, more recent work, Frames of War, as well as Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, the latter coinciding with a visit to the state of Israel in 2016, during which I witnessed the tepid reception by authorities for critical and creative thinking when geopolitical resources are at stake.

The following interview, edited by Taylor Lannamann, aims to draw out Butler’s legacy as a theorist, her analysis of the poetry written by detainees of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, and the renewed audiences and enthusiasm she has brought to the discipline of critical inquiry in the arts and humanities. I understand her work as often arriving from philosophy and, without instrumentalizing that field of practice, deployed to contemporary political flashpoints as a way of more constructively understanding responses to social crisis.


Sam O’Hana: I’m curious how distinctly galvanizing public or personal events might influence the trajectory of your philosophical works. In other words, how do you choose what to write about? What kind of external concerns influence this choice?

JB: I understand myself to be registering events and movements in the world and transposing them into theoretical idioms, so I am not sure I really choose what to write about from a deliberate distance. Something moves or confuses me, and I figure there are probably others who feel in a similar way, and I seek to clarify what is happening through the theoretical resources that are available to me.

SO: Your discussion of the poetry written by Guantánamo detainees in Frames of War asks whether the syntax or form of a poem could be “perceived as a threat to the security of the nation.” In what context do you think this sort of poetry takes shape? How might somebody write a poem that similarly threatens political sovereignty from a position of relative safety?

JB: My sense is that the guards and authorities at Guantánamo were frightened of the galvanizing power of poetry, the way that it can move people, become sensate, and even be moved to act. If the poetry is communicated, if it becomes something communicable, that means that a transfer of heightened affect is taking place. That could awaken a set of isolated prisoners purposefully kept in mute and indolent states to move and speak. They did care about the form, as if the departure from prose syntax constituted too much rule-breaking. My sense is that poets who were with prisoners on creative writing projects are doing excellent work. Perhaps the action has to be collaborative.

“The humanities and the arts are two places where the question of what we value and why is not immediately answered through reference to the market.”

SO: You are co-directing a Mellon Foundation-funded project with Professor Penelope Deutscher to produce an International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs. Could you tell us about the idea the behind the project, and what kinds of opportunities it might make possible?

JB: Both Penelope Deutscher and I were trained in the European traditions of critical theory, and we became increasingly aware that there are critical theory programs–or projects in critical thought–taking place in different regions and different languages, and that they often had little contact with one another and were not adequately known in English-language contexts. So we began by developing a directory searchable in three languages that now includes more than 300 projects, academic programs, centers, and institutes. We are also developing a curricular project that will reflect the global form and reach of critical theory, an online journal called Critical Times, a series with Polity Press, Critical South, and an archive at UC-Irvine. Our hope is not only to connect the disconnected, but to produce new forms of intellectual and activist alliances during this time.

SO: We’re quite interested at Poet’s Country in the demarcations between the academy and public life. As somebody whose academic writing has reached such wide audiences, what are your thoughts?

JB: Perhaps it is important to note that what we call “the academy” is currently under attack in many ways, so the “academy” has become an issue or topic in public life itself. The threats to the National Endowment of the Humanities and The National Endowment of the Arts suggest that the current government does not value these activities and institutions. It would appear that our President does not read much–how does that affect his decision-making process in public life? Public universities are undergoing defunding, turning to private donors and companies to keep them afloat: what affect does that have on our sense of public education, what we teach and study, and why?

Academics are also needed in public life to make and evaluate arguments, to discuss the importance of evidence for claims made, to help interpret an often confusing and frightening political world. So though we sometimes undertake research on topics that are of academic interest only, we also bring students into the practice of reading, thinking, evaluating, all of them make then more capable of judging what is happening in our world. The humanities and the arts are two places where the question of what we value and why is not immediately answered through reference to the market. Finally, it is hard to stay sensate during these times, to see and feel and hear what is happening. There is always the temptation to turn it all off, to exit, to suspend the knowledge of reality, to take leave. In some ways, literature and the arts help to make the world bearable so that we can tarry there longer with the desire to know and understand, to engage, and to transform what calls to be transformed.


poet's country no 2

This interview originally appeared in Poet’s Country No. 2

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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