illustration by Emily Dearborn and Liana Kindler
On February 15th, renowned gender theorist, philosopher, and professor Judith Butler delivered a guest lecture at UCLA hosted by the RAVE organization, a UCLA faculty group dedicated to “Resistance Against Violence Through Education” formed in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election to the United States Presidency.
Judith Butler is a Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a prominent theorist in gender, feminist, and literary studies. Two of her most well-known books, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993) have served as crucial works in the development of the burgeoning academic field of queer and gender studies.
RAVE declares that its mission is to “challenge the normalization of the politics, language, and actions of Donald Trump’s presidency.” The pledged faculty members promise to “defend vigorously all vulnerable members of our communities who were deliberately targeted in the lead up to the election of Donald Trump, and who are now victims of hate in its wake.”
Cosponsored by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, the heavily attended event was titled “This is What Resistance Looks Like,” and featured a lecture from Professor Butler along with a conversation panel that included with UCLA professors Gil Hochberg, Laure Murat and Ananya Roy, who are respectively professors in Comparative Literature and Gender Studies, French and Francophone Studies, and Urban Planning and Social Welfare.
In her introduction of the event, Professor Gil Hochberg jokingly spoke of their struggle to change venues, which was thwarted by the bureaucracy of this huge university. Public Affairs 2355 must have a hundred seats at most, but – don’t tell the fire marshall – over two hundred enthusiastic attendees packed into the room, seated in aisles and on tabletops, leaning against one another’s shins, and crowding in behind the recording equipment. Late arrivals filled the hallway, and some even left, unable to hear properly from the back of the crowd. The buzzing classroom seemed a nexus of hip, queer graduate students and incensed liberal administrators, all having oozed out of the woodwork of the university to snap and nod at Professor Butler’s most salient points.
A collection of musicology students, conducted by their enthusiastic professor, led the chattering crowd in modern renditions of classic freedom songs. The familiar chords of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” filtered through the chatter as everyone waited for the slight, white, gray-haired professor to arrive.
A full recording of Professor Butler’s speech and the following panel with the three UCLA professors, all members of the RAVE organization, will be posted on the RAVE website and on the website of the UCLA Institute on Inequality and Democracy.
In opening, Butler noted that the lecture would inevitably become a dated profusion of advice and criticism, outpaced by every day’s new events and the new accomplishments of activism. This talk allowed her to express her immediate concerns and thoughts on the first few weeks of the unwelcome presidency of Trump.
In classic theoretical and academic style, Butler began her lecture by examining the semantics of her activism by asking which word, “ opposition or resistance,” should be used for the anti-Trump national and transnational movements.
She says that “‘opposition’ is a term that suggests that our political structures are basically intact, but that we position ourselves against the one embodied by Trump… If democracy were secure under the current regime, we would be part of a social movement or a political party that opposes the party in power.” Instead, she says, “the name of this fight needs to be resistance.”
Professor Butler then moved into an examination of the structure of Trump’s power as it is produced by and through his vague and confident exclamations. In the battle “between forms of expression within the political field,” that is between the tweet and conventional long form journalism like the material you’re reading now, Trump claims he will do this or that, and then “waits to see whether he’s accorded the power to do what he wishes.”
Butler challenges us all, writers and readers alike, to: “Call the bluff time and again.”
Professor Butler did not advocate for the violent or forced removal of the current administration from office “by any means necessary… The methods we use carry the burden of prefiguring the world in which we want to live. In acting, we enact a world.”
However, to give “a new political reality … a chance to emerge,” individuals and institutions of power outside the White House must decide when “it would be unjust to implement an unjust policy.” In this case, “non-implementation will be one form resistance takes.”
The non-implementation of policies – even on a limited scale – not only works toward exposing the “government’s rule … as lacking popular legitimation,” but also thwarts the grab for power through such speech acts as Butler outlined earlier. She insists: “If he gives an order and no one implements it, he does not have that power.”
Perhaps her most unexpected and pragmatic remark was what followed the suggestion that “this is a moment to consider the unlikely allies:”
“Identification cannot always be the basis of alliance. What would it mean to include those with whom we do not readily identify, but whose sense of justice, equality, or freedom is radically contravened by the current government? … Is it time to ally with those we never expected to respect? The police who refuse to deport, the immigration officer who refuses to discriminate, the civil servant who refuses to implement the unjust policy, the liberal jurist who wants nothing of leftism but who is seeking to save key provisions of the Constitution, the rabbis whose views on the Middle East are impossible to share but who object to the Trump administration’s aim to destroy the rights of refugees and the international law by which they are stipulated…Those we did not expect to find and who we would be foolish to reject.”
This stance doesn’t sit too well with the general trend in activism of alliance via the exclusive promotion of marginalized voices. Butler herself could only be all too aware of this seeming contradiction and consolidation of power. She therefore seems to deem the rising administration to be too immediately dangerous to risk failure by attempting to simultaneously remove those in office and revolutionize the very avenues to the power of both election and removal. Privileged as she may be to prioritize this newest threat, it can be allowed that the profusion of outgoing executive orders rolling back on federal protections and benefits is indeed an urgent front line in the battles for millions of underprivileged folks, in the United States and beyond.
Professor Butler solicited her loudest cheer of approval when she declared, “Our first task is to make sure that our universities become sanctuaries where undocumented students and staff are protected against being identified, detained, and deported.” This is one of the most prominent aims of the RAVE group, as proclaimed in their mission statement. Butler also praised the determined protests at LAX that had been taking place in the two weeks since Trump’s January 27th executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Another goal for those seeking to resist is, according to Butler, to “solicit a desire for democracy,” in order to fuel the “constant struggle” that it will and does require. She pointed out that “for those who are undocumented, or those who are regularly the objects of police violence and imprisonment, that compact [that is inherent trust in democracy] can hardly be said to have held… it was always in question.” Successful and cognizant efforts to re-establish or create faith in democracy will necessarily work to “bring the non-voter back into politics” and “expose voter suppression.”
For those of us who previously felt the tacit “basic trust in a democratic compact,” the recognition of our failing democracy (Butler cites the ~60% voting turnout in November’s election) ought to make room for acknowledgement of the fascism in the actions of this new administration. Armed with the jolt of fascism’s enduring capacity, Butler bids us to “be shocked into action.”
Butler intones: “It matters if you call your representative every morning – put the number in your cell phone – … to say why you think a policy is wrong or to enumerate the possible grounds for impeachment and removal.”
In this spirit, here are a few phone numbers of UCLA’s local Congress representatives:
CA Senator Kamala Harris: (202) 224-3553 (DC office) – (213) 894-5000 (LA office)
CA Senator Dianne Feinstein: (202) 224-3841 (DC office) – (310) 914-7300 (LA office)
CA Representative for Westwood and UCLA Campus: Ted Lieu – (202) 225-3976
For those looking to reach out to RAVE, check back to RAVE’s calendar for their free office hours “for all students who are seeking help, have questions, or wish to share suggestions.”
As Professor Butler concluded: “The social and political transformation starts with the small step, the daily call, the weekly demonstration, moving outside of our zone of comfort where we all identify with one another toward the uneasy alliance that stands against injustice.”