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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Precluding Untheoretic Afterword to the Philosophic Figments

Posted by John Holbo on 10/11/05 at 09:43 AM

What does Zizek have to do with Theory? By way of partial answer, let me offer two comparison cases; that is, cases in which others have said about paradigmatic Theorists what I have been saying about Zizek. (This post is really part II of this post, which follows up on this and this.)

The cases are: Martha Nussbaum on Judith Butler; Stanley Cavell on Paul de Man and deconstruction. The specific complaint by Nussbaum and Cavell is that there is a peculiarity to the Theory product that threatens to make it impossible to regard as philosophy (not to put too fine a point on it.)

I am not going to lean on the authority of these critics - Nussbaum and Cavell, big names both. Things aren't true just because they say so. Still, I am happy to help myself to the fact that they are a fortuitous pair, for purposes of batting aside irrelevant barbs. Nussbaum is not going to be outflanked on the left, at least not by Butler. Cavell - if granted any interest in any figure besides Cavell - is engaged with Heidegger, and with many aspects of post-Kantian German philosophy, however eccentrically Emersonian may be the tunnel through himself through which he arrives. So Cavell's points cannot be brushed off as sad symptoms of purblind anglophone prejudice against continental philosophy.

A couple months ago, John McGowan made two posts - one; two - on l'affaire Nussbaum/Butler. I'm going to work into it through McGowan. (Nussbaum's New Republic piece on Butler, "The Professor of Parody", is here.)

McGowan calls it for Nussbaum on points but takes off points for low blows. He thinks Nussbaum is wilfully uncharitable in not acknowledging Butler's "Freudian mysticism", as he terms it. (He says he knows Butler probably won't like that tag, but it seems apt to me.) McGowan is at pains to explain he doesn't mean you should like Freudian mysticism, let alone subscribe to it, only that it is wrong to trace its effects on Butler's prose to more cynical motives:

Nussbaum clearly has no avant-garde intimations or yearnings toward the ineffable, so she cannot have any sympathy for a writing style that is trying to reach toward the “unthought,” or the “inexpressible.” Such styles are everywhere in romantic and modernist art—and they are built precisely on the premise that language is an imperfect tool, that our received vocabularies and categories are inadequate, and their inadequacy must be signaled even as we use the words we have inherited.

I think this is possibly right about Nussbaum. She is a staunch rationalist. (This is complicated but not really contradicted by her interests in literature.) Still, it overlooks the rather large possibility that someone could say almost exactly what Nussbaum says because she regards Butler's ineffable yearnings as not of the better sort, as ineffable yearnings go. Or, even more likely: Nussbaum could be saying that Butler wants to have her canny cake, and eat it too uncannily (or vice versa). A passage McGowan does not much discuss:

It is difficult to come to grips with Butler's ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are. Butler is a very smart person. In public discussions, she proves that she can speak clearly and has a quick grasp of what is said to her. Her written style, however, is ponderous and obscure. It is dense with allusions to other theorists, drawn from a wide range of different theoretical traditions. In addition to Foucault, and to a more recent focus on Freud, Butler's work relies heavily on the thought of Louis Althusser, the French lesbian theorist Monique Wittig, the American anthropologist Gayle Rubin, Jacques Lacan, J.L. Austin, and the American philosopher of language Saul Kripke. These figures do not all agree with one another, to say the least; so an initial problem in reading Butler is that one is bewildered to find her arguments buttressed by appeal to so many contradictory concepts and doctrines, usually without any account of how the apparent contradictions will be resolved.

A further problem lies in Butler's casual mode of allusion. The ideas of these thinkers are never described in enough detail to include the uninitiated (if you are not familiar with the Althusserian concept of "interpellation," you are lost for chapters) or to explain to the initiated how, precisely, the difficult ideas are being understood. Of course, much academic writing is allusive in some way: it presupposes prior knowledge of certain doctrines and positions. But in both the continental and the Anglo-American philosophical traditions, academic writers for a specialist audience standardly acknowledge that the figures they mention are complicated, and the object of many different interpretations. They therefore typically assume the responsibility of advancing a definite interpretation among the contested ones, and of showing by argument why they have interpreted the figure as they have, and why their own interpretation is better than others.

Nussbaum's characterization of Butler's style seems to me fair. Does it seem fair to you? This is rather an important premise. I am not going to argue for it, but the argument will depend on it.

The suspicion is that Butler produces philosophical kitsch, in short. Another quote from Dahlhaus on kitsch, just so the thread running through my threads is clear. Kitsch functions:

by side-stepping the dialectic of form and content in music, extracting from it a topic or subject matter (mistaken for the work’s contents) and withdrawing from the acoustic phenomenon into the listener's own frame of mind. In this way the music, instead of constituting an aesthetic object, degenerates into a vehicle for associations and for edifying or melancholy self-indulgence.

Here we race through the technical charges and proceed right to the aesthetic portion of the accusation. Nussbaum sees Butler sidestepping philosophic dialectic in favor of associations and self-indulgence. Butler's writings do not lead you into the ideas and arguments of the figures she references: the impressionism of the presentation precludes it. Rather, a fleeting sense of these evokes pathos. Butler provides a sense of what it would be like if she really were making Saul Kripke and Monique Wittig do a dionysian dance to ineffable pipings. But she actually isn't. It's PF - philosophy fiction.

To put the point another way, I think what bothers Nussbaum (or what could be bothering here) is not necessarily the ineffability of Butler's Freudian mysticism but the impropriety of ineffability that approaches us armored in scholarly apparatus. Sublime is sublime. Sublime plus a footnote is sublime to ridiculous in one doozy step. The footnote isn't looking so hot either. A scholar, like Nussbaum, will emphasize that the scholarship seems unacceptable. A different sort of thinker - Kierkegaard - will perhaps put the emphasis elsewhere. From Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing Hegel's Logic.

The reduplication of the content in the form is essential to all artistry, and it is particularly important to refrain from referring to the same content in an inadequate form. But as it is now, the Logic with its collection of notes makes as droll an impression on the mind as if a man were to show a letter purporting to have come from heaven, but having a blotter enclosed which only too clearly reveals its mundane origin ... Imagine Socrates in conversation with Hegel. With the help of the notes he will soon have Hegel on the hip; and as he was not accustomed to being put off by the assurance that everything will be made clear at the end, not even permitting a continuous speech lasting five minutes, to say nothing of a continuous developoment lasting through seventeen volumes of print, he would put on the brakes with all his might - merely to tease Hegel. (p. 297)

Getting back briefly to Zizek, when my teasing provokes indignant protestations against smug anglophone philosophy, it should be understood that I understand my commitment to analytic methods, in this context, in Kierkegaardian terms. So when Anthony writes that, by calling Zizek PF I risk hitting Kierkegaard, I see things oppositely. Leading up to the passage above, Kierkegaard says that the way Hegel could have saved himself from absurdity would have been to publish his Logic as fiction - "as a sort of analogy to the nature sounds heard on the island of Ceylon." And that is all I have said against Zizek. Namely, that if it is to succeed, it has to be by the standards of fiction (whatever those may be).

Now here's a coincidence. Next I want to bolster this point with a rather well-known quote from Herbert Marcuse, which I google by means of a recollected phrase - and mirabile dictu! - the first hit is to our man on Charlotte Street. Small world.

Analytic philosophy often spreads the atmosphere of denunciation and investigation by committee. The intellectual is called on the carpet. What do you mean when you say....? Don't you conceal something? You talk a language that is suspect. You don't talk like the rest of us, like the man on the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you. We shall teach you to say what you have in mind, to "come clear", to "put your cards on the table." Of course, we do not impose on you and your freedom of thought and speech; you may think as you like. But once you speak, you have to communicate your thoughts to us - in our language or in yours. Certainly, you may speak your own language, but it must be translatable, and it will be translated. You may speak poetry - that is all right. We love poetry. But we want to understand your poetry, and we will do so only if we can interpret your symbols, metaphors, and images in terms of ordinary language.

This is awfully lazy, seems to me. Analytic philosophy has enough problems that there should be no need go fabricating new ones, to put it in a bad light. It is puzzle-obsessed; its vision tends to narrow accordingly. It is fussy about giving reasons. This is not incompatible with committee chair bullying, I suppose, but tends to pull in the other direction. You could, at a stretch, mock analytic philosophy as the mousy, neat bureaucrat at a window who, with the best and kindliest will to passive-aggression in the world, always informs you you've filled in the wrong form and so - although your problem may be real and serious - regrettably, no action can be taken until the complaint is cast in the idiom of officialdom; thank you, come again!

But a by-the-book bureaucrat is not a bullying committee chair.

But this is not really to the point, and it may be Marcuse himself should be excused for the error to some degree. What he wrote was less inaccurate when he wrote it. He was no doubt targeting logical positivism at a time when it was still a live force in American philosophy departments, crossing it somewhat confusedly with ordinary language philosophy.

At any rate, the thing most peculiar about the passage is that Marcuse appears to be opposing intellectuals to practitioners of the Socratic method. The one who asks 'what do you mean by x?' is, after all, that Ur-man on the street. The terms of socratic dialogue are, apparently, perfectly egalitarian, strolling arm in arm. Socrates never had the institutional authority to summon his victims and put them on trial. He merely enacted the most obvious consequences of the assumption that, if we are equals here, and you wish me to believe P - which I don't - then you must give me a reason to believe P. If I do not yet even understand P, I cannot be expected to believe it until I do undersand. To present this primal scene as anathema to intellectualism is rather eyebrow-raising.

But Marcuse is not in fact seriously wiping Plato out of the intellectual history record - and with him all his footnotes. The focus of the passage on poetry is crucial. What Marcuse is really saying is indicated by the fact that his intellectual is the one who wants to carry the intellectual point by quoting poetry and minting metaphors. (And, to be fair, Plato is on the record as preaching against, whatever his practice may have been.) What we have here is not intellectuals vs. committee thugs, but counter-Enlightenment vs. Enlightenment - romanticism vs. rationalism. (This is still approximate, but it is better than Marcuse's way of drawing the lines, with the romantics arrogating 'intellect' to themselves.)

