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Photo: Patric Fouad

Thinking is cool! Judith Butler in Cologne

In 2016 the Albertus Magnus Professorship was awarded to the philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler from the University of California (Berkeley). Her immense influence on the current social discourse became tangible already in the run-up to the series of events planned with Professor Butler at the University of Cologne (UoC): the media interest was enormous and rocketing registration numbers suggested the arrival of a rock star.

By Nina Maria Kohl and Kilian Thoben.

The representative of the rectorate and head of the UoC’s Thomas Institute, Professor Andreas Speer, welcomes Judith Butler in Cologne. Photo: Patric Fouad

Initiated by the representative of the rectorate and head of the UoC’s Thomas Institute, Professor Andreas Speer, and jointly organized by the University of Cologne, the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts and the Kölner Gymnasial- und Stiftungsfonds, an institution for the administration of educational foundations, the Albertus Magnus Professorship has been awarded annually since 2005 to outstanding personalities of international renown. It is dedicated to the memory of the medieval universal scholar Albertus Magnus (1193-1280).

In a series of lectures and seminars, the laureates are invited to address current issues of social and scientific importance in order to stimulate and enhance both public and academic discourses. That way the Albertus Magnus Professorship takes up an old tradition of the medieval university and medieval academic culture: renowned professors taking a break from academic everyday life to lecture publicly on issues of broad societal importance while normal teaching activities were suspended or at least limited. 

Greatest hype since Noam Chomsky

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  • The main lecture hall was packed with students awaiting Judith Butler's lecture. Photo: Patric Fouad
  • Students were able to ask questions and enter into a discourse with Judith Butler. Photo: Patric Fouad

By awarding the Albertus Magnus Professorship to Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory of the University of California (Berkeley), Professor Speer succeeded in attracting one of the world’s most influential theorists in the field of feminist and gender theory to the University of Cologne. Professor Speer seemed extremely pleased about the media interest prior to the award ceremony and lecture series planned with Butler, despite the fact that he had experienced something similar before:

Professor Andreas Speer

To date the reaction to Butler's arrival is indeed the greatest hype since Noam Chomsky was Albertus Magnus Professor in 2011. I think it is great that not only soccer players or rock stars can attract people, but also scholars and scientists. This is what the ancient philosophers wanted to convey: Thinking is cool!

Professor Andreas Speer, Representative of the rectorate for the Albertus-Magnus-Professorship and head of the UoC’s Thomas Institute

An icon of gender studies

Judith Butler, often referred to as the "icon of gender studies", provides reference points for people working in different academic fields. Hence not only the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne, but also GeStiK, the Center for Gender Studies in Cologne, was involved in this year’s events.

The director of GeStiK, Professor Susanne Völker, explains why Judith Butler's visit was so important for the academic community in Cologne: "In gender and queer studies there is certainly no one who is referred to more often in inter- and transdisciplinary contexts than she is, whose publications are quoted more frequently and whose intellectual charisma and radical analyses have inspired, irritated and occasionally  provoked researches, students and lectures to the extent that she has, against a policy, that plays differences off against  each other, that positions seemingly familiar things against unfamiliar ones. Without fail she is committed to an egalitarian and democratic 'sharing of the world' (as Luce Irigaray says) that respects differences instead of essentializing them."

The Albertus Magnus Professor Judith Butler lecturing at the University of Cologne. Photo: Patric Fouad
Judith Butler is often referred to as an "icon of gender studies". Photo: Patric Fouad
Professor Susanne Völker, director of GeStiK, welcomes the Albertus Magnus Professor Judith Butler and guests in the main lecture hall. Photo: Patric Fouad
Dr. Dirk Schulz, managing director of GeStiK, also addresses Judith Butler and everyone in the auditorium.
Photo: Patric Fouad

The interest among literary scholars to meet Judith Butler in person was also huge. It was therefore not surprising that students, lecturers and researchers from the most diverse disciplines came to her lectures, fascinated as well as provoked by this extraordinary personality. The level of interest was so great that the academic circumstances at the UoC were truly exceptional, which, in turn, is absolutely in line with the tradition of academic discourse culture of the medieval university.

The managing director of GeStiK Dr. Dirk Schulz is not surprised by the stir that this year’s Albertus Magnus Professor caused: "Her work has inspired, motivated as well as deeply and lastingly touched so many people within and outside academia in their ways of thinking, opinions and situations and has therefore enabled interdisciplinary as well as comprehensive dialogues. Again and again Butler introduces marginalized perspectives and opposes supposedly ‘objective truths’ and ‘natural circumstances’. Because we at GeStiK focus on the ‘queer’, Butler's rigorous denaturalization of dichotomous and heteronormative patterns are important starting and reference points for our research."

Judith Butler – a rock star of scholarship?

The question remains: Is Judith Butler a rock star among scholars – with all the attitudes generally attributed to such people? Professor Speer dismisses this idea:

Professor Speer

From the communication I had with Butler I gained the impression of a reserved personality who was rather surprised by the role she is ascribed. If you are a public person, you have a tremendous responsibility. She deals with it very convincingly, thereby becoming this fantastic role model.

Professor Speer, Representative of the rectorate for the Albertus-Magnus-Professorhip and head of the UoC’s Thomas Institute

The candidate for the Albertus Magnus Professorship 2017 has not yet been announced, but the tension is rising. The award has become highly respected in academia internationally and attracts outstanding academics to Cologne: "Fortunately, the Albertus Magnus Professorship is obviously of such high repute that we do not have to convince people to come and accept it. It is one of the awards people highly appreciate to be given in their academic career, which I am very pleased about,” Speer concludes.