Judith Butler is often held to be an icon of bad academic writing, and Martha Nussbaum’s withering critique of Butler is one of the most biting philosophical pieces I remember reading; where you come out on the Butler—Nussbaum row might well be a shibboleth for where you stand more widely regarding matters of style in philosophy. But I’ve only recently become aware that Butler hasn’t been silent on her own writing style, but has actually written in its defence. The most interesting part of Butler’s response is that she fully accepts that her writing is “difficult”, though of course she rejects that it is “bad”. Butler’s crucial defence is neatly contained in the following passage:
Herbert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: “The intellectual is called on the carpet. … Don’t you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don’t talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you.”
The accused then responds that “if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place.” Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, “presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.”
Several ideas combine into one in this passage. First, demands for “clarity” should be seen as attempts to chastise radicals who deviate from the conventionally expected. Second, because radical writers mean to challenge and subvert the mainstream, form has to follow content: difficult writing is meant to shock placid readers out of their expectations. And third, perhaps it’s not even possible to formulate radical thought in “ordinary language”, as that language presupposes the “universe of discourse” the radical wishes to undermine.