A Shift in Perspective

August 30, 2019

All of our discontents for what we want appear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have. 
~ Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

I decided recently that I was in a rut, spending too much time in familiar territory. I’m an Aries, and we don’t fall into this trap easily nor do we tolerate it for long. I think financial difficulties combined with healing from injuries kept me focused on issues in front of my face. The financial problems are still here, but they’ve relaxed somewhat, and some of the injuries have resolved and others are resolving. I’ve been feeling like something indefinable has shifted in me.

So, I decided to make an effort to broaden my horizons a bit, to read new authors and hike new trails. I decided to read Robinson Crusoe, because it’s been on my list forever and I’ve never gotten around to it.

What’s ironic is that the story opens with a warning against adventure. The protagonist is a young man from comfortable circumstances who decides he wants to see the world and seek novel experiences. His father emphatically tells him “not to play the young man, nor to precipitate myself into miseries which nature and the station of life I was born in, seemed to have provided against…”

Well, that’s Robinson Crusoe. I’ll see when I finish the book if he remains repentant for submitting to his restive nature. Meanwhile, I drove some distance yesterday to a mountain I haven’t hiked before. It took some time to get there, because sitting in a car is uncomfortable for me and I had to make a few stops. Also, I ran into a lot of road construction and that slowed my journey. It wasn’t the best day for a hike because the area had been deluged with rain the day before and the trail was swampy and the rocks slippery. I don’t have pictures, because I wasn’t aware that I was on top of the mountain when I got there; I arrived so quickly at the height of land that I didn’t think I was there and continued along the loop trail. For all that, I enjoyed the hike and would like to return on a drier day. I returned with a new appreciation for the beauty of the trails in my own backyard and a realization that their difficulty has made me a strong hiker.

Adirondack High Peaks from Newcomb

Desolate Places

August 22, 2019

It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern’st good-night.

~ William Shakespeare, MacBeth

Two of the most forsaken places in popular imagination are cemeteries at night and deep outer space. I spent an evening earlier this week at Norton Cemetery stargazing with a friend who has a really good telescope.

Photo: Greg Smith

As we waited for twilight to deepen, a bat flitted over our heads. Eastern Coyotes wailed in the distance. As the night got underway, a Long-Eared Owl began her subtle one-note song.

The Ojibwe call death “crossing the owl bridge,” and the Tohono O’odham bury owl feathers with loved ones. The association in Western Europe of owls with death is thought to carry over from the pre-Indo-European practice of excarnation, the placement of dead bodies on platforms to be devoured by birds. But all the bodies in this cemetery were in the ground.

Photo: Rawastrodata

I heard the territorial scream of a Long-Eared Owl a few years ago, and I’ll never forget it. A friend and I were camping and awakened in the night by the sound, so piercing that we scrambled out of our sleeping bags trying to place it. In contrast, the single long note of the placid Long-Eared Owl could easily be missed if not repeated.

The stargazing was great. We looked at Saturn with his rings and Jupiter with his moons and debated how “Io” should be pronounced (I say EE-oh, you say EYE-oh).

One of the most awesome sights through the telescope, six thousand light years away, was the Wild Duck star cluster. It was discovered in 1681 by Gottfried Kirch and included in Charles Messier’s 1764 catalog (M-11). It is supposed to resemble the tale of a duck in flight. Honestly, I couldn’t see it, but it is a beautiful cluster.

All Hail the Fisher

August 16, 2019

This week I participated in a storytelling project about the Adirondacks. I chose the fisher as my subject, an animal I did not know existed before moving here.

The fisher is a member of the weasel family, the size of a large cat and sometimes called a fishercat. When pussies go missing in the Adirondacks, though, the culprit is often a fisher.

Fishers are quite aggressive, snarling and hissing at people who surprise them rather than running away. They feed on animals much larger than they are and can even kill and eat porcupines! Once a fisher lunged at me, probably defending a kill.

