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Nussbaum v. Butler, Round One

Guest post by John McGowan

The Professor of Parody,” Martha Nussbaum’s essay on Judith Butler, captures rather perfectly why my usual response to assertions and counter-assertions in the theory wars is “a plague on both your houses.” I’m mostly on Nussbaum’s side substantively, but think she makes her argument in an incredibly unhelpful way. (Most important, I think, is Nussbaum’s complaint that Butler avoids articulating the norms that underwrite her use of charged terms like “oppressive” and “injurious,” and thus also avoids being specific about what political action should or might be aiming for.  Vague, ad hoc, individualistic, and improvised resistance is Butler’s substitute for any concerted or collective action that tries to change laws, institutions, practices, received beliefs, social hierarchies, or the distribution of material resources.)

In what, after all, is an intramural debate among writers and readers who are all sympathetic to feminist aims and who, more generally, are all left of center, Nussbaum cannot find it in herself to search for plausible reasons Butler takes the positions she does or for why so many readers have found them convincing and attractive.  Butler’s followers just want a feminism that “is in many ways easier than the old feminism”(Nussbaum, Section VI) and choose to follow the “adversarial traditions of sophistry and rhetoric,” spurning philosophy’s commitment to “a discourse of equals who trade arguments and counter-arguments without any obscurantist sleight-of-hand” (Nussbaum, Section II).  That’s the best Nussbaum can do: laziness and intellectual dishonesty are the motives driving Butler and those who admire her work.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in her book Belief and Resistance (1997), offers something she calls the principle of symmetry.  (She has derived this notion from the Edinburgh sociologists of knowledge, notably David Bloor and Barry Barnes.) The basic idea is very simple: when interpreting or evaluating any statement or any set of beliefs, I should begin from the premise that those who make that statement or hold that belief aim to be—and believe themselves to be—as committed to saying and believing what is reasonable and true as I am.  The default position should not be that they are insincere, or that they have chosen to be sophists not philosophers, or that they don’t want to believe what is true. I should instead assume their symmetry with me.  If I am to question their sincerity or their intellectual honesty, I need to offer a plausible account of how they went wrong or why (what reasons they have) for being deceitful.  We might also call this a principle of charity—and connect it to Donald Davidson’s speculations about how we ever manage to make any sense of beliefs that are foreign, baffling, and even repugnant to ourselves. 

Nussbaum’s lack of charity means that she can only impute the worst motives to Butler—and to anyone inclined to view Butler’s work positively.  Butler wants the kind of fame and authority that comes from oracular charisma and obscurantist prose.  Butler’s readers want to indulge their American narcissism, “cultivating the self rather than thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others”(remember this line from Section VI because I want to come back to it in Part 2 on Sunday). And both Butler and her admiring readers are borderline (at least) sexual perverts who sado-masochistically eroticize their relation to the powers that oppress them.  Narcissistic sado-masochistic rhetoricians who can’t write their way out of a paper bag.  Ouch.

What would a more charitable reading of Butler offer in place of these nefarious motives?  I think Nussbaum fails to recognize the power and appeal of psychoanalysis—and the fact that the Freudian perspective (filtered through Lacan) underlies Butler’s whole approach to questions of sexual being and of the scene of socio-political action.  (For the old-timers among you, think of Nussbaum versus Butler as a reprise of Herbert Marcuse versus Norman O. Brown.) I will admit at the outset to being as temperamentally hostile to psychoanalysis as Nussbaum—and I find it one of the great mysteries of our day why so many feminists are psychoanalytically inclined.  But, probably because I come from literary studies and not from philosophy, I don’t find Freudian thought just incomprehensible nonsense that only the willfully perverse could ever take seriously. 

What Nussbaum misses in Butler is her Freudian mysticism.  Butler takes from Foucault the notion that “identity” is as much a trap and burden as a source for the autonomous freedom with which liberalism seeks to invest each individual.  And what Butler takes from Freud is the notion that prior to the formation of one’s identity there is an amorphous, heterogeneous, primal chaos of unorganized feelings, impulses, and potentialities that are almost (but not quite) completely lost once “genital organization” and the “ego ideal” and “identification” with the parent of the same sex and “compulsory heterosexuality” do their work.  Avoiding all the details of the Freudian narrative that describes the movement from polymorphous perversity and the undifferentiated “oceanic feeling” to an achieved identity, I suggest that Butler partakes of the romantic urge to resist the tendency of “identity” to cut off all contact with the varied contents of the unconscious.  The convenient romantic name for everything that would swamp the categories and names within which the merely rational tries to confine the contents of the universe is “the sublime.”

Butler’s work, then, is trying to indicate how “the sublime” (lodged, for her, primarily in the Freudian unconscious) exceeds our given categories—categories like “male” and “female,” or “heterosexual” and “homosexual.” Identities, she insists, always impose a false coherence on a bodily and emotional reality that is heterogeneous.  And her focus on parody reflects her attempt to think about techniques by which we can gain access to or provide expression for the repressed sublime, for exactly the stuff that reason, non-contradiction, and the clear use of standard vocabularies renders inexpressible. (Think of Freud on jokes.)

She also takes from Freudian thought a deep ambivalence toward the unconscious.  Powerful forces of repression create the unconscious and keep its contents hidden; yet complete and utter repression is as impossible as no repression at all.  Some return of the repressed will always happen, but Butler accepts Freud’s conviction that a complete end to repression is neither desirable nor possible.  Hence the tragic (or fatalistic) outlook that upsets Nussbaum so.  In Butler’s universe, we deeply desire the unconscious; we have intimations that the organized world and identities that repression builds for us are missing something vital; but we cannot simply embrace the unconscious.  That way, quite literally, lies madness.  We are caught between the rock of identity and the hard place of psychosis. 

Given such a tragic view, it is hard to see how Butler could develop a hopeful politics.  But she is in a position to rail against the rigid strictures of a repressive society.  (Again, the parallel with Freud is exact.) No good can come, both she and Freud would argue, from trying to push all sexual desire into overly narrow channels.  The chances for success are slim, and the costs of that forcing on psychic health are very high.  Butler’s politics, like Freud’s are necessarily therapeutic.  The focus is on making individual lives easier to live and bear (which, I take it, accurately characterizes Nussbaum’s aims as well.  The difference comes in the means chosen—and in the diagnosis of what is causing the patient pain.) Social transformation in Butler as in Freud would be aimed at relaxing the rigidity of approved identity categories, in reducing guilt and anxiety. 

As I have said, I’m with Nussbaum in finding the psychoanalytic focus both too individualistic and too fatalistic.  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.  It is not even obviously true that a concern with adjusting one’s individual relations with what one takes to be the wider forces at play in the universe is a luxury only the relatively well-off can afford.  Plenty of extremely poor people put a lot of energy into and place a very high priority on their religious practices and beliefs.  Nussbaum’s self-congratulatory insistence that her brand of feminism deals with “material” necessities and “real” problems (as contrasted to the way Butler’s feminism “complete[ly] turn[s] from the material side of life,” providing “only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women” [Section I]) is unrealistic in its narrowing of human concerns and commitments.  If there is any empirical claim we can safely make about humans, it is that material concerns are not the only things that seem “real” to them.  In fact, much of the philosophical tradition that Nussbaum claims to honor is devoted to explaining why material things are less real than other components of the universe.

