My friend Carlon sent me the link to an article (www.akad.se/Nussbaum.pdf ) where Martha Nussbaum presents a critique against Judith Butler’s position in Gender Trouble. He then asked me for my opinion. So here is an extremely long response to my friend.
The Martha Nussbaum article that you sent me last week is the most famous, and most uncharitable, inaccurate critique of Judith Butler I ever read. I remember that my friend Hannah shared this article with me last winter, when we were both trying to make our way, and stumbling, through Frames of War. After reading this, I wanted to throw it against a wall. Not for what it said ( although I am beginning to anticipate how philosophy might, one day, give me an anger problem) but rather because it represented a lot of what is wrong in academia and especially in the world of Philosophy nowadays. So I wanted to give you my comment, mostly because Nussbaum’s critique of Butler and her misreading go back to a larger problem that affects politics in general. But also because deep down, I think that making one’s way, or stumbling through Butler’s work, is a worthwhile task.
I’m going to skip the part where Nussbaum declares Butler to be a “quietist,” politically “passive” and also the parts where she spends at least two pages laughing at Butler’s concept of “subversion” and later at her writing style. This is normal in the history of Continental Philosophy. Heidegger got laughed at by Carnap for being inaccurate and obscure about “dasein” a few decades ago. Yet very few take Carnap seriously nowadays, but we are all still reading Heidegger. So it goes.
I think the clear misreading appears in part III of Nussbaum’s article. In p. 5, Nussbaum claims that the main problem is Butler’s idea that gender is “a social artifice.” Here, I think that Nussbaum understands Butler as a post-modernist. I really think this is the biggest problem and I will explain this to you if you care to keep reading.
A lot of people understand Butler as a post-modernist although I don’t have enough citations to back this up.
This is not how I read her, and this is not how anybody should read her.
Briefly, post-modernism is a tradition of thought which declared the end of all grand narratives, the end of history, the end of art, the end of politics, the end of substance, the end of unity, the end of the end.. (A philosopher who defends this popular view teaches at my school: Hugh Silverman, but I don’t have citations to back this up either, so you will have to trust me.) Those who accept that it is the end of a lot of things, are now free of the constraining power of metaphysics, of grand-narratives, of the Hegelian struggle for self-realization. The term “anything goes” also represents this line of thought (especially in art). Now, post-modernism which sides with the idea of deconstruction, or the idea of a lack of unity (I am explaining this with no charity whatsoever) also adheres to an anti-essentialist stance. And although Butler holds an anti-essentialist position, she is not necessarily a post-modernist. Nussbaum, on the other hand, assigns to Butler the role of an anti-essentialist philosopher who is also a post-modernist. This leads Nussbaum to declare that Butler’s philosophy cannot get us anywhere politically, which allows her to laugh at Butler even more for being politically “passive” and for having no normative to accompany her thought.
And if Butler’s thought is understood as adhering to post-modernism, then for sure Nussbaum’s critique gains accuracy.
In my view, Nussbaum argues that to reach political action, we need some sort of conceptual, biological, metaphysical, or categorical unity. Without this, there is no representation. This is my reading of Nussbaum, and she is not explicit about this in her article, but she writes on p. 9 that “even where sex difference is concerned, it is too simple to write it off all as culture…” and that “feminists should not be eager to make such a sweeping gesture.” So the fear we find with Nussbaum, the “passivity” she argues against, is linked to relativism and to post-modernist thought where “everything goes” is fatal to politics. Nussbaum finds in Butler’s use of parody, of subversion… the end of real politics. So to gain representation, Nussbaum defends the need for a solid category (that of “women” for example.)
So let me defend this; that Butler is not a post-modernist, yet Butler adopts an anti-essentialist stance because, I think, she already previews the problems generated by essentialism in politics and gender issues. These are problems that Nussbaum completely overlooks. Butler also anticipates that before representation, comes recognition. I cannot tell you how important I think this Hegelian term is.