The fisher who frightened me so badly was on the ground, but fishers spend most of their time in the trees. They need large expanses of uninterrupted forest, so they are only found in sparsely populated areas of North America.

If you encounter a fisher in the wild, give her plenty of room. She is not impressed by your larger size, and she is much meaner than you.

Iphigenia in Aulis

August 9, 2019

I was reading Iphigenia in Aulis this week, and another thought struck me about this myth.

The Greeks performed a ritual to Artemis prior to attacking Troy, offering Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her priestesshood, in order to secure favorable winds and other blessings from the goddess, who was venerated along the coast of Asia Minor. Buttering up the gods of the people you planned to attack, trying to get them to move over to your side, was an ancient war strategy. The story goes that Iphigenia was going to be killed at the altar, but by a miracle Artemis substituted a deer (or sometimes, a bear) at the last minute. This made a better story, but it (probably) was an embellishment. Maybe as part of the ritual to Artemis a deer was sacrificed. Maybe Iphigenia initially protested being relegated into chastity. Her mother almost certainly wasn’t onboard with the plan. But I’m not going along with the miracle substitution.

Photo: Elfer

I was thinking this week about how Judy Grahn and other feminists have viewed the Trojan War as a last stand against Western patriarchy, the defeated Trojans representing the matriarchy. The all-women priestesshoods were relics from the matriarchies, their continuation an uneasy truce, or even a condition of surrender. As patriarchy gained a firmer hold, the Witch hunts of the Catholic (later Protestant) church sought to eliminate these relics of female power. The persecution of Dianics by American Witches are a continuation of that quest to subdue female power under male domination. Thinking of the autonomous priestesshood as a term of surrender puts the attacks on Dianics within Paganism in sharper focus. The three major methods of maintaining female subordination under Patriarchy are violence, economic oppression, and religion. Destruction of religious self-determination for women is an essential part of patriarchal control on the left and the right.

I tell the story of Iphigenia in my book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess.

A Priestess for Artemis

Iphigenia means “mother of strong children” and is probably an early name for Artemis or another bear goddess who became merged with Artemis. It later became an honorary title for her priestess. There are conflicting versions to the following story, but this much is not in dispute: The hero Agamemnon, leading an offensive against Troy, made little headway with his fleet due to unfavorable winds sent by Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. After consulting an oracle, Agamemnon offered Artemis his eldest daughter Iphigenia, thus earning the implacable wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra.

King Agamemnon of Mycenae was on the wrong side of Artemis from the start. His father had failed to honor a vow that he would sacrifice a prized lamb to the Huntress, and there is no record that the son felt an obligation to make good the pledge. Agamemnon, so capable in manly pursuits, once slew a white stag with a single arrow and boasted that Artemis could do no better. So true this boast: the beast was a member of the Virgin’s chariot team, and she would never have slain it.

When Queen Helen ran away with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon took command of the retaliatory mission. Here was a chance to lead a great coalition and gain heroic stature. So much more the pleasure of Artemis, whose sympathies were inclined toward the Trojans, in thwarting Agamemnon’s plans. As the fleet readied to embark, an unfavorable northeast wind stranded them in the harbor of Aulis for weeks. Some say the goddess was miffed over the killing of a hare and cursed the whole expedition. Impatient to sail and bewildered by the persistent bad wind, Agamemnon called for an oracle. A chicken was gutted and the seer declared Artemis must be coaxed with a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s oldest daughter.

At first Agamemnon demurred. His wife would never surrender the girl, he protested. The military cohorts devised a scheme: send a messenger to the mother explaining that the demigod and prince Achilles wished to marry the princess, and she must come at once.

