Imperfect prize, perfect winner

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 10, 2012

I have been thoroughly bemused by the international furore surrounding the decision of the municipality of Frankfurt-am-Main to award a 50,000 euro prize to Dr Judith Butler, an academic who teaches critical theory at Berkeley, California. The prize, which is awarded every three years, was instituted in 1977 in memory of the sociologist Theodor Adorno, who was born in Frankfurt, taught there before being hounded out by the Nazis (his mother was Catholic but his father, though a Protestant, was born Jewish), and returned there after the war. This year's recipient of the Adorno Prize, Dr Butler, was born into a Jewish household in Cleveland, and is a member of a synagogue in California.

The "machlokes" may be summarised thus: Adorno was a victim of the crudest racial ideology and prejudice. How dare the fathers and mothers of Frankfurt make an award in his memory to someone (Butler) who has (it is argued) identified herself as an enemy of Israel, the Jewish state.

It's true that Butler's record on Israel is depressingly hostile. Transiting Israel in 2010 (en route to lecture in the Palestinian territories), she famously chose not to visit any Israeli university. "One can only go to an Israeli institution, or an Israeli cultural event," she told Ha'aretz, "in order to use the occasion to call attention to the brutality and injustice of the occupation and to articulate an opposition to it."

She went further: "The point of the boycott is to produce and enact an international consensus that calls for the state of Israel to comply with international law. The point is to insist on the rights of self-determination for Palestinians, to end the occupation and colonisation of Arab lands, to dismantle the wall that continues the illegal seizure of Palestinian land, and to honour several UN resolutions that have been consistently defied by the Israeli state, including UN resolution 194, which insists upon the rights of refugees from 1948."

Leaving aside her mischaracterisation of resolution 194, it is axiomatic - and Butler must surely know this - that if the so-called "right of return" was ever implemented, Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state. As for her sponsorship of "a federated authority for Palestine-Israel that was actually governed by a strong constitution that guaranteed rights regardless of cultural background, religion, ethnicity, race, and the rest," only a malevolently energised fool could possibly believe that Palestinian Muslims in such a state would allow their politico-religious beliefs - which demand the subservience of Jews to Muslims - to be subsumed within this "strong constitution".

This angry young man became an angry old man

At first glance, therefore, the very vocal criticisms of the decision to award the prize to Butler would seem to carry a great deal of weight. I was asked to add my voice to these criticisms. I refused to do so. Here's why:

Adorno is certainly admired in some academic quarters. In others, he is pitied and despised. As a musician, he was undoubtedly a clever fellow. As a philosopher, he was an angry young man who turned into an angry middle-aged man who became an angry old man. The object of his anger was the failure of capitalism to self-destruct as Marx had predicted.

Why had the working classes not overthrown the capitalist system? Adorno thought he had found the answer in popular culture. This, he argued, rather than religion was the true "opium of the masses". Adorno was an unrepentant snob and an out-and-out elitist. He distrusted "ordinary" people and the popular culture that they accessed.

So - I suspect - does Judith Butler. In her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, she launched an arrogant and vicious attack on the feminist movement because it accepted the consequences (if not the justice) of biological differences between men and women. Gender was, rather, "a relation among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts". Far from being immutable - she argued - gender was a contextualised variable. And for good measure she went on to insist that, as gender and sex were unconnected, it was the duty of right-thinking people to engage in acts of subversion resulting in the proliferation of as many "genders" as possible.

Butler is - in other words - a nudnik, and so was Adorno. That being the case, they deserve each other.

Last updated: 10:45am, October 10 2012