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Bad Writing, Universities, and Zionism

Sue Fondrie has won this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in the crime novel category, with this stellar entry for an intentionally bad opening sentence:

She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on ... not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and -- just like that cheap paint -- the dress needed two more coats to cover her.

If a competition for unintentionally bad sentences in an academic work were established now, it might be called the Professor Judith Butler Contest, in honor of the “big-deal academic” who was awarded First Prize by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature in its 1998 “Bad Writing Competition,” for the following impenetrable sentence that appeared in a 1997 essay of hers:

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.

Of course no one could ever beat that, but Professor Butler has just published a new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia University Press), which begins with two sentences that could win a new competition:

Perhaps in some formal sense every book begins by considering its own impossibility, but this book’s completion has depended on a way of working with that impossibility without a clear resolution. Even so, something of that impossibility has to be sustained within the writing, even if it continually threatens to bring the project to a halt.

Sue Fondrie could not have written it better. Nor could Ms. Fondrie likely top the conclusion to Prof. Butler’s 27-page Introduction, the final two sentences of which read as follows, in their entirety:

The text is skewed by my own formation, but it means to document what can and must be done with one’s own formation, how it must be repeated in new ways, and where a departure from formation becomes ethically and politically obligatory (for reasons both internal and external to that very formation). This, then: my symptom, my error, my hope ...

In other words, the book is written with the watered-down stuff of the modern university. The Introduction bubbles up right away with rhetoric about “state violence,” “Jewish hegemony,” “colonial subjugation,” and other staples of the tenured left, which is then repeated ad nauseum, like multiple coats of cheap paint repeatedly slapped on an unprimed surface. It is dressed up as if it were an academic work, but it is several coats short of a wardrobe.

Prof. Butler writes that “my proposal is that the vast and violent hegemonic structure of political Zionism must cede its hold on those lands and populations and that what must take its place is a new polity that would … imply complex and antagonistic modes of living together. …” She could have stated it a little more clearly by simply proposing the replacement of Israel with a state looking like Lebanon. She writes that her “point is not to stabilize the ontology of the Jew or of Jewishness, but rather to understand the ethical and political implications of a relation to alterity that is irreversible and defining and without which we cannot make sense of such fundamental terms as equality or justice.” It is a little difficult to make sense of that sentence.

The book reminds one of the S. J. Perelman satire in which a graduate student submits his thesis to the sociology department, which rejects it as impenetrable. Then he submits it as a novel to the English department, which awards him a PhD for it. This year, Prof. Butler is teaching in the English department at Columbia, and students will be fortunate if they are spared her book of symptoms, errors, and hopes. But if it is assigned, it may help if they read it as a work of fiction.

Those looking for a serious discussion of the intellectual basis of Zionism should consult The Founding Fathers of Zionism, the brilliant 2003 book by Professor Benzion Netanyahu that has just been published in English posthumously. His thesis, stated succinctly in the first sentence of the book, is that “Modern Israel was built on the intellectual foundations laid by Zionism’s founding fathers, much as the United States was built on the principles formulated by America’s founding fathers.” The book consists of a series of remarkable intellectual biographies of five of Zionism’s founding fathers, none of whom is discussed in Prof. Butler’s book.

Prof. Butler treats Zionism as if it were a “conception of hegemony,” or a “structural totality,” or some other tendentious concept for which PhDs are granted these days, but which really should be entered instead in a contest of a different sort. Prof. Netanyahu’s book, on the other hand, is one that henceforth every serious thinker interested in Zionism will need to have read.