This New York magazine profile of Judith Butler is, I think, truly a document of our times. I find the author’s basic contention – that Butler and the type of academic leftism she has spearheaded have transformed the American cultural and political world – indisputable. In its obsession with language as the sole arbiter of all things, its sorting of all people into broad camps of good and bad based on the use of abstruse vocabulary and assorted virtue signaling, and its near-total silence on the economic foundations of injustice, I find the theories and ideas discussed in the profile to be entirely indicative of 21st century American liberalism. A Teen Vogue endorsement of the midi skirt, Facebook changing its gender options, the erasure of any lines between radical critique and the idiom of our elite cultural class – such are the things of which political victory, these days, are made.
Reading about Judith Butler in a profile written for the tony, urban, jet-setting population that reads New York magazine, I’m reminded of this New York Times piece on white privilege education for affluent private school kids. This is the reality of capitalism: everything that is perceived to be a social good will be monetized, and everything that can be monetized will be distributed unequally. And so today we have these radical queer arguments and terms bandied about by the very people who perpetuate a world of entrenched and powerful inequality, Pride flags whipping in the breeze in front of Goldman Sachs, people in $3,000 suits dismissing the gender binary as they meet for cocktails in a hideously expensive DC hotel. Meanwhile, the grubby masses, lacking access to the kind of private liberal arts colleges where one learns these Byzantine codes, now can add political and moral poverty to their economic and social poverty.
This is the next great project of the American elite: building a political system that ensures the winners in winner-take-all enjoy not just the fruits of material gain, but the certainty that their elevated station is deserved thanks to their elevated moral standing. Manhattan vocabulary for Manhattan people leading Manhattan lives, and all of it expressed in just the right terms. Queer and trans issues affect all kinds of people, and many of those who need gender and sexual justice the most are desperately poor and far out of the realm of affluent comforts. But those who trade most frequently in these theories, discussed in terms and texts that typically require an expensive education to acquire, are usually privileged. That’s just reality. It’s a function of the socioeconomic reality of education and culture.
Butler has written a lot of smart, perceptive stuff. I am not a fan of her prose, but she is often quite clear and concise in a way her critics miss. She is right to dismiss the gender binary, right to point out the ways that gender is socially constructed, right to advocate for queer and trans liberation. And she has also been correct to critique capitalism and to argue that it is complicit in gender and sexual violence – a critique that is utterly absent from Molly Fischer’s profile. The paragraph pulled from the Bad Writing contest mentions hegemony and the Marxist scholar Althusser, but Fischer otherwise can’t be bothered to explore this central resistance to capitalism in her profile. Which is the same thing that’s happened with intersectionality: a set of theories by very explicit critics of capitalism becomes, through its transformation into a set of popular buzzwords and vague political fashion, a de-radicalized, formless mush, unable to challenge the actual persistent structures of our society that make oppression inevitable. And this isn’t coincidence; as liberalism has moved from the union hall to Prospect Park West, its attachment to economic egalitarianism and bottom-up politics have withered away.
Is that progress? Well, you’d have to ask Judith Butler.
Update: This post has been edited from its original version to mention my agreement with Butler on gender and sexuality. I didn’t imply that I don’t agree with her, but thanks to the type of dedicated misreading that the internet is famous for, I’m including it now to head off the typical misrepresentation.