Judith Butler’s Deific Damage

David Clemens

In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the state to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursuing a deific end.1

William Barr, Attorney General of the United States

Science, seeking confirmation, proof, objective testing and proof, cannot avail itself of this cardinal human loneliness, but literature can. And this with language that is always failing and stumbling, breaking the writer’s heart with its mere approximateness to the thing in his mind. Besides, language is always asserting its primitive authority, is a halting servant but can be a terrible master. Science progresses all the time, literature never. How should it “improve” over the centuries when its very subject is the enigma, the inaccessibility of the human condition?2

Alfred Kazin

When Academic Questions asked me to write about the effect on literature of Dr. Judith Butler and her strain of gender postmodernism, I thought it was an intriguing challenge. Having been in the trenches of the Culture War from the 1960s to the 2010s, I was an eyewitness to the political left’s deliberate and methodical destruction of Western literary and artistic culture. Hence, my first epigraph above, as I hope here to consider one particular “collateral consequence” resulting from the “deific ends” of Dr. Butler.

Over the last twenty-five years, Butler has constructed (pun intended) a formidable reputation at the University of California at Berkeley where she is Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory and a scholar of Third Wave Feminism, feminist ethics, queer theory, film, continental philosophy, and gender studies. She currently serves as president of the Modern Language Association (2020-2021).

My purpose is not to disparage such an academic superstar; I was just a corporal in the Culture War, while Dr. Butler is a four-star general. And higher education should question and explore everything in the disinterested search for truth. Unfortunately, most progressive academics’ meditations and theories are not disinterested at all; they are political, and Butler’s are no exception (she is vocally anti-Trump, anti-Zionist, and while sort of denying support for Hamas and Hezbollah, she does cop to “partially true” support for the BDS Movement).3 But it’s ok to dispense with disinterest, Butler suggests, because the university is

inevitably politicized—and we can think of many political issues: effective policies on sexual and racial harassment, funding for the study of native peoples, investment policies that damage the environment or contribute to the subjugation of others—the university is also a place where we can actually learn about gender, sexuality, the environment, race, indigeneity, economics and justice, to name but a few of those issues.4

The problem I see is that critical theories Butler incubated in the ivory tower have leaked out of Berkeley’s seminar rooms and polluted the ground water of journalism, K-12 education, and politics.5 As Molly Fischer puts it, “Theoryspeak . . . has infiltrated civilian vocabularies.”6 We imbibe Butler’s assumptions daily when we struggle with prosecutable pronoun use, proliferating genders, social constructionist cul de sac, subjectivism, and with the abandonment of biology, logic, reason, and ultimately reality.

The first difficulty one encounters when speaking of Butler’s influence is the opacity of her prose, for which she is either celebrated as a sophisticated uber intellectual or mocked as a prolix academic charlatan. The Introduction of her 2013 book on Israel, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, provides a brief example of Butler’s thought and expression:

Perhaps in some formal sense every book begins by considering its own impossibility, but this book's completion had depended on a way of working with that impossibility without a clear resolution. Even so, something of that impossibility has to be sustained within the writing, even if it continually threatens to bring the project to a halt.7

That sounds like brainy deepthink, but right away, one realizes that “Perhaps” also means “perhaps not.” “Some formal sense” (or some other; what are the possible formal senses?). What exactly is a “formal sense?” Lacking consciousness, and even existence, how does an unwritten book “consider” anything, much less its “own impossibility?” What is a “way of working” and how does one sustain an impossibility, and why does impossibility have to be sustained? Butler offers the reader a cascade of hedges and qualifiers, paradoxes, contradictions, and abstractions in the book’s first two sentences.

One also notes in her prose an alarming tendency to resort to absolutism: politicization is “inevitable,” books exhibit “impossibility,” everyone has an “absolute obligation” to seek nonviolence. And her regal pronouncements and needless jargon frequently gild the most anodyne sentiments. For example, “Precariousness and precarity are intersecting concepts. Lives are by definition precarious: they can be expunged at will or by accident; their persistence is in no sense guaranteed.”8 So far as I know, mortality is not news, and I would argue that Achilles expresses its certainty much more eloquently as he slaughters the begging Lyka’on in The Iliad:

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so? Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you. And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you, death and the strong force of fate are waiting.9

