Quotable: Material Matters

29 Jan

Martha Nussbaum, from “The Professor of Parody”. . . on Judith Butler, parody, and theory without real-life application:

“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.”

The entire article can be read here (opens as a PDF).
For a summary of the main points of the article, check out this page.

7 Responses to “Quotable: Material Matters”

  1. Lindsay January 29, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    I’m just reading Butler’s Gender Trouble now … have to remember to read Nussbaum’s article when I finish.

    There’s a documentary called “Examined Life” that’s about how philosophers live their philosophies, and both Butler and Nussbaum are in it. I don’t know how interested you are in either of those philosophers, but there it is if you want to check it out.

    • lishra January 29, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

      I just recently had bookmarked some clips from that documentary to watch later, so thanks for reminding me!

      I’ve read a good deal of Butler, being a women’s studies major, but I’m not that familiar with Nussbaum. In a non-women’s-studies class that dealt with gender, 40 pages of “Gender Trouble” was given as an intro to feminist theory. Oh, lordy, the mess that was. Nussbaum’s article was the first critique of Butler I’d come across since I hadn’t sought it out until recently.

  2. lefthandofeminism January 30, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    Thanks for reminding me of Nussbaum’s thorough repudiation of Butler and her “amoral” politics. I read the entire essay this morning with great interest, not least because, in order to get a tenure-track job in English, I was encouraged to identify my own feminism with Butler’s posturing. And in course after course taught in Women’s Studies and in English at that institution, undergraduates were introduced to Butler as though she were feminism’s most original and important voice.

    Nussbaum writes with purifying fire when she observes that Butler’s badly written books bully
    ” the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is
    going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.”

    And I have always agreed with the following:

    “When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin. When Butler’s notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don’t go far, and they are not especially new…Indeed, it is clear that Butler, like Foucault, is adamantly opposed to normative notions such as human dignity, or treating humanity as an end, on the grounds that they are inherently dictatorial.

    But by far my favorite passage in this article, in addition to the one you quote, is found at the end:

    “The great tragedy in the new feminist theory in America is the loss of a sense of
    public commitment. In this sense, Butler’s self-involved feminism is extremely American, and it is not surprising that it has caught on here, where successful middle-class people prefer to focus on cultivating the self rather than thinking in a way that helps the material condition of others. Even in America, however, it is possible for theorists to be dedicated to the public good and to achieve something through that effort. Many feminists in America are still theorizing in a way that supports material change and responds to the situation of the most oppressed. Increasingly, however, the academic and cultural trend is toward the pessimistic flirtatiousness represented by the theorizing of Butler and her followers. Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It 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 safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn’t it exciting and sexy?
    In its small way, of course, this is a hopeful politics. It instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold. But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures really are political change, it offers only a false hope. Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it. ”

    Many praises!

    • Lindsay January 30, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

      [I]n course after course taught in Women’s Studies and English … undergraduates were introduced to Butler as though she were feminism’s most important and original voice.

      The feminism I was introduced to in two of my college classes (intro to political philosophy and an upper-level English class on the literature of the oppressed) was definitely the more old-school kind, if that makes you feel any better. We read MacKinnon as our representative Feminist Theorist in political philosophy, and in the other class we read Nawal El Saadawi.

      El Saadawi is actually the person I credit with making me a feminist in the first place.

  3. Eleutheria January 30, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    But, but, but! Playing at power games, it can so help survivors of power abuses!!! (Cf. The Survivor’s Guide to Sex: How to Have an Empowered (sic) Life After Child Sexual Abuse, Chapter 13.) I was seriously disgusted the first time I stumbled across that. Point to make: I was never sexually abused as a child, but I was severely emotionally abused, so much that in one case, I prefered to ran across the perverted child who touched me over my clothes than to get dirty to run away and be yelled at by my grandparents (do you imagine what that means?). I was emotionally abused with threats of eventual physical violence – and suggested threats of sexual violence, yes. Not from them, no – from others: “Why would you want to have a father? Would you like to have a father who beats you, who abuses you, who….. [implied]??” And my mother was a champ at threatening that my future boyfriends (because in her head, I could only ever be straight – there was no option) would rape me in retaliation of me being a moody, melancholic, assertive bitch. Do you think I sincerely want to play at games messing around with “fear play” (wtf)? I was already been sufficiently terrorized. Thank you very much. I’ll pass.

    You think I want to replay at that? Even if I’m the one who’s the dom? Oh, I do have some vague domination, revenge fantasies issues – but flashnews: that’s what being abused produces sometimes. Or often. Domination isn’t a “natural drive” of humanity: it’s a way to cope with abuse. Anyway, in my view it is. And I’d be fucking triggered to do that to someone else, even if I’m the one doing.

    Sorry that went on forever with my own autobiography. But fuck, yeah, I fucking agree with that quote. BDSM is never going to fucking help the world – and being sexually “empowered” (whatever that means) either. Ask them if they need that in Egypt and Tunisia. Right. (But at the same time – that’s one of the tropes I study and debunk – revolutions are always sparked by sexually frustrated virgins or puritans. [The important in this link is that some douche is assuming that an entire radical political group of 300 revolutionary men are sexually frustrated and refusing to get off. I have no idea how she checked that, really. But the important is that it’s the reason they’re evil. Not getting off = evil. And you have to get off only in the way the Patriarchy tells you too.] It’s the same than the trope saying feminists are man-hating frigid, etc. Are you surprised? Those who are revolted only needed sex to be “good subjects”? I’m not shocked.)

    Okay I stop the self-advertisement to my blog with links to my posts. Yikes. >_>

  4. Eleutheria January 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    This is just before the part you quoted (I wanted to see the lead-up to it):

    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.


    Butler needs to read a fucking history book on what happened in the last 250 years. For example, how it is that we now live in democracies (albeit corrupt and oligarchic ones).

    Also, her definition of resistance? Wtf? Go tell that to those who fought the Nazi on occupied territories? “Oh, you will never defeat them: just stop fighting and find fun where you can. What is it you’re saying? They’re all going to kill you because you’re Jewish, Communists, or Jewish communists? Oh well, too bad for you. You just had not to be enemies of the state.”

    I’m going to throw in a loaded word, but her quietism is collaborationism.

    Also very much fitting with what I remember reading on postmodernism. We won’t ever change anything, there’s no hope, so let’s have fun instead, blah blah blah. Fruitless hedonism.

  5. Linda Radfem January 30, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Thanks Lishra, for pointing us in the direction of such an enlightening essay. I’ve had a couple of attempts at Butler’s work, and I don’t mind admitting that I just find her too hard to read. But this analysis makes some of her ideals appear downright dangerous. Think of the potential for them to give licence to MRAs or White Supremacists, for example.

    As a feminist and a critical social worker, it’s really good to see privileged middle-class academic feminists being challenged like this.

    Also, that’s disturbing to hear that one theorist was used as an intro to a subject. Like that would ever happen in male-centric disciplines. Can you imagine an intro to sociology consisting entirely of Weber?

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