The Fraud of Identity Studies

What the "queen" of Queer Studies, Judith Butler, and her recent award say about the questionable state of the discipline.

On Sunday, the New York Times Book Review ran a notice of my new book, The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.  It's about the spread in American colleges and universities, over recent decades, of faux disciplines such as Women's Studies, Black Studies, and Queer Studies.  It's also about the explicitly far-left, postmodern ideology that underlies these “studies” and that now permeates the humanities and social sciences.  Rejecting the idea that a proper higher education in the humanities is about becoming acquainted with the most glorious products of Western civilization, learning to think critically, and forming one's own taste, the practitioners of these “studies” dismiss the concepts of objective truth and aesthetic value, depict the West as evil and non-Westerrners as virtuous victims, and encourage students to see themselves and others not as individuals but as members of groups.  Hence these “identity studies,” which find racism, sexism, and classism everywhere they look.

The Times review, by Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University, is a curious piece of work.  Repeatedly Delbanco acknowledges that I have a point; but he also repeatedly seeks to blunt my critique by suggesting that the phenomena I've described aren't as widespread or as bad as I suggest, and that, in any case, all this is old news.  At one point, Delbanco even accuses me of caricature.  Nope, the book is straight reportage: the people I quote in it all really said those ridiculous things.  Finally, Delbanco makes a big point of insisting that people at his institution, Columbia University, are more interested than ever in the kind of serious literary and cultural study whose survival I'm concerned about.  In other words: move on, folks, nothing to get worked up about here.

All of which made it especially rich to read the latest news, just the other day, about Judith Butler, who is arguably the most famous of Delbanco's humanities colleagues at Columbia (where she taught last spring and will teach again next spring, while retaining a permanent appointment at Berkeley).  Butler, whom I describe in my book as a “postmodernist colossus,” is almost certainly the most revered living figure in Queer Studies – a discipline that, its name notwithstanding, has nothing whatsoever to do with gay history or culture but is, rather, an exercise in the fetishizing of otherness and “transgression.”

To many observers outside the academy, and to those inside it whose heads are screwed on properly, Butler is something of a joke.  In 1998 the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature awarded her first prize in its Bad Writing Contest for an absurdly pretentious and impenetrable sentence in one of her articles.  I will do you the favor of not quoting that sentence (it's here, if you're feeling masochistic), but I will quote the erudite Denis Dutton, the contest's late lamented founder, who pointed out that to try to make sense out of Butler's sentence “is to miss the point.  This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.  Actual communication has nothing to do with it.” Indeed, Butler's sentence was not about communication but about performativity, which may most succinctly be described as a kind of high-rent postmodern version of showing off.  Butler could hardly have defended herself on performative grounds to a non-academic audience, however, and so when she wrote a New York Times op-ed responding to the embarrassment of Dutton's award, she fell back, more or less, on the more tried-and-true position that complex ideas require complex language.

But the latest news about Butler doesn't have to do – not directly, anyway – with the quality of Butler's prose.  It has to do with the twisted political views that are an almost inevitable byproduct of the ideology that underlies identity studies.  Get this: (1) Butler identifies as an “anti-Zionist Jew.”  (2) Back in the summer of 2010, while she was in Berlin to attend gay-pride events, she publicly embraced Hamas and Hezbollah as “progressive” organizations of the left and turned down an award from a gay group that she accused of “Islamophobia” for criticizing the Muslim gay-bashing.  (3) Since then, Butler has publicly declared her fervent support for the “BDS” movement, which seeks to isolate Israel with boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

Despite all this, the city of Frankfurt, Germany, decided this year to give Butler the Theodor W. Adorno award, which is presented each year on September 11, Adorno's birthday, to people who have made outstanding contributions in philosophy, music, theater, or film.  In one sense, it could be argued that honoring Butler in this way is amply justified – the Marxist Adorno, after all, was one of the famous “Frankfurt School” critics who flourished in the years between the world wars and whose writings were a major foundation of the entire contemporary postmodern academic project, including, not least, the work of Judith Butler.  (Indeed, Butler cited Adorno in her defense in her above-mentioned Times op-ed.)  On the other hand, Adorno, unlike Butler, was a passionate supporter of Israel; as the petition protesting Butler's award points out, moreover, Adorno was “deprived of academic teaching because he was considered Jewish” – a situation that is a bit too close for comfort to the aims of Butler's cherished BDS movement.

As you will notice if you peruse the list of petition signatories, there's considerable international opposition to Butler's award.  But in reaction to this opposition there's been a massive outpouring of support for Butler, mostly from American and Israeli academics.  When word got out late last week that Benjamin Weinthal of the Jerusalem Post was planning to write about the controversy (his article ran on Sunday), his inbox was flooded with e-mails from places like NYU, Berkeley, Princeton, and Columbia – and, notably, several from Ben-Gurion University – assuring him that Butler is anything but an anti-Semite.  Of course, what does and doesn't constitute anti-Semitism is an intensely disputed question nowadays: in this connection, it was instructive to note that a number of the e-mails sent to Weinthal made reference to Israel's “apartheid,” its “inhumane war against the Palestinian People,” “Israel's rights-abusive policies in the Occupied Territories,” and so on; one of the Israeli professors actually followed the word Israel in her address with a question mark.

Far from reassuring anybody that Butler is no anti-Semite, these e-mails painted a vivid picture of a segment of the professoriate whose opinions about Israel are both deeply poisonous and profoundly irrational.  And the e-mails made it clear, moreover (as if it were not already clear enough), that Butler herself is a valued member of this unpleasant crew.  What's important to recognize here is that Butler's take on Israel can't and shouldn't be viewed in isolation from her academic activities; on the contrary, one can't properly make sense (to use the word loosely) of the views on Israel, Hamas, and so forth that are held by someone like Butler without being aware of the limitless contempt for the West, and the limitless tolerance for non-Western (and especially Islamic) iniquity, that are part and parcel of the identity-studies worldview.  An observer unfamiliar with Queer Studies might reasonably wonder why Butler, its reigning queen, would be so obsessed with condemning the only country in the Middle East that's safe for gay people and would happily ally herself with groups that support capital punishment for gays; to be familiar with Queer Studies, however, is to know that it has absolutely nothing – nada – to do with standing up for gay people's rights and dignity but is, rather, a celebration of alleged (and preferably non-Western and non-white) alienness and victimhood.

In short: the worldwide headlines about Judith Butler and the Adorno Award only serve to underscore that the moral and intellectual sickness that is identity studies is, pace Delbanco, very much with us – and that its pernicious influence, alas, extends far beyond the groves of academe.