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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Masturbation: More Like Masturgaytion?

So I was reading some philosophy the other day – by one of those crazy French guys who’s writing is so dense you need a chisel to get through – and it got me thinking about touch. The piece was The Intertwining–the Chiasm by Merleau-Ponty, which focuses in part on the concept of one’s own hand touching the other. Merleau-Ponty uses this example to explore sensation and perception as a two-way process. Just as your hand feels, it is also being felt. It’s fascinating and poetic stuff and since Merleau-Ponty died before finishing this remarkable essay we are only left wondering where he was actually going (however my sense is that even if he’d finished it, I’d still be pretty lost). Thinking about all this touching and being felt this question popped into my mind: is masturbation inherently gay?

I’m not the only one who’s been asking this. Last year, Pastor Mark Driscoll from Seattle made some strong remarks against men engaging in solo fun unless a lady friend was also in very close vicinity. Driscoll also made the claim that masturbation is “monosexual” and particularly sinful if a man is, “watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body”.

Incurring the wrath of God aside, what else can we say about this touching-oneself experience when it comes to desire? I’m guessing that not everyone sits in front of the mirror checking themselves out, but in fact fantasizes or watches porn, etc. So are we just touching ourselves but imagining that the “toucher” is actually someone else? One might draw the conclusion that this explains why so many men watch porn, i.e. MUST-SEE-WOMAN-ON-SCREEN-SO-NOT-GAY. However, since women are also avid porn-watchers, perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion. Plus, as previously discussed, I’m not a big fan of drawing gendered lines in the sand when it comes to talking about what men or women “normally” do. And who is to say that our porn watching habits actually reveal anything about our sexual orientation? Perhaps gay men masturbate to female porn?

Well, I don’t know about gay men, but there has been a fair bit written on lesbians that watch gay male porn. Apparently (according to writer Ariel Levy) “It’s definitely a thing”. As this piece from The Daily Beast explores, a lot of women report that watching gay porn is about enjoying masculine role-play and themes of domination and power more than gender per se. The article quotes comedian Kate Clinton, explaining her proclivity for man-on-man visuals: “We’re so used to watching men in our lives wield power. Gay porn is an opportunity to watch them get f—–.” Clearly the porn that people enjoy has an elaborate relationship to the desires that people have. 

Considering all of these points, what are we left with when it comes to beating the bishop/ cranking the shank/ jerking the gherkin/ insert euphemism here? Well, at the end of the day I don’t think that masturbation is inherently gay because it involves the mind and not just sensation. Considering this particular experience of touching and being touched reminds us that desire is not so black and white, in fact, it is extremely complex.