Derrida seemed to acknowledge, in his later years, that he was a religious thinker.  Freud, of course, went to his grave thinking of himself as a sworn enemy of religion even though early in his career he insisted that every dream contains a knot that resists all interpretation and late in his career he adopted the “mythology” (his term) of the two instincts, Eros and Thanatos, both of which lure the self to merger with forces beyond it.  I suspect that Butler would understand the adjectives “religious” and “mystic” when applied to her thought as insults.  Yet, for me, her monotheistic focus on the subject’s relation “the Law” (a term and concept she takes uncritically from Lacan) as all-consuming and her corollary neglect of all inter-subjective relations in a mundane social field indicate how other-worldly her take on human existence is.

But the longing for contact with an ineffable that lies beyond the self need not take a very religious form.  From Blake to the “language poets,” the avant-garde has been interested in changing the terms of perception.  Nussbaum simply fails to register Butler’s argument about language.  Butler points toward an experienced gap between the categories supplied by language and felt reality.  Her work, quite simply, is for misfits, for people who have felt themselves to be square pegs that are constantly being pushed and prodded into round holes.  The available categories are simply inadequate.  They also carry normative force; they lay out everything that is deemed “normal.” Misfits are abnormal—and subjected to a variety of practices aimed at changing them, quarantining them, or rendering them invisible.  Butler’s work—like “queer theory,” generally—questions the legitimacy and inevitability of prevailing definitions of the normal.  As such, it has proved enormously enlightening and liberating to those who suffer most from the stigma of abnormality. 

Nussbaum’s most egregious failure is her inability to recognize that Butler addresses a “real” source of pain felt by “real” people—and that Butler’s work empowers such people by providing intellectual resources with which to cope with and respond to ungenerous norms.  That failure undermines Nussbaum’s taking the high ground as the one who is really attending to the needs of the oppressed.  To ignore the suffering to which Butler’s work is so clearly addressed, and thus to avoid considering if that work succeeds in any way to alleviate that suffering (as it clearly aims to do), is to refuse to assess the work fairly.  No work—intellectual or otherwise—can set out to do everything.  And we can even fault someone for taking up the wrong task, for fiddling while Rome burns.  But, at least, we should correctly identify what that work sets out to do—and then explain why the worker should be doing something else or why the worker has failed at the task she has undertaken.  Nussbaum misses the avant-garde aim of transforming the terms of thought and the forms of perception, and she misses the on-the-ground consequences of social categories that stigmatize.

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.  Butler’s work is perhaps best compared to Benjamin’s.  They are both figures who exist in some ill-defined space between avant-garde art and discursive, argumentative thought. (So here’s another practice that defies easy categorization or location within neat disciplinary markers.  To call Benjamin and Butler literary critics seems pretty lame, but they aren’t quite philosophers or political theorists either.  We end up with catch-all terms like “intellectual” or “man [sic] of letters” or “social critic.” And I suggest that we see their obscurities as less a product of being “over-academic” and more akin to the obscurities of Mallarmé, Joyce, and Pound.)

Trying to push thought beyond received categories is frustrating—and certainly courts failure and incomprehension. But that doesn’t justify rapid recuperation of avant-garde work back into received notions and terms.  Nussbaum keeps assuring us that various things Butler has to say aren’t at all new.  Apparently, Nussbaum smugly assumes that the problems feminists are addressing are obvious: some individuals are not treated equally. We’re past defining the problem; we just need to focus on solutions now. So she is deeply impatient with anyone who says, “Wait a minute; I’m not sure that’s really what the problem is.  I’d like to consider the nature of individuality and our investments in it, because I feel a deep urge to slough off my individuality, plus I also find the range of available individual identities oppressive.” For Nussbaum, that’s intellectual fiddling while Rome burns. 

Nussbaum’s lack of an avant-garde sensibility is not a major failing in my opinion, although it is a symptomatic one.  But her blindness to the pain caused by received categories is more troubling.  Avant-garde experimentation is not just a luxury for the comfortable sons and daughters of the professional classes.  Even if it is play-acting in some cases, it is liberating and ennobling work in others.  Nussbaum could only be so contemptuous of Butler’s work if she “didn’t get” the “gender trouble” felt by those who find it very difficult to be the “girl” or the “boy” that others expect them to be.  And Nussbaum’s very failure to “get it” reinforces Butler’s argument that the categories of thought guide perception.  Nussbaum’s mind-set leads her to miss something.  She assumes, way too confidently, that her vision of feminism is all-encompassing, that it has listed already all the harms done to women, and now just has to attend to alleviating them.  Such close-mindedness in a thinker whose work I admire suggests the better course is to try to write as if DeMan was on to something when he insisted that every insight is accompanied by a corresponding blindness.  We would do well to suspect that the writers who most irritate us are the ones who have the most to tell us, are the ones most likely to lead us to see our own blind spots.  If that thought is too close to Freudian ways of thinking about “resistance,” I do recommend Herrnstein Smith’s book to your attention because it considers the dynamic interplay between our “beliefs” and how we “resist” evidence and ideas that would threaten those beliefs in an entirely non-Freudian (and hence, for me at least, more plausible) register.

On Sunday, I am going to post again on this non-meeting of minds.  In particular, I want to take up the vexed question of the relation of academic work to politics.

Posted by on 08/11 at 10:04 AM
  1. Thank you, John, for another well-thought out argument. Your fairness is a wonderful tonic for these issues.

    Still, the problem as you describe it is rather fundamental: our intellectual framework requires assumptions, which can then blind us to the logic of alternate frameworks. I am beginning to fear that a large part of the academy/political sphere conflict is based in such basic differences. There are things I do as part of basic disciplinary practice that will seem, in a framework like that described by Thomas Frank, to be dangerously partisan and wrong-headed. When I lose some portion of the class because they read my practice as partisan, then I lose some effectiveness as a teacher--but I may have lost any chance to reach them before they walked into the classroom.

    I look forward to this conversation.

    Posted by  on  08/11  at  01:32 PM
  2. Thank you for the insightful post—you clearly take Herrnstein Smith’s principle of symmetry seriously!

    I disagree, however, that Butler’s work can be reduced to promoting a “therapeutic” politics. By continually emphasizing the mismatch between lived reality and the categories we create to contain or explain it, Butler reminds us of the limits (and dangers) of our knowledge.  Rather than being confined to processes of individual transformation, I would argue that such a sensibility would be extremely helpful in “chang[ing] laws, institutions, practices, received beliefs, [and] social hierarchies”—i.e., in addressing many of the “real” problems with which Nussbaum is concerned. 

    While I may agree with some of Nussbaum’s specific criticisms of her, Butler’s work helps to unsettle the kind of ossified assurance (about who “we” are, or what “our” problems are) that Nussbaum often exudes.  what Nussbaum’s work often lacks is any kind of intellectual/political/ethical humility.

    Thanks for allowing me to learn something on my lunch break!

    Posted by maggie may  on  08/11  at  01:48 PM
  3. I can sort of understand what you’re saying (without really understanding anything of which you are saying, but that’s because I’m not educated at all in any of this and you—not just you, but anyone writing anything about Theory at all—refer to a quite a bit that I don’t understand, for instance “For the old-timers among you, think of Nussbaum versus Butler as a reprise of Herbert Marcuse versus Norman O. Brown.")

    I don’t know anything about Prof Nussbaum or what she does (or even if she’s a professor, but I’ll assume so) but parts of what she says are very “down to earth” and understandable for me (working towards equality and freeing woman from oppression, though we disagree on what constitutes oppression, because she appears to very strongly feel that BDSM is oppression of women and I don’t feel that way, when it is consensual). Prof Butler on the other hand makes no sense at all to me (though you have helped a great deal in unfogging the window) even though I am a queer woman and want both identity and understanding of how my personal identity just isn’t *there* for me to point to on the menu of available identities.

