On Public Intellectuals: From the Talmud to Judith Butler

by Corey Robin on July 2, 2016

I originally ran this post on my blog as two posts. I hope it works here as one. Or perhaps as one, but in two parts. Here goes…

Part 1: On Judith Butler as a Public Intellectual

I’m a bit late to the party on this article in New York about Judith Butler, which was making the rounds last week. But it’s got me thinking, again, about public intellectuals and their style of writing, a topic I addressed earlier this year in The Chronicle Review.

Now, I should confess at the outset that I’m a rank amateur when it comes to queer theory and gender studies. I read, and know, about it from a distance: from friends like Paisley Currah, from my students, and from colleagues in real life and on social media. So forgive me—and happily correct me—if what I am about to say is wrong.

The premise of the New York profile is that Butler was/is the theoretician of our contemporary politics (and culture) of sex and gender, even as that politics and culture have surpassed her in certain ways.

Taking into account that there were many writers and theoreticians who have contributed to our contemporary sensibilities and mores around sex and gender; acknowledging that none of these theories would have become remotely actual were it not for the millions of people, activists and non-activists alike, who worked to make the world more hospitable to the claims of the non-gender-conforming—the article still presumes that much in our world today would be inconceivable were it not for Butler’s original intervention in Gender Trouble. That’s the premise of the article I take to be true.

I don’t mean that to sound as if I don’t believe it to be true, though I recognize that it presumes a problematic narrative of the “Hero Theorist” who makes the world what it is. I just mean that for my purposes, it’s a necessary premise for what I really want to argue.

What struck me in reading the New York piece is that for much of the 1990s, Gender Trouble led a second, or shadow, life in the republic of letters. Where it was received, often nastily, less as a document in our ongoing arguments about sex and gender and more as an instance of Bad Writing. The article references that controversy over Butler’s writing style—a style that could be characterized as strenuous, I think it’s fair to say—but it doesn’t quite capture how heated and vicious the controversy often was.

In a famous essay, Martha Nussbaum flayed Butler for her writing style. And thousand of others did, too. Not just in lengthy articles, but in everyday conversation. (I’m sure I did, too; Butler’s style was not my own.)

The assumption of so many of those attacks—it ran through Nussbaum’s like a red thread—was that Butler’s style of writing was a betrayal of not just the philosophical vocation but of the public intellectual vocation: the vocation to speak to the issues of the day in a style that was as demotic as it was democratic. Nothing was thought to be so emblematic of Butler’s political un-seriousness—of her failure to speak to the polis—as the hermetic style of her prose. It was a prose for the initiated and the elect, not for everyday men and women.

Yet here we are today: an entire polity and culture awash, saturated, in Judith Butler’s ideas. From the President to pop culture, “It’s Judith Butler’s World,” as the piece’s URL title puts it. Butler has gone on to write eminently readable opeds (in defense of difficult writing, no less) in the New York Times, make brave interventions in the debate over Israel/Palestine, and pen learned essays on Kafka and Jewish identity in tony venues like the London Review of Books. Yet, a quarter-century later, it is Gender Trouble—that difficult, knotty, complicated book, with a prose style that violates all the rules of Good Public Writing—that has generated the largest public or publics of all: the queer polity we all live in today.

All of which is to say, it’s not the style that makes the writing (and the intellectual) public. It’s not the audience. It’s the aspiration to create an audience—and, with any luck (and it is luck, as Bonnie Honig and Lida Maxwell have reminded me), the actuality of having done so.

As I wrote back in January:

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

The reason for this has less do with the elitism of the intellectual — mine is no brief for an avant garde or philosopher king — than with the existence, really, the nonexistence, of the public. Publics, as John Dewey argued, never simply exist; they are always created. Created out of groups of people who are made and mangled by the actions of other people. Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — “Workers of the world, unite!,” they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — “Workers of the world” or “We, the People,” even “The Problem That Has No Name” — that a public is summoned into being. In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.

This is why the debate over jargon versus plain language is, in this context, misplaced. The underlying assumption of that debate is that the public is simply there, waiting to be addressed. The academic philosopher with his notorious inaccessibility — say, Adorno — obviously has no wish to address the public; the essayist with his demotic presence and proficiency — say, Hazlitt — obviously does. Yet both Adorno and Hazlitt spoke to audiences that did not exist but which they hoped would come into being. Adorno, explicitly: “Messages in a Bottle” was the title of 10 fragments he meant to include in Minima Moralia. In Hazlitt’s case, as Stefan Collini has argued, the

“familiar style,” which was to serve as something of a model for later generations of critics who aspired to recreate a “lost” intimacy with an educated readership, was consciously adopted as a voice that was not appropriate to the new age; it was an attempt to refashion a mode of address to the reader that was already felt to be archaic.

Whatever the style, the public intellectual is always speaking to an audience that is not there.

Of all our contemporary academics with claims to the title of public intellectual, Judith Butler is the first among equals.

Part 2: On the Audience as a Co-Creator of—and with—the Public Intellectual

The Talmud tells a story: the reason God covenanted with the Jews was that they were the only ones who were willing to take the deal.

According to a commentary on Deuteronomy, “When God revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the nations.” First God goes to the children of Esau, asking them if they will accept the Torah. They ask him what it contains, God says, “Though shalt not murder,” they say, no thanks.

God goes to the Ammonites and Moabites. Same response, only for them the prohibition against adultery is the deal-breaker. He goes to the Ishmaelites, to all the peoples of the earth. Each time, they turn him down. They can’t accept some portion of the Torah’s instructions and injunctions.

Then God comes to the Jews. They don’t ask questions. They simply “accepted the Torah, with all of its explanations and details.” So God “surrendered them [the Torah and all of its details] to Israel.”

You almost get a sense, reading the midrash, of God’s weariness, of his readiness just to unload the damn thing. The Jews aren’t his first choice, but they’ll take the deal. God’s exhausted, history is made.

It takes two to tango in Jewish theology: God and the people. (My rabbi at Yale, Jim Ponet, used to call “Avi Malkeinu,” the prayer we sing on Yom Kippur, a love song—or dance—between God and the Jewish people.) That’s why the act of covenanting is repeated again and again, through the Jewish Bible. At Sinai (in Exodus), on the verge of entering Canaan (in Deuteronomy), after the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), and after the return from the Babylonian exile (in Nehemiah).

