Judith Butler Superstar

Okay, what’s the deal with Judith Butler. Why does everyone who writes about her call her a celebrity or a superstar. A superstar?? Someone who teaches gender studies at Berkeley? A superstar?

Berkeley’s Judith Butler, a superstar of gender and literary studies, drew a packed house with her analysis of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s bad grammar and slippery use of the term “sovereignty.”

I’m not making it up, that’s from the Boston Globe, from a story on the MLA convention. Not a very affectionate or over-impressed story, either – and yet Scott Jaschik calls Butler a superstar. Well if she got married in Las Vegas and then had the marriage annulled the next day, would we hear about it? Would it take up time on the BBC World Service’s half-hour news report? If she were arrested for child molestation, would we hear about that, would the World Service consider that important enough to spend a minute or two on? I have to say, I kind of doubt it.

Well to be sure, Jaschik does call her a superstar of gender and literary studies – not just a superstar tout court. But then further questions arise. Do reporters write about superstars of nursing, superstars of postal work, superstars of meat packing? Do they write about superstars of history or Classics? I don’t think so. So what is it about Judith Butler that somehow hypnotizes people into calling her a superstar? Or is it something about her field that does that – and if so, what? And what does it mean – what does all this vocabulary of stardom and trendiness and hipness and fashion portend? Why is it catching? Why don’t people just laugh when academics are called superstars?

Even in Israel, even that far away and with other things to attend to, they are susceptible. Witness Ha’aretz.

Butler is an unusual figure in academia. On the one hand, she is a celebrity who has a community of followers and who exudes charisma. Groups of followers sometimes line up for her lectures, as though she were a rock star; and her major influence on feminism at the start of the 21st century is widely noted. On the other hand, many persons outside of feminist academia have never heard of her; nor have they come across her ideas, or been influenced by them.

Celebrity? Followers? Charisma? Rock star? Well at least Ha’aretz realizes some of the truth – ‘many persons outside of feminist academia have never heard of her.’ Yes, you could say that. Quite a few, I daresay. In fact I would venture to guess that the non-hearing of Judith Butler outside feminist academia is pretty nearly universal.

Rock star, celebrity, superstar. How do these rumours get started, I always wonder.

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