    Until there is a “Butler for Dummies” (lemme know if there is, cause I would like to check it out from the library) a *lot* of people aren’t going to get this. If the smartypantses aren’t understanding each other, how can so many of us who haven’t gone to university or high school or whatever even begin to benefit from Prof Butler’s work?

    So, for all of Prof Butler’s great work, sure the very few people who can understand it will benefit, but that isn’t a whole lot of us. Yet, “boots on the ground” Feminists are there each and every day working with women of all shapes and sizes and (when we aren’t at each other’s throats for not doing the “right kind” of Feminism) making people’s lives better.

    So, yea, what you said. Theorizing while women’s lives are lost.

    At the same time, I don’t believe that the Dworkin/McKinnon flavor of Feminism is helpful (though still worthy of study, because some women truly feel that way and should have a home there) and indeed is very harmful to a some women.

    I don’t think a plague on either house should be a good thing, but I wish there were a third party to act as a moderator for those who subscribe to all the different Feminisms to keep us all from pretending any of us are teaching the One True Feminism. I don’t think there is one, but just as many Feminisms as there are people who believe it to be a way to make everyone’s lives better.

    Hope this made sense.



    Posted by Hanna  on  08/11  at  02:08 PM
  4. The Nussbaum essay certainly made for an unlovely atmosphere. Anyone remember the letters Butler’s friends sent in to the New Republic that basically argued, How dare you criticize Judith Butler? A little more fairness, humility, and respect could have gone a long way on both sides.

    Posted by  on  08/11  at  02:51 PM
  5. Very nice, John. I think your reading of the deep content and the surface rhetoric of the exchange is very sound. But here’s one thing I think I’d add: Nussbaum is right to suggest that given what Butler is doing, her invocations of the political inappropriately try to burrow into the kind of political domains inhabited by the liberal subject that Nussbaum prizes. If I were going to flip your desire for symmetry onto Nussbaum--in other words, let’s not only figure out sympathetically why Butler is saying what Butler is saying but also figure out sympathetically why Nussbaum has such a visceral and personalized reaction to what Butler says, this appropriation of the political subject by Butler would be a big part of it; some of Butler’s critique works rather like a wasp laying its eggs in a host, stealing the outer form of the host while eating away its interior. Butler’s invocations of the political in her writing (and in her replies to “left conservatives” like Nussbaum and Rorty) don’t match the personalized, romantic, psychoanalytic substance of her critique.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  08/11  at  04:05 PM
  6. I join those who applaud you for taking Herrnstein Smith’s path through these thickets, John. Would that the principal combatants did so, too.  I also remember the whole ”left conservatism” flap of the late 1990s, in which Butler played an important role (even the term “left conservatism” bore an unattractive resemblance to such classics as “social fascism").

    Posted by  on  08/11  at  04:17 PM
  7. I am also very much enjoying this discussion, and I did do the reading.  Actually, I think I’d read Nussbaum’s paper before, though I’m not sure why I would have done so.  Being a philosopher myself, it made me think of different analogies; Nussbaum on Butler sounded a lot like Kaufmann on Heidegger to me.  However, I have to admit that while I feel I’ve read enough Heidegger to be entitled to the opinion that Kaufmann was right about him, I haven’t read enough Butler to judge for myself how fair Nussbaum is being.  Thus, the help you are attempting to provide on that question is certainly welcome.

    Posted by Protagoras  on  08/11  at  06:24 PM
  8. As summarized here, the principle of symmetry seems to me to render criticism helpless. According to the latest NY Review of Books, for example, George W. Bush apparently believes that Iraq refused to re-admit weapons inspectors before the US-led invasion. Must we offer a plausible account of how and where he went wrong before we’re permitted to call him a blood-soaked lying bonehead son of a bitch?

    Nussbaum asserts that Butler mischaracterizes the state of the law of free speech and that her claims regarding Smith’s choice of illustrations of “performative speech acts” are unfounded. Rather than claiming that her feminism exhausts the field, leaving no room for Butler’s version, she declares that Butler’s ideas are positively inimical to feminism as a liberatory politics. Reasonable minds can disagree on these points, but a “symmetry” that would silence Nussbaum’s criticism is no symmetry at all.

    Posted by  on  08/11  at  10:14 PM
  9. Grrrrr. Nussbaum.

    Posted by Chris Moore  on  08/12  at  02:15 AM
  10. You write such a nice article.But it is too article.

    Posted by Carter  on  08/12  at  07:50 AM
  11. Re: John’s comment about symmetry.

    I don’t think “symmetry” means capitulating to the other’s opinion/argument.  Rather, I think it means genuinely trying to understand how someone could come to an opinion other than your own.  For example, assuming that all Republicans are “just stupid” or only interested in their own wallets rather than the public good may be convenient, but it doesn’t go a long way to contributing to thoughtful deliberation about important issues.

    At any point, of course, thoughtful deliberation can reach an impasse.  It seems to me that the impasse of the Butler/Nussbaum debate might be (as John McGowan indicated) the goals or purposes of feminist politics.  You can disagree with what either Nussbaum or Butler believes these goals to be, but “symmetry” means trying to understand why someone might endorse one set of goals over another.

    Sorry for the long comment!

    Posted by maggie may  on  08/12  at  09:13 AM
  12. I don’t think the kind of symmetry John invokes here would silence Nussbaum’s critique of Butler; it would merely require Nussbaum to assume that Butler is making a good-faith effort to “do” theory in ways she thinks are appropriate and useful.  Of course it is encumbent on critics to argue, if they feel so, that Butler’s work is inappropriate or unuseful, but it is encumbent on them to do so from within a rhetorical framework that gives Butler--and her motives--the benefit of the doubt.

    The principle of symmetry, in fact, is the unwritten rule of almost all liberal academic discourse, thought it gets broken a lot.  Still, how many book reviews do you read that start out by proclaiming what cynical jerk the author of the book is (even though I suspect a lot of reviewers feel that way)?

    That’s the same reason I have little tolerance for arguments that dismiss “theory” (i.e., postmodernism or one of its offshoots) outright as just so much cynical and/or elitist gobbledygook.  Just because somebody is difficult to read doesn’t mean they’re being self-protective, obscurantist, or careerist.  It may mean that they are doing the best they know how to disseminate ideas and vocabularies for addressing what they see as the most pressing political or social exigencies of their times.

    It is the height of hubris (with, I’m sure, rare exceptions) for one critic to assume she knows enough about another critic’s deep motives to impugn them, and it runs counter to all postmodern or otherwise antifoundational critical theory--which is, I would argue, above all a politics of humility.

    Nice post, John.

    Posted by  on  08/12  at  09:18 AM
  13. As someone deeply sympathetic to treating one’s intellectual opponents with respect, I do think there’s a problem with the “principle of symmetry”:  what if one’s opponent is in fact arguing in bad faith? In the case of the Nussbaum-Butler debate, I believe that both sides are arguing in good faith, and that, thus, the principle should certainly apply. But there are situations, even in the academy, but especially in political life, in which people don’t argue in good faith.  In such circumstances, starting from the assumption that one’s opponent is arguing in good faith is, by definition, to misunderstand him or her.

    Posted by  on  08/12  at  01:31 PM
  14. Even in the case that one’s opponent is arguing in bad faith, the burden of proof is still on you to convince others of that bad faith rather than assume it as a given. At least, in my own limited experience, I’ve discovered much more misunderstanding than maliciousness in the world, more ignorance than evil.

    But perhaps I just cling to that belief because it allows me to function.

