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Judith Butler Shouldn't Be Honoured By McGill University

Judith Butler Shouldn't Be Honoured By McGill University

I've been ashamed here and there over some of the output that comes out of my latest alma mater, the University of British Columbia (like this and this and this and this), all of it belonging deep within the dump heap that is the pseudo-scholarship of post-modernism, but my first alma mater, good ol' McGill University, seems to be clambering on board more and more with the trending Nonsense Studies disciplines, and its associated culture of victimhood, identity politics, and relativisms.

First there was the dog's breakfast published in the student newspaper The McGill Daily by cultural studies student Guillermo Martínez de Velasco in October 2012, with unfortunate attempts at a progressive perspective like this:

Racism is assuming anything about anyone based on a perceived deviation from a racial norm known as white. To put it simply, white is the unmarked and racialized bodies are the marked. Racism is assuming that white is the central node from which one departs to evaluate otherness.

So the Pashtun Taliban who massacred Shia Hazaras (of Mongolian descent) in Afghanistan in the 1990s cannot be racist because they are not white, and nor are the Arabs of Sudan who sought to wipe out black South Sudanese, or the Christians in Pakistan who are systematically discriminated against by the Punjabi elite. Anyways...

Then came the announcement today that McGill University is honouring Judith Butler with an honourary degree. As Barbara Kay of The National Postpoints out:

McGill University will be awarding philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler of the University of California at Berkeley an honorary doctorate on May 30. The choice has stirred up controversy and no small degree of dismay amongst many students and some staff at McGill. According to McGill's own definition, an honorary degree "reflects McGill University's highest aspirations and ideals."

The recipient "...will serve as an inspiration and role model to our students, graduates and our community as a whole [and will] enhance the reputation of McGill University."

I don't think Judith Butler fits a single word of that description. Although a respected intellectual in the small hothouse world of radical feminists, Butler's greater claim to fame arises from her fixation with (in her eyes) Israel's crimes against humanity. She is a leading figure in the international campaign to deligitimate Israel.

I too find Butler's views on foreign affairs loathsome, but for me, her major claim to fame lies elsewhere. Butler's greatest contribution as an academic is writing so bad, it even made some Foucault devotees cringe, winning first place in The Bad Writing Contest of 1998, and prompting a much-needed conversation over the merit of "scholarship" that, quite literally, doesn't seem to know what it's talking about:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

When the value of an academic argument rests on how many fashionable buzzwords it can jam into a run-on sentence of epic proportions, rather than on communicating any ideas of substance, it begs the question of whether all the fawning over Judith Butler is a lot of people giving her the benefit of the doubt.

They assume perhaps that hidden in the dense prose is something really brilliant, since it takes such verbal gymnastics to say it. And indeed, post-modernists would argue that there needn't be any coherent idea buried in the mush at all. There is no reality after all, no rules, no standards, no right or wrong, and the scientific method is just another form of tyranny, a hegemonic discourse from which we must break free.

That's all well and good on the campus of Antioch College, which took its radicalism and political correctness so far as to implode upon itself. But one expects more from McGill, a world class research and educational institution that has produced a significant number of Nobel laureates, inventors, celebrated teachers and philanthropists, where radon was discovered, where Wilder Penfield carried out his groundbreaking neurological research, and where major environmental sustainability work is taking place.

It was this kind of institution that drew me as a young undergraduate years ago, and no doubt thousands of others for whom innovation and research are somewhat more inspiring than the prospects of getting published in Social Text. For McGill to go the way of Nonsense Studies is an injustice to its legacy, and a disappointment for at least this one alumna.

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