Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Doing Justice Right

Earlier, I welcomed Security Dilemmas to the exclusive club that is The Debate Link blogroll. Now, I'd like to introduce Doing Justice, blog of Southwestern University Law Professor K.C. Sheehan. I found Professor Sheehan's blog through a plug at Feminist Law Profs, which linked to her article Caring for Deconstruction, a version of which was printed in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. The article looks fantastic, and as someone who has interest in both feminism and post-modernism, I'm very much looking forward to tackling it.

Professor Sheehan has a post up defending Judith Butler from the famous article/takedown Martha Nussbaum wrote about her in The New Republic. I've read that article, and I've read some Butler, but I'm not qualified enough on the technical aspects of either to comment on whether Nussbaum's critique was fair (I will admit that I found it very, very funny).

Professor Sheehan takes particular umbrage at "The Joke That Would Not Die", that is, Professor Butler's "victory" in a bad writing contest that has made her the poster-professor of obtuse, unnecessarily difficult academic writing. I have a confession to make here: for my Sophomore writing portfolio, I titled my "personal reflection" essay "In The Shadow of Judith Butler." The paper was about how my writing sought to maintain a relaxed, casual, readable demeanor while still maintaining the level of respect I'd need to be taken seriously as an academic (a quest made more difficult by the fact that I like to delve into post-modern ideas and concepts in my pieces--a field not known for inspiring clear, lucid, writing). Basically, I want to teach and write (in a post-modern field, no less), but I don't want to become a jargon-spewing zombie. Can I do it? Can I avoid "the shadow of Butler"?

As I said, I've read Butler, and while I found her to be somewhat obtuse I don't think she was outrageously beyond any other scholar writing like pieces. Still, as Butler would be the first to tell you, meaning is not a stable subject and is not necessarily tied to the original intent or context of the author. In the context I was writing, "Judith Butler" has meaning associated with it that transcends what she's actually written--she is a representation of a specific typology that I felt my readers would recognize even if they could not pin down its boundaries or definitions. Ironic, no?

But back to Sheehan. She notes that the topics Butler writes on are difficult ones, so it shouldn't surprise us if the language surrounding them is denser than "mainstream" philosophical writings. Moreover, Sheehan argues that
efforts to make feminism seem reasonable in established academic or "common sense" terms are doomed ultimately to failure because feminism does not "make sense" in the patriarchal tradition dominating our language and thought.

The former I feel has some truth to it, the latter, less so. The reason I'm somewhat dismissive of the latter claim is that I've read works stemming from outsider, decidedly marginalized traditions (I'm thinking the CRT stuff I've read) that manage to be quite lucid and engaging. Admittedly, most of the articles I can think of are in the field of race, not sex, but that's more of a function of my area of focus rather than any difference I've noticed innate to feminist thought. Some might argue that race isn't analogous to sex here because there is no racial analogue to "the patriarchal tradition dominating our language and thought." Personally, I've never been much persuaded by the argument that "this oppression precedes that oppression", and don't see any truly compelling argument for why sex-based oppression is more pernicious or more ingrained than race-based or other longstanding structures of domination. So I see no reason why, if I can read radical race critiques that make intuitive sense to me, I can't read radical feminist critiques that make intuitive sense to me.

The former argument, that complex topics are going to be written in a complex manner, carries more weight. I've noted (by which I mean ranted) my anger at evaluations which privilege stylistic concerns over substantive ones, and that point still holds up (no matter how much we might mock how Butler writes, it is still an entirely severable question from whether her points are accurate). As a debater, I am acutely aware of the difficulty of explaining complex precepts to uninformed lay judges in the space of a few minutes. And it is singularly obnoxious when said judges translate their inability to understand as proof of the inadequacy of your argument.

