Judith Butler

Judith Butler (born February 24, 1956) is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is the Maxine Elliot professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Butler received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984, and her dissertation was subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. In the late-1980s, between different teaching/research appointments (such as at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University), she was involved in "post-structuralist" efforts within Western feminist theory to question the "presuppositional terms" of feminism. Her most recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy, engaging in particular with "pre-Zionist criticisms of state violence."

Major works

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

Gender Trouble was first published in 1990, selling over 100,000 copies internationally and in different languages . Alluding to the similarly named 1974 John Waters film Female Trouble starring the drag queen Divine, Gender Trouble critically discusses the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Jacques Derrida, and, most significantly, Michel Foucault. The book has also enjoyed widespread popularity outside of traditional academic circles, even inspiring an intellectual fanzine, Judy!.

The crux of Butler's argument in Gender Trouble is that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality-the natural-seeming coherence, for example, of masculine gender and heterosexual desire in male bodies-is culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time. These stylized bodily acts, in their repetition, establish the appearance of an essential, ontological "core" gender. This is the sense in which Butler famously theorizes gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. The performance of gender, sex, and sexuality, however, is not a voluntary choice for Butler, who locates the construction of the gendered, sexed, desiring subject within what she calls, borrowing from Foucault's Discipline and Punish, "regulative discourses." These, also called "frameworks of intelligibility" or "disciplinary regimes," decide in advance what possibilities of sex, gender, and sexuality are socially permitted to appear as coherent or "natural." Regulative discourse includes within it disciplinary techniques which, by coercing subjects to perform specific stylized actions, maintain the appearance in those subjects of the "core" gender, sex and sexuality the discourse itself produces.

A significant yet sometimes overlooked part of Butler's argument concerns the role of sex in the construction of "natural" or coherent gender and sexuality. Butler explicitly challenges biological accounts of binary sex, reconceiving the sexed body as itself culturally constructed by regulative discourse. The supposed obviousness of sex as a natural biological fact attests to how deeply its production in discourse is concealed. The sexed body, once established as a "natural" and unquestioned "fact," is the alibi for constructions of gender and sexuality, unavoidably more cultural in their appearance, which can purport to be the just-as-natural expressions or consequences of a more fundamental sex. On Butler's account, it is on the basis of the construction of natural binary sex that binary gender and heterosexuality are likewise constructed as natural. In this way, Butler claims that without a critique of sex as produced by discourse, the sex/gender distinction as a feminist strategy for contesting constructions of binary asymmetric gender and compulsory heterosexuality will be ineffective.

The concept of gender performativity is at the core of Butler's work. It extends beyond the doing of gender and can be understood as a full-fledged theory of subjectivity. Indeed, if her most recent books have shifted focus away from gender, they still treat performativity as theoretically central.

Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993)

Bodies That Matter seeks to clear up readings and misreadings of performativity that view the enactment of sex/gender as a daily choice. To do this, Butler emphasizes the role of repetition in performativity, making use of Derrida's theory of iterability, a form of citationality, to work out a theory of performativity in terms of iterability:

Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that 'performance' is not a singular 'act' or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance.

Iterability, in its endless undeterminedness as to-be-determinedness, is thus precisely that aspect of performativity that makes the production of the "natural" sexed, gendered, heterosexual subject possible, while also and at the same time opening that subject up to the possibility of its incoherence and contestation.

Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997)

In Excitable Speech, Butler surveys the problems of hate speech and censorship. She argues that censorship is difficult to evaluate, and that in some cases it may be useful or even necessary, while in others it may be worse than tolerance. She develops a new conception of censorship's complex workings, supplanting the myth of the independent subject who wields the power to censor with a theory of censorship as an effect of state power and, more primordially, as the condition of language and discourse itself.

Butler argues that hate speech exists retrospectively, only after being declared such by state authorities. In this way, the state reserves for itself the power to define hate speech and, conversely, the limits of acceptable discourse. In this connection, Butler criticizes feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon's argument against pornography for its unquestioning acceptance of the state's power to censor. Butler warns that such appeals to state power may backfire on those like MacKinnon who seek social change, in her case to end patriarchal oppression, through legal reforms. She cites for example the R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul 1992 Supreme Court case, which overturned the conviction of a teenager for burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family, in the name of the First Amendment.