Clytemnestra, whose ambitions were wholly channeled in securing an advantageous match for her beautiful daughter, hastened to Aulis with Iphigenia, where a comedy of errors—or perhaps a tragedy of errors—awaited them. Agamemnon’s secret letter to Clytemnestra exposing the ruse had been intercepted, and the strong-willed matron arrived against her husband’s expectations demanding a marriage contract. Achilles, innocent and uninformed of the subterfuge (and married to someone else besides), was protesting there had been a mistake. Priests were completing preparations for Iphigenia’s dedication. The bamboozled daughter was balking at the plan, and her mother began begging Agamemnon and then threatening him. Surely there was a face-saving way out of the mess, by declaring Achilles an unknowing partner to deception if nothing else, but the fact remained that ships were stuck in harbor and men were itching for war.

Iphigenia, realizing her father’s ambitions and her country’s future revolved around her, finally stepped forward and declared she would go to Artemis. Iphigenia was as loyal, devoted and obedient as she was beautiful. Or maybe filial duty and patriotism were just a piece of it, and Artemis herself seduced the girl. Perhaps Artemis promised her adventure in a far flung country. She could be mistress of a great temple. The possessions of rich ladies who died in childbirth were sent to this temple, and Iphigenia’s beauty could be displayed against the finest fabrics and jewels.

Iphigenia’s acquiescence stirred a whirlwind. At the altar of Artemis the priests raised their knives to slit the girl’s throat, but at the last moment a bear cub was switched in her stead, and Iphigenia was swept on a red cloud to the land of Tauris. The same wind that whisked the new priestess filled the sails of the Greek fleet, and they were off to conquer Troy.

In offering Artemis the coveted maiden, Agamemnon was given the favorable wind he requested, but the act never improved the disposition of the goddess toward him. Later she abandoned him to the wrath of Clytemnestra.

It would be inaccurate to say the sacrifice of Iphigenia turned Clytemnestra away from her husband, for he had earned her hatred long ago. There comes a point, however, where dislike becomes disloyalty, and the proud mother had envisioned a greater future for her daughter than being exiled in a remote temple wearing dead women’s clothes. That the victorious Agamemnon returned from the war to be trapped in his wife’s net should surprise no one.

Iphigenia did not learn of her father’s fate for many years, until her brother Orestes was cast ashore at her temple under mysterious circumstances. As high priestess, Iphigenia presided over the slaying of refugees at the altar of Artemis, and during the pre-ceremonial interview learned of his identity.

What was Orestes doing in Tauris? Orestes admitted he was running from the horror of his actions. He had killed Clytemnestra, with Apollo’s approval, to avenge her murder of their father. After the filthy deed, Orestes was called to account before the Olympians, where Apollo spoke in his defense. The gods quarreled over his fate along political lines until the goddess Athena cast a vote with Apollo, tipping the verdict in Orestes’ favor.

An acquittal won through a brilliant defender and a stacked jury does not automatically erase the pangs of conscience, however, and Orestes had committed a horrendous deed. The Furies, sister deities who rule the conscience, tormented him for his crime until, driven to the edges of insanity, he consulted an oracle for a remedy. The oracle instructed him to steal the sacred statue of Artemis at Tauris and carry it to Brauron, where he was to build a new temple to the goddess. If he was unable to carry out this feat, Orestes declared, he might at as well die in Tauris; he could not go on living with this torment.

Surprisingly, Iphigenia decided to help her brother. She had grown tired of her exile and longed for the customs, faces and clothing styles of her native country. She told the Taurian king that Orestes and his companion were polluted by matricide and must be cleansed before sacrifice. That much was true; Orestes was not fit to have his throat slit on the altar of Artemis. She further told the leaders of her host country that she was borrowing the statue of the goddess for the purification rites. Iphigenia was certainly the double-crossing daughter of Agamemnon

Orestes consulting the oracle. Notice the snakes on the priestess hovering above the tripod. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculously, with much adventure and intercession of the gods, the brother and sister eventually reached the ancient shrine in Brauron. A new temple was built, with the sacred image installed therein, and Iphigenia was named high priestess of the complex.