God requires a people, the Torah an audience, the text a reader. But as the midrash shows, that people—that audience, that reader—isn’t a passive recipient, the final step of a journey. The reader—the audience, the people—is an active agent in her own right. Not only is she free to refuse the covenant, the text, but she also helps make the covenant and the text what it is. She elaborates it, explains it, interprets it, repeats it, transforms it.

So it is with public intellectuals.

I got to thinking about this issue after a conversation this morning with my friend Ellen Tremper, who’s the chair of the English department at Brooklyn College. She pointed me to a wonderful text from Virginia Woolf, “The Reader,” which Woolf apparently never completed, but in which Woolf talks about the active role of the reader, how she is, in some ways, a co-creator—or at least is involved in the creation and transmission—of any text. Ellen pointed out to me that this notion was hovering around the edges of some of my recent work on public intellectuals as well as of an essay I wrote on Fiddler on the Roof, which first appeared on my blog and has now been published at Politics/Letters.

But I realized that, however implicit that notion might be in my argument, the way I’ve construed the topic of public intellectuals still downplays the active role of the audience. Instead it makes the writer a kind of sovereign author, a God-like figure who brings an audience into being. (Someone in the audience at the S-USIH conference, where I first spoke on the topic, also pointed this out to me: that I was relying on a kind of romantic 19th century notion of the intellectual. I knew that he was right, but I also knew that that wasn’t quite what I was thinking or wanted to say. Several people also pointed this out in various comments threads in response to my post on Judith Butler. On Facebook, NYU scholar Lisa Duggan had some especially helpful comments in this regard.)

Speaking with Ellen—and remembering this midrash—gives me a way of thinking more properly about the audience the intellectuals seeks to create. That audience is never the creation of the writer; it is always an independent actor in its own right. The intellectual writes a text, but the audience makes the text what it is. It not only makes the text a public act; it interprets the text, gives it life. Not just life in the here and now, but, with any luck, throughout time. By receiving and then renewing the covenant, the audience turns a temporary agreement, a text of the moment, into a document that not only lives for a few years but forever. It turns a text into a way of life, a way of life that has its own claims to textual autonomy and originality.

When we talk about public intellectuals, not only are we talking about the audience as a recipient or reader of the text, but we are also, necessarily, talking about the audience as an independent, autonomous, and equally original and creative, co-creator of the text.

I should add here something I did not include in my original blog: I think the role of the audience as co-creator is something that all of us here at Crooked Timber—both bloggers and commenters—should be especially attuned to.



RNB 07.02.16 at 7:58 pm

In his new book on argument which I read a few months ago Stanley Fish has a nice introductory discussion of the long-standing rhetorical analysis of how authors can be successful in creating the audience or addressee for their writings. I can’t remember where Chaim Perelman fit into Fish’s argument if he was part of the argument. Can’t remember. Book is in the office.
Judith Butler’s most difficult writings are a delight to teach in seminar formats where students can think out the connections between difficult ideas she is suggesting and reflect on the different inflections she is giving to theoretical terms and grapple with the challenges she is posing to common sense understandings of identity, individualism, responsibility, violence, and gender of course.
I really cannot fathom what the psychological consequences would be of the daily abuse Judith Butler receives for her writings on Palestine and Israel. The abuse is unrelenting, threatening, violent and horrifying. Yet she continues.


bob mcmanus 07.02.16 at 8:01 pm

I was halfway through the post and ready to jump down and comment…in line with the second half. I am still much more comfortable with readers finding books, authors, and communities than authors creating audiences. Marx doesn’t create the proletariat which doesn’t need Marx; revolutionaries use Marx and Lenin to name the existing objects of their study and activism.


Anderson 07.03.16 at 1:13 am

Butler’s dissertation was on Hegel, who wrote worse sentences than she will ever aspire to write, and yet he’s part of the canon, however scorned by the analytic folks.

The challenge about her writing should be: take a passage that’s supposedly awful, and explain to us how it can be rewritten to carry the same content but expressed more clearly?


Meredith 07.03.16 at 4:35 am

Anderson, “The challenge about her writing should be: take a passage that’s supposedly awful, and explain to us how it can be rewritten to carry the same content but expressed more clearly?”

Which no one can do until Butler has struggled to write what she has written and readers have struggled with her to understand something, something not expressed before.

In other words, a dialogue gets underway.


Faustusnotes 07.03.16 at 4:58 am

Perhaps it’s an incoherent comment, but I think it’s possible that an objective history of both “public intellectuals” would find that the audience created the intellectual and their legacy. In the case of Judith butler, there was a huge queer movement already creating a new way of thought before she arrived on the scene – I’m thinking of popular culture movements like punk and goth, gay liberation, and a lot of new theory that sprang up in the 70s and 80s through publishers like semiotexte(s) (I think they were called from memory), the alternative bookstores and queer anarchy. She codified a lot of this maybe but it was already there and beginning to push into broader cultural theory at that time. For the Torah, we know there isn’t really a god, so the story is the inverse of the truth, in which the audience (the Jews) created the story and then carried it forward.

Many public intellectuals maybe only become “public” because thankless millions have been laying the groundwork amongst the public – and then someone draws it all together in a way that works, and gets the credit. There’s nothing new under the sun, as Crass said.


mclaren 07.03.16 at 5:26 am

The effort to ennoble turgidity and praise bad clotted prose that sticks to the ear like bacon fat has a long and invidious history. George Will’s encomia for George W. Bush’s allegedly “Lincolnian” public ejaculations come to mind as a particularly egregious example.
At some point, we are going to have to admit that incompetence does not in and of itself qualify the practitioner for fame, prosperity, and prestigious awards.


ZM 07.03.16 at 7:01 am

Corey Robin,

“Speaking with Ellen—and remembering this midrash—gives me a way of thinking more properly about the audience the intellectuals seeks to create. That audience is never the creation of the writer; it is always an independent actor in its own right. The intellectual writes a text, but the audience makes the text what it is. It not only makes the text a public act; it interprets the text, gives it life. Not just life in the here and now, but, with any luck, throughout time. ”

I really like this OP broadly and will be waiting for more thoughts from you on the topic, but I don’t agree with your phrase that the audience “makes the text what it is.”

