Convoluted Schmonvoluted: The Value of Complex Ideas


JB. So rad.

JB. So rad.

I can’t deny it, I am a giant Judith Butler fan. If there were some kind of Judith Butler club, I would be in it, vying for Junior Vice President position with a T-Shirt saying JB FANGIRL. As it happens, the closest I can get to this is writing a PhD thesis on gender, and indoctrinating teaching undergrads about the wonders of Butler’s work. But one thing that always seems to rear its obnoxious face when I mention JB, is the claim that she is notoriously difficult to read and that her writing is unnecessarily, torturously, bad. This sentiment pisses me off. Here’s why:

Gender. Obvs so simple.

Gender. Obvs so simple.

1. Butler is dealing with the complexities of gender both in theoretical and real terms. Should that be a simple thing to explain? No. Why? The whole idea that gender is as simple as man vs. woman is what got us into this mess in the first place. It’s complex shit.

2. Butler weaves together, critiques and develops a bunch of full on theoretical stuff. She is some kind of theory-hero and as such deserves mad props, not the award for worst writing ever.

Heidgger. Dense *and* terrifying.

Heidgger. Dense *and* terrifying.

3. Even if we concede that Butler is dense, why is it specifically Butler that is singled out for this, always? Anyone try reading Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, ETC? Those be opaque mother f***ers. Yet we herald them as geniuses and give them a lot of time. Why not Butler too?

4. Butler is palatable. You just might have to read some other stuff first. Butler doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She’s a philosopher by training. The least you could expect from her would be philosophical writing.

5. There is a misnomer that if you are smart enough, you should be able to (and indeed it is your duty to) communicate complex ideas simply, for the digestion of a general audience. While I agree that important ideas should filter down to effect change in the world, I think they necessarily do without the need to involve ourselves in writing crappy newspaper columns. Complex ideas are such for a reason. When you reduce them you often throw out the champagne with the cork.

What I have to say to people that dismiss JB for her complexity

What I have to say to people that dismiss JB for her complexity

Mind you, having said all that, last year I did make a cat-based comic to explain Butler’s theory of gender performativity to my classes. But it was an addendum- you had to get your head around the complex stuff before you could really unlock the meaning of the cats.

In the end, I think it is reasonable to be confused by Butler. But that should be the impetus for asking questions and seeking to understand, not dismissing the work as “bad”. Sure, Butler is trouble, but in all the best ways.

12 thoughts on “Convoluted Schmonvoluted: The Value of Complex Ideas

  1. Pingback: THINKERS | The Body Disciplined

  2. WOW I was going to read it just for the convoluted/complex ideas thing but being a JB fangirl this was even more than I hoped!!!!!!!!!!!! My brain explodes with joy when I read her. I would compete with you for the presidentship of the fan club (but you having a doctorate and all I wouldn’t win 😦 )

  3. dear binarythis, can you please post the list of books that someone should read to understand Butler’s writings? And also – can you post the reading list for anyone who want to understand modern gender theory?)

  4. The way many (apparently) people feel about Judith Butler is how I feel about Mikhail Bakhtun. I have yet to find a more convoluted author…

    I don’t know, I’ve never really read Butler (other than what the cats told me!) but I do believe that many complex ideas can be expressed in reasonably accessible language. But not always.

  5. I disagree here. Butler is caught up in a specific arena that promotes bad writing and she was doing the performance that is expected of an academic sociologist that wants to be treated with respect. There are many many bad academic writers who write about very important ideas in terrible ways. The only reason Kant or Nietzsche or anyone from the early 20th/late 19th century can get away with their bad writing is because they were actually writing in contemporaneous prose style. They were good writers for their time. Academia simply privileges that style even as the rest of english literature “decayed” into more popular styles.

    • I agree. I find gender studies extremely interesting and am writing my masters thesis about it. So of course I rread gender trouble and it was just frustrating. after each page I was totally confused what eaxctly this lady is trying to tell me.
      And sorry for this but I don’t really have to time to read faucaults texts she references ans Irigarays and who else, at least not all of them. Judith butler in crontrast to me had 10-20 years more time to read and understand all that stuff before writing her book, I have merely half a year for my thesis that is not solely about judith butler, it isn’t even about feminism but mens studies! and it’s not like faucout and the rest are easy reads by any means.

      I wish she’d realy use easierlanguage, or at least make clear what she talk about. When she uses some word can’t she define first what that means? Like social matrix, the word “social” alone is so heavily loaded with interepretations and meanings that I have really no clue what she means with this!!!

      Also I wouldn’t say she is “bad” perse, I just think reading her texts (btw as well as Kant and therest) if I wrote that way I’d get a fail in my texts! It’s kinda unfair really…

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