To be still more precise: what we have here is battle-line drawing, with a portion of the counter-Enlightenment on one side, and a quite broad coalition of Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment tendencies on the other: Marcuse will have not just Socrates but Kierkegaard teasing him in short order.

I quote the Marcuse, as you may guess, because Butler did so in her "A Bad Writer Bites Back" NY Times Op-Ed. (It appeared only month after the Nussbaum piece, so is plausibly read as a response on that front as well as to her "Philosophy and Literature" prize.)

No doubt, scholars in the humanities should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life. Equally, however, such scholars are obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.

Many quite nefarious ideologies pass for common sense. For decades of American history, it was "common sense" in some quarters for white people to own slaves and for women not to vote. Common sense, moreover, is not always "common" - the idea that lesbians and gay men should be protected against discrimination and violence strikes some people as common-sensical, but for others it threatens the foundations of ordinary life.

So far, there is nothing for Socrates to object to here, so Butler is not really doing much to carry Marcuse's anti-Socratic point - namely, that questions like 'what do you mean by x?' telegraph a sort of bullying anti-intellectualism. But Butler quotes on:

The accused then responds that "if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place." Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, "presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it."

The key point comes in the second sentence: intellectuals - critical intellectuals - are, by clear implication, above criticism (except possibly by others of their kind.) Because to criticize one would have to understand; to understand requires - ex hypothesi - collapse of the ground for disagreement. There can only be conversion to the critical intellectual's point of view. That is to say, the model for what counts as critical intellectual work is Saul turned to Paul on the road to Damascus; or, possibly, artistic revelation of the sublime. (This key point rather undermines the first sentence, although this is incidental: if there is an available idiom which causes it to be the case that you are above criticism, it is not hard to imagine why mimicking that idiom would seem preferable to ordinary language, to many people. The appearance of 'talking philosophers' talk' will then have many dishonest uses, above and beyond any honest, authentic ones.)

Now let's step back and talk to McGowan again:

But I think Nussbaum misses the fact that individuality has its strong discontents and the fact that some people have strong intimations of a trans-individual sublime to which they are attracted and into which they would like to submerge that burdensome self.  Not just religion, but also much of the literature of the past two hundred years, witnesses to this recurrent longing. To rule such longings out of court as so much romantic, irrational nonsense is neither going to banish them from the earth or advance our ability to produce a better society.

I think this is both right and wrong. Yes, Nussbaum should not lump Butler with the "adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric," without at least nodding to the potential value of her romanticism. Also, in part 2 of his series, McGowan makes the reasonable point that Nussbaum isn't choosing her ground wisely, upbraiding Butler for doing no good in the realm of practical politics. Can it really be said that Nussbaum herself writes things that make a real difference in the real world, outside of the rarified ivory tower? Perhaps, perhaps not; but Nussbaum has a much stronger line, which she does not fully develop. Perhaps McGowan is not wrong to omit this (since no one assigned him the refinement of Nussbaum's argument) but the following is not so far-fetched.

She is exercised by the fact that Butler is not producing writings suited to be part of the philosophical debate - on the assumption that the philosophical debate has anything much to do with certain questioning practices inaugurated (or at least made famous) by Socrates, some time ago. (Home, it has been said, is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Philosophy, it might be said, is the place where, when you ask them what they mean by x, they can't tell you to shut up.) It is Butler's rationally unassessible allusiveness that exercises Nussbaum. She tries to cast this as a political sin, probably out of a sense that this charge will have more sting. But arguably the proper charge is just scholarly sin; philosophical sin. A stand for reason.

Whatever the sublime theater value of 'talking philosophers' talk' in such a way as to generate metaphysical pathos - a sense of what an encounter with a superhumanly synthetic world-historical philosophical personality would be like - the practice seems parasitic on actual philosophers' talk; that is, on philosophy’s commitment to "a discourse of equals who trade arguments and counter-arguments without any obscurantist sleight-of-hand," to quote Nussbaum. Again, for that last term of abuse substitute some more low-key commitment to rationalism: 'without simply reciting poetry to each other.' (Please note. None of this is to deny that Butler would be capable of talking philosophy less allusively, were she to choose to do so. The point is merely that her actual writings are, stylistically, as Nussbaum describes them. Again, this is a premise that may be disputed.)

Or perhaps Butler is a genuine visionary, in which case: why the Kripke footnotes?

That is to say, the danger for Butler is that she falls between two stools. She is too poetic to be a good scholar, per Nussbaum. But she is too scholarly to be a sublime poet, per Kierkegaard.

It seems to me that the latter threat - the Kierkegaardian threat - is in fact more threatening. The Enlightenment point more easily slides off the counter-Enlightenment position than do various immanent critiques, from the likes of Kierkegaard. But judge for yourselves.

§3

The final case I want to discuss is Cavell on Paul de Man and deconstruction generally. It has to do with the issue of argument and authority, if you will. Let me start by framing the issue.

Per the Marcuse passage, there is a concern that the critical intellectual's stance must be aristocratic. It can only be personal superiority that warrants preemptive foreclosure of the possibility of a socratic 'what do you mean by x?' line of objection. The critical intellectual may hereby seem to restore, as it were, the pre-socratic status quo. As Nietzsche writes, before Socrates,

the dialectical manner was repudiated in good society: it was regarded as a form of bad manners, one was compromised by it ... All such presentation of one’s reasons was regarded with mistrust. Honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons exposed in this fashion. It is indecent to display all one’s goods. What has to be proved is of little value. Wherever authority is still part of accepted usage and one does not ‘give reasons’ but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon: he is laughed at, he is not taken seriously. (Twilight, p. 90)

Now this is not where we are supposed to end up, to say the least. Marcuse and Butler's interest is in casting the critical intellectual as an heroic underdog, not as a member of a complacently self-confident dominant social class. The picture they would present is one of the critical intellectual in need of tremendous tools of transformation - of Aufhebung, on behalf of those who are not dominant. Still, even without going so far as to make hay out of the fact that Butler is, in a sense, a dominant figure in her field, it does seem reasonable to point out that refusal to submit to socratic questioning is a double-edged sword, at best. This is one of Nussbaum's main complaints against Butler (and the complaint with which McGowan seems most in sympathy). Replacing a free market of ideas with a 'command' economy, because you suspect the free market is not free enough? You might end up out of the frying pan, into the fire. How to establish that your commands will be right?

The obvious rebuttal to the Nietzsche quote, applied to Marcuse and Butler, is that it is absurd to suppose they could be opposed to argument and dialectic, tout court. Of course their books contain such things. What they seek is a higher synthesis of poetry and philosophy. But this merely pushes back the problem to a point where it really does stick: what keeps their position from being a cynically opportunistic lower synthesis - dialectic for me but not for thee. That is, whenever I disagree with you, I am permitted to plow you under with rhetoric and call it 'critical intellectualism'. You, for your part, must sit still for my philosophy lecture; indeed, you must sit on your hands and not interrupt with impertinent socratic questions, not until your point of view collapses around your ears.

I do realize that Marcuse and Butler - especially Butler - will say that this is not what they are asking for at all. Yet it seems to be what they have said. So take this interrogation in a socratic spirit: how are we take what they are saying so that it sounds less flagrantly cynical in its assymetry? (Even if Nussbaum is wrong to read it as cynical, it is not exactly mysterious that it comes off that way.)

It is perfectly legitimate for intellectuals to be self-authorizing aristocrats in a certain sense: namely, they should think their thoughts are better than other people's, otherwise they are not intellectuals. (Insert Chesterton quote, courtesy of Zizek.) The problem, in a sense, is decently balancing a sense of one's superiority with an operational commitment to egalitarianism. You may be quite sure you are right and everyone who disagrees is pathetically deluded; still, giving reasons rather than commanding is the intellectual thing to do.

I'll leave it at that and turn to de Man. Let me quote at length from Stanley Cavell's "The Politics of Interpretation", originally delivered in 1981. (I have it in Cavell's Themes Out of School. You may find it in the Mitchell ed. The Politics of Interpretation volume.) Cavell muses about his "lifelong quarrel with the profession of philosophy".

One of its recent manifestations has been the question put to me by certain professional colleagues whether I do not take satisfaction from the newer literary theory and criticism, especially as that has been inspired by developments over the past fifteen or so years in French intellectual life. This would seem to answer my plea at one stroke for both continental philosophy and for an understanding with literary matters. The fact is that my ambivalence toward these developments has been so strong, or anyway periodic, that I have found it difficult to study in any very orderly way.

I can recognize no expression of mine to be philosophical which simply thinks to escape my profession's paradigms of comprehensibility; so that the invocations of the name of philosophy in current literary debate are frequently not comprehensible to me as calls upon philosophy. (p. 31)

He cites Stanley Fish as an example, while admitting that in that case the comprehensibility problems may be terminological, admitting of clearance. In the case of Paul de Man the difficulty goes deeper:

Take his prominent and recurrent invocation of a distinction between the constative and the performative. He sometimes, not always, associates Austin's name with these words, but so far as I understand his sense of what he wants the distinction to do, it contradicts Austin's. A hint of this occurs in his last chapter, when he describes an excuse as a performative utterance on the ground that its purpose is not to state but to convince. But to say "I convince you" is not (except by chance) to convince you, and so it is trivially not a performative utterance. In Austin's more general theory, convincingness and persuasiveness are not illocutionary forces of utterances. They are perhaps the quintessential examples of what is not illocutionary, since one of Austin's philosophical motives is to deny that the alternative to stating something is to persuade someone of something (a motive bearing on what is to be called rhetoric and specifically on the claim that moral discousre is essentially persuasive.)

