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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Judith Butler Was Body Slammed In Wall Street Journal

Posted by on April 13 at 12:55 PM

I just found this 1999 article and feel the need to share it with you. Near the end of the short article, Judith Butler, a brilliant theorist, gets body slammed by a Kantian philosopher, Dennis Dutton, who, like so many of his American colleagues, is of the numb opinion that critical theory is all show and no substance. To begin with, what is wrong with showing off; two, anyone who has taken the time to learn Butler’s language knows that it’s packed with substance. The example the her critic uses is not even that hard to understand:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Not only is the writing relatively clear, it’s beautiful.

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loves auntie judith

clear, and yet still pointless.

That writing is neither beautiful nor clear, relatively or otherwise. It is a long list of stilted jargon strung together by someone who wants to speak in code to other ridiculously bookish academics. You have wasted part of my precious life.

As someone who tried very hard to teach Judith Butler in advanced senior level course, I have to agree with the reviewers assesment.

"capital structures social relations" is ridiculously vague and a feint toward an idea rather than an expression of one. Ditto for how homogous structuring might differ from "repition, convergence, etc." "Coningent possibility" is a pleonasm at best.

I combed *Gender Trouble* with two different groups of incredibly bright seniors, and we ultimately decided to stop reading her and read something else because of Ms. Butlers lack of having anything original to say.

Her writing consists of strings of paragrahps like this. They are half-articulate and never really make a claim that is substantive enough to begin to ask whether it might in some sense be true.

When we moved on to Irigaray, her writing seemed the height of lucidity. Now THAT really says something about Butler's writing.

Oh yeah? Well, at least JB knows how to use an apostrophe.

I usually find Charles's theoretical amusings enjoyable, and not that far off the mark.

In this case, however, I agree with the other commentators: Butler's prose says nothing substantive, is dull and repetitive, and uses $5 words to confuse and obfuscate her own lack of any real handle on what she claims to be discussing.

And I say this on authority: I have a PhD in Comp Lit from Yale, studied with Derrida, Paul DeMan, Fredric Jameson et al - indeed, I think Butler was just a few years ahead of me in school - taught at Harvard, yadda yadda yadda.

Yet Charles shouldn't feel too bad at being bamboozled: Butler's entire career has been founded on her ability to con other high-flying academics into thinking she actually has something to say.

The con works by making you afraid to admit that while the words are suggestive, they just don't cohere - because if you said so, maybe it would mean you're just too dense to understand.

Damn, Former Professor knows how to use an apostrophe.

Actually, come to think of it, that's pretty much the fundamental academic con at all levels.

Even Derrida and DeMan practiced it - I guess that's where Butler learned it.

Only such a con is capable of inspiring the kind of guru worship credulous graduate students typically granted them.

You betcha Annie - one of the more useful things I learned in grad school.

What I didn't learn - to write lean and mean.

That I learned after, abstracting magazine articles.

I heart you Greg.

Mr. Mudede - you are a pedant of the worst sort. You denounce the mysterious, but you subscribe to the same logic that values the mysterious when you confuse the abstruse for the subtle.

Charles... how do you feel about no one here getting the joke?

I think it becomes even funnier this way.

Mr. Mudede - you are a pedant of the worst sort.

Now I'm wondering what a pedant of the best sort would be like.

My pedantical laughter, the same sort of laughter you will find early in the introduction of The Order of Things, is due to the fact this passage makes no sense unless you know that the "a structuralist account" is Althusser, "capital...structure [of] social relations" is Marx, "a view of hegemony" is Gramsci, "power relations" is Foucault, and "repetition, convergence, and rearticulation" is Althusser meshed with Deleuze.

So were you joking of not, Charles?

Of course the Butler passage is silly nonsense.

(And of course one can tease-out a meaning based on prior knowledge and imagination but that's not good writing, even in a very "technical" subject such as commentary on story-telling.)

But a lot of people are taken-in and your post was far too dry for anyone to be absolutely sure.

What blather. The cardinal crime is that there are simply too many unrelated - indeed, entire fields and research programs - in one sentence. It is impossible to criticize, precisely because it doesn't actually say anything about anything. In that sense, it's rather brilliant.

So what Charles is saying is that he considers a garbled one-sentence summary of the history post-stucturalist Marxist theory to be evidence of a brilliant theoretical mind.

To me, it's evidence of a monkey at the typewriter who's learned lots of tricks, and retails them as her own - no originality involved.

Oh, and "capital...structure social relations" isn't Marx, it's Butler's way of characterizing Althusser - unfairly, since as you point out he also figures in the antithesis with Deleuze - or is it Lefebvre, Bourdrieu, or just Jameson's summaries of these and a host of other post-Althusserian French Marxists, leftovers from '68?

As for the joke Christopher, I was going to remark on the repetition of the post, which I considered a typically satisfying if shallow Mudede amusement - but the editor of the Slog eliminated the duplication almost immediately.

I guess if the repetition had persisted, the second time would have been a farce...

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