Theory Tuesday: Nussbaum v. Butler, Round Two
Just to keep you on your toes, this “theory Tuesday” post comes from John, not Michael, and is the promised discussion of the relation of theory (or “thinking"--to use Nussbaum’s and Hannah Arendt’s term) to politics.
Near the end of her essay on Butler, Nussbaum writes that it is no surprise that Butler’s “hip quietism” has “caught on here [i.e. in America], where successful middle-class people focus on cultivating the self rather than thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others” (Section VI). This charge is connected to Nussbaum’s opening gambit, the claim that “For a long time, academic feminism in America has been closely allied to the practical struggle to achieve justice and equality for women. Feminist theory has been understood by theorists as not just fancy words on paper; theory is connected to proposals for social change.”
There are any number of entangled issues here. For sanity and brevity’s sake, I am only going to focus on what counts as “political” and what does not. Nussbaum is obviously outraged by the fact that Butler and her readers think that her work is radical and has significant, even if not immediate, political consequences. At most, Nussbaum is willing to grant that, “in its small way, [Butler’s work offers] a hopeful politics. It instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold.” Except that whatever “small” concession these two sentences offer is completely withdrawn in the next sentence: “But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures are political change, it offers only a false hope.” And Nussbaum returns to her basic “get real” position: “Hungry women are not fed by this . . .” (Section VI, penultimate paragraph).
If our criteria for true or real politics is that the formerly hungry now get fed, what academic work will meet the test? I want to highlight just how weird Nussbaum’s formula is. Truly feminist academics, she says, should be “thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others.” What could that possibly mean? Even at the most concrete level—a nutritionist in a university’s School of Public Health who thinks about how to improve school lunches—thinking is still at least one step away from helping the material condition of others. Thinking is not politics.
Hannah Arendt was admirably clear about this distinction, one that much current academic work seems to have abandoned in favor of some magical faith in the “omnipotence of thoughts.” Arendt distinguishes sharply in The Human Condition between the vita activa, which is the very stuff of politics, and the vita contemplativa, which much of Western philosophy and many of the world’s religions have extolled as superior to action. And she knew that her own work was about politics, but that it wasn’t politics. “You know,” she said in a 1972 interview, “all the modern philosophers have somewhere in their thought a rather apologetic sentence which says, ‘Thinking is also acting.’ Oh no, it is not! And to say that is rather dishonest. I mean, let’s face the music: it is not the same! On the contrary, I have to keep back to a large extent from participating, from commitment. . . . And I think I understood something of action precisely because I looked at it from the outside, more or less.”
Thinking can have political implications. But politics involves the realm of action and thoughts are not political until they are put into action. What one chooses to think about is a good indication of one’s interests and commitments; that fundamental choice may be (but is not necessarily) a clue to the thinker’s political beliefs and priorities. But none of that thinking is political until it undertakes to translate itself into action (with all the complications, difficulties, and frustrations that such translation always entails, not least of all because unilateral action is impossible, whereas unilateral thought is all too common.) And, finally, we should recognize that some thinking neither desires nor attempts to connect to action—and we should be happy that such is the case. Freedom from politics is as important as freedom within the political realm.
My proposal, then, is straight-forward. 1) Thinking in ways to help the material conditions of others may prove useful indirectly. But there are crucial and complicated intermediary steps between the thinking and the helping. Someone who just thinks a lot about the hunger of others is not morally superior to or more politically involved than someone who thinks a lot about his red car. 2) Therefore, any thinking that is going to qualify as even potentially political needs to articulate its political implications clearly and suggest some ways to act upon those implications in the world. 3) But political action per se only begins when one leaves the library or the study. Even the rhetorical urging of others to embrace this or that political cause is preliminary to political action itself.
So: are some thoughts more useful politically than others? Undoubtedly. But it is not so easy to judge that usefulness from just hearing or reading the thoughts. Who is doing more useful work on health care at the moment? Someone who is trying to think about extending health coverage within our current system of mixed governmental and employer-provided benefits, or someone who is developing a model of a single-payer system? The second proposal may be completely unfeasible politically (i.e. within the current alignment of social forces). So that thinker may be very far from helping anyone concretely, no matter what her intentions are. But do we really want to say that such utopian or radical thinking should be barred—or should not think of itself as having any political interest because it doesn’t have any way to put its proposals into action?
There are other ways to judge usefulness and relevance besides feasibility. The range of human interests is remarkably wide, as is the range of actions taken to promote and live out those interests. Thinking—and the ideas it introduces into the world—play a large role in the formation and extension of that possible range. Richard Rorty has proposed that we distinguish between intellectual work that aims primarily to imagine the forms our collective life together should take (and perhaps even how to act to develop and maintain different forms) and intellectual work that has a more perfectionist slant, focusing on the forms an individual life can or should take. (He develops this distinction most fully in his book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity . As with a disconcertingly large number of Rorty’s ideas, my original response was vehement disagreement, only to find myself as the years roll by slowly coming to think that he was on to something important and probably even right about how to think about that something.) Rorty’s distinction was introduced in part to suggest that much post-structuralist work is best understood as perfectionist. It is work that is aimed more at personal transformation than at social transformation, which accords with its avant-garde and Freudian heritage. Foucault’s final work on “the care of the self” explicitly forefronts this focus on the person.
Butler, of course, believes her work is political because she presents the subject as formed by social processes that include an insidious, oppressive power. As I said in my last post, there seems good reason to accept Butler’s insistence that certain selves suffer very real pain as a result of not fitting within certain social norms. Thus, her thinking, while not addressed to hunger, can plausibly claim to be addressed to suffering that it urges us to alleviate. Can her thinking aid in that political work of alleviation? Yes, insofar as it alerts people to the existence of a problem, gives them a vocabulary and concepts for the articulation of the problem, and suggests some forms of action that would remedy the problem.
Nussbaum objects that the action Butler suggests is vague, non-collective, and likely to be ineffective. Those are possible objections, but the only proof is going to be in the pudding. Thinking about what is possible or effective is never going to be an adequate substitute for doing something and seeing if it works—where works is defined as getting approximately what you aimed for. Better to try things than to argue ourselves out of it. It’s not like we are flooded with proposals, or that what we are currently doing is working all that well. Much of what we do is habitual and follows well-traveled paths. Suggestions—and actual instantiations—of something different should be encouraged. Nussbaum comes across as the old fogy who lodges in every institution, the one who meets any proposed change with the pronouncement: “we tried that already in 1935 and it didn’t work.”
Nussbaum’s more important point, it seems to me, is that Butler’s proposals for action are so under-developed because Butler in fact believes that action is most likely going to be futile. Or, to put this in a slightly different way, Butler works on the personal, therapeutic, perfectionist side of the pitch because she believes the social forces she describes are ineluctable. I think Nussbaum is right in this analysis. Many radicals of what we can call the “cultural left,” like Butler, have adopted the notion that “liberalism,” or “capitalism,” or “patriarchy” or whatever other name you want to give to the overarching “system” within which we live has gotten so deeply inside our heads and has developed such subtle ways of co-opting all opposition, that collective political action on social conditions is hopeless. So, instead, they emphasize work upon the self. They believe more hope rests in the utopias that can be projected in art than in the nitty-gritty of political work within the terms and institutions of the present. They are impatient with the compromises and far-from-perfect results of mundane politics, in which progress is piecemeal at best, preferring instead the visions of complete transformation expressed in various cultural artifacts. Not surprisingly, those engaged in mundane politics will often be annoyed by such pie-in-the-sky dreamers, especially when the dreamers criticize some concrete accomplishment as trivial or deeply flawed. But does that really mean we want to stop all dreaming, that thinkers should not articulate ideals that extend far beyond what we can currently achieve? Be careful what you ask for.
Rorty has it more right than Nussbaum. Perfectionist concerns and recommendations have a crucial and honorable place in our intellectual traditions and in our daily lives, as do utopian visions. It is quite simply misguided to insist that “real” feminist work or the only useful thinking must be directed toward the social rather than toward the personal, and to what can be feasibly accomplished in a relatively short time frame. Not only are self and society intertwined (remember “the personal is political?”), but each involves matters of ultimate concern for every self. We should fully expect that intellectual work will engage these two realms with different intensity—just as such work will offer different understandings of how they are related to one another. And we should fully expect that intellectual work will continue to articulate ideals that are far from realization and remote from the difficulties of providing basic material resources to all. In both cases, these various intellectual musings and modelings will be distinct from the political work of putting thoughts into action, even if they do suggest motives for such action and a map (an understanding) of the world in which such action will transpire.
A wonderful article once again. I’ve very much enjoyed both installments in this series, but I do have one small disagreement. You say:
“political action per se only begins when one leaves the library or the study. Even the rhetorical urging of others to embrace this or that political cause is preliminary to political action itself.”
But we academics (and thus “professional thinkers") do not merely spend time in the library or study, we also spend time in the classroom. And I don’t think what goes on there is just “rhetorical urging to embrace this or that political cause.” Rather, we try to challenge our students’ thought patterns and lead them to critically reflect on existing social circumstances. And since thought is surely preliminary to any meaningful action, we also open up to them new possibilities for meaningful engagment with the world. Pedagogy, in other words, translates our thinking into action.
I guess a different way of saying the same thing would be to point out that “care of the self” need not necessarily be equated with “utopia[nism] projected into art”, as you imply in your second-to-last paragraph. “Care of the self” can also be seen as a necessary precondition for “care of the world.” I do agree, however, that all too often academics are smugly satisfied with merely taking the first step in this sequence.Posted by on 08/23 at 12:29 PM
I agree, an excellent post. Two observations:
1. Winterbourne’s note on the classroom points to a vagueness in John’s post about what “action” means. An example: representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit against employment discrimination should, I think, qualify as “action.” What about the law library research that goes into that representation? Is it action or thinking? Nussbaum’s formula ("thinking in ways that help") is, I think, too terse, but isn’t she referring to thinking that’s closely integrated with action, as in this example?
