Judith Butler : Powerlessness in Action

The stupidity of the discourse produced by the situation in Gaza is flourishing everywhere, in all camps. But it’s the stupidity of the intellectual elites that we need to focus on. After all, isn’t it their job to enlighten the world rather than obscure it? Isn’t that why our societies endow themselves with this function? Our contributor Karl Kraus is convinced of this. That’s why he wonders about Judith Butler’s recent attempt to dumb down public opinion even further, a rhetorician by trade, but commonly presented as a philosopher and honored as one of the great minds of our time.


Theodor Adorno (c) Jakob Blumtritts Tagesgeschäft – WIkipedia Commons


“The task, almost impossible to solve, is not to let oneself be made stupid either by the power of others or by one’s own powerlessness.”

This little sentence was written in 1944 by Adorno, then in American exile.

I don’t like Adorno. I met him in Vienna when he was studying composition with Berg in the early 1920s. He persecuted me. Me and Lukacs, which was a strange combination of ideals for a young man. He seemed mannered, self-assured and fragile at the same time. Sweet. His friends called him Teddy… Well, nothing to do with me. But I could have written that sentence myself. It’s about Hitlerism and the challenge it posed to us, who were supposed to be thinking what was happening. Personally, I gave up before I could say anything intelligent about it.

So I leafed through the book in which that sentence appears. It comes at the end of several aphorisms in which the author confesses his moral and intellectual dismay at the crimes taking place on the old continent. These aphorisms are made up of aporias: vengeance, ardently desired, but which we know will only lead to the perpetuation of catastrophe, is faced with the perpetuation of another catastrophe, which would consist in the impunity of the guilty. The refusal to kill, or to philosophically legitimize the execution of the executioners, rubs shoulders with dread at the idea of a world where those who did “it” could continue to live, act and speak. Distancing ourselves from the affect of hatred, perceived as the worst of advisors, we come up against the frightening idea of a war waged without hatred, cold, clean and efficient, no longer even needing motivated individuals to wage it. In short, all he does is question a situation which, from today’s perspective, seems morally self-evident. And one is tempted (especially me) to mock the gentle, fragile philosopher who elaborates on his powerlessness instead of giving firm instructions for action. But I have to admit that the discipline he imposes on himself, the Jewish, Marxist and bourgeois thinker, in the face of the destruction of everything he has nurtured and believed in, commands admiration. Discipline that serves a single purpose: to avoid falling into stupidity, even when the violence of reality destroys all the categories with which we thought we could think about it.

The current state of political stupidity

Right now, there’s obviously a lot of stupidity. No side here is privileged. It flourishes among certain defenders of Israel when they declare that there are no innocent people in Gaza (just as there were no innocent Germans in 1945), which is supposed to justify the destruction of the territory and the Gazan population until Hamas unconditionally capitulates – and without proposing a plan for the reconstruction and integration of the Palestine of the future, which was nevertheless, if we want to mobilize the analogy with the Second World War, the major concern of the Allies. The pro-Palestinian camp is not to be outdone: symmetrically, it declares that there is no such thing as an innocent Israeli, since this state is the product of an abominable colonial project that every Israeli citizen perpetuates every day by simply existing on this land. And since the aim here is not the destruction of an Israeli political organization that would distort the true will of the people, but the destruction of the State of Israel itself, it’s true that this camp doesn’t have to deal with the question of the aftermath, since, if all goes well for it, there will be nothing and no one left to rebuild or integrate.

Here are two figures of stupidity who give themselves a sense of power by locking themselves into radicalism. This is hardly surprising. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one of those “war without hatred” situations that Teddy feared and that the West has since prided itself on waging when it intervenes militarily somewhere. In this conflict, on both sides, there is hatred because there is love for one’s own that the other seems to threaten with destruction. So much so that, as the players remain attached to their affects, we are hardly surprised by the radicalization used to justify acts, on both sides less and less justifiable.

More remarkable is the stupidity of the elites. First of all, that of the Israeli governmental elites, who seem to project themselves into a society based entirely on love of one’s own and hatred of the other, and hammer home the mantra of destroying Hamas, whatever the cost, without considering at the same time that the logical consequence of this destruction should be a Palestinian state. I say logical follow-up, because once Hamas will have been destroyed, what right do we have not to trust the Palestinian people, now rid of the demon holding them hostage?