    Posted by  on  08/12  at  02:34 PM
  15. I agree about the burden of proof, but I think Nussbaum’s article meets that burden satisfactorily by showing Butler’s mischaracterizations of law, errors or confusions in argument, and wilful opacity of language. Nussbaum can only be said to “assume” Butler’s bad faith, I think, insofar as she plainly has a thesis and sets out to substantiate it. And unless I’m overlooking something, neither John M’s post nor any commenter has suggested that she fails to do this.

    Posted by  on  08/12  at  03:04 PM
  16. Symmetry as I understand it doesn’t preclude you observing that someone is arguing in bad faith, from bad premises, or with bad motives (though some of those claims may simply be rhetorically unwise as they then change to focus of the discussion). The point is that symmetry charges you with understanding why someone is arguing as they are by trying to understand the origins and purpose of their thought, trying to understand the situation from which that thought is coming. Even if I think I’m dealing with someone who argues in bad faith, I ought to ask with an open sense of curiosity, in the spirit of investigation, “And why are they arguing in bad faith? What is the precondition or source of that bad faith argument? Is it a bad faith argument that the person themselves does not recognize as such, an inheritance from some text or source they’re drawing from, or a tradition within which they’re writing? Is it out of fear or unreasoned antipathy for the opposition they’re setting out to attack? Is it an attempt to work out or through two contradictory propositions that are both deemed important and indispensible to this person?” etc.  None of this may temper or defer my own arguments, including a claim that there is bad faith in what I set out to argue against, but it may help me to understand the nature of what it is that I’m opposing and possibly, just possibly, to connect to my antagonist in some way that I could not otherwise achieve.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  08/12  at  03:50 PM
  17. Beautifully done, John, and I’m bummed because I was hoping to make some similar remarks about Butler at the Valve. 

    But Timothy makes a good point when he distinguishes rhetorical unwisdom from bad faith.  I think the way you initially frame Nussbaum’s failings (unhelpful) elides that important distinction.  The principle of charity has to be a heuristic; it can’t be a position to arrive at or a general attitude you want to maintain.  Look at Nussbaum’s notorious final line (which was indeed about as rhetorically unwise as they come) about how Butler consorts with evil.  There’s only a few ways to respond to that claim if you find it off-putting: you can think it’s a misjudgment, or you can think it’s not wise to say; or you can think it’s been arrived at in bad faith.  But if you concede that Nussbaum arrived at her conviction in good faith, even if you think it wrong and wish she hadn’t arrived at that judgment, you can’t reasonably wish that she expressed it less forcefully.  If she really believes Butler’s ideas are as disastrous as she appears to believe, then she should express herself vehemently. 

    Of course you could believe Nussbaum arrived at her view of Butler by bad faith.  But then you have the problem that you need strong evidence for that view or you will yourself be violating the principle of charity. 

    I think myself that you give Butler here the most generous of possible readings.  It’s one that’s possible and appealing, but that does downplay the qualities that Nussbaum finds so disturbing--above all, if I remember right, the sheer and really extraordinary fatalism of Butler’s view of things.  There’s good reason to be disturbed by it. 

    I’m not sure it’s fair to Nussbaum either to say that she has no avant-garde intimations or yearnings for the ineffable and even this, like the willingness to read her symptomatically, risks hoisting you on your own petard.  I.e., where’s the charity?  If I remember right, although also critical, she claimed to understand and find appealing Michael Warner’s argument against normalization and treated it with great respect.  That looks like evidence that Nussbaum’s failings aren’t symptomatic at all.  That she has a particular, and maybe even legitimate gripe against Butler.

    Posted by Sean McCann  on  08/12  at  11:36 PM
  18. Let me join the chorus of thanks for your mini-essay, John.  And while I would like to talk about “politics” and such (and will, briefly), let me reserve most of those comments until after I read your Sunday post. 

    Instead, I’ll add my own spin to the discussion of we might now call “symmetrical sympathy.” Your reading of Butler, for instance, becomes so sympathetic that it eventually settles on terms and interpretations that Butler herself would disown (“mystic,” “Romantic,” “therapeutic,” etc.).  This certainly makes Butler’s writings more palatable and capacious, but does that make your approach either sympathetic or symmetrical? 

    What does it mean to arrive at an interpretation that makes you, personally, more comfortable – but, in the process, betrays the “actual” desires of the person with whom you were trying to sympathize?  Either you are replacing Butler’s ideas with your own (symmetry as reflection), or you are seeing her work as symptomatic of a larger unspoken desire: “Sure, she says this, but what she’s really doing, without admitting or realizing it, is this.” In the end, how does either move differ in form from the accusations that one might level against Nussbaum?

    I think I’m agreeing with Sean, Timothy, and some others in my concerns, although I’m playing a bit fast and loose with the vocabulary.  After all, Tim seems to say, it’s one thing to be charitable; it’s another thing to give away the farm. 

    And the land deed in question for both writers is “politics” and (as you put it) the “real” effects that theory has on the “real” lives of “real” people.  This is where Nussbaum is unsympathetic but highly “symmetrical” towards Butler.  Normally, I would brush off such political attacks and demands for real-world results.  But Butler has made such claims upon her own work.  Indeed, the entire project is framed as a political assault on “the restricting frames of masculinity domination and compulsory heterosexuality” and the “punitive consequences” that attend individuals who violate those frames and hierarchies.  Parody is supposed to be good not just because it feels “giddy” and empowering, but because it is a “public act” that is “effectively disruptive” of the “instruments of cultural [misogynous] hegemony.”

    That seems pretty clear to me, in its way.  By playing the game of political and public consequences and effects, Butler’s ideas insist that they be evaluated in those terms.  Any other approach, however positive, might prove unsympathetic and asymmetrical in the end.

    Which leads me to one conclusion about Nussbaum’s article, whether you agree or disagree with its style or its substance.  Butler gets exactly what she deserves.

    See you on Sunday.

    Posted by  on  08/13  at  02:40 PM
  19. John,

    What a great post; thank you for taking up this topic and providing so much insight.  I am especially curious as to what some responses might be to Hanna’s important question.

    I have one comment on the principle of symmetry.  This is mostly a response to replies to the post, rather than something you wrote First off, some replies to the post misattribute it to Smith even though you clearly mentioned it from the Edinburgh *sociologists*, which I thought would explain a lot about its intended use.

    In Bloor’s seminal essay “The Strong Programme”, where he argues for the principle of symmetry (among others), the context is explaining *science*.  Bloor offers a method to analyzing science from the outside that is quite different from (and was in general rejected) those used by many analytic philosophers of science (e.g. Popper, Hempel, etc.) The principle of symmetry, as articulated by Bloor, is meant to ensure that as outsiders (usually meaning sociologists) analyzing science, we offer *as good* or at least *as well-thought out* an explanation for why hypotheses that turn out wrong (i.e. rejected by the scientific community as a whole due to scientific reasons X, Y, Z) were devised by scientists as for hypotheses that turn out right (again, right by the scientific community.)