2. At least in its original uses, “the personal is political” meant (see, e.g., Ruth Rosen’s feminist memoir on this) that even what was conventionally thought of as the “personal” sphere (family relations in particular) exhibited characteristics most usefully thought of as “political,” i.e. unequal power in decision-making. Nussbaum charges Butler with exactly reversing this proposition--with saying, in effect, that we can intervene in (what’s conventionally seen as) the political sphere only at the level of personal decisions. The original “personal is political” wasn’t a (reversible) equation but a predicate claim about the personal realm; Butler, by Nussbaum’s account, is making a predicate claim about politics.Posted by on 08/23 at 02:52 PM
This reminds me of theoretical physics, and a certain cat. Surely that abstract pondering led to some practical results?
Even if it hadn’t, just creating a new state of being was an end to be admired. I believe we must first imagine new worlds before we can hope to live in them.Posted by pooleside on 08/23 at 03:54 PM
Another point, and John would certainly be able to clear this up, is the overlap of thinking, speech, and action. To treat thinking and action as distinct is one thing, but action and thought get mixed together in the act of communicating. There are many arguments about what kind of action communication is, but to say it is non-action, as in “mere rhetoric” is unsupportable. And so thinking and action are blended in a crucial, basic activity. Doesn’t the place of acting symbolically versus other kinds of action feature in this argument?
This is my way of fleshing out and broadening rootlesscosmo’s point 1.Posted by on 08/23 at 04:10 PM
Again thank you John for expanding this discourse. Your wrote above: “these various intellectual musings and modelings will be distinct from the political work of putting thoughts into action...” Some Guy and Winterbourne correctly point out that there is the intermediary state betwixt the intellectual work of academics and the passionate engagement of activists. I can write about that from my own personal experience.
As John describes in his penultimate paragraph, there is a ‘movement’ in the large left/progressive/radical community to change the dominant paradigm. Groups such as the Paradigm Project focus research and money towards the problem. One of things i do on my summer rock-n-roll tour is coordinate and moderate panel discussions, work/play shops, seminars on paradigm shifting activism at the various west coast music festivals (btw-i am seeking funding for next year to bring Michael, Janet, and family out to one of our bigger ones); i also present and participate in the discussions. I express my work as a continuation of my academic teaching career from which i am retired. I view my responsibilities to include: reading and corresponding w/ academics, theorists, philosophers, political commentators, etc.(hence i have greatly enjoyed this blog for its lessons); and then sharing inspiring and motivating ideas for individual(read personal) daily activism that shifts the dominant paradigm towards increasing the health and sustainability of the earth and all of “her” inhabitants.
I came to this role willingly, though pushed and cajoled by my own mentor professor, who described me in a letter of recommendation as too much a political activist for academia and too much of an academic for political activism(probably because i funded my years of religious studies fieldwork by working for the US Senate). Nussbaum and Butler have a very important role, an activist one to a certain extent, in framing the discussions and formulating theory, and especially in sharing their thoughts through text and speech. They are not cloistered silent monastics, but participatory intellects, clearly concerned with urging others to do what is right well. My own work would be diminished if there were not intellectuals and academics(thank you John and Michael and all you others here) to whom i could turn and engage to formulate patterns of activist actions that inspire individuals to make our society and planet better.Posted by on 08/23 at 05:11 PM
Winterbourne’s note on the classroom points to a vagueness in John’s post about what “action” means.
This is exactly the thought I had. It would be useful to give some examples of what exactly constitutes political “action.”
For example, what of the many people that are against the war in Iraq but think, rightly or wrongly, that anti-war demonstrations would actually hinder the anti-war effort? Is that political action?
One other point, I can’t help but feel that in America the power to act politically in a meaningful way is often directly a product of the amount of money at your disposal.Posted by a-train on 08/23 at 07:01 PM
What a stimulating set of posts and discussions! Thanks for your contribution, John.
Your comments on Butler in Part I (“Butler Hurt, Receives Standing Eight”) and Part II (“Nussbaum Wins--TKO Ruled by Rorty”) describe Butler as a romantic. You wrote of her Freudian mysticism, emphasizing her “notion that prior to the formation of one’s identity there is… primal chaos.” The chaos is lost through socialization under “compulsory heterosexuality,” etc., Butler’s political works in terms of correspondence. The subject comes into being by seeing the Idea in herself (compulsory heterosexuality), and so can seek liberation by realigning with a primordial chaos—a vague alternative. This is at base a Platonic mode of thought, and that’s its political weakness.
Like her inspirations Hegel, Freud, and Foucault, and despite her reputation as a high Pomo theorist, Butler’s theory is one of Platonic determination. She asks: How does the subject correspond to the Idea (spirit, primary identification, discourse)? For Butler, as for her predecessors, ‘to be is to be determined’ by something else. (The same structure of thought plagues the Marxian tradition, with exceptions like Lenin, Gramsci, and Castoriadis.) A Platonic structure can furnish a powerful political critique of why things keep staying the same, but it’s a critique that will always depend on correspondence and discussions of identity/non-identity. The cost of the critique is either blowing the political up to a correspondence with everything (spirit, primary identification, discourse, capital), or miniaturizing it to a correspondence with the self. I find your Rorty-inspired miniaturization refreshing.
You’ve shown us the cost of politics as conceived on the basis of a correspondence that can never be broken, Butler’s unhappy consciousness.Posted by on 08/23 at 07:07 PM
Can’t slip anything by this group. I originally had a sentence that read: “Talking about politics isn’t politics, but sometimes talking is politics.” So, yes, talking sometimes counts as action. But writing that sentence led me to thinking I then had to supply a definition of politics and a definition of action--and the post started to get out of control. So I scaled back--and you’ve all called me on it. Maybe, if I am feeling really brave, I’ll try to take on these questions in future posts.
As for teaching, I’ve written about this in “Democracy’s Children,” where I come to the conclusion that teaching is only political very indirectly--and more because it models certain kinds of possible social interactions than for any content it conveys.
Butler a Platonist? I like it. Certainly, the large dose of “necessity” in her work suggests that there is a correspondence for which the self longs, but which it can never attain. That’s the Lacan in her. The always present “lack,” the inevitable “misrecognition.
And from your description, all I can say, spyder, is that I’d like to have your job.Posted by mcgowan on 08/23 at 09:43 PM
Like everyone else, I find this a brilliant and eloquent post. But it also seems a strange one to me. Reading it, you wouldn’t know that Nussbaum makes precisely the same charge against Butler that you make against her--and I think with far more cause. As Nussbaum notes plausibly, it’s Butler who asserts the kind of direct connection between intellectual work and political action that Arendt rightly skewers.
You also wouldn’t know that Nussbaum’s essay contains a various explanations for her harshly critical views of Butler (including, I think, a lucid account of her prose style, of her extreme methodological eclecticism, and of the shallowness of her legal argument). Or that Nussbaum goes to the trouble of reading Butler and considering her arguments, or that her essay is full of references to a diverse set of feminist thinkers she admires and contrasts to Butler. Not all of these by any means have the same views as Nussbaum does. (E.g., Gayle Rubin)
As you note, you Rortyize Butler. I’m not sure why that seems so appealing, since it means in this case, sort of granting Nussbaum the very heart of her case, while poo-poohing it, and likewise crafting a version of Butler that Butler herself probably wouldn’t accept.
You say: “Nussbaum’s more important point, it seems to me, is that Butler’s proposals for action are so under-developed because Butler in fact believes that action is most likely going to be futile. Or, to put this in a slightly different way, Butler works on the personal, therapeutic, perfectionist side of the pitch because she believes the social forces she describes are ineluctable. I think Nussbaum is right in this analysis.”
That’s a pretty striking concession. But it actually underplays Nussbaum’s claim, I think. What Nussbaum says is that Butler makes it seem that “sly send-up of the status quo is the only script for resistance that life offers.” You change this so that it seems that Nussbaum objects to Butler as a pie-in-the sky utopian. But that’s not really the case. (The inaccurate analogy to a single-payer healthcare system slants the argument still further. Those are two different policy models. Butler’s vision is nothing like either one.) Nussbaum plausibly doesn’t see anything utopian at all. Butler herself, though frequently gesturing toward an apocalyptic exterior to dominant social practive, consistently denies that one could be realized and doesn’t to my knowledge hint at what it could involve--for reasons that are integral to the way she puts her arguments in at least some places that Nussbaum notes. In fact, reading post-Marxists, Butler claims that they’re too utopian because they think it’s possible for “logic” to exist apart from domination.
In short, I guess I have a similar reaction to this post as I did to part I. I can see why you think Nussbaum’s essay is either unwise or an overreaction. But it seems to me that the effort to get Nussbaum and Butler to finally agree is a fudge. They really are fundamentally philosophical enemies and it’s not just Nussbaum’s view that makes that so.Posted by Sean McCann on 08/23 at 10:44 PM
I don’t usually intervene when John posts, but since he and I agree (much to our surprise) on almost every point of the Nussbaum-Butler exchange, I just want to say this, Sean. Your points are well taken, and it’s probably true that John is crediting Butler with a form of romantic/ avant-garde utopianism she herself would not accept as a plausible description of her work, just as she would reject your characterizations of her account of subject-formation (I refer to some of your recent posts at the Valve). And, of course, John is doing this, in Rorty-fashion, while distancing himself from Butler’s claims about the immediate political implications of her work: he seems to say, as I would say, it’s not the kind of thing I do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But when, in your final paragraph, you characterize John’s posts as an “effort to get Nussbaum and Butler to finally agree,” and declare this to be a “fudge,” I have to say I think you’ve gone off the rails. I see nothing in John’s pair of posts on Butler and Nussbaum that amounts to an effort to elide the differences between the liberal and poststructuralist strains of thought at issue here, and nothing that amounts to an effort to get these two thinkers to “agree.”Posted by Michael on 08/23 at 11:51 PM
Okay, I have a thought off topic, but as usual, an excellent and engaging exchange. I’m working on my own response to Nussbaum and these posts, which to spare all of you, I’ll post on my own blog. But I did end with a question, more general, about the whole intersection of these posts and discussions.
