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Academic icon — The internationally recognised professor and gender thinker Judith Butler visited the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) 4 May to do a guest lecture on climate sorrow. The star academic called on the audience to engage in climate action rather than climate paralysis.
»I am here, clearly, because I was attracted by the big name,« says a student in the 10-metre long queue that formed in front of the large auditorium on South Campus.
Even though it is approaching 4 pm on a Thursday afternoon, the sun is shining, and it is the day before the Great Prayer Day bank holiday, the people just keep on streaming in.
When the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) presented the news back in April that Judith Butler would give a guest lecture , as the high point of the humanities climate festival CApE, the 470 free seats were booked within days. The hall is jam-packed, and some people have to take a seat in an adjoining auditorium where they can watch the lecture via live stream.
In the rows of chairs, it is mostly young people who are seated on their reserved places at the front of the auditorium.
The room is buzzing with talk about the American professor’s academic career and importance.
»I’m a real fangirl.«
»A total icon!«
»Butler is my role model.«
Elise Sydendal has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCPH and is a climate activist in the green movement Den Grønne Ungdomsbevægelse. It is the theme of climate sorrow, and the feelings associated with the climate crisis that attracted her to the talk today. But:
»It’s a mixture. Because I’m also here for the face. I would probably also have come to the lecture, even though the topic was not on climate sorrow,« she says, adding:
»I hope to be able to put words and new perspectives on some of the issues and feelings that I relate to as a climate activist. So we can get the tools to collectively care for and help each other.«
Søren Berthelsen, who is studying for a master’s degree in political science, says that he turned up because Butler has star quality. But also because Butler has laid the foundations for a direction of thought that he really appreciates.
»Butler has a theory about how we can talk about climate sorrow without yielding to despair. This is important, I think. Very important. It is necessary for political action to talk about climate in a way that does not just lead to discouragement. This would lead to those of us who are concerned about climate change acting less than we otherwise should, because we do not really believe in the future.«
Just before the lecture starts, Annika Hvithamar, Head of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional studies on South Campus, exclaims:
»I feel like I am going to a rock concert«
When the door opens and Judith Butler enters the room, a hush falls over the audience. The atmosphere in the auditorium is tense, and all eyes rest on the professor.
Butler is introduced by Associate Professor Stefan Gaarsmann Jacobsen as »one of the most influential and original thinkers of our time.« They [Judith Butler identifies as non-binary, ed.] are then welcomed with a long, insistent applause. Unlike a rock star, however, Judith Butler humbly stays in front of the microphone.
American professor of comparative literature and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, US
Butler published the philosophical work Gender Trouble in 1990, which radically rethought sexuality and gender. In the book, they [Butler] argue that gender is not something you have, but something you perform.
In addition to gender, Judith Butler has worked on topics such as power, violence, aesthetics and democracy.
»When we talk about loss and grief over climate destruction, it seems like we are talking about subjective states of mind. But these losses are part of the world. They are, in other words, a total loss to the planet. These losses make our own individual losses seem small, and the accompanying sorrow ought to remind us of our community,« explains Butler. She points out that individualism »has always been a bit of a lie.«
Butler challenges the idea that climate sorrow should be seen as non-political. Instead, Butler believes that the climate losses should be fertile ground for more interdependence between people, and an obligation to find a new way of imagining the man-made world and our place on the planet.
Butler believes that a communal sorrow over the climate destruction should be a source of resistance.
»The mass extinction of species is the ultimate climate destruction, it is the premise for the future, and the foundation of resistance now. We are dependent on each other in all aspects of life.«
The lecture lasts one and a half hours. Butler reads up from their papers without stumbling over the words. The professor is in charge of their routine, pauses once between their monotonous reading, takes a sip of their coffee, and kindly asks whether the room is following her thinking.
In spite of having won a number of places in the front row of the popular guest lecture, some of them fall asleep. Heavily. But even though the level of abstraction is high, the room is full of concentration.
After the lecture, Associate Professor and organizer Mikkel Krause Frantzen starts a conversation with Butler, where they discuss topics such as generational challenges, norms for masculinity, and liberalism.
As the time approaches 6 pm, Mikkel Krause Frantzens has to close the conversation:
»I’m afraid we’re running out of time,« he says apologetically.
“Well, that’s what we’ve been talking about,« the rock star researcher replies.
The room breaks out in laughter again.
After the lecture, Annika Hvithamar, who is head of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, still feels like she has been to a »rock concert«. One that scores high on the Lix readability index.
It’s a shame that their [Butler’s] arguments don’t reach outside this auditorium. I was left thinking, but then what?
Elise Sydendal, bachelor’s student in political science
»It was difficult material, and it was at an advanced level. Maybe the whole room didn’t understand everything. But despite the complexity of the material, it seemed there had been some intense listening going on. And the room laughed when they were supposed to,« is her review.
Although Søren Berthelsen was prepared for the lecture format, he described the experience as »very compact« due to the reading. He would have liked to have had the opportunity to read up on some of the central points in advance of Butler’s visit.
»One of my own hobbyhorses is that these theoretical conversations about topics like climate sorrow need to be made more accessible to everyone. It really irks me that there is no link between academic life and daily life at times. The barriers are too high to be able to participate in these kind of academic lectures,« he says and adds that he thinks that »there is a need for a broader and more inclusive dialogue if support for climate action is to grow.«
Elise Sydendal reckons that it was definitely worthwhile turning up, and that she took on many of the central points. This in spite of the fact that she also »zoned out a few times when they [Butler] read up from their notes.«
»But it is a shame that their [Butler’s] arguments don’t reach outside this auditorium. I was left thinking, but then what? Butler is, of course, not a prophet who has to give us a manual on what to do,« she says, and says she has one question:
»As a climate activist, I would liked to have the answer to that question: So what now: And it could have been nice with something a bit more specific in relation to how we can act on the feelings that we talk about.«