Kneeling At The Altar Of Theory

Oct 14 2012 @ 2:14pm

Liel Liebovitz argues that the philosopher Judith Butler was an apt choice to receive this year's Adorno Prize, the prestigous award named for the obfuscating German theorist, Theodor Adorno. And he doesn't mean that as a compliment:

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.