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Judith Butler at Occupy Wall Street

by on May 28, 2013

Here – with thanks to Philip Hager and Marilena Zaroulia for bringing this to my attention – is Judith Butler talking at Occupy Wall Street in October 2012, voicing support and solidarity.

Apart from hearing a small crowd of people shouting ‘I’m Judith Butler’, this speech seems interesting for several reasons. It’s first of all a neat example of a range of strategies used by protest and group movements, including the human microphone (see Wikipedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_microphone ) and the use of hand gestures as a way of communicating without disrupting (see, for example, http://occupydesign.org/gallery/designs/occupy-hand-signals ).

Further, thinking about these conventions and behaviours (which have histories stretching back well before Occupy) in relation to Judith Butler and her work on bodies and performativity – and in relation to the words of her support here, too – opens up a couple of avenues for thinking about the performance of consent and dissent. Butler, here, is supporting the call for a politics of the public body, and the delivery, transmission and reception of her words enacts and bears out this call in various small but significant ways.

The human microphone doesn’t just allow a large group of people to hear a speaker when other technology is either absent or outlawed, though these are of course its primary uses – it also engages the body and the breath. (It also, of course, does things to pace – the length of phrase that can be spoken, and repeated, effectively – slowing things down slightly to make sure that they are heard and transferred.) The twinkling fingers which ‘voice’ support and agreement without interrupting the speaker or preventing others from hearing means encourages an individuated response to the words spoken; the collective voice can be responded to multiply.

When Butler points out – as much of her recent work has repeatedly emphasised – that, as bodies ‘we require one another’, there’s no irony in the fact that her body’s voice needs those around it to amplify it. ‘It matters that,’ she says, and the group of people in front of her echo her, ‘as bodies, we arrive together in public’. Butler’s work, of course, has consistently and influentially engaged with the multiple valences and possibilities of enactment and re-enactment, and the ways in which the repetition of discourse, frameworks, and behaviours can both solidify and also shape (whether in normative or subversive ways) the material realities of the world. This work, and this understanding, looms large behind her assertion here, that Occupy might be attempting – time and again – to be both the ‘movement’ and the ‘voice’ of  a politics of the public body, and her conclusion, that this gathering together is ‘Enacting the phrase, “we the people”.’ Gathered in public, finding ways of being together that are collective without erasing difference, and enabling communication – the gestures and behaviours around this are, even at their most particular and quiet (look at the fingers), affecting and effective.

 

 

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