The presence of an important temple to Artemis so close to the city was an honor that made the Athenians nervous, as the wrath of Artemis had already sparked so many misadventures. Every family that could spare a daughter for a year sent the girl to Brauron to attend the goddess and learn the Brauronia ritual. The girls were called little bears and charmed the goddess with their dances. In this way, Artemis extended her healing side to Athens, protecting against plagues and enhancing the survival of infants and their mothers.

The Feminist Digression, Part Deux: Thus Begins My Foray Into Gender Trouble

July 26, 2019

In the last essay, I described the article that finally got me interested enough in Judith Butler to actually read Gender Trouble. I had read a lot about Butler’s writings, filtered through radical feminist interpretations, and they had not inspired me to explore the original.

For one thing, I never see anyone quote or discuss Butler except radical feminists and a few philosophers who hate her. Of course, I don’t follow the social media or blog accounts of the tribe that espouses gender ideology, but I do run across comments from the tribe on Twitter – it’s impossible not to. They say: “Trans women are women, end of discussion.” “Biological sex is a social construct.” “Our identity is not up for debate.” “Shut up Terf!” “My pronouns are xe/xur.” “Misgendering is violence.” “Objecting to the label cis is transphobia.” “Non-binary people exist.” “The penis is a female organ.” “Suck my formaldehyde pickled balls.” Leaving aside the truth or falsehood of these assertions, none of this sounds very theoretical or academic. And unlike radical feminists, these commenters don’t link to academic articles or thoughtful essays on blogposts, despite exhortations to “educate yourself.” I have a hard time believing any of these people have read Butler.

I’ve also read a good deal of media propaganda about the “gender revolution,” from places like National Geographic, The Guardian, The New York Times, and the BBC, to name a few. Butler’s name is occasionally dropped, as a historical precedent or an inspiration to the genderfull, but the discussion quickly moves on. I doubt many of these journalists have read Butler either.

Having been a college student myself, I also find it hard to believe that many college grads have read Butler. Oh, I believe Gender Trouble was assigned. I believe it was discussed in a class or two. I believe many graduates can regurgitate a succinct summation of the theme, the way so many white quasi-feminists can spout a rehearsed definition of intersectionality without having any idea what it means. But come on, if any of the people who bought Gender Trouble at the beginning of a college term ever read past page two, those troubling words are decomposing in their brains along with calculus theorems they hope never to use again.

I have made the assumption (unconscious, as most assumptions are) that radfems have been perusing Gender Trouble carefully searching for a theoretical basis for the current gender madness that is undermining feminist progress (and even hard-won rights). I have assumed that they have done this because radical feminists are theoretically-minded women, who ground their own positions and actions in careful analysis, not because Gender Trouble has inspired bizarre permutations of patriarchy like the Cotton Ceiling. In short, I assumed radfems were reading Gender Trouble because of who they are, not because of what that book is, thereby giving it a significance it doesn’t deserve.

I further assumed that this agenda of finding a theoretical basis for contemporary women’s oppression has led radfems to misread Butler. I assumed that by careful reading they found somewhere, perhaps on page 53, something that implied that sex (female biology) is fundamentally a suspect social construct, and later, perhaps on page 97, something that implied “woman” should be deconstructed into an individual identifier unconstrained by common definition. But surely she didn’t mean to erase women altogether. It had to be a misreading, because who would seriously say that, besides some nut on Tumblr?

The final assumption I must confess (the last one, I promise) is my assumption that my poor brain wasn’t up to the job of reading Butler. Not that I consider myself an idiot, but I’m trained in economics and social work, not philosophy. And I kept hearing from radfems that Butler was “difficult,” “impenetrable,” “hard to understand.” I now think that they were only being kind.

