Butler in March 2012.
February 24, 1956 |
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
|Era||20th / 21st-century philosophy|
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Judith Butler (born February 24, 1956) is an American continental philosopher and gender theorist whose work has influenced political philosophy, ethics and the fields of feminist, queer and literary theory. Since 1993, she has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is now Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and co-director of the Program of Critical Theory.
Academically, Butler is most well-known for her books Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex", which challenge notions of gender and develop her theory of gender performativity. This theory now plays a major role in feminist and queer scholarship. She has also actively supported lesbian and gay rights movements and been outspoken on many contemporary political issues. In particular, she is a vocal critic of Israeli politics and its effect on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, emphasizing that Israel does not and should not be taken to represent all Jews or Jewish opinion.
Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a family of Hungarian and Russian Jewish descent. Most of her maternal grandmother's family perished in the Holocaust. As a child and teenager, she attended both Hebrew school and special classes on Jewish ethics, where she received her "first training in philosophy." Butler stated in a 2010 interview with Haaretz that she began the ethics classes at the age of 14 and that they were created as a form of punishment by her Hebrew school's Rabbi because she was "too talkative in class." Butler also stated that she was "thrilled" by the idea of these tutorials, and when asked what she wanted to study in these special sessions, she responded with three questions preoccupying her at the time: "Why was Spinoza excommunicated from the synagogue? Could German Idealism be held accountable for Nazism? And how was one to understand existential theology, including the work of Martin Buber?"
Butler attended Bennington College and then Yale University where she studied philosophy, receiving her B.A. in 1978 and her Ph.D. in 1984. She taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University before joining University of California, Berkeley, in 1993. In addition, she joined the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as a visiting professor in the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013 and has the option of remaining as full-time faculty.
Butler currently lives in Berkeley, California, with her partner, the political scientist Wendy Brown, and their son, Isaac.
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Butler begins to develop the arguments of the performativity of gender in this essay, which is later expanded upon and continues to work through in the book Gender Trouble. Butler uses Freud's notion of how a person's identity is modeled in terms of the normal. She revises Freud's notion of this concept's applicability to lesbianism, where Freud says that lesbians are modeling their behavior on men, the perceived normal or ideal. She instead says that all gender works in this way of performativity and a representing of an internalized notion of gender norms. Butler argues for a performative understanding of gender, as opposed to the idea that gender performance is an expression of some sort of innate or natural gender. Butler argues that the performance of gender, itself creates gender. Additionally, she compares the performativity of gender to the performance of the theater. She brings many similarities, including the idea of each individual functioning as an actor of their gender. However she also brings into light a critical difference between gender performance in reality and theater performances. She explains how the theater is much less threatening and does not produce the same fear that gender performances often encounter because of the fact that there is a clear distinction from reality within the theater.
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.
Thus, by showing both terms “gender “and “sex” as socially and culturally constructed, Butler offers a critique of both terms, even as they have been used by feminists. Butler argued that feminism made a mistake in trying to make “women” a discrete, ahistorical group with common characteristics. Butler said this approach reinforces the binary view of gender relations because it allows for two distinct categories: men and women. Butler believes that feminists should not try to define “women” and she also believes that feminists should “focus on providing an account of how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement”. Finally, Butler aims to break the supposed links between sex and gender so that gender and desire can be “flexible, free floating and not caused by other stable factors”. The idea of identity as free and flexible and gender as a performance, not an essence, is one of the foundations of Queer Theory.
Bodies That Matter seeks to clear up readings and supposed 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.[jargon]
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.
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 collects Butler's reflections on gender, sex, sexuality, psychoanalysis and the medical treatment of intersex people for a more general readership than many of her other books. Butler revisits and refines her notion of performativity and focuses on the question of undoing "restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life".
