What do Hegel, Jacques Derrida, Hannah Arendt, Shoshana Felman and Angela Davis all have in common? The eminent public intellectual, Judith Butler, referenced all of these critical philosophers and activists during a lecture she delivered Wednesday in Uris Auditorium. Butler’s lecture, “Plural Action,” focused on the public’s freedom to assemble, and how the state has enclosed on this freedom through privatization, mass incarceration and police action. She drew on critical theorists abound and tied her ideas together with ease and technical expertise.
However, Judith Butler fell quite short of what she could have accomplished standing in front of an auditorium filled 800 ears deep. While, the content of her lecture rocked my socks off, Butler typifies the problem with contemporary critical intellectuals.
For those of you who don’t know, critical theory is a school of thought originating from the writing of Kant, Hegel, Marx and Freud that has developed into an interdisciplinary umbrella term for all work that critiques society and culture. Some thinkers approach their critical assessments from a strictly positivist perspective, emphasizing strict interpretation and explanation, while others take a more normative viewpoint, making qualitative judgments with the hopes of changing society through the philosophy itself.
In my view, Judith Butler spoke from this positivist dimension of philosophy, and in doing so, delivered her ideas through sterile, disassociated and unemotional rhetoric. Basically, she attempted to come off as a completely objective academic, making few overt value statements and even fewer calls for direct action.
This is a problem. This is a big problem. Butler, like many other academics across the world, assumed a liberal stance on objective public discourse which, as a prerequisite, calls for the complete elimination of emotional subjectivity or concrete calls for a specific future. In the name of objectivity, intellectuals theorize their ideas out in the open public sphere for the people to judge for themselves. By their rationale, the truth will eventually reveal itself, because (according to their logic), all individuals are rational actors who can discern what is right for both themselves and society.
But, in fact, the normative judgements she sought to avoid were built into Butler’s critique. It took only a discernable listener to begin to hypothesize what kind of direct action ending such oppression would require. However, Butler left that up to us the listeners to decide, and I don’t think that’s right. She theorized in the name of mass liberation, restructuring society to free us from the hegemony of modern political economy and dominant ideology, and in effect spoke for (using contemporary terminology) the 99 percent, yet she failed to deliver a message discernable to the 99 percent she hoped to enlighten and thereby galvanize.
We can all support a message that seeks mass liberation from both overt and concealed oppression, right? But, what does “support” even look like in this case? I sure as hell don’t think support looks like a room full of college kids giving a round of applause for a message that should enrage, not amaze. When less than 1 percent of society can even decipher her esoteric message, what does that say about its potential for change? When Butler’s message requires a 4-credit course worth of background reading just to understand the jargon in her argument, what does that say about how she, and academics in general, position themselves within society? While I have been privileged enough to be exposed to the theoretical background from which she drew, many of the students I talked to felt her message flew right over their heads.
Butler’s called for liberation of the masses and a revolution of thought, but in speaking to only the elite that could understand her message, she reflected the self-aggrandizing problem of high theorists across the world. With tenured posts at elite institutions, these intellectuals have little investment in the actualization of their critiques and thus, their desire to incite action is negligible. A message delivered with the same detached tone as a radio host describing changes in the stock market, “offends against humanity by being calm where one should be enraged, by refraining from accusation when accusation is in the facts themselves,” as Marcuse points out. Quite ironically, Butler described how the public sphere has lost the oppositional function of its freedom to assemble, yet Butler lost her oppositional element when choosing to speak unemotionally when the facts themselves call for emotion — strong impassioned emotions that reflect the immediacy of the problems at hand.
Of course, I am not much better. I could have stood up and created an uproar all by myself. Why am I deferring for Butler for that? I have all the angst and disgust of in my own head to act and organize without her help. I didn’t though, perhaps because the social pressure to conform is too strong. Butler did, however, have an earnest auditorium ready to accept whatever she said. Her potential to inspire action is larger than any one of us in the audience.
We were celebrating a person, not a message, for if the message was our focus, we would not clap for her at all. How could anyone clap for the demonstration of our complete manipulation and collective oppression? Direct action is what’s called for, not some temporary veneration suspended in the middle of a life unchanged.
Some might say Butler was being strategic. Disassociating a critique from a particular political viewpoint neutralizes the claim in a politically polarized world, thereby allowing for the information to speak for itself, untainted by a subjective messenger. However, a non-choice is still a choice. Choosing not to vote is still a vote — a vote for nobody. Likewise, to choose positivist and unemotional objectivity diminishes the message in a world of complete and total subjectivity. It creates a false equivalence that blinds the public from rational truth and blatant fiction.
Perhaps, some would position her as the philosopher who inspires the activists. However, I dismiss this claim. She has the followers to begin a movement and has every duty to speak with the immediacy implicit in her critique. For those who are affected every day in body and soul by the implications of society’s ordering, her message carries extreme gravity, and to not harness this is to miss an opportunity to change the course of history.