Because the first thing I realized, reading the preface of Gender Trouble, is that Judith Butler is not in my league. After ten years in psychiatric social work practice, I know the difference between someone communicating a difficult concept and someone who has difficulty communicating. I know better than to strain to grasp the point of a writer jumping from place to place to place, because I know she, too, is struggling to find her point. I know that convoluted writing reflects confused thinking as much as poor writing skills, and I don’t think Butler’s primary problem is that she can’t write. Butler’s convoluted, disjointed, disorganized, unfocused thoughts are a desecration to the printed page, and had she come up with any “theory” except one so damaging to feminism, no one would take her seriously. Thus my first apology is to myself, for thinking I could not understand Butler. I understand her too well.

My second apology is to my fellow radfems, for assuming they were erroneously ascribing to Butler the intentional unmooring the word “woman” from any definition. That is unquestionably her aim, stated on the first page and continuing for as long as I could read. She doesn’t say it clearly, because she doesn’t say anything clearly, but she does say it.

The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms. There is a great deal of material that not only questions the viability of “the subject” as the ultimate candidate for representation, or, indeed, liberation, but there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women. (p. 1)

Yes, that’s what she wrote. Don’t go back and read it again. I carefully proofed this excerpt, and the grammatical error in the second sentence is either a typo or Butler’s unique way of phrasing things, free from the constraints of heteronormative grammar. As for the “great deal of material,” supporting this contention, it isn’t cited, so I’m unsure whether this material is feminist, or about women, or related to “the viability of ‘the subject’” in more general postmodern theory. If I had read to the end, perhaps I would know (but I doubt it).

Having moved women beyond any clear definition, Butler moves on to the biology of the female.

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (p.9)

If the immutable character of sex is contested. That’s a big “if,” unsupported by the previous paragraph, requiring a consultation with the footnotes. Let’s see. She cites herself, which might count if she was a biologist, but she’s not, and a quantum physicist who sounds interesting but she’s also not a biologist. Quantum physics challenges our basic notions of reality, but it doesn’t negate biology, as any physics teacher will tell you. Okay, moving down to the next note, an African-American historian, a professor of American Studies, and an anthropologist are given credit for thinking some of Butler’s ideas before she did. I wonder how that feels. Then more Butler citing herself. Then there’s this gem:

Of course, Homi Bhabha’s work on the mimetic splitting of the postcolonial subject is close to my own in several ways: not only the appropriation of the colonial “voice” by the colonized, but the split condition of identification are crucial to a notion of performativity that emphasizes the way minority identities are produced and riven at the same time under conditions of domination.

Again, this was carefully proofed: it’s a classic example of a misuse of a colon. Don’t reread: it was wrong the first time.

Okay, I’m not going to subject myself, let along you, dear reader, to any more Butler footnotes. I’ll give one more example of Butler conflating sex with gender and erasing woman as a category,  just to complete my mea culpa.

[Simone de] Beauvoir is clear that one “becomes” a woman, but always under the cultural compulsion to become one. And clearly the compulsion does not come from “sex.” There is nothing in her account that guarantees that the “one” who becomes a woman is necessarily female. If “the body is a situation,” as she claims, there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along. (p.11)

A couple of things. There is a dichotomy in that excerpt. Even though The Second Sex is about the condition of women, Butler states that we can theoretically imagine that nothing de Beauvoir says guarantees that the “one” who becomes a woman is necessarily female; but in the next sentence we are forbidden from supposition.. “…there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity. This is an example of what I was talking about in part one: Butler can’t seem to hold a premise from one sentence to the next, or else there’s some connection between the two statements left out. There’s also a logical fallacy in that second statement. All sexed bodies are influenced by culture; hence there is no sexed body that culture influences. I won’t critique Butler on that level, however, because postmodern theory (when convenient) says there is no a priori condition and cause-and-effect are simultaneous. Still, if we can imagine de Beauvoir was talking about dicks (and it’s a stretch), we can imagine, just for a moment, a world that is subject to cause-and-effect (which, as a matter of fact, ours happens to be). Some radical feminists accuse Butler of sleight-of-hand and intellectual dishonesty. The impression I’m getting is that she is not dishonest but incompetent.