Butler discusses how gender is performed without one being conscious of it, but says that it does not mean this performativity is "automatic or mechanical". She argues that we have desires that do not originate from our personhood, but rather, from social norms. The writer also debates our notions of "human" and "less-than-human" and how these culturally imposed ideas can keep one from having a "viable life" as the biggest concerns are usually about whether a person will be accepted if his or her desires differ from normality. She states that one may feel the need of being recognized in order to live, but that at the same time, the conditions to be recognized make life "unlivable". The writer proposes an interrogation of such conditions so that people who resist them may have more possibilities of living.
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, married and became a stepfather to his wife's three children, and went on to tell his story in As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, which he wrote with John Colapinto. Reimer committed suicide in 2004.
In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler develops an ethics based on the opacity of the subject to itself; in other words, the limits of self-knowledge. Primarily borrowing from Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Laplanche, Adriana Cavarero and Emmanuel Levinas, Butler develops a theory of the formation of the subject. She theorizes the subject in 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.
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 causal 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" (page 78).
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 piece entitled “I Women as the Subject of Feminism” published in Cudd, Ann E. and Robin O. Andreasen, eds. 2005. Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Judith Butler identifies two problematic tendencies in the contemporary feminist movement. One of these is that feminism's subject is “Women”, which is a “discursive formation and effect” of a political system that places this category in a subordinate position relative to the category of “Men” (146). Attempting to emancipate “Women” is self-defeating because it reaffirms this discursively constructed category and its inferiority to “Men” (146). Freedom for females does not go beyond the category of “Women”; it is rather constrained within it. In this sense, Butler draws our attention to the necessity to reconsider the subject it claims to represent, women.
In this work, Butler also argues that feminists need to be more self-critical and not “identify the enemy as singular in form” (150). There is a tendency in feminism, according to Butler, to uncritically accept the notion of universal patriarchy. Such a notion, has led many feminists researchers to appropriate “non-Western cultures” with the end of proving this theory and universalizing “western notions of oppression” (147). Hence, there are many layers of oppression, and they do not necessarily fit nicely in an air-tight hierarchy where women are at the very bottom (150). The enemy comes in many shapes and forms, and essentialist and reductionist claims only serves to obscure the nuances that are necessary to effectively identifying the enemy. Certain feminists, this author argues, have also problematically sought to essentialize women out of an apparent necessity for “unity” of all women and a unified understanding this category (151). The claim that women who engage in heterosexual relations are enemies of women and feminists, for instance, “mimics the strategy of the oppressor” (150) and only contributes to dividing women in a way that does not favor the feminist cause. Recognition and respect of divisions and differences in the movement can in fact facilitate “coalition action” (151). For this reason, Butler contends that “the essential incompleteness [of ‘women'] permits that category to serve as a permanently available site of contested meanings…[relieving it] of coercive force” (151).
Butler’s work has been extraordinarily influential in feminist and queer theory, cultural studies, and continental philosophy. Yet her contribution to a range of other disciplines — such as psychoanalysis, literary, film, and performance studies as well as visual arts — has also been significant. Her theory of gender performativity as well as her conception of "critically queer" have not only transformed understandings of gender and queer identity in the academic world, but have shaped and mobilized various kinds of political activism, particularly queer activism, across the globe. Butler's work has also entered into contemporary debates on the teaching of gender, gay parenting, and the depathologization of transgender people. Indeed, so influential has Butler's challenge to traditional notions of sex and gender been that even Pope Benedict XVI engaged — critically — with it. Many academics as well as political activists maintain that Butler’s radical departure from the sex/gender dichotomy and her non-essentialist conception of gender — along with her insistence that power helps form the subject — revolutionized feminist and queer praxis, thought, and studies. Darin Barney of McGill University writes that: "Butler's work on gender, sex, sexuality, queerness, feminism, bodies, political speech and ethics has changed the way scholars all over the world think, talk and write about identity, subjectivity, power and politics. It has also changed the lives of countless people whose bodies, genders, sexualities and desires have made them subject to violence, exclusion and oppression."