In order not to pile on, I will spare the reader the sentence that won Butler the 1998 Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal, Philosophy and Literature. But it’s a doozy.10

Yet even if one can semantically puzzle out what Butler might be intending to convey, her mode of argument is also problematic. Butler insists that we must “think critically, and to ask others to do the same.”11 In Folkways (1906), William Graham Sumner wrote, “Criticism [today’s “critical thinking”] is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not.”12 Such an examination is thwarted when it is not clear what the proposition is proposing. In a scathing critique of Butler in 1999, noted Anglo-American philosopher Martha Nussbaum put it this way: “It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are.”13

I would add that she is particularly fond of the strawman argument, liberally deploying “we” and “they,” “people believe” and “many people believe.” Sadly, critical thinking is impossible when a proposition “offered for acceptance” rejects the possibility of verification or falsification, as continental philosophy so often does. Thus, a Butler proposition about, say, gender is nothing more than a pronouncement, an assertion or claim hanging in the air unanchored by anything except verbal performance and circular reasoning. Butler accepts no obligation to test her propositions against reality, as Sumner insists, since, for her, reality itself is subjective and fluid, a universal and inescapable carnival of “performativity,” particularly regarding gender. As Nasrullah Mambrol explains, for Butler,

[g]ender is a fantasy enacted by “corporeal styles that constitute bodily significations.”14 In other words, gender is an act, a performance, a set of manipulated codes, costumes, rather than a core aspect of essential identity. Butler’s main metaphor for this is “drag,” i.e. dressing like a person of the “opposite sex.” All gender is a form of “drag,” according to Butler; there is no “real” core gender to refer to.15

So, what does all this gender theorizing have to do with literature? How can an abstruse thread of philosophical musing threaten a foundation of Western culture? In response, I would argue that Butler’s stance (if one can call committed subjectivity and fluidity a stance) turns literature into one of Barr’s deific casualties.

Literature suffers when Butler rejects essentialism in favor of social constructionism. Essentialism holds that there is “a way things are,” that there are “facts of the matter,” and that it is possible to “get it right” (and get it wrong), with regard to necessary precepts in fields such as engineering, law, and the sciences, especially applied science (one wants the building to stand up and the airplane to take off). Essentialism accepts reality as objective and independent from human existence and opinions. Essentialism embraces Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction (either A, or not A), the granddaddy of all binaries.

In literature, essentialism is indispensable because actions described and choices made by characters must produce consequences or nothing that is depicted has any meaning. Social constructionism, on the other hand, asserts that nothing is essential because literally everything is socially constructed, including reality. Mark Bauerlein defines social constructionism as “a simple belief system, founded upon the basic proposition that knowledge is never true per se, but true relative to a culture, a situation, a language, an ideology, or some other social condition.”16 And what has been constructed can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Malleability is an essential (pun intended) assumption for advocates of social engineering. The greatest obstacle for tomorrow’s workers’ paradise is an indifferent, intractable, and enigmatic reality.

If, as Butler argues, performativity constitutes gender, if everyone is, in a sense, in drag without a real soul, a durable self, or even a real identity preexisting the gender costume mandated by society, as Butler claims, how is one to read the characters in Jane Austen? Or Homer? Or Chekov? Or Shakespeare? In the literature classroom, what would you talk about?

The answer, of course, is that you would talk about the multiculturalist trinity of oppression: race, class, and gender/sexual orientation, over and over again. None of these terms is, in fact, a property of something imaginary. As a result, many, if not most, literature classes today resemble places where, as the Irish critic Denis Donoghue put it, “people use literature to talk about things that interest them apart from literature.”17

Instead of literary architectonics, students are saddled with sociology, psychology, social justice, oppression, and leftist politics. As one of my former students, a literature major, was warned when he transferred to a University of California campus, “If you’ve taken one class here, you’ve taken them all.”

Besides comparative literature and the others, Butler teaches “feminist ethics” which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes as aiming:

to understand, criticize, and correct: (1) the binary view of gender, (2) the privilege historically available to men, and/or (3) the ways that views about gender maintain oppressive social orders or practices that harm others, especially girls and women who historically have been subordinated, along gendered dimensions including sexuality and gender-identity.”18

The goal to “correct” is, as my father used to say, “the meat of the coconut.” “Correcting” aligns Butler with other areas of feminist academia that are dedicated to leftist social change. As Mambrol puts it in his essay “Postmodernism and Feminism,” “Any definition of feminism must see it above all as a social and political force aimed at changing existing power relations among men and women.”19 Of course, correction is also the goal of the re-education camp, the speech code, the “safe space,” and the trigger warning, all of which are inimical to literature.