    In this context, Bloor’s explanation makes perfect sense; sociologists of science should explain scientists and the scientific enterprise without any bias or preconceived judgement of anything that’s internal to that community, such as scientific reason X for hypothesis H1 or scientific reason Y for hypothesis H2.  If a sociologist of science works out a very detailed explanation of why Newton’s theory of motion was devised and accepted by the community, but simply glosses over why scientists subscribed to an Aristotelian view of the world, or why people thought that the earth was flat, then according to Bloor, he or she has failed.  The explanations are asymmetric, and the asymmetry in this case is probably due to the sociologist’s favorable judgment of one hypothesis over another.  But as a sociologist, he or she should have no such judgments, since they are motivated by scientific arguments mobilized in the language of science, used in the scientific community, which the sociologist is trying to explain rather than be a part of.  I bet you can tell why this greatly pissed of some analytic philosophers of science smile

    In any case, I think the principle of symmetry is quite reasonable in the context Bloor argued for, i.e. for the sociology of science, and maybe even more generally when trying to explain the behavior of a group that you are external to.  However, in debates over a specific issue between two opponents, I think the principle of symmetry is sometimes nonsensical.  If Nussbaum and Butler are both trying to analyze or solve a certain problem, let’s call it the problem of feminism, and they each offer competing views of this problem, it is not reasonable to expect Nussbaum to analyze why Butler came up with the views she did (or vice versa) all the time.  That is, if Nussbaum can provide a knockdown argument for why Butler’s view X, as articulated by Butler, would be terrible at solving or explaining or analyzing the problem at hand, she is not supposed to then try and understand why Butler came up with her view.

    In fact, an attempt by Nussbaum to do so can be interpreted to be ad hominem, since it is clearly dealing with the agent (in this case Butler) rather than with the statements made by the agent.  I think that the principle of symmetry can be useful in such contexts if it’s applied “in the background” so to speak.  That is, if Nussbaum can think to herself why Butler came up with her view, and tried to come up with the most compelling explanation, it might help her in her argument.  That is, it might help anticipate Butler’s replies—or might help articulate Butler’s view better in her article because she critiques it.  But it’s not necessary for Nussbaum to expose this thought process to her audience.. it can easily backfire on her, as I mentioned, by being construed by critiques as ad hominem.

    (This being said, I won’t call you crazy if you already think Nussbaum’s article has some ad hominem arguments in it smile)

    Thanks again John, looking forward to part II.


    Posted by  on  08/13  at  02:41 PM
  20. Wow.  I can’t do justice to everything you’ve given me to think about here.

    Davidson’s use of the word “charity” led to all kinds of misunderstandings, mostly because people thought it so condescending.  But your comments tend in another direction: how much slack are we supposed to cut the text and/or person we are trying to understand?  Peter, after all, is right to point out that I end up with a reading of Butler that she wouldn’t like much more than Nussbaum’s.  So I take the principle of symmetry as trying to “make sense of” but not as trying to reconstruct the writer’s own understanding.  Does that leave me with a leg to stand on?  I’m not sure.  But your comments have pushed me to try to think that problem out.

    I have one article of faith I do want to hold on to fiercely:  the only way to avoid the problem that Will’s first comment points to--the fact that we so often find what we have gone out to seek--is to let what we encounter alter us.  If nothing foreign can ever get in, we are stuck with endless repetition.  Nussbaum is bound and determined that her position is not going to change an inch or an ounce in relation to anything Butler might say.  If Nussbaum agrees with Butler on some point, then Butler is saying nothing new there.  She is just repeating something Nussbaum already knew.  And where Nussbaum disagrees with Butler, there Butler is flat-out and totally wrong.  If we all approached reading and experience that way, what would be the point?  So the principles of symmetry and charity are important to me, not for their own sakes, but for getting at why books are important to us, and for a way of thinking about our relation to experience.

    Hannah:  I’m with you 100% that the project of “One Feminism” is more harmful than helpful.  On the difficulty issue, I find myself of several minds.  Our ways of thinking and experiencing the world are sometimes pushed forward by people who write very difficult prose or poetry: Kant, Blake, Heidegger etc.  So I don’t think a writer should be castigated just because he or she is difficult.  But I also think that teachers (especially) and other popularizers have a role to play.  Clarity is a virtue--and one to be prized.  And, finally, I also think people lead perfectly good lives who have no taste at all for the difficulties of philosophy (or whatever you want to call intricate thinking about experience).  How to piece all of these thoughts together?  I don’t know.  But democratic politics puts a premium on creating mass movements.  So a political program in a democracy hasn’t got much chance of success if it is phrased in ways that exclude people from signing on.

    Thanks to everyone for pushing at me so hard.

    Posted by mcgowan  on  08/14  at  11:23 AM
  21. Thanks, John, for a clarifying and interesting post. 

    If the ground for critique is “politics,” and more specifically the fitness of a theory for generating a political program, we might ask first, naively, *why* that’s the most interesting ground for assessing a theory, and then what exactly is the notion of politics employed.  While Tim is surely right in #6 in pointing out how JB annoys MN, is it possible that there exists a notion or kind of politics distinct from “the kind of political domains inhabited by the liberal subject that Nussbaum prizes”?  Can we trouble the neat dichotomy Tim suggests in

    “Butler’s invocations of the political ... don’t match the personalized, romantic, psychoanalytic substance of her critique.”

    We might also think about the social ontology that undergird’s MN’s politics.  If JB’s work undermines it, then using MN’s specific notion of politics to critique JB misses the point.  How people think about states strikes me as especially important here.

    I too have difficulty with the psychoanalytic parts of JB.  But if a theorist thinks close and complex personal and familial ties have a political dimension, it’s not easy to find a language to talk about that.

    Posted by  on  08/14  at  02:17 PM
  22. the only way to avoid the problem that Will’s first comment points to--the fact that we so often find what we have gone out to seek--is to let what we encounter alter us.  If nothing foreign can ever get in, we are stuck with endless repetition.  Nussbaum is bound and determined that her position is not going to change an inch or an ounce in relation to anything Butler might say.

    John, I think you’ve ditched your own argument here.  To let what we encounter alter us seems a far higher standard than the principle of charity.  And the accustion against Nussbaum is arguably a version of the dismissive reading you charge her with giving Butler.  If Nussbaum were a rigid or doctrinaire thinker elsewhere it might be a charge worth considering.  But here you’re leveling against her a rather serious complaint--saying not just that she’s wrong about Butler, but wrong because of ethical failings--and the evidence for it is mainly that she despises Butler.  But she could well despise Butler for reasons that she’s arrived at through completely valid ways.  The reasons might be good ones too.

    Colin asks:  “is it possible that there exists a notion or kind of politics distinct from ‘the kind of political domains inhabited by the liberal subject that Nussbaum prizes’?” Sure, and I think elsewhere Nussbaum acknowledges that, but the reason for her vituperativeness toward Butler is that Butler categorically denies the the politics Nussbaum admires.  Weirdly, although Butler is indeed the libertarian thinker John suggests, her account of subjectivity radically denies the possibility of liberal autonomy.  Similarly, she consistently suggests that all state action (and perhaps any social action driven by shared norms) is inherently repressive.  No surprise that Nussbaum would react in horror to that, or that Peter would suggest--fairly, I think--that John’s version of Butler is a kinder, gentler one than Butler herself might recognize.

    Posted by Sean McCann  on  08/14  at  04:28 PM
  23. Just as a starter, one could note that some kinds of romanticism since the 19th Century have historically swirled off into the cultivation of personal, individualized, intimate social worlds which are neither the private sphere as offered by the bourgeous public sphere (e.g., the home) but neither do they wish to seize or subsume that public sphere, or make claims that they are somehow its replacement or its antithesis. They may even accept that the liberal, capitalist social world provides a precondition or foundation of their being, but they do not accept that this social world defines the limits or content of their own practices and subjectivities.

