Sunday, October 23, 2011

Impossible Demands

Judith Butler speaks at Occupy Wall Street, her voice amplified by the human microphone of the assembled crowd. On the one hand, it's an academic wet dream: We all wish the masses sounded as smart and decent as Judith Butler, and it's intoxicating to see that fantasy actualized for three minutes and forty seconds. On the other hand, in desperate times, a wet dream is at least a dream, and perhaps a dream is what is needed to begin to move the 99% out of sleep, silence, paralysis, despair -- or whatever it is that has kept us so passive so long in the face of so many urgencies and obscenities, so much inequality, so little courage or kindness on the part of our leaders, even those who have claimed to be on the side of hope.

If hope is an impossible demand, Butler declares, then we demand the impossible. Amen. Watch the vid.


Funny how Butler takes that word hope, so drained of meaning by its overuse in the last presidential election, and makes it the linchpin of her response to those who have complained that OWS has no clear or reasonable set of goals, isn't it? And by funny we mean of course genius. Hope is a demand, not a slogan, and it arises from bodies in the street, voices on the square, in an eruption of popular will. David Axelrod wouldn't recognize it if he tripped over it.

To be honest, we don't know what we think of OWS yet. We haven't watched it closely enough to have a very clear sense of what it really means or where it might go. We passed a small Occupy Baltimore encampment when we were in town for the American Studies Association convention this weekend, but we didn't stop to check it out or get especially excited by the organization's statement of solidarity with the movement. (Sorry -- We've seen too many feel-good resolutions passed by academic orgs over the years to put much stock in such gestures.) On the other hand, we were moved and inspired by our dear friend Priscilla Wald's presidential address at the convention, which wove a brilliant tapestry of disciplinary, organizational, and cultural history into a passionate call for new stories that would more accurately and compellingly capture the realities of twenty-first century American life.

Another impossible demand? Perhaps, but again: Amen. Sometimes, you demand the impossible just in getting your a$$ out of bed in the morning, but you have to get up in order to make anything happen, don't you, darling? So do it, OK? Demand the impossible. Judith Butler wants you to, and you don't want to disappoint Judith. Peace out.

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