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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Nussbaum v. Butler, Round One

Guest post by John McGowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I have said, I’m with Nussbaum in finding the psychoanalytic focus both too individualistic and too fatalistic.  But I think Nussbaum misses the fact that individuality has its strong discontents and the fact that some people have strong intimations of a trans-individual sublime to which they are attracted and into which they would like to submerge that burdensome self.  Not just religion, but also much of the literature of the past two hundred years, witnesses to this recurrent longing. To rule such longings out of court as so much romantic, irrational nonsense is neither going to banish them from the earth or advance our ability to produce a better society.  It is not even obviously true that a concern with adjusting one’s individual relations with what one takes to be the wider forces at play in the universe is a luxury only the relatively well-off can afford.  Plenty of extremely poor people put a lot of energy into and place a very high priority on their religious practices and beliefs.  Nussbaum’s self-congratulatory insistence that her brand of feminism deals with “material” necessities and “real” problems (as contrasted to the way Butler’s feminism “complete[ly] turn[s] from the material side of life,” providing “only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women” [Section I]) is unrealistic in its narrowing of human concerns and commitments.  If there is any empirical claim we can safely make about humans, it is that material concerns are not the only things that seem “real” to them.  In fact, much of the philosophical tradition that Nussbaum claims to honor is devoted to explaining why material things are less real than other components of the universe.

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

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

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

Nussbaum clearly has no avant-garde intimations or yearnings toward the ineffable, so she cannot have any sympathy for a writing style that is trying to reach toward the “unthought,” or the “inexpressible.” Such styles are everywhere in romantic and modernist art—and they are built precisely on the premise that language is an imperfect tool, that our received vocabularies and categories are inadequate, and their inadequacy must be signaled even as we use the words we have inherited.  Butler’s work is perhaps best compared to Benjamin’s.  They are both figures who exist in some ill-defined space between avant-garde art and discursive, argumentative thought. (So here’s another practice that defies easy categorization or location within neat disciplinary markers.  To call Benjamin and Butler literary critics seems pretty lame, but they aren’t quite philosophers or political theorists either.  We end up with catch-all terms like “intellectual” or “man [sic] of letters” or “social critic.” And I suggest that we see their obscurities as less a product of being “over-academic” and more akin to the obscurities of Mallarmé, Joyce, and Pound.)

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

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

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

Posted by John McGowan on 08/11 at 10:04 AM
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