Interview. Meeting philosopher Judith Butler, guest in Bologna to speak about the critical role of universities in the Trump era

Judith Butler, shaping the radical nature of the conflict

“It is time for social movements to coalesce to form a strong movement, with very clear ideas on equality, economy, freedom, justice. This means having ideals and platforms away from party politics. Only then, a social movement reaches a position to negotiate.”

Since the publication of Gender Trouble (1990), one of the founding texts of the queer theory, the reflections by Judith Butler – lecturer at the Department of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory Program at the University of California, Berkeley and the European Graduate School / EGS – has provoked a broad debate involving both feminism and, in general, critical theory, making her one of the most influential intellectuals in the contemporary international scene.

Moving between philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature, Butler has intervened in some of the major events that have shaken the global present, from September 11th to the Arab Springs.

Among her most recent publications, Senses of the Subject (New York, 2015) and Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard, 2015, translated into Italian under the title The alliance of bodies, Nottetempo, 2017).

The philosopher visited Bologna, in Italy, to promote the international conference “The critical tasks of the University ” and to attend the Summer School “Sovereignty and Social Movements”, organized by the Academy of Global Humanities and Critical Theory (Duke University, University of Virginia, University of Bologna), until July 7th.

pmfr66entretien-butlerurban-zintel3We met with her for a few questions.

How do you think the critical role of universities, and their opposition to Trump’s deportation policies, will be affected by his State’s reorganization plans and the increasingly arbitrary action by police?

It is very important that the universities declare their status as “sanctuaries”. It sends a strong message to the federal government. Trump’s program is not very effective yet, but immigration officials can act more aggressively autonomously, because there is no clear federal policy. The president says one thing, the courts go in another direction, so officials decide to go, on a discretionary basis, to schools or homes looking for illegal immigrants.

The universities, however, may decide to hand over the names of those who have no documents or resist the officers’ requests. They have the power to block the implementation of deportation plans and this means that we can become part of a larger network that resists the application of federal policies.

In light of this type of resistance, some see in the election of the US president an opportunity for social movements. Do you share this view?

There are two ways to read it. Some believe in a dialectical conception of history to which a resistance movement needs a fascist leader to grow, so we should be happy in this circumstance. I hope that social movements do not need this to be galvanized.

But there is a second way to see it, which I’m willing to accept, where the triumph of the right in the US has made it imperative for the left to get united with a very strong platform and direction. It is unclear whether this could happen through the Democratic Party, or if there should be a leftist movement – which does not necessarily coincide with party politics – that knows what it is doing and that, on this basis, can decide whether to accept a party, or advance their claims to a party.

But it is not a given that we should start from the structure of a political party. Sometimes, it is positive that social movements become a political party, it’s not necessarily something to oppose, but we mustn’t get accustomed to the distinction or the existing situation where there are Democrats, Republicans and everybody else is considered a radical minority without power.

How does the election campaign, and in particular the opening of Sanders to social movements – which was often contradictory and unable to incorporate their concerns – offer guidance on how to structure opposition to Trump in the terms you just described?

The Sanders’ presidential campaign was very interesting, because it has brought together many people and was much more popular than Clinton expected it to be. But it was also frustrating, because it is not clear if Sanders knew how to talk to African Americans, it seemed that he thought class oppression was the primary oppression and race and gender were secondary.

Perhaps it is necessary to distinguish Sanders from the “Sanders effect,” which is affecting many more groups, allowing them to think that they can get a bit of power.

In recent months, the strike was an opposition instrument practiced by migrants and women, establishing a line along which the interruption of a social relationship of power can be achieved. Does your reflection on “assemblies” articulate the need or the possibility of this type of conflict line as a condition of “Assembly”?

In the Internet age, we can go online on the web and decide to strike without actually getting together in person. The real question then becomes how the traditional way in which Assemblies work, where bodies are assembled in the same space, is related to digital networking or with a political mode to network that can also be the basis for the strike.

Usually strikes, especially international ones, which are very interesting, are mainly forms of resistance networking. It is a form among other possible forms of association and alliance between groups, a form that is linked to the assembly even if they are not exactly the same thing.

Last year those who are absolutely not allowed to assemble, the detainees held in prisons in Palestine, the United States and other parts of the world, went into a hunger strike. They communicated through the support networks of the prisoners, created an international network without the need for assembly, went on strike at the same time to attract media attention to the fact that isolation is an inhuman practice that they were opposing together.

These network alliances are precisely what is needed to bring a matter to the political spotlight.

Even womens’ strikes are very interesting because they do not have a center, they develop all over the world, in different ways and places. On the other hand, the more we rely on media to create transnational connections, the more we have to pay attention to the way the media cycle makes a story that disappears a moment later.

We must find ways to work against this impermanence to support our political connections.

Does this bring us back to the movement’s ability to consolidate and to address the problem of continuity and organization?

Assemblies can create some kind of criticism. For example, the women strike on March 8th has articulated some principles, the issue is how those principles are translated into practice, organization and movement. I think the public moment is important when the principles it announces are assumed by other types of movement that are maybe not so spectacular and public.

But there is another point I wish to emphasize: an assembly that lasts a long time becomes a camp or perhaps a job that lasts longer or is enlarged and can become a social movement and even a revolutionary struggle. This interests me and makes me believe in the general strike, not a strike for a day, not “today we do not work,” but “we will not work until the conditions change.”

The general strike is the refusal of a regime, an entire organization of the world, of politics, of an apartheid regime, a colonial regime; we saw them shot down by mass movements. We feel very alone until we realize that others are experiencing the acceleration and intensification of poverty or abandonment or of the loss of a job.

It must be clear that this happens on a transnational level and must be put in terms that people can understand, so they can recognize the injustice of their own suffering.

If I can go back to femicide, the way in which networks of women are going out of state structures, the way they correlate with human rights organizations, they way they are turning to the inter-American courts and creating transnational alliances, doesn’t depend on the power of the State, but calls the State into account for its complicity. It’s a mobilization that goes beyond and against the state, it is transnational, so I think we should study these movements for inspiration.

* (The full version of this interview is published on

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