Judith Butler speaks at Bryn Mawr as Mary Flexner lecturer

As students at Swarthmore listened to Nicholas Kristof’s humanitarian pitch on Monday, students at Bryn Mawr flocked to a philosophical lecture that, according to an official publication, covered “the important distinction between queer politics and gay and lesbian rights frameworks,” and questioned whether “those who struggle for gender equality and sexual freedom should care about racism, militarization, and issues of global justice.”

The Bryn Mawr lecturer was Judith Butler, the Maxine Elliott Professor in the rhetoric and comparative literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley, who presented “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” the second lecture of the three she is presenting as Bryn Mawr’s 2011 Mary Flexner lecturer. Butler is a prominent scholar with a multifarious body of work influenced by the feminist philosophies of Angela Davis and Monique Wittig.

“Professor Butler is a special guest in that her scholarship crosses disciplines and engages a wide array of fields,” said Sharon Ullman, a professor of history at Bryn Mawr who has written about issues of sexuality. “Philosophy, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Queer Theory, Comparative Literature, Rhetoric, Political Science, ‘Peace, Justice and Human Rights,’ Middle Eastern Studies and Visual Culture are all departments and programs in the Tri-Co whose students and faculty have been directly impacted by Professor Butler’s work over the years.”

Butler came to Bryn Mawr to hold the Mary Flexner Lectureship, which since 1928 has been awarded to outstanding scholars in the humanities. In March, a Faculty Committee at Bryn Mawr selected Butler as this year’s lecturer. Lecturers present their latest work in their speeches, then discuss it with the Bryn Mawr and Tri-Co community, finally having it published by the Harvard University Press.

Past holders of the lectureship include literary critics Frank Kermode and Harold Bloom as well as historian Natalie Zemon Davis.

The structure of the Flexner Lectureship engenders close, extended contact between the campus community and the lecturer.

According to the Flexner website, “Butler will visit class meetings of five undergraduate courses that incorporate [her] work and are being offered in conjunction with the lecture series this fall.”

Additionally, faculty seminars occur the day after each lecture, and various events and conversations aligned with the lectures are sprinkled throughout the three week lecture period.

“It functions almost as a campus-wide proseminar (a seminar for advanced undergraduates) … a few intensive weeks with numerous opportunities for a variety of community constituents to interact with the scholar in residence and to engage with the ideas presented,” Ullman said.

The extended contact between lecturer and community facilitates an intellectual interchange on the material, bringing the varied perspectives of a college campus to bear on the work. This attracted Butler to the lectureship.

“[The lectureship] was an opportunity to present a work in progress, to present the ‘un-worked out’ dimensions of what I’m doing,” she said. “It produces for me a lovely ongoing conversation with a group of people who will listen to three chunks of a work in progress and give me responses that I can really make use of.”

The exchange of ideas between Butler and the academic community, however, goes both ways. Tri-Co students have lent their perspective to her work, an educational process in itself, but they have also received a chance to bring their questions to a star academic.

“[The students] have a wide range of concerns, which I like … Some of them are very academic — somebody was talking to me about Speech Act Theory — but somebody wanted to talk to me about Lady Gaga, some people wanted to talk about Occupy Wall Street, other people wanted to talk about Hanna Arendt,” Butler said.

Student interest in Butler’s perspective has been reflected in the attendance of the lectures. “Attendance has been great and there’s been a tremendous amount of interest from the Tri-Co community,” said Matt Gray, Associate Director of Communications at Bryn Mawr.

All the lectures were sold out in advance, leading Bryn Mawr to set up a separate room for a telecast of the lecture with seating available on a first-come-first-served basis.

The final lecture of the series, titled “Toward an Ethics of Co-Habitation,” will take place on November 21st at 7:30 p.m. Seating for the simultaneous telecast will begin at 6:30 p.m. in Bryn Mawr’s Thomas Great Hall.

Gabriel Benjamin ’15 will be there. He attended the first two lectures and was fascinated by the complexity of Butler’s arguments. “Her lectures are very hard to follow but very profound … I find myself gaining more and more meaning the more I think about them. I especially liked the way she was connecting these very theoretical, interesting topics to current situations. She brought up Occupy Wall Street a lot and related it to transgender people, which I thought was a very interesting connection,” Benjamin said.

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