April 05, 2007

Nussbaum on Butler

Nussbaum's critique of Judith Butler is available here. Nussbaum's a fantastic writer, and I'd recommend taking the time to read the whole thing.

The opening paragraphs of section V offer the most cogent presentation of the critique. I'll quote at length.

What precisely does Butler offer when she counsels subversion? She tells us to engage in parodic performances, but she warns us that the dream of escaping altogether from the oppressive structures is just a dream: it is within the oppressive structures that we must find little spaces for resistance, and this resistance cannot hope to change the overall situation. And here lies a dangerous quietism.

If Butler means only to warn us against the dangers of fantasizing an idyllic world in which sex raises no serious problems, she is wise to do so. Yet frequently she goes much further. She suggests that the institutional structures that ensure the marginalization of lesbians and gay men in our society, and the continued inequality of women, will never be changed in a deep way; and so our best hope is to thumb our noses at them, and to find pockets of personal freedom within them. "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." In other words: I cannot escape the humiliating structures without ceasing to be, so the best I can do is mock, and use the language of subordination stingingly. In Butler, resistance is always imagined as personal, more or less private, involving no unironic, organized public action for legal or institutional change.

Isn't this like saying to a slave that the institution of slavery will never change, but you can find ways of mocking it and subverting it, finding your personal freedom within those acts of carefully limited defiance? Yet it is a fact that the institution of slavery can be changed, and was changed--but not by people who took a Butler-like view of the possibilities. It was changed because people did not rest content with parodic performance: they demanded, and to some extent they got, social upheaval. It is also a fact that the institutional structures that shape women's lives have changed. The law of rape, still defective, has at least improved; the law of sexual harassment exists, where it did not exist before; marriage is no longer regarded as giving men monarchical control over women's bodies. These things were changed by feminists who would not take parodic performance as their answer, who thought that power, where bad, should, and would, yield before justice.

Butler not only eschews such a hope, she takes pleasure in its impossibility. She finds it exciting to contemplate the alleged immovability of power, and to envisage the ritual subversions of the slave who is convinced that she must remain such. She tells us--this is the central thesis of The Psychic Life of Power--that we all eroticize the power structures that oppress us, and can thus find sexual pleasure only within their confines. It seems to be for that reason that she prefers the sexy acts of parodic subversion to any lasting material or institutional change. Real change would so uproot our psyches that it would make sexual satisfaction impossible. Our libidos are the creation of the bad enslaving forces, and thus necessarily sadomasochistic in structure.

Well, parodic performance is not so bad when you are a powerful tenured academic in a liberal university. But here is where Butler's focus on the symbolic, her proud neglect of the material side of life, becomes a fatal blindness. For women who are hungry, illiterate, disenfranchised, beaten, raped, it is not sexy or liberating to reenact, however parodically, the conditions of hunger, illiteracy, disenfranchisement, beating, and rape. Such women prefer food, schools, votes, and the integrity of their bodies. I see no reason to believe that they long sadomasochistically for a return to the bad state. If some individuals cannot live without the sexiness of domination, that seems sad, but it is not really our business. But when a major theorist tells women in desperate conditions that life offers them only bondage, she purveys a cruel lie, and a lie that flatters evil by giving it much more power than it actually has.


Towards the very end of the piece, Nussbaum refers to Butler's as `self-involved feminism' and `hip quietism'. It's a sophisticated, trendy veneer for solipsism. And, still worse, Butler actually seems to celebrate, eroticise, and eventually defend oppression. Now, for all I know, Nussbaum has Butler completely wrong. But if Nussbaum's right, then Butler's feminism ought to be rightfully seen as utterly antithetical to genuine feminism.

6 comments:

Sarah Spengeman said...

What is "genuine feminism"? Since the history of feminism has been the history of women pointing out sexism to not only men, but to fellow women, I would balk at a term like "genuine feminism" for the very reason that it seems to narrow the range of women's experiences which we are willing to consider as being authentic.
Also, I have to say I hate how feminists attack other feminists personally, Nussbaum says, "Well, parodic performance is not so bad when you are a powerful tenured academic in a liberal university."
Are you kidding me? This is why I hate academia and sometimes feel like I want the hell out.
I think Nussbaum makes some valid points, but Butler opened my eyes to many aspects of gender that I had never even thought of before. She challenges liberal feminists to recognize that oppression goes beyond the lack of civil liberties and political rights. We re-enact our oppression every day. Yes, this means oppression is that much harder to undo. But this prespective prevents us from over-simplifying the solution. A tendency I think most liberal feminists fall prey to.

Noumena said...

Nussbaum acknowledges that Butler has some very important theoretical insights: gender injustice is a much more deeply-rooted problem than classical liberal feminism can deal with. But what I'm getting from Nussbaum is the sense that there's something wrong with any totally theoretical, purely academic stance towards issues of sexism (and justice in general). In Marx's epigram, ,,Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es koemmt darauf an, sie zu veraendern.'' Butler has a very interesting interpretation, but completely falls down when it comes time to fight for change.

I actually have a very big-tent attitude towards feminism. I'm willing to include liberal feminists, libertarian feminists, antiliberal feminists of the MacKinnon variety, and everyone in between. I'm a man who calls himself a feminist, but I'm happy to share a table with `pro-feminist' and `feminist ally' men and any lesbian separatists who happen to still be around. I'm even willing to give Edith Stein fans, Feminists for Life, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Camille Paglia consideration, though I'm damn suspicious that they're just appropriating the language of feminism for conservative ends. Feminists can disagree, even radically disagree, and still be held together by their feminism.

There are only two attitudes I find inconsistent with feminism. The first is to deny the reality of gender-based injustice. That's why I find the Pussycat Dolls ad copy so nauseating. The second is to recognise injustice, but maintain there's nothing we can do about it. That's the attitude Butler takes, and that's why I don't think we should call her a feminist. I'd be willing, even happy, to endorse a feminist appropriation of her work -- Short skirts and combat boots: How to fight patriarchy by dressing in drag would be great, if it could actually make a difference. But I don't think that book's been written.

Sarah Spengeman said...

You have to at least READ Gender Trouble yourself though before you go so far as to call her *not* a feminist. I generally think its not a good practice to cast judgment on someone's work by reading a critique of that work. Esp when the judgment is as harsh as not being everything they themselves claim to be. We have to give people a little credit.
I think Butler would tend towards separatism. Since when is lesbian separatism not feminism? This is a mainstay in the history of the movement. I first came to a knowledge of feminism by reading Mary Daly--though Im not sure if she is a lesbian, her intentional not admitting of male students to her classes at Boston College rocked my world. And women leaving the church to form their own church--damn that blew my 18 year old mind.
Basically, I have serious concerns about airing views about someone, esp in a public domain, that are taken primarily on the negative determinations of someone else.
Overall, I like Nussbaums work, but she has moved in such a Rawlsian direction lately that I long for the days when she spoke of the "fragility of virtue." Where is that Nussbaum? I miss her.

sarah spengeman said...

Ok, I take it back, after flipping through Gender Trouble again, I wouldn't say Butler is separatist, though there might be tendencies. She has a much more radical agenda that is actually best summarized in exactly what you said "Short skirts and combat boots: How to fight patriarchy by dressing in drag" She actually wants people to take action by defying gender norms in real, tangible, and visible ways.
Remember Queer Nation's Kiss-ins? Were here, were queer, get used to it.
Butler advocates a similar in your face kind of approach.
I love it. I wish I was brave enough to do it. I hate that I am so attached to shaving my legs, and according to Butler am reenacting my oppression every damn morning.

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