Power, Language, and Obscurity in Judith Butler

Power, Language, and Obscurity in Judith Butler September 3, 2012

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.

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