Review of My Elevator Ride with Judith Butler, April 10, 2015
Review of My Elevator Ride with Judith Butler, April 10, 2015
by Andrew Rihn
Chapter One (“Exposition”) began innocuously enough. I first saw her from behind, and could not immediately recognize her. Just another body in the hotel lobby. Strangers performing strangeness. She turned toward the elevator, her face in profile; a barely-perceptible grin I recognized from author photos on the backs of her books. Now I could answer Foucault: this is an author, the one who is photographed. In that moment I was stunned; that stunning moment as I shifted from unrecognition to disbelief. Was this a celebrity? Was this what it felt like to meet a movie star or tennis player?
I was in town for a conference. The annual East Central Writing Center Association conference, to be exact but obscure. The conference was at Notre Dame, a campus much more lush and extravagant than I imagined. I'd seen Rudy and assumed that was enough. I was reminded of the mild Catholicism of my youth. Every footpath and walkway had a shrine, or a grotto, or occasionally a life size crucifix. Even residence halls looked like miniature cathedrals. The conference organizers had alerted us to the fact that Butler would be giving a free talk that day, but I received the notice too late to adjust my travel plans, and could not attend. Her talk was titled "The Ethics and Politics of Non-Violence".
When I saw Judith (can I call her Judith? Judy? are we familiar now?), it was about 11:00 am, on a Friday, the day after her talk. I was wearing a button-down shirt, collar slightly wider than average, unbuttoned enough for a small amount of chest hair to show, and gold-rimmed aviator glasses. A friend told me I looked like an extra from Starsky and Hutch.
I had already presented at the conference, a sort of roundtable discussion on queer identities in writing centers, and I was ready to begin my ritualistic conference day-drinking. I'd picked up a six-pack of Miller High Life (“The Champagne of Beers”) from a nearby 7-11 (“Hold that cup like alcohol; never drop that alcohol”[i]). I knew that when those were gone, I could walk to O'Rourke's Public House, a cute-enough faux-Irish pub teeming with white kids who all appeared little too comfortable rap/singing the N-word when Biggie Smalls' “Hypnotize” came on.
Chapter Two's rather Freudian title (“Rising Action”) might have been a little too obvious for a story about an elevator ride. I was walking back into the hotel, sunglasses on and six-pack in hand, ready to take the elevator to my room on the second floor. She entered first; I followed her in. We both turned our bodies to face forward as the door closed, enacting a social convention, embodying a specific kind of politeness, an act of such regularity and repetition it appears without forethought. She was nearest the buttons, and I watched her push “2,” her floor but also mine. We shared space: an elevator, a floor, a campus.
Pushing the button, she turned and made eye contact, eyebrows asking an unspoken question. I made some sort of affirmative grunt in an attempt to let her know I was on the same floor, and that she had no more buttons to push. Her silence was satisfied. The doors closed, and the public space of the elevator became closer, more intimate. Our bodies were at rest, but ascending. They moved beyond their own boundaries, a movement of the boundary itself.[ii]
Chapter Three (“Climax”) continued the Freudian motif of Chapter Two. What would Jung have made of this? I was nervous; I had to work up my nerve. I paused. Social interaction is a kind of work; even performance is labor. I asked her, “How did your talk go last night?” She made eye contact, smiling just a little sheepishly, and said it went all right. Was it the smile of a professional pleased by interest in her work? Or was her smile the smile of a woman in a confined space placating a strange man?
I began to reply, excitement getting the best of me, stumbling my way through some attempt at self-explanation, ejaculating words like writing conference—arrived late—missed your talk. My body embodied itself; I couldn't contain my multitudes. They spilled out like so much soup upon the countertop. Whatever I said, it might have been taken for mere noise, as words only in a symbolic sense.[iii]
I have no idea what stammered gibberish actually came out of my face, but she smiled more broadly. Her eyes darted down, then back up, giving me the once-over. The sunglasses, the unbuttoned collar, the High Life at 11:00am. She chuckled to herself, but out loud. She could read me like a magazine.[iv] Her gaze was casual, seemingly without effort, challenging yet comforting. I felt naked and happy, exposed and relieved, as if I had found my light within this theater of an elevator, stepping forward, unarmed and reconciled, playing my role.[v]
Chapter Four (“Falling Action”) was a relief from the literalness of earlier chapters. The door opened and we exited the elevator politely. Did gender roles dictate that I, the man, let her, the woman, exit first? Or did I defer to her academic celebrity status? Regardless, we performed this performance without hesitation or planning. She exited first, turning down to the right, and I to the left. I watched furtively as her body disappeared from my sight/site.
The moment did not float; it sunk in. I was giddy at the thought of my encounter and had to bite my hand so as not to squeal a fangirl's squee. I was consumed; I consumed myself. A consumer; a consumption. When I got to my hotel door, my left hand was covered by deep, red tooth marks.
Denouement: Would I recommend this elevator ride to others? I can only say that I would do it again in a heartbeat. Next time, though, I wouldn't skip a beat. Maybe I would say something clever, offer an observation on the BDS movement, perhaps. Maybe I would offer her a drink. Bring our bodies closer. Maybe I would reach out as if for a handshake, instead discreetly slipping my room key into the palm of her hand.
Andrew Rihn lives in Canton, OH. He is the author of several chapbooks of poetry as well as several academic articles. His interests include embodied literacies, cheap beer, and Gore Vidal. He currently works at a small bakery.
[i] Knowles, Beyoncé. “7/11.” Beyoncé. Parkwood Columbia Records, 2013.
[ii] Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York: Routledge, 1993. ix. Print.
[iii] Foucault, Michel. “The Discourse on Language. 217.” The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. 217. Print.
[iv] Swift, Taylor. “Blank Space.” 1989. Big Machine Records, 2014.
[v] Foucault, Michel. “The Discourse on Language. 217.” The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. 217. Print.