The second comment I want to make about that excerpt involves another apology, this time to French feminists. As an American feminist, I am so sorry about this woman. I don’t know how we produced her, and she claims it was the French. She quotes the translation of that opening line to The Second Sex in Gender Trouble and makes it carry a heavy load, and in the article in The New Stateman I mentioned in part one, she’s still taking that sentence apart. It shouldn’t need to be said, but I have to say it. De Beauvoir did not write, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” She wrote, On ne nait pas femme: on le deviant. Maybe that phrase translates perfectly in the English edition, but not everybody thinks it does, and at any rate a discussion of the meaning of the words and their connotation in their original language is warranted before imbuing them with a meaning that could not have been imagined at the time they were written.

In her 1999 preface, Butler also misrepresents Catherine MacKinnon’s arguments concerning gender hierarchy:

If gender hierarchy produces and consolidates gender, and if gender hierarchy presupposes an operative notion of gender, then gender is what causes gender, and the formulation culminates in tautology. (p. xiii)

Butler is aware, or should be aware, that MacKinnon is operating under a recognition of the material differences between men and women. Male and female is not a tautology, and MacKinnon is decidedly not a postmodernist. Not being versed in many of the theorists Butler cites in support of her assertions (and being reluctant to revisit Freud), I cannot say if she characteristically misrepresents them. I will say, however, that analysis that habitually misrepresents the work of others reflects dishonesty, laziness, or fuzzy thinking. (I vote for the latter.)

Moving on to another erroneous assumption I made about Gender Trouble, radfems are right to attribute at least some of the gender ideology eroding women’s rights to Butler. I won’t go into exhaustive detail on this, but I recognize phrases and jargon commonly invoked by gender warriors in this book. To give just one example: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a trans woman assert that because black women with female anatomy can be women, anybody with a penis can also be a woman. Butler says:

The contemporary feminist debates over essentialism raise the question of the universality of female identity and masculinist oppression in  other ways. Universalistic claims are based on a common or shared epistemological standpoint, understood as the articulated consciousness or shared structures of oppression or in the ostensibly transcultural structures of femininity, maternity, sexuality, and/or ecriture feminine. The opening discussion in this chapter argued that this globalizing gesture has spawned a number of criticisms from women who claim that the category of “women” is normative and exclusionary and is invoked with the unmarked dimensions of class and racial privilege intact. In other words, the insistence upon the coherence and unity of the category of women has effectively refused the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of “women” are constructed. (p. 19, emphasis added)

Butler does not state the concept in such racist terms as my Twitter friends (nor do I believe she meant to invoke such a baldly racist statement), but she is saying that a woman can either mean a white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied, biological woman, or it can be dissolved as a defined category altogether. In order to include brown skin, we must include dicks.

Another popular idea that can be traced to Butler is that feminism should be about all people, rather than focused on women. In fact, Butler says feminism re-creates the oppression of women by sustaining “women” as a linguistic category.

Feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of “women,” the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.

Indeed, the question of women as the subject of feminism raises the possibility that there may not be a subject who stands “before” the law, awaiting representation in or by the law. Perhaps the subject, as well as the invocation of a temporal “before,” is constituted by the law as the fictive foundation of its own claim to legitimacy. (p. 4)

