Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ten Tips for Engaging with Judith Butler's Books and Work

I’ve noticed a number of blog readers coming to my blog on the entries that are about Judith Butler’s work. (The most frequent key word that leads people to the blog is Molly Malone Cook, but I don’t have anything to say about that.) While my heart goes out to my fellow students, particularly undergraduates who are reading Judith Butler for the first time, (I note that most of the people reading these pages are accessing the internet through university or college internet hosts) I am hopeful that my blog entries about Butler are not substituting for a thoughtful, sustained engagement with her work. To that end, I’d like to offer ten hints for reading and engaging with Judith Butler’s work as an aid to fellow students and budding scholars everywhere.

1. Don’t read the books in order.

This seems like a simple thing, but it continues to hit me regularly as I sit down to do my weekly reading. I’m accustomed to and have been trained to start a book on page one and read through until the end. Foolishness! Most chapters can be read out of order with a review at the end to understand the organization and sequencing that led to Butler’s creation of the book.

2. Read what interests you and is usable to you first.

Again, this seems obvious, but often I fear we as readers are caught by the tyranny of how to read a book (from beginning to end) and don’t dive into what really interests us. I recommend that you do that first. Think of it as a gate way drug that will hook you into the other parts of the book that at first glance seem less engaging.

3. Remember that Judith Butler trained as a philosopher.

All of her work is engaged in the disciplinary tradition of philosophy. This is an old and long-standing academic configuration. She is responding within that. If you, like me, have not trained as a philosopher and are in fact functionally illiterate on philosophy, this creates challenges with engaging with her work. Remember, however, her disciplinary location and recognize that you may not have mastery there. It helps and gives you permission to slow down and engage as a novice.

4. Think about how Judith Butler’s work travels to other disciplines.

The corollary of Butler’s training as a philosopher is to look at how Butler’s work is used in different disciplines. As knowledge travels, it changes and is used in disciplinary contexts in different ways from the original. This should embolden you to engage with her for your own disciplinary uses.

5. Watch for “In other words.”

In other words is a typical Butler rhetorical trait and it means, I’M GOING TO SUMMARIZE AND RESTATE. This is a joyous moment for a student. If you haven’t followed her argument to this point, she is going to regurgitate it for you in a more digestible form. Eat little birds and enjoy the beneficence of the author!

6. Use a pencil and speak back to the text.

My copies of Butler are covered with pencil, pen, and highlighting marks from various readings. I now prefer pencil because I can write quickly and easily in the margins. I summarize, talk back, question, and squack at Butler throughout her books. I encourage you to do the same! (It also helps when the time comes to write a paper or other sorts of formal responses to the text.)

7. Create summaries in your own words.

My summaries help me. They may help you, too, but your own summaries are going to help you more.

8. Listen to others, but engage with Butler on your own terms.

Lots of people have lots of things to say about Judith Butler. You don’t have to agree with them all or believe them all. In fact, if you have actually read her work, you won’t. It’s always good to listen to what other people say, but form your own opinions and when necessary, disagree or augment or expand other’s thinking.

9. Think critically about how others speak about and use Butler’s work.

This is of course related to listening to others. While you are listening, think critically about what they are saying. Seek to understand their perspective and conclusions about Butler’s work. Other people have as much to teach you as books, but ultimately it is your own mind that must take you to your conclusions.

10. Don’t be intimidated.

At the end of the day, Butler (or any other author whose book you are reading) is another person just like you and I. She puts on her pants one leg at a time. She reads books and is sometimes confused or uncertain about author’s work. She makes mistakes and missteps just like we will. Don’t be intimidated. Read, think, write, work to understand. It makes a difference, no matter what you do with your life.

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