Friday, July 18, 2008

Bodies That Matter:* When the Scholar Becomes the Text

I admit it. Every once in a while I go on a Facebook binge. What triggered it the other night I truly do not recall, but I sent friend requests to former students of mine with whom I had worked closely, as well as one student I never taught, but know pretty well because we had a fellowship at a Zenith Humanities Center and we are both now bloggers. I added a colleague from the Economics department who I've always liked for her dry wit (what was she doing with a Facebook page? What am *I* doing with a Facebook page?) and it was only after I clicked the Friend request that I thought, "Aw -- what if she doesn't actually think of me as a friend? I mean, I think I was on the Executive committee when she was chair of the faculty, but committees do not friendships make." She friended me back. Phew.

Then I started looking for colleagues outside Zenith. After a bit, I typed "Judith Butler" (who I have met, but do not really know) into the search engine.

Oh my god. In the first five pages I came up with nine Facebook sites dedicated to Judith Butler the philosopher (as opposed to Judith Butler of Leeds, England; Judith A. Butler of Wilmington, DE; or the Judith Butler who has posted a photo of her corgi as a profile picture, which is the kind of thing Marjorie Garber might do, but Judith Butler would not.)

There's the Free Judith Butler page. It claims to have Michel Foucault as one of its "friends," and states that "it's time to free her eminence Judith Butler from intempestive, systematic and unappropriate quotations, misunderstanding and misinterpreting discourses. let's set Judith free. now." (Sic.) There's one called Judith Butler Come To Our School that has only seven members and is somewhat neglected: my sense is that it is devoted only to the desire -- well, that Judith Butler pay them a visit. Or go teach them. Or something. But you know, come up with an honorarium and an invitation, and she probably would.

These are the more benign ones. The pages start to "cross the line," as my students would say (the full quote, in an exasperated voice, is, "But Professor Radical, where does it cross the line??") with a fan site, simply called Judith Butler, as if it were in fact her page, where one fan has written on the Wall, "I am amazed by the fresh and relevant theory of this amazing individual!!!" and another, from Chile, "Excelente página, con textos no solamente de Judith Butler." Then there is Judith Butler is My Homegirl, with 1,340 members, that seems to be a place where people go to link other websites and blogs devoted to -- you guessed it, Judith Butler -- and is also a kind of virtual hangout for genderqueer folk inspired by the early work of (sigh) Judith Butler. But whatever.

Slightly more offensive is Lovers of Judith Butler United: The Judith Butler Appreciation Society, the title of which implies that these people (all 51 of them) are Dr. Butler's ex-lovers. Or current lovers. But in fact, they are actually just "people who know that Judith Butler is the most amazing academic to grace the face of this earth. Anyone who thinks she talks a lot of shit in a stupid style can bog off because they are clearly just thick." I think these people are also British, given the slang. "Additionally," the site managers go on, "this society is for anyone that loves Jude's hairstyle and believes that she is the epitomy (sic!) of the subversive perfomer."

And then there are two more that I am not linking to because the titles are so hostile.

One thing that this odd phenomenon -- making a celebrity of a scholar so that you can trash her for being a celebrity -- caused me to think about was if anyone has written about 'zines as a kind of cultural prelude to blogging and social networking sites. Butler is the only academic I have ever known who has also been the subject of a satirical fanzine; because of this and the Facebook sites, she may become the first academic to be written about -- academically -- as a pop cultural phenomenon as well as a knowledge producer (although I bet Stanley Fish is right in line, and in the conclusion to his most recent book, Walter Benn Michaels has written about himself in the third person as if he were already a cultural phenomenon.) About fifteen years ago there was an undergraduate from the University of Iowa who went under the moniker "Miss Spentyouth." She published several issues of a xeroxed fanzine called Judy! that were reproduced and recirculated everywhere, much as one now links to other blogs, or quotes from them on one's own blog. At the time I thought Judy! was extremely funny, in part because I thought feminist literary theory was really important, but also often really absurd in its claims, vocabulary and syntax. Scholars would go into rooms, listen to utter gobbledygook written by the lowest graduate student to the fullest professor, and then walk out, having understood very little but looking anxiously at each other and saying "Wow, I wish I were that smart." So that's the cultural critique I thought Judy! was, as they say, performing.