This phrase, understood without the context of the rest of your OP, could be taken to suggest that a text has no meaning at all beyond what people may or may not attribute to it.

This is an idea — of a floating text with no real referent — which is inspected and I think ultimately criticised by Nathalie Sarraute in the book The Golden Fruits, about people reading and talking about a book called The Golden Fruits. The end of the idea that a text has no referent is chaos.

The actual book The Golden Fruits can be understood fine, its just all the characters in the book talk about fragments and opinions of the book they are reading, this is very well drawn by Nathalie Sarraute, I don’t think I ever read a book about the chaos and sense of disorientation generated by the lack of any common understanding, better than this book.

I think Nathalie Sarraute criticises this idea of a text not having a referent, common to other work in the period, due to her sense of humanity. Her fundamental idea basic to all her work is the word she chooses for a title for one of her books, Tropisms.

“A tropism (from Greek τρόπος, tropos, “a turning”) is a biological phenomenon, indicating growth or turning movement of a biological organism, usually a plant, in response to an environmental stimulus.”

Sarraute uses the idea of tropisms as a metaphor for how people are drawn to one another or approach one another to communicate. I think this central idea is what makes The Golden Fruits a more humanistic work than other work in the Nouveau Roman genre.

If you are thinking about these sorts of ideas Corey Robin, you might like to (re)read Barthes’ The Death Of The Author.

He was a generation before Judith Butler I guess, but I sort of think of them as part of a similar movement in theory. Maybe that is wrong, I have never really read Judith Butler, her work was never assigned writing for anything I studied, although a friend who majored in gender studies read and liked her work and talked about it.

I think your phrase about how the audience “makes the text what it is” is a bit similar to an occasional misunderstanding of The Death Of The Author, which holds that Barthes’ essay is saying a text has no meaning beyond what audiences attribute to it. I have come across this interpretation of the essay quite a few times , but I think this is a fundamental misreading of Barthes’ essay, like it would be a misreading of The Golden Fruits to say Sarraute was arguing that texts have no referent when she is showing the disorientation generated by the idea of that, not concurring with the idea.

The Death Of The Author has quite a few ways the author dies, the author dies by becoming an author in the first place in a sort of act of mimicry to gain admission to the republic of letters, the author dies again by the readers coming to understand his work which is a sort of death like nakedness, then at the end “The Author” dies when Barthes says there will never be the modernist idea of The Author anymore, where The Author is some figure of authority with higher standing than the reader, and this is the birth of The Reader and the author can’t do anything about it and why should he anyhow.

I think the occasional misreading of Barthes essay is one thing about reading to note, there isn’t only reading but misreading.

When I was a teenager I liked the band Smog, I requested at a concert Bill Callahan would play “27 push ups” from his Julius Caesar album. At the time I thought a line in the song was “I feel like driver’s pickle” which I took to be a colloquialism about getting car sick and dizzy and nauseous in the context of the song being about going to a winter rates motel and listening to AC/DC’s Highway To Hell.

Some years later I read about Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver, and I realised the lyrics were actually “I feel like Travis Bickle.” My understanding of the song changed.

Bill Callahan of Smog calls his rights holding company “Your/My Music” , but his music is really only his own music, he is the one who made it, not the audience.

Audiences are in a sense co-creators of the texts they read or hear or watch — but like how I did in 1998, readers can not only read but they can also misread.

The only song I have ever called out to request in my whole life, was a song I misread.


b9n10nt 07.03.16 at 7:10 am

Part 1’s claim is that Judith Butler wrote for an audience that didn’t exist yet, but isn’t the simpler observation that she wrote for other academics, was speaking to them, was hoping to gain status by participating in that institutionalized discourse?    And to the extent that she writes in order to create her public, this itself is essential to the life of art and commerce as well, no?   It’s not a distinctive mode of creative work.

In fact, the public intellectual can be thought of as the head of “basic research” for public policy, whose immediate audience is fellow intellectuals just as engineers at this level might work and write for each other. And just as with STEM basic researchers, there’s still an imperative, however tacit, to create an audience that is ready to apply your innovations.  

Thus it is not novel to say that a public intellectual creates her audience.  (It is more useful to emphasize, as bob bob mcmanus does, that publics select and interpret their influences).  Either way, the important implication of your two posts is that identities (public and personal) are always transient and strategic.  Important because this is not the background assumption in mainstream references to Consumers (vulgar Econ.) and the Public (vulgar Poli. Sci.)  


ZM 07.03.16 at 7:43 am


“For the Torah, we know there isn’t really a god, so the story is the inverse of the truth, in which the audience (the Jews) created the story and then carried it forward.”

I think what we all know is that we are not in agreement about that actually ;-)


AcademicLurker 07.03.16 at 2:31 pm

I think Butler certainly had a pre-existing audience outside of academis. In the early 90s, there was pretty widespread audience of engaged “amature”Theory readers, who were not part of the academy, or at least not at all involved in the careerist aspects of Theory. These people were pretty used to dealing with abstruse writing, so Butler’s style wouldn’t have seemed outlandish in that context.

So Gender Trouble fell on fertile ground when it arrived. I think it might have been the last under the wire for that particular “high theory” style.


bianca steele 07.03.16 at 3:22 pm

The idea that a writer creates his audience comes from Wordsworth, presumably by way of Harold Bloom, who is overtly Nietzschean and not interested in reasons as much as in a kind of imaginative “power” (and also not much interested in “truth” so much as self-making through a kind of Oedipal struggle). I stopped reading him at least a decade ago, but literature as renewal of the original covenant? That seems like a misreading, and not a strong one.

I agree with ZM about Barthes, though I’d say “Writing Degree Zero.” I don’t think philosophy is very often “writing” in that sense, though.


Plume 07.03.16 at 3:56 pm

Would love to read Geo’s take on the above.

From my own reading of the PoMods, with the 1980s and 90s being the most intense period of investment and discovery . . . . I remember Butler as a distinctly minor figure — among public intellectuals in general, as well as among feminists more broadly. I will readily admit my reading is that of an outsider, not a professional academic, so I had no access to the water cooler discussions in the various halls of this or that department . . . just among other students/amateur enthusiasts. But I just don’t remember anyone citing her as being first and foremost. When I bumped into the (New York) article in question, it really surprised me and struck me as an odd choice. It also made me want to see what I may have missed.