Now, I am far more in Butler’s camp than I am in Nussbaum’s, but the question that I find myself asking again and again is how does the context of this debate even come into being? To start with knowledge we all (probably) share; In France (and Europe more generally) it is not uncommon for intellectuals to be involved in politics, even at the level that Nussbaum calls for. Sartre being the extreme example, but even Foucault was heavily involved in “practical” politics. Derrida was not unknown to do political work.
My question revolves around American anti-intellectualism. In many respects, I must admit that I read that behind Nussbaum’s essay. It strikes me as an undercurrent, a basis that grounds this (rather acrimonious..., well, not on this site) debate.
Anyway, it’s a question I thought I’d throw out here, to see if any of the very bright people who read and write around here had any thoughts, or maybe thought I was off my rocker.Posted by on 08/24 at 01:45 AM
I’m sorry you think I’ve ridden off the rails. I took it that the whole point of John’s posts was to say that Nussbaum shouldn’t have disagreed so strongly with Butler, that her own convictions didn’t require her to, and that she would have been wiser to follow Rorty’s example and find a way not to see their positions at loggerheads. Isn’t that trying to get them to agree? Would it be fairer to say that it’s trying to get them not to disagree?
I see the intelligence and sort of the attraction of what John’s doing here. His Butler looks a lot more appealing to me than Butler herself does, and I’ll bet his Nussbaum in some ways would be more appealing as well (although obviously I prefer her view). And agreed that it’s not quite an elision. What it is actually is a fencing of boundaries. Here’s what John says in conclusion:
It is quite simply misguided to insist that “real” feminist work or the only useful thinking must be directed toward the social rather than toward the personal, and to what can be feasibly accomplished in a relatively short time frame. Not only are self and society intertwined (remember “the personal is political?”), but each involves matters of ultimate concern for every self. We should fully expect that intellectual work will engage these two realms with different intensity—just as such work will offer different understandings of how they are related to one another.
Like Rorty’s rescue of Derrida, this depends on the division of public and private. (With Derrida, it had in its favor the fact that Derrida writes brilliantly and beautifully, so that it seems possible to see him as a kind of poet.) In effect, doesn’t it say: “Nussbaum, you concentrate on the public; Butler you handle the private, and try not to get in each other’s ways”? But, if that’s the case, I think this approach won’t really work. For one thing, as Nussbaum acknowledges, feminism must be fundamentally concerned with the way the division can be used to the disadvantage of women and with the social reproduction of gender distinctions. But more importantly, it’s just not a division that Butler’s thinking allows room for. There’s no separating private and public in her view, so far as I understand it. And as John acknowledges, Butler’s theory really does discredit Nussbaum’s political aims as well as her philosophical premises.
I wish too that Nussbaum hadn’t reacted so strongly to Butler. But the gist of the overreaction I think was not that Nussbaum misunderstood Butler’s thinking. (So far as I know, it hasn’t been suggested that Nussbaum misread Butler’s arguments.) It was that she took Butler too seriously, overestimated her influence and importance. John, aren’t what you saying then something like this: “Look, Nussbaum, Butler does say all that fatalistic stuff, but when she imagines this to exhaust political possibilities, you just shouldn’t take her all that seriously”?Posted by Sean McCann on 08/24 at 07:13 AM
Well, Sean, I did think you stayed right on the rails til that last paragraph. Anyway, I’m packing up for St. Louis and don’t have time for more than this perfunctory reply, but I’d characterize John’s posts here as an effort to clarify and negotiate the differences between Nussbaum and Butler rather than an effort to get them to agree. Though I suppose that presumes the availability of a metalevel of discussion on which the various participants would have to agree that clarification and negotiation are plausible responses to the debate. Still, that doesn’t mean that anyone has to describe either Nussbaum or Butler in terms they themselves would accede to--Posted by Michael on 08/24 at 10:04 AM
As is often the case, Sean articulates many ideas that I would like, after the fact, to call “my own thoughts.” I won’t try to better them. Instead, I’ll try to tweak both Sean’s and John’s ideas a bit.
Let me suggest that Rorty doesn’t offer a way of “saving” Butler’s position, especially if we agree that she views her own work not as therapeutically personally, but as solidly political. Remember that Rorty’s “perfectionist” project is to disentangle the personal from the political, not to re-valorize or re-conceive the political valence of personal projects. As he encapsulates this position, Rorty wants a way to love “wild orchids” and “Trotsky,” each on their own terms.
One trouble comes, for Rorty, when we start thinking that our political world exposes the meaninglessness of our purely personal, private passions. (In this regard, some of Nussbaum’s passages would probably give him pause, as John indicates.) But Rorty seems far more troubled of late by the academy’s attempts to re-describe our personal pursuits – including academic, theoretical pursuits – as a form of politics.
This has led, he argues, to a “Cultural Left” instead of a “Political Left” and to a form of “theory” that is purely revolutionary instead of being messily reformist. It has led to – and has emerged from – views of “power” and “the system” that reduce academics to a wholly “spectatorial” position, all the while convincing those academics that such spectatorship is the only viable form of political action.
This is not just a rephrasing of Nussbaum’s “does theory feed the hungry” snipe. That is, it’s not an attack on theory or transformative passions because they are “only” personal. But Rorty says that it is just as dangerous to confuse the personal and political worlds – or to view the political world in terms so stark and totalizing that only “personal” (or theoretical) actions matter. Butler’s positions seems to court both these dangers.
Theory and literature and orchids do not need to change the world. But neither should they be mistaken for changing the world. Conflating the personal and the political has contributed, as Nussbaum also argues, to a disabling quietism. Or as Rorty has puts it, “one of the contributions of the newer left has been to enable professors, whose mild guilt about the comfort and security of their own lives once led them into extra-academic political activity, to say, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office.’”Posted by on 08/24 at 04:13 PM
No, I am not trying to get Nussbaum and Butler to agree. I’m just trying to clarify why it is that Nussbaum speaks past Butler. And I keep saying that I’m 70% with Nussbaum. My post about confusing thinking with politics was mostly directed against Butler. I do find--and have said so in print--Butler’s claims to being radically political wildly overstated.
But what I object to in Nussbaum is her trying to develop liberalism into an all-encompassing position from which she can then dismiss Butler--and the whole non-liberal left. That offends liberalism’s commitment to open-mindedness, and it offends the hermeneutic commitment to trying to understand what a text means in terms that “save” the text’s relation to the traditions and genres from whence it comes and that assume the author’s reasonableness. Yes, the hermeneut may have to, at the end of the road, decide the author is not reasonable or is writing in bad faith etc. But reading is not a search and destroy mission, where you set out loaded for bear. If it is, then there is no reason to read at all, because nothing you read can change the opinions with which you started. Nussbaum does not use the occasion of encountering Butler’s work to wonder why a non-liberal feminism might appeal to lots of people, when it seems so obvious to Nussbaum that liberalism holds all the good cards. To have tackled that quesiton would have led Nussbaum to think about her own liberalism and its possible limitations. Instead, she just sets out to push Butler out of sight--for herself and for feminists more generally. So, again, for me it’s not particularly about Butler, a thinker whose work I don’t find very interesting. It’s about Nussbaum, whose work (to repeat myself) I greatly admire, and whose article on Butler thus deeply disturbs me. In my posts, I have tried to model how I think Nussbaum should have approached a writer whose non-liberalism seems to her non-productive.
Non-productive. But dangerous? That seems going too far--just like Nussbaum’s final sentence about Butler’s collusion with evil goes too far. Maybe Butler is not doing much good--and could do more good if her energies were directed in other ways. But she’s not doing any harm. And, substantively, I suspect that Butler and Nussbaum come down on the same side in 90% of the political questions currently on the table in this country. I’ll go even further: I bet they do 90% of the same things politically--i.e. give money to the same kind of candidates and causes etc. They both, after all, spend the vast majority of their time being academics. Neither can have lots of spare time for much beyond what Adrienne Rich has called “checkbook activism.” So “dangerous” seems to overshoot the mark.Posted by mcgowan on 08/24 at 04:52 PM
Butler is taken seriously by people who ‘profess’ literature, not people who write it.
The roots of the problem are in the awkward relationship of modern artists to modern intellectuals. Butler wants to be seen as a poet; yet she wants also to be seen as intellectually serious, and Intellectual life in this country that isnot associated with Lit Crit jargon is associated with the jargon of economics and analytic philosophy: all academic pseudo-sciences of common ancestry.
Nothing Butler does is allowed to be mundane. There’s the romanticism; and the life as art philosophy that was so dangerous to the 20th century. Radical Conceptualists are always absurdly bourgeois.
The question for Nussbaum would concern the relationship of the seductive obfuscatory power of art to the mundane necessities of politics. I haven’t read much by her, and perhaps I wouldn’t agree with her answers -I have no problem with Freud: he’s not my daddy- but I’d take her a lot more seriously than I do Butler.Posted by seth edenbaum on 08/24 at 09:03 PM
Regarding ““Hungry women are not fed by this . . .”
