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Michael Bonner: Our present dark age

Commentary

The setting of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is a Benedictine abbey, somewhere in northern Italy. At the centre of the abbey is a scriptorium with a vast library attached to it. The library is in the form of a maze, through which only the librarian and his assistant know the way. The labyrinthine library is in a huge fortified tower, which like a castle frightens and repels all who would enter it. It is an impressive work of engineering, by means of which “knowledge is used to conceal rather than to enlighten.” That’s how the main character, the English monk William of Baskerville, described it. The plot is a murder mystery hinging on a banned book: a lost text by Aristotle, the manuscript of which has been laced with poison.

Though the book is set in the early 14th century, it is a postmodern allegory. Every word, book, and text, points only to another word, book, or text—not to reality. Each room of the labyrinth seems to open onto another room without end. Despite connections drawn to apocalyptic prophecies by frightened monks, there is no ultimate pattern to the string of mysterious deaths, and the greatest logician of his time William of Baskerville finds no certainty or meaning in what he observes. If the ultra-rational William is the hero, the villain is the dogmatic, secretive, and censorious librarian Jorge of Burgos who sets the library on fire rather than expose its holdings to the world and kills himself by eating the poisoned book.

Of course, as far as the real Middle Ages are concerned, The Name of the Rose is a caricature. Mediaeval intellectuals certainly loved symbolism and allegory, but there was also an effort to reach the hard reality beneath the symbol. In the 9th century, during what is still commonly called a “dark age,” John Scottus Eriugena advised his readers to look beneath “the surface of visible things” and “to give a rational account of what we perceive by bodily sense.”

This mode of thought would culminate the efforts of Thomas Aquinas to survey the huge edifice of Christian theology and dogma in the light of pagan, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy. The works of Aristotle had been reintroduced to the West in a Latin translation from Arabic versions, and commentaries by Muslim scholars came with them. These were extremely influential on Thomas, as were a welter of scholars from Cicero to Maimonides, all of whom he references frequently. But Thomas’s Summa Theologiae is not an incoherent pastiche; it’s a model of clear thinking and concise writing on practically every topic imaginable.

Judith Butler’s outsized influence

The real age of obscurity and confusion is our own, and you will find no better proof of this than the works of Judith Butler. She is one of the most influential academics in the world, though very few people have read and understood her work. Believe it or not, I had the pleasure of reading a fair amount of it when I took two courses in sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto in the early 2000s. It was immediately obvious that Butler’s followers and critics tend to gravitate more towards what they think Butler says, rather than her real meaning. The reason for this is that all of Butler’s ideas, however trivial or obvious, are expressed in a comically verbose and obscure manner. She will never use one word if ten will suffice, and she has a penchant for Graeco-Latin abstract nouns. “Facticity,” “liberalization,” “hegemony,” “multiplicitous,” and “heteronormativity”—Butler’s writing is a compost heap of such jargon, and the sentences are often far too long. Consider this one:

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 possibilities of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That is from “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” an academic article published by Butler in 1997. It won first prize in the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest in 1999, and there are a great many other sentences like it in the Butlerian corpus. But, though her writing is generally bad, it is not always unintelligible. Amidst all the pompous obscurity, acolytes and critics will either thank or blame Butler for the mysterious transmutation of sex into gender.

The idea goes like this. In the 1940s, the feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir distinguished between “female” and “woman.” “Woman” was what we might call a social construct attached to the category of female. Feminist writers of the 1980s destabilised the idea of “woman,” and the concept of womanhood became for them increasingly uncertain.

Butler belongs to this trend, but she went further. Her book Gender Trouble, published in 1990 undermines “female” as a stable and fixed category. Our species’ division into two distinct sexes is for Butler a kind of fiction which exaggerates small differences among people. Biological sex is real, she seems to acknowledge, but it makes no difference greater than minor variations of the human phenotype like skin colour. The body is accordingly a blank slate, upon which man- or womanhood is impressed by social norms. Hence, Butler’s theory of “gender performativity”—the idea that we are men or women because we act as men or women ought to do according to the requirements of our culture, and there is no essential manness or womanness beneath the performance.

Simone de Beauvoir had a dim view of “femaleness,” but she took seriously the idea that biology circumscribed and determined womanhood. In contrast, Butler does not. Her main goal is to dismantle the idea that mankind is by nature divided into only two sexes, and therefore that male and female sexual relations are normal. As contemporary jargon has it, Butler wants to undermine “heteronormativity.” This is the force of Butler’s 2004 book Undoing Gender. Butler followed Michel Foucault into the labyrinth of postmodernism, and discovered at its centre that “power dissimulates as ontology.” In other words, our perception of male and female only seems real because of the power of the authorities who impose them upon us.

Students protest during a rally on International Women’s Day in Milan, Italy, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Luca Bruno/AP Photo.

