Yesterday Judith Butler was in town. A room bursting with bodies helped underscore the topic of her lecture, Public Assembly and Plural Action. And there we were, assembling: people were crowded on the mezzanine, crouched on the radiators by the windows, standing in an attentive throng at the back. The vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows did nothing to disguise that there were pressures within the confines of the hall. Spatial concerns; fire code violations; but also those pressures produced by psychic human concerns. There were tensions. There were individuals heavily invested in being there, and not everyone could be accommodated. Butler attracts a multitude. It is quite a feat, writing and being read across so many disciplinary boundaries, in and out of the academy. There were undoubtedly a number of unspoken agendas circulating and invisibly pressuring each other amongst the crowd; but we all surrendered to plural action. We all made nice, right up until the end.
My companion and I had secured some uncomfortable wooden chairs right in the center of the assembly. In spite of her protests of disbelief, I prevailed upon my friend and got us there 75 minutes early. For, despite harboring genuine anticipation, I was not excited enough to warrant standing at the back of a crowded room for hours just to hear the professor in person. I wanted to attend—not haunt—the event. In the end we were well situated, even if our chairs did inexorably deaden our backsides.
“We the people,” Butler intoned in the early phrases of her address, to frame the discourse of her paper; and these words, so freighted and resonant south of the border, have their own undeniable currency abroad. Their rallying premise, as a point of genesis rather than a jingoist mantra, undeniably has the capacity to stir something positive, especially in those who believe that individual people can coalesce around a core of collective well being. I certainly believe we have that capacity. I invest in that premise with all the devotion of a sweetheart. I would carve hearts around the letters of an ideal democracy on the boards of bridges, into the trunks of trees.
Butler’s “we the people” constitutes a performative, one that is enacted even when the gathering of individuals is not entirely physical, or not entirely or explicitly idealistically cognate. It happens through its very collectivity, in the identification of a larger body, with or without a clearly articulated agenda; simply as a fact, as a thing; and it is possible that that this thing has a sovereignty that presupposes the sovereignty of the state. Perhaps, in fact, it must.
I came away boiling with thoughts of plural action, articulating across the world, across temporal boundaries, in and out of spaces sanctioned for the purpose, in and out of public. How do these mobilizations happen? What are their boundaries? Where does inclusivity and exclusivity occur? How does a collective initiate the move from figurative to actual change? And in this age of intense visualization, how do we imagine the legitimizing forums that provide the stage for meaningful gatherings? Do they have a component of broadcast media, is that necessary to be taken seriously, or does collective action supersede these modern, virtual arenas?
Butler remains provocative, 25 years out of the gate.