Thanks for the article, Corey.


bianca steele 07.03.16 at 4:36 pm

I have a 1990 version of this (http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip081/2007040872.html) anthology. Theory has pretty much taken over, it seems like, and become nearly invisible. Marx is gone; Gramsci is gone; the American functionalists are gone; the postmodern theorists who were really more about language, discourse, or ontology aren’t represented, at least for those things, but most of what is left is in the vein of “theory”.


Plume 07.03.16 at 4:49 pm

Thanks, Bianca. That’s illuminating.


RNB 07.03.16 at 5:33 pm

See Ronald Bogue on Bergsonian fabulation and the people to come; Bogue gives a Deleuzean reading of how minor literature is an experiment in ‘legending’ a people to come by falsifying and freeing a people of the received truths about them. I am not sure whether anyone but bob mcmanus reads such work like this; on another thread engels mentions poetry and I am told that there is no better study of minor literature in this dynamic sense than Jahan Ramazani’s Transnational Poetics.


bianca steele 07.03.16 at 5:50 pm


That sounds interesting. Obviously though this is from the perspective of the dominant culture, since major literature under this theory doesn’t need to do any such work. “Preconceptions” also is questionable: from the point of view of the dominant high culture, acculturation is abandoning the minor culture’s own “preconceptions,” not necessarily abandoning the dominant culture’s misconceptions. The minor literature can be called a location of struggle and contestation without having to make a claim about the expected result.

I prefer Rorty’s old-fashioned but clearer division into the kind of high culture that does double duty for a kind of mysticism, and a kind of literature that spreads the news about what’s going on with those who lack a voice. Though I sometimes think what we have now is high literature for white men and contestation for everybody else. (The place of male homosexuality in high culture adds a wrinkle or two, though.)


RNB 07.03.16 at 6:23 pm

Deleuzean becoming minor is not about minorities per se. Minorities as commonly understood are molar categories for Deleuze and Guattari of whom by the way I am quite critical. Having said this, I am going to try to read and think about something quite different today. Just thought I would share a couple of sources where this old Wordsworthian question of a new style requiring the summoning of a new audience is taken up–a couple pages in Stanley Fish’s new book on argument and Bogue’s analysis of the Deleuzean idea of fabulating a people to come.


bianca steele 07.03.16 at 6:38 pm

Fish’s new book is still not available in stores, I think. Anyway the idea that Fish’s theory is about books creating readers isn’t obvious, at least from its first formulation. Initially one thought it was about recognizing the input culture and different reading communities might have on the meaning of a text; now it seems it’s about creating a normative reader through a process of the reader’s recognizing her own confusion and her need to learn what the text expects from her. The old “Cultural Literacy” without the need for textbooks: just read the Old Masters and do your homework?

Deleuze seems more worth reading than Bogue, I’d think. But the lack of decent summaries of “theorists”–probably for reasons like the one Butler mentions–can be frustrating.


bob mcmanus 07.03.16 at 10:00 pm

13 is pretty good, but is the kind of list that would have Honneth and Habermas at the top. Recent book contrasting Honneth and Ranciere looks interesting.

Verso Autumn 2015 Catalogue …pdf

Not being around academia, just an amateur reader, I am not sure who the audience is for the Verso or Historical Materialism imprints, but the authors usually have academic credentials of some kind. A surfeit of New Marxian work, with Women’s Studies, Post-Colonial, Critical Race, Cultural and Media Studies represented. As someone who keeps an eye and search engine open, I can be assured of at least 4-5 new Gramsci studies a year. Not that I have time to read them.

Theory has pretty much taken over, it seems like, and become nearly invisible.

Usually in the stuff I read, the influences are made visible in short paragraphs about methodology at the beginning and bibliographies at the end. I pay close attention to those, with delusions about what I should read, and notice historical chains of influence and ongoing communities. Even the likes of Butler or Jameson are only nodes in a very large network not colossi astride the straits.

And so to my attitude that makes the smart crowd recoil with horror and sneer in disgust: I don’t read Butler, and wonder about teaching her rather than the generations of followers, students, acolytes, descendants. There is always something elitist, authoritarian, anti-socialist and anti-democratic about following a canon, any canon, and if a thinker is important the work and ideas will get replicated, with interesting and varied mistakes and misinterpretations to be compared, in the “minor” scholars. And they could use the attention. Are we socialists or not?

Just kidding.


merian 07.03.16 at 10:36 pm

I think Butler certainly had a pre-existing audience outside of academis. In the early 90s, there was pretty widespread audience of engaged “amature”Theory readers, who were not part of the academy, or at least not at all involved in the careerist aspects of Theory. These people were pretty used to dealing with abstruse writing, so Butler’s style wouldn’t have seemed outlandish in that context.

Hey, I resemble that. I’ve never felt much kinship to the argument about abstruse writing. Making sense of Kant or Nietzsche as a teenager wasn’t any easier, after all, than making sense of Derrida, let alone Butler, as a 20-something. As a lesbian on the cusp of coming out, who had been brought up with the idea that feminism was something to be sneered at, this sort of stuff was of concrete, practical applicability to how I could think about my life. More of the “tools for thinking” rather than “results of thought” of course. To the thinking citizen rather more like mathematics is to the working physicist. And if something didn’t make sense or seemed overly precious, or the author appeared phoney, it wasn’t my cup of tea, full stop. Deleuze was useless to me. Others weren’t. I also went to Derrida’s public lectures, which were quite a marvel in how this fusty French way of giving public talks — reading very slowly from a manuscript — could be brought to life by someone who masters the form very well. And you get this little, skewed boost to your mental faculties, like when he was talking about hospitality, you knew the actual topic was the rise of xenophobia and racism. Most of my friends at the time were at least somewhere engaged with this world. My straight male lute-playing mathematician friend would read Foucault, maybe, rather than Butler.


bob mcmanus 07.03.16 at 10:43 pm

If as Robin says, the students reading Butler are what is fun and interesting, why not “teach” the students of Butler, the hundreds (?) a year for the last twenty years. Some of them were smart.