More generally, de Man wishes, I believe, to align the constative-performative distinction with what he says about the distinctions between grammar and rhetoric, or between the intraverbal and the extraverbal, or between referentiality and nonreferentiality, or between assertion and action. He appears to take the distinction to turn on whether a use of language refers to something outside language, something in the world, and on whether a use of language has some actual effect on others. But to defeat the idea that constative and performative utterances differ in their responsibilities, or responsiveness, to facts and to distinguish among ways in which words may have "effects" or "forces" just are Austin's purposes in arguing against positivism and the later Wittgenstein.

I omit a couple hundred words of quite patient explanation as to why this proposed alignment quite obviously won't work. It really isn't even in the ballpark.

Of course de Man may use the words "constative" and "performative" for any purpose he defines, and maybe he has; but it must not be assumed that the distinction Austin goes to such lengths to clarify lends clarity to that purpose." (p. 42)

I think it is fair to say Cavell is being polite: de Man does not scrupulously define a non-Austinian understanding of the constative-performative distinction. Yet he invokes it. What function can it possibly be performing for him?

There follow patient explanations of how de Man seems to be confused, as well, about Archie Bunker and William Butler Yeats. Let's skip past that. Cavell considers deconstruction. "I hope I will be forgiven a certain impatience at being repeatedly told - quite apart from assertions about phonocentrism - that Western metaphysics is a metaphysics of presence, without being told very much, if a word, about how one might usefully understand and responsibly make such a claim. If it is Heidegger from whom this claim has been taken ... " (p, 49)

... then a number of concerns follow, notably: what would entitle you to pronounce in this way without personally taking up whatever you take to be the burden of Heidegger's heavy attempt to replace philosophy through the recovery of the (pre-socratic) thing he calls 'thinking'; also,

what would constitute understanding Heidegger without a conversion to his way of thinking. Since he stakes his claim to his extraordinary understanding of sentences from Parmenides or Hölderlin or Nietzsche on his authority as a thinker, which means on his being drawn to thinking, which means on his claim to have inherited, for example, those sentences, then presumably we are to claim, if we wish to claim his inheritance, authority as thinkers. (Is this politics, or religion, or pedagogy, or terrorism, or therapy, or perhaps philosophy?) (p. 49)

Here again we confront a serious question of authority, prompted by the prospect of philosophy as the catalyst of a striking sort of fundamental conversion experience. A good thing to read at this juncture is John M. Ellis' Against Deconstruction, pp. 30-33, where he quotes definitions/basic explications of 'logocentrism/metaphysics of presence' from Derrida, Leitch, Culler, Norris. As with Nussbaum against Butler, there is a an excessively insistent rationalism to Ellis' complaint about how the results are utterly diverse and seemingly mutually irreconcilable. (If one is simply not willing to countenance any uncanniness, perhaps one ought to be done with Derrida in a sentence, not a book.) Still, the tracing of the term through through scholarly footnotes serves a purpose. As Cavell points out, it is simply not clear how this is supposed to work.

Dasein doesn't do footnotes, you see.

If the claim about metaphysics is indeed only intelligible through a tracing to the sort of thing Heidegger thinks ... then it seems at least some of the scores - hundreds, thousands - of scholarly papers containing some variation on the Derridean theme, 'metaphysics of presence', have another think coming, by rights. This thought, by its nature, isn't the sort of thing that can be inherited via a scholarly apparatus. It cannot be established, as if it were a fact, by citing Derrida as a scholarly authority.

Here we might even quote Hegel:

Dogmatism as a way of thinking, whether in ordinary knowing or in the study of philosophy, is nothing but the opinion that the True consists in a proposition which is a fixed result, or which is immediately known. To such questions as, When was Caesar born?, or How many feet were there is a stadium?, etc. a clear-cut answer ought to be given, just as it is definitely true that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a right-angled triangle. But the nature of a so-called truth of that kind is different from the nature of philosophical truths. (Phenomenology, preface, p. 23)

Somehow it came to pass that 'Western metaphysics is a metaphysics of presence' got dogmatically wrongfooted. Presumably the person least guilty in this regard is the one most responsible - Derrida. He, if anyone, has gone to the trouble of earning the right through his engagement with Heidegger. (I wasn't present, so I couldn't really say.) It is not satisfactory, however, to apologize for the way in which his followers have gone all epigone as if this were some sort of accident, rather than the inevitable result of the attempt to insert into the egalitarian give-and-take of dialectic and scholarly debate something that, by hypothesis, will only convert that debate into a mordant clash of dogmatisms. Indeed, the product can only be basically academic authoritarianism. Hegel implies it is so, so does Heidegger, so do Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, near as I can figure. On that last score, let me quote a bit of Derrida from life.after.theory. Discussing the book's title, in an interview with Nicholas Royle:

I'm not sure, from the very beginning, that I understood what this title meant, the 'after'. To 'be after' may mean that you try and be consistent with what you left, you try to live after theory in a way which is consistent with theory, what you have said in theory; or, if you survive theory, you do something else. So, this is the opposition. 'After' means 'according to' theory or simply after theory, breaking with theory as if life was something irreducible to theory. (p. 7-8)

Since there cannot possibly be any objection to responding to Derrida with puns on Nietzsche's German, allow me to quote another bit from "Schopenhauer as Educator". In English (courtesy of Hollingdale):

Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralysed: your educators can be only your liberators. And that is the secret of all culture: it does not provide artifical limbs, wax noses or spectacles - that which can provide these things is, rather, only sham education. (p. 129-30)

Auf Deutsch, that final line puzzled me. What is translated as 'only sham education' is 'nur das Afterbild der Erziehung.' Erziehung means education. Afterbild is an unusual word. My first thought, just to amuse you, was that 'After' means anus - which it does - so somehow Nietzsche was saying something mock-clinically scatological (perhaps that the secret of all true culture is not to stare education in the ass?) This did not prove to be a correct thought. Afterbildung turns out to mean semi-education; Afterlehre, a heresy or false doctrine; Aftermuse, a false muse; Afterweisheit, a sophistry. (To have one word for a false muse is almost as good as having one word for 'joy in the sufferings of others'. No doubt Heidegger is right that German is especially philosophical. Two of the main ingredients for a life of disputation right there in two words!)

But wait, there's more. After- is a botanic/biologic prefix. Afterblatt means stipule - that is, not really a leaf. (Here: "Very small, leaflike structures that occur at the base of the petiole on the leaves of a very few trees, usually appearing briefly in early spring with leaf emergence, and soon falling away.") Something that looks like a claw but isn't - a pseudoclaw: Afterklaue. Still no entry for Afterbild, and google produces just 53 hits total, minus those pages containing Nietzsche. Bild means: picture, image, figure, illustration, portrait, likeness, representation, counterfeit, effigy, idea, simile, metaphor, emblem, symbol. (It means pretty much everything.) So we are beginning to get the Bild. What Nietzsche is saying is that the nemesis of culture is, as it were, a sort of false picture of education, into which effigy he packs the additional connotation of prosthesis, biological false growth. A thing that needs to come from within is slapped on from without. (Any Germans care to edify me further?)

So you can imagine what I think Aftertheorie might mean.

Anyway, getting to the point, in the prequel to this post I quoted Nietzsche on philosophical educators:

His greatness lies in having set up before him a picture of life as a whole, in order to interpret it as a whole ... he pursues this picture as Hamlet pursues the ghost, without letting himself be led aside, as scholars are, or becoming enmeshed in abstract scholasticism, as is the fate of rabid dialecticians.

The challenge, quite simply, is to find any appropriately scholarly mode that can preserve the life of this form of greatness. Not because it needs to be scholarly but because, if it is going to be academic, merely mimicking the forms of scholarship will kill its greatness. For my part, I think I understand argument and also the sort of intense personal expressiveness and drama I associate with thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It is authentic personality that introduces contradiction into a philosophy in an adequately controlled manner. 'Know thyself' may entail contradictions which cannot be authentically denied. But I simply don't believe in any 'impersonal' mode of philosophy that is not conventionally argumentative. Hegel baffles me for this reason, as he baffles Kierkegaard. Zizek baffles me. (I am gratified that Adam says he finds Zizek's impersonality his least appealing feature.) Heidegger largely baffles me. The Death of the Author baffles me. Structuralism baffles me. Butler and de Man and Derrida baffle me.

But most of all what baffles me is the normalization of something that surely must remain extraordinary, if it is to be what it is: this status quo synthesis of canny and uncanny criticism that is the Higher Eclecticism, as I call it - travelling theory, others have called it. To me it seems not a pragmatic subduing and taming of the excesses of Theory, not a filing down of the extreme points but a peeling back of the bulk to reveal only what was always least appealing about it: the sheer inadequacy of the mechanism, relative to the work allegedly being done.

Surely even a God needs a better machine than this.

I am glad Cavell said it so I can put it up and stand behind it as a shield: "I can recognize no expression of mine to be philosophical which simply thinks to escape my profession's paradigms of comprehensibility; so that the invocations of the name of philosophy in current literary debate are frequently not comprehensible to me as calls upon philosophy."

I had a bunch of Hegel quotes lined up, but I don't think I need them to make weight. (Save 'em up.) In my next installment - I think I'll give it at least a week - I'll write my thumbnail history of Theory. (Then I'll review that PMLA issue. It will make a nice conclusion to the series, actually.)


Comments

This is too long for me to comment on at a sitting, so I’ll start with just Nussbaum on Butler, filtered through my interest in politics.  There’s a reason why Nussbaum (perhaps mistakenly) chooses what seems to you to be the weaker case: “It is Butler’s rationally unassessible allusiveness that exercises Nussbaum. She tries to cast this as a political sin, probably out of a sense that this charge will have more sting. But arguably the proper charge is just scholarly sin; philosophical sin. A stand for reason.”

I understand and agree.  But in principle, there may be nothing wrong with being a sort of unreasoning, allusive scholar—after all, the role is in how you approach it, right?  If you want to approach scholarship through a method that some would characterize as unreasoning, well that’s just another modernist value judgement.  But to depend on this stance to then justify a politics which depends on reason, as left-leaning Enlightenment politics does, is a *contradiction*.  Without reason, there’s no reason not to be a conservative—just follow your emotions and let your unexamined traditional values be your guide.  Butler is attempting a political pose that her own writing undercuts. 

