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.