Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind
The title of the new documentary on feminist theorist Judith Butler plays upon Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s hypothesis that there are three possible kinds of encounters with aliens: the first kind is defined as “sighting,” the second as “evidence” and the third as “contact.” The title not only suggests that the intention of the documentary is to make “contact” with “Judith Butler,” but that, more to the point, something has prohibited this contact. The objective of the documentary, therefore, is “to popularize [Butler’s] insightful analysis of sexual identity and gender roles” so that contact can be made between “us” and “her,” the imaginary, inaccessible Other. Consequently, the result is that the past twenty years of Butler’s work is reduced into digestible phrases: “people are anxious about gender,” “gender is always about ambivalence” and “gender is always a failure.”
For those of “us” who engage with Butler’s work on a scholarly level, this documentary will be unsatisfactory; there is no critical discussion of Butler’s most contested ideas about gender, performativity, how she negotiates various (and seemingly disparate) theories into her own critical methodology or the problematic significance of Hegelian recognition in her theories on identity and ethics. Instead of establishing contact on a philosophical level, the desire is to make contact with Butler on a personal level. Thus the film opens with Butler describing herself as a “problem child,” who skipped classes and did “terrible things,” and ends with the camera lingering slowly over a photo of her with her partner and son.
The currency of academia in America seems to be in its value as entertainment - in scholars as celebrities, when morsels about their private lives can be included in the pages of People Magazine. It is no wonder then that we are told at length about Butler’s family owning movie theatres in Cleveland, or that her mother is like Joan Crawford. In one particularly intriguing, albeit uncomfortable, scene, Butler discusses her celebrity status, the invasion of her privacy by the press and that some criticism she receives is both personal and painful. Her frustration with the expectation that she must embody her own theory functions as ironic commentary on the documentary itself. It also raises the question about what compelled Butler to do the documentary—what kind of contact, and at what price?