This evening I attended an event at organised by Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts:

‘Part of a lecture series with guest speakers, Autumn 2010 – Spring 2011. This event is hosted by Amnesty International UK. In the second of a lecture series evaluating keywords in art, culture and society, theorists Judith Butler and Sudeep Dasgupta explore the term ‘paternalism’. Keywords takes its title from Raymond Williams‘ seminal book ‘Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society’ first published in 1976, which looks at how the meaning of words change as the context in which they are used changes about them’ (Iniva website).

Sudeep and Judith

Having read Butler’s Gender Trouble (originally published in 1990 and considered a seminal work in the formation of Queer Theory) as part of my MA research last year it was a timely opportunity to see Judith and hear her debate. I attended the event with my dear friend Dr Sheena Calvert (who was a tutor on my MA course) and we both spent the evening writing copius amounts of notes as Butler unpacked her way through the thoughts and opinions posed by her interlocutor Sudeep.

Sudeep’s extended introduction (undertones of paternalistic dominance maybe!) promted Sheena to write a missive on the back of an envelope, it read ‘will she ever get to speak’ my response written covertly as well ‘the butler hardly ever speaks’. Our disobedience was halted the minute Butler responded, the whole audience felt as if it had stiffened and the silence was tangible.

Half way through the debate, as she was speaking, Butler’s phone rang, housekeeping demanded we all silence our phones, however Butler picked up her phone and said in a surprised tone ‘it’s my mother’ the audience erupted ‘if she doesn’t like what I’m saying’ and again we all laughed. This spontaneous moment showed a lighter side to this deeply intelligent and rehearsed performance and Sheena and I both agreed that she had shattered the preconceptions we had of her.

The ideas put forward from both speakers were challenging, and demanded an intense level of concentration and focus, I have a notebook full of fragments, and appropriately, keywords, such as:

who is speaking? Who identifies whom? Claim to knowledge. People not performing their identity properly. The difference between I and they. How is a subject produced through a speech act? History of benevolence – augmented power of the paternal subject. Recognition/allocation of acts. Is redistribution taking place in an equitable way? Sovereign paternalistic authority. I am the measure, the fulcrum/pivot. Radical democratic practice – the people in the place of the sovereign. Beneficence and dependency. Europe and its internal others. Those who are decided about are denied agency. Mubarak – I will protect Egypt’ from itself” or against radical democracy. A classical paternalistic mode. Non-paternalistic protection. Cultural difference as a trope in cultural analysis. Double bind….

The notebook pages go on but the above should give a flavour of the trajectory. Interestingly Butler made her concerns topical with events in Egypt and this seemed to me an accessible way into the subject.

Butler is talking at The British Museum on Monday night on the subject of ‘Who owns Kafka?’ one I would loved to go to but alas it is fully booked. If the opportunity arises again that Butler is speaking in the UK, book a ticket as quickly as you can, you will not be disappointed.

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