Sunday, April 12, 2009

Butler and What It Means to Be Confusing

I’m reading Sara Salih’s Judith Butler, a condensed translation of Butler’s ideas that my queer theory professor recommended to me a long time ago. I’m getting ready to write a paper using some Butler to talk about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I’m pretty effing excited about it and I will be sure to explore my ideas here with you, but I have to get them first, and I also have to understand Judy B.

Once my friend Jill and I talked about how classist we find Butler, specifically because she makes no amends to her difficult prose. But Salih’s take on Butler’s language really made me think about what it means to call her classist, and how folks dismiss her on that regard (or on the count that she’s just difficult to understand and dear God, we only have so much time/energy in the world—which gets back to class, etc., I know). Salih defends her, and Butler defends herself too on this in an essay and other works that I have to dig up somewhere in response to her winning the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Award in 1998. One of Judith’s responses is here, but she also wrote some more things about it that I really want to examine...some other time.

The three defenses they bring up that really got me to thinking follow:
1) Butler is willing to revise her thoughts, to contradict herself, and is willing to go around and under but not through her inquiries. This is pretty cool because it’s basically what her theories boil down to (and I guess post-structuralism in general).

2) What’s so good about being easy to understand? While I do think that there is class, etc. oppression going on here, I think this is honestly a good question. After all, as a writing center tutor, I firmly agree that neither style nor grammar are politically neutral, which Salih discusses about Butler (and through Butler, Hegel). I mean, my choice to use an ostensibly female pronoun with Salih is in itself a political choice.

3) Butler is hard to read. This leads to her text being misread. For instance, everyone gets performance and performativity mixed up, and Butler really hates that. (We’ll explore this more thoroughly later). However, being misread is pretty great, actually, because it means that the text itself is producing the theory that Butler creates. Misreading is a lot like performativity actually, because you think that the text means one clear thing when really it’s a whole combination of different things, and it means a lot of different things to many different people. Now, if that misreading is ultimately queer but comes at the expense of the reader, I’m not sure what to do with that. But the queerness/Butler-theory-ness of misreading Butler’s work is a pretty neat idea.

On the other hand, I understand criticizing her language. Being deliberately confusing—and shall I say it? deliberately academic—is rooted in a lot of power and privilege. But I agree with Salih and Butler that this is not a good enough reason to just write her off as a bad theorist—because Lord knows pretty much the whole world is confusing.

Salih, Sara. Judith Butler. New York: Routledge, (2005). Worldcat Link here.


  1. I love your post. Especially your third point about misreading being a production of theory in itself (which makes it a queer act!)

    I'm happy to have come across your blog and will be reading it often!


Subscribe to canonball

About Me

I'm a young trans person living between two states, trying to make ends meet, both intellectually and monetarily.