Zadie Smith’s and Judith Butler’s Novelistic Inconsistencies
This article argues that the novel’s embrace of inconsistency over rigour and commitment is its key distinguishing feature as a form of thought. Whereas critical theory, like other academic disciplines, tends to valorise rigorously argued and consistent ways of thinking, art – and in particular, the novel –has the capacity to generate different forms of knowledge through its inconsistency. Moreover, though, I also contend that the novelistic mode is a way of thinking that is not confined solely to texts that are themselves novels: it is also a mode that critical theory can engage. In this article, I analyse two texts characterised by this novelistic inconsistency: one by a novelist (Zadie Smith’s On Beauty), the other by a theorist (Judith Butler’s Precarious Life). Whereas Smith is open about her “ideological inconsistency,” Butler (as befits a writer of critical theory) tends to mask the discrepancies in her thought. I argue, however, that in their treatment of the question of authorial intention, both Smith and Butler adopt surprisingly similar positions: though predominantly loyal to the psychoanalytic and poststructuralist critique of intention and of the sovereign subject more broadly, they nevertheless at times defend the idea of authorial intention. This inconsistency, I argue, is an important virtue in Smith and Butler’s discussions of intentionality, especially as it relates to the context they are both concerned with: the university campus.
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