I may be WAY off base here, but I take it Nussbaum thinks that theory is genuinely and responsibly “practical” only in so far as it offers explicit reasons for acting in specific ways that would improve the material conditions of women in measurable respects. So her complaint is that doing whatever it is that we might, after much thought, conclude Butler wants us to do, has no obvious connection to what ought to be the first thing we aim to do.
--it isn’t Butler’s thought that fails to feed, it’s that what Butler suggests we do with what she says wouldn’t feed anyone either. Right?Posted by Zehou on 08/24 at 09:28 PM
Nussbaum does not use the occasion of encountering Butler’s work to wonder why a non-liberal feminism might appeal to lots of people, when it seems so obvious to Nussbaum that liberalism holds all the good cards. To have tackled that quesiton would have led Nussbaum to think about her own liberalism and its possible limitations. Instead, she just sets out to push Butler out of sight--for herself and for feminists more generally.
Well, maybe I’m just wrong, but I can’t recognize Nussbaum in that characterization. Vehement, yes. Overreacting to Butler’s importance, quite possibly so. Arrogant, I can believe it. But operating in bad faith, as this quote suggests? That in itself seems to me to risk the principle of charity. Nussbaum explains her reasons for disliking Butler clearly. She mentions rhetorical bullying (which appears to be quite important to her), sloppy thinking, and, above all, political quietism. I can’t see why those should be dismissed in favor of the notion that she’s got an agenda--especially in light of a few things: she actually reconstructs Butler’s thinking in a way that occasioned few substantial challenges; she cites in the essay and refers respectfully elsewhere to thinkers who don’t share her political views. Among these are people whose political attitudes she doesn’t share and who aren’t liberals in her sense. E.g., Dworkin, Mackinnon, and Rubin. They also include Michael Warner--a queer theorist who objects like Butler to normalization and whose book includes an admiring blurb from Nussbaum on its back cover. Since Warner looks a lot like the perfectionist you describe, John, and since Nussbaum refers to him critically but seriously, it seems at least possible that her motivations are actually the ones she mentions.
Zehou, I don’t think that’s accurate. Here’s another statement from Nussbaum’s essay of her most serious complaint:
The new feminism, moreover, instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all. We are all, more or less, prisoners of the structures of power that have defined our identity as women; we can never change those structures in a large-scale way, and we can never escape from them. All that we can hope to do is to find spaces within the structures of power in which to parody them, to poke fun at them, to transgress them in speech. And so symbolic verbal politics, in addition to being offered as a type of real politics, is held to be the only politics that is really possible.
For what it’s worth, here’s Nussbaum’s statement of the attitude toward criticism she wants to defend in general.Posted by Sean McCann on 08/24 at 11:25 PM
Actually, I think Zehou is mostly correct.
Here is the full passage from Nussbaum:
Many feminists in America are still theorizing in a way that supports material change and responds to the situation of the most oppressed. Increasingly, however, the academic and cultural trend is toward the pessimistic flirtatiousness represented by the theorizing of Butler and her followers. Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn’t it exciting and sexy?
In its small way, of course, this is a hopeful politics. It instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold. But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures really are political change, it offers only a false hope. Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.
Nussbaum’s point, I take it, is that Butler’s thought cuts off motivation for doing practical politics, denies the efficacy of traditional feminist politics and advocates an almost purely symobolic form of politics. The point is not that Butler’s academic work will not help feed hungry women, it’s that the form of politics that Butler advocates will not help feed hungry women, etc.Posted by on 08/24 at 11:56 PM
Thanks for the quote, Blah. The form of Nussbaum’s argument is one some of us will remember from the non-liberal left: sectarians possessing a “line”—a package of analysis, goals, and means—would call anyone with a different line (or awkward questions) a deviationist seeking to confuse the working class, and therefore objectively reactionary. For “working class” substitute Butler’s “scores of talented young women”, and note the way Nussbaum inflates Butler’s critiques into a complete political program antithetical to Nussbaum’s, and then, since Nussbaum assumes that her program is *the* way to achieve her goals, into an active antagonist of her goals. It’s these numerous logical collapses that are the trouble, and as I pointed out in the first thread one large collapse is the way that this style of argument jumps over the question of figuring out what the social and material world are really like—an exercise that is not irrelevant if one’s key criterion is political effectiveness.
Note the tone of alarm that “talented young women” are even reading Butler, and the *assumption that they read uncritically*, passively absorbing what JB “tells” and “instructs” them. I remember this tone very clearly from my undergrad days almost 25 years ago, when my stodgier professors would respond to the likes of Barthes and Deleuze not by engaging their arguments but by issuing dire warnings: keep reading that stuff and you’ll end up insane, reactionary, or both.
As John points out in #15, there’s something rather illiberal about all this.Posted by on 08/25 at 12:57 AM
It seems like the interesting stuff here is all in the meta-argument. There seems to be a broad agreement that Butler is working on the personal level, probably pushing her readers and followers in a leftward direction, but only indirectly affecting the world who has not studied Butler. The problem lies in her meta-claims: she frequently invokes notions of political change that sound like they apply far beyond the personal/political, into the public/political--"politics" that affects non-Bulter-reading people, which is of course the common meaning of the term. The problem for me is that, even granting her the benefit of the doubt, self-aggrandizement seems like a very plausible explanation for these over-reaching claims. But worse is the way her theoretical approach allows her to avoid the sorts of clarifications of her position that we are all engaged in here. Would it really hurt her so much to take a brief trip into traditional ratiocination? I can think of no reason why it would except that it would force her to face up to these problems, along with a host of other problems in her positions that aren’t on the table here.
And as for the meta-issue of thinking versus action, there seems to be at least one bit of backsliding McGowan’s essay, where he writes
“Nussbaum objects that the action Butler suggests is vague, non-collective, and likely to be ineffective. Those are possible objections, but the only proof is going to be in the pudding. Thinking about what is possible or effective is never going to be an adequate substitute for doing something and seeing if it works”
I think most agree that thinking is a less direct way of acting than the traditional type of acting, just as Butler’s personal politics are less directly affecting the non-Butler-reading world than other types of politics. But since the world of possibilities is vast, most things have to be considered in simulation rather than reality--I don’t have time to become a Butlerite unless I think it’s really going to pay off, and to judge that, I have to think about it without genuinely trying it. Having done that, and found it wanting, I can (a la Arendt) now develop quite a few thoughts about its paucities that its practitioners have evidently missed. Perhaps the only proof is in the pudding, but we can achieve a pretty good approximation from outside it.
That said, the general program of the personal/political, and the trickle-down politics that political academics engage in, is important to me. Traditional politics is often boring because the debates at the median are among fairly dumb and wrong people, and what we need to do--money, letters, marching, etc--is not terribly interesting. If I want to develop myself and the politics of those around me, it’s got to be deep within what is now the far-left, intellectual elite, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I spend a lot of time reading the news and writing letters, but that sure isn’t helping my personal political development--quite the opposite. If Butler wants to focus on improving the intellectual far left, I personally am all for it. But implying she is helping anyone else but us, and evading discussion of this implication with obscurantism--that’s not so good.Posted by on 08/25 at 02:26 AM
Blah, Zehou say: I take it Nussbaum thinks that theory is genuinely and responsibly “practical” only in so far as it offers explicit reasons for acting in specific ways that would improve the material conditions of women in measurable respects.” Yet her essay and her writing more generally suggests wide admiration for thinkers to whom this would not apply. You certainly could not say this about Rubin, for example. The implication of John and Colin’s posts is that she is narrow minded and the possible implication of Zehou’s is that she would recognize only a slim spectrum of thinking as legitimate. This just isn’t the case.
Given that Nussbaum reacts as strongly as she does, Colin, I can hardly blame you for raising the rhetorical stakes in turn. But I think it’s quite wrong to call her a sectarian, if only because Butler is an outlier for her. (To my eyes, the form of her argument looks like classic philsophical reconstruction. She’s read everything Butler’s written. She considers it carefully and at some length given the restraints of popular journalism. She summarizes it--and occasions very little serious disagreement over the substance of her characterization of Butler. That’s hardly the mechanical application of party line.) She has a distinct animus for Butler, not for people who disagree with her generally. To repeat myself, it’s just possible that her reasons for disliking Butler so strongly are the ones she mentions, and even possible that those reasons are plausible.Posted by Sean McCann on 08/25 at 07:24 AM
Isn’t Nussbaum’s charge not that Butler’s line (a “package of analysis, goals, and means") is different from her own, but rather that it isn’t a “package of analysis, goals, and means” at all. So her immediate goal isn’t to defend her own line, but rather to stick up for the practice of trying to find out which line is best supported by reasons.Posted by Zehou on 08/25 at 07:49 AM
“the possible implication of Zehou’s is that she would recognize only a slim spectrum of thinking as legitimate. This just isn’t the case.
Sean, Nussbaum doesn’t object to thought that isn’t practical. Not all of her own work is in practical philosophy, after all. What she objects to is thought that masquerades as practical but really isn’t.Posted by Zehou on 08/25 at 07:56 AM
Yes, agreed completely, Zehou. That’s what I meant to say as well, and my apologies if I misread you. I’d only add this. It seems that Nussbaum would recognize some kinds of thinking as practical even if they didn’t offer “explicit reasons for acting in specific ways.” She seems to think, and reasonably so, that people like Rubin and others are practically significant for raising important problems in valuable ways, even if they don’t provide agendas for action.Posted by on 08/25 at 09:19 AM
No, Sean, I was identifying a particular *form* of intolerant argument characterized by the specific logical collapses that I pointed out in #20. I also suggested a reading for particular features of the Nussbaum text that was quoted in #19. You ignore all these points.
