Reflections on Reading for Reading’s Sake and the Judith Butler ‘Deep Dive’

Dr Rebecca Hewer

 

Reading is an important task for academics. And yet, we rarely discuss it or plan for it as such. Reading is subsumed into other tasks: we read to teach, to write; rarely do we read to read. When we subsume reading into other tasks we necessarily think of it as instrumental – as meaningful only insofar as it has a direct link to something ‘productive’. Teaching and research are productive, they materialise into concrete outcomes: a lecture, an article, a line on our CV. Reading per se does not ‘appear’ like that. So our relationship to reading often becomes extractive.

This is unideal. We do not always know what we do not know. When we intend to instrumentalise what we read, we focus on a narrow assortment of texts, selected to answer the questions we have posed. But what of questions we did not know to ask? Moreover, when we read to extricate knowledge for some other task, we do not always pay consistent enough attention. How many methodology sections languish in the world of the largely unread? This approach to reading can intensify abject relations of power: those of us in privileged academic spaces extricate and subsequently exploit fragments of work generated by less privileged others (Liboiron, 2021). When we do this, we sever parts from their whole, and fail to properly face perspectives that trouble our own. In a brief blog Liboiron (2021) calls this reading “from a colonial worldview”.

To be clear, I don’t think that we can ever read without somehow bringing texts into dialogue with our work. That is, perhaps, an involuntary intellectual tic! The point is not to read as if it were an activity entirely separate from our other academic labours, but a) to read without instrumental intention and b) to be led by the content of a text, rather than by what we want to extract from it.

I imagine many of us would like to read like this but worry about time. I certainly have a list of texts I’d be overjoyed to read, but panic when consider doing so. My schedule is tight, and new challenges arise everyday: academia can squeeze you. And that squeeze becomes all the more suffocating when you don’t know where to start. Some notable theorists have unfathomably vast bibliographies. How, then, to get to grips with their key contributions without wasting precious time?

In recent years I have taken it upon myself to organise space for reading per se. I convene the Gender Politics Reading Group (GPRG) at the University of Edinburgh, and have done so since 2018. In the last four years we’ve read Donna Haraway, Silvia Federici, bell hooks, María Lugones, and an array of less well known scholars and theorists. We’ve read trade books, academic texts, articles, and interviews. We have nurtured a community, and reflected critically. It’s been wonderful, but it’s also been insufficient. We meet fortnightly for an hour, and read a different text for every session. We barely scratch the surface. So this summer I organised the Judith Butler ‘Deep Dive’ under the aegis of GPRG with support from CRITIQUE and GENDER.ED.

Butler is a world-renowned gender and queer theorist, whose work is famously difficult to navigate. Butler has been publishing since the late 80s, and is prolific. Whilst they are best known for their work on ‘gender performativity’, they have published on an array of topics like bodies, rights, vulnerability, and power. I, for one, was passingly familiar with Butler’s work, but always wanted to know more. I imagined others might feel the same. But where to start? I thought it best to ask an expert!

I approached Professor Moya Lloyd (University of Essex) and asked if she could help. Lloyd has dedicated much of her career to explicating the work of Judith Butler, authoring books like Judith Butler from Norms to Politics (2007) and editing books like Butler and Ethics (2015). I asked Professor Lloyd for two things: a reading list, and two lectures. She kindly obliged.

The ‘Deep Dive’ model was simple, but it worked. Professor Lloyd kicked us off with an introductory lecture which provided a rationale for selected readings and signposted key themes. Two groups then met every week to discuss an assigned text. These texts were organised chronologically and thematically – weaving a cogent path through Butler’s diverse and plentiful oeuvre. Finally, Lloyd helped us consolidate our learning in a concluding lecture.

In feedback from the event, attendees were overwhelmingly positive. They expressed gratitude for the carefully curated reading list and its week-by-week structure, which allowed them to draw a (manageable) thread through Butler’s work. Attendees were also struck by the value of dialogue, and cross-college participation. ‘Deep Dive’ attendees hailed from Linguistics, Philosophy, Law, English, and Sociology to name but a few, and ranged from Master’s Researchers to Professors. Furthermore, a number of participants appreciated emergent processes of collective meaning making. This facet of the ‘Deep Dive’ developed alongside a concurrent sense of community and shared intellectual humility. After a while, participants felt able to admit confusion, ask for help, and work with others to develop their understanding.

Many participants felt, however, that we needed more time. Longer sessions, more weeks. Time to read supplementary and critical work, or simply to read more Butler. Butler’s work is immense – both in terms of words written and ideas explicated. A month or so of Wednesdays was never going to suffice. I also know from many email exchanges that there were those who desperately wanted to participate, but who couldn’t find or justify the time. The squeeze persists: there is only so much we can do to mitigate it.

Happily, almost every participant who provided feedback (over 90%) said they would be ‘very likely’ to participate in future ‘Deep Dive’ iterations. The model could be repurposed for any theorist with a significant opus – all we need is a willing expert and a committed group of people ready to read for readings sake.

When asked to identify theorists whose works they wanted to explore, attendees generated quite the list! Sara Ahmed, Gloria Andalzua, Sylvia Wynter, Gayatri C. Spivak, Donna Haraway, Lauren Berlant, Angela Davis, Sylvia Federici, Melinda Cooper, Monique Wittig, Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, bell hooks, Chandra Mohanty, Karen Barad, Kimberle Crenshaw, Bev Skeggs, María Lugones, Jasbir Puar, and Saidiya Hartman were all mentioned at least one.

Better get planning – we’ve got a lot of reading to do!

 

The author would like to thank: Professor Moya Lloyd for making the Deep Dive possible; Emily Mann, for facilitating the online reading group with enthusiasm and verve; Mihaela Mihai and Radhika Govinda for advice and support; Critique and GenderED for co-sponsoring the event; and all the attendees for their patience, insight, and critiques. 

If you are interested in seeing the reading list curated by Professor Lloyd, it is available here.

 

This is the first in a series of blog posts reflecting on/inspired by the Judith Butler ‘Deep Dive’ organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Gender Politics Reading Group. Look out for two more blog posts in this series!

 

Author’s Bio

Dr Rebecca Hewer is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Sociology, whose work explores the socio-legal regulation of women’s bodies. Rebecca has a keen interest in gender studies, critical social theory, and the politics of knowledge production.

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