What Theodor Adorno Wrought
Judith Butler is the perfect recipient for a prize named after the patron saint of obfuscation
To counter all this nastiness, we need thinkers who speak in clear and compassionate voices.
This is certainly not Adorno: “Even the blossoming tree,” he wrote in one of his most memorable passages, “lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent ‘How lovely!’ becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better.” This is the zealot’s view, denying the possibility of grace and joy in this world and placing it squarely in some shining and distant afterlife. And we’ve zealots aplenty. What we direly lack are thinkers capable of nuance, cautious with their condemnations, and committed to rejecting abstractions and focusing instead on the sweaty, imperfect, and complicated lump that is, in all its glory, mankind.
Butler need not apply. Whatever her merits as a thinker and a scholar—and those should be debated not by dogmatic brawlers but by her peers and by those who take the trouble to carefully consider her work—Butler is very much an adherent of Adorno’s method. As my friend Todd Gitlin rightly noted, Butler’s writing doesn’t consist of “sentences that carry propositions” but rather produces “a whiff of the burning of incense before an idol called ‘theory.’ ” In her most recent book, for example, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, she writes about very concrete problems in very ephemeral ways. “It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it,” goes one typical passage. “Binationalism is not just an ideal ‘to come’—something we might hope to arrive in a more ideal future, but a wretched fact that is being lived out as a specific historical form of settler colonialism and the proximities and exclusions it reproduces through the daily military and regulatory practices of occupation.”
Is binationalism, then, an ideal to behold or a grim reality to amend? Butler seems to suggest that it is both. Some may see such an approach as valuable for its questioning of modes of discourse, its problematizing of popular notions, and other strictly theoretical achievements. But Israelis and Palestinians are not theoretical constructs. They’re human beings, and their predicaments demand more than abstractions. Former generations of intellectuals attempted, sometimes admirably and sometimes less so, to apply their ideas in the service of earthly goals. Edmund Wilson refused to pay income tax for more than a decade to protest the United States’ Cold War policies. Dwight Macdonald led a march on the Pentagon, which he hoped to levitate in an effort to end the Vietnam war. Butler, by her own admission, remains “not completely immersed in the world.” This is a pity. And in a very real way, it makes her a perfect recipient for prize named after Theodor Adorno.
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Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses