Judith Butler on Difficult Writing

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.

I have little patience for the third argument—it seems to me that it rests on a severe misunderstanding regarding the nature of language. Language can shape thought, but that influence doesn’t reach so far that radical thought couldn’t be formulated in it clearly. The first claim—that demands for clarity are used as political weapons against radical authors—might well be true, but is also somewhat beside the point. Criticisms of philosophical style can just be attempts to dismiss thought which challenges the philosophical or political mainstream, but they don’t have to be.

So Butler’s best point is that difficult writing has a shock function, that difficult writing is in some way meant to shock readers out of lazy, habitual assumptions regarding some subject matter, perhaps to provide them with a serious hint that they’re subject to some kind of “false consciousness” which stops them from being receptive to truly alternative thought.

In another interesting letter, in which she defends Spivak’s writing against Terry Eagleton’s similar critique, Butler puts this point as follows:

The wide-ranging audience for Spivak’s work proves that spoon-feeding is less appreciated than forms of activist thinking and writing that challenge us to think the world more radically. Indeed, the difficulty of her work is fresh air when read against the truisms which, now fully commodified as ‘radical theory’, pass as critical thinking. Adorno surely had it right when he wrote – in Minima Moralia (1951) – about those who recirculate received opinion: ‘only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar.’

(How lucid Butler’s defence of difficult writing is!) So basic writing is in some ways meant to be subversive: form as well as content are meant to shock the reader out of their complacency.

I’m not really buying it. First, if radical writing is meant to shock us out of our complacency, then it is curious how tame and conventional much of “postmodern” writing still is. Sure, these writers use lots of obscure Latinate phrases, a generous dosis of neologisms, and write in long, noun-heavy sentences. But if you intended to shock someone out of complacency, you would expect much more fireworks: philosophy done as verse, say, or in aphorisms, or through different art forms altogether. We would expect radical theory to invent new words, forms, grammars, dialects, styles of address, and perhaps entire languages altogether—all in all, we would expect it to leave much of the conventional niceties of the university publishing houses aside.

Second, as Mark Bauerlein remarks,

Just because a bit of theory prose violates grammatical rules and stylistic tastes doesn’t mean that a norm has been toppled. A norm may or may not fall; that depends on what actually happens with specific attempts.

In other words, it’s an empirical question whether the challenge presented by difficult writing undermines conventional expectations. You cannot simply claim that subversive intent also has subversive effect. An alternative hypothesis for the radical might be that the best way to undermine the mainstream might be from within: to emulate the austere style of (what we may tentatively, if somewhat misleadingly) call “analytical philosophy”, and then turn it subtly against it.

What we ultimately need to consider, then, is a counterfactual. If radical writers like Butler had written in a different, less “difficult” style, what would their political impact would have been? Would they achieve their political aims better or worse? The suspicion here is—and that is one of Nussbaum’s main points I tend to share—that the obscurantist style of someone like Butler severely limits the appeal of her ideas and its political reach. If you wanted to be mean, you might claim that this is left-wing academia crippling itself through hopeless obscurantism. Butler, on the other hand, seems to suggest that Spivak—whose writing is also difficult way, to put it mildly—has been so influential partially because she hasn’t “spoon-fed” her message to her audience, but made her writing deliberately complex.

There’s some truth to Butler’s claim. Difficult writers like Spivak and Butler have been enormously successful, perhaps much more so than more accessible writers. But I suspect that such writers have been successful despite, not because of, their difficult style—and at any rate, they have only been successful amongst a very narrow sliver of fellow academics. Even where obscurity plays into the success of a writer, the relationship between obscurity and success isn’t probably quite as benign as the “shocking out of complacency” narrative suggests. (Nussbaum highlights some of these reasons effectively.) That difficult writing is valued is more likely to have to do with various sociological forces and reputation mechanisms inside academia.

So it’s not clear what we should think of the truth of the counterfactual. I suspect it depends on lots of background assumptions that defenders and opponents of Butler’s style are unlikely to share. Still, there’s an interesting upshot from Butler’s discussion: there can be reasons to be deliberately difficult—that is, more difficult than the topic would require—in one’s own writing. In this respect, I’m happy to have some of my more naïve beliefs about the tasks of a philosophical text challenged. The broader dilemma is that the two aims in writing—outlining one’s argument clearly, and one’s text having the right psychological and political impact—can come apart in the means they require. That’s an interesting thought, even if I’m not convinced that the dilemma is normally present.

Leave a Reply