Deploying Foucault's argument from The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, Butler claims that any attempt at censorship, legal or otherwise, necessarily propagates the very language it seeks to forbid. As Foucault argues, for example, the strict sexual mores of 19th century Western Europe did nothing but amplify the discourse of sexuality it sought to control. Extending this argument using Derrida and Lacan, Butler claims that censorship is primitive to language, and that the linguistic "I" is a mere effect of an originary censorship. In this way, Butler questions the possibility of any genuinely oppositional discourse; "If speech depends upon censorship, then the principle that one might seek to oppose is at once the formative principle of oppositional speech".

Butler also questions the efficacy of censorship on the grounds that hate speech is context-dependent. Citing J.L. Austin's concept of the performative utterance, Butler notes that words' ability to "do things" makes hate speech possible but also at the same time dependent on its specific embodied context. Austin's claim that what a word "does," its illocutionary force, varies with the context in which it is uttered implies that it is impossible to adequately define the performative meanings of words, including hate, abstractly. On this basis, Butler rejects arguments like Richard Delgado's which justify the censorship of certain specific words by claiming the use of those words constitutes hate speech in any context. In this way, Butler underlines the difficulty inherent in efforts to systematically identify hate speech.

Undoing Gender (2004)

Undoing Gender collects Butler's reflections on gender, sex, sexuality, psychoanalysis and the medical treatment of intersex for a more general readership than many of her other books. Butler revisits and refines her notion of performativity, which is the focus of Gender Trouble.

In her discussion of intersex, Butler addresses the case of David Reimer, a person whose sex was medically "reassigned" from male to female after a botched circumcision at eight months of age. Reimer was "made" female by doctors, but later in life identified as "really" male, and ultimately committed suicide.

Giving an Account of Oneself (2005)

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler develops an ethics based on the opacity of the subject to itself, the limits of self-knowledge. Borrowing from Adorno, Foucault, Nietzsche, Laplanche and Levinas, among others, Butler develops a theory of the formation of the subject as a relation to the social - a community of others and their norms - which is beyond the control of the subject it forms, as precisely the very condition of that subject's formation, the resources by which the subject becomes recognizably human, a grammatical "I", in the first place. The subject is therefore dispossessed of itself by another or others as the very condition of its being at all, and this process by which I become myself only in relation to others and therefore cannot own myself completely, this constitutive dispossession, is the opacity of the contemporary subject to itself, what I cannot know, possess, and master consciously about myself.

Butler then turns to the ethical question: If my narrative account of myself is necessarily incomplete, breaking down tellingly at the point precisely when "I" am called to elucidate the foundations of this "I", my genesis and ontology, what kind of ethical agent, or "I", am "I"? Butler accepts the claim that if the subject is opaque to itself the limitations of its free ethical responsibility and obligations are due to the limits of narrative, presuppositions of language and projection. "You may think that I am in fact telling a story about the prehistory of the subject, one that I have been arguing cannot be told. There are two responses to this objection. (1) That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking "I" does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers. (2) This prehistory has never stopped happening and, as such, is not a prehistory in any chronological sense. It is not done with, over, relegated to a past, which then becomes part of a casual or narrative reconstruction of the self. On the contrary, that prehistory interrupts the story I have to give of myself, makes every account of myself partial and failed, and constitutes, in a way, my failure to be fully accountable for my actions, my final "irresponsibility," one for which I may be forgiven only because I could not do otherwise. This not being able to do otherwise is our common predicament."

Instead she argues for an ethics based precisely on the limits of self-knowledge as the limits of responsibility itself. Any concept of responsibility which demands the full transparency of the self to itself, an entirely accountable self, necessarily does violence to the opacity which marks the constitution of the self it addresses. The scene of address by which responsibility is enabled is always already a relation between subjects who are variably opaque to themselves and to each other. The ethics that Butler envisions is therefore one in which the responsible self knows the limits of its knowing, recognizes the limits of its capacity to give an account of itself to others, and respects those limits as symptomatically human. To take seriously one's opacity to oneself in ethical deliberation means then to critically interrogate the social world in which one comes to be human in the first place and which remains precisely that which one cannot know about oneself. In this way, Butler locates social and political critique at the core of ethical practice.


In a London Review of Books article published in August 2003, Butler has identified herself as an anti-Zionist Jewish American who is concerned with the loss of academic freedom implicitly advocated by pro-Israeli groups. She expounds upon her views on Zionism in a section of Precarious Life examining a debacle surrounding Harvard President Lawrence Summers. On September 7th, 2006, she partook in a faculty-organized teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley, scrutinizing the Israeli war on Lebanon during the summer.

