Butler argues for academic freedom in post-Sept. 11 world

Friday, February 2, 2007

Literary theorist Judith Butler addressed the threat posed to academic freedom by the war on terror on Jan. 29 in a well-attended lecture on campus titled “Critique and Disciplinarity: Foucault via Kant.”

A prominent figure in the field of gender, queer and performative literary studies, Butler is a professor in the departments of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She was invited to speak at Brown by the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women as part of its 25th anniversary lecture series, “The Future of the Critique.”

In her lecture, Butler focused her inquiry on academic freedom in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Balancing erudition with wit, Butler compared the philosophies of Kant and Foucault to analyze how contemporary institutions of educational authority create standards for intellectual inquiry that eliminate certain forms of social criticism.

She focused on how the organs of power in academia – the government, universities and philanthropic organizations that fund research – legitimate norms that restrict research grants for any academic inquiry that might intellectually promote terrorism or violence.

Butler argued that those restrictions have become more prominent in the wake of Sept. 11. She said legislation such as the Patriot Act influences what types of research philanthropic organizations, such as the Ford Foundation, will underwrite.

The result, according to Butler, has been a “redefinition of academic disciplines,” a move that restricts the “kind of research one is able to pursue.”

Though those restrictions are intended to prevent the promotion of terrorist violence, Butler asked if they merely serve as a pretext to preserve the power of those in authority by curtailing intellectual questions that should be asked.

Butler used Franz Fanon’s 1963 work “The Wretched of the Earth” to exemplify the danger of academic repression. Fanon’s work is a canonic intellectual expression of the inequity of colonialism, Butler said, but under current standards it may never have been written because it considered the role of violence in decolonization.

For Butler, academic disciplines are engaged in battle against the power structures that govern what is “normative.”

“Academic freedom is under siege,” she said.

She suggested the paramount need to “ask questions.” Questioning and debate are necessary for academic development, she said, noting that if “disciplines did not seek to quarrel, how could they rethink themselves? Expand themselves?”

Butler is “one of the most important, influential and widely debated critical thinkers” and a scholar whose works act in the “service of the future of criticism,” said Elizabeth Weed, director of the Pembroke Center.

Butler is best known for her works on gender studies, especially her contention that gender distinctions arise from socially determined roles, rather than intrinsic differences between the sexes. Her major treatise, “Gender Trouble,” has been translated into 23 languages and is regarded by many as a seminal expression of modern literary theory.

Butler applauded the Pembroke Center for its commitment to academic inquiry. “The object of the university is to foster freedom of inquiry” because there is interplay between the “speak-ability” and the “think-ability” of a concept, she said. By that standard, Butler’s lecture was an intellectually challenging and politically provocative defense of the necessity of academic freedom.

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