You write: “The key point comes in the second sentence: intellectuals - critical intellectuals - are, by clear implication, above criticism (except possibly by others of their kind.) Because to criticize one would have to understand; to understand requires - ex hypothesi - collapse of the ground for disagreement.”

Yes.  And this is exactly what motivates the common statements about how you can’t disagree with anything that Zizek writes without reading his best work, which if you really understood would remove your disagreement with what you’ve read.

This is also seen in the dismissal of Chomsky et al as “left conservatives”.  How could they have read, not agree, and yet remain active in left politics?  By doing so they are a direct threat to the desired pose, so they must be redefined as somehow conservative.

“To present this primal scene as anathema to intellectualism is rather eyebrow-raising.”

The primal scene is itself, as you point out, political.  It presupposes people asking questions, being convinced of things, not receiving wisdom handed down.  Which is the opposite of a culture in which celebrities write allusive texts that can never really have ideas extracted from them—they are always connected to the study of the celebrity in depth.

By on 10/11/05 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bravo!  The case is sealed (if it wasn’t already) by the sentence in Butler’s editorial following the passage you quoted:

Of course, translations are sometimes crucial, especially when scholars teach.

Translation for me, but not for thee.

By on 10/11/05 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I take Nussbaum’s point about Butler’s eclecticism, but when she Butler’s citations [Austin, Lacan etc] “do not all agree with one another”, what does this mean? Fair enough if it means switching between mutually exclusive views of subjectivity or whatever as suits one’s purpose. (And, perhaps, relying therefore on rhetorical force rather than logical consistency). But what, for example, does it mean to say that, say, Lacan and J.L.Austin “don’t agree with one another”? Does Lacan ‘disagree’ about the notion of a performative? Does Austin have a different conception of the Imaginary? These people may appear strange bedfellows, but they do not “disagree” because they aren’t competing theories. Of course Austin and Lacan might be shown to have, if you care to dig, different epistemological assumptions, but you can surely use the idea of performatives (etc) without dragging Austin’s larger philosophical assumptions into the picture? 

I also don’t think that this kind of eclecticism is a signature of ‘theory’. Bourdieu, for example, draws on J.L. Austin in discussing performative authority; he also ‘uses’ Pascal, Kant, sundry literary figures and so on. He certainly doesn’t rely on purely “sociological” sources, he’s creatively eclectic, but he’s no ‘theorist’.

By on 10/11/05 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Home, it has been said, is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Philosophy, it might be said, is the place where, when you ask them what they mean by x, they can’t tell you to shut up.

John, I would at some point be very curious in your response to this review:

http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/pmc/text-only/issue.993/review-3.993

But I simply don’t believe in any ‘impersonal’ mode of philosophy that is not conventionally argumentative. Hegel baffles me for this reason, as he baffles Kierkegaard. Zizek baffles me...Heidegger largely baffles me. The Death of the Author baffles me. Structuralism baffles me. Butler and de Man and Derrida baffle me.

I wonder if this strikes anyone else as a rather revealing comment?

<objection to responding to Derrida with puns on Nietzsche’s German</em>

Of course not.  Unless, of course, that is all the “reading” of Derrida you intend to do.  In which case, since you’ve obviously chosen the “book” and not “sentence” route of response, why not actaully read a bit of Derrida on Kierkegaard?  You know, carefully.

Indeed, the product can only be basically academic authoritarianism.

Was this meant at all ironically?

This thought, by its nature, isn’t the sort of thing that can be inherited via a scholarly apparatus. It cannot be established, as if it were a fact, by citing Derrida as a scholarly authority...The challenge, quite simply, is to find any appropriately scholarly mode that can preserve the life of this form of greatness. Not because it needs to be scholarly but because, if it is going to be academic, merely mimicking the forms of scholarship will kill its greatness.

That’s well said.  Serious readers of the Critical Theory and Heideggerian/phenomenological schools have also been saying this, for quite some time.

By Joe Schmoe on 10/11/05 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean is hilarious.

Rich writes, (in response to a certain well-worn “gotcha” line):

Yes.  And this is exactly what motivates the common statements about how you cant disagree with anything that Zizek writes without reading his best work, which if you really understood would remove your disagreement with what youve read.

But I fail to see what is either bravely new or illuminating in this tired charge of effet or bruschetta elitism.  The standard for authoritative criticism of a thinker’s project tout court should require more sustained, focused attention and nuance than a polemical or indulgent indictment based on a reading of their least rigorous work, especially if the tradition in which they allegedly speak is unfamiliar or “baffling.” Ideally, criticism should aspire to more than casual indictment even.  What a shocking proposal!

By Unenthused on 10/11/05 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t answer anonymoid “Unenthused”, as I am unable to read German…

By on 10/11/05 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But given the quote from Marcuse: “Analytic philosophy often spreads the atmosphere of denunciation and investigation by committe”, Sean’s response, a jubilant “the case is sealed”, can only be meant ironically. Can’t it?

By on 10/11/05 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem, unenthused, is the common suggestion that the only alternatives are appreciation or casual indictiment.  It does not matter whether Rich’s charge is bravely new if it’s reasonable.  The confusion of the two criteria is exactly what John’s post is getting at.

By on 10/11/05 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm, why stop there?  Given the quote from Marcuse, Butler’s remark that sometimes translation is necessary can only be meant ironically.  Is it?

By on 10/11/05 at 03:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem, Rich, is that by “appreciation” you mean “worship” and others mean “reading.” And it’s not abundantly clear, in fact, how John’s book-length fartings about “Theory” amount to much more than casual indictments.  Especially as he admits himself to being “baffled.”

By on 10/11/05 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The condescension is entirely unearned. I guess the argument free case for rigorous argument is ironic in the same way that Dr. Phil selling a diet book is supposed to be funny, and that’s the point.

By on 10/11/05 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Schmoe and Unenthused,

Post from something other than Anonymouse, particularly if you’re of a mind to be stupidly abusive, or be deleted.

Thanks.

By Jonathan on 10/11/05 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Unenthused”, John wrote above:

“No comment significantly snarkier than the post, if you please. Any comment that horrendously offends against this standard, even if it isn’t outright trolling by our usual standards, will be babelfish gutted: translated into German, to be exact. (Yes, I’m lowering the bar slightly.) The spectacle of the usual suspects slanging each other is, at the very least, uninviting to other potential participants who might be lurking out there with something modest and sober to say. If you really want to say something snarky or angry, I commend to you one of those other threads. Use them as a cursewall. (They must have some function. Perhaps it is just this.) No arguing about the tone of previous threads in this thread.”

I understood that to mean this thread as well, since this is Part II.  I am perfectly able to answer you in the style that you evidently prefer, even though I have the disadvantage of writing under my actual name.  But I think I’ll wait and see whether your usual Long Sunday style is really going to be imported to this thread as well.  Until then, I’ll answer as if you’re a named person who has just written something reasonably polite: you are engaging in a criticism that proves the very point that you are attempting to argue against.  You write that “The standard for authoritative criticism of a thinker’s project tout court should require more sustained, focused attention and nuance than a polemical or indulgent indictment based on a reading of their least rigorous work [...]”.  The only person here who has claimed to make anything like a criticism of a thinker’s project tout court is John, and he has read Zizek’s work extensively.  Your evidence for your contention of his lack of attention and nuance is, therefore, simply his disagreement—no other reason was given.  This is exactly what I claimed would occur.  And John did not say that he was baffled by Zizek; that is a crude attempt to misrepresent a text that is right in front of us.  He said that doesn’t “believe in any ‘impersonal’ mode of philosophy that is not conventionally argumentative”, and cited Zizek as an example using language which he probably should have avoided in an area so well populated with uncharitable readers.

By on 10/11/05 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, “Frank,” I just accidentally deleted your Anonymouse comment which was only mildly stupid and abusive. If you’d care to repost it, mutatis mutandis, that’d be great.

By Jonathan on 10/11/05 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

what on earth do you mean by: 

<style</em>? 

Are you referring to the blog where Scott recently posted and discussed his article on Foucault?

The comment that was just deleted did seem relevant to me.  It quoted Rich as saying:

The only person here who has claimed to make anything like a criticism of a thinker’s project tout court is John, and he has read Zizek’s work extensively.

and then asked if Rich could provide any evidence for this claim. 

If reading “On Belief” and a handful or pamphlets must mean “extensive,” then you are probably right that there is little hope in communication between us.

Shame on you for deleting that comment.

By on 10/11/05 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shame on me? John’s only read On Belief and the London Review and therefore I’m very pretentious and know how to use an anonymizer? It’s a decision that’ll haunt me for years, I’m sure.

Though I don’t agree with them, John has arguments here. Many of you have only attitudes. And that’s fine. Just use your regular ISP to post them, and save the anonymizers for political dissidents.

By Jonathan on 10/11/05 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Melissa”:
“The comment that was just deleted did seem relevant to me.  It quoted Rich as saying:

The only person here who has claimed to make anything like a criticism of a thinker’s project tout court is John, and he has read Zizek’s work extensively.

and then asked if Rich could provide any evidence for this claim.”

OK, a quick look turns up:
John Holbo: “Zizek’s best books have serious problems, in my opinion. (I have made a serious enough study of them now that I can say that, though you don’t need to believe me until I show it, obviously.)” (from here).

You need not believe that John is right, but you do need to believe that he has read and studied Z’s best works, unless you want to say that he’s lying.

By on 10/11/05 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now that that’s over, and silence has descended, back to the second half of the essay --

Cavell: “I can recognize no expression of mine to be philosophical which simply thinks to escape my profession’s paradigms of comprehensibility; so that the invocations of the name of philosophy in current literary debate are frequently not comprehensible to me as calls upon philosophy.”

