Friday, July 1, 2016

On Judith Butler

Freddie deBoer has a poignant take on this New York magazine profile of Judith Butler. The profile's main thesis is that Butler is one of the few academics whose ideas have permeated the larger culture. If your kids, before they graduate high school, know words like "heteronormativity" and understand that gender is performance, you have Butler to thank. DeBoer doesn't necessarily condemn any of Butler's ideas, he just wonders at how mainstream culture comes to appropriate radical critiques that originate in academia, and he also sees that these appropriations have problems. It's fine if your kids want to debate you on the use of gender-neutral pronouns. It becomes a problem when that form of language-policing becomes the most contentious site of political debate. It becomes a problem when our understanding of the world is reduced to "Bad people are essentialists. Good people understand that gender is performance." DeBoer, a socialist, is a little disturbed that the children of the middle- and upper-classes care about Butler's ideas and are happy to see Goldman Sachs wave the Pride flag, but don't think so much about the devastating structures of late capitalism.

I wouldn't go so far as deBoer. A few years ago in a Whitman seminar, we read two competing essays on how to read "Calamus," the part of Leaves of Grass about male-male love. The verses of the poem had been rearranged and if put in a certain order, it was clear that they described the narrative of a romance. One critic argued that high schools should teach the poem as narrative, another that the original fractured piece was more accurate. Things got heated and the former accused the latter of helping to create an environment in which more gay kids would commit suicide. Of course, this was hilarious. But the truth is, it's not so crazy to think that Butler's language, however much I personally don't care much for it, has made the world a slightly better and happier place, a world in which gay kids feel slightly better about themselves.

I have always had a damn hard time reading Butler. She can be and mostly is a terrible writer, and the "Politics and the English Language"-side of me ascribes the problem to her inability to know what she's saying. But the profile did change my view of her, and I ended up drawing a distinction between her and many of her fans outside the academy as well as inside it.

The relevant passage:

"In an essay (that began as a talk she gave at Yale in 1989, at the Conference on Homosexuality), Butler puzzled through what it meant to perform her particular identity category — to 'theorize as a lesbian.' All such categories, 'lesbian' included, could be 'instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression.' It’s not that she rejected the label, she continued, but that she would like to remain 'permanently troubled by identity categories.' In fact, she added, 'if the category were to offer no trouble, it would cease to be interesting to me: It is precisely the pleasure produced by the instability of those categories which sustains the various erotic practices that make me a candidate for the category to begin with.'"

I'll ignore the fact that, unlike the many wonderful queer writers Butler has read, her writing lacks anything approximating a human voice. I'll ignore the fact that I had to reread the phrase "liberatory contestation" several times and still don't know what it means. I want to concentrate on this piece: "...if the category were to offer no trouble, it would cease to be interesting to me: It is precisely the pleasure produced by the instability of those categories which sustains the various erotic practices that make me a candidate for the category to begin with." I appreciate that she speaks of her work as an attempt to solve problems that need to be solved and that she celebrates the pleasure that comes with not knowing the answers to these problems.

When Butler quotes show up as silly memes on your Facebook feed, when someone decides to reduce the concept of privilege to self-important declarations, and when the attitudes of a generation have been reduced to "I talk! I talk! I'm talking about myself! And you listen!", something has gone wrong. Butler herself is interested in discoveries in regards to the transgendered that she believes would have augmented a lot of her earlier research. Her bad writing may very well be a byproduct of her struggle through these difficult questions. You can talk about yourself if you want and your problems with "heteronormativity," but you might want to ask yourself some harder questions while you go about it.

I don't know if Butler would go where I'm going, but many people, maybe all people, have interesting ideas about homosexuality and the transgendered, because everyone has interesting ideas about sex and sexuality. Hell, I've learned as much from bigots as I have from the woke. Butler is an interesting and important thinker, if not as important as many think she should be.

Oh, and while we're at it: A guaranteed living wage accompanied by a reduction in military spending sounds like a good, non-crazy idea. I am not an economist and would probably be speaking out of my ass if I tried to defend the policy. Still, let's look into that. It sounds like a good conversation to have with your parents over the dinner table.

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