Accordingly, all norms of gender and sex must be dismantled—even, as it seems, the prohibition against incest, to which Butler devotes an entire chapter of Undoing Gender. She even raises the prospect of removing reproduction from heterosexual relationships by means of technology and warns feminists against resisting it. To do so, she says, would be to “risk naturalizing heterosexual reproduction.” “The doctrine of sexual difference in this case.” she continues, “comes to be in tension with antihomophobic struggles as well as with the intersex movement and the transgender movement’s interest in securing rights to technologies that facilitate sex reassignment.”

I for one do not know how we could tell if anything Butler says is right. If the “truth-as-power” doctrine is, er, true, then I cannot think of a good reason to take Butler at her word. This, however, is not the main problem with Butler’s work.

Undoing gender theory

The problem is that the near irrelevance of biological sex and the theory of performative gender as either male or female militate against the main assumption of transgenderism. If, as it is said, you can have a “gender identity” that does not accord with your bodily sexual characteristics, then Butler’s most important ideas cannot be true. And if you must change your sexual characteristics to align with those correlated with the other gender, then you are dangerously close to affirming, rather than dismantling, “heteronormativity.” Accordingly, Butler admits that her former work is now “questionable in several ways, especially in light of trans and materialist criticisms.” This is undoubtedly why Butler has once again revisited the topic of gender in her new book Who’s Afraid of Gender, wherein she tries to assimilate her older ideas to present orthodoxy.

The task is fundamentally hopeless. And so it is no surprise that Butler is now in grave doubt. In 2004, gender was “a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed.” Now, however, Butler’s subject is “gender—whatever it is”; the word itself often appears in quotation marks; there are “myriad, continuing debates” about it, and there is “no one approach to define, or understand” it. Accordingly, “Gender has to remain relatively wild in relation to all those who claim to possess its correct definition.”

But she also says that gender is “a felt sense of the body, in its surfaces and depths, a lived sense of being a body in the world in this way,” which sounds somewhat like a definition, albeit a bad one. What an embarrassing retreat! But if Butler cannot defend her former claims, and cannot really reconcile herself to contemporary doctrine, she can at least assume its jargon. She has obligingly adopted third-person plural pronouns, she ostentatiously refers to “pregnant people” and “sex assigned at birth,” and she boldly condemns all the right enemies of gender.

And its enemies are numerous and powerful. Viktor Orbán, Georgia Meloni, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Vladimir Putin hover like evil spirits over Butler. So does the arch-fiend J.K. Rowling, who is anathematised over the course of an entire chapter. And, like a postmodern Martin Luther, Butler really has it in for the Papacy and “Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropology.” I suppose this makes sense, from Butler’s perspective, since among all her enemies, Pope Francis has condemned gender ideology in the clearest terms, most recently as one of the “ugliest dangers” of our time, undermining the natural complementarity of men and women. The Vatican Doctrinal Office has, once again, also condemned “gender theory.” But Butler is wrong to assert that the pope has likened it to the destruction caused by nuclear weapons. And her garbled end notes do not prove it. For more on this, see the damning analysis by philosophy professor Alex Byrne here.

But what do all those malign figures have in common? Fascism, says Butler. They are all fascists who use the “phantasm” of gender to stir up fear in order to distract from real problems like “war,” “systemic racism,” and “devastations of capitalism.” The fascists wish to restore “a patriarchal dream-order where a father is a father; a sexed identity never changes; women, conceived as ‘born female at birth’ resume their natural and ‘moral’ positions within the household; and white people hold uncontested racial supremacy.”

Butler’s enemies are also racists, apparently, and so she also provides a bizarre digression into what she believes to be a misguided opposition to Critical Race Theory. Anyway, Butler makes no effort to understand her antagonists’ opinions and motivations and avoids addressing any of their often very different arguments. But luckily for Butler, she doesn’t need to, because her opponents are simply too stupid and they don’t read. “It is nearly impossible,” she says, “to bridge this epistemic divide with good arguments, because of the fear that reading will introduce confusion into the reader’s mind or bring her into direct contact with the devil.”

Students march during an International Women’s Day protest in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, March 8, 2024. Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo.

Consider the reaction to British feminist Kathleen Stock whom Butler hates perhaps even more than the Papacy. Stock is wrong—not because of any errors of reasoning, but because “she does not seem to understand the toxicity or cruelty that she herself brings to the table” when insisting that “the designation of ‘woman’ should be tied to the determination of biological femaleness.” Butler continues:

Imagine if you were Jewish and someone tells you that you are not. Imagine if you are lesbian and someone laughs in your face and says you are confused since you are really heterosexual. Imagine if you are Black [sic] and someone tells you that you are white, or that you are not racialized in this ostensibly post-racial world. Or imagine you are Palestinian and someone tells you that Palestinians do not exist (which people do). Who are these people who think they have the right to tell you what you are and what you are not, and who dismiss your own definition of who you are, who tell you that self-determination is not a right that you are allowed to exercise, who would subject you to medical and psychiatric review, or mandatory surgical intervention, before they are willing to recognize you in the name and sex you have given yourself, the ones to which you have arrived?

