The current controversy, arising due to the renowned philosopher Judith Butler being awarded the Adorno Prize on Sept. 11th, 2012, by the city of Frankfurt, Germany, marks an important historical juncture. In the Zeit article of August 30th, 2012, Butler defends not only herself from those who would associate every critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. Theodor Adorno’s own critical legacy notwithstanding, the attempt to associate all criticism against Israel with anti-Semitism is too dangerous to be ironic. As Butler points out, such a polemic attacks critical thinking, the absence of which feeds religious and other kinds of violence.
On a personal level, Butler’s answer is as thought-provoking and honest as Derrida’s might have been when he accepted the same prize on September 22nd, 2001. Derrida commented on the September 11th attacks in his speech that had taken place 11 days earlier: “I do not believe in the political innocence of anyone in this crime. And if my compassion for all the innocent victims is limitless, it is because it does not stop with those who died on September 11 in the United States.” While this might be seen as a strong statement, what could be more relevant is his seeming inability to accept the prize.
Derrida’s acceptance speech begins with the words: “I apologize.” He then continues to apologize in varying ways for being the one to receive the Adorno prize, particularly in relation to the absence of any prize received by another critical thinker who died fleeing from the Nazi’s. Judith Butler has increasingly taken up the work of this German Jewish thinker, Walter Benjamin, one could even say at the expense of deconstruction.
One way to understand Derrida’s guilt and Butler’s turn to Walter Benjamin would be to think about the radical depth of the latter’s “Critique of Violence,” that examines historical violence as inherent to legal systems, but not necessary for that reason. But since here is neither the time nor place for a detailed account of such a critique, suffice it to say for the moment, that in awarding the prize to Judith Butler this year, the city of Frankfurt honors not only a critical tradition of thinking that must be understood as Jewish precisely in the long on-going struggle against anti-Semitism, but also a historical urgency that demands the positive freedom of thinking and the equally necessary struggle for justice.MN
Berlin, September 2012