UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler is the recipient of this year’s Adorno Prize, a highly coveted German award that recognizes outstanding achievement in philosophy, theater, music or film. The prize, which brings 50,000 Euros or about $64,000, was established by the city of Frankfurt in 1977 to commemorate sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno. It is conferred every three years on Sept. 11, Adorno’s birthday.
Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the departments of rhetoric and comparative literature and the co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at UC Berkeley. She is also active in gender and sexual politics, human rights and anti-war politics.
After the announcement, Professor Butler talked about her reaction to the award, and her current research interests.
Q: What, exactly, are you being honored for — a particular paper or book, or the totality of your work? And what does this recognition mean to you?
A: I understand that I am being honored for my scholarly work, especially in gender, sexuality, critical theory and moral philosophy. The award is given to someone who continues the tradition of critical theory, but not necessarily to someone who works on Adorno as a primary author. It so happens that I was influenced by Adorno’s work on moral philosophy in my book Giving an Account of Oneself, and I find his writings to be difficult, maddening and sometimes quite brilliant. He is widely regarded as a thinker who is at the center of the Frankfurt School, someone who tried to find a way of criticizing the social organization of the world, including totalitarianism and other forms of social domination.
Q: You seem to have your finger in a lot of intellectual pots. You are a professor of comparative literature and rhetoric with eclectic research interests spanning philosophy, politics, literature and a number of other disciplines. Is there something that binds them all together?
A: I don’t seek to be completely unified, and I wonder if that is not a good thing. I was trained in philosophy, but most of my academic posts have been interdisciplinary. Gender studies is by definition interdisciplinary, and that is part of what makes it into such a rich field. We could not think very well about gender if we could not engage anthropology, psychology, history, literature and political theory, to name but a few fields in that domain.
My work has been engaged with questions of desire and recognition, that is, can one’s desires be recognized by society? How do social norms affect what we desire? I wrote a dissertation on that topic in philosophy, focusing on Hegel. But perhaps it is also at the center of my work on gender and sexuality. More recently, it has informed my thinking about democratic movements and mobilizations against war.
Q: How does it feel to join a list of past Adorno recipients, which includes people like film director Jean Luc Godard and composer Pierre Boulez?
A: Well, it feels odd. I’m probably the shortest person on the list.
Q: What’s next for you? What is your current focus?
A: My latest book is called Parting Ways, and it deals with the relationship between Jewishness and Zionism. It focuses on a number of Jewish philosophers who confirm the value of people from different histories and religions living together in conditions of equality. I’m also interested in Jewish ethical perspectives on the critique of state violence. My work also engages the work of Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, and works toward a comparative frame for thinking about what is important for our time about diasporic politics and the politics of exile.
Q: People tend to think that philosophers are somehow detached from the real world, while you seem completely immersed in it. What sort of challenges does that present?
A: I assure you: I am not completely immersed in the world. I sometimes work with a small group of students with texts, and other times I work very much alone. It is true that I try to learn about the world, but I am not a social scientist with an area of study. I bring certain critical perspectives to what I study and speak about. “Critical” does not mean destructive, but only willing to examine what we sometimes presuppose in our way of thinking, and that gets in the way of making a more livable world.