What would it mean, serve for me to read Butler? Would I “have” Gender Trouble after reading it, would I become some very very minor authority? If I read two dozen readers of Butler, will I see that nobody but Butler really has Gender Trouble? If she has it anymore. Where does this text exist anyway? If I was paid to teach Women’s Studies, I suppose I would need the credential.

Nobody is very impressed that I read Turkle, Ien Ang, Agnes Heller, maybe Pogue or Brian Massumi, especially after they learn I haven’t read Difference and Repetition or Foucault. But those are also good writers who would like to be read! Avoiding status, credentials, authority strikes me as a very good thing. A democratic socialist thing.

The reports of the ten blind persons are more important and interesting than the elephant.


Plume 07.03.16 at 11:28 pm

Bob @19,

Verso, in my view, is excellent. They’re among the few leftist publishers out there, not solely geared to professional academics. I got The Origin of Capitalism, Communal Luxury and The Making of Global Capitalism from them, among other titles. Haymarket is another good one. Got a Gramsci anthology from them.

Where do you find most of your books?


LFC 07.04.16 at 1:40 am

@b. mcmanus

You are entirely free to read whatever you want, obvs., but it’s not more ‘democratic’ or ‘socialist’ to read a younger or less well-known scholar than an older, more ‘canonical’ one. I find that position pretty absurd, frankly.

You mention you read Sherry Turkle (someone btw who is, I believe, older than Butler, so not an up-and-coming youngster but an established author). Second-hand, I’m aware Turkle writes about different subjects and has different interests than Butler does. So it’s apples and oranges, seems to me. Pretending that Sherry Turkle or Agnes Heller (again, a different focus) are somehow in need of readers b.c all their potential readers are being drained away by Foucault and Butler strikes me as ridiculous. I’m sure that all these people — Turkle, Heller, Foucault, Butler, etc. — are assigned in courses.

Again, read whatever you want and don’t read whatever you want, but don’t try to elevate your choices but portraying them as a brave, socialist revolt against ‘the canon’.

P.s. : I’ve read some (though not a huge amount) of Foucault; about 5 pages of Butler (plus a few more pp. yesterday after Anderson mentioned in a thread here her first book, about Hegel and his French, what?, interlocutors) ; and nothing by the others you mention @21.

And finally, I don’t think the point of the OP was to urge anyone to read Butler, so I don’t see why you’re being defensive (for lack of a better word) about not having done so.


ZM 07.04.16 at 7:32 am

bianca steele and bob mcmanus,

“I agree with ZM about Barthes, though I’d say “Writing Degree Zero.” I don’t think philosophy is very often “writing” in that sense, though.”

“Theory has pretty much taken over, it seems like, and become nearly invisible.”

“Usually in the stuff I read, the influences are made visible in short paragraphs about methodology at the beginning and bibliographies at the end. I pay close attention to those, with delusions about what I should read, and notice historical chains of influence and ongoing communities. Even the likes of Butler or Jameson are only nodes in a very large network not colossi astride the straits.”

I have only read Writing Degree Zero one time — for the same French avant-garde history subject I read The Golden Fruits and Writing Degrees Zero for — but from memory of the book, isn’t the *invisibility* of the style of the mid century writing Barthes talked about the idea of what constitutes “writing degree zero”? It is degree zero since it has no apparent style?

I have an idea that Barthes’ identifies this generation of writers, which includes the Nouveau Roman authors but also theorists I think, wrote in a style that appeared to have no style, or appeared invisible.

It would make sense that as this sort of theory and the ideas in the nouveau roman and nouvelle vague become normalised (ie. see Abas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent Radiohead film clip for prominent Iranian and US film makers engaging with the nouvelle vague film Last Year At Marienbad, albeit in very different ways) that the “invisibility” of the style is transferred into these more mainstream uses.*

I also think this invisible sort of style of writing is something that is connected to something discussed in Ingrid’s OP on the Open Letter to the philosophy professor accused of sexual harassment, since the style sort of elides the person of the author.

In that comment thread I copied and linked to an article about the lives of the group of theorists actually becoming prominent at the end of their lives or after death, the article saying their lives returned to haunt their work.

I don’t really know if I agree that the style of writing is invisible, I’m not sure. I have some unformed thoughts about the style of writing that is popular with your generation, or even popular among your social cohort within your generation, maybe seeming invisible to you in ways that it might not be so invisible to others…

* Well Kiarostami is not really more mainstream than the nouvelle vague I suppose (?), and I think he actually was intending to challenge the invisibility of the style perhaps in Certified Copy, since he indicated in an interview he originally hoped that the opera singer who played the male lead would, with his lack of professionalism, be able to disarm Juliette Binoche during filming. Kiarostami said his actors proved too good for him, so it is interesting to speculate on this film.


ZM 07.04.16 at 7:40 am

bianca steele,

I know that you didn’t just mean the invisibility of the style, but you also were talking about the mainstreaming of theory. I think whenever it is mainstreamed it is more visible actually, like in the riot grrrl bands or something like that. not really writing degree zero there.


bianca steele 07.04.16 at 5:34 pm

Bob, Turkle, really? She’s good (and I know her first book was about the left), but she’s writing in a liberal vein about social issues that are concerning to liberalism. Why do you read Turkle, if you’re asking why you should read any given author? (There’s a sometime commenter named Turkle, no mention of them intended.)

ZM, Yes, that’s in part what I meant. The kind of transparency some French writers (Sartre, Barthes) were after was discussed in the English language too, of course, in slightly but not entirely different terms.


bob mcmanus 07.04.16 at 9:33 pm

26: It was a small, perhaps minor book called Simulation and Its Discontents which I thought be might about Baudrillard and turned out to be about architectural and other modeling software. I put Turkle in a category I call “cybertheory” which includes everything from sociology of television watching to the Internet to Critical Realism: call it Late Capital/Digital ontologies. Aihwa Ong, Dominic Pettman, Kittler, Lovink, Ien Ang, Lev Manovich, Castells, Christian Fuchs, Maria Bakardijeva, Haraway, N Katherine Hayles, Tiziana Terranova, Wendy Chun. No I haven’t read them yet. I have hardly read anything at all.

I can drop these names because what little I have read drops these names, unfair, cites and uses their work. Part of me is trying to understand what a list like the above (and that a schlub like me can drop it) means in comparison to “Butler!” and the democratization/dispersion of intellectual work which is part of Marxian cybertheory.

