Judith Butler GRD ’84, a well-known theorist of power, gender and identity, spoke in front of an audience of about 150 at the Whitney Humanities Center Monday about her recent philosophical research on ethical violence and theories of individual moral and ethical responsibility.

Butler touched on the inherent tensions between morality and social situations.

She talked about the notion of subject formation — how individuals form themselves in relation to certain social norms — mentioning that individuals are embedded within certain social contexts and social norms influence people’s moral principles.

“There is no ‘I’ that can stand apart from the prevailing moral matrix,” Butler said.

Butler said she thinks a moral theories based on personal will can become morally “narcissitic” because the world is full of “unwilled” things. She said she thinks it is problematic for people to apply moral frameworks or social norms to their daily lives in situations in which the norms are no longer applicable.

“When the collective ethos is no longer shared, it can only impose claims to commonality through violent means,” Butler said. “[The precepts] are dead things that are circulating among the living.”

Butler cited philosophers Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault several times during her lecture.

Many audience members said they found the lecture insightful and informative but thought it was difficult to follow. Several graduate students in the audience said they felt they only understood bits and pieces of it.

But Christopher Smith GRD ’09, a graduate student in African American studies, said he found Butler’s lecture interesting.

“It was typical Judy Butler,” Smith said. “It was exactly what I expected, in a good way.”

Jason Farago ’05 praised Butler’s focus on philosophy.

“The lecture seemed to illustrate Butler’s belief that, even in this theory-besodden interdisciplinary moment, philosophy is still king — or queen, as the case may be,” Farago said.

Sumanth Gopinath MUS ’04 spoke about the highlights of the lecture.

“What she was trying to do was take universality and ethics and resolve certain conflicts,” Gopinath said. “What is essentialized as humanist politics has essentially eradicated the individual, but at the same time it speaks for the individual. Butler was trying to work out the conflict. I thought it was particularly interesting when she tied in modern day examples.”

Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

She is the author of “Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death,” “Hegemony, Contingency, Universality,” “Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France,” “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,” “Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex,'” “The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection” and “Excitable Speech,” as well as numerous articles on philosophy and feminist and queer theory.