Judith Butler withdraws from talk at the Jewish Museum: a few thoughts on negotiating the political, the person and the work

image from the Wikimedia Commons

The cancelled event, looking at the work of Franz Kafka, would have brought Butler in conversation with Jens Hoffmann, the Deputy Director of the Jewish Museum in New York.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Butler said:

I did decide to withdraw when it became clear to me that the uproar over my political views (actually, a serious distortion of my political views) would overtake the days ahead and the event itself. As I understand it, the Jewish Museum also felt that it could not handle the political storm, and we were in complete agreement that the event should be canceled as a result.” (read more of the article here)

Admittedly, when this lecture was initially announced,  I wondered how the talk would unfold given the contention that surrounds Butler’s scholarship within the Jewish community (Please understand the latter with the diversity and complexity that any community encompasses).

When it comes to Butler and these types of controversies, sometimes there is a tendency to separate her writing from her politics in order to resolve difficult tensions and eradicate ambiguities. This followed a similar pattern. In support of their initial choice, the Jewish Museum released a statement saying: “She was chosen on the basis of her expertise on the subject matter to be discussed. While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended.”

Although understandable in terms of impetus, it’s a false divide which ultimately is a disservice to her unique form of engaged, if not activist, scholarship. It is a reinforcement of the notion that the political is the person (embodied and individual), and the work (disembodied and eternal) is that of the neutral scholar – and clearly in this case as reflected by the museum’s statement, the politics, person and position have proven to be a distraction from that scholarship or “expertise”.

There is something reminiscent of the NEA’s 1989 defense of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. They championed his photographs on aesthetic grounds, while simultaneously underplaying homoerotic elements for fear of feeding right-wing anxiety.  In the end, although the right-wing didn’t morally sanction such representations (the anxiety was already there) – they nonetheless understood that the work was about homosexuality (both embodied and political). With the case of Butler, it would have been good if the museum acknowledged her opponents, not by agreeing with them, but through issuing a statement that publicly recognized the very political nature and value of her work, whether writing about gender, Kafka, or otherwise.

Butler’s exit and its subsequent characterization raises fundamental questions about how we see scholars and even the subject she was initially invited to speak about – Franz Kafka.  In other words, how can we possibly delve into Kafka’s work in any depth without taking on the political and acknowledging the context in which he generated his stories, and moreover why should we resist drawing contemporary analogies to his work that might be speculative and contentious? Without opening up space for these kinds of debates, which no doubt Butler’s input would have done, Kafka’s texts remain inert and encapsulated in a tidied history.  No author’s work deserves that fate. But most of all,  by playing it safe and avoiding that which seems too hot to handle,  cultural institutions lose their efficacy to inform and stimulate public debate about both the past and  present – they fail to challenge us as readers, viewers and participants in dialogue.