Power, Language, and Obscurity in Judith Butler

With Judith Butler slated to receive Frankfurt’s Adorno Prize next week, Kenan Malik summarizes controversies related to her work, focusing on Martha Nussbaum’s criticisms of her philosophy and others’ criticisms of her politics on Israel.

I have never read Butler, but Malik’s selections make her sound more interesting than her reputation for obfuscation would indicate:

In 1998 she won another, less desirable, prize, when the journal Philosophy and Literature awarded her its ‘Bad Writing’ award, a prize that sought to ‘celebrate the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles’. Butler responded with an op-ed in the New York Times in which she celebrated incomprehensible writing as the only way ‘to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world’.


It is not simply the form of Butler’s work, but its content, too, that is problematic. For Butler we are constituted in discourse, in relations of power, and out of that discourse, out of those relations of power, we cannot escape. Power, for Butler, as for Michel Foucault, from whom she draws much of her argument, is omnipresent. Its threads are everywhere and it is only through power that reality is constituted. ‘The power is “always already there”’, as Foucault puts it, meaning ‘that one is never “outside” it, that there are no “margins” for those who break with the system to gambol in’ [Power/Knowledge, p85]. Or, in Butler’s words, ‘Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially’ [The Psychic Life of Power, p104]. Since I am, in other words, created by social relations of power, I can never escape those relations of power without ceasing to be. I can never challenge the system in any comprehensive way because ‘the power is “always already there”’. I can simply work within it, carve out a space, turn the language of subordination that imprisons me upon itself to mock my imprisonement,  transgress by performing in a slightly different, parodic manner. For all her claimed radicalism, Butler’s politics, like that of many post-structuralists, is the politics of gesture, not the politics of change.  Butler’s argument, as Nussbaum rightly observes, ‘tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in the safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture.’

Read more.

I have talked a lot about power myself and also think it is omnipresent. I would be puzzled if Butler was as much of a quietist as Nussbaum implies. Nussbaum’s full critique is here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • M Groesbeck

    I think a good bit of Butler’s reputation for obfuscation comes from the fact that she seems to assume that readers have gone through the parts of the work of Hegel, Althusser and Foucault she responds to. She’s also very much in the camp that treats language as language rather than as formal logic in disguise, which also annoys people. As for activism…most of what she writes seems to be feminist (and socialist, etc.) implicitly rather than in focus. She’s not writing (usually) about how to promote feminism; she’s writing about identity, subjectivity, etc., though usually from a feminist perspective.

  • Graham

    I read her book Decoding Advertisements in the early 80s. I was studying maths and knew little about sociology or philosophy. I did not find it obscure: more like revelatory.

    • Graham

      Whoops, wrong Judith.

  • John Morales

    Butler responded with an op-ed in the New York Times in which she celebrated incomprehensible writing as the only way ‘to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world’.

    So, she defends incomprehensible writing with unambiguous clarity, eh?

    Me, I consider post-structuralism to be bullshit.

  • eric

    Intentionally being obtuse to illustrate the point that it’s a bad thing that language comes with social baggage seems somewhat hypocritical to me.

    Yeah, okay, normal language supports mainstream culture by its very structure and use. Folks like Butler think this influence is pernicious and needs to be fought. I’m with them so far. But if that’s her opinion, then using linguistic tricks to get people to think differently seems a bit like hitting someone to make the point that you believe hitting is wrong. If Butler doesn’t like the influence word and language choice has on thought, she should be trying to strip out the subtle, linguistic influnces from her own arguments. She should be trying to avoid the fallacies she sees in mainstream text, not responding to those fallacies by using them in turn. You’re not going to convince people that you think the cultural mainstream’s use of tool A is evil and wrong, if you use tool A to bolster your argument.