The problem is, this statement doesn’t apply because it fundamentally isn’t about what John calls followers of the Higher Eclecticism are interested in.  (Just imagine the mockery at any serious use of “profession”, “paradigm”, or “comprehensibility”.) Which is not to equate the H.E. with all “theorists”, whoever they may be.  Contrast below--

Berube: “The current anti-Theory camp is quite right not to call for a return to a prelapsarian past or a faux-naif future (this just in: sign not multivalent after all!).  But there’s more to theory than a little ambiguity here and a little undecidability there, and again, the important thing lies in learning how “multivalence” and “multiaccentuality” (V. N. Volosinov’s term, not mine) actually work.”

Yes, this I recognize as something that might actually occupy the same universe of discourse as Cavell’s.  If you’re seriously interested in how things work, then “comprehensibility”, “paradigm”, and “profession” become meaningful again (multivalently, of course).

Berube used a little ambiguity and a little undecideability as examples of characteristics of texts in general.  One indication of H.E. appears to show up when these characteristics are purposefully maximized as qualities of texts without a corresponding increase in aestheticism.  (A poem may be as ambiguous and undecideable as you like, but Theorists aren’t writing poetry.)

In a second-hand reflection, as seen in the comment box of a blog, these maximized characteristics appear as certain recurring rhetorical strategies.  The infinite loop of “you-must-read-the-next-text-to-determine-meaning”, which can never close because there are always more texts than time no matter how much time you have.  The scientist-artist teeter-totter (and its baby size version as philosopher-litterateur).  The “I’m only joking/provoking” defense.  The appeals to politics that can not be grounded in actual politics.  All of these appear to be tactics that I can not describe as obfuscatory, quite, because obfuscation implies a desire to hide something which might be clear.

By on 10/11/05 at 07:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich on Cavell’s statement about what he recognizes as philosophy: The problem is, this statement doesn’t apply because it fundamentally isn’t about what John calls followers of the Higher Eclecticism are interested in. I’m not sure what you mean by “doesn’t apply,” Rich, but I’m pretty sure what Cavell would say is that you can be “interested” in whatever the hell you want to be interested in, but if you’re going to call it philosophy it needs to meet certain disciplinary “paradigms of comprehensibility.” And that there are plenty of other philosophers who feel the same way is indicated by the fact that Butler doesn’t have—and probably doesn’t want—a job in a philosophy department. So this boils down to the increasingly tiresome question of whether the ability of disciplinary norms to enable shared “paradigms of comprehensibility” is important enough to foreclose some of the options for linkage of which the Higher Eclecticism is so enamored. I’m with Cavell, but I find it increasingly difficult to imagine a way to persuade someone to embrace the rigors of disciplinary standards if that person just can’t resist the intellectual frisson of quoting Lacan and Kripke side-by-side. De gustibus non disputandum, I guess. Rorty once said that “the theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen,” and that’s how I would feel about the Higher Eclectics if I didn’t have to teach their works.

And briefly: I like John’s claim that Nussbaum is annoyed with Butler for producing “philosophical fiction,” but we should add that for Nussbaum (in that essay especially, and in Women and Human Development) the larger problem is that indulging philosophical fiction disables philosophy from assisting in the amelioration of human suffering. She thinks Butler has sold out the very people on whose behalf she sometimes claims to speak.

By on 10/11/05 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gee, I wonder if the increasing use of IP anonymyzers here has anything to do with Jonathan (and Sean’s) increasing references to the fact that you guys have everyone’s IP addresses, are monitoring them, collecting them????

What’s up with this? Aggressive comments here, but no trolling so far that I’ve seen.

I imagine there’s more than a few anonymous commenters here that will simply take their business elsewhere… It’s not that anyone thinks you can’t obtain IPs - it’s the fact that you are so interested in them that’s disturbing.

And, I’m sorry to tell you, that once those people leave, things are going to get awfully quiet around here…

John - is this a new Valve polcy? I understand shutting out deliberately abusive / offensive materials - but are anonymous comments of any sort now verboten?

By on 10/11/05 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t make clear that this thread would have the same policy as part I: ‘if you are sending the thread to hell you get babelfish gutted’. Well, I hereby clarify to that effect. That policy is in effect starting now. A few comments upstream qualify, and it would appear that Jonathan dealt with others in the night. I would prefer a conversation or argument, if you please. If you are irritated at me, or think you know what I have not read, go curse against Sean’s Sorel post or something. (I’m sure Sean won’t mind.)

A response to Joe Schmoe, who writes:

“Indeed, the product can only be basically academic authoritarianism.

Was this meant at all ironically?”

Not exactly. It was meant socratically. Butler says she is in favor of x. I say: what do you mean when you say you are in favor of x? How is that NOT going to be a kind of aristocratic authoritarianism? (I probably shouldn’t use ‘authoritarianism’ and it is somewhat regrettable that Cavell used ‘terrorism’. These are low-grade Godwin’s violations, as it were. Touch of the paranoid style to invite us to associate genuine political tragedy with the comedy of manners that is academia, at its worst.) The point is: how can Butler do what she do, and have it make sense, without taking her personal superiority over her interlocutor as a premise? (Am I to take ‘Butler is an ineffable genius’ as a premise?)

I take it you see how I managed to read her as I did. Coordinating her with the Nietzsche quote is elementary. Now it gets tricky: how ELSE to read her? This is a real question, not a rhetorical one. (My real complaint isn’t that she is an authoritarian but that she has adopted a set of intellectual practices that are, so far as I can see, a set of stylistic manners with no convincing intellectual warrant.)

Joe also writes:

“Serious readers of the Critical Theory and Heideggerian/phenomenological schools have also been saying this, for quite some time.”

I probably should have said so myself. I would only add that I think the problem is not in fact taken seriously enough. In academia, the fact that your work looks much like a mound of other work is - and rightly - a kind of warrant. If others have said ‘Western philosophy has a metaphysics of presence’ then that must be the sort of thing it is intellectually respectable to do. By not mentioning that others see what I see, I probably sound like I’m patting myself (and Cavell) on the back for being pioneers of this new intellectual discovery. In fact, the problem is more: of course everyone sees that there’s something a little unseemly and strained about it. (Who could miss it.) But the weight of academic precedent lulls that worry back to sleep. I wish it wouldn’t.

Further down the thread: as to my admission to being ‘baffled’. I probably should have made clearer that I think I understand what is being said. I am baffled as to why, given it says what I think it says, it is taken to be appealing.

Unenthused and bat, you seem to have stumbled over the concept of ‘a premise’. When I say that, for purposes of the post, I am assuming that Nussbaum’s description of Butler’s intellectual style is basically apt, I am not - I think - merely making a ‘casual indictment’. I am taking something as a premise, which you are free to dispute. The game is played thusly: if you wish to deny this premise, you say something like, ‘I don’t think that Nussbaum is being fair. I think that Butler is in fact generally very careful and not habitually allusive.’ Or perhaps you think the problem is that I misread Nussbaum. In this way we isolate our points of disagreement and perhaps resolve a few and move forward. Or at least realize the exact point where we disagree. (I don’t really think there is any other way to do it, and if you are not interested, this is not the thread for you.)

Thanks for your mostly favorable comments, Alan. You raise a question that often makes me feel a bit depressed: if it really just comes down to de gustibus, then I really shouldn’t be bothering writing these posts.

ex-commenter, Jonathan acted on his own and I trust his judgement. I assume he was simply doing me the favor of enforcing the somewhat lower ceiling on snark I requested. Of course anonymous comments are just fine, and we are not particularly IP-happy, I should think. (I don’t think that it is unusual for bloggers to take note of who is leaving comments.) The Sean case was really me. Sean wondered aloud in comments whether two commenters were the same. I went in to check (the first and only time I have done such a thing) and determined they were, and that they were also Matt. It does seem reasonable to want to figure out whether someone is sock puppeteering in your thread, because that is a form of - well, it’s potentially a bit like the committee quote from Marcuse. It can be a device for generating the impression that there are more people on a given side, thereby adding weight to that side. It is also a device for just being silly, of course. In neither case do I see any harm in pointing it out for what it is.

By John Holbo on 10/11/05 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, for obfuscation, can I suggestion circumlocution? 

Ex-commenter.  Don’t know about your IP, but your voice is reminiscent of the unlamented CR.  Speaking personally, I’d feel no regret if you left.  You generate heat.  Light is another question.

By on 10/12/05 at 12:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, we’ve now said our respective pieces about what has been said and done in other threads. Ex-commenter, me, Sean. Fine. No more discussing what may or may not have gone wrong in other threads in this thread. Further opinionations in this vein will be demurely deleted. (Since those other threads are still open, you can take it outside.)

By John Holbo on 10/12/05 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ack.  Can I personally say to all commenters, ex-commenters and the like, that one reason we’ve decided to corral the unknown is that they’ve been, shall we say, overly and overtly threatening?  I know it’s a sad fact of internet communication that a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but as of late we’ve had some rancid apples...and when I say rancid I mean rancid.  Sure, it’s not the fault of those who would disagree vehemently with such that’s said here, but at the very least those who subscribe to these threads and receive all the comments posted on these threads should realize that there’s a point at which people cannot brook “dissent” when it comes with such ungainly consequences. 

Yes, that’s not your fault, ex-commenters, but at the very least you should acknowledge that, this being the internet, others may have given the anonymous a reputation for wanton injuriousness?  Yes, I realize that’s unfair, but can you recognize that, on the internet, sometimes hostile criticisms may be mistaken for random hostility?  Again, not fair, I know, but we’ve made gestures to attempt to overcome this.  Plus the fact that of all the Valve contributors, it’s Jonathan and not John who considers these “contributions” unacceptable should indicate that these comments are deleted not for reasons ideological or intellectual, but for reasons of decorum…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/12/05 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Scott. That was factually relevant, presumably unobjectionable to anyone, and probably passed my stricture against further discussion of this topic like two ships passing in ether.

Alright NOW no more comments about this stuff, if you please.

