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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

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 Except that whatever “small” concession these two sentences offer is completely withdrawn in the next sentence: “But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures are political change, it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 [1989].  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. 

Posted by John McGowan on 08/23 at 09:41 AM
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