The Butler controversy continues. For some reason Todd Gitlin, whom even people who disagree with him consider “nuanced,” comes out with a defense of his colleague at Columbia, Judith Butler. Despite the obvious daylight between him and Judith, he frames this as part of a schoolyard fight where he’s defending his friend, and is just one stage before, “I’m rubber and your glue…”
Not what I’d call a serious contribution to the issues at hand.
The Trouble With Judith Butler—and Her Critics
September 4, 2012, 2:24 pm
By Todd Gitlin
Whatever one wants to say about the philosopher Judith Butler’s contribution to contemporary thought, I suspect that not even her most devoted disciple would call her a lucid writer. In her introduction to an early book, Gender Trouble, she writes:
- There is a new venue for theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet, where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.
What we have here, and throughout Butler’s writings, are
not so much [sic?] sentences that carry propositions as a whiff of the burning of incense before an idol called “theory.” There are some in the academy who find this practice “emancipating.” I do not.
I agree (nice image), although this is hardly the most impenetrable of her smoke columns. It actually brushes close to comprehensibility.
Be that as it may, the author of those unilluminating sentences is soon to receive the City of Frankfurt’s triennial Theodor W. Adorno Prize, named for the brilliant, prolific, vastly complex, often tangled, so-called Frankfurt School German-Jewish thinker genius who was himself given to wild overstatement of the sort that Butler, in fact, quotes in the epigraph to another one of her books: “The value of thought is measured by its distance from the continuity of the familiar.” A moment’s reflection shows this to be nonsense. Adorno had bad days, too.
Actually it’s one of the unspoken goals of most academics who want to make an original contribution: the counter-intuitive truth. Who wants to spend a lifetime regurgitating Vérités de la Palice?
The politics of “theory” and prize committees would be interesting subjects on their own, but the focus of vehement attack by The Jerusalem Post and organizations devoted to My-Israel-Right-or-Wrong politics is a more specific claim.
This is an interesting trope that one runs across often: “my Israel right or wrong” or the “Israel firsters.” It’s an effort to dismiss as some kind of primitive incarnation of an “us-them” mentality, people who defend Israel against calumnies. Most people identified as Israel-firsters are not. They are capable of both recognizing legitimate criticism and even articulating it.
But we draw lines between constructive criticism and destructive, between criticizing policies soberly and demonizing, between concerned tochachah and existential hatred. Most people who dismiss defenders of Israel as Israel-firsters, on the other hand, are “Israel is wrong firsters,” who, like Judith Butler, have no trouble finding their full-throated voices when criticizing Israel in no uncertain terms and based on highly uncertain sources, but somehow mumble and fumble when it comes to denouncing her ferocious enemies.
In the context of a battle with an enemy that has one of the most regressive “my side right or wrong” attitudes – “love my side and hate everyone else” – which is constantly being reinforced by the opposite “progressive” meme of “your side right or wrong” that must accept the epistemological priority of the subaltern “Other” (as does Helena Cobban), it’s a pretty ugly accusation. It goes hand in hand with the common trope, “any criticism of Israel is considered anti-Semitic,” which Butler and her convulsively anti-Israel colleagues uses constantly as a smokescreen for vicious criticism.
In the words of the Post’s Benjamin Weinthal, Butler “advocates a sweeping boycott of ties with Israel’s cultural and academic establishment and has defended Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organizations.”
This slovenly slash-and-burn propaganda, masquerading as journalism, has occasioned a crisp reply by Butler:
Wow. This is pretty amazing. Weinthal’s piece is slash and burn propaganda, while her long, rambling, and insubstantial reply is “crisp”? Surely a scholar of nuance, like Todd Gitlin can do better. This is red-meat language for the carnivore “progressive” choir.