    In a rare moment of relative lucidity in his book Mimesis and Alterity, Michael Taussig observed that the really bad problem with “social construction” as a trope of scholarly writing is that it keeps intellectuals from actually going out and constructing. Similarly I’d say about Butler (as well as Foucault, Derrida and a number of other poststructuralists and postmodernists) the odd thing is that they continue to want the god’s eye view that only a liberal and modernist frame can comfortably provide; they continue to want their critiques to sweep the field and have totalizing scope in their anti-totality. If Butler were to say that the praxis which follows on her critique aims at social microworlds, small romantic projects of self-fashioning, and that’s all, if there was a kind of implicit division of labor in the “political”, then I suspect a thinker like Nussbaum would have felt relatively little imperative to critique Butler. But Butler does not leave the field in that way (and this is hardly unique to her): there are no acknowledged bounds or limits on the ways in which she imputes a “politics” to her critique. That’s partly out of a sense that to specify bounds would be to turn on the epistemological core of her insights, but also out of a sense that the romantic, personalized, intimate terrains, if accepted as definition of a particular way of being in the world, come close to accepting a mythology of the self that creeps up to libertarian or strong classic-liberal terrain. Now I happen to think that would be a perfectly fine place for someone like Butler to go to, and it’s been said that Foucault took a strong interest in Hayek (and unfortunately also the Iranian Revolution) late in his life. But for a lot of reasons, many of them more about posture and the need to retain the gloss of being “progressive”, that’s not a place that Butler nor many poststructuralist/postmodernists could have gone in the 1990s and probably still can’t.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  08/14  at  10:17 PM
  24. Sean, do you have a cite re JB “consistently suggests that all state action (and perhaps any social action driven by shared norms) is inherently repressive”?  And if we agree that JB challenges both the liberal subject and liberal state on which MN relies, wouldn’t it be more useful to examine the critique in detail, maybe even in relation to evidence about the real world?  I’m not sure that the fact of the critique is adequate grounds for indignation.

    I see Tim continues to rely on his neat dichotomy, untroubled.  I am less ready to gesture at the “the liberal, capitalist social world” as though it were an obvious, bounded, discrete, coherent realm, much less the obvious stage of politics.  *If* you accept the social ontology that MN does and with which Tim seems comfortable, *then* you will correctly interpret JB as an attack on it.  So *of course* JB would not accept that she is merely about “microworlds” while other people go and do real politics—this, as Tim understands, would be to undo her work—so most of Tim’s last long paragraph reduces to the tautology that he and MN would not object to JB if JB were not JB. 

    And what’s up with the insinuations in Tim’s last two sentences?  Foucault’s political involvements, including his interest in Iran, are dealt with at length in the Eribon and Macey bios.  I haven’t come across MF on Hayek, but he certain wrote and lectured about various forms of liberal and libertarian thought.  Plus the Austrian Economics tradition is important, worth reading, and contains smart critiques—it’s dismaying to see the name “Hayek” used as a sort of taboo here.  If there’s an objection to MF that’s relevant to JB, please *specify* it and show its effects in the relevant texts.

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  04:27 AM
  25. Sean: Because I am so firmly in Nussbaum’s liberal camp, I am harsher on her than on JB.  N reads JB only as a way to confirm her own liberal position.  So, yes, you are right to say that the way I deploy the symmetry principle is ethical, in the sense of its suggesting an ethos, a way of being in the world.  And I’m disappointed in N because I take the root meaning of “liberal” seriously--i.e. liberal as open-minded and open-handed. (As for N being open-minded in other contexts, I’m agnostic.  I’ve had some other experiences of her close-mindedness in other instances besides the essay on JB, but hardly claim to know all of her work well.  And, to repeat, I always learn a lot when I read N and am convinced by much of what she has to say.)

    Timothy: In my upcoming, second post on these matters (about half-written at this point), I toy with Rorty’s version of the distinction you are making.  I’m uneasy with the distinction, but it does seem to be pointing toward something important that needs to be worked through if we are going to get any kind of understanding of what “politics” is.  JB say what she is doing is “political,” and Nussbaum scoffs at that assertion. So, obviously, we have a dispute about what counts as political.

    Posted by mcgowan  on  08/15  at  09:23 AM
  26. Colin: no insinuation on Hayek intended, quite the contrary. (Iran is another matter: that’s the nihilist undercurrent of Foucault’s thought rising to the surface.) I would say that if Foucault began to see something interesting in Hayek, that would be a smart recognition on his part of some of the implications of his thought, and I would say it would be entirely to his credit. I also think Hayek is interesting, important and useful. My contention would be that Butler and many other self-consciously left postmoderns are likely to categorically deny themselves the recourse to libertarian or 19th Century romantic formulations of the political and social even if those formulations suit the epistemologies and critiques they offer, precisely because names like “Hayek” are used as boogeymen by many who identify with the left. I think they *should* turn in that direction rather than try to have the cake of the liberal political and eat it too.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  08/15  at  09:53 AM
  27. Colin, here’s one remark from Excitable Speech: “Strategies devised on the part of progressive legal and social movements . . . run the risk of being turned against those very movements by virtue of extending state power . . . over the issues in question” (23-24).  Here, Butler’s talking about free speech issues in particular, but I think the argument is consistent with attitudes expressed elsewhere and by the view that readers have taken from her.  See, for example, the introduction to Left Legalism/Left Critique, eds. Halley and Brown for a view aligned with Butler’s (she’s a contributor to the volume) that contends that state action is dubious per se. 

    I’m personally supportive of Butler’s doubt about speech codes, but for different reasons than hers. In the passage above, I think it’s fairly evident that the problem is state action itself--not, say, poorly designed or unwise legislation or unintended consequences.  As a consequence, as John has pointed out, when Butler does envision political action it’s almost always something in the way of individual acts of resignification.  I think she’s pretty clear about this in Excitable Speech and in her contributions to the Contingency, Universality, Hegemony volume.

    You suggest we look to the real world for evidence toward Butler’s argument.  The problem is that this isn’t really a dispute that can be settled by evidence.  It’s a matter of fundamental ethical and political assumptions.  Butler assumes that subjectivity is necessarily the product of social inscription and that the autonomous person is therefore a sham and a delusion.  So though libertarian she is explicitly anti-liberal. (Whether her theory is actually coherent is, I think, an open question, although she’d probably contend that it’s not a meaningful one.) Like all liberals, Nussbaum must take it for granted that autonomous judgment is possible.  There really isn’t proof for either of these positions. 

    I see your point, John.  But I think there are some perils built into your stance here--specifically that you’ll deny the principle of charity to Nussbaum and offer more than charity to Butler.  If you have to do with Butler what, say, Rorty does with Derrida in order to avoid Nussbaum’s failings--i.e. reinterpret her to say something other than what she herself says--than you’ve moved beyond charity, I think.  To be fair, I think you have to concede that on Butler’s terms Nussbaum’s politics are simply impossible.

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  10:09 AM
  28. Tim: Re MF, I haven’t looked into this in detail but what Eribon quotes of MF on Iran hardly struck me as nihilist, and MF had a long record, as you must know, of actively opposing tyranny in a variety of places—rather more actively than most prominent academics.  In any case there’s an ample *written* record if someone wants to make the case, or wants to argue that MF was turning Austrian, a suggestion that seems odd to me.  My key point was that the overall schema you use to order approaches to politics is reductive, consisting of Liberalism or Else.

    A more interesting question, it strikes me, is whether JB is eating liberal cake, a claim made by MN and discussed in John’s post.  If someone can show that JB relies logically on liberalism, then indeed she has a problem.  But noting the existence of words like “oppressive” is not enough to make that case.

