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Judith Butler: Notes Toward and Performative Theory of Assembly

The body as a starting point for Judith Butler's thinking about democracy is promising – but does not meet because of the author's one-sided reading of Hannah Arendt. 


The body of politics

"I came here today to give you my support [...] [S] the baby we make democracy [...]" The words stem from Judith Butler's appeal under the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York in 2011 (the appeal can be viewed at YouTube). Then she took advantage of what social movements term a human megaphone (also called "human microphone" or "people's microphone") – which is that the appellant reads the appeal sentence by sentence, and that the assembly repeats each sentence in chorus before appellant continues on the next.
The purpose is to reinforce the impact of political statements when bodies are unregulated in streets or in places, and collectively, the appeal is valid. In Butler's new book Notes Toward and Performative Theory of Assembly is called this act of resistance, which raises the ideal of direct democracy.

Expressive freedom. In the book, Butler develops the idea of ​​democracy as what she calls body politics. With the author shows the body of the whole man. This springs from the assumption that the body is common and indispensable to all people. In addition, the body makes man vulnerable, and thus dependent on the recognition of others. For Butler, both the sense apparatus and the emotional life are a prerequisite for the political. Thus, political opinions are expressed first and foremost body language, and then arguably. The body politics is thereby based on the widest possible range of motivation for political action.
Freedom is another key concept for body politics. According to Butler, the individual is free when expressing body language through appearances in assembly rooms. This she calls expressive freedom, since it is related to the way people express themselves or appear by virtue of being bodily as well as body language. This expressive freedom is thus a freedom to act politically through nonverbal communication, which is perceived as a complement to argumentative communication.
According to Butler, freedom of speech, one of democracy's most fundamental freedoms, should thus be understood as one expressionfreedom. That is, the right to express freely encompasses the whole bodily person, and not just verbal communication or deliberation.
Butler's expressive freedom is, at first glance, reminiscent of what is called positive freedom to rather than negative freedom from. The reason is her focus on real participation on an equal footing with others, and not the absence of external constraint. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the body belongs to the concept of negative freedom, since the latter is about such fundamental freedoms as the right to life and the prohibition of torture. And if these negative freedoms are to be fulfilled, then the body is presumed to be the one to be protected. However, an interesting feature of Butler's expressive concept of freedom is that because it is based on her link between body and politics, she transcends the usual division between negative and positive freedom.

For Butler, both the sense apparatus and the emotional life are a prerequisite for the political. Thus, political opinions are expressed first and foremost body language, and then arguably.

Performance room. It is startling when Butler develops this body politics through a reading by Hannah Arendt. The latter is often interpreted as a defender of an absolute distinction between private and public sphere, something many feminists, including Butler, are critical of. Thus, Arendt is often perceived as anti-feminist. Furthermore, Arendt locates the body in the private, while the policy takes place in the public. The reason is her belief that the body is characterized by freedom, since it is associated with satisfaction and reproduction. The body thus undermines the political, since it makes man unable to act. All in all, this means that Arendt's thinking has no room for Butler's body politics. Especially since the latter calls for a continuum between private and public appearances, respectively.
In contrast to Arendt, Butler has been a self-proclaimed feminist as well as a starting point in the body since the breakthrough gender problem from 1990. Nevertheless, the feminist Butler – who is, among other things, "Hannah Arendt Professor" at The European Graduate School – has for years been increasingly interested in the political philosopher, as in the books Giving An Account of Oneself (2005) and Parting Ways (2012), and now also in his latest book Notes Toward and Performative Theory of Assembly.
Possibly this excitement at Arendt is one of the reasons why Butler in Notes ... think both with and against Arendt. Butler thinks with her when she borrows Arendt's term performance room ("Space of appearance"). Which also seems to play a role in the book title's use of assembly, which is another way of saying "political meeting place". In line with the influential work The Human Condition from 1958, Butler defines a space of prominence as a common room for physical appearance, where political action takes place as resistance.
Furthermore, Butler thinks of Arendt when she criticizes the latter for not recognizing the link between body and politics. Thus, her book contributes to the international debate about the body's role at Arendt, since body politics transcends the distinction between public and private when it anchors the political precisely in the body. Here Butler joins the ranks of contributors such as Julia Kristeva and Peg Birmingham, as well as several of the authors of the anthology Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt from 1995, edited by feminist and Arendt expert Bonnie Honig.

[H] va that constitutes one livable ("Liveable") life [...] links [Butler] to the right to appear ("The right to appear").

Nevertheless, Butler's reading of Arendt implies a contradiction. This is because, on the one hand, she advocates what Arendt defines as human terms ("Human conditions") and on the other hand warns against the "trap of ontology and fundamentalism". The contradiction is because it is unclear whether, like Arendt, Butler understands body politics in a fundamental ontological rather than one ontic level (to use a term pair from Arendt's teacher Martin Heidegger).

Vibrant life. Over the past decade, the Arendt reception has been marked by cosmopolitanism. That is, focus on Arendt's relevance on a global level, especially based on her concept the right to have rights. Seyla Benhabib, Peg Birmingham and Serenah Parekh are among the contributors. Unlike Butler's bodily political continuation of Arendt, the former philosophers focus on human dignity and human rights. Contrary to the possible relativism in Butler's reading because of the notion of ontology as a trap, they argue that Arendt's political thinking is universalist. Instead of the concept of appearances, Birmingham and Parekh, among others, associate this notion with the term birthrate, namely the Arendt in the book The Human Condition defines as a new beginning in the form of birth and thus reproduction. What is interesting is that some form of body politics seems to exist with Arendt himself, since "action is ontologically rooted in natality".
Finally i Notes Toward and Performative Theory of Assembly Butler raises the question of what constitutes one livable ("Liveable") life. Which she – in keeping with body politics as well as her "ethical turn" since the mid-2000s – associates with the right to appear ("The right to appear"). Nevertheless, such a right seems to apply only to democratic societies rather than to something cosmopolitan, as Benhabib interpreted Arendt.
Butler's book is worth reading because of the link between body and Arendt, which challenges standard readings when it comes to the latter's apparent rejection of the physical. Moreover, Butler's body politic sheds interesting light on today's discourse on freedom and democracy. However, it would have further strengthened the book if Butler had directly addressed the ongoing debate about Arendt's political thinking as a bodily rooted cosmopolitanism.

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