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Seeing through Judith Butler

Very little substance lurks within the obscure prose

Almost uniquely among academics, Judith Butler is a household name regularly publishing articles, and giving significant addresses on a host of issues outside her specialism of gender. Butler provokes intensely different reactions depending upon your worldview. For gender scholars, she is held in renown as a leading theorist who has helped pilot a new way of thinking about the subject. For those outside of that domain, she is described either as a deep thinker who is admirably clear, or as someone who is unnecessarily obscure and inaccessible.

A lack of clarity is a bigger issue than merely making it difficult for us to understand Butler. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, Butler’s lack of clarity allows her not only to evade critical scrutiny but also makes for a second rate thinker who the layman cannot engage with. This is a problem eating away at much of academia — scholars who are esoteric for the sake of it and have become lost inside a language they codify and control. When we discuss why academia does not contribute publically anymore, this is the foundational reason. 

But it is not simply a matter of public engagement, or lack thereof, that is the primary problem here. Rather it is a question of power. When someone, or a group of people, codify language and assert the superiority of knowledge which others cannot comprehend, you become unquestionable and unanswerable. Ironically, someone such as the radical philosopher Michel Foucault would see this as a classic exercise in power. 

The appeal to common sense is not unfounded. Genuinely great theorists and writers should be able to make their argument understandable. Of course, some technical language is a necessity in complicated subjects. But when technical language makes writing less rather than more precise in communicating meaning, it suggests that something is being obscured.

Scholars can get lost in their own ideas. I’ve seen it happen myself, at conferences, presentations and in academic writing. By losing oneself in fancy rhetoric the “meat and veg” of intellectual thought are made redundant. Butler is in a rare class of thinkers who achieve this skill with true excellence. Indeed, she even came 1st place in a “bad writing award”.

Butler’s work on gender focuses on social construction i.e., the idea that gender is a performance and only a performance that is contingent on our cultural and social norms. Thus, rather than gender being something that is stuck and solid, objective, and unchanging, it remains subjective and ever-changing. Paradoxically, for Butler, this notion also makes gender difficult to escape from. As our norms change so do our expectations of gender, thus “breaking out” of the gender box remains a difficult task. 

This is not so controversial. After all, we have seen various expressions of gender change over periods of time and in place and there is plenty of discussion and action where individuality becomes difficult to manifest itself. However, her emphasis on the supposed “fragility” of gender is perhaps misplaced. Gender can be “stuck” for significant periods of time in the same place. Many feminist writers have noted the eerily strong notions of masculine and feminine which continue to help define who we are. 

However, what is most controversial is Butler’s almost complete disregard for sex. Butler’s emphasis on social norms eviscerates biological distinctions creating a lack of grounding for gender to exist in. This makes sex at best irrelevant for Butler’s theories around “performing gender” in the manner which we choose. 

Rather than some critical scholars, such as Kathleen Stock, who look upon sex and gender as inherently interlinked, Butler’s difference has created a schism in the way scholars and activists think and act about gender. But this fight has not remained inside the confines of academia nor gender. Instead, this fight has perforated all the way through to a variety of topics. 

Indeed, Butler’s politics on gender naturally inform the way she thinks about a wide variety of subjects. Butler’s focus on ever-changing norms, challenging said norms, and focusing on their paradoxical stable but fragile nature is an emphasis of her work on social justice, violence and terrorism. But her certainty and focus on language games leads her to overstate cases and focus on the unimportant. 

“Antiwar protests are almost by definition nonviolent.”

As much as rights, considered as universal, have to be imagined transculturally and transpolitically, they also bring with their assertion certain geopolitical presuppositions, if not geopolitical imaginaries, that may not be at all appropriate for the situation at hand.” 

— Butler discussing the boycott of Israeli academics

Through her work on Israel and Palestine we can see how Butler has gotten lost in her own musings. From citing Hamas and Hezbollah as members of the “global left” to her unwillingness to label October 7th a terrorist act but an act of “armed resistance”, she struggles against norms and rules which define who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’, Butler at times appears to forget these categories exist at all, or at least give them secondary importance to questions of labelling. 

Indeed, her popular essays on questions such as academic freedom take this tone. In them she curates strawman after strawman in order to make her conceptual framework fit the world in which we live. Navigating between her academic self and the need to convey something to the reader, she flits between naïve speculation, gross oversimplification, and truisms — even if they conflict with what she has previously argued. 

Of course, the language sounds consequential. Butler is an artist when it comes to constructing prose to beguile and dumbfound her audience. However, when you take the time to deconstruct precisely what she is saying we find there is not much there at all. What is there is fragile and easily contestable. 

Butler is, for many, the academic’s academic, but she should instead be a lesson as to what happens when we get lost in our own bubbles. We sit unchallenged and admired and in time become unable to really critically analyse what we are saying ourselves. We lose our capacity to extract ourselves from complexity when simplicity unmasks the arguments we are putting forward. Butler should be a lesson to other academics not to get too lost in language games when we need concrete thought more than ever.

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