Judy, Judy, Judy
Here we go again. What is it about Judith Butler that makes people come over all delusional? That causes them 1) to exaggerate her fame and celebrity and stardom and name-recognition in an utterly grotesque manner and 2) causes them to overestimate her real as opposed to apparent or fame-related importance, interest, originality, ‘insight’, profundity, originality, and brilliance?
Well, I suppose one answer is, shall we say, a certain lack of nous. At least on the evidence of this article in Salon that seems to be one answer. [Note: you have to click through a brief advert to read article.] For instance there is the sentence ‘Butler even made headlines in the New York Times when she won an award for “Bad Writing” — writing that was too theoretically obtuse, a trademark of postmodern critique.’ Oh dear. That freshman Comp mistake of conflating ‘obscure’ and ‘abstruse’ and thus saying ‘obtuse’ when it’s not at all what one means. That’s embarrassing (doesn’t Salon have editors?), especially coming from someone who is in such a frenzy of excitement over Butler and her way with language. Of course it’s also pretty funny. Yes, a trademark of ‘postmodern critique’ is indeed that it is way too ‘theoretically obtuse’ but I bet you didn’t mean to admit it!
And there’s also the fact that Nussbaum’s famous takedown of Butler was not in the Atlantic Monthly. (Were all the editors in the Hamptons that week, or what?) So, who knows, maybe the answer to the question in this case is just that that’s what one does for a sloppy puff piece. But all the same, the level of coercive flattery is remarkably high.
These were the Culture Wars, and fighting on the front lines were tenured humanities professors from America’s elite universities, proponents of what has come to be known simply as Theory. Armed with the insights of postmodern philosophy, they shocked and awed through their intellectual acrobatics…
Hmm. Wars, fighting, front lines, armed with – yeah, right. Muy macho. And insights, intellectual acrobatics that shocked and awed. In your dreams. And that sly bit about ‘what has come to be known simply as Theory’ – no it hasn’t ‘come to be known’ as that, the ‘Theorists’ themselves have done their best to force the rest of the world to think of what they do as ‘simply’ ‘Theory’, by calling it that three times in every sentence. And yet still, the only people who think that what English and comp lit teachers do is ‘Theory’ are – wait for it – English and comp lit teachers. And the writers of articles like this one.
…author of the now classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, one of the defining works of queer theory…academia’s equivalent of a platinum album…her seminal work…provocative political essays…immense success…there was even a fanzine, Judy!, printed in her honor…fellow academics, who may or may not have envied her popularity…
And then we move directly to mention of the Nussbaum article. You know, I really, really doubt that Nussbaum has the faintest shred of envy of Butler’s putative popularity. I really strongly doubt that Nussbaum would prefer to have written the books Butler wrote rather than the ones she herself wrote. I know I wouldn’t. I know if I could wave a magic wand and have written either, say, The Fragility of Goodness or Sex and Social Justice, or Butler’s Collected Works, I would not choose the latter. No verily, not even if I could be a ‘superstar’ by doing so, nor would I bother envying Butler her supposed stardom, any more than I envy Britney Spears hers.
That sounds like just mockery but it isn’t; there’s a real point behind it. There’s something badly wrong with the kind of thinking that mixes up fame with quality – that gets in such a fever of excitement over Butler’s superstardom and popularity that it becomes quite unable to see that her actual books are not particularly good. In fact it’s just another version of the kind of thing we were looking at the other day: of groupthink and social pressure, coercion and majority opinion-mongering. (It’s especially ironic since another basic idea of the article is that ‘Theory’ and its epigones are Outsiders, radicals, embattled martyrs of thought, nonconformists.) It’s such a basic point – popular is not the same thing as good, majority opinion is not the same thing as truth. And the attempt to admire people for being hugely popular and radically nonconformist at the same time is something of a mug’s game, frankly.