The more Judith Butler I read the more I like her. I picked up an oldie, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France which is a rewritten version of her doctoral dissertation that she refers to as her “juvenilia.” The way that Butler recasts Foucault and Derrida as bound to Hegel’s theories on desire is downright astounding. I find it to be clearly written, understandable, and to the point. I’m really scared. You see, Butler was the winner of the 1998 Philosophy and Literature Bad Writers Contest for this sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Okay, so I agree that anyone who uses the words “hegemony” and “rearticulation” twice in the same sentence has got a problem. And I will freely admit that Pete Townsend wrote the same thought in a much more easily understandable fashion:

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

But just the same, I’m really scared that I find Butler’s sentences quite comprehensible. What the hell is happening to me? Have I acquired the virulently pernicious academic gene? Maybe I’m even more terrified by the conversation I had today with the director of the graduate program here. We had a nice talk about my project, in post-structuralist terms that we were both quite comfortable with and she stopped to point out that our conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just talking. Now I’m struck by images of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly where I become reduced to some genetic mutant who drools on his food to digest it. Or worse still, I shrink to an imperceptible size like the Vincent Price version squeaking a nearly inaudible “help me . . . help me . . .”

Of course, it’s even stranger to think about the book I’m reading as juvenilia. Butler sums up Foucault’s position on history eloquently in two sentences. These are the sentences that I wish I’d used when I attempted to say (and was shot down for saying) that Foucault was obsessed with dominance and submission:

In effect, domination becomes for Foucault the scene that engenders history itself, the moment in which values are created and new configurations of force relations produced. Domination becomes the curious modus vivendi of historical innovation.

However, I must say that I made a big mistake last night. Never read Hegel before going to sleep. It causes nightmares. My advisor suggested that I try Aristotle’s Rhetoric instead to cure stubborn insomnia. She has a point. Aristotle has the same sort of droning sentences, and isn’t nearly as scary from a conceptual point of view.

2 thoughts on “Scared”

  1. Jeff,
    Nah, it’s not you.
    The Philosophy and Literature discussion list was one of the first things that I discovered in the early nineties when I was tentatively exploring the wonders of the Web. It was the first academic discussion list I came across. And it was a freakshow. The level of debate was utterly pathetic; frankly, you could find far more intelligent discussions on the “alt” tier of Usenet in those days. Phil-Lit was populated by conservative academic cast-offs who couldn’t carry an argument past the level of smarmy name-calling. I remember one “philosophical” thread that involved the issue of “circular reasoning.” The earnest discussion concerned the obvious test cases of “Marxist criticism” and “feminist criticism,” all instances of which were held to indulge in “circular” and “unfalsfiable” argumentation. No specific instances of such “circular reasoning” were ever cited for discussion or dissection, but there was tremendously vigorous headnodding and numerous sober comparisons of these discourses with astrology. (I’m guessing that Marxist criticism was considered “circular” because it posited that “everything was class,” and feminist criticism because it posited that “everything was gender”–which for me led quickly to the question “Have you guys ever read any of the texts that you’re pontificating about?” followed by the qualifier “Oh, hey, that was a rhetorical question, because obviously you don’t read much of anything.”)
    I wrote some kind of indignant but reasonably professional rejoinder. It was one of my first forays in cyberspace. It went pretty much unnoticed on the discussion list, but I did get a scathing private email wishing me personal ill and promising to see that “my ilk would never be teaching his children.” This was from a senior professor at some California college.
    It was a sobering experience, to have my first brush with the Net’s aggressive infantilism come not just from an another academic but from one of my superiors who might actually have some power to do me harm. I made a mental note to remember what conservative academics are like, and to learn more about the National Association of Scholars. I also stopped reading the Phil-Lit list.
    (All of which makes me wonder once again: why are so many intelligent bloggers out there so happy that A&L Daily, already adrift in right-wing propaganda since 9/11, has been rescued by *these* jokers? Do we really need more screeds by Camille Paglia, Andrew Sullivan, Harold Bloom and Stephen Pinker posing as provocative literary and cultural criticism? Seems to me it would be easier to just turn on Fox News and let it run in the background. At least you could get some housework done at the same time.)
    P.S. At moments of self-doubt, always remember that using David Cronenberg as a point of reference is a good sign that you are on the correct path, particularly if mutant vomiting is involved. God bless you.
    P.P.S. Critique of Derrida and Foucault as crypto-Hegelians leads inexorably to messianic affirmation of Deleuze & Guattari. Beware, Jeff, beware!

  2. From JB (1957- )
    Thou *scaredness* prompted me to frame forthwith a clever, prompt reply/ ‘Twas then I came in mind of someone’s words far, far cleverer than I/ So prithy now I post posthaste and hye/While these be found discernible or fit to thine supposed or most practiced eye:
    “I should certainly like to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I do not want to buy it as dear as it costs. My intention is to pass pleasantly, and not laboriously, what life I have left. There is nothing for which I want to rack my brain, not even knowledge, however great its value.
    “I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me in how to die well and live well . . .”
    Of Books, Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)
    P.S. I wonder what was Montaigne’s *level* of “verbal comprehension.”

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