Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Challenging Texts

Post by Ingrid

This month's book selection for A Year of Feminist Classics is Gender Trouble by Judith Butler. Ambitious little me thought I could tackle this one and write a brilliant post about it ... however ... I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was never expecting it to be this difficult. Butler is notorious for her ridiculously dense style - as k8inorbit on Goodreads puts it - "We're talking Ghengis Khan levels of 'notorious'."

So far I'm about half way through. I really, really want to get to the end, just so I can impress people and say I've read it. No, not really. Well, kinda. But I have to say, struggling through her difficult ideas has been very rewarding for me. I want to tell you why, but first let's talk about why Butler wrote Gender Trouble the way she did. In her 1999 preface, she defends her difficult writing style:
Both critics and friends of Gender Trouble have drawn attention to the difficult of its style. It is no doubt strange, and maddening to some, to find a book that is not easily consumed to be "popular" according to academic standards. The surprise over this is perhaps attributable to the way we underestimate the reading public, its capacity and desire for reading complicated and challenging texts, when the complication is not gratuitous, when the challenge is in the service of calling taken-for-granted truths into questions, when the taken for grantedness of those truths is, indeed, opressive. . . .It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself. . . .If gender itself is naturalized through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.
In other words, her difficult style only assists her examination of truths we take for granted, or, as nymeth puts it, Butler claims here that "shaking up language is part of the process of shaking up the status quo."

Ok, point taken. But is making the effort to read this text really worth it? Why couldn't I just read the wikipedia page on Gender Trouble and move on? I think there is a benefit to reading challenging texts like this one, a huge benefit. Not only does owning a difficult text make me feel more confident, but it actually improves the way I read fiction as well. Fiction can be just as complicated is critical theory, but I think we need to train ourselves to be able to read it that way. Though I read a lot, I don't read nearly as well as I would like. Reading texts like Gender Trouble help me exercise that ability to focus in and analyze. It helps me read better, and it helps me think better.
What about you? What's the most challenging text you've ever read? What made it so difficult? What tools or strategies did you use to help you better understand it?