However, we have to be careful not to let this argument carry too much. Complexity might justify less-than-crystal-clear rhetoric in cases where there is a severe time-crunch--a debate round or a lecture, say. But when one is writing a book, and has pages upon pages to distill and refine a point, I don't feel guilty about asking an author to sacrifice a few to make sure everybody is on the same page as her. Especially when one is breaking new ground, as Butler is doing (and thus is not in a case where simplified or narrative explanations would be cases of reinventing the wheel all over again), I think this is a reasonable expectation of readers on the part of authors. This isn't to say philosophy will ever reach the simplicity of Dr. Seuss--that isn't reasonable. But there is no reason why we shouldn't try to break things down a bit--make an effort in the direction of clarity.

I think it's rather fatalistic to think otherwise. I can vouch from personal experience: Clear and engaging writing can convert someone who has no pre-existing reason to be sympathetic to outsider narratives. I went in the space of a year from being a quasi-libertarian who thought post-modernism was a ridiculous academic caricature ("Heehee, post-modernists. They don't think that my chair exists!") to a firm devotee of Critical Race Theory, because I read a great book that explained the arguments in a manner that didn't require four advanced degrees to understand. If it worked for me, it can work for others.

In any event, Professor Sheehan writes interesting and intellectual posts on topics I find fascinating. So to the blogroll she goes.


KC said...

Thanks, I'm flattered.
One clarification: I did not say that Butler's topics were difficult (although, of course, they are). I said her writing in the passage under discussion was difficult. The exercise of struggling with difficult writing has a value for the reader independent of the reader's reception of the author's intent. A translation (or, in law school, a commercial outline) may tell me what the original "said" but it won't help me learn to read it.

Why do you think that, because Butler is "breaking new ground," she has an obligation to insure that readers "without four advanced degrees" can keep up with her? You would not make that demand of a cutting-edge theoretical physicist, would you? Is there a reason why humanities scholarship must always be within the reach of the nonspecialist?

Your example of CRT as an area of clear writing is interesting. Many of the most exciting Critical Race theorists in law (Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, Gerald Lopez and Richard Delgado, for example) turn to narrative strategies to circumvent the racism structuring the dominant (academic) culture. They achieve clarity and power in their writing, in part, by ignoring restrictive disciplinary conventions. I'll bet the book that changed your mind came out of this alternative rhetorical movement, which has come to characterize CRT.

David Schraub said...

Thanks for the clarification, Professor. I understand the argument behind the value of struggling with difficultly-written text--although I'm not 100% sure that I buy it. I think it varies from person whether or not it increases or decreases learning effectiveness.

I think that philosophy professors have a special obligation to be clear when breaking new ground because we expect non-philosophers to behave morally. That is, I can reasonably expect my Physics-major friend to do his best to behave in a non-patriarchal, non-sexist manner--and if Butler thinks she has some of the prescriptions for moving in that direction, then she needs to make sure that he understands what his obligations are. Ignorance of the law becomes a valid excuse when all the laws might as well be written in Aramaic as far as the general population is concerned. We don't want that, so we should want new philosophy to be accessible.

By contrast, we do not expect lay people to have to do anything with cutting-edge theoretical physics--it would not be reasonable to ask poly-sci major me to build a particle accelerator. Philosophy imposes demands on non-philosophers to a far greater degree than to most other disciplines, so it has a corresponding obligation to be accessible to these non-philosophers.

You are half-correct on CRT. I do think that the narrative format they use is stellar in rendering outsider voices intelligble to others (which, by itself, seems to show that writers can make marginalized perspective clear and engaging if they show some creativity in breaking ossified borders of "serious" and "non-serious" speech. Butler, especially, should be able to grasp this). However, the particular book I was referring to was Delgado & Stefancic's "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction," which is not written in a narrative form. Furthermore, I think some of the best works in the field are hybrid-narratives--they incorporate storytelling, but mixed in with traditional scholarship (Delgado's "Legal Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others" would be a good example of this paradigm). Many times, this type of writing also exemplifies the type of casual yet respectable discourse I aspire to. Charles Lawrence III's "Forbidden Conversations" article, for example, is only a true "narrative" in small parts, but it maintains a easy and conversational style throughout. I think writers such as he provide a good model for other outsider fields in their work.