By John Holbo on 10/12/05 at 05:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, John, my “de gustibus” comment emerged from my own moment of weakness. You write these posts (and we read them) because you (we) are groping around for some means of engagement with a mode of intellectual discourse which—despite the Height of its Eclecticism—seems curiously impervious to criticism and even to self-reflection. Alasdair MacIntyre makes the point that the proper way to criticize a “tradition of inquiry” is to point out that it is deficient in realizing its own most deeply held commitments. This is precisely the strategy Nussbaum follows in her critique of Butler. She quotes Butler’s view ("Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially") and then asks: “Isn’t this like saying to a slave that the institution of slavery will never change, but you can find ways of mocking it and subverting it, finding your personal freedom within those acts of carefully limited defiance? Yet it is a fact that the institution of slavery can be changed, and was changed—but not by people who took a Butler-like view of the possibilities. It was changed because people did not rest content with parodic performance: they demanded, and to some extent they got, social upheaval.”

But Butler and her epigones, as far as I have been able to see, find this argument invisible. After “The Professor of Parody” came out, Gayatri Spivak wrote an angry letter in which she didn’t contest any of Nussbaum’s points but simply asserted that Nussbaum’s own “U. S. benevolence toward ‘other women’”—that is, her work with poor women in India—“collaborates with exploitation.” The same issue contained an equally angry letter from Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, and Linda Nicholson stating that “the element of vituperativeness in the essay is disturbing”—but the only comment they made about the substance of Nussbaum’s argument was that “Nussbaum raises some worthwhile questions.” There’s just no engagement whatsoever with the quite specific claims Nussbaum makes. My “de gustibus” comment arose from my being at a loss—where does one go from here?

By on 10/12/05 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan Jacobs: “Alasdair MacIntyre makes the point that the proper way to criticize a “tradition of inquiry” is to point out that it is deficient in realizing its own most deeply held commitments. This is precisely the strategy Nussbaum follows in her critique of Butler.”

Yes, it’s a critique of politics as contradiction rather than politics per se.  (My first comment in this thread was about this, though it may have gotten drowned out.)

Alan : “You write these posts (and we read them) because you (we) are groping around for some means of engagement with a mode of intellectual discourse which—despite the Height of its Eclecticism—seems curiously impervious to criticism and even to self-reflection.”

I don’t really think that there is any means of engagement.  When I wrote above about the various common rhetorical strategies that we see and how they don’t appear to conceal something hidden, I meant just that—there is not any core.  This is actually not an uncommon problem.  John once wrote an article on Frum, for instance, in which he diagnoses a certain form of conservatism as being about irritable gestures rather than actual ideas.  In this case, the text is a performative utterance that says “I am cool!” or “I am an expert!”.

The reason I think that John’s work is valuable is not only in pointing this out, but in helping to distinguish which part of this kind of thing is real and which isn’t.  If you look at the Berube quote above, clearly there are some people who do Theory who are working with actual ideas.  What makes them different from the ones who, when questioned, say that their form of rationality isn’t the same as ordinary rationality (and also doesn’t have aesthetic, mystical, etc. qualities)?  John has a theory of Higher Eclecticism which is apparently still being developed.  I’m interested.

By on 10/12/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Agreed on all points, Rich—though I did not get your note about “politics as contradiction” the first time around, perhaps because of the distracting bellowing of trolls and those who thought they were accused of being trolls.

I too await further Holbovian musings on <i>Aftertheorie</i> etc.—though I think John’s point about the absurdity (and perhaps even more the ineffectuality) of “normalizing the extraordinary” already has found the heart of the matter. Back to MacIntyre: he’s very good and showing how the most anti-traditional of discourses become, inevitably, traditions of their own, and that’s what I think has happened here. Somewhere Nietzsche weeps over it.

By on 10/12/05 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

http://glueboot.blogspot.com/2005/08/parting-note.html

By on 10/12/05 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

According to Nussbaum: ““Isn’t this like saying to a slave that the institution of slavery will never change, but you can find ways of mocking it and subverting it, finding your personal freedom within those acts of carefully limited defiance? Yet it is a fact that the institution of slavery can be changed, and was changed—but not by people who took a Butler-like view of the possibilities. It was changed because people did not rest content with parodic performance: they demanded, and to some extent they got, social upheaval.”

This is a sad comparison, made sadder by those who think it’s accurate or fair.  First of all, it denies all those slaves who *did* find creative ways of living under slavery, ways of maintaining humanity via parody and other social modes of being in the midst of the most dehumanizing forces.  Secondly, the situation of “gender traitors” today is utterly incomparable to the situation of Africans under chattel slavery.  If we’re going to compare Butler to anyone, of course we can’t compare her to Harriet Tubman or William Lloyd Garrison.  The more apt comparison would be with the writings of someone like Samuel Sewell, which subvert the religious typologies used to oppose Cain and Abel, Ham and his brothers. 

But even that comparison continues to elide the sheer difference in modes of subjugation.  Judith Butler isn’t a “feminist” in the sense that some feminists think of themselves as akin to abolitionists.  (Didn’t Kristeva already deal with this crap in “Women’s Time”?) Butler’s work—the little I know if it anyway—seeks to question the assumptions underpinning binary formations of sex and gender.  She’s not interested in subversive performance as, in itself, a socially transformative act.  What she is interested in is the way that the very idea of gender performance gives the lie to certain myths about sexuality and gender.  In this sense, Butler is similar to biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, whose research on intersexuality has not only suggested that sex and gender need to be distinguished, but that the very “nature/nurture” divide needs to be questioned. 

I don’t mean to defend Butler’s work - especially not her style.  I think that her major insights were scooped by folks from Erving Goffman to Roland Barthes (who, in *Mythologies*, was already questioning the rhetorical strategy in which social difference is evaluated in terms of deviance—a gay man as a deficient man, a woman in sports as an unnatural woman). 

But let’s be honest and admit that, according to what we might term Nussbaum’s “Liberator Criterion,” everyone from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to Joe Sacco would be found wanting.  By the Liberator Criteria, the only critic of gender or sexuality who’d cut the mustard would be one working to seek the violent overthrow of the heterosexist patriarchy.  Cuz let’s also be honest and admit that by Nussbaum’s own criteria, even those abolitionists who preached gradual abolition, or emigration to Africa and Canada, or nonviolent protest, all would have been asking slaves to be patient and endure an immoral subjugation longer than the violent overthrow of their masters would provide.  Nothing says “social change” like “violent overthrow.”

By on 10/13/05 at 12:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, Nussbaum says right at the top of her essay what she means by social upheaval:

“Feminist theory has been understood by theorists as not just fancy words on paper; theory is connected to proposals for social change. Thus feminist scholars have engaged in many concrete projects: the reform of rape law; winning attention and legal redress for the problems of domestic violence and sexual harassment; improving women’s economic opportunities, working conditions, and education; winning pregnancy benefits for female workers; campaigning against the trafficking of women and girls in prostitution; working for the social and political equality of lesbians and gay men.”

That’s not violent overthrow.

Nussbaum also is familiar with Anne Fausto-Sterling; she lists her in a long line of people who wrote about Butler’s issues before Butler.  (She lists J.S. Mill at the earliest to at least partially “scoop” Butler.)

But I think that you’re missing the most important point.  Unfortunately I can’t seem to quote from the middle of Nussbaum’s essay due to some browser issue.  But if you look in section IV near the top, you’ll see a discussion that gets into “What should be resisted, and on what basis?” That’s where Nussbaum describes how Butler tacitly assumes that her audience all agree about what is good, and that parodic or subversive performance is directed towards subverting social norms rather than reinforcing them.  Nussbaum claims that Butler has no “normative theory of human equality or dignity”.

I would say, imagine that you are reading Butler’s work as a conservative.  No biologically set gender roles?  Fine then, in order for everyone to know their place, these roles must be set by traditional religious leaders.  People will subvert them to some degree anyway?  That’s OK, the foremost subverters can be punished as an example to everyone else; this will maintain the social structure, which is the highest good.  People will get a thrill out of whatever degree of subversion they do manage?  OK, that’s between them and God and the police, but it is a commonplace that sin will never completely be eliminated.

I would guess that Butler does not really want to be read in this way.  But the form of her work is in keeping with it.  Mystification, ideas inseperable from the authority of a particular thinker, texts that can not be understood by any but a few—all classic conservative tools. 

And none of these things are necessary.  People at this point always write something about how complex these issues are and how complex language is needed to understand them.  Quantum physics is one common conparison.  But Feynmann said that if you couldn’t explain quantum mechanics to an undergraduate, you didn’t really understand it.  That spirit is nowhere present in Butler.

So, finally, you write that you don’t want to defend Butler’s work, and especially not her style.  But her style is part of her work. 
While reasoned argument and clarity may not be strictly necessary for a normative theory of human equality or dignity, most of the theories used by the “left” depend on it.  So her style helps to invalidate the tacit assumptions that her work relies upon.

By on 10/13/05 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I’m not sure I buy this statement, and it seems to me axial to Nussbaum’s complaint about the relationship of what Butler does to what she expects to accomplish:

She’s not interested in subversive performance as, in itself, a socially transformative act.  What she is interested in is the way that the very idea of gender performance gives the lie to certain myths about sexuality and gender.

In her talk on left conservatism, for example, she mobilizes many of the same anti-foundationalist arguments as she links her position to Marxist materialism:

Now of course, a question one has is why would a movement concerned to criticize and transform the ways in which sexuality is social regulated not be understood as central to the functioning of political economy? Briefly, of course, we know that the family, for instance which involves the reproduction of sexuality and the reproduction of gender was clearly established by both Marx and Engels as properly part of the materialist conception of social life. And it seems to me that in that Marxist paradigm that socialist-feminism so profited from the reproduction of gendered persons, of men and women, depended on the social regulation of the family and indeed on the reproduction of heterosexual family as a site for the reproduction of heterosexual persons. Sexuality was, indeed, part of the analysis of material life and linked clearly with the mode of production. But what I want to ask here is simply this: This very important socialist-feminist legacy understood the reproduction of persons and the social regulation of sexuality as part of the very process of production, and hence part of the materialist conception of political economy. How is it that suddenly sexuality goes from being part of material life to being merely cultural when the focus of critical analysis turns from the question, how is normative sexuality reproduced--the family, normative gender, etc.,--to the queer question, how is it that that very normativity is confounded by the non-normative sexualities it harbors within its own terms, as well as the sexualities that thrive and suffer outside those terms? Once that shift is made from normative to queer sexuality, why is it that the link between such an analysis and the mode of production is suddenly called into question? Why does it become merely cultural at that moment? Is it only a matter of cultural recognition when non-normative sexualities are marginalized and debased, or does the possibility of sustaining a life and a livelihood come into play?