    Sean, you must recognize that your evidence so far falls short of supporting your claim that “she consistently suggests that all state action (and perhaps any social action driven by shared norms) is inherently repressive” I also missed the place where JB says that “subjectivity is necessarily the product of social inscription and that the autonomous person is therefore a sham and a delusion.” That sounds a little sweeping.  And my suggestion that one might look at evidence from the world was not an assertion that it could absolutely settle matters, but that it could usefully inform discussion.  Liberalism is not just a theory of individuals but a theory of societies and states, and in that sense makes claims about what the social world we inhabit is like.  There’s a social ontology here which wants to be made explicit, especially if the original grounds of critique had to do with political action, which is always surely geared to a time and a place. 

    In other words, if MN wants to start her critique from the point of politics, then she must accept the necessity of making an analysis of the social and institutional world in which political activity is to be carried out.  And for that reason one cannot reduce this to a dispute over axiomatic assumptions about individual consciousness.

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  04:01 PM
  29. Yes, Colin, of course I recognize that the evidence I provide above falls short of justifying that claim.  I offered it as one tiny bit of evidence toward the claim, with the suggestion that it’s consistent with what Butler says elsewhere and with her general philosophy.  I really don’t want to be unfair to Butler.  But I don’t think this is really a very contentious claim.  Are there places where you see her defending state or large scale social action?  In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality she says: “Social transformation occurs not merely by rallying mass numbers in favor of a cause . . . but precisely through the ways in which daily social relations are rearticulated, and new conceptual horizons opened up by anomalous or subversive practices” (14).  In context, I think it’s fairly clear that the “merely” in that sentence is pointing to a form of political action that she thinks unimportant.  Perhaps I’m wrong about this (and I haven’t looked at the most recent books and may have missed other things), but I haven’t encountered the place in Butler’s work where she allows for the possibility of legitimate state action or for organized political movements or institutions.  Are there such places that you know of?

    Did you really miss the place where Butler says that subjectivity is the product of social inscription?  Isn’t that the major claim of The Psychic Life of Power and, really, of all Butler’s work.  This is sweeping, yes, but Butler herself is sweeping.  She has a strong account of the subject, and, as John notes, it emphasizes the coercive formation of selves via language and social norms and suggests no alternative to them but in subversive resignifications and practices that gesture toward what she calls in Excitable Speech the post-sovereign subject.  There, I think, she’s pretty clear that the post-sovereign subject can’t be responsible for her own utterances and at least in this respect can’t be regarded as autonomous.  (Amazingly, she also discards the use/mention distinction as part of a liberal attitude that inevitably replicates the social injuries that it would seek to constrain.) Elsewhere I think she’s pretty clear that she refuses an understanding of liberal autonomy as its necessary to thinkers like Rawls or Habermas.  I’m a little surprised that this seems doubtful.  It seems a pretty straightforward and central aspect of her theory to me. 

    Yes, absolutely, liberalism is a theory of societies and states as well as a set of philosophical assumptions.  But I’m not aware of Butler having anything to say about these matters.  Does she really point us to evidence that would help us to address her claims?  Nussbaum does, of course, and actually talks in her critique of Butler (if I remember right) and throughout her work of very specific social and political world (e.g., feminist political work in India).  But my recollection is that these were matters Butler does not take up. It’s actually Butler who begins from--and doesn’t get much farther than, at least by Nussbaum’s account--axiomatic assumptions.

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  04:49 PM
  30. p.s., Foucault did praise the Iranian revolution, against conventional leftist politics, as “a wrenching-away that interrupts the flow of history, and its long chains of reasons.” That’s arguably a kind of nihilst position.

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  04:51 PM
  31. Hi Colin,

    While I’m certain Sean has his own evidence at hand, I think that one could fairly easily support his Thoreau-tinted claim that, for Butler, “subjectivity is necessarily the product of social inscription and that the autonomous person is therefore a sham and a delusion.” (Although I must first admit that Butler and any good Foucauldian would take issue with the presuppositions of words like “necessarily,” “sham,” “delusion,” and probably “is.” But don’t ask me to back up that claim; it’s just an intuition.)

    Back to the point.  This is all probably too obvious, but I would probably go right back to the source and the heart of Gender Trouble.  How’s this passage, snipping a lot from the middle and at both ends:

    “The redescription of intrapsychic processes in terms of the surface politics of the body implies a corollary redescription of gender as the disciplinary production of the figures of fantasy through the play of presence and absence on the body’s surface.... This also suggests that if that reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly public and social discourse....”

    Of course, Butler is focusing on the experience and deployment of gender, but she is doing so in a way that drags a great deal along to the show.  It depends upon a simple fact: there is no interiority, no insides, to which our actions and performances could be true.  “The ‘internal’ is a surface signification.”

    Or at least that’s how it reads to me.

    Best, Peter

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  04:58 PM
  32. True to form, Sean posted a smart answer while I was fiddling with the Preview of my dumb one.  Sorry to pile up.

    Posted by  on  08/15  at  05:00 PM
  33. Thanks Peter and Sean, just a couple of clarifications.  What I want to challenge is the implicit dichotomy that says because JB critiques the liberal self and a (strong) liberal notion of autonomy, *all* subjectivity, and *all* autonomy, *all* responsibility, become impossible.  (This seems to be another variant of the claim that it’s Liberalism or Else.) It’s not an unusual position in feminist philosophy (e.g. Nel Noddings, who’s about as unButlerian as you can get) to critique the notion of a fully autonomous subject, and to argue that one can be thoughtful and in certain ways autonomous while still being strongly enmeshed in specific social ties.  What I’m noticing here, and it’s interesting, is a sort of reasoning-backward from the ethical need for responsibility to a very strong notion of autonomy (and subjectivity) and from autonomy to an entire social ontology.  So yes, of course, JB would reject Rawls and Habermas but so what?  Is that the only game in town?  (Habermas also likes to weave these elaborate, tendentious arguments in which you are either with him or against reason.)

    And of course Peter’s example is about gender, and yes it’s a characteristic JB claim that if you think your gender is part of your interior self, there’s something interesting going on.  One of the places where JB seems to me useful is interpreting claims about interiority, about “who I am,” about “identity.” And if I look out into the world, those claims, and their reception, do seem to play a large role in politics.  (I can say more on this, with evidence, if anyone likes.)

    On Sean’s para 1, I don’t see that the absence of ringing endorsements in JB’s work can be read as a sweeping rejection of everything states might do.  And it seems to me in the quote you mention that JB is indeed pointing to the possibility of politics that is (are?) not directed at a state or mediated through one.  Is that a possibility that you’re prepared to allow?

    On Sean’s para 3, my point about political and social analysis was directed first at your earlier claim that the debate was simply a matter of axiomatic priors, and I want to establish the claim that Liberalism entails strong claims about what existing social and political institutions are like, not just about what sort of subjecticity we should have.  (If Liberalism is simply a matter of saying that everyone should have liberal political institutions, fine, but then it’s a vision and not necessarily a good guide for politics.) I have actually, as a humble social scientist, looked at MN’s use of evidence and I don’t think it speaks to that—rather, it simply assumes liberalism as the underlying political template.  And this point does not, incidentally, rest on JB’s work.

    Posted by  on  08/16  at  02:12 AM
  34. You write such a nice article.But it is too lengthy.

    Posted by jack  on  08/16  at  03:14 AM
  35. “It’s not an unusual position in feminist philosophy (e.g. Nel Noddings, who’s about as unButlerian as you can get) to critique the notion of a fully autonomous subject, and to argue that one can be thoughtful and in certain ways autonomous while still being strongly enmeshed in specific social ties.

