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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Judith Butler at Sussex University

Anybody reading this weekend's Comment is Free piece by Nick Cohen might have felt somewhat dispirited at the concept of attending a lecture by Judith Butler, who was invited to Sussex this week (2nd February, 2011) to speak as part of the Hannah Arendt Lecture in Modern Jewish Thought series. Indeed, in an article full of the most banal anti-academic tripe, Cohen accuses Butler of an elitism which alienates the general populous and thereby plays into the hands of the right. Asides from being a load of codswallop, Butler's lecture was articulate, comprehensible and, in her question and answer manner, consistently generous and civil (even in the face of a ridiculous, utterly unrelated question on Germaine Greer). Butler's piece was entitled “Arendt, Cohabitation, and the Dispersion of Sovereignty” and I will here try to write a little by way of summary and gentle questioning.

Taking as her focus Arendt's final address to Eichmann in Eichmann in Jerusalem,, Butler teased out the inconsistent logic in Arendt's thought whereby she agrees with the verdict of the Israeli court that Eichmann should face the death penalty, but criticizes them for arriving at the conclusion for the incorrect reasons. Butler's reading of Arendt is one of co-habitation and plurality wherein we do not have, upon this earth, the right to choose with whom we live. Simultaneously, Butler explored Arendt's conception of thinking as a splitting of Kant's Transcendental Unity of Apperception into a fragmented, plural individual whose multiple voices are consistently in dialogue. Eventually, Butler concluded that the crime for which Arendt condemns Eichmann is arguing for duty, as opposed to thinking; this structure of dialogue. Indeed, much of Arendt's project is, according to Butler, an attempt to wrest Kant away from Eichmmann's appropriation of his moral philosophy.

Butler pointed out the many problems involved in such a reading. The inconsistency of condemning someone to death for their enactment of genocide (choosing with whom to live) is, itself, a selection which would cause an infinite regress; the historical contingency of the subject, a view to which Arendt does not subscribe, gives no criteria for judgement, there is supposedly some transcendental law to which we can appeal in judgement. Furthermore, the final address, “for which you must hang” is problematic as, Butler contends, this is an illocutionary speech act which reconstitutes the subject which Arendt claims has forfeited personhood. This seems to me, given the anthroprocentric nature of the death penalty and murder laws, the weakest part of Butler's argument; does the second person appellation apply solely to human subjects. Dog and cat owners worldwide would probably argue not, yet they do not imagine that the illocutionary force of such an address might be to call forth a human subject.

Eventually, in light of these conflicting readings, Butler proposed a system of ethics predicated upon our shared corporeality. We are all vulnerable to the same physical forces and all need, in a worldwide system of cohabitation, protection from those forces. This is a system derived from the most basic of human needs, on top of which all economic and social factors are abstractions. However, for this to work, these forces need to be exposed as abstractions, which in the current social climate they certainly are not. At the end of this event, however, one of the most seemingly innocent questions actually proved the most incisive: was it not, in actuality, emotion that commissioned Arendt's death sentence to Eichmann, over and above any transcendental logic she could pose? Butler thought for several moments before replying, with the merest of humble nods, with a yes.