I find it difficult to understand why she would want to link her project to “the materialist conception of political economy” unless she were interested in more than the philosophical interrogation of gender fundamentalism.  I may be wrong (and cheating by quoting from a public address in which the tone, as usual, becomes one in which academics must “justify their existence"), but even if I am, Nussbaum’s other complaint--that feminists have historically been unable to divorce their work from larger social struggles in the way you claim she does--still seems sound.  A defense of Butler on the grounds that she has no more of an obligation to apply her thought to the politics of the time than has any other academic would be more convincing...but impossible to make in the current academic climate.

Also, if I remember correctly Ellison and Baldwin were both attacked for the very reasons you say they’d be.  I’m thinking of...essays, famous essays, written by leaders of the more militant variety during the ‘60s and early ‘70s.  It’s late.  I’ll remember come morning (or others will come to my rescue in the interim).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/13/05 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, my point was a reductio: the struggle to win “pregnancy benefits for women” is slow and long.  By Nussbaum’s own comparison, it would be like asking slaves to be patient while the white boys in Congress found a compromise over slavery.

Next off, I still think Nussbaum is holding Butler to standards (first generation feminism) Butler’s work isn’t seeking to fulfill in the first place.  Butler’s work—at least in *Gender Trouble*—is not about equality between the sexes.  It’s about how people perform their genders.  It’s also about how even feminists police the sex/gender divisions: read the recent *Salon* article about men who buy $6,500 silicon women for a clear “feminist” policing of normative sexuality.  Or see the recent *South Park* episode about sex-changes.  Butler wants to question what we mean by “men” and “women”—I’m sure J.S. Mill would have considered drag queens as “mimics,” while Butler wants to estrange us from that assumption (not that I agree with her here, mind you). 

And Scott, I didn’t say that her work on gender performance doesn’t have political ramifications.  I only wanted to separate the forms of gender subversion that she discusses from the discussion itself.  For Butler, the subversion of gender isn’t necessarily a self-conscious thing.  So it’s the implications of gender-as-performance that are political, not the performance itself.

And Rich, sure, those implications can be used by conservatives as well as by progressives.  The idea of gender as socially imposed only challenges the idea of gender as biologically caused.  If conservatives adapt their philosophy to admit, “Sure, gender is a cultural phenomenon, but we still think women should be intuitive, nurturing, baby-making machines,” there’s nothing in the facts about gender to stop them.  At the same time, the sheer will to power becomes obvious.  I mean, it didn’t take long for racists to shift from “blacks are naturally inferior” to “blacks are inferior because of their toxic culture.” So it’s all in how one articulates “the facts” within a larger political discourse, right?

But I mentioned Kristeva’s “Women’s Time” for a reason.  Nussbaum essentially says nothing more than that Butler isn’t a liberal feminist.  Agreed.  And a turtle isn’t a bird.  It’s not a deficient bird, or a lame bird.  It’s a turtle.  Butler’s work isn’t deficient liberal feminism (or first-generation feminism).  If anything, it’s closer to queer studies than “feminism,” anyway.  For better or worse, Butler’s work seeks to challenge first and second generation feminists as well as sexists or homophobes.

By on 10/13/05 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Luther has misunderstood Nussbaum’s critique, and misunderstood it in ways that are quite relevant to the points John made (especially via Cavell) in the originating post. I also think he has failed to grasp the rhetorical point of Nussbaum’s analogy to slavery, but I’ll leave that aside for now.

Is Butler a liberal feminist? Luther says no. But Butler herself hedges repeatedly on that point. For example, from the 1999 preface to Gender Trouble: “As I wrote it, I understood myself to be in an embattled and oppositional relation to certain forms of feminism, even as I understood the text to be part of feminism itself.”

Does Butler claim for her work a political significance, any any conventional sense of the word “politics”? Well, there’s this, from her NYT op-ed: “we have an intellectual disagreement about what kind of world we want to live in, and what intellectual resources we must preserve as we make our way toward the politically new.” That strongly suggests that she understands her own work as contributing to the “politically new,” as helping us to make our way towards a new kind or world we want to live in. She sounds exactly like Rorty here.

I think what we see in Butler (and what frustrates Nussbaum about Butler) is a tendency to claim feminism, to claim political efficacy, to don the mantle of philosopher, when there’s rhetorical leverage to be had from doing so—and then to deny any or all of the above whenever presented with any substantive criticism. Butler delicately establishes her discourse at such boundary-lines, so that she can take a small step to one side whenever anyone asks her hard questions about whether her work really does make a political difference, or really does contribute to the cause of feminism or gay rights, or really does contribute to the philosophical conversation.

I think what Nussbaum is saying to Butler is like what Cavell is saying to other Higher Eclectics: you don’t have to be a philosopher, or a politically significant thinker, or whatever—but if you’re going to embrace that identity, do so consistently and be prepared to deal with the consequences.

By on 10/13/05 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “Rich, my point was a reductio: the struggle to win “pregnancy benefits for women” is slow and long.  By Nussbaum’s own comparison, it would be like asking slaves to be patient while the white boys in Congress found a compromise over slavery.”

I understand, but the same rhetorical overstretch that you point out in this comparison of slavery to gender roles means that the reductio doesn’t work.  As I wrote to Adam, if someone honestly thinks that a revolution would do more harm to a cause than good, you can’t define “getting serious” for them as advocating a revolution.  Nussbaum might think that violent overthrow might be a good reaction to slavery (though not all abolitionists did) but she certainly doesn’t for gender roles.  Therefore she is asking Butler to do the most radical and forceful acts that she thinks will actually help.

Luther: “And Rich, sure, those implications can be used by conservatives as well as by progressives.  [...] At the same time, the sheer will to power becomes obvious.”

I thought that it already had, really.  Look at “Promise Keepers”, for instance.  This program advocates a return to traditional gender roles, not because non-traditional ones are biologically or socially impossible, but because you will be happier (and Godlier, of course) by doing so.  A staple of their propaganda is the woman who talks about what a load it is off of her not to have to deal with the money-making and money-handling.  Conservatives don’t really start from a set of beliefs about the world—“gender roles are biological”, for instance—and reason from there.  They start from a set of prejudices, and take whatever they find that can be used to reinforce them.  If they have an overall belief, it’s that society must be kept stable, people must know their place.  As it becomes evident, through social change, that biology really is not to be relied upon for this, they will become natural consumers of postmodernism, because with postmodernism you can justify any system.  The few conservatives that actually think, the leaders, are already quite concious of and comfortable with their will to power.

But back to the basic question, which Scott and Alan have already addressed.  Does Butler claim to be a liberal feminist?  No, Butler is heavily invested in the criticism of “left conservatives” and liberal feminists that basically amounts to “I’m cool, and you’re so old”, like a teen who thinks that dressing up in drag will go one better than tattoos.  But if she didn’t make a tacit claim to being left, then she really should have no trouble with her work being claimed by queer-bashers as well as queer activists.  Just as the ideal politician, for Zizek, should be George W. Bush with his leaps of faith.  Since this is clearly not true, Butler’s denial is not true.

By on 10/13/05 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

a) Butler doesn’t argue that parodic gender performances are politically effective means of changing a society.  Never that I recall, anyway.  What she argues is that a lot can be learned from pursuing the logic of supposedly “marginal” gender performances about “normative gender.” That is to say, Butler argues that drag queens, by mimicking gender, reveal all gender to be mimicry—to be ideology.  That this knowledge might be ultimately articulated in politically efficacious ways is beside the point.

b) Butler’s critique of first generation feminists is decidedly not about a pose of coolness.  Again, read Kristeva’s “Women’s Time” and get back to me.  Already by then, gender scholars and activists were questioning the beliefs of so-called “liberal feminists”—that equality can be measured as freedom to do what men do; that women simply need “freedom” and not to question the sex/gender binaries themselves, etc.  (They also questioned the strategic essentialism of second-wave radical feminists, so it’s not just about liberal bashing.) Again, I’m not arguing about the merit of these points; I’m only saying that Butler is a late-comer in third-generation feminism or part of a new wave of gender critics who take homosexuality and transexuality as the hinges of their critiques.

Rich—point granted about my reductio on slavery.  But my larger point is then proven: what’s quietism to one scholar is activism to another.  Nussbaum simply wants Butler to be Nussbaum, and so measures her work as deviant Nussbaumism.  Another form of the age-old academic conference panel question: “Why aren’t you doing my project instead of yours?” It’s with the analogies with chattel slavery that we see Nussbaum simply trying to score points againt Butler.  Dare I say that such analogies are racist?  That they demonstrate a willful ignorance about the real conditions of slaves in 19th century America?  George Bush isn’t a Nazi, and Judith Butler isn’t an Uncle Tom (or Eliza to Women’s Uncle Tom). 

And Rich, you’re point about conservative uses of postmodernism is exactly the point made by Theorists—yes Theorists!—from Negri and Hardt to Laclau and Mouffe.  For the latter pair, all discourses can be articulated from a variety of political positions.  At the same time, cultural conservatives still talk about “natural” genders—only their recourse is to the Bible, not biology.  And they definitely argue in favor of “natural” sex relations.  Your example about the Promise Keepers simply shows the ways in which conservatives have learned to encode their discourse.  The very idea that some heterogeneous group such as “women” could all be happier in traditional gender roles gives the lie to any attempt on their part to disguise their enduring belief in natural gender roles.  They presume the existence of some stable group called “all women” and then presume that all members of this group could be made happy by the same things, things that won’t make happy another presumably homogenous group, “all Men.” By questioning the very existence of “women” and “men,” Butler’s work at least confronts political issues such as this one.