I know you read Gender Trouble so I’m not going to write about her theory of performativity, or about the entire problems Butler finds within our western “metaphysics of substance.” But a question that rises, or at least, something that I think is important to ask is, can we have anti-essentialism without post-modernism? A lot of Michael Kelly’s work in Aesthetics follows this line of thought. So I’ve had this question drilled into my brain endless times. But this question is important to me because it allows for politics and ethics, to enter the realm of anti-essentialism without having to give up the fight and surrender to post-modernism, allowing us in the end to actually do useful philosophy, or as Arendt claimed, allowing us to “think in dark times.”
I strongly believe Butler’s account of recognition is a key term to argue against the so called “passivity” that Nussbaum attributes to Butler’s thought. It is also a key term to link anti-essentialism to political action, and to develop a contingent ontology of the body. Maybe I am romanticizing philosophy too much; in that I think we can still change the world by reading a couple of old white guys, and a bunch of younger white ladies, but here is my constant love-hate affair with this discipline. I think that philosophy is a two sided coin: that it has the ability to harm, but also to aid us in the search for meaning and better lives.
Butler is not a “passive” philosopher. She sees essentialism as problematic because the more this thought tries to “embrace” persons, or forms of life under one category, the more it covers up or leaves out other persons, other forms of life. So her further goal, at least in Gender Trouble is to get to the root of the problem, to declare gender as a social construction, thus, allowing for more space towards the recognition of other forms of gender, of life, that also deserve to be recognized. So the main problem to Butler is that some persons (prostitutes, transgendered, black women, and middle-eastern women, children in Hamas to give a few examples) are less recognized, or not recognized as persons at all under a “metaphysics of substance” which unifies to the point where it problematically “covers up” the visible forms, the body, and life itself.
Nussbaum does not give us a solution to the problem that Butler is so strongly aware of. She rather turns to essentialism in her article, demanding we seek out for a normative, for another grand-narrative. So we could say that Nussbaum is also and again, a slave doing philosophy in the master’s house. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Hegel.
After finishing Philosophy of Right this week, what can I tell you? The concept of Recognition has come up again as a relevant problem to me. Two hundred years later, in the face of the ever lasting violence and never ending wars. So I am currently revisiting Hegel’s Lordship and Bondage, because here is where I find the master-slave dialectic that applies not only to gender and race issues, but also to the issue of personhood which Butler focuses on in her most recent work, when she asks: “what is a life anyways? And “what are the conditions to secure a life so that we don’t justify its destruction?”
Within Recognition I see the struggle between consciousness and self-consciousness, which is a constant struggle that keeps taking place, at every minute, in every corner of this world. When there is no recognition there is also no representation so representation presupposes recognition, although it should not. This is Nussbaum’s mistake, that she presupposes recognition within representation. But the way I read Hegel and consequently Butler is through this sequence: When there is no recognition there cannot be representation, so there is violence: If you don’t treat me as a human being, you refuse to recognize me as a person, or as a life. If you refuse to acknowledge that I exist as a living being, and rather rationalize my life as a life worth dispensing, then war and violence have a justification within the normative powers and frames at work. This happens on a large scale with war, immigration policies etc. but it also occurs on a smaller scale with domestic-violence for example. So this is how I’m reading Butler, through Hegel. This is how I see her anti-essentialist stance as one which is not post-modern at all, but can lead us to more egalitarian norms of recognition.
So Nussbaum argues against the post-modernist thought that she mistakenly sees in Butler, and Butler rejects essentialism. My point is that Nussbaum’s position assumes a little too much about Butler. It assumes Butler to be a “passive” post-modern thinker because of her anti-essentialism, it assumes post-modernism to be a joke, it assumes that representation is granted to every human being as a natural right, it assumes that relativism is the death of politics. Yet there is another reading to Butler’s thought. We can read her as an active political thinker who disregards both essentialism and post-modernism. And we can ask: who gets recognized within essentialism? Who might have the possibility to be recognized within anti-essentialism? And how can we do philosophy in dark times, in the face of violence, if we remain unable to grant recognition in more egalitarian ways?”