    I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with that position, Colin, and I wonder whether Nussbaum would either. But that doesn’t seem to me to be anything like Butler’s view of things.  She doesn’t emphasize specific social ties, to my knowledge, but extraordinary abstract and sweeping structures that she contends (completely implausibly to my mind) are inherent in the grammatical features of language itself.

    I don’t see that the absence of ringing endorsements in JB’s work can be read as a sweeping rejection of everything states might do.

    fair enough.  I’d need to assemble more evidence to justify my own sweeping assertion.  I think I can do it and sometime, but not for a few weeks, will try to do something along these lines at the Valve.  I’m certainly prepared to allow that Butler envisions a kind of political action.  I just think that John describes it well when he sees it as largely a matter of putatively subversive individual action.  The passage I quote, if I remember right, refers to the collective effect of many individual decisions to avoid the traditional family.  Not organizing in another words, but personal choice.  In what seems to me a telling offhand reference to Rosa Parks, too, she treats Parks in much the classic pop cultural vein--not, in other words, as a political actor working strategically as part of larger movement and tradition, but just an individual who did something utterly unexpected. 

    I wouldn’t claim that there’s no possibility for organized political activity inspired by Butler’s views.  Obviously there has been some; my guess is that it’s impetus is anti-normative.  I do think there are severe limits to the potential of that kind of politics and that it does not provide much in the way of support for long-term or large-scale action.  But I don’t mean to say that it’s not politics or not important. 

    I understand now your point about liberalism as a claim about what institutions are like.  That seems fine to me.  Although I understand that this is a point independent of Butler, I’d still say that her work can’t provide much guidance in addressing it. Since, among other things, she quite consciously elides the distinctions among norms, institutions, and language itself (or at least does so in Excitable Speech), she leaves us without a framework for separating out what can be changed and what can’t.

    Posted by Sean McCann  on  08/16  at  07:59 AM
  36. Thanks for the reply Sean.  Re social ties, some of us have found JB’s writing about gender and sexuality useful for thinking about specific social relations; one might single out her work on gender performance. 

    And work like

    Butler, Judith. 2002. “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 14-44. (reprinted in Judith Butler 2004, Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.)

    seems to me engaged, specific, and politically astute. 

    I like the finer distinctions in your last two paragraphs. 

    I’d also suggest that a careful discussion of JB would have to engage with gender and sexuality in some depth—with their lived realities and with what it means to attach the terms “politics” to them.  If you look e.g. at the Butler-Fraser debates, Fraser starts with a notion of “history” that aprioristically sidelines JB’s concerns.  I think “history” for Fraser plays the role that “politics” does for MN, that is as a term capacious and impressive enough that a host of social-ontological priors can be smuggled inside it.

    Posted by  on  08/17  at  04:07 AM
  37. Thank you, Colin.  I’ll read the essay.  I understand, of course, that the idea of the performativity of gender and sexuality are appealing.  I retain my doubts, though, that it says anything about specific social relations rather than about abstract relations taken to be coterminous with language itself, or “the symbolic,” or “the law of the father.” These are about as social-ontological prior as you can get. 

    btw, another and clearer place where Butler’s doubts about “the liberal state” per se are referenced can be found at Psychic Life of Power (100-101).  Here Butler summarizes Foucault’s opposition to “the disciplinary apparatus of the state [which] operates through the totalizing production of individuals” (100), but in this passage and elsewhere in her work, it seems evident that Butler has no differences with Foucault on this particular point.

    Posted by  on  08/17  at  09:23 AM
  38. What I find most interesting is how male-dominated this discussion is in this setting, and that this empirical reality might need to be invoked self-consciously in not only this discussion, but the other commentary on Althusser, psychoanlalysis etc. Surely this, and the “mystery” of “why so many feminists are psychoanalytically inclined”, might point to the limitations of the humanist materialism that U.S. guys in particular seem most keen to recover?

    Posted by  on  08/20  at  02:47 AM
  39. I was waiting--too patiently perhaps but no longer--for John’s “Sunday” post he mentioned in the last sentence.  Alas it is now Monday, oh well. 

    As a practicing philosopher(in essence i feel all of us are in our own lives, or need to be in this not so brave new world) and retired educator, i spent a great amount of my time with students trying to build the bridges of connection between the sorts of theoretical discussions above and the mundane day-to-day existences they share with the rest of all of us.  The discussion, begun by John, and ongoing between Colin and Sean, with Peter et al, is really quite engaging and superb.  I am fascinated and thrilled that what might normally be reserved for journal articles/reviews is out and about. 

    The more nuanced the points become, the more arcana illuminated, the more the discipline’s lexicon is revealed--the less likely it is for non-theorists to engage.  This is an old story, but in this time of our national malaise(yeah, Jimmy C eh?) we do need to broaden the readability and challenge the larger community to really think about what they say and think.  I mention this because it is important, for me at least, for our “culture” to understand at least from two observations i made over the last few days, now that i finally have gotten home off the road(at least for another nine days). 

    The first is the book gossip regarding Peter Kramer’s new book AGAINST DEPRESSION.  Here we have a pop psychologist, a million plus selling author, who is read by the masses in the spirit of Oprah and Dr. Phil.  In this new book he is arguing over what he sees as a metaphorical assertion for “melancholy” that frames and organizes all social constructs.  To quote one hyperbole: “That the grand hypothesis of melancholy--not that it creates art, but that it describes our place in the universe.” While i recognize the psychobabble poppycock, the millions that will read this will not.  The theoretical discussions above represent more careful thinking and clearer questioning of these sorts of issues.  My question is where will the masses be “taught” to ignore Kramer’s erroneous generalizations, where will they be able to encounter the theoretical in order to train themselves to discount the idiocy?  Will we find John, Colin, Sean on Oprah debating the intricacies of sexual subtexts generated through language usage and metaphoric consensuality? I don’t think so.

    Likewise, another relatively off base observation led me back to this post.  ET, the nightly entertainment gossip video tabloid, watched by millions, and representative of all the others out there, ran a segment(more than once over the weekend; i channel surfed) about the increasing violence and hostile interaction between celebrities and paparazzi.  This has become a di rigeour story for tabloid journalism, and they present it with the most serious of words they can choose from their 4th grade lexicons.  There is however, not one shred, not one hint, of their own fundamental culpability in this process.  Were it not for tabloid media, the paparazzi would have no place to market their efforts; this is so utterly obvious to us, yet is amazingly made invisible to the masses of MSM consumers.  How can “we” engage the public to re-discover their own critical inquiry for what is so obviously a viral infection of escalating replication?  Let’s see--the story is the violence of paparazzi towards celebrities in which the media uses the footage of the paparazzi to show the acts and the reaction of the celebs, then interviews the celebs, then runs the story.  Gee, do you think that the paparazzi are going to de-escalate?  The unenlightened public consumes these images and stories, and the products that pay for them, increasing the intensity and violence of the stories.  Where do the theorists engage the MSM, if for no other reason that to “reality check” the rationality of the management?  Are the producers and publishers keenly aware of their responsibility? Are we living in the age when the climactic moments of NETWORK will be merely a mundane story on the nightly news??

    As a friend wrote to me a long while back, when i was deeply immersed in a tedious philosophical discourse: “Isn’t this all just onanism, your own happy mental masturbation between you and your friends?” I would really like to think that it isn’t.  That such discussion and discourse, moves from these environs and inculcates others to actively engage and challenge those around them to take on MSM and its consumers.

    Posted by  on  08/22  at  01:03 PM
  40. Personally, I believe that life is simple and that we were created for a purpose.

    Posted by Sunny  on  02/04  at  08:51 PM





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