By on 10/13/05 at 03:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I think that this characterization of different types of feminists as first-generation, second-wave and so on largely makes my point.  I don’t think that “liberal feminists” never question gender binaries, or have no understanding of transexuality.  Some are more essentialist than others.  There is a difference in general emphasis, perhaps, but the divisions appear to be primarily artificial, and concerned with the creation of yet another binary that opposes the old to the new wave.

I agree that to some extent Nussbaum wants Butler to be Nussbaum.  That’s why I think that the Cavell quote about the boundaries of philosophical language is in the end going to fail; if other philosophers decide to use meaningless language, what are you going to do?  But I think that this provides one possible answer to the question of why Nussbaum attacks via politics rather than via “you’re a bad scholar”; because the politics is essentially contradictory while the scholarship is only going against a social role.

Why is the politics essentially contradictory?  Because Butler’s denial of politics is no more trustworthy than any other authorial interpretation.  (I’ve noticed that Theorists often seem to want the privileges that they deny to other authors when they themselves have written something.) I suggest the “homophobe test”.  Imagine an unusually thoughtful bigot reading Butler and agreeing: gender roles are arbitrary, drag queens reveal them to be ideology.  Yes, thinks the homophobe, and I like that ideology.  Clearly, the drag queens must be suppressed before they call it into question.  After all, people do all sorts of things to preserve ideologies, they are what holds society together.  If Butler really has no problem with this program, then maybe she really does have no politics and is sort of the “amoral anarchist” that Nussbaum tries to say would be the result of taking her seriously.  But I don’t think so.

Lastly I’m not surprised that some Theorists have said that conservatives can use postmodernism.  Check out the comment thread starting here.  I do not agree that the beginning steps in this direction are simply an encoding.  They are an opportunistic use of something in the environment.  Since conservatives do not need to be rational, they can use arguments that assume “natural” genders and those that use postmodernism and switch back and forth as needed—in itself, rather a defining postmodern quality.

By on 10/13/05 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, Kristeva’s “Women’s Time” insists that she is not talking about progressive and mutually exclusive stages in the history of feminist thought.  (Some postcolonial feminists have missed this point, a fact I criticize in my scholarship on Bharati Mukherjee.) Kristeva herself insists that these are three different strategies, all of which should be employed strategically under varying circumstances.  There is no “old” or “new” here—it’s the American feminist discourse of “generations” or “waves” that confuses this, but those are also the terms by which these various strategies are known, so I kept them above.

Your example of the thoughtful homophobe doesn’t question Butler’s politics.  Indeed, many homophobes in fact *do* try to keep non-normative sexual and gender performers down.  And they indeed do it to preserve an ideology.  What’s important is that work like Butler’s reminds us that we are dealing with ideology.  Where her politics might break down is that she’d have to appeal to liberal notions of freedom and equality in order to defend the drag queen’s ideology over the bigot’s.  And as Nussbaum points out, Butler doesn’t seem to have a worked-out philosophy of equality or freedom. 

Where we end up is in a interminable debate about freedom and equality.  Are they moral absolutes?  Are they historical constructs?  Are they the veneer used to make any appeal sound fair?  Nussbaum might insist that without an absolute ideal of, say, equality, no feminist politics can work.  Butler might argue instead that the larger problem is one of ideology and rhetoric, of messy wars for hearts and minds.  For example, both supporters and detractors of gay marriage believe they stand for freedom and equality: the former desire to extend the umbrella of marriage over all couples, the latter demand that the heterosexual freedom to marry would be destroyed by extending marriage to same-sex couples.  At that point, it always seems to me that we just have two groups each pointing to the same signifier and each demanding they are right about its signified.  Mere appeals to “freedom” don’t seem to get us anywhere. 

I suppose what I’m trying to say is what Kristeva said a long time ago: all these strategies are necessary.  Nussbaum needs Butler and Butler needs Nussbaum.  Without a thorough unpacking of the ideas of sex and gender—both in badly written theory and in the music of, say, Antony and the Johnsons—Nussbaum’s left pointing at a flourescent sign blinking “FREEDOM.” Without Nussbaum, Butler’s merely reminding us that much of what humans do is things humans invented, so she too is just pointing at another flickering sign: “CONSTRUCTION AHEAD.”

By on 10/13/05 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “What’s important is that work like Butler’s reminds us that we are dealing with ideology.  Where her politics might break down is that she’d have to appeal to liberal notions of freedom and equality in order to defend the drag queen’s ideology over the bigot’s.”

I think that we’re basically agreeing on this point.  Butler has no stated reason to hold the implicit position of support of one ideology over another that she evidently does hold, and I think that her implicit reason is undercut by the effect of her style.

But I definitely don’t agree with freedom and equality as signifiers that can mean whatever signified you like.  That is begging the question that postmodernism is correct and that modernism is useless.  To refer back to the Berube quote I cited earlier, signs are multivalent, but they aren’t meaningless.  In the end, you can ground ideas in some kind of reference to brute reality rather than socially constructed reality—the catch phrase about the “reality-based community” was adopted as a rhetorical way to disagree with Bush’s right-wing postmodernism, but it reflects an underlying belief.  I do think that reading over that exchange between Jodi and I in that old comment thread might be interesting, it covers the same ground.

By on 10/13/05 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Butler doesn’t argue that parodic gender performances are politically effective means of changing a society.  Never that I recall, anyway.  What she argues is that a lot can be learned from pursuing the logic of supposedly “marginal” gender performances about “normative gender.” That is to say, Butler argues that drag queens, by mimicking gender, reveal all gender to be mimicry—to be ideology.  That this knowledge might be ultimately articulated in politically efficacious ways is beside the point.”

You take Butler’s position to be that “a lot can be learned,” from performativity as an idea-- learning from which actions might or might not follow, but are in any case “beside the point.”

See Exciteable Speech:

“Understanding performativity as a renewable action without clear origin or end suggests that speech is finally constrained neither by its specific speaker nor by its originating context. Not only defined by social context, such speech is also marked by its capacity to break with context. Thus, performativity has its own social temporality in which it remains enabled precisely by the contexts from which it breaks. This ambivalent structure at the heart of performativity implies that, within political discourse, the very terms of resistance and insurgency are spawned in part by the powers they oppose (which is not to say that the latter are reducible to the former or always already coopted by them in advance)” (40).

For Butler, resistance is not the attenuated result of understanding performativity; it is a product of the iterability of the performative.  Breaks with power (like the Derridean break with context on which her argument depends) are not contingent but necessary.  “Insurgency” is systemic: immanent and inevitable. It is this kind of mystification of agency (agency as a function of the clefts within the structure of discourse) that Nussbaum rightly decries as mystification.

By on 10/13/05 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think freedom and equality are meaningless, but I think their meanings have clearly changed over time—and I also think that very few people actually share the same exact meanings of the words even when they are gathering around them.  This isn’t postmodernism or relativism.  It’s just the facts, ma’am.  It’s not like Jefferson really thought to himself, “I know *real* freedom would mean freedom for all people, but I’m gonna lie and say that freedom is only for adult, property-owning men.” Wars over things like freedom aren’t about who’s “right” about the nature of freedom.  Wars are about who HAS THE RIGHT to define things like freedom and equality.  100 years from now, people who eat animals might be viewed as hypocrites who talked about freedom while killing cows.  Will they be “wrong” if, instead, 100 years from now, vegetarians are viewed as oppressive thought-Nazis who wanted to change how everyone behaved and vegetarianism is outlawed?  Woe to he who thinks he’s spoken the last word on the nature of freedom or equality!

I agree with you that material facts in the real world trump spin and PR fictions generated by political interests.  But there’s no “real world” thing such as freedom or equality out there in the world.  These are totally abstract concepts.  They have material manifestations: we point to an Iraqi voting and say, “Freedom’s on the march.” Or we point to the Baghdad Wal-Mart and say, “There is no freedom!” But in each case, we’re using some part of the real world as a synecdoche for an abstract concept or narrative.  Which is to say, there is no idea of freedom or equality outside of a larger ideology.  This is not the same as Bush’s attempt to spin facts.

By on 10/13/05 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can’t help but answer this historical illustration that I know I should leave alone-

Luther: “It’s not like Jefferson really thought to himself, “I know *real* freedom would mean freedom for all people, but I’m gonna lie and say that freedom is only for adult, property-owning men.””

That description isn’t so far off.  Jefferson wrote about slavery in _Notes on the State of Virginia_:

“And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who [permits] one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other....Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever...”

Jefferson, at least in part, really did know that he was lying.

At any rate, I’m not claiming that the word “freedom” has a meaning that varies not from person to person or time to time.  That really would be an instance of Berube’s “this just in: sign not multivalent after all!” But the various issues that people argue about under the name of freedom come down, in the end, to physical realities.  When you argue about freedom, for instance, you’re really arguing about whether society is going to punish the commission of certain physical acts, or how society is going to allocate certain physical resources.  That means that it’s not a fully abstract, completely postmodern issue: physical reality puts constraints on possibility and means that some value systems really don’t work as well as others.

By on 10/13/05 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo writes:
A good thing to read at this juncture is John M. Ellis’ Against Deconstruction, pp. 30-33, where he quotes definitions/basic explications of ‘logocentrism/metaphysics of presence’ from Derrida, Leitch, Culler, Norris. As with Nussbaum against Butler, there is a an excessively insistent rationalism to Ellis’ complaint about how the results are utterly diverse and seemingly mutually irreconcilable. (If one is simply not willing to countenance any uncanniness, perhaps one ought to be done with Derrida in a sentence, not a book.)

Needless to say, this is not the book to consult, if one wishes to understand Derrida (although truth be told, neither is the first by Norris).

By Matt on 01/19/06 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’execretion’ is a good portmanteau word.

By John Holbo on 01/19/06 at 05:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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