What’s wrong with Judith Butler

One of the authors I read while looking at theoretical issues of gender for my thesis was Judith Butler. It was not a pleasant experience. While some theorists, such as Foucault, gradually grew on me, Butler remained obscure and largely uninspiring. One section of hers, in particular, wound me up and I’ve long meant to analyse just what is wrong with it. Finally, I’ve got around to this. This is a quote from the Preface to Judith’s Butler 1999 reissue of Gender Trouble p xviii-xix, with my comments.)

Both critics and friends of Gender Trouble have drawn attention to the difficulty of its style. It is no doubt strange, and maddening to some, to find a book that is not easily consumed to be “popular” according to academic standards. The surprise over this is perhaps attributable to the way we underestimate the reading public, its capacity and desire for reading complicated and challenging texts, when the complication is not gratuitous, when the challenge is in the service of calling taken-for granted truths into question, when the taken for grantedness of these truths is, indeed oppressive. (1)

I think that style is a complicated terrain and not one that we unilaterally choose or control with the purposes we consciously intend. Fredric Jameson made this clear in his early book on Sartre. (2) Certainly, one can practice styles, but the styles that become available to you are not entirely a matter of choice. Moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself. (3) As Drucilla Cornell, in the tradition of Adorno, reminds me: there is nothing radical about common sense. (4) It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed upon the thinkable itself. (5) But formulations that twist grammar or that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are clearly irritating for some. (6) They produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended by such demands. Are those who are offended making a legitimate request for “plain speaking” or does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty? (7) If gender itself is naturalized through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argues, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given. (8)

The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly “clear” view. Avital Ronell recalls the moment in which Nixon looked into the eyes of the nation and said, “let me make one thing perfectly clear” and then proceeded to lie. (9) What travels under the sign of “clarity” and what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? (10) Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? (11) What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? (12) What does “transparency” keep obscure?

My comments

(1) This sentence shows one of the problems with Butler’s style: not the complexity of her thoughts, but the sloppy and long-winded way in which they are expressed. The end of the sentence could be more succinctly put as ‘when the complication is not gratuitous, but intended to call into question oppressive “truths” which are taken for granted.’ This cuts out one clause, 50% of the words and none of the sense.

(2) What is the purpose of this sentence? It doesn’t clarify or extend the previous thought about style. It gives no specific reference to the book, so it’s no help if you want to follow up what Jameson said about Sartre. Its only purpose is academic name-dropping, to show that she knows their work. (This is one of the things that is off-putting about Butler’s style – the feeling that if you haven’t read what’s she read, she’s not going to bother to explain).

(3) She is basically saying that if you don’t follow the rules of intelligible language you aren’t intelligible. She then dresses up this statement of the blindingly obvious with fancy language to make it seem more profound.

(4) Another example of pointless academic name-dropping: see note 2.

(5) Most radical writers have been able to use received grammar to express their views: indeed, some have tried to use a deliberately simple style, in order to reach the widest possible audience, including those normally excluded from academic and political discourse. Butler also never gives examples of how grammar constrains thought, which would provide useful clarity. (But then, she doesn’t like clarity, as she discusses later).

(6) I doubt whether any of Butler’s sentences are formally grammatically incorrect, so her comments about grammar are a red herring. Why she is difficult to read is not a question of grammar, but complex vocabulary (I understand only roughly what the ‘subject-verb requirements of propositional sense’ means and I have an academic education) and also convoluted word order.

(7) These two sentences show Butler’s habit of using questions to half-make statements, without committing herself to them and thus allowing argument against her point of view. If she said that demands for plain speaking were due to a consumer expectation about intellectual life, then a reader could agree or disagree or be willing to be convinced by further argument. When she leaves this as a question, although it is implicit what side she comes down on, she slides away from this intellectual engagement.

(8) This statement ignores the fact that Wittig wrote in a different language with different grammatical rules. Wittig wrote in French, where every noun has a gender. Butler is writing (notionally) in English, which has lost 99% of its grammatical gender. Provided you find/devise some neutral alternative to the pronouns him/her and his/hers then there are no other grammatical markings of gender (unlike, for example, languages where adjectives agree in gender or where there is no gender-neutral translation of the pronoun ‘they’). There are still some difficulties of vocabulary, but that’s not the same thing.

(9) This section really irritates me. What Butler is explicitly saying is that clarity can be used by liars, which is a true but fairly trivial statement. Implicitly, however, there is a subtext arising from the dragging in of Nixon. If you are an American in 1999, then Nixon is surely not the most obvious candidate to use as an example of lying presidents. But Bill Clinton wouldn’t have the same impact, because what Butler wants to imply is that if you are in favour of clear speech you are siding with right-wing republicans like Richard Nixon. Put as bluntly as that, it’s a stupid statement and one that many left-wing academics would disagree with, so Butler wraps this up to so as to give a vague feeling to the reader that she’s reactionary if she disagrees.

(10) I’m quite happy to be sceptical about clarity in writing, but I’m even more sceptical of difficulty/obscurity in a writer who’s aiming in some way to inform/instruct. Lack of clarity often means at best lack of clear thought and at worst deliberate attempts to mislead. Which is clearer, after all, ‘collateral damage’ or ‘accidentally killing innocent civilians’?

(11) Butler (in the form of a question again) seems to be making vague allegations that some (presumably sinister) force decides what is clear writing and what is not. Again, if put this bluntly, it’s a debatable statement at best, which is why it has to be wrapped up.

(12) Butler’s misuse of ‘parochial’ here shows considerable confusion. If you insist that all writing is clear it potentially opens all writing up to a wider audience, the very opposite of parochialism. It may be philistine to insist that all writing is clear, but it’s not parochial in any normal meaning of the word.


5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Judith Butler

  1. Of course Judith Butler is, for better or worse, one of the most convenient (and appropriate) targets for critics of academic persiflage. See, e.g., this from 1999 (as linked from Butterflies & Wheels):


    It’s not just that she writes extraordinarily obscurely, it’s that she seems proud of it.

    If anyone can summarize what s/he thinks JB is actually saying under/through/despite this persiflage, I’d appreciate an “Idiot’s Guide.” Otherwise I simply can’t be bothered with her.


  2. Postmodern theory isn’t easy to understand. Butler is not to blame here. She’s unwrapping the theory and it requires lots of hard work. It’s just a matter of becoming fluent in the ways to read the theory. I hope you give it a second chance. It’s brilliant.


  3. From section 173 of Nietzsche’s Gay Science:

    Being deep and appearing deep.—Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.

    For crowd, read po-mo graduate students.


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