The damage to literature was already becoming visible to me at least thirty years ago. I recall discussing Herman Melville in an Introduction to Literature class when a young female student raised her hand to ask a question: Why was I talking about Moby Dick when her previous teacher had said that Moby Dick was “a bad book?” I asked why her previous teacher said that, but she couldn’t remember so I moved on.

Yet while I lectured, I kept trying to understand what one would object to in the crown jewel of American literature. Well, I thought, there is only one female in Moby Dick, a spectral invocation of Ahab’s wife back in Nantucket. The Pequod’s officers are all white males while the subordinate harpooners are a Native American, an African, and a Pacific Islander. The ship’s environmental damage is in the service of capitalism. Captain Ahab is both monomaniacal and handicapped, an insult to the disabled. The dialogue is often presented in dialect. It’s an African-American child who loses his mind.

My head was spinning with the opportunities for outrage when the student’s hand went up again. “I remembered, Mr. Clemens! My teacher said Moby Dick was a bad book because it showed cruelty to animals!” That is, to depict whaling in writing is equivalent to practicing whaling. Today, this nonsensical sentiment lives on in Butler’s objections to anything she deems hurtful or offensive to anyone in “precarious” or “vulnerable” circumstances (which, she does allow, is everyone).

Lately, Butler has been dwelling on a couple of other qualities desirable in the world she seeks to build: grievability and nonviolence. “Grievability” means that we can achieve a “radical equality” only when we grieve the loss of everyone equally. To the extent that we grieve selectively, we dehumanize those less grieved. Speaking of the AIDS epidemic she says,

It enraged me then, as it does now, that some lives were considered to be more worthy of grieving publicly than others, depending on the status and recognizability of those persons and their relations. And that came home to me in a different way in the aftermath of 9/11, when it was very clear that certain lives could be highly memorialized in the newspapers and others could not. Those who were openly mourned tended to lead lives whose value was measured by whether they had property, education, whether they were married and had a dog and some children. The traditional heterosexual frame became the condition of possibility for public mourning.20

I would suggest that John Donne may have made this argument more elegantly.

Butler’s most recent book is The Force of Nonviolence (2020). Asked to define “violence,” she says,

The physical blow cannot be the only model for thinking about what violence is. Anything that jeopardizes the lives of others through explicit policy or through negligence—and that would include all kinds of public policies or state policies—are practices of institutional or systemic violence. Prisons are the most persistent form of systemic violence regularly accepted as a necessary reality. We can think about contemporary borders and detention centers as clear institutions of violence. These violent institutions claim that they are seeking to make society less violent, or that borders keep violent people out. We have to be careful in thinking about how “violence” is used in these kinds of justifications. Once those targeted with violence are identified with violence, then violent institutions can say, “The violence is over there, not here,” and inflict injury as they wish.21

That’s right; even borders are violence.

What’s the answer to the grief deficit and ubiquitous violence? Butler proposes a very Berkeley-in-the-60s answer:

Acknowledging dependency as a condition of who any of us happens to be is difficult enough. But the larger task is to affirm social and ecological interdependence, which is regularly misrecognized as well. If we were to rethink ourselves as social creatures who are fundamentally dependent upon one another—and there’s no shame, no humiliation, no “feminization” in that—I think that we would treat each other differently, because our very conception of self would not be defined by individual self-interest.22

That’s right. Butler’s solution is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius:

Harmony and understanding

Sympathy and trust abounding

No more falsehoods or derisions

Golden living dreams of visions

Mystic crystal revelation

And the mind's true liberation

Although she may sound like a hippie, Butler changes her benign tune when she calls President Trump shameful, criminal, a moral sadist, violent, and a white supremacist.23

The literary fallout from Butler’s thinking and writing about “precariousness,” “grievability,” and nonviolence is evident in Columbia University’s dropping Ovid from its legendary Lit Hum core course because of his retelling of the Daphne and Apollo myth. Columbia students objected on the grounds that

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.24

In Butlerese, Ovid offends, oppresses, and violently victimizes the Ivy League precariat. Butler also has a word of advice for anyone who speaks or writes: “as important as freedom of expression is—and it most surely is—so too it is important to know what it is we want to express, and why.”25 Choose your pronouns carefully, comrade.