I’ll try and spell things out more carefully:
1. Nussbaum has devoted a great deal of energy to developing a particular package of desired ends or goals. But for someone starting outside her system, why should that particular set of goals be persuasive? I.e. why is “politics” about one set of goals and not another?
2. Even if one endorses some of Nussbaum’s goals, how does one work out the kind of politics or action appropriate to achieve them? Here is where a lot of implicit social and political analysis is buried, and this is a point Nussbaum’s supporters seem reluctant to address: how do we know what the social/political world is actually like? What exactly are the assumptions and how are those assumptions related to evidence about the real world? This is the point about social ontology I raised on the last thread, and it’s critical to Nussbaum’s argument that Butler works against feeding the hungry and sheltering the battered.
3. How are Butler’s critiques assembled by Nussbaum into an alleged alternate and antithetical politics (and no, Zehou, the argument can’t just be that Butler’s thought does not cohere, because then Nussbaum could not get to her charge that Butler promotes quietism.)
4. To what degree does the Nussbaum critique of Butler depend on assumptions about reader responses? This I tried to get at in #20. To be real clear: Can the Nussbaum critique of Butler be made solely on the basis of Butler’s writings—that is solely on the basis of what she says or what is strictly (i.e. without smuggling in extraneous assumptions) entailed by her writings? Or, does the Nussbaum critique of Butler depend, in some way, on assumptions about how readers will interpret her, an argument which Nussbaum appears to be making in the text quoted in #19. (It seems to me that there is at least an imputation, in those words, that Butler’s audience of “talented young women” is a wee bit shallow, seeking in Butler validation of their narcissistic, superficial impulses.)
Incidentally I don’t endorse Nussbaum’s synopsis of Butler, and I’d ask to be excused from the alleged consensus that “Brackdurf” identifies. When one confronts a raft of bad argument, one tries to focus on one or two points and it’s an illegitimate tactic to read that as an endorsement of other points. On the Brackdurf question I certainly find John’s chatty, sympathetic liberalism preferable to Nussbaum’s intolerant variant, in part because John at least has a category in which he can contemplate some of the questions Butler pursues. But as I suggested on the last thread, I see no reason to accept that category as actually constitutive of the world; more generally I don’t accept this imposed division of the world between public and private, political and personal.Posted by on 08/25 at 10:27 AM
Is it possible to agree with Sean in the q&a portion of this evening’s panel while also appreciating the merits of John’s introductory talk?
Which is to say that I’m glad John approached Nussbaum v. Butler from this angle. As a non-reader of Butler, I remember reading that Nussbaum essay and thinking, ‘yep, Nussbaum’s got her number,’ and then spending the rest of the day lazing about in such a cloud of liberal self-satisfaction that I never bothered to ask myself why many people find Butler compelling (obviously, it’s because mediocre intellects need willfully obscure gurus to protect them from confrontation with the more intellectually rigorous).
So I appreciate the reality check. That said, my scorecard still awards the bout to Nussbaum.Posted by on 08/25 at 11:04 AM
Colin, I don’t have any desire to ignore any of your points. My apologies if I missed something important. But I don’t quite follow you. What is the “form” you refer to, and which are Nussbaum’s numerous logical collapses? Apart from the guilt by comparison to sectarians, I think you refer to two: that Nussbaum inflates Butler’s views into a complete program and that she asserts that her way is the only way and that all others must be banished.
Those don’t seem to me particularly errors of logic. But more importantly, the characterization doesn’t seem accurate. Yes, Nussbaum attempts to discover coherence in Butler’s thought. Why is that wrong? The subtitle of Excitable Speech is “a politics of the performative.” In <i>Contingency, Hegemony, etc./i> Butler talks at great length about her understanding of politics. Do you think that Butler does not have a political vision? And, rather than say her way is the only way, Nussbaum specifically mentions thinkers other than Butler with whom she does not agree but who she sees she must take seriously.
I have no reluctance to address your #2, and I doubt Nussbaum would either. But I don’t see how it’s germane to this conversation. Asking
“how do we know what the social/political world is actually like” is a recipe for infinite regress. Do we really need to specify our epistemological principles before we engage in debate?
I don’t believe myself that “it’s critical to Nussbaum’s argument that Butler works against feeding the hungry and sheltering the battered” or that her argument depends “in some way, on assumptions about how readers will interpret her.” Those are the strongest of her objections. But they rest on a characterization of Butler’s writing style and her arguments. It’s quite possible to share Nussbaum’s understanding of the latter without needing to share her claims about the former.Posted by on 08/25 at 11:09 AM
It comes as no surprise that you enjoy John’s “chatty, sympathetic liberalism.” Both you and he occupy this ground in very smart and persuasive ways. And what’s not to appreciate in an approach that wants to preserve the best of both sides — saying, in essence, “Isn’t there enough room in their great wide world for us all?”
Beneath this call for mutual appreciation and coexistence, however, there is a strange undercurrent. For example, both Sean and I have been arguing that John’s views “rescue” Butler’s ideas by removing them…from Butler herself. Sean has focused as well on how John’s will-to-charity is partly uncharitable to Nussbaum, ignoring her clear attempts to take Butler and Butler’s ideas at their word.
In your post, Colin, I sense a similar strain of uneasy open-mindedness. Each of your four points tries to clear space for multiple viewpoints — and thus for a more “chatty, sympathetic” meeting of minds and methods. But as it see them, each of these points seems to be a non-starter — and, even worse, a conversation-stopper.
Here is my version of your four points:
1. Nussbaum ignores the possibility of radically different approaches to politics, based on incommensurable assumptions: “Why is ‘politics’ about one set of goals and not another?”
2. Nussbaum under-theorizes her own position and assumptions about politics, the world, and our knowledge of what that world: “[H]ow do we know what the social/political world is actually like?”
3. Nussbaum “inflates” Butler’s ideas in to something they were never meant to be — a “complete political program” — foisting her own assumptions about the shape of politics onto Butler’s exploration of (in John’s words) private perfectionism.
4. Nussbaum bases her critique on critical “assumptions” about Butler’s readers. If she made different, more charitable assumptions, she’d have a hard time framing the problem. Why not assume that these “women” readers are smart enough to embrace the private challenges of Butler and still do good political work.
These are each interesting theoretical tactics. Each challenges the assumptions and presuppositions behind Nussbaum’s argument (more, I think, than the claims and supposrt of the argument itself). In addition, they seem to take Nussbaum to task for having assumptions and presuppositions at all. Her real problem? She was arguing, when she should have been self-consciously theorizing.
And even as these points try to construct a theoretical space for both Butler and Nussbaum, they do so by shutting down the possibility for any argument whatsoever. No claims, they imply, can ever be made as long as you have unexplored and unacknowledged assumptions about (1) ethics and politics as a whole, (2) epistemology, (3) an author’s intentions, and (4) the realities of the world — including readers — in which that author is writing. And if another writer seems to have different assumptions, then you may as well close down shop.
Would Nussbaum have made a different argument had she made different assumptions? Sure, but that’s just the nature of argument. Would acknowledging these assumptions have helped or changed her argument in any way? I seriously doubt it. Did Sean and others answer your questions? I wonder, for my part, if they were ever answerable.
Then what do such theoretical critiques recommend and allow? Here allow me to be uncharitable. I think they allow for nothing. No debate, no argument. Nothing but “respectful” and “charitable” silence.
Simply put, your objections try to make room for a “chat” between Butler and Nussbaum by ensuring that, in the end, they could have nothing to say to other.Posted by on 08/25 at 12:05 PM
Looks like Sean and I are joined at the keyboard again. He’s just a bit faster on the draw, or the post, or whatever. Sorry for any repetition.
Also, I wish that I had acknowledged many of the other voices in our “chat.” Zehou, I think that your posts (23-4) and mine (14) play well together.
Daniel, your confessional comments also struck a chord: I remember getting the same feeling of presumptive mastery from Lingua Franca articles. (I just don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing; it may sometimes be the side effect of really smart writing.)
Brackdurf, I liked your perceptive overview. I only wish that I hadn’t added simply one more layer to the “meta-argument” in my last post.
And John, as always, thanks for you patient and well-crafted analysis, which got this entire conversation started. This blog is always a treat!Posted by on 08/25 at 12:20 PM
This post ends with an affirmation of the “crucial and honorable place” perfectionist and utopian visions occupy in our history. Let’s not forget, though, how many 20th-century nightmares sprang from the same.Posted by on 08/25 at 01:53 PM
(an earlier post vaished so this’ll be shorter; apologies if I ultimately double-post.)
Sean: Thanks for your replies, re your para 1, that’s why I specified the logical collapses yet again in #26. Re para 2, I don’t think the exercise is wrong but question the result. Re 3, if, as I’ve already shown, assumptions about the nature of the world, and in particular its social structure and political institutions underlie Nussbaum’s claims then it’s entirely germane. Otherwise I can make up any assumptions I want and go after people who work from different ones. Re your para 4, I’m very pleased that you don’t think Nussbauam’s case requires a tendentious theory of reader response, and I await your demonstration of her points using Butler’s text.
Peter: Thanks for the kind words, but you offer a series of weird misreadings. I absolutely do not “take Nussbaum to task for having assumptions and presuppositions at all.” I work most of the time in heterodox economics and I assume everyone has priors and can articulate them. (For more on social ontology see Tony Lawson’s work.) *Of course* Nussbaum has assumptions. She can’t not. And I don’t know what you expect from a conversation, but for me tracing a disagreement back to a difference in fundamental assumptions is a perfectly reasonable result. Indeed critiquing chains of reasoning seems like something highly appropriate to the philosophical tradition Nussbaum springs from. Re my 4 questions, I’ll stick to my version, thank you—in particular I am not going to convert my specific question about social ontology into your parodically vague lit-crit language about “under-theorizing.” And when did I say I was “ try[ing] to make room for a ‘chat’ between Butler and Nussbaum”?Posted by on 08/25 at 03:12 PM
Peter wrote in #30 above: “Brackdurf, I liked your perceptive overview. I only wish that I hadn’t added simply one more layer to the “meta-argument” in my last post.”
