There is a review by Mary Midgley of a new book by Judith Butler in the Guardian. Midgley has a special place in our affections here at B&W, since in a sense she named it. In another sense of course she didn’t, Al Pope did, because she was quoting him, but in the sense that matters she did, because her use of the quotation is what the Namer of B&W had in mind. Actually the Namer and I have had many violent brawls on the subject, with books thrown and fists pounded on desks and screams screamed and horrible wounding insulting things said. No not really, I’m only joking, because it’s Saturday. But it’s almost true. I have received many emails from readers upbraiding us for not citing Pope, and (until I finally learned better) I used to forward them and ask whiningly why we couldn’t just add two little words – ‘quoting Pope’ – to the About page. Only to receive in reply a blistering indictment of my pedantry, elitism, sucking-up tendencies, docility, sycophancy, conformity, timidity, lack of imagination, tunnel vision, and general fatuity. Not not really, I’m just amusing myself. But it was almost like that. Anyway, Midgley named B&W by using the quotation in accusing someone else of a foolish misunderstanding when in fact the misunderstanding was, not to put too fine a point on it, her own. But all the same, she is at least somewhat skeptical of the profundity of Butler.
Although she does go a bit wrong in the very first sentence –
This little book contains five fairly indignant essays by the distinguished Californian feminist and literary critic Judith Butler…
Distinguished? What’s so distinguished about her? I’m serious. That’s not a jokey question, it’s a real one. There is, as I have noted here in the past, a great deal of inflated praise of Butler kicking around – she is always being called famous, important, significant, etc. But why? On the basis of what? Is her work really so conspicuously better than that of hundreds of her colleagues? There are a lot of knowledgeable people who think it is in fact much worse. So it’s a bit irritating to see her called ‘distinguished’ for no apparent reason. One can’t help thinking that’s just a sort of meme (now that would be ironic), picked up because of all those people who call her famous and important. People can become famous (as of course we all know) just because a lot of other people say they are famous – it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But Midgley does note some flaws, so that’s better than nothing.
I found a large part of the book unhelpful because it is so abstract. It consists of arguments about Foucault’s doctrine of a transition from “sovereignty” to “governmentality” in the structure of states, and about Levinas’s notion of “the face” as the factor that makes us able to see people as vulnerable fellow humans…Discussion of these ideas leads into hair-splitting of the kind that often develops when prophets such as Foucault and Levinas have deliberately used paradox to make an unfamiliar point. Scholars pile in afterwards, trying to domesticate the paradox to fit it for students’ essays. Nietzsche, who started the paradox game, would have been rather cross to see the kind of theorising to which it now leads. And readers might reasonably ask why this theorising is relevant to the moral case against American foreign policy. The trouble is that that case can obviously be stated in perfectly familiar terms – terms widely shared, terms that the transgressing parties themselves already officially acknowledge. Is there anything to be gained by translating it into new and exotic language?
Well, I wouldn’t think so, and that’s exactly why I don’t think Butler is distinguished. I think she’s much more pseudo-distinguished – much more keen to impress the credulous by way of Levinas and Foucault and baroque theoryspeak than to actually say something or enlighten anyone. And that’s exactly why the whole ‘distinguished’ thing is so annoying. That’s not what academics should be doing – writing in a show-offy, obscure for the sake of being obscure way. Necessary obscurity, unavoidable obscurity, obscurity that is inherent in the subject, that’s one thing, but obscurity used to impress and get called famous and distinguished, is another. And I defy anyone to read a few pages of Butler without thinking that is exactly what she’s doing.