The Butlerian Jihad
Judith Butler, science fiction, gender identity, sex denialism, capitalism, and the pervasive and toxic influence of social media.
Originally posted on Medium in January 2021.
In the Dune universe, The Butlerian Jihad is a pivotal struggle in humanity’s future history alluded to throughout the original books written by Frank Herbert. The central idea is that some 10,000 years prior to the events of the first book, mankind developed thinking machines, but ultimately destroyed all computing technology in a great crusade. This was a response by free-thinking humans to the control that AI had over their lives, leading to a complete rejection of this technology and resulted in total social, political and religious upheaval.
After this, humanity would outlaw computers, and abide by the commandment in the Orange Catholic Bible (OCB):
Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind
Fundamentally, we can see The Butlerian Jihad as a stand against the dehumanising alienation of AI, reflected in the supreme commandment of the OCB:
Thou shalt not disfigure the soul
“Jihad” here refers to the human struggle of right against wrong, with (in this instance) a fictional religious framework determining which is which. These events act as the backdrop for Dune’s high concept techno-luddism and themes of humanity, divinity and free will.
Judith Butler perhaps more than anyone else has provided the basis for the doctrine of modern identitarian gender activism, with the idea that sex itself is a social construction. That is, the very concept of differently sexed bodies is in some sense a product of heteronormative cultural indoctrination. To Butler, sex is not “a simple fact or static condition of a body”, rather a result of continually applying normative values to bodies.
Sex itself by this worldview is impossible to separate from the meanings we ascribe to it, how we name material features, or that we name them at all, and different systems of naming - or not naming - would produce different outcomes. This makes some sense, in that we describe the world through language in a way that is somewhat arbitrary and limited, and those limits shape the parameters in which we think about what is or is not possible. There is not really such a thing as a mountain, or a hill, or a valley, or countries and borders, these are just labels that we assign to physical or social phenomena to communicate with others. So activists seek to undermine the normative process of describing sex by playing with language, by inventing new gender terms, by transgressing material boundaries and insisting that a male body is no barrier to being a woman - indeed, that thinking such a thing as an externally verifiable “male body” even exists is a folly.
The problem with this standpoint though is that the material world continues to exist, and we continue to be able to identify the features in it, even if we stop naming them. We could have different words for the sexes. We could dispose of linguistic difference altogether. And yet, one sort of body would bear children, and the other would not, and in the absence of the ability to name which one is which, all that happens is that implicit acts of power and oppression don’t vanish, they simply become unsayable. Violence is done to female bodies en masse, every day, and pretending that those bodies are indistinguishable from male bodies doesn’t do much to enlighten us as to who is doing what to whom, it merely obfuscates it.
Language has power over the material, and continues to enable some sets of people to regard others as not fully human, and thus perpetrate injustice upon them. Absence of language and absence of meaning can achieve the same thing. If male bodies still exist as an unspoken default, female bodies will be disadvantaged, even if neither are named as such. If opposite sex attraction still exists as an unspoken default, same-sex attraction will be disadvantaged, even if it too is rendered unnamable by the destruction of the meaning of sex in language.
Butler has a writing style that is infamously impenetrable, and a common criticism is that no-one is prepared to admit that they have not actually read her, or that they don’t understand her, or even that they have a negative opinion — for to do so invites further descent into circular and impenetrably jargon-filled sophistry.
This creates a modern, secular analogue to religious structures, with the interpretation of inaccessible doctrine the preserve of a select few. Someone who disagrees with Butler simply doesn’t understand the depth of her wisdom, and requires a member of the priesthood to descend from their ivory tower and bestow truth upon this poor ignorant soul. If they cannot understand the explanation, they must be very ignorant indeed, and surely be sent to do some reading.
A good example of this uncritical praise could be seen in the reception of her interview in mid-2020: Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in “anti-intellectual times”
The moment this appeared, social media was flooded with breathless reverence, and appalled at the hamfisted way the interviewer tried to “trap” her with terrible questions. But still! How marvellous to see a true master of language and thought evade such clumsy tropes and dull-witted interrogation.
On Twitter, this did not merely trend — there was a whole curated section on the sidebar dedicated to the interview and the glowing reaction.
I see this as an example of capitalism and AI shaping the public consciousness, extending the power and reach of an ideologically sympathetic priest class beyond anything in human history. Corporations like Twitter do more than show people what interests them — they demonstrate to people what it is acceptable to think. If, maybe, you read the interview and were underwhelmed, here is Twitter, presenting you with a deluge of right-thinking people to show you how stupid you are for not getting it. Here are the celebrities gushing, being praised for their praise, and those praising the praise, being praised in turn. A dedicated section on your screen, sometimes moving, reappearing, attracting your attention, reminding your unconscious that this is good, that thousands think so, and you should too.
The assertion that sex does not actually exist sounds absurd to most people, and of course those who try to point out the dangers of this stance are regularly dismissed for such ridiculous exaggerations — after all, nobody denies sex is real, right?
These two “human rights” organisations are reciting the same script, and it is one that denies the existence of male and female humans.
This shocking uniformity of thought taking hold behind closed doors, out of sight, is representative of the way that this particular worldview has captured institutions and just how prevalent it is.
It is hard to think of anything more anti-humanist than denying the basis of human reproduction.
It is hard to think of anything more anti-feminist than denying female humans even exist.