I too like Brackdurf’s comments and do not feel Peter needs to apologize for adding more layers at this point. In reading these very informative and engaging comments, both from this thread and that of the previous part one posting, i find myself pondering how those of a considerable conservative bent view all of this? Is not this very type of discourse and critique representative of those patterning forms that those of the anti-intellectual(i am intentionally stereotyping), zealous right find most abhorrent? Debating the subtlety and nuance of Nussbaum’s and Butler’s positions and underlying assumptions/principles is vital to the left’s approach in expanding the quality of academic knowledge and understanding. Sharing the debate in these types of forums is hugely beneficial, as those who might carry this on, in the confines of small conference rooms, or through passing essays and papers, experience the immediacy of the online connecting across great distances.
We know that the “right” pays attention to this site. We know that they have been critical of it and have been critical of the academic left for “monopolizing” the discussions of theory and pedagogy. I just wonder where they are at this moment in reading and participating in the critique of Nussbaum and Butler. Would we be able to find a blog such as this where a group of like minded conservative academics are willingingly submitted two of their own to the same review???? Brackdurf’s last paragraph is important in this sense. There is a component of “activism” that is occuring here in this thread, and needs to be acknowledged and honored i believe.Posted by on 08/25 at 04:25 PM
I’m about to leave to take my son off to college--and will be sans internet for five days. So I will only tune back into this interesting discussion sometime next week.
I have nothing to add at the moment beyond saying that I seem (if I am not misreading their positions) to agree with Sean on substance and with Colin in methodology or meta-theory (or whatever we are going to call it.) Which feels--given how the debate has unfolded--a weird place to be. Perhaps an untenable one.Posted by mcgowan on 08/25 at 04:44 PM
Fair enough, Colin. But my point was that taking Nussbaum to task for not accepting or making room for alternate “presuppositions” was a discussion-stopper. And on the other side, that criticizing her for not fully articulating her own “priors” was a discussion non-starter.
Ultimately, it’s a game of Head-I-Win, Tails-Nussbaum-Loses. Either she has to defend her presuppositions in endless regress (the presuppositions of her presuppositions, etc.) or she has to make room for radically different “priors.” In either case, her argument has no place left to go.
Let me be more explicit. Take you first point, in your words:
Nussbaum has devoted a great deal of energy to developing a particular package of desired ends or goals. But for someone starting outside her system, why should that particular set of goals be persuasive? I.e. why is “politics” about one set of goals and not another?
If you had intended to criticize Nussbaum’s argument or her guiding assumptions about politics, then you could have done so directly, in their particulars. But this did not seem to be your intent or concern. Rather, you ask what purchase Nussbuam has upon someone who doesn’t share her basic goals — someone far “outside” her system, with a different set of presuppositions about what constitutes “politic.”
Well, to be sure, there is always a continuum in such things. But my gut-level response is that perhaps Nussbaum has nothing left to say. And this does not expose a fault within her argument or her logic. In fact, one might say that it shows that she has an argument at all.
Forgive me if I spell it out at even greater length.
As you note, Nussbaum sets forth a certain set of goals and assumptions about politics, feminism, how the world works, and how it ought to work. In brief, she presents politics as a way of being practically involved with the material lives of people, and does so my separating such political pursuits both from spectatorial theorizing and from the “private” goals of self-cultivation.
Then you ask her, Well, what if someone believes that the only viable forms of radical politics are private and parodic, because the systems of public oppression are set up to co-opt all other expressions of reform? That is, what could you say to someone who means something completely different by “politics”?
OK, I’ll bite. What could she say? How much more articulate could she be about her central beliefs and why she values them? How could she persuade someone who remains completely outside her system — when her whole point was to criticize that “alternate” way of conceiving politics?
(Please note that saying something like, “Well, my way is much more likely to get wealthy liberals involved in helping out their poorer sisters,” doesn’t silence or even meet the objection. This is because, by your own definition, the alternate politics does not accept the premises that inform this defense. Nussbaum’s hypothetical explanation only raises a new set of attacks about her unarticulated priors, and perhaps charges of question-begging.)
Again, as I see it, you leave Nussbaum two options. Either she has to continually “theorize” her position — the politics behind her politics, the assumptions behind her assumptions. Or she must figure out a way to accommodate radically different goals and assumptions, not because they’re better, but simply because they’re different, simply because they’re “outside.”
In either case, she has to give up her argument and perhaps her arguing. And that’s not a prize worth pursuing. It’s not a game worth playing.Posted by on 08/25 at 04:54 PM
John’s final post made me wish, once again, I had thrown myself out of meta-argument heaven. Perhaps there are more pragmatic options for continued discussion.
In both of his essays, for example, John talks about the possible psychological benefits of Butler’s ideas — the ways in which her theories might assuage the real, deep pain of people (everyone?) unable to comfortably occupy our culture’s given gender roles. Does this seem an accurate reading? Is Butler good therapy, in real life?
Alternately, on the political front, one might ask the following. We can see that the United States has become a radically different (and much better) place for homosexuals and “homosexuality” in the last decade or so. Whose vision of politics and culture better accounts for this change — Butler’s vision of person-based revolution or Nussbaum’s program of public-based reform?
Have a nice trip, John.Posted by on 08/25 at 05:31 PM
I spent a lot of time thinking about this post, and now fear I have missed the opportunity for conversation. I am someone who teaches philosophy (concentrated on Continental thought) and I am an activist (President of a NOW chapter). When Nussbaum published her article, criticizing Butler years ago (wasn’t it 1999?) I was fairly fascinated. I was particularly sympathetic to her concern that Butler’s work lead to a kind of quietism, but I also thought that her treatment of Butler was way too unfair.
Anyway, what I really liked about your post here is that you put into question the relationship between theory and action (a la Arendt). I have been struggling to figure out where I fall on the practice/thought continuum for a long time. However, just today I had an experience at my NOW meeting (we are getting ready to lobby our Senators) that helped me clarify my own role in politics, as a thinker.
A young woman, who has been working in a battered women’s shelter for 6 months was talking about her recent decision to leave the shelter and go into policy. What drove her to this decision was realizing how little “counseling” for battered women did, when there was not adequate funding for housing, transportation, childcare and education/job training for these women. She is literally unable to do any significant work for women trying to leave abusive relationships because there are so little resources available to make it possible for them to leave.
I listened to her discuss this and realized, finally, what my role is. I am an advocate for the agencies in my small town who are trying to help women, children, migrant workers, etc. get a better life. The women in these non-profits are underfunded, overworked, and often barely able to feed themselves. They mostly perform emergency services and the system is set up to help people in crisis temporarily rather than make long term changes. Given how stressed out and overworked they are, they rarely have the time to sit down and articulate what they need from their legislators etc. This is where I come in. Because I am not in direct services, I can listen to their stories, their frustrations and their needs and help them frame what they want as well as help them ask for it. If I was doing the work with them, I would be just as stressed out as they are.
So, thinking back to Nussbaum, I remember being frustrated with her moralizing tone about how you need to get out there and feed people as if this was necessarily more important than thinking about what needs to be done. If you don’t think about what needs to be done, said or strategize about how to get it, you are in danger of only be able to address crises.Posted by aspazia on 08/25 at 08:58 PM
This post ends with an affirmation of the “crucial and honorable place” perfectionist and utopian visions occupy in our history. Let’s not forget, though, how many 20th-century nightmares sprang from the same.
I think Aja‘s a pretty good album, though.
And I also think it’s safe to say that “utopian” and “perfectionist” are being used in senses which do not include the paranoid fever dreams of genocidal bigots.Posted by Jonathan on 08/25 at 08:58 PM
And I also think it’s safe to say that “utopian” and “perfectionist” are being used in senses which do not include the paranoid fever dreams of genocidal bigots.
I think that’s safe to say, too. What’s more, we can probably take some solace in the fact that Butler’s argument about the citational structure of gender does not quite amount to an endorsement of the Cultural Revolution. So let’s not blame Butler for having an allegedly inadequate account of social movements and state action and for the possible alignment of “utopian” and “perfectionist” schools of thought with brutally repressive social movements and mass murder as a form of state action.Posted by Michael on 08/25 at 10:22 PM
Agreed, and Nussbaum’s notion that Butler is to be censured because her work is ill-adapted to social reform is anti-intellectual. One might apply the same criteria to Nussbaum and find areas of deficiency.
But John’s post related the perfectionist approach to Rorty, not Butler, and to selfhood, not society. There is, indeed, a noble tradition of self-creation and self-recreation in American history (Franklin, Whitman, . . .). There is a dark side as well, though, not just the totalitarian catastrophes, but the damage wrought by various self-oriented programs. For instance, in K-12 education, a relentless indoctrination of achievement and success is found in slogans pasted on hallways and bulletin boards, with kids chanting each morning ("I can be . . .!"). The focus takes no account of conservations in human nature or in cultural/social tradition. Whether such things exist or not is another question, of course, and so is how they have been used and abused to sustain hierarchies. But the neglect of them shows up every day in the ill-equipped minds that come out of high school.Posted by on 08/26 at 10:57 AM
that Butler is to be censured because her work is ill-adapted to social reform is anti-intellectual. One might apply the same criteria to Nussbaum and find areas of deficiency.
wtf? That isn’t the charge at all, as about a dozen posts in this thread have pointed out.Posted by on 08/26 at 11:46 AM
It’s friday, and i am thinking we are missing our prescribed doses of humor for the week. Some of the voices are getting a little testy, and there seems to be a loss of the rigid focus that was clearly apparent in Part One and in the middle of this commentary thread. My own complicity in this cannot be ignored either; my personal concerns are with the meta-arguments and not with the substantive exchange of discerning clarity of the critiques of Nussbaum and Butler.
