Feliz Lucia Molina on Judith Butler

Judith Butler
Judith Butler

Founded in 1994, the European Graduate School is a program led by philosophers, film makers, writers, poets and artists, located in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. A fun camp of critical theory and continental philosophy, its teachers and students gather from around the world in a secluded Swiss Alp town for three-week-long intensive study and lectures that continue late into the night at Metro Bar, Happy Bar, Popcorn, or wherever else. Fortunately, all of the official lectures are videotaped and archived.

1940. The year Benjamin died escaping Nazi occupation in France. A day late or a day early, he found the gate closed and as a gesture of desperation, committed suicide. The following day, like a tragic comedy, the gate opened; a perfect choreography of failing to pass through; an official entry into history. Even until the end, Benjamin argues about Kafka while desperately writing letters to the New York School for Social Research for a visa. Is Benjamin equally occupied about Kafka as he is to escape to save his life? A visa that never arrived. His first thesis was rejected and considered unreadable. Reading Benjamin is a question of time we are living in. What time is it? Like Kafka and his parables, Benjamin’s thinking is elliptical. He approaches from multiple angles, hence, the idea of the (historical) constellation to understand a difficult world; enter the figure of the monad. The idea of illumination is understood through the Kabbalistic idea of emanation; the original stuff, angels, those divine sparks scattered throughout the world that articulate possibilities for revolutionary action. A flashing up that comes to us—an apprehension of a divine dimension through and with light, space, history. What remains is the cleaving of dialectical materialism (Adorno) vs. mysticism (Benjamin & Scholem). Illumination arrives through objects and language. In The Arcades Project, illumination arrives through commodities. The question is how illumination comes through to us; that it comes through the object world as a form of action.

The bodily gesture is a ruin of truth specific to time. The unsettled yet normalized notion that humans continue to become industrialized/(institutionalized). “Hands are steam hammers.” (Kafka) The clapping steam hammer hands are a reification of the human. The gesture of clapping steam hammer hands is read as an (historical) event; the event that also reveals the human in a crisis and collaboration with it’s own creation: machines. Gestures placed in quotations are an interruption of its very action. Whether in a text or lived in the everyday, quotation itself is a strike against the everyday. Everyday action is complicit with structures of power. How might one obscure the workings of power through modes of interruption? Benjamin derives his concept of the gesture from Kafka and Brecht. Drawing on both, “Interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring.” (Benjamin)
—Feliz Lucia Molina


Judith Butler is the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities in the Dept. of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar. Butler is the author of Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, Hegemony, Contingency, Universality, with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century FranceGender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of IdentityBodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of SubjectionExcitable Speech: Politics of the Performance, as well as numerous articles and contributions on philosophy, feminism and queer theory.

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