In the February 22, 1999 issue of The New Republic, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at The University of Chicago, wrote an article about Judith Butler entitled The Professor of Parody, in which she took Butler to task for thinking and writing about the anti-feminist political constraints imposed by ordinary language instead of concerning herself with the real lives of actual women. In the course of the article, Nussbaum quotes Butler's winning entry in the Bad Writing Contest and purports to rewrite it in what she presumably considers good writing.
Butler's original was drawn from “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)
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.
Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.
Nussbaum comments: [Butler] "prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims."
Assuming without deciding that the rewrite is better writing than the original, a little attention to Nussbaum's version reveals that it both trivializes and misstates Butler's point. For starters, Nussbaum identifies as Butler's main point an assertion about views of how capital structures social relations that Butler puts in a subordinate clause on the way to saying something else. Nussbaum's "clarification" is of the Fox News variety--it can be understood without effort but conceals its claims and leaves us without the means to assess their truth.
I think Nussbaum's misinterpretation of Butler is more than confusion about Althusser. (I am not well-read enough to opine on whether Butler has correctly characterized two strains of Althusserian thought, or on whether Nussbaum correctly identified one of those strains but not the other as "Marxist".) Butler's writing in the celebrated passage, bad or not, is difficult. Nussbaum clearly does not care what Butler is saying and so does not take the time and energy to be sure that her paraphrase is accurate. Moreover, Nussbaum knows that her easy version will supplant the difficult original, and that few if any readers of The New Republic (where Nussbaum's version was published) will bother to compare the two. This is why Nussbaum's gloss, like Fox News, is so pernicious.
Further, Nussbaum's statement impedes understanding of Butler's point: for example, Nussbaum refers to capital as a "force structuring social relations," once thought to be "everywhere uniform" in its "operations." But this description of capital as an operating force imports into what Nussbaum calls the "Marxist" view the temporality that Butler says is an insight resulting from the newer view of hegemony. Nussbaum's use of the word "force" rather than, say, framework, or "crystalline order" (Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Literary Theory: An Anthology), obliterates much of the distinction Butler is making.
A reader turning to Nussbaum for help in understanding Butler would come away more bewildered than ever. A reader relying entirely on Nussbaum (or an extended gloss on Butler of the same quality) to find out what Butler had to say would conclude that Butler's ideas were superficial and banal when, in fact, the ideas expressed were Nussbaum's, if anyone's. For an extended example of this phenomenon see Derrida's reception in the US. My own appreciation of Derrida was derailed for several years by my reliance on secondary clarifiers, both well-intentioned and malevolent.
Maybe Butler's ideas are banal (or maybe not), and maybe her writing is bad (or maybe not), but Nussbaum's rewrite proves neither. Instead, it demonstrates the danger and difficulty of paraphrase.
None of this even addresses Butler's contention in Excitable Speech that a demand for "ordinary language" can be and often is a form of censorship. This censorship can take several forms: there is the well-known preference in the mainstream media for sound bites over careful explanations, effectively distorting discourse and silencing the non-obvious. There is the refusal to acknowledge that new ways of thinking are worthy of consideration by established academic disciplines: as Nussbaum smugly remarks of Butler, "Trained as a philosopher, she is frequently seen (more by people in literature than by philosophers) as a major thinker about gender, power, and the body" (emphasis added). "[O]ne should ask whether it [writing like Butler's] belongs to the philosophical tradition at all." Any student of Continental philosophy who has looked for a home in a US philosophy department understands the censorious nature of that observation.
Another kind of censorship is demonstrated in Nussbaum's TNR article where, in addition to ridiculing Butler's prose, she labels Buter a "hip defeatist" for writing and thinking rather than acting. Lamenting the supposed passage of the good old days when feminists cared about the lives of real women, Nussbaum complained:
Something more insidious than provincialism has come to prominence in the American academy. It is the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women. Feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness. These symbolic gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly.My own understanding of the idea being dismissed here is that efforts to make feminism seem reasonable in established academic or "common sense" terms are doomed ultimately to failure because feminism does not "make sense" in the patriarchal tradition dominating our language and thought. This theoretical conclusion does not counsel inactivity; instead, it cautions feminists not to get drawn into unwinnable arguments to try to convince others they are right before taking action. If, indeed, the linguistic and intellectual cards are stacked against feminist ideas (which I'm inclined to believe but Nussbaum, an Aristotelian, may not be), then it is a waste of time to argue with The Man on his own terms (the Master's tools, etc.) In this sense, Butler's intellectualizing is no more defeatist than Nussbaum's; maybe less so in that Butler at least appreciates the irony of her own position.