I’ve tried to puzzle through some writings by Judith Butler over the years, and finally think I’ve gotten a handle on some of them—not Gender Trouble, though, for which I only downloaded a sample, once, that turned out to consist only of the introduction to the revised edition. I’ve even looked into the kerfuffle with Nussbaum. (New York magazine recently published a profile of Butler, linked to by Dennis Dutton's Arts & Letters Daily site: you can still see it if you load the non-mobile version of the page.)
There are a lot of interesting things to be thought and said, in my opinion, by examining what Butler actually wrote. There are a lot of interesting things to be considered about her influence on life today.
But Judith Butler is a philosopher and her book is philosophy. What it “means” depends on a lot of philosophical presuppositions that, first of all, few people who aren’t philosophers know about, and second of all, are not universally shared even among philosophers (let alone non-experts). One can say things about Derrida and the transformation of philosophical texts into literary ones, the replacement of philosophy by literary criticism, and so on, and still, eventually, one runs into the question of ideology.
And obviously there is more than one ideology in the world. More, even, than two.
I sometimes picture a certain kind of writer sitting back and watching as we non-expert readers thrash blindly about trying to figure out what’s going on with them, waiting patiently for us to grasp the currently correct way of understanding the kind of thing they do, gently ignoring our coherent but inaccurate attempts. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we realize this kind of thing is ivory-tower theorizing and—by design—can have no direct connection with practical or political concerns, which never—never, ever—derive from the theoretical in any kind of simple way.
The Internet is full of people who’ve read one book, one time, or participated in one discussion group, and learned one or two vocabulary words to describe parts of the world, and maybe a third to describe the world as a whole, and—similarly—sit back and wait patiently while they try to needle other people into coming around to their own point of view. To use the term Rorty invented, it’s a game of “Guess My Final Vocabulary.” For those who don’t realize there’s more than one, it’s easy. But the big one is “anti-capitalism,” or “anti-liberalism.” It’s easy for someone to just slap “and it’s capitalism’s fault” to the end of every critique. Readers can fill in the blanks the way they like.
Freddie de Boer recently complained (as he so often does - UPDATE: Freddie has updated his comment so that the quote I used is no longer there - the original version can be found here) of Butler that, while she criticizes capitalism frequently, the “pop” version of her theories leaves that part out. (It also leaves out much of the criticism of the gender binary and of the idea of femininity, but Freddie doesn’t seem interested in that part.) But no one is unaware that Butler is on the left, so that complaint seems a little off-target. It’s interesting that Freddie does not complain that attacking “capitalism” is often more than a little vague. What, specifically, is wrong with “capitalism”? What is “capitalism,” other than a handy word for “the way we live now”? What is he proposing we should have in its place? Is there anything around right now that could serve as the basis for an alternative way of thinking, or is everything actually existing right now tainted by “capitalism”? Maybe these questions seem academic, I don’t know. But people have been criticizing “the way we live now” for centuries. What does the word “capitalism” add?
One definition of socialism used to be that there was something that the modern world had lost from the world that came before, and it was socialism’s job to reincorporate those things. Now, apparently (if writers like Freddie are typical, especially of "socialists" whose concerns aren't primarily economic at all, but more all-embracing and "revolutionary"), socialism instead means nihilistically opposing everything about the status quo in the name of those worst off. You don’t have to know anything about anything: you just have to prove your passion by your willingness to go all the way and use the “S” word. But then you have to believe this makes you better than people who actually know the details of the critique and how they might be ameliorated, and you have to believe your call to tear it all down is superior to their step-by-step plans. People like Freddie seem to be waiting, patiently, for people who have other things to do, to realize they ought to abandon everything they know and accept his (left) critique of capitalism in its place: to have it suddenly dawn on them that they need people like Freddie to lead them. (The similarity of that last sentence to a statement about “religion,” or “psychoanalysis,” or “the Twelve Steps,” or “Reality,” is not a coincidence.)
I was going to say something about how gender fits into all of this. I guess there isn’t time.