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.

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