As you can see I prefer to read women when possible, and it always is, partly because I can be assured that most will have read and be influenced by Butler. I wonder what is the “Butler” I get from them.


Kiwanda 07.05.16 at 4:38 pm

Nussbaum addresses not only Butler’s style, but her presumed audience:
“It is also obvious that Butler’s work is not directed at a non-academic audience eager to grapple with actual injustices. Such an audience would simply be baffled by the thick soup of Butler’s prose, by its air of in-group knowingness, by its extremely high ratio of names to explanations. To whom, then, is Butler speaking? It would seem that she is addressing a group of young feminist theorists in the academy who are neither students of philosophy, caring about what Althusser and Freud and Kripke really said, nor outsiders, needing to be informed about the nature of their projects and persuaded of their worth. This implied audience is imagined as remarkably docile. Subservient to the oracular voice of Butler’s text, and dazzled by its patina of high-concept abstractness, the imagined reader poses few questions, requests no arguments and no clear definitions of terms.”

Nussbaum also gives many prior discussions regarding “gender as social construction” and the “gender binary” prior to Butler, going back to John Stuart Mill, including Catherine Mackinnon, Nancy Chodorow, Anne Fausto Sterling, and Susan Moller Okin.

But any critique of Butler’s obscurantism or unoriginality is not really relevant to the NYMag article, which is mostly concerned with Butler as celebrity. I especially liked “Butler is in many ways surprisingly accessible for an academic celebrity. She shoulders a standard teaching load.”

Even if the harshest viewpoint is taken, and Butler’s only real contribution is the word “heteronormativity”, that’s still something: the power of words is not to be gainsaid. Rebecca Solnit’s *mansplaining”, and its many manXing and Xsplaining descendents, was very influential, and yielded a rich vocabulary for expressing general disdain for men in various specific contexts.


bianca steele 07.05.16 at 5:30 pm


The paragraph quoted sounds like a pretty standard response from an English-speaking philosopher of the time, to work steeped in Continental philosophy or “theory”, which seems to have been more read in literature departments of the time than philosophy departments. Which is more like what most non-academic readers would be familiar with or interested in, has probably shifted since then. The idea that only philosophers know about Freud is, however, surprising. The idea that readers of texts like Butlers’ are unusually “subservient” to the text seems uncharitable.


LFC 07.05.16 at 10:23 pm

Kiwanda @28
Nussbaum addresses not only Butler’s style, but her presumed audience

Appreciate your pointing that out, because I haven’t read the Nussbaum piece and although Corey R. links the piece in the OP, he only mentions its critique of Butler’s style — admittedly Nussbaum’s points about style and audience appear to go together here. And as I read the Nussbaum passage, she’s making a point less about the actual audience — i.e., who might actually have read Gender Trouble — than about the audience that the book, in Nussbaum’s view anyway, seems to be addressing or ‘imagining’ or ‘presuming’ — as you say, it’s an argument about “presumed audience.” (Which doesn’t mean Nussbaum’s necessarily right, but it’s an interesting point I think.)


AcademicLurker 07.05.16 at 11:57 pm

I haven’t read the linked New York piece. Do they at least mention that an undergraduate published a satirical Judith Butler fanzine titled Judy! way back in 1993 (it’s the subject of an article in one of the 1993 issues of Lingua Franca but I can’t find a link to the full text)? Because if they don’t, they’ve totally failed to do their homework for a Judith-Butler-as-celebrity think piece.


bob mcmanus 07.06.16 at 12:20 am

31: Yes

In the early ’90s, a University of Iowa undergrad published a zine called Judy!; she called Butler “a bit Gap” but “still a fox.”


Josh 07.06.16 at 5:50 am

Kiwanda, Solnit didn’t invent the word “mansplaining” and indeed, in the book-length version of “Men Explain Things to Me,” she expresses reservations about the term.

An interesting follow-up to Nussbaum’s “Professor of Parody” is her introduction to Philosophical Interventions, wherein she doubles down on the review’s arguments and contends that there was nothing uncollegial in her claim that Butler’s work “collaborates with evil.”


Kiwanda 07.06.16 at 1:15 pm

bianca steele: “…of the time…of the time…” You seem to be saying that things have changed, but I’m not clear on it. “The idea that only philosophers know about Freud is, however, surprising.” Not quite what she said, but Freud does seem oddly mentioned there.

Josh: That’s interesting, I stand corrected. Although it’s an easy mistake to make: many headlines and articles make at least the association. Such a mistake is itself a tribute to the power of words.

In her Nation essay, “Men Still Explain Things to Me”, Solnit writes “Young women subsequently added the word “ mansplaining ” to the lexicon. Though I hasten to add that the essay makes it clear mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck. ” So, not all men, not “a universal flaw”, but I don’t see a real strong repudiation of a gendered term of derision.

I wonder if, while Nussbaum was “doubling down” and “contending”, she made any interesting points to agree or disagree with. The term “uncollegial” is a little too close to “uncivil” for my taste; sounds like the tone police were patrolling, or the tone trolls were policing, or something.

I didn’t notice or forgot “collaborates with evil”, that’s interesting. Her closing paragraph, including it: “Finally there is despair at the heart of the cheerful Butlerian enterprise. The big hope, the hope for a world of real justice, where laws and institutions protect the equality and the dignity of all citizens, has been banished, even perhaps mocked as sexually tedious. Judith Butler’s hip quietism is a comprehensible response to the difficulty of realizing justice in America. But it is a bad response. It collaborates with evil. Feminism demands more and women deserve better. “


AcademicLurker 07.06.16 at 1:46 pm

What complicates the issue when it comes to criticisms of Butler is that many people feel that the “Theory celebrity” is/was an unsavory phenomenon, with a variety of bad effects on the humanities. At least as far as domestic U.S. product is concerned (as opposed to European imports), Butler has been the Theory celebrity par excellence ever since the early 90s. So it can be tricky to parse out when people are criticizing Butler in particular as opposed to what her career has come to represent.


bianca steele 07.06.16 at 2:23 pm


One of the more interesting recent public academic controversies centered around the Bad Writing Contest, which was held in the late 1990s by the journal Philosophy and Literature, in order to ridicule the worst samples of academic prose. The first-prize “winners” were all famous within the theoretical humanities: Fredric Jameson in 1995 and 1997, Roy Bhaskar in 1996, and Judith Butler in 1998.