As I understand it from a second or third-hand account that percolated through the Differences crowd (which leads me to believe it was true, since Butler was, and is, well-published there), Professor Butler did not think Judy! was funny at all. There was a little kerfuffle about it between issues I and II of the fanzine in a now defunct (probably because it was so hip) publication called Lingua Franca, in which Butler rebuked Miss Spentyouth and was rebuked in turn by others who accused her of not having a sense of humor. There was the panel I attended where Butler snapped at an anonymous graduate student, "Don't call me Judy!" (note: don't.) But as I indicated above, what was missed by all its critics was that the 'zine wasn't really about Butler at all: it was about the way poststructural theory and cults of personality had saturated the world of feminist intellectuals, and English studies in particular. So it could have been called Michel! or Jacques! and the same point would have been made.

And in retrospect, I suppose the issue at stake for many feminists, and I suspect Butler herself, was that it wasn't any of these men who were being lampooned, now was it?

But I actually think these Facebook pages take it to a whole new level, whether they are intentionally nasty or not. In part that is because they are so easy to put up, they distribute themselves via Google in a way no 'zine author could distribute her work, and they don't require the kind of attention to composition or actual wit that a 'zine relies on to persuade others to reproduce and distribute it spontaneously. Because of negative experiences I have had on the web (and this is only one example) they disturb even me, and I am disturbed by very little on the internet -- not even the e-mails I get from the conservative online newsletter Human Events that say things like "The Recession May Be Good for You" and "Secret Plan Behind Obama Move to the Right." And they bother me, I guess, because the last time I looked, Judith Butler was a real person (perhaps the point my acquaintances on Differences were making years ago) and not some phony symbol who makes herself available for trashing like Brangelina or Brittany by generating publicity for every private moment. The down side, or acceptable collateral damage, of this chosen life in public is that we all know every time a pound is gained or lost, a baby (or two) born, and a DWI traffic stop occurs. And while we academics who blog enter into a pact with the internet devils that means we may fall victim to a public trashing at a moment's notice, all Butler does is write, teach, publish and occupy the cutting edge of her field. And yet somehow she has become the object of ressentiment on a grand scale, undoubtedly because of the effect of the job market (particularly in English studies, where her work has been so influential) on the nerves of highly educated graduate students and adjuncts who are simultaneously over- and underemployed.

But what I think is even stranger, in a more abstract way, is when someone who studies culture becomes culture. In other words, if "Judith Butler" can be reproduced so easily, and her image and reputation bent to whatever iconoclastic purpose a given individual chooses (to draw on the work of Judith Butler, not to mention Walter Benjamin) -- is there really a "Judith Butler"?


*with apologies to the author for rampant theft of a classic title. Unless "the author" is actually dead. The author was dead, but since I haven't kept up with my reading in philosophy or literary theory, I don't know if the author is still dead.


Anonymous said...

Way to make peals of cackly harpy-laughter ricochet off the walls of the British Library's café, utterly destroying my pretensions to Respectable Lady Scholarhood.

You should know that the sentence "Claire Potter just friended me on facebook!" has gotten me no few laughs of my own from the young cogniscienti. I wonder what "Claire Potter just blogged about friending me on facebook" would do?

Me, I'm in the "Save Judith Butler" camp. Butler, and Derrida, and (cough) Barthes, and Foucault, all of 'em. Facebook is as good a place as any to start.

JackDanielsBlack said...

According to an article titled "Facebook Creeps Me Out" in the August issue of Portfolio magazine, Bill Gates has quit Facebook, in part because of "weird fan sites about him". Examples of such sites are "Bill Gates bathes daily in the tears of Vista users", and "Would you have sex with Bill Gates for half of his money?"

Bear Left said...

Funny, I was cleaning up lots of old papers & exams on Friday, back from the last couple classes I taught at Duke (so we're talking 2003 here). I ended up sending friend request to a few students from back then, to see what they're up to (one is on Greenpeace's national staff, it turns out).

And the "Judith Butler is my homegirl" group? I have several UGA students who are members, & one former colleague (who teaches a course on Butler) who is very active posting in that group.

Tenured Radical said...

Well Bear, any friends of yours are friends of mine but -- don't you think it's just a little weird to have such a site? I mean you could have it, but not have it be about making this virtual connection to Butler.
Hope you are well pal, and kicking b***t on that book.


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