The rhetor has clearly overpowered the philosopher. What would be the consequences of such imaginings, and who are “those people” to whom Butler refers? We never find out. Butler seems to imply that nothing could be worse than failing to affirm a person’s identity or his or her claim of belonging to a particular group. If this is indeed what Butler means, it can only signify his or her disconnection from actual pain and suffering. As she says of J. K. Rowling, “living in the repetitive temporality of trauma does not always give us an adequate account of social reality.” In other words, Rowling (who was abused by her former husband), simply cannot be trusted because she was abused.

But that phrase “your own definition of who you are” is almost equally troubling. It places Butler in the same category as the Jesuits of Paraguay and the Pilgrim Fathers imagining a fresh start in a new world of personal and social perfection. Butler is also the almost bankrupt heir to the Marquis de Condorcet for whom “the perfectibility of man is absolutely infinite.” And in the world of anthropology, she is the Trofim Lysenko: the Soviet agronomist who believed that one species of plant could be transformed into another under the right conditions.

Such utopian visions may be attractive to some people, but they always lead to disappointment, disaster, and cruelty. The future of gender theory does not appear to be bright, not because it is widely feared, as the title of Butler’s book implies, but because its precepts are false and many of its effects are harmful. In many parts of the West, it seems to be in retreat now, as puberty blockers and surgeries are increasingly restricted. A Pew Research poll from 2022 showed that the number of people who affirm two and only two human sexes and only two genders has been growing since 2017. Perhaps the tide is turning. 

Accepting what we are and what we are not, as Butler might say, must mean pulling down the endless maze of symbols and metaphors that obscure reality. This is not what Butler has done, though. Like the secretive, dogmatic librarian Jorge of Burgos, she has retreated deeper into the gender labyrinth. But the protective fortress of jargon and obfuscatory prose, which Butler erected, is on fire, and Butler is the incendiary. We can imagine her within, consuming her own poisoned texts, as the structure collapses around her. Let us hope that, when the rubble is cleared away, we may see the truth more clearly.

‘I do think the immigration consensus is at risk’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

Readers this week discussed ideas for how to improve Canada’s government, the crumbling immigration consensus, the country’s cratering self-employment rates, and Prime Minister Trudeau’s foreign interference testimony.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

How to get better—not bigger—government

Monday, April 8, 2024

“[The next election] represents the rare opportunity for the incoming party to use their likely healthy majority to upgrade our stale governance structure.”

— Rob Tyrell

The NDP don’t take themselves seriously, so why should we?

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

“The NDP hasn’t caught up to a world where inequality is as much about housing wealth as it is about income. The shift away from the NDP was largely young, and while you might see that as having soured on social issues, I think it’s also plausibly about the NDP getting the economic issues wrong.”

— Valerie

“Canadians want programs like inexpensive daycare, dental care, and pharmacare, but they have to be willing to pay for it.”

— A. Chezzi

“The NDP has not represented ordinary working people for decades. They represent champagne socialists and government employees.”

— Kim Morton

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, March 1, 2024. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.
Canada’s hard-fought immigration consensus is crumbling before our eyes

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

“I do think the immigration consensus is at risk…People won’t focus on an issue if they trust the institution to deal with it, but mismanagement diminishes that trust.”

— Gordon Edwards

“Then there is the problem of national identity. How do we promote a Canadian identity and be multicultural at the same time? Or is our identity going to be a mass of different, and sometimes conflicting, identities all bunched up in one place?”

— Kim Morton

“Blaming immigrants for levels of immigration that are too high, is like blaming the water in a bathtub that is overflowing. The controller of the tap (the federal government) should get most of the blame. The immigrants should get none of it.”

— Paul Attics

The outsized economic effects of Canada’s cratering self-employment

Thursday, April 11, 2024

“The removal of personal responsibility and insistence that no one can succeed without everyone else being dragged backward cannot continue. People who are successful have worked hard and long. The majority of them deserve the fruits of their labour, ingenuity, and sacrifices.”

— Susan

Justin Trudeau’s well-rehearsed testimony reassures no one

Friday, April 12, 2024

“As long as political parties permit non-citizens to become members, work on election campaigns, vote for riding officials, and have a say in choosing party leaders as well as riding candidates, you will have foreign interference. All that it requires is for those individuals to be organized and directed.”

— Michael B

“There has been a lot of focus on Trudeau’s skepticism regarding the intelligence relating to foreign election interference. This is summed up in the statement that ‘Intelligence is not evidence.’ But intelligence is based on evidence, the level of confidence in the conclusions varies with the amount and quality of the evidence intelligence services have been able to gather.”

— Gord Edwards