And then there’s the stupidity of the intellectual elites. Not that of the half-wits who regularly set themselves up as spokespersons for militant movements, and whose names are immediately forgotten after the two weeks of fame they generally manage to secure for themselves on the radio and TV. But the stupidity of world-renowned intellectuals, specialists in their field, professors at so-called extraordinary universities (and the price of admission is often indeed extraordinary) and generally recognized as the greatest minds of their time. The truth is, few people today can claim to belong to this category. But Judith Butler is one of those chosen few.

And the exceptionality of her character is evident in the form that her revolt against powerlessness takes. This is not the revolt of the ordinary citizen who wants something done to stop the horror, even if it means becoming stupid in the process; this is the true revolt of the mind, protesting against its confinement in categories that force it to think in a certain way. At least, that’s what she’s telling us.

So what are these categories that so unfairly constrain thought? First of all, terrorism. And she’s not wrong, the category obliges, since where there is a terrorist act, political and moral condemnation of the act follows directly. Then there’s rape, and here too she’s right, because where there is rape, the moral and political condemnation of the act also follows. So Butler, instead of declaring herself in favor of one side or the other, declares sovereignly invalid the categories by which the events of October 7 are commonly described. For her, this was not an act of terrorism and antisemitism, but an act of armed resistance against Israel. This allows her to demand that we collectively shift the debate and focus on the question of whether or not we are in favor of acts of armed resistance. That’s the real question on the agenda. And, since the concept of armed resistance is a heroic one, and therefore structurally excludes the possibility of rape, our icon of global feminism and of all struggles for sexual minorities, must logically deny that there were rapes on October 7 – at least she refuses to believe it until she’s seen credible documentation, and apparently the UN report isn’t enough for her. Mind you, it’s not that she justifies the rapes by Hamas, it’s that she has to make them non-existent since they are incompatible with the concept of armed resistance.

Let’s give her credit for a moment. Let’s consider the hypothesis that she sincerely believes that the categories used to describe the reality of October 7th and its aftermath preclude genuine thought about the event. Let’s assume that her sense of powerlessness has led not to a blind commitment to affect, nor to silence, but to an attempt to restore a certain power to thought by categorizing reality differently. The result of this operation would be the following: we would be faced with an act of resistance whose strategy – i.e., its armed character – against an unjust and revolting state oppressor is debatable. The war in Gaza would therefore be legally illegitimate – the occupier is carrying out police actions against resistance fighters, but not a war – politically revealing, since this war demonstrates that Israel, by “punishing” resistance fighters, is in reality a fascist state, and morally reprehensible, because we Western liberal democrats owe it to ourselves, by virtue of our history, to be on the side of resistance fighters.

The stupidity that we deserve?

Duly noted. The question remains, however, whether this categorical shift makes anyone smarter. Not really. For the position defended is exactly that of the radical pro-Palestinians, calling Israel directly an illegitimate colonial state doomed to disappear. Nothing new here, no gain in knowledge or understanding of the situation. And at least those who assume this position have the courage to justify their commitment by strong emotions that supposedly force them to blindly choose a side and, therefore, to be stupid.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Judith Butler’s stupidity is rooted in some kind of affect. Probably, however, it’s the affect of her own powerlessness as a theorist in the face of the over-power of an unbearable reality. Her solution for avoiding it seems simple: deny the unbearable, erase it, rename it and glorify it in the process (even though she “didn’t like” the October 7 massacres, she assures us). None of this helps us to think about reality, none of it makes it more intelligible and therefore politically treatable. On the contrary, the operation thickens the fog in which we swim by pretending … that it isn’t there. And, just as there are people who want to believe in the clarity produced by Netanyahu’s discourse, there are those who want to believe in the one produced by Butler. Yet there is no difference between these two ways of “clarifying” the situation.

Perhaps we have the intellectuals we deserve. And maybe what we deserve today are sophists disguised as philosophers, who hate questioning, always have an answer and the right categories to impose on the debate in order to veil an unbearable reality. Maybe we deserve Judith Butler, the kind of thinker who translates our most immediate, and often basest, affects into so-called subversive “thought”, even if it means erasing what we don’t like: rape followed by the killing of Israeli women, or, on the other side, the famine ravaging Gaza. Perhaps, then, the problem is not Judith Butler, but the societies that produce this kind of world-renowned phenomenon; which, let’s face it, just reveals their inability, or lack of political will, to intelligently elaborate their powerlessness and, by doing so, to get out of it.

Karl Kraus

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