I get lots of catalogs from way too many various groups and organizations that sponsor consciousness self-help programs around the US and world. Having been gone for so long i am wading through the piles and found this gem yesterday. “the CROSSINGS,” out of Austin, Texas lists a hundred or so “faculty” for their Fall/Winter catalog. These folks seem to represent a cross section of the sorts of “thinkers” that both Nussbaum and Butler would find most distressing: Life Coaches, Personal Development specialists, Mind-Body healing workers, “professional development for pastlife therapy” and such.
Are these people activists, are they academics, are they actors in the performance of projecting utopian and perfectionist dreams for others to follow?? As aspazia points out above, while there clearly is a need for strategic analysis and thinking about developing and implementing plans to allocate resources for incredibly important efforts to improve people’s lives, the Crossings’ sort of personal involvement feels as a clear attempt to turn away completely from the political, from action.
And why is this funny? Because on the back of the catalog there is a picture(for the healing spas section-very expensive) of a naked woman with little round black rocks placed down her lower back and between her butt cheeks. Next to it is a picture of a skewer of shrimp pointing at the butt, and next to that a picture of the “gracious accomodations"-a turned down bed. Sexist and greedy all in one.Posted by on 08/26 at 03:53 PM
Thanks, Spyder, for an example of what a really uncritical self-therapeutic agenda looks like.
In India at the moment there’s a controversy over a bill that would reserve a third of seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women. Think about the universe of possible arguments around this. One could specify arguments that are grounded immediately on principle, without a loop through social analysis. One could also imagine arguments that require social analysis, because they postulate causal chains running through political and social institutions. E.g. one interesting argument against the bill is that its effects would heavily benefit upper-class women and thus upper-class politicians in general, because lower-class women have more difficulty mobilizing the cultural symbols or capacities that get them taken seriously in the media and in other relevant public spaces.
A causal chain says if we do this, that will happen, with some number of links, and I use “institutions” quite broadly, to include both formalized institutions like a parliament and less formal sets of regularized social practices and meaning-frames. Any assertion of a causal chain inevitably rests on social analysis of some kind, and to be more rigorous, on a social ontology. This is a very old sort of controversy – Burke critiqued programs of reform that, in his view, had only a vague and wishful notion of how a given policy would produce a desired result. This does not mean, of course, that you can’t have policy, but it does commend a certain care in making claims about how the world works. As I’ve said, Nussbaum’s attack on Butler requires arguments of the second, causal-chain kind.
Figuring out what it means to appear or act in public and how gender matters is also an area where Butler is relevant. Clearly the ability to appear and function in public matters in ways that are material and not just personal – can I get a job, can I sell in the marketplace, what sorts of relations with customers can I establish. So it’s not unrelated to being fed. Suppose I want to understand how access to actual public spaces works, how people are disciplined. At this point it’s very clear that I need to understand gender in a particular place, and in a fairly serious social and cultural way – how someone may be disciplined by worrying about what someone else will say about them, what styles of masculinity and femininity are open to what people, what kinds of symbols and capacities I need to be able to deploy to act in a particular space. Herw Butler, and the larger critical literature that she is part of, becomes useful. It helps pull “gender” apart and de-normalize it, and it also casts a more critical eye on how spaces like “the market” are actually made in the real world, rather than taking them at full face value. So at least from the side of analysis, I think I can easily break down the compartmentalization that puts Butler in the realm of the purely personal and therapeutic.
(Again, this is why I would be delighted if the anti-Butler faction would take up her work on gender, which is her strong suit. To dissolve that, and consider Butler as a generic theorist of the person, is deliberately to avoid the insights that get her read. It’s interesting that even John—with the most angelic of intentions—looks for a higher non-gendered level of abstraction at which to characterize Butler’s contributions, and it’s arguable that this implies lapsing into an essentially liberal subject.)
I’m very happy to join John in opposition to “the notion that ‘liberalism,’ or ‘capitalism,’ or ‘patriarchy’ or whatever other name you want to give to the overarching ‘system.’” And if indeed radicals like Butler buy this notion and with it a separation between the big bad system and our little lives, I’m against it, and I’m against it *on the grounds that it’s based on a shoddy, aprioristic analysis of the world.*
I am going to push back a little, though, at John’s swipe at Foucault’s _Care of the Self,_ which I certainly don’t remember as a retreat into self-help or a purely therapeutic politics, whatever that would be. Foucault is interested in the question of how “government” in its various meanings are internalized, what “taking care of oneself” has come to mean, and I don’t think the questions he asks are silly. And it is simply *not* a logical implication of such a program of research that one believes that we are therefore trapped, doomed, unable to move. Indeed the whole post-structuralist project, I would naively and sweepingly suggest, is an effort to retain certain structural insights without requiring an impoverished understanding of subjectivity. You may find some efforts in this tradition more compelling than others, but it’s reductive, and more to the point tautological, to argue that any effort to open up these questions is doomed to be apolitical.Posted by on 08/27 at 06:23 AM
Posted by Sean McCann on 08/27 at 12:22 PM
Sorry, the quote I meant to include got eaten. Here it is.
You say: Suppose I want to understand how access to actual public spaces works, how people are disciplined. At this point it’s very clear that I need to understand gender in a particular place, and in a fairly serious social and cultural way – how someone may be disciplined by worrying about what someone else will say about them, what styles of masculinity and femininity are open to what people, what kinds of symbols and capacities I need to be able to deploy to act in a particular space.Posted by Sean McCann on 08/27 at 12:23 PM
I’m coming in from left field with a scattering of comments-- I am a non-academic who has no idea who Nussbaum or Butler are, but enjoys a lot of what is on this blog. I related, I suppose, more to the original Arendt quote, which I loved.
As an organizer, one of my favorite aphorisms is “Knowledge is not power.” Power—the abilty to actually change a social situation or condition—exists when there is action (preferably collective action for many reasons) taken, based on some kind of knowledge of how social systems work. (Often very unsystematic knowledge, of course.)
This speaks to a kind of thought that I think may not have been mentioned much above (no, I did not read every single comment in full detail - sorry...) That is, thinking about how social systems work.
In other words, I am more interested in the person who is thinking about how to change the social conditions that keep our current health care system in place than I am in either the person who thinks up immeidate reforms or the person who designs a single payer system. In my experience, there is very rarely a shortage of ideas about how things could be better, but there is relatively little imagination or strategic thought around how to make things better. (There are exceptions, and I commend the website http://comm-org.wisc.edu/ as a major one.)
And it seems to that this kind of thinking is much closer to action than any thinking about how things should or could be—as shown by the fact that it is more likely to be controversial. In other words, if someone is thinking concretely about how to organize a movement for single-payer health care and publishing that, that person is more likely to be sanctioned for doing so than someone who publishes a theoretical study of what single-payer could look like.
I suppose I am suggesting that one can measure the degree to which thought is in some way also action by the degree to which it is treated seriously by those who are only concerned about action. It’s kind of a rough and ready test.
For some reason I am reminded of a guy I once worked with in a warehouse, who used to push my leftie buttons all the time and then laugh at me. The only time I every really got him angry is when I quoted him “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” He really felt threatened, something he never liked to show. So I suppose all kinds of thoughts and insights can be action in different situations. But at the same time, I would certainly agree with Arendt that thought in and of itself is just thought, without any direct social impact.
Anyway, y’all keep it up, and I’ll be back later on to check out this very enjoyable and worthwhile, if sometimes headache-inducing, blog.
Larry YatesPosted by on 08/27 at 03:33 PM
The story in Larry’s next-to-last para is interesting, and if you start there and ask why this matters, why being gendered is not a simple matter of embodying your gender like an animal but entails these weird gaps and worries, and you then start to ask how real live culture and politics fits with this, interesting issues open up. How do you explain the weirdly macho posturing of the last democratic candidate for president in the US? Or check out Anand Patwardhan’s 1994 documentary “Father Son and Holy War” for an Indian example.Posted by on 08/28 at 03:07 AM
1. At no point did I claim that Nussbaum cannot “consider” the question of women appearing and acting in public, as your first two paras appear to believe (what is up with this sort of misreading?). Nussbaum has in fact treated this issue quite explicitly in her development of the capabilities approach, something I assumed her supporters knew. But of course “consider” does not mean “exhausts all possible insights into.” My point was simply to contest the effort to consign Butler to the apolitical side of a personal|political split via one example of her analytical relevance to what Nussbaum explicitly names as the political.
2. I have no idea what’s up with your “making too much of the difference between policy questions and questions about recognition” because that’s what I want to avoid.
3. This is a characteristic conflation: “If there’s something about the way recognition works, or that the delineation of the political functions, or the manner in which the reproduction of identities operates that one wants to change, then how to go about changing it will be an inevitable topic. That means policy considerations and causal reasoning. Butler doesn’t address those matters. But she also writes in places in ways that make them seem trivial or impossible.” Butler does “address” these matters, as in the reference I gave you in the last thread. Your confusion is that much of her writing is critical of the kinds of politics you prefer.
4. At some future point on this blog one might address B’s critique of N. But surely there is no strict logical entailment between the rightness of B contra N and the rightness of N contra B, unless we are in some sort of pro wrestling framework where the only possible outcome is the triumph of one and abjection of the other. (I also find odd the practice of rummaging around in a person’s work for barbed phrases to take offense at.)
5. Obviously, Butler is not an anthropologist. Hence my measured language of tools and critiques. Social science is not a solved problem; we have no good all-purpose social theory. An example which happens to be at hand exhibiting smart critical use of Butler is Lisa Rofel’s _Other Modernities (UC 1999). Look in the indexes of gender-minded ethnographies of the last decade and you’ll find more. The same considerations about critical use apply to Foucault. Maybe this is part of our impasse. I come at this from a social-science concern to figure out things out there in the world that we understand poorly, and I look for useful modes of inquiry, analytical tools, and other sorts of insights. It never occurs to me that someone would approach Foucault or Butler as an all-purpose guru, a manual for how to live and act. (I’m not trying to dissolve them into little pieces though: I also find these people useful because they contest a certain apriorist world-picture, which at various time goes under the name of liberalism or modernity, which in my view short-circuits unresolved questions.)
6. Substitute individual for subject if you like – the point, which is quite simple, is that liberalism puts a great deal of weight on the autonomous individual or subject, and however you want to delimit who counts as a liberal thinker, you will find this. It appears to me that there is typically an effort to formulate a subject who exists, complete, prior to being enmeshed in systems like gender and race. This is closely related to the social ontology point, as the liberal individual and liberal polity are closely logically connected, no?Posted by on 08/28 at 04:19 AM
Here’s what you said: Nussbaum’s attack on Butler requires arguments of the second, causal-chain kind. If there’s no imputation of exclusivity or distortion about that requirement, then the point is a trivial one. All it says is: because she’s interested in policy, she’s interested in causality. If there’s nothing exlusive about that interest, and Nussbaum doesn’t have a necessarily constricted account of the political, then her objections to Butler can be taken as she proposes them: not that Butler is addressing non-issues, but that her approach is confused and has no value.
Yes, one of the things I don’t like about Butler is that she’s dismissive about the kinds of politics I prefer. I think if we can’t envision legitimate and valuable purposes for government to serve and that if we don’t have a sense of politics and ethics as making legitimate normative claims on other people, then we’re fucked. I think that’s Butler’s view. The citation you gave me doesn’t change my sense of this. I don’t have it on hand, but I can explain why more fully when I do.
The point about Butler’s critique of Nussbaum isn’t to set up a pro-wrestling match, only to suggest that Nussbaum has a plausible case when she views hers and Butler’s views of things as being fundamentally in opposition. Butler’s remark that feminism is a tool of colonial domination is barbed, yes, but I haven’t rummaged for it. I’ve read a fair bit of Butler, and this conversation has encouraged me to read more. That remark is consistent with the larger argument Butler is making in the Contingency volume--about hegemony and translation--and is consistent with her views in general.
People certainly do approach Foucault and Butler as all purpose gurus, but agreed, that’s not what’s most interesting about Foucault at least. My point about Butler isn’t that she’s an anthropologist, though, but that her tools aren’t going to be anthropologically fruitful (without a good deal of supplement). You wouldn’t know from reading her, for example, that people’s identities are shaped by their families, their communities, their schooling, their interests, their economies, their local and non-local cultures, their media, etc., or that there could be significant complexity in the way these things work.
Your remark about Bush above is perhaps consistent with this. Do you really believe we need Butler in particualr to understand Bush’s macho posturing? I think Nussbaum would be fully ready to concede it’s important and reflective of deeper structural features of our gender and political systems. But Butler is far from the only person to note this. Absolutely no one in this debate says “being gendered is . . . a simple matter of embodying your gender like an animal.” That, too, implies a false alternative.
there is typically an effort to formulate a subject who exists, complete, prior to being enmeshed in systems like gender and race
This is, I think, an old canard. There are few serious liberal thinkers who believe anything like this and there’s no reason they should. In fact, the whole way of looking at things, by beginning from an ideal model of the person, is misleading--and interestingly inconsistent with the benefits of a Foucauldian approach. If it’s plausible to think there are no homosexuals, only homosexuality, it should be plausible to think that there’s no liberal subject only liberalism. I.e., there are political institutions that encourage some kinds of actions and discourage or punish others, but that doesn’t mean that a caricature of its ideal person can be created. A lot of critiques of liberalism go off the tracks in just this way: first imagining a hypothetical, non-existent person, and then complaining about it.Posted by Sean McCann on 08/28 at 05:39 AM
Re para 1 yes what I wrote *was* a pretty simple point, but one that some folks have nonetheless had difficulty with: that there is a necessary component of social analysis implicit in Nussbaum’s argument. How many more times do you want to go around in a circle on this? I’m not sure how you’re using the terms exclusivity and distortion. I’ve argued that there are consequential assumptions at the level of social ontology, but I’m aparently falling somewhere in between or outside the categories that you recognize. Please see Tony Lawson’s work, the 2003 _Reorienting Economics_ might be a good place to start.
You go on to describe your attitudes to Butler with considerable feeling, and to ignore my point that actual anthropologists *have* found parts of her work useful.
Re posturing, if you read my post you’ll see that the reference was actually to Senator Kerry.
If you want to get a better sense of the range of positions about gender and how Butler fits in to them, read her and the lit critical of her.
I’m delighted we agree on the problems entailed in starting one’s theorizing with an abstract, idealized self. Perhaps you can suggest some readings on how one can rework liberalism without doing that.
And then maybe we should see if anyone else would like to say something.Posted by on 08/28 at 07:12 AM
The personal only becomes political when it involves more than one person.
I’ve spent most of my existence greedily trying to ensure that I can gain and keep access to a “life of the mind” that some take for granted. When I get the sense that someone is trying to take that away—for example, by insisting that I divide my non-laboring hours between shouting matches with “New Left” remnants and shouting matches with the born-again always-wealthy—I’m likely to spit defiance with a self-righteousness little short of that shown by the political activist.
But in itself, that self-righteousness and my “life of the mind” are not politically active. My anger rises from the political. My partial sucess rises from the political. My personal satisfaction isn’t political action.
What comes a bit closer would be attempts to bring such access to others—time, effort, and money spent trying to make that “life of the mind” available across class boundaries. I tend to think of that as an ethical pleasure, or more often just a compulsion, rather than as politics. But it frequently involves reacting to and trying to influence actual government policy, and so in some weak sense it may count. As less than food or freedom from violence counts, but as something.
All of that as prelude to this: Judith Butler’s work can be championed or attacked as philosophy or as criticism, and I think it’s right to do so without selectively “dragging in” politics. But once it’s championed as political, then specifically political objections are just. I would like to believe (obviously) that there is more to life than food, and therefore that some work besides feeding the hungry is at least faintly justifiable. But when speaking politically, it seems fair to point out that Butler’s work may be inaccessible to all but a minority of the fairly well-to-do.
Zizek’s political influence in the USA seems malign to me, but he’s as politically effective as an intellectual could get, since he allows so many of the products of his intellect to be freely available. Our current host is doing a good job with that as well. I’d feel easier about John McGowen’s argument if Butler followed the leads of supposedly less political fiction writers like Cory Doctorow and Kelly Link and moved at least some of her books into the intellectual commons.Posted by Ray Davis on 08/28 at 12:48 PM
Whoops, sorry, to have mistaken the Kerry point, Colin. But how does that matter? Kerry’s efforts at machismo and military virtue are perfectly understandable in various contexts without Butler. Likewise, I’m genuinely curious to know what specifically she gives anthropologists. It can’t be just that she denturalizes gender, say, since that’s pretty much a property of feminism per se. I don’t doubt that she’s put to use. It’ a feature of the academic market that people will try out anything that comes to hand. But the fact alone doesn’t tell me much about the value of her theory until it’s explained how and why she’s put to use and what the payoff is. You can use a screwdriver as a hammer, after all, but that doesn’t make it a good hammer.
I have read Butler, which is why I’m critical of her. As to what to read to reform liberalism’s alleged requirement of an abstract person, I’d say you could read virtually any liberal thinker--but actually it might be more helpful still not to take at face value the charge when it’s made by various antiliberals, since, as it’s usually conceived, it’s chimerical.
Come to think of it, one of my objections to Butler is that she actually resembles the fantasized liberalism often conceived by antiliberals. Her account of identity formation is entirely abstract and her relevant actors are almost entirely individualistic. Her view of things is like Tocqueville’s famous account of the way Americans are divided between a minute concern on their personal interests and a tendency to invoke lofty and abstract grandiosities.Posted by Sean McCann on 08/29 at 07:01 AM
Dear McCann monster, have you ever considered “reading” some Slavoj Zizek? You may like what he has to say, timbre and tone and all.Posted by Matt on 08/29 at 04:24 PM
I’m not the McCann monster, but I’ve been feeling iffy about my “malign” crack regarding Zizek. I think he’s way off about USA politics and doesn’t much care if he is, and so, insofar as he gets deployed as a Voice of Authority or distracts from paying attention to the evidence, his influence is malign. On the other hand, as an inciter of excited conversation about politics, he’s kinda nice to have around.
I’ve also been thinking about how Nussbaum’s (and my own, much less energetic) criticism of Butler reminded me of the New Left’s hostility towards feminism and gay lib back in the day—“How dare you drag these petty decadent middle-class concerns into the real issues of socialism and racism and American imperialism?” overlaying the unspoken but perhaps more sincere question “How dare you interfere with this wonderful conscience-pumping excuse we’ve had to take advantage of women and bash queers?”
Of course, Nussbaum lacks that underlay, and feminists _did_ get around (and do get around) to trying to deal with issues of economics and racism within a feminist context, and also, as I pointed out in my first comment, intellectuals have more ways to reach the less-privileged now than they used to and so they might as well use them if they want to have a positive political influence. But the echo creeped me out when I noticed it.Posted by Ray Davis on 08/31 at 01:23 PM
what matters is politics is being able to move bodies. and cash. press is a distant third.Posted by on 02/07 at 02:12 AM
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