There is nothing supporting this claim, other than to cite the work of the great man Michel Foucault. There is an almost Biblical paradigm operating here: don’t prove a point, point to an authority. I am struck by the lack of concrete real-world examples that I find in Gender Trouble, because I’m used to seeing them in the feminist theory that I have studied. One example I kept thinking of as I read this book, is the lawsuit against Poverello House in Fresno, California. The nine women suing the homeless shelter say they were subjected to sexual harassment typical of males from a resident housed there, and that this resident was a man falsely claiming to be transgender to access segregated living space. Yet the assertion of gender ideologists that there should be no defined categories of gender precludes a falsification of gender identity. The postmodern theory underpinning gender ideology, with its emphasis on linguistic subversion and individual rebellion against sexual norms, has no room for the class analysis that would identify remedies for as highly marginalized and vulnerable a group as homeless women. Ramifications such as the Poverello scenario to gender ideology were pointed out by feminists years before they occurred, because people who can think can understand, at least sometimes, the implications of a theory. Some feminists assert that Butler lacks empathy for women in harsh socioeconomic circumstances, while Butler asserts that she is detached and nonprescriptive in her realm of theory. I think there’s a cog missing in this woman’s brain.

Have I answered my initial question yet? I can’t take this woman seriously as any kind of theorist, though I can understand how she could have an appeal to sexist university officials, sexist gay males, sexist liberal philanthropists, and sexist medical doctors. She’s having trouble reaching sexist religious conservatives, though, which I guess is what that dizzying rant in The New Statesmen was about. I’m not interested in refuting her assertions, because other feminists have done an excellent job. What I set out to explore was whether she potentially has anything to bring to the table, and I found no reason to hope. I do have other questions, such as why Routledge ever published this book. It’s so poorly written, it’s unpublishable in my opinion. Poorly written theory, like any other theory, appeals to people who can find a use for it, but it magnifies the risk, inherent in all written theory, of allowing any agenda to be projected onto it. These suspect agendas then become onerous to dissect and counter, because the original theory is so inscrutable.

I’m going to have to return Gender Trouble to interlibrary loan soon, and in some ways I’m sorry to see it go. I’ve actually learned a few “things” from Butler, such as to be “careful” about putting individual “words” in “quotations.” It can make you “sound” like you’re trying to make the “things” in quotations “disappear.” I’ve started reading pages at random, since it’s poorly organized anyway, and it’s kind of a hoot. I’ll close with a passage selected entirely at random.

By restricting the paternal law to a prohibitive or repressive function, Kristeva fails to understand the paternal mechanisms by which affectivity itself is generated. The law that is said to repress the semiotic may well be the governing principle of the semiotic itself, with the result that what passes as “maternal instinct” may well be a culturally constructed desire which is interpreted through a naturalistic vocabulary.

I rest my case.

Digression into Feminist Theory, or what passes as such

July 19, 2019

Apologies for the diversion from the usual nature topics. I have some unrelated thoughts floating around I need to unload. You see, this week I perused the first forty-five pages of Gender Trouble, tenth anniversary edition, and you can’t unread that.

I have been hearing about the lady who wrote this foundational text for postmodern Gender Theory for years now, but I haven’t been tempted to explore further, because…postmodernism. I was exposed to postmodernism in the early 80s, when all it meant in the real world was bad poetry (those were the days!), and I haven’t willingly dived into the monstrosity since. It’s like tasting your first bag of Cheetos, and deciding that no, you don’t need to try all the other little bags of munchies encrusted with bright powdery colors never found in nature, but then you’re at a bus station, and you’re hungry, and there’s a snack machine with nothing else. So you capitulate and snag one of those little packets of mostly air, and it tastes like metallic salt, but you look at the ingredients and it says: salt, sugar, cornstarch, cultural hegemony, high fructose Foucault, FDA yellow #5, subjectivation subversion, calcium dipropionate, identity signification, BHA to retard exclusivity, partially hydrogenated not-unproblematically binary cathexis of multiplicitous semiotics as performance methodologies of discursive continuances. And you think, this tastes like bullshit, but I’m not a chemist or a nutritionist, so my limited fund of knowledge cannot appraise the contents of this package.