Not a bad publicity stunt.

Kiwanis: point taken, re. Freud. But what is Nussbaum saying? Is that a relative or a restrictive clause? Philosophy students: want to know what Freud actually said, and don’t want or need to read Gender Trouble. Outsiders (what are these?): want to know why Freud, or rather his project, is important; presumably they are ill equipped to know what Freud actually said, or don’t care?; presumably do not yet know about Freud. Possibly they have a popular view of Freud as silly–but this seems dated to me. What big picture regarding the types of readers out the (here) is she presupposing? It seems to me this question has to be answered to understand what she’s trying to get across.


bianca steele 07.06.16 at 2:31 pm

AL@ 35: “So it can be tricky to parse out when people are criticizing Butler in particular as opposed to what her career has come to represent.”

Possibly also tricky to parse out when people are defending an assumed idea of Butler’s (or anyone’s, say Nussbaum’s) importance, as opposed to what she actually wrote or writes., especially if they don’t know the details of the latter.


bianca steele 07.06.16 at 2:49 pm

Kiwanda: sorry about the misspelling, I thought I’d overcome autocorrect in that post.

I think most CT commenters are old enough to remember this (this is the kind of post that makes it hard for me to remember that Corey and I are the same age), but “theory” and poststructuralism were not widely accepted just a few decades ago. I mean I could be wrong–maybe they were as early as 1984 when I started college (even in philosophy departments?)–alas, the facts are probably lost in the fog of the past, to all but the most diligent and talented of archival researchers.


AcademicLurker 07.06.16 at 2:54 pm

bianca steele@38:

I guess it depends on what you mean by “widely accepted”. I was an undergrad from 88-92, and my impression was that capital T Theory was the lingua franca of much of the humanities at that time. Of course in the wider world, there were conservative culture warriors railing against “postmodernism” in op eds and the like on a regular basis. By “widely”, did you mean in academia or in general?


bianca steele 07.06.16 at 3:18 pm


Well, since I was a computer science major (changed while at school) and only took a few humanities courses, I’m a poor witness. I’ve read plenty from that time, by people in good standing in the academy, who attacked “postmodernism” and pointed to non-theoretical approaches. (We are talking about the same thing, right? The introduction of theory vocabulary to undergraduates as their basic understanding of the world, as opposed to esoteric guides for grad study?) Maybe I missed it all. But starting college in 1984:

Freshman comp instructor, a grad student in English lit: said she was a structuralist and looked for things like sexual symbols in fiction (e.g. fruit), did not mention theory or use the lingo or expect us to use it

Art and music humanities: no theoretical lingo, only words like “painterly” and “polyphony”, and assigned anthology has nothing recognizable as “theory”

History: some Marxism and related political theory, no reference to theory

Core courses in humanities and social/political theory: One instructor defined “hermeneutics” on the first day of class. No theorists later than Nietzsche (required reading) mentioned, one instructor handed out an essay by Peirce

Philosophy courses: Russell, Rawls, Nozick, Sartre (that I remember). Obviously, these were objects of study, not prescriptions.

I first heard the word “postmodern” in a talk by Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic, probably in 1985. There was an art history course in the catalog called “postmodernism after the avant garde.” The very up to date student paper never ever used theory lingo. Friends who took film courses said “bourgeois” and that was it. I took around 1990-1992 and again in 2000, and there was a notable leap in how much theory, even in the pre-90s sense, that students were expected to confront, particularly in literature.


Kiwanda 07.06.16 at 5:22 pm

bianca steele: so what you’re saying is, that kind of bullshit has pretty much taken over English departments? Huh. I guess it’s easy enough to avoid, unless there’s some distributional requirements.


AcademicLurker 07.06.16 at 5:40 pm

bianca steele@40:

One of my 2 majors was English, so it would have been more obvious to me since English was generally the home department for Theory. Also, I think I arrived in undergrad just as Theory had achieved its commanding position. 1984-5 seems a touch too early.

As far as other disciplines go, my impression was that Theory-ish ideas were big in Anthropology and in those areas of History that intersected with what we now call “post-colonial studies”. Film theory was definitely dominated by Lacanian stuff for a long time, I don’t know if it still is. And then there’s the whole amorphous bundle of American Studies and Cultural Studies.

And, to link this back to the original post, Women’s Studies (and later, Gender Studies) was pretty heavily Theory influenced from at least the late 70s on.


bianca steele 07.07.16 at 1:43 am

Freud is later than Nietzsche, I guess.

I believe John Holbo has edited a book with a chapter on Nussbaum/Butler, fwiw.

Eagleton’s textbook came out in 1983, but Lentricchia’s 1981 anthology (the place of which on my shelf has been taken up by Magic Tree House books) just doesn’t suggest to me any kind of bold emerging doctrine, much less what we (apparently) ended up getting. But in 1990 or so B&N near me gave more space to feminism and theory each than they give to philosophy alone today.


js. 07.07.16 at 3:57 am

Extremely OT, but re ZM @24 and Last Year at Marienbad, there was also this:


RNB 07.07.16 at 5:57 pm

I really don’t get Nussbaum’s criticism of Butler. She can pick out paragraphs here there that don’t make immediate sense, but so what? She says that no one would turn to Butler for a provocative reading of Althusser, yet Pierre Machery and Etienne Balibar who were Althusser’s students have been in close dialogue with Butler. She seems to think that Butler’s students kow-tow to her. I know several of them. Not one of them is a Butlerian in a real sense; each has her or his reading of Foucault or Derrida and a few don’t even privilege those sources. Judith Butler does not have students who do not argue and who are not fiercely independent. But they are all attracted to her for the boldness of her thought, her willingness to say uncomfortable things. Feminist anthropologists like the great Marilyn Strathern find her contributions stimulating. Then we have Brian Leiter taking shots at Butler, but he would not agree with Nussbaum that critique should be based on a clear vision of social justice. Leiter himself tries to disentangle critique from such moralism though Leiter is just repeating arguments that Max Adler and Allen Wood have made (note though that Leiter has recently turned around and made an unfair criticism of Wood). Here’s the thing. I read Butler and admire and learned from her. I have argued with her, and she has expressed her reservations about what I imagine she takes to be my economistic and tendentious Marxism. But she has supported my voice. And I find myself in critical dialogue with Nussbaum and Leiter both of whom I learn a lot from when they are not taking cheap shots against others. There is no reason here that there cannot be actual scholarly dialogue but Nussbaum and Leiter are just poisoning the well. I wish they would stop.


