U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Making Trouble: What Is So Difficult about Butler

General complaints about the difficulty of a text seem to me to fall into three categories. The first is a complaint about syntax: the structures of most sentences in the text are presumed to be either (needlessly) elaborate or ill-formed. The second and third complaints are both about diction, but are about slightly different issues. Complaint #2 is about “jargon”—neologisms, loan words from languages other than English, and verbifications or nominalizations—transformations of one part of speech into another. The idea here is, I suppose, that the reader is required to master (or at least to absorb) a new vocabulary before she can begin to engage with the argument. This complaint has always seemed to me the most dubious, as we tend to accept without much grumbling the fact that medicine and law, to give two examples, could not operate without their argots. The third complaint, though, does not center on the question of a specialized vocabulary but rather protests the way relatively ordinary words are turned into “buzzwords” or catchphrases of theory. A good example, I think, is “imagined” or “imaginary/imaginaries,” as in the late Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) or Michelle Ann Stephens’s (excellent) Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (2005).[1]

Most gripes about buzzwords fixate on their “fashionableness” or “faddishness,” the way they appear to illuminate certain conformist tendencies within the academy. (For what it’s worth, I think the reasons for using “buzzwords” are the same as those for using “jargon”—a need for a specialized vocabulary held in common in order to pursue a joint specialized inquiry.) But a few buzzwords—mostly verbs—portend something more, a kind of mood of intellectual endeavor that itself raises hackles. These are verbs like “to complicate” or “to destabilize,” as in “My project complicates conventional understandings of X,” or “This paper destabilizes the binary of Y and Z.” While, as we know, this procedure is the hallmark of poststructuralism generally,[2] it seems to me that one of the great achievements of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was precisely the way that it valorized so successfully the act “to trouble” as a valid and even ideal mode of intellectual inquiry. As Butler wrote playfully on the first page of her 1990 Preface,

Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it. (xxvii)

A great deal of quotidian academic language today, I would suggest, stems from Butler’s injection of “trouble” into this prominent position, much as E. P. Thompson is to blame for the endless succession of academic titles beginning with “The Making of…” And just as Thompson’s influence on titling was indicative of a transformation of historiographic norms and ideals that went much deeper than mere imitation, so has the proliferation of essays, monographs, and conference papers that “trouble” or “complicate” or “subvert” or “unpack”[3] something or other is indicative of the enormous and multifaceted influence that Butler has had on academic culture.

Yet what is the nature of that “troubling” influence, that new valorization of complication? Is it, as Butler’s detractors charge, a departure, a break from, a refutation of previous modes of inquiry in the human sciences which sought to reduce complication, to “untrouble” a given subject? If we presume that the normative mode of inquiry was to move toward clarity, then the answer is obviously yes. Butler’s valorization of the work of “troubling” is antithetical to a move toward perfect resolution of a given academic question (in her case, of the question of the relation between sex and gender). Instead, to trouble is to embrace a sort of repetition and multiplication of problems, an eager layering of complications that denies an overall rule or system to organize those complications into something ordered and sortable.[4]

It is probably not very objectionable to either Butler’s supporters or her critics to suggest that, even if it did not introduce this kind of orientation to scholarly inquiry, Gender Trouble marked a turning point from which “complicating,” “troubling,” “destabilizing” and the like became pervasive habits of academic speech, at least among certain disciplines or interdisciplines or within certain subfields. To measure crudely the effect of this sea change, one might consider the way that a venerable procedure like “to historicize” has, at least in my experience, become almost synonymous with “to complicate,” an equation that I am not sure would have been the case in, say, 1950.[5]

But there are reasons, I believe, to reconsider this identification of Gender Trouble with a sharp break in academic or scholarly culture. I want, in the remainder of this post, briefly to connect the “troubling” work advocated by Butler and similar theorists to two bodies of discourse that we might see as similarly moving asymptotically or recursively towards complication rather than deliberately and linearly toward clarity and resolution. These two bodies of discourse are the “questions” (e.g., the social question, the Jewish question, the woman question, the Eastern question) of the nineteenth century and the “crisis of man” of the mid-twentieth.

Here is what Holly Case, in an extraordinary article which appeared in Modern Intellectual History last April, says about what she calls “the ‘question’ mania that had blanketed much of the literate world by [the nineteenth] century’s end”[6]:

The idea that the ‘social question’ did not lend itself to reduction and simplification is comparable to the way Malthus spoke of the ‘bullion question.’ ‘In political economy,’ wrote Malthus in 1819, ‘the desire to simplify has occasioned an unwillingness to acknowledge the operation of more causes than one in the production of particular effects… I have always thought that the late controversy on the bullion question presented a signal instance of this kind of error.’ The drive to generalize and simplify, Malthus argued, was one that political economy had inherited from philosophy and had led to ‘crude and premature theories.’ (8)

A little further down the page, Case characterizes one writer’s understanding as typical of the approach to the social question insofar as it imagined the question as “part of an interminable process, forever incomplete, requiring constant engagement.” The interminability and high stakes of this process, this continual posing and re-posing of the social question, led to frequent “expressions of agitation, confusion, despair, and disorientation” (13). Locating a particularly evocative passage to encapsulate this dynamic and mood, Case quotes Rudolph Steiner (yep, the theosophist) from a book he wrote in 1920 on the social question. This is Steiner:

Just as an organism becomes hungry some time after being full, so does the social organism proceed from order to disorder. There can no more be a universal medicine for [maintaining] order in social relations than there is a food that will satisfy for all times (quoted on 9).

