Thursday, 30 August 2012

Judith Butler and the Adorno Prize

Starting this blog last April, I took my example from two great writers - whom I will never match.  Alexander Cockburn, who died recently, and Theodor Adorno both produced significant writing in a style akin to that of a diary: Adorno's work that I referred to was his wonderful Minima Moralia.  Of course, this book is not a diary as such, but it is composed in jottings - not 'loose jottings', but frequently aphoristic musings so tight and dense that reading them you can almost hear the whiplash crack of Adorno's relentlessly dialectical mind as you parse and re-parse his sentences.

Adorno was one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century.  He is best known now as a leading figure and latter-day director of the Frankfurt School, or the Institut fur Sozialforschung, whose early members included luminaries such as Max Horkheimer (with whom Adorno wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment and to whom he dedicated Minima Moralia), Leo Leowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock and Franz Neumann, and whose more recent alumni include major living German philosophers such as Axel Honneth and Jurgen Habermas.  The Institut carried out a wide array of social and political research, most of it informed by the brand of Hegelian humanistic Marxism initiated by an earlier generation of writers such as Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch and Antonio Gramsci, and boosted by the discovery of Marx's Paris Manuscripts in the 1930s.  Adorno himself wrote extensively and brilliantly about society, literature and culture, politics, philosophy, and music most of all.  The Institut, and Adorno, also wrote importantly about anti-Semitism.   Many of the Institut's staff were Jewish, and in fact during the Second World War, it decamped first to New York, and then to Los Angeles: an academic institution in exile.  Tragically and famously, Walter Benjamin, an older associate of the Institut, and a good friend of Adorno's, did not escape, taking his own life whilst fleeing the Nazis in France in 1940.

In 1977, the city of Frankfurt established the Adorno Prize, an award given every three years to a major philosopher.  Previous winners include Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and Zygmunt Bauman.  This year, the winner is to be the American philosopher Judith Butler - the first woman to win the prize.  She is due to receive the award on September 11 next.

I have already referred to Butler's work on this blog - her essay 'No it's not anti-Semitic', published in the London Review of Books in 2007.  The thinking behind this piece has now issued in a new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press) where she turns back to her own Jewish education, and, while also in critical dialogue with Palestinian writers - Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said principally - seeks to scour the work of great modern Jewish philosophers and writers - Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Primo Levi - for the resources of a Jewish critique of Zionism.  Butler even goes so far as to suggest that in our times Jewish thought might be most itself when criticizing Zionism for its crimes of ethnocratic domination and state violence.  She seeks to derive an ethic of 'cohabitation' that would be pertinent to the situation of Jews and Palestinians and which would not be predicated on a simple universalism, but would eventually issue in a binational state.  Ultimately, her philosophical message is that a properly effective Jewish ethics must be prepared to transcend itself, and leave its Jewishness behind.

And now she is paying a price: multiple campaigns, letter-writings, Facebook maunderings, and other hypocrisies are underway, in Israel and Germany, to deny one of our most important contemporary thinkers an honour that is her due.  Copious character-assassinations and accusations of Jewish self-hatred have already been flung: the quickest google search will reveal this.  Here's an example, from Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (one notes immediately that fairly unpeaceful 'scholars' such as Efraim Karsh and Daniel Pipes are members or former members of this grouping):

German Jewish leader: Rescind Israel hater's prize

And here is Butler responding to her critics generally, and at the Jerusalem Post specifically - this is taken from the excellent liberal Jewish website, Mondoweiss:

Judith Butler responds to attack: ‘I affirm a Judaism that …

Butler, I reckon, is an exemplar of an all-too rare quality in thinkers and writers: she does not become conservative, or lax, or repetitive as her career develops and her work expands and gets older.   She gets tougher, harder, more radical, more rigorous, and she steels herself to the most formidable and difficult tasks.  She is a courageous and brilliant woman, and deserves support and recognition.


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