I have a master’s degree obtained in the late 90s, so I had to read a lot of postmodernist injected social welfare theory that I struggled to understand. I felt ill prepared for graduate school, because I had not received my bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Only later, much later, with the help of radical feminists taking apart postmodernist Queer Theorists line by bullshit line, did I understand that I didn’t understand this shit because it didn’t make sense. There is a deliberate obscurity in postmodern theory which is employed to obfuscate the inability to connect one sentence to another, one thought to another, one suspect assumption to another. B does not follow naturally from A, but the postmodernist uses an ever-shifting array of repurposed jargon to hide this. It’s immediately obvious how C could follow from B, but the theorist doesn’t wade into the troublesome implications of her theory, instead demurring that her theory is “nonprescriptive.” The shaky assumptions underpinning her analysis, or what passes for analysis, call them A, are thrown out with cavalier smugness as if this were settled ground. Supreme show of confidence is the bullshitter’s primary tool.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What inspired me to look at Butler more closely was an article by the Grand Dame of Gender Theory in The New Statesman: The Backlash Against Gender Ideology Must Stop. You have to read the entire article to get a sense of how all-over-the-place it is, but here’s a sample:

So is gender a field of study that is destructive, diabolical, or indoctrinating? Gender theorists who call for gender equality and sexual freedom are not committed to a hyper-voluntarist view of “social construction” modelled on divine power. Neither do they seek through gender education to impose their views on others. If anything, the idea of gender opens toward a form of political freedom that would allow people to live with their “given” or “chosen” gender without discrimination and fear.

If you’re thinking that this doesn’t make sense because it was pulled out of context, go read the article. Then read it again. Then read it a third time and you may start to get a sense of what she’s saying. And maybe you’ll stop there, and accept what she’s (possibly) saying, because it was hard enough to make sense of it, let alone look at it critically. Because, trust me, it begins to not make sense again when you look at it critically. So is gender a field of study that is destructive, diabolical, or indoctrinating? Who is asking that question, Judith, because you don’t establish this, and the people you quote don’t use those words. Gender theorists who call for gender equality and sexual freedom are not committed to a hyper-voluntarist view of “social construction” modelled on divine power. Wait, how did that follow from the question before? How do “gender equality” and “sexual freedom” relate to gender as “a field of study”? Wait while I find “hyper-voluntarist” in the dictionary, and now tell me, how is it a view related to social construction inside quotation marks? Neither do they seek through gender education to impose their views on others. Ding ding ding! That’s not an assumption, that’s a lie, but full marks (!) for a sentence connected to the sentence before. If anything, the idea of gender opens toward a form of political freedom that would allow people to live with their “given” or “chosen” gender without discrimination and fear. Oops. You even forgot to make the subject of that sentence agree with the two before. You were describing what “gender theorists” do and now, in the same paragraph, you’re talking about what “the idea of gender” accomplishes. And you were doing so well. The “idea of gender” doesn’t seem to need any justification to the Pope, who I infer you are addressing from the word “divine” (and references elsewhere in the article), so why are you talking about this? And why are “given” and “chosen” in quotation marks?

My fascination with this article is not that I don’t understand what Butler is saying. I think I do understand, but more importantly, I understand that no clear-thinking person would express herself this way. Not even a bad writer. Butler’s writing is characterized by phrases that are missing a connection, although by repetition and familiarity with her work a reader can sometimes figure out what the connector should be. Butler also can’t find a subject and stick to it long enough to make a point. She goes off on tangents line by line, with no identifiable idea holding together a collection of assertions, forcing the reader to stop and say, “Wait, what was she talking about again?”

But maybe Butler had a deadline and dashed off this piece in a hurry. Maybe she was hungover when she wrote it, or sleep deprived, or just having a bad day. A person’s ability to argue feminist philosophy can’t be honestly evaluated in one newspaper article. I could hardly wait to obtain Butler’s seminal work, no doubt reviewed and critiqued before publication by an academic press, to find out whether what I was seeing in this article was representative of her work. Could one of the foundational texts of gender identity theory be a disorganized, illogical screed penned by an incompetent thinker?

This ends Part One. In Part Two, I fearlessly open the pages of Gender Trouble.