"...I understand theoretical work not as establishing universal truths but as developing conceptual schemes that can be taken up and revised in various locations and times."
My last post referenced the newly available podcast of Judith Butler’s talk on Judaism, Zionism, and the religious resources for the critique of state violence. I strongly encourage taking the time to listen her talk (along with the others by Habermas, Taylor, and West). I’ll have more to say about the content of her remarks in part two of this post, but to those for whom it might be useful, I’ve prepared a partial transcription of the text from the podcast. It was never my aim to transcribe her talk, either in full or part; rather, as I listened to it with the intention of taking a few notes, I found myself doing much more than that. I once again found myself compelled and arrested by Butler’s voice, by her words. This relates to my own—and what some have called perverse—love of Butler’s prose style. There’s magic happening for me in Butler’s syntax and word choice, grammar and lexicon. Maybe it’s her performance of a certain dialectical defamiliarization, most often present through a repeated employment of unresolved interrogative serialities. What Butler theorizes at the level of social ontology and subjectivity, she exemplifies at the level of prose style: instability, incompleteness, and a certain constitutive incoherence. The prose performs what it describes.
For such reasons—and I’m sure there are many other ones, only some of which I may be aware and able to articulate—I always return to and eagerly anticipate and devour any of her writings. A similar affective relation subtends my continual engagement with a range of other thinkers—Sedgwick, Caputo, Derrida, Agamben, de Certeau, Lingis, Benjamin, Hardt/Negri, Barthes, Deleuze, Foucault, Levinas, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Nancy, Hegel, and Jordan, to name only those to whom I most often return. For me, what such a list of thinkers share that is most compelling, most arresting, is not just the radicality of their provocative content, but their equally radical presentative forms—forms ranging from and operative at the levels of syntax and lexicon through choices to challenge disciplinary codes of argumentative intelligibility by employing aphorism, the anti-philosophically ethnographic essay, or more general disruptions to the mise-en-page. Just as Butler can speak in Undoing Gender of experiences of dispossession in the making of a livable life, so too can we speak of the need for forms of cognitive dispossessions. This, for me, has always been the most compelling and visceral importance of theory: it’s ability to undo us and to compel new forms of thinking and relating. Theory is, and has always been, for me eminently visceral.
But my appeal to listen to Butler’s podcast emerges out of another conviction, one that aims to counter certain accepted stereotypes of theorists as amounting to little more than caricatures of thought or reductionistic tag lines: what we might call the “greeting card theory of theory.” Implicit here is the belief that theorists can’t continue to develop their thinking. This was also the case with Derrida’s reception within literature programs, as if “figuring out” the Derrida of the 1970s was “figuring out” anything interesting he might ever have to say. A similar example might be the largely new historicist promulgation of the Foucault of Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Volume I.
I think this has been played out perniciously in Butler’s case, and perhaps with no greater vehemence than Martha Nussbaum’s painfully vicious 1999 New Republic ad hominem. Indeed, many will recall that Nussbaum’s text is but an example of its author’s own inflated sense of importance as a diagnostician of what is “properly” theoretical and therefore good (with all its moral weight) work; Nussbaum’s supposed “engagement” with Butler is so cartoonish that even those critics who have disagreed with or contested Butler’s positions often find themselves coming to her defense against Nussbaum. But while I may have conjured this ghost of the critical past (and there’s an obvious psychoanalytic discussion to be had as to why I feel so haunted by this ghost, why I can seem to let it stay dead and buried where it belongs), I certainly don’t want it to linger. Or, perhaps more fitting for these long December days, we might think of my conjuration of Nussbaum’s horrid text less as some reanimated spirit than a bit of undigested beef. Humbug!
In any event, the reception of theory is something about which I am very often concerned, and in this I am as interested in who has been received and when as the what of theirs that has been privileged. Certainly one can point to the all-important issue of translation, and it is always crucial to consider when and what possible motivations (including the culturally symptomatic) obtain within a field of translatability. Why translate this work at this time? So,there is a discussion to be had about the temporality of theory. But we can also consider the issue more restrictively. What aspects of a thinker’s output are considered readable within a certain disciplinary horizon? Posing this question certainly doesn’t (or at least need not) entail effacing a consideration of theory’s temporality: our desires for particular theoretical schemes are as much a response to certain felt needs as they are the conditions by which we are enabled to recognize what our needs might be.
It is in this way that I agree with Jonathan Culler, who writes about how we are “ineluctably in theory”: that our very ability to pose the questions we ask is itself already made possible by the “space articulated by theory” (see his The Literary in Theory, pp. 2-3). This is why theory can never be a simple reflection of some believed independent reality leading to some supposedly practical application. No, theory never shuttles in such a way, as if the distance between points A and B were so easily bridged. There is more like a New York subway line: initial tracks may have been previously laid, but new ones will always be needed, new tunnels and lines constructed, and in each and every instance, amidst a diverse throng of passengers boarding and departing in their many anonymous and exponentially infinite ways, there are starts, stops, detours, and the occasional pull of the emergency break.
This unexpected peroration aside, Butler’s podcast also speaks directly to the reception and appreciation of her most recent work, especially insofar as these writings deal with questions of ethics and religion. Here another point to raise but hold in abeyance is what precisely is meant when one speaks of the/a "re/turn to ethics" or, somewhat correlatively, the "re/turn religion." Derrida, of course, famously resisted this language of turns, and equally so, I think, I think in Butler. Not only does all this talk of "turning" leave us dizzy, it fails to account for its own performativity: to interpellate a “turn” toward ethics/religion is to call into being a horizon of audibility within which certain claims might be speakable. That is, whatever else a "turn" in theoretical circles might be, it is far from a constative naming but instead a tropological performance. To speak of a theoretical "turn" can also be a way of retroactively fitting previously unheard (sometimes willfully misread or ignored) texts or positions into a now consumable product (and I think such capitalist language of the marketable is appropriately descriptive). Here we do well to recall that the very rhetorical language of "tropping" we might use to describe this phenomenon itself stems from the Greek tropos for "turning," since in a trope one turns a thing’s literal meaning toward more figurative ends. So maybe getting dizzy is constitutive of the theoretical game: "pussycat, pussycat, we all fall down." So much for abeyance.
In part two, I will return (or, perhaps, finally attend to) Butler’s comments on religion and Judaism within the context of some of her other recent writings and the appeals therein to those proper names—Benjamin, Levinas, and Arendt, most notably—of a certain Jewish intellectual tradition.