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Artillery Row

Judith Butler has a projection problem

It is she, not gender-critical feminists, who seems to be afraid

According to Judith Butler, people who don’t agree with Judith Butler just haven’t read any Judith Butler. Apparently, they’re frightened of doing so. 

It’s an argument I find somewhat odd, having spent years telling myself I probably agreed with her, and that if I didn’t, it was best not to know it. The only way of maintaining such a state was by not reading any Butler. 

As a post-graduate literature student in the nineties, two things scared me about Butler, neither of which involved having any deep-seated beliefs about traditional gender roles torn apart by the power of her wisdom. I was afraid of finding her writing too opaque (meaning I was stupid), and I was afraid of not agreeing with her ideas (meaning I was bad). I had read a little of her work, and it scared me off. I thought I was interested in feminism, but if this was feminism, clearly I wasn’t up to pursuing it any further. 

Strangely enough, the male students around me didn’t seem to be facing the same issues. I thought — and how funny it seems to me now — that they, like Butler, must just have a better understanding of what women were. They even wrote essays on the topic. I didn’t. I decided I would defer to my superiors on the topic of female embodiment and subjectivity. After all, what did I know? I still had some stupid, embarrassing sense that femaleness mattered — best not draw any attention to that! In some weird way, I felt that the men around me, busily redefining the non-men they’d allowed into their spaces, were doing us all a favour.  

Judith Butler’s career has thrived on other people’s fears: fear of looking stupid, fear of being called a bigot, fear of dependency, fear of the female body. I sometimes wonder if some part of her is now afraid of all the ways in which her ideas (if one might call them that) have been used to justifty harming others. I wonder if it scares her to know just how seriously some people have taken her trolling. Certainly, she seems more obsessed than ever with projecting fear onto the rest of us. The title of her new book, in which she conflates the gender politics of radical feminists with those of the Pope, is Who’s Afraid of Gender?  In a recent interview with the Financial Times, she asked of her critics “what are they frightened of, exactly?” It’s one of those questions you’re not meant to actually answer (say “male violence”, and you might be accused, as JK Rowling was, of having “capitalised on history of sexual trauma in order to afflict and persecute others”). All criticism is thrown into one enormous container marked ‘irrational, unsophisticated phobias’. 

Like many feminists, I only became critical of Butler when I got over my fear of Butler. I did so gradually, however. One of the many points that Butler appears to miss about her feminist critics — all trad wives in waiting, apparently, too dumb to know the end point of their own politics — is that they do not just read her, but they read her generously. When you would rather not disagree with someone — when doing so would make your life so much more inconvenient, socially, politically and, in some cases, economically — you are more than a little inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Butler’s writing style lends itself to selective misinterpretation. It is filled with get-out clauses for those who don’t want to risk being told they’re no different to the far-right for noticing the sky is blue. 

Her work is a mix of the bleeding obvious and the downright stupid. Did you know, for instance, that “what constitutes through division the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds of the subject is a border and boundary tenuously maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control”?:

The boundary between the inner and outer is confounded by those excremental passages in which the inner effectively becomes outer … For inner and outer worlds to remain utterly distinct, the entire surface of the body would have to achieve an impossible impermeability. This sealing of its surfaces would constitute the seamless boundary of the subject; but this enclosure would invariably be exploded by precisely that excre-mental filth that it fears.

Bodies aren’t perfectly sealed because we shit (fair enough), and this means thinking bodily boundaries are in any way definable — particularly in relation to maleness and femaleness — leads to never-ending fascist paranoia over the maintenance of an impossible purity. Or something. There’s always an “or something”.

so much of her popularity rests on the fear of femaleness, and the desire for physical transcendence, that underpin the most conservative religious postures

There’s an enormous irony in Butler pointing the finger at conservative critics — and claiming all critics are conservative — when so much of her popularity rests on the fear of femaleness, and the desire for physical transcendence, that underpin the most conservative religious postures. The body is regressive, unsophisticated, a mere meat-sack, and the female sex has always been the one onto which embodiment has been loaded. Man is mind, woman is flesh. As Adrienne Rich wrote, “the body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit”. So much of my own fear of disagreeing with Butler rested on this age-old fear of simply being female. If I didn’t “get her”, I’d be the unthinking, passive creature my biology destined me to be. Any kind of identification with femaleness as a clear category would expose me. Butler cannot imagine a world in which such an identification is not aligned with inferiority, if not outright bigotry. 

It is such a tremendous failure of imagination, one marked not least by the fact that Butler has renounced identification with the female sex altogether. What is her greatest fear? Being found out, or simply being one of us? Critics of gender are not afraid of it  — at least, not irrationally so. But to be so afraid of sex and the body? To be so terrified of thought that all critics must be merged into one? Then again, how could Butler ever admit to being even the slightest bit wrong? If I were her, I’d be frightened, too.

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