But where hunger is a purely reiterative process, lacking the increasing complexity of Butler’s “troubling” method—one’s palate may change and diversify, but the basic dynamic between hunger and satiety does not grow more complicated, does not get more troubled simply by virtue of repetition—the “social question” did ramify the more it was hashed out in newspapers, salons, pamphlets, and ministerial or parliamentary meetings. To me there is actually quite a strong resemblance between Case’s “century of questions” and our Theory Era. Repetition, irritation, complication… it spells trouble to me.

But I also hoped to suggest that the “crisis of man” discourse that has lately been re- or uncovered by Mark Greif is also a sort of match or reflection of Butler’s “trouble.”[7] In some ways, it is Greif’s characterization of this discourse as “maieutic” that started me down this road of comparing these quite different intellectual moments. Greif defines maieutics or maieutic discourse thus:

What shall we call a discourse whose central function has the form “We must ask,” “We must think,” “We must answer?”—yet does surprisingly little work of disputation, selection, and mutual destruction among the answers? Evidently the discourse is interrogatory, imperative, and ramifying. Bu these do not capture the whole tenor of the function of its demand to bring ideas to birth as a means, too, of coalition, and interpersonal mobilization… I think we can call a discourse of this form maieutic. The maieutic, by insistent and forceful questioning, seeks to bring into being and bring to birth in another person answers that will reward the questioner’s own belief in the character of the universal capacity for thinking—and do something to the other person’s character, too… Maieutics are shoulds in discourse or within intellectual life that help to say what must be addressed or talked about, what stands up as a serious or profound question or contribution, regardless of its ability to solve or determine an inquiry (24-25).

On the next page, Greif applies this insight directly to midcentury thought.

[It] faced a desire for a protected human-as-such whose existence it could neither immediately “prove” nor “disprove.” Yet thinkers knew they needed… an assumption of that entity’s real existence, or knew that they needed it as an active concept (for other people, for present justice, and for future safety), empty though it might sometimes be, to push men gradually to make it real and full (26).

“To push men gradually to make it real and full”—this is, in fact, how Butler describes the operation of gender: “[I]t operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates… the performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself.”[8] If, as Oscar Wilde said, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” the meaning of gender, for Butler, and “man,” for Greif, is that we always create the thing we think we need, but that in creating it we imagine it as existing, autonomously and coherently, prior to our need.

The final turn of the screw, I think, is this: for Butler, it is not enough that gender actually operates in this manner. It must be as well that “trouble” should operate in this way, difficulty should operate in this way. “To trouble” or “to complicate,” like the “crisis of man” or the discourse of questions, is maieutic—it is intended to spur or exhort or cajole some recognition of the need for trouble, for complication. We must go looking for trouble, we must be the trouble we want to see in the world.

[1] Of course, when Anderson published Imagined Communities, it was not a buzzword and only became so by the strength of his argument. But that success has made its title and text seem, like one innocent theatre-goer said of Hamlet, that it is “full of quotations.”

[2] “To trouble,” as I see it, offers itself as a more open-ended, less mechanical or less procedural alternative to “to deconstruct.”

[3] I’ve often wondered about the verb “to unpack,” which is also a popular choice for a self-description of one’s methods/goals. “To unpack” would seem to generate order—one is able to look at each element individually—but it also threatens (and, I think, is designed to threaten) disorder: once one has “unpacked” a text, one may very well have left a jumble.

[4] GT 185, though a description of how gender works rather than a prescription for how Butler’s method ought to operate, is a good articulation of “troubling” as repetition/repetition as troubling.

[5] Then again, perhaps my feeling that these two verbs are synonyms does not chime with others’ experience, but is rather an artifact of my having been in an American Studies program.

[6] I had forgotten about this article, but I was pointed back to it by a conversation initiated by Corey Robin on his twitter and facebook.

[7] A collection of our responses to Greif’s wonderful and stimulating book here at the blog can be found here.

[8] This passage comes from the 1999 preface to the second edition of GT (xiv-xv).

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, this is absolutely wonderful.

    On the “question question” — when did “the _____ question” come into fashion as a way of framing a discussion — my two cents here was/is that we might look to the Renaissance-era “querelle des femmes” as an early example. In a way, I guess, the “troublemaking” of Butler may be carrying forward some of the reverberations of those earlier troublesome quarrels.

    But, my two cents aside — gosh, this is a great essay!

  2. Thanks so much, L.D.!
    I have not done any research of my own about the history of the “____ question” format; all of what I know comes from Holly Case’s brilliant work on the subject. She dates this mode of discourse to the early 19th c, and argues that it is an explicit break with and, in many senses, a repudiation of the ahistoricism of earlier scholastic disputations and their continuations into the 18th c. So, to address your question specifically, she might argue that “the woman question” as it is discussed in the 19th and 20th centuries is a very different animal from the querelle des femmes.

    Of course, her article is relatively brief and is part of an ongoing project about the history of “questions,” so we may find out much more about the relation between those “questions and that querelle (and maybe also the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns?) in the book when it comes out.

  3. Actually I’ve read the intro to Holly’s book that she’s working on and she does cite the querelle des femmes as an early precursor! She didn’t mention the ancients and moderns debate, which I raised with her. But anyway, though it is the 19th century where all this gets going, she sees some earlier roots in the late medieval scholasticism of the Church and then the kinds of debates you guys have mentioned here from the 17th century.

  4. Very interesting, Corey — thanks for the preview. Glad to know we are on the right track here. Probably also worth noting (as I’m guessing Case might) that late medieval scholastics spilled a fair amount of ink on “the woman question(s)” of their day — what even are women, do they have souls, what kind of souls do they have, yada yada yada. It’s all very puzzling!

    I was almost going to say that Woman is the oldest question there is — but that’s not right. “Woman” isn’t the oldest question, or even the second-oldest question. Instead, per Genesis 3, Woman was the first person to whom a question was posed, and all of human history, for good and ill, flowed from her answer.

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