Martha Nussbaum

Martha NussbaumSome criticism shows concerns similar to the ones I present throughout this website. In her article "The Professor of Parody," Martha Nussbaum attacks the writings of Judith Butler on two levels that are important to my argument.1 She argues, first, that Judith Butler utilizes professional jargon to make her work appear novel, despite the similar work that came before it. Second, she states that Butler's work reveals a disengagement from the non-academic world.

Her first type of attack concerns Butler's use of language, and while she does not argue exactly along the same lines that I
Judith Butler
do, her points are similar. Nussbaum complains, "A further problem lies in Butler's casual mode of allusion." She suggests that Butler relies heavily on technical terminology and concepts without ever clearly defining them. Butler simply takes for granted the idea that people know what she is talking about and that her use of paradigmatic language makes her argument acceptable. As Nussbaum says, "the imagined reader poses few questions, requests no arguments and no clear definitions of terms." As I understand this argument, the accepted, traditional modes of thinking can work casually because they have already been granted acceptance in a solipsistic process. Nussbaum details the work of several scholars (including Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin) who had presented the same ideas that Butler does, but earlier. Butler, to Nussbaum, is not advancing new ideas so much as she is re-hashing old ideas with new jargon. Butler (one of contemporary theory's foremost thinkers) remains inside the trap of her paradigm. She simply re-states the paradigmatic values in a paradigmatic language.

The real danger of Butler's work, Nussbaum continues, is its distance from lived experience. She writes, "The great tragedy in the new feminist theory in America is the loss of a sense of public commitment.... Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it." Butler's work, then, demonstrates a removal of scholarship from context. I am not suggesting that Judith Butler has not thought about her individual context. Certainly her awareness of her gender and sexual preference have influenced her thought, but she is detached (at least in Nussbaum's terms) from her relation to her society. I do argue that Butler does not constructively draw on the actual situation around her. In some instances, this problem may simply be academical, but here it displays a failure to be culturally significant.

On a personal note, I am not arguing against or defending Judith Butler's work. I do feel her work offers interesting possibilities, but that it can be problematic as well. I simply want to reveal an example of the type of criticism with which I am concerned. Nussbaum provides an extensive revelation of the ways that another academic can be pinned down my current paradigmatic structures and be ineffective at presenting new and helpful ideas.


1Nussbaum, Martha. "The Professor of Parody." The New Republic Online. February 1999. Posted November 2000. All the quotations on this page are taken from this article.