‘Academic Interest’


Amitava Kumar in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca:

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.

More here.