Martha Nussbaum in her article “The Professor of Parody” (1999) gives an explanation of contemporary American feminist discourse focused on the example of Judith Butler’s work. Nussbaum’s critique focuses on three main issues: Butler’s complicated narrative, her lack of originality on the analysed topics and the conclusions she withdraws from them, and her passivity concerning social and political changes. Due to my research topic I will focus on the former and the latter arguments.
Nussbaum infers from the obscurity found in Butler’s texts a lack of honesty which may consist in complicating simple statements and arguments in an aim to disguise them under a high intellectual value ‘since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought’ (1999: 4). Indeed, Nussbaum refers back to Socrates’ defense of clarity and simplicity in philosophical thought, claiming against sophists and rhetoricians whose ‘manipulative methods showed only disrespect [for the soul]’ (1999: 5). Therefore, Nussbaum suggests ideological purposes in Butler’s text, however, she does not consider the possibility of these texts as being an expression of an unconscious meaning, instead she stands easily for a lack of meaning, a simple reproduction of issues, mentioned by previous authors, in a confusing verbosity (1999: 4-5).
The third point of Nussbaum’s critique regarding Butler’s passivity is interesting insofar it relates to Foucault’s questioning the repeatedly use of our supposed repression in contemporary discourses. According to Nussbaum, Butler’s texts are so theoretical and symbolic that they ignore the real and material situation of women who are victims of social and political injustices being unable to help them (1999: 12). Nussbaum suggests Butler’s arguments to be ‘focus narcissistically on personal self’, while there exists other feminist scripts concerned in ‘building laws and institutions, without much concern on how a woman displays her own body and its gendered nature’ (1999: 13). But Butler, argues Nussbaum, finds pleasure living within the same structures which oppress her, belonging to them insofar they are the conditions for her being, as for its victims: ‘I cannot escape the humiliating structures without ceasing to be, so the best I can do is mock, and use the language of subordination stingingly’ (1999: 10).
However, Butler’s attitude can also be understood as a need to keep this structures alive in order to generate oppression and hence her own discourse. This conclusion may arise a polemical and ethical question concerning the academia, its economic sources, and its scope of influence outside itself which mostly refers back to sexual politics, as Nussbaum implicitly points out through her whole article. In Foucauldian terms, there would be a need either to create repression or sustain it in order to justify new discourses on the body. In this context, Nussbaum’s claims on Butler’s passivity would remain insufficient, as Butler’s discourse does not only avoid change but it stands against it as its only possible existence is within these structures in a masochistic relationship; hence, the question arises, is she constructing a masochistic body? This relationship between body, pleasure and power, may logically support patriarchal social and family organizations as a source of pleasure for women, which shows a high cynicism and contradictions in Butler’s texts. In fact, Nussbaum mentions feminist theorists’ comfortable positions ‘in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level’ instead of ‘work in changing the law, or feeding the hungry’ (1999: 13).