If you apply these “even figurative language can harm” and “language can be a form of violence” principles to literature, you can back up the trucks and empty the libraries.

The loss of imaginative literature would be all right with Butlerists, however, because in the academic left’s socially-constructed world, nothing is essential or fated, nothing doomed or foreordained, no Oracle at Delphi or witches on the heath, nothing inevitable (except the triumph of progressivism), nothing natural, no persisting enigmatic human nature such as Kazin described in my second epigraph.

Aldous Huxley’s World Controller casually dismisses the erasure of cultural knowledge as “Whisk Whisk” and the field is cleared of all obstacles to the utopian social engineering of the kinder world Butler envisions.26 Sadly, social constructionism is the giant eraser of all things literary—goodbye tragedy (and comedy); buh-bye irony and ambiguity; tata character, see ya Gatsby, Oedipus, King Lear, Antigone, Medea, Josef K., all just helpless performers of society’s restrictive, perpetual costume drama.

Fiction, on the other hand, really is constructed, by an author, and everything is inevitable—the end of a story is embedded in the DNA of the narrative. Consider the opening sentence of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.27

A story that begins this way cannot, and will not, end happily. The denotation and connotation of the chosen words, their sequence and rhythm, the adjectives, the title, the pacing, the setting, even the punctuation prohibit any cheerful narrative resolution. The story will end the way it must, based on conditions established in its beginning, or it will be rejected by any reader sensitive to the underlying structures of life.

Each verbal choice made by the author creates not only narrative necessity, but also an aesthetic experience of linguistic beauty. Yet if Butler is right, literature’s significance can only be its complicity in depicting and reinforcing what she considers constraining and harmful stereotypes of race, class, and gender.

Every age has its scolds and nannies anxious to bowdlerize or censor literary works, but Butler and her leftist acolytes have upped the ante. Instead of attacking a text’s literary quality, they attack the reality that literature seeks to explore. Butler’s notions of non-binary performativity and social constructionism, her grievability and precariat, are useless tools for literary criticism. They are neither exegetical, nor appreciative, nor analytical. Her theories pass over aesthetics and architectonics. No literary interpretation or hermeneutics. The fact is, leftist literary theory doesn’t need literature at all. Theory doesn’t even want literature around because literature is nothing more than a sad rehearsal of the “oppressive social orders” in every society throughout history. No need to wrestle with Proust, Joyce, Kafka, or Musil; literature scholars can just “do theory” instead.

Dr. Butler’s goal, after all, is liberating the world that literature has helped enslave. Linguistic beauty or imagination are not considerations when one is preoccupied by oppression based on race, class, and gender/sexual orientation. But what’s most threatening to the left is that the interaction between a literary text and a reader occurs within the reader, beyond the reach of the state. The state doesn’t like that.

Literature is a constant danger to indoctrination of any kind. Look what happens when 1984 or Darkness at Noon or Fahrenheit 451 or Notes from Underground is allowed to go off in a reader’s mind? No, that is too troubling to contemplate. Readers might start thinking about the eternal enigmas of the human condition rather than obeying the transforming plans that the state has for us all.

If the Butlerian critics’ destructive view prevails and literature can only be thought of and spoken of as evidentiary and probative in the case against Western culture, a record of racism, sexism, classism, and binarism (plus all the intersectionalities thereof), then literature and its study will collapse as surely as Roderick Usher’s house.

Judith Butler, on the other hand, is still going strong and doing theory. She recently starred in a New York Live Arts multimedia performance piece titled “Fragments, Lists & Lacunae” in which she delivers nine lectures to a staged seminar. How clever to have the high priestess of performativity performing herself performing performativity. One thinks of Borges Lite, or, perhaps, the fabulist Edmund Morris/“Edmund Morris.” On a YouTube promo, you can actually hear Butler reveal to her make-believe class that “[a]bsences structure, organize, compose, and constitute presences. The lacunae are where it’s at.” Right on, Professor Butler. “Let the sunshine in.”

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