Very Big Language

Playing the Rube

Thanks to a disaffected reader, Louis Proyect, I stumbled across the website of the philosopher and critic, Denis Dutton. If my recent pieces on Carolyn Guertin and Jacques Derrida were of interest, Dutton’s site is well worth exploring. There’s an amusing broadside aimed at Baudrillard and his admirers, and a shot at deconstruction. There’s also this piece on professional obscurantism and attempts to browbeat unsuspecting students: 

“The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself ‘profound’ or ‘moving’ not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere... These kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigour and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight. Here is... Prof. Judith Butler*, from an article in the journal Diacritics:

‘The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.’

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.”

As Dutton argues elsewhere, the objective here is to induce anxiety and play the rube - to exploit the trust of people who stare at such things, find nothing of significance, and assume the fault is theirs. I realise the idea that such a thing can happen, and happen frequently, is taboo. To recognise bad faith of this magnitude requires an unseemly kind of honesty. But, as we’ve seen, these things happen nonetheless. And they continue to happen precisely because the very idea is unthinkable.

*Judith Butler is Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a “leading queer theorist” and has been described as “one of the superstars of 90s academia” and “probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet.” Related, this and this.


Dan Collins

You know, I thought I'd seen her in People.



Butler mourned the passing of the shameless huckster, Jacques Derrida in the London Review of Books, which I guess tells us much of what we need to know about Professor Butler and her intellectual credentials. It was wonderfully pompous and sycophantic stuff. She also got very sniffy with the New York Times, which published an insufficiently flattering obituary of the old fraud.

Significantly, Butler’s rather sneaky defence of Derrida amounted to little more than an argument from celebrity. Derrida was “brilliant”, very famous, etc, and that, apparently, is all that matters. Like so many of her PoMo peers, Butler simply asserts such-and-such to be so, in a rather ambiguous way, then sneers indignantly at anyone who says otherwise.

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom wrote about this appeal to celebrity in Why Truth Matters: “Why should we not simply conclude that much or most of Derrida’s renown is the result of frequent mention by Butler and others like her? That he merely has what… is called ‘name recognition’, which is well known to be quite independent of merit and quality.”


If she is one of the ten smartest people on the planet, then it's a shame that she's wasting such intelligence on "Queer Theory." That's like being one of the best musicians in the world, but only playing the triangle.


From David's link:
"Judith Butler
Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature
University of California at Berkeley"

Professor of Rhetoric? Well, at least they're honest.


I thought I'd see intellectual refutation. Instead, just namecalling. If any of you is really having a hard time with the passage quoted, I'll translate it into two-syllable words for you. I agree that she could have made her point in clearer language, indeed I wish she had, but that doesn't mean there is no point there to be found. Suffice it to say that I'm pleased to see the break here with Althusser, and a more problematized view of power relations.

Back, though, to the rock-throwing. Ain't anti-intellectualism fun!


Dr. Dawg,

OK, here's what I see her saying: "If a group attains power illegitimately, and that fact is found out, the group in power will attempt to fashion a new rationalization for why they should retain power, rather than give it up."

If that's all she's saying, it really isn't that profound. If someone believed otherwise (as a acolyte of Althusser, for example), that's their own problem. If for Althusser, every social relation was a manifestation of capital, that's exactly the sort of thing the saying "To a hammer, everything looks like a nail" was made for. The view Butler is stating in 50 cent words goes back to the Ancient Greeks, who thought of political life as a life of struggle. That's why the set piece speeches in histories of the time would resonate with the audience. It's not anti-intellectualism to point this out, it's simply good historical hygiene and to the extent that she thinks she has anything new to say, she needs to be informed otherwise. I found in my personal experience that most of today's post-modern theorists didn't say anything much beyond what the pre-Aristotelian Greeks had already said, either explicitly or implicitly.

The real issue with power isn't that people contend for it or obfuscate rather than relinquish it, it's that people do not always recognize when it is being used legitimately and fight, against their own best interest, to convince others that it is being used illegitimately. Brutus was a great example of this in killing Caesar, wasn't he? In doing so, he accomplished exactly zero of what he set out to do and threw the entire Roman world into a chaos that spun out of his control from minute one, with an almost inarguably worse outcome than if he had just recognized Caesar as legitimate.

Much like I think idiots like Butler will accomplish in supporting thugs like Hezbollah and Hamas.


If one wishes to think about "continual founding," I suggest Niccolo Machiavelli instead of Judith Butler.


I suppose the issue hinges on whether you think the opacity of the extract above, and of many others I’ve highlighted recently, is a result of ineptitude or something more deliberate. It seems to me that clumsiness doesn’t explain the prevalence and uniformity of those “mistakes” among leftwing PoMo academics. It seems much more likely that this habitual and uniform obscurantism is a determined effort – specifically, an attempt to hide the slightness of their ideas and their various assumptions and contradictions.

Update: See today's post.


I find it interesting that Dr Dawg's response was basically to scream ad hominem. In doing so he ignores both your and Denis Dutton's arguments. Isn't that ad hominem?


"If any of you is really having a hard time with the passage quoted, I'll translate it into two-syllable words for you."

No, he's not one to indirectly call someone stupid. Never, never.

'Not academics,' perhaps, or 'less educated than I,' maybe, but never 'stupid dolts who don't comprehend what I, your better, comprehend.'

It's a wonder why he defends or excuses obscurantist language at all. The man is is a straight-shooter.


Straight-shooter? Well, I like to think so. Anyway, I dealt with David's arguments on another thread.

venividivici: You've defined Gramscian "hegemony" above, but Butler was saying somewhat more than that. Have a look at my comments in the "Very Big Language" thread.

Incidentally, I don't think the chief sin here is ad hominem, or stupidity (if that is a sin), but a kind of philistinism directed at a thinker in another discipline who uses technical vocabulary correctly but doesn't write (at least in this instance) in a particularly graceful manner. Anyone can mock the unfamiliar and imply that, because something *is* unfamiliar, it makes no sense and is obviously fraud. I would suggest that this is sometimes the case, but not the case with Butler.

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