bianca steele 07.07.16 at 11:23 pm

Hm. I don’t actually have Lentricchia’s book. I have Ralph Cohen’s. I have a vague memory that they were the same color. Cohen’s book, anyway, has an essay by Nussbaum that, I have to say, from the artist’s perspective might sound a little philistine. Though it might be right up DFW’s alley. Though on the other hand again one might have expected DFW to write something, sometime, about Nussbaum (she being right up his alley and all, and possibly at Harvard when he was there), and he did not. And while Nussbaum’s general idea that we should read art to think about the moral and ethical problems posed by its protagonists seems not unreasonable (within limits stopping short of philistinism), her writing about particular artworks strikes me as off enough that it makes me question her theories in that area.

Interesting to hear what you qualified people make of it though.


ZM 07.08.16 at 7:56 am

bianca steele,

“Art and music humanities: no theoretical lingo, only words like “painterly” and “polyphony”, and assigned anthology has nothing recognizable as “theory”
History: some Marxism and related political theory, no reference to theory”

I did my BA in the early 2000s (I started in 1997 but needed to take some time as an extended gap year) and my experience of literature and history was that theory was taught but not expected to be used necessarily. If you wanted to use theory you could, but if you wanted to write a humanities essay without utilising theory you could do that as well. You were probably meant to be relatively conversant with important theories and engage with them, but were not under an obligation to believe in them as such. The term polyphony can be used as a simple metaphor, or else is refers to theory by Bakhtin and people in his school of thought (I know this since I used it as a metaphor then one of my friends was using Bakhtin’s work at the time and told me about it, and then I had a sinking feeling thinking that my lecturer would probably read what I wrote in my essay as an inept attempt at using theory).

In social research it is somewhat different, you would be expected to utilise some sort of theory in the research design. But the problems with using major theories is now sort of overcome by something called “middle range theory” where the theories are much smaller than something like Marxism, and they don’t have that sense of being all encompassing theories of everything. Something called “grounded theory” is also common in a similar sort of way, where instead of starting with a theory researchers collect data and extrapolate a theory from the data.


Oh, that’s such a great film clip! I remember the song but I can’t quite recall the film clip. One of my friends (same one as above actually) was a huge Blur fan in the mid 90s. That’s Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab isn’t it? I haven’t listened to them for a while, I *loved* Mars Audio Quintet and Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Sadier has always been into theory, so its a perfect song for this thread, not OT at all :-)

“Izzy: I really love your interest in cultural theory, the humanities, and people like Guy Debord. I actually teach his work at Temple University. Are there any other theories or theorists (or anything outside the world of “music”) that you find to be especially influential to your own work, or just your own understanding of the world we live in?

Lætitia: In terms of “thinkers,” there are a couple that have influenced my thinking.

The first I can name is Cornelius Castoriadis, a Greek man who lived in France from the age of 18 — that would have been in the early 40’s. He was a philosopher, economist, historian, psychoanalyst, and generally someone who based his thinking on reality, the beauty of the earth, the amazingness of life processes and people; he wasn’t just a dry philosopher, only concerned with concepts and making reality fit into his ideas. I felt a lot of love coming from his thinking and a real sense of being led in a visit to higher spheres.

I also like Hannah Arendt. I admire her strength in her thinking, also more concerned with reality. She had to stand against pettiness and preconceived ideas that people around her had at a certain given moment in time. And that particular struggle still needs to be fought alas…

Someone like Gunter Anders also fascinates me, someone who analyzed the drama played out in what would be later named by Debord, La Société Du Spectacle, and how it would impoverish and strip humans of their sense of creativity and their sense of identity. When he realised that a lot of them were more driven by their egos than their genuine desire to have a transformational impact on reality, he refused to be called a philosopher and enter the ranks of various institutions such as universities around Germany.

Izzy: Throughout the years you’ve collaborated with a number of really cool musicians. Is there anyone you dream of getting a chance to work with that you are yet to?

Lætitia: I’d like to collaborate with Beck. I feel he is a musical brother of mine and I long to mingle notes with him! I would like to work with Peaches too, more for personal reasons than musical, though I am sure we would come up with something surprising…

Izzy: What do you have planned for the future? You’re playing some shows in Europe. Any chance of some US dates?

Lætitia: Indeed a big European tour is planned in November with the trio. I am hoping to get to the US by March. I am faced with very high visa costs which make it difficult for a band our size, that wouldn’t do an arena tour (!), to tour the US. New taxes are introduced as well, 30% of pay of our fee every night goes to pay off the bankers’ interest … Anything to penalize workers…”

Oct 2014 http://www.philthymag.com/laetitia-sadier-continuing-to-examine-the-spectacle/


casmilus 07.08.16 at 10:04 am


“The challenge about her writing should be: take a passage that’s supposedly awful, and explain to us how it can be rewritten to carry the same content but expressed more clearly?”

Martha Nussbaum did do that, in her famous review.


casmilus 07.08.16 at 10:12 am


Sarraute was the greatest French thinker of the past century. Far superior to all those overpraised male peacocks who were more famous.


bruce wilder 07.08.16 at 5:01 pm

bob mcmanus @ 21

“The computer and the user coproduce relevance,” said Sandvig. “You’re training the algorithm and it’s training you.”



LFC 07.09.16 at 6:14 am

Nussbaum’s essay on Iris Murdoch in this book, with its perceptiveness and range of reference, is impressive, imo. (It’s too bad the phrase ‘tour de force’ is overused, b.c that’s what this piece is.)


js. 07.09.16 at 5:59 pm

ZM @47 — According to this (see notes below the video), it’s not actually Laetitia Sadler in the video—though she does do the French vocals in the song (which I’d forgotten!).

Thanks for that interview — I hadn’t seen it before. And you’re right about Stereolab—extremely theory-laden and well on topic for this thread!

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