Judith Butler showing how hegemonic power structures are intrinsic totalities in the theoretical conception of... oh, I give up. (Target Presse Agentur Gmbh/Getty Images)

September 10, 2021   5 mins

Judith Butler, the doyenne of what is known as “theory”, is back in the discourse thanks to a Guardian interview, in which they (for it is they not she, inevitably) described, with unusual directness, people who acknowledge there are two sexes (i.e. 100% of humanity) as “fascists”. They is famous for writing thoughts on gender and culture which have all the light, straightforward readability of the users’ manual for a nuclear reactor. They’s prose makes Dominic Cummings’s blog look like AA Milne. And they is one of those soi-disant feminists who, rather surprisingly, claims to believe that women don’t actually exist.  

They’s most renowned sentence, which won the 1998 Bad Writing competition in the journal Philosophy & Literature, runs as follows:

“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.”

It is a glorious racket, and you can’t help admiring it. I like to picture Judith as a snake-oil purveyor on a travelling show in the days of the pioneering Wild West, sat in the wagon after the sell, in a box-coat and a tall hat, lighting a cigar with a ten-dollar bill and having a good chuckle with the missus at the dumb rubes in the crowd. “Honey pie, those bozos sucked it up!” There’s something very funny about seeing bourgeois idiots being taken for schmucks and grandly fleeced. “Good for you gal!” you want to shout. 

If this were only a few bottles of liniment sold to a few stooges it would have a roguish charm. But with the explosion of higher education and of social media, these laughable ideas are increasingly seeping out into wider society. 

Judith is the undisputed master of the form, but such specious claptrap is a game anyone can play. 

Let’s have a go. You take a social phenomenon or a piece of art (high or low, that doesn’t matter) and subject it to theory. To pluck a random, recent example let’s take current hit BBC drama Vigil. We might say that in its depiction of a female detective investigating a murder mystery on a submarine that it posits interiority citationally as a partial détournement of the ideological power structures of the late-capitalist ideations of guilt and innocence. 

Thanks to my university days — thirty long years ago now, but already riddled with this stuff, which goes back a lot longer than people think — I can spew this out. Once you’ve grasped the basics, it’s easy. 

The difference is that back in 1992, when I’d completed my dissertation on gender norms in Carry On Loving (1970) and got my 2:1, I emerged into the real world with real people in it, and didn’t have to think about this trash again apart from as an amusing memory shared with fellow sufferers. 

No such luck for the graduate of 2021, who will find the mainstream media and the arts awash with theory jargon such as “lived experience”, “intersectionality” and “equity”. 

Theory stems from the deconstruction popularised, if that’s the word, in European academia in the middle of the last century — taking social conventions and art to bits to see how they work (which is something Aristotle was doing two thousand years ago, to be fair). It can be very interesting to see how ideas operate, particularly in the then under-examined and comparatively new mass popular culture. The differences in taboos and hierarchies across cultures are fascinating. And abstract, unfamiliar concepts can obviously be hard to convey and to understand. 

But critical theory tips buckets of nonsense over these reasonable, even banal foundations. It has no truck with the obvious reality of humans as evolved animals like any other. All of its observations stem from the false premise of the human being as a wholly nurtured blank slate, so everything that follows on is just plain wrong. It is like a series of whodunnits where the murderer is “the capitalist hegemony” every time. It gulps down for its inspiration art, beauty and humanity — and vomits them back up as pabulum. 

The observations of early pioneers in linguistics — Ferdinand de Saussure in particular, with his painstaking deliberations over the meanings of words across human languages and the way humans frame the world through language — became the baloney of saying that words actually physically change reality, so all you have to do is change words to change reality. Judith’s new Guardian interview is a shining example. Hocus pocus, alakazam — woman as a category is redefined to include blokes. The cabinet is thrown open, and the lady has disappeared. 

So now we have queer theory, gender theory, critical race theory, out in the open. And this stuff is dangerous when it metastasises. 

Because it’s not merely an irritant. It weakens and debilitates us. It amplifies neurosis and further damages already damaged people — the shouty unicorn-avatar children of Twitter have been driven out of their tiny minds by it, to their and our detriment. It has had a terrible, deadening effect on the arts, reducing a lot of drama to nothing much more than grievance and resentment.

The irony of this situation is that loopy ideas so obviously contrary to sanity and reality as Open Borders, Defund The Police or every human interaction being racist could only have sprouted from the soil of liberal, western capitalist consumer societies. Theory is the most western belief system imaginable. Picture an intellectual movement posturing against the central tenets of Chinese or Saudi Arabian society, embedded at the heart of the academic establishment in those countries, being funded by their peoples, disinterested governments nodding it through. You can’t, because its exponents would be lucky to last the week. 

Deconstruction never deconstructs itself. If it ever looked in the mirror, it would see that it is old establishment down to its toenails, a ruling class ‘progressive’ pose that belongs more to the eleventh century than the twenty-first (it’s surely no accident that the younger royalty is keen.) It’s as much a product of capitalism, and about as left-wing, as a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. It is — oh, irony of ironies! — all about strengthening existing class structures and power relations, its arcane lexicon an etiquette system. Objecting to it, or breaking a taboo by saying for example that one tries not to see race, or that there are two immutable sexes, marks a person as low-status. It is a mechanism for preserving inequalities, keeping people in their place and making racial strife worse to enhance position and keep the cash rolling in. 

Its opponents, on both the Left and Right, are far too squeamish. Detractors suggest that these bad ideas can be argued against and rejected — the excellent Cynical Theories by the estimable Helen Pluckrose et al makes this case immaculately. But you cannot argue with these fallacies and their perpetrators, as they grant no space to their opponents, who are by their definition oppressors, i.e. heretics. Theory cannot brook enlightened debate, because it is pre-enlightenment, a feudal power grab.

The only way to deal with it is to defund the academic institutions and courses that expound it. It must go. 

Or perhaps, as Judith might say, this whole article has been an attempt to reify hegemonic power structures, resisting praxis by codifying reified systems of meaning as normative. Who can possibly tell?

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.