Critical response

While Butler's work, especially the notion of "gender performativity" is far from universally accepted as being an accurate or complete explanation of gender identity, it has been extremely influential in the field of gender studies, not to mention in cultural studies, philosophy, and literary criticism. The extent of Butler's influence may be approximated by referring to the website for the University of California, Irvine's Critical Theory Institute, which hosts a list of references to Butler's work that includes hundreds of titles. Of course, the list is not even comprehensive, as new analyses of Butler's work are still being written.

Some theorists have built off Butler's work and the idea of gender performativity in new directions. For example, Susan A. Speer and Jonathan Potter claim that it gives new insight in several areas, especially in the concept of heterosexism. However, although Speer and Potter find Butler's work useful in this respect, they find her work too abstracted to be usefully applied to "real-life situations." For this reason, they pair a reading of Butler with Discursive Psychology in order to extend Butler's ideas to real-world scenarios.

Negative critical response to Butler's work has generally fallen into two categories: criticisms of her writing style, and criticisms of the ideas she puts forth.

Martha Nussbaum wrote an article in The New Republic titled "The Professor of Parody" criticizing Butler's writing for obscurantism and for its merely "verbal and symbolic politics"; in contrast, Nussbaum mentions thinkers such as Catharine MacKinnon, Nancy Chodorow, and Andrea Dworkin as examples of effective feminist scholarship. According to Nussbaum, without a universally applicable notion of social justice or normative principles, Butler's projects constitute mere moral passivity. The thrust of Nussbaum's criticism lamented the retreat from legal and institutional concerns that contribute to material and practical gains for women, versus the isolated gestural movements that encourage defeatism and thus "collaborate with evil."

Also in 1998, Philosophy and Literature admonished Butler with first prize in its Fourth Bad Writing Contest, for a sentence in the scholarly journal Diacritics. Following controversy, and perceptions of mean-spiritedness, over the "Bad Writing" award that Denis Dutton gave out under the auspices of his academic journal, Dutton discontinued the award in 1999. Butler commented on the event in an interview, and published a response entitled "A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back" in the pages of the New York Times.

The criticism that Butler's writing style is too dense or obfuscatory has itself been criticized. In Judith Butler: Live Theory, Vicki Kirby's exploration of Butler's contributions to gender theory, Kirby suggests that Butler's critics are practicing anti-intellectualism, writing, "Not surprisingly, the reception of Butler's prolific contribution to theoretical and political life depends on the importance attributed to such concerns."

Butler herself has also responded to criticism of her writing's accessibility, writing in 2004:

"It's not that I'm in favor of difficulty for difficulty's sake; it's that I think there is a lot in ordinary language and in received grammar that constrains our thinking - indeed, about what a person is, what a subject is, what sexuality is, what politics can be - and that I'm not sure we're going to be able to struggle effectively against those constrains or work within them in a productive way unless we see the ways in which grammar is both producing and constraining our sense of what the world is."

Butler further argues that attacks on her writing style from those in the humanities are symptomatic of these critics' doubts of their own importance or of the importance of the humanities in general to the academic world, writing:

"Those intellectuals who speak in a rarefied way are being scapegoated, are being purged, are being denounced precisely because they represent a certain anxiety about everyone's effect - that is, what effect are any of us having, and what effect can we have?"

Some critics, including Susan Bordo, have criticized Butler for reducing gender to language. Bordo, for example, argues that the body is a major part of gender, thus implicitly opposing Butler's conception of gender as performed.

Others, like Peter Digeser, have argued that Butler's idea of performativity is too pure to account for identity. Like others before him, Digeser doubts that pure performativity is possible, and argues that in viewing the gendered individual as purely performed, Butler ignores the gendered body, which Bordo has argued is extremely important. Digeser argues that neither an essentialist nor a performative notion of gender should be used in the political sphere, as both simplify gender too much.

One major critic of Butler's work has been Nancy Fraser. The two writers, along with Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell, participated in a discourse about each others's work in 1995. Fraser has argued that Butler's focus on performativity has distanced her from "everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves ... Why should we use such a self-distancing idiom?" Fraser argues that Butler needs to fully commit to her positions by way of justifying them and thus validating them, as this is the only way to achieve a political impact. Like Speer and Potter, Fraser also argues that Butler's focus on language removes her from real-world issues and makes her work difficult to be applied to real-life situations. Fraser has also argued that homophobia is a result of cultural influences rather than economic, a position which Butler has argued directly against in an essay titled "Merely Cultural."

Although Butler clearly disagrees with Fraser, the two are old friends who have entered into direct discourse several times in the past, and Butler has stated that she views the difference of opinion between the two as "productive disagreement."



See also

Further reading

External links

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