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Middaglijnstraat 10, 1210 Brussels


Judith Butler: Debt, Guilt, Responsibility, Obligation

In this lecture, Butler will consider how best to delink debt and guilt in the context of the intensification of student debt in recent years and the movement in favor of debt forgiveness. The argument will seek to show that public obligations to either free or affordable education rely upon a notion of the public good that severs debt from guilt. This analysis considers the stories that are told to those who take out loans that turn out to be unpayable, the stories that are told within the public sphere about the “irresponsibility” of those who do not pay their debts, and then considers how forgiveness contests such narratives and offers a new set of conceptual clarifications of public obligations that expiate guilt. The paper will draw on Walter Benjamin’s early writings on forgiveness in order to illuminate an anti-narrative strand in public discourse. That discourse seeks to quit the storyline that brings on and sustains the moral status of student debt, instead opening up a sphere of ethics that disperses moral blame for those subject to historically orchestrated forms of exploitation. The lecture is associated with the research agenda of the 2020-21 Pembroke Seminar “Narrating Debt.”

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor Emeritus in the Department of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley and the author of 15 books including, most recently, The Force of Nonviolence (Verso: 2020).

Butler served as a founding director, with Martin Jay, of the Critical Theory Program and the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs at UC Berkeley, where they served terms as Chair of the Department of Rhetoric and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. They also served as the Chair of the Board of the University of California Humanities Research Center in Irvine and as a member of the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association as well as its president in 2020. Butler is affiliated faculty with the Psychosocial MA Program at Birkbeck College in London and the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School in Sass Fee, Switzerland.

Butler has been active in a number of human rights organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. They have received many awards, including the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities, the Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt in honor of her contributions to feminist and moral philosophy, and the Brudner Prize from Yale University for lifetime achievement in gay and lesbian studies. They have received Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Ford, American Council of Learned Societies, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris fellowships and twelve honorary degrees. In 2015, Butler was made an “honorary geographer” by the American Association of Geographers and elected as a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. Butler is a member of the American Philosophical Society and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.