Judith Butler is a queen, perhaps the queen, of poststructuralist philosophy. A pioneer of queer theory and one of the world’s leading feminist philosophers, she made her name with her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, which dismisses the idea of sex and gender as fixed categories, viewing them instead as forms of social artifice. Butler introduced in the book the concept of gender as ‘performativity’: by behaving as if there were male and female ‘natures’ we create the social fiction that these natures exist.
Next week Butler is due to receive the prestigious Adorno Prize. Awarded by the city of Frankfurt to honour its most celebrated philosophical son, Theodor Adorno, the triennial award is given for ‘outstanding work in the fields of philosophy, music, theatre and film’. Previous winners have included such luminaries as Jurgen Habermas, Zygmunt Bauman, Norbert Elias, Pierre Boulez, Jean-Luc Goddard and György Ligeti.
This year’s award has caused a major controversy. Critics have described the award of the prize to Butler as ‘monstrous’, a ‘scandal’, and ‘morally corrupt’.
Butler’s work has always divided critics. While some view her as a courageous and innovative thinker, others view her as an intellectual charlatan. ‘It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas’, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written in a devastating critique, ‘because it is difficult to figure out what they are.’
Butler is not only a princess of postmodern prose; she is also the empress of the impenetrable phrase. In 1998 she won another, less desirable, prize, when the journal Philosophy and Literature awarded her its ‘Bad Writing’ award, a prize that sought to ‘celebrate the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles’. Butler responded with an op-ed in the New York Times in which she celebrated incomprehensible writing as the only way ‘to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world’.
In fact, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes, the impenetrability of Butler’s prose serves not to challenge common sense but to protect the emptiness of the ideas within. The jargon-infested obscurity of Butler’s work, Nussbaum wrote, helps ‘create an aura of importance’, so as to ‘bully the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.’
It is not simply the form of Butler’s work, but its content, too, that is problematic. For Butler we are constituted in discourse, in relations of power, and out of that discourse, out of those relations of power, we cannot escape. Power, for Butler, as for Michel Foucault, from whom she draws much of her argument, is omnipresent. Its threads are everywhere and it is only through power that reality is constituted. ‘The power is “always already there”’, as Foucault puts it, meaning ‘that one is never “outside” it, that there are no “margins” for those who break with the system to gambol in’ [Power/Knowledge, p85]. Or, in Butler’s words, ‘Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially’ [The Psychic Life of Power, p104]. Since I am, in other words, created by social relations of power, I can never escape those relations of power without ceasing to be. I can never challenge the system in any comprehensive way because ‘the power is “always already there”’. I can simply work within it, carve out a space, turn the language of subordination that imprisons me upon itself to mock my imprisonement, transgress by performing in a slightly different, parodic manner. For all her claimed radicalism, Butler’s politics, like that of many poststructuralists, is the politics of gesture, not the politics of change.
Little of this, however, seems to concern the critics of Butler’s Adorno Prize. What has infuriated them is not so much the intellectual shallowness of Butler’s work as the unacceptability of her political views, in particular her fierce hostility to Israel. Butler supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks to isolate Israel, culturally and economically, arguing that links to Israeli universities and cultural institutions should be cut. She has called Hamas and Hezbollah ‘social movements that are progressive’, and ‘part of a global Left’. (In a response to her critics, Butler has attempted to evade the charge that she supports Hamas and Hezbollah by insisting that the comment was ‘merely descriptive’. Since when has ‘progressive’ been merely a ‘descriptive’ term?)
All this has inevitably created outrage. ‘Who boycotts Israel cannot be an Adorno-laureate’, insisted the German section of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an advocacy organization for Israel. It added that ‘this grotesquely wrong decision of the City of Frankfurt leads to the suspicion that it agrees with this radical enmity of its laureate toward Israel’. Professor Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University claimed that ‘The boycott campaign is… the modern embodiment of anti-Semitism.’ According to Steinberg, ‘Butler is one of a tiny number of token Jews who are used to legitimize the ongoing war against Israel, following a dark practice used for centuries in the Diaspora.’ Stephen J. Kramer, the general secretary of the German Jewish Council condemned Butler’s ‘moral depravity’, lambasted as ‘shocking’ Frankfurt’s decision to honour her, and suggested that the fact of Butler’s Jewishness ‘makes her worthy of a study of the psychology of self-hatred but in no way as a laureate of the Adorno prize whose name is now stained’. Pro-Israeli activists are attempting to force the city of Frankfurt to rescind the award of the prize to Butler. An online petition has been launched under the headline ‘No Adorno Award for Anti-Semite Judith Butler’.
There is certainly something deeply dispiriting about the BDS campaign, about the idea that there is anything progressive about trying to silence Israeli academics or preventing theatre groups from performing abroad, about showing solidarity with the Palestinian people by seeking to restrict intellectual freedom. There is also something abhorrent about a public intellectual who not only believes that Hamas and Hezbollah are ‘progressive’ but also tries to evade responsibility for that view.
Yet the campaign against Butler is equally dispiriting and dangerous. There is, of course, nothing wrong with criticizing Butler’s work or her politics, or even of the awarding of the Prize to her. Indeed, it would be astonishing if there was not such criticism. The current campaign against Butler is not, however, just about exposing Butler’s arguments. It is also about defining the kinds of criticisms of Israel that are legitimate, about marking out the political and moral limits of acceptable academia. To label Butler ‘anti-Semitic’ is simply an attempt to shout down debate. As Butler herself rightly observes (with a lucidity so often missing from her academic work):
Such charges seek to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance. It is a silencing tactic: this person is unspeakable, and whatever they speak is to be dismissed in advance or twisted in such a way that it negates the validity of the act of speech. The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.
It is ironic that critics of the campaign to enforce a cultural boycott of Israel should themselves seek to constrain free speech and to force Frankfurt to rescind the prize. It is ironic that critics rightly incensed by the facile comparison of Israeli actions with those of the Nazis should make similar comparisons about cultural boycotters. It ‘is a scandal’, claimed the SPME ‘that the City of Frankfurt… where the boycott against Jews of the Nazis in 1933 is still remembered, awards a prize of €50,000 named after a scholar who was driven into exile by the Nazis, to a person that calls for the singular boycott of Jewish Institutions within the state of Israel’. One might not agree with BDS tactics, but to compare them with the actions of the Nazis is absurd. It is ironic, too, that those happy to lambast Butler for the ‘immorality’ of her hostility to Israel think nothing of dismissing the reality of Palestinian life, describing the ‘Israeli “occupation” [as] a relic of the past’ and condemning ‘the false Arab-Palestinian notion of being “occupied” and “robbed” of their true destiny’. Such a view is a grotesque distortion of reality; but people have the right to hold those views, and even win to prizes while doing so. The same applies to Judith Butler.
The shallowness of Butler’s ideas is good reason to question the award of the prize. Her hostility to Israel is not. Even intellectual charlatans with questionable political views deserve protection from academic witch-hunters.