The vast majority of the general public have no inkling this has happened. What people are starting to feel, though, is the steady imposition of hegemony of thought in this area. Slowly, women noticing the campaigns that no longer mention the word “woman”, becoming instead mere “menstruators”, “cervix-owners” and “birthing bodies”. Use of the word “female” frowned upon, replaced only if absolutely necessary with “AFAB”, as if some regressive state bureaucrat arbitrarily applies normative values to your body at birth. Articles repeating that everybody knows that sex isn’t binary, and anyone that says otherwise is some sort of monster. Statements and open letters from celebrities and politicians all affirming this worldview. Wikipedia pages rewriting history before our eyes.
We’re witnessing top-down imposition of new cultural norms, through corporate policy, through training and guidance of institutions, with the engine of technocapitalism setting the terms of what it is acceptable to think in what passes for the public square — and dishing out a punishment beating to anyone who steps out of line.
For hundreds of years capitalism has expanded and adapted, finding new territories, new markets, new resources, and colonising them. Taking from the commons, and turning it into something that can be sold. We can understand this trajectory when we look at the material world of land grabs, mining, deforestation, and colonisation, but the last few years have seen new brave new worlds opened up.
As Shoshana Zuboff describes it:
Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.
What the technological giants profit from right now is their ability not just to predict, but also shape our behaviour.
Everyone experiences the world through the limits of human perception and cognition, and what we think of as reality is a simplistic model, borne of pattern matching and flawed memory, heuristics and unconscious after-the-fact justifications. Timothy Leary referred to this as the “reality tunnel”, where we become attached to our own narrow view of the world and tend to reject that which doesn’t fit, and accept only what we want to hear. Most people should be familiar with this sort of bias and motivated reasoning — but what machine learning and recommendation engines are doing is adapting to each of our own individual models of reality. Intentionally finding and presenting us with the information they know will match best with our view. Making value judgements about which information it is even possible to see, and which is promoted and reinforced with social triggers, letting us know how to behave if we want to belong. A nudge here, a tweak there — capturing our attention and changing it. Changing us, constantly, unconsciously, in ways we have no visibility of, no rules governing, and only ever in the interest of profit.
The fundamental logic of the free market is that nobody can see and understand and control the market as a whole, but that individuals exchange information through transactions, and that allowing these individual actions to operate as freely as possible is the best way to keep the market running smoothly, signalling accurate pricing, preventing monopolies, encouraging innovation, and so on.
What we’re witnessing now is a technological inversion of this relationship. Individuals no longer understand the transactions they make, as they are coerced into making them through unconscious manipulation, by machines that every millisecond learn more about how to predict and shape the market as a whole. The more extreme our responses to emotional triggers, the more predictable we become. The more neatly we can be partitioned into behavioural silos, the more simplistic and binary our perception of who is on our side, and who is on the other. We, the supposed rational actors inside it act ever more irrationally, with less feedback and less information as to why we do what we do, while the aggregate behaviour of millions is collated and monitored and manipulated for profit.
Marx described social alienation as a result of divorcing humans from fundamental aspects of human nature, by turning them into faceless units of production. Surveillance capitalism visits upon us an even deeper alienation, a yawning chasm of discontent, by treating our selves as product without our knowledge, selling our past and our futures in secret. Our internal lives are not ours, our actions not our own. We are alienated from our own consumptive drives, our energy dissipated in endless passive scrolling or meaningless conflict online that solves nothing, goes nowhere, divides us ever more greatly — dehumanising others just as we dehumanise ourselves.
In this climate of not just social and political alienation but alienation from ourselves and the meaning of our own actions, we now see the sex denialism of Butler taking firm hold. Sex no longer exists, and anyone is a man or woman just by saying so — if you don’t believe your eyes, then you need to check your thinking. If you thought being gay meant you weren’t attracted to the opposite sex, there must be something wrong with you, and you need to unlearn such normative preferences. No material boundaries are respected, nothing matters beyond the mind — and if for some reason the mind does not match how it feels the body should be, capitalism has the answer for that too. We become atomised individuals, filled with gnawing discontent and dreams of self-actualisation, of liberation through consumption without boundary.
Private digital monopolies and social media provide both the means of guaranteeing only certain speech is rewarded, and the weapon that ensures unacceptable speech is punished without limit — where what constitutes “acceptable” rests with those whose only motive is profit. Meaningless virtual signifiers of social approval provide an insubstantial carrot for conformity of thought that provides no nourishment and leaves people constantly hungry. At the same time, the ever-present stick of ostracisation, shaming, loss of friends, of employment, of human connection - cancellation - keeps those who have doubts in line.
When people look around and see that absurd statements are taken as fact - day-in, day-out, by seemingly rational people - who would speak up when they know they could be condemned by thousands, millions, instantly? If you have any concerns about this, you better keep them to yourself because at any moment you could be socially annihilated by a good chunk of the species.
We simply aren’t built to live like this.
In the Dune universe, the Butlerian Jihad was a quasi-religious humanist crusade for free thought, meaning and autonomy. It was about humanity reclaiming what it meant to be human, and ending with the commandment: thou shalt not disfigure the soul. It stood in opposition to the stifling control of AI, which brought only submission, fear and alienation.
In this universe, the Butlerian Jihad is a quasi-religious anti-materialist crusade to instil in everyone a deference to a concept of “identity” which transcends the body. It is about deconstructing what it means to be human until there is nothing material left, leaving only the commandment: thou shalt not invalidate the gendered soul. Free thought which contradicts this belief cannot be allowed, and capitalist AI acts as a tool to shape human consciousness, enforcing submission, instilling fear, shame and bodily alienation.
Or maybe I’m just reaching for these darkly ironic parallels because I enjoyed the pun in the name.