Others scholars have been more critical. In 1998, Denis Dutton's journal Philosophy and Literature awarded Butler first prize in its fourth annual "Bad Writing Competition," which set out to "celebrate bad writing from the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles." Her unwitting entry, which ran in a 1997 issue of the scholarly journal Diacritics, ran thusly:
"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." 
Dutton discontinued the contest after critics opposed its hostile spirit.  Some critics have accused Butler of elitism due to her difficult prose style, while others claim that she reduces gender to “discourse” or promotes a form of gender voluntarism. Susan Bordo, for example, has argued that Butler reduces gender to language, contending that the body is a major part of gender, thus implicitly opposing Butler's conception of gender as performed. A particularly vocal critic has been liberal feminist Martha Nussbaum, who has argued that Butler misreads J.L. Austin's idea of performative utterance, makes erroneous legal claims, forecloses an essential site of resistance by repudiating pre-cultural agency, and provides no normative ethical theory to direct the subversive performances that Butler endorses. Finally, Nancy Fraser's critique of Butler was part of a famous exchange between the two theorists. Fraser has suggested that Butler's focus on performativity distances her from “everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves. […] Why should we use such a self-distancing idiom?”
Much of Butler's early political activism centered around queer and feminist issues, and she served, for a period of time, as the chair of the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Over the years, she has been particularly active in the gay and lesbian rights, feminist, and anti-war movements. She has also written and spoken out on issues ranging from affirmative action and gay marriage to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. More recently, she has been active in the Occupy movement and has publicly expressed support for a version of the 2005 BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign against Israel.
On September 7, 2006, Butler participated in a faculty-organized teach-in against the 2006 Lebanon War at the University of California, Berkeley. Another widely publicized moment occurred in June 2010, when Butler refused the Civil Courage Award (Zivilcouragepreis) of the Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade in Berlin, Germany at the award ceremony. She cited racist comments on the part of organizers and a general failure of CSD organizations to distance themselves from racism in general and from anti-Muslim excuses for war more specifically. Criticizing the event's commercialism, she went on to name several groups that she commended as stronger opponents of "homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, and militarism".
In October 2011, Butler attended Occupy Wall Street and, in reference to calls for clarification of the protesters' demands, she said: "People have asked, so what are the demands? What are the demands all of these people are making? Either they say there are no demands and that leaves your critics confused, or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands. And the impossible demands, they say, are just not practical. If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible – that the right to shelter, food and employment are impossible demands, then we demand the impossible. If it is impossible to demand that those who profit from the recession redistribute their wealth and cease their greed, then yes, we demand the impossible."
She is currently an executive member of the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in the United States and The Jenin Theatre in Palestine. She is also a member of the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.
When Butler received the 2012 Adorno Prize, the prize committee came under attack from Israel's Ambassador to Germany Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, and the German Central Council of Jews. They were upset at Butler's selection because of her remarks about Israel and specifically her "calls for a boycott against Israel." Butler responded saying that "she did not take attacks from German Jewish leaders personally." Rather, she wrote, the attacks are "directed against everyone who is critical against Israel and its current policies."
In a letter in Mondoweiss, Butler stated that she developed strong ethical views on the basis of Jewish philosophical thought and that it is "blatantly untrue, absurd, and painful for anyone to argue that those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel is [sic] anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating."
Butler was also attacked during this period for statements she had made years earlier about Hamas and Hezbollah. She was accused of defending "Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organizations" and supporting their tactics.
Butler responded to these attacks by stating that her remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah were taken completely out of context and badly, if not wittingly, distort her established views on nonviolence. She has repeatedly condemned the violence and non-democratic actions of these groups while clearly advocating for a politics committed to non-violence. In a recent interview she explained that Hamas and Hezbollah are "progressive" insofar as they do address infrastructural needs that are quite acute under occupation. Precisely because such groups are supplying important social services, it becomes harder—yet more urgent—to find ways of persuading people not to support their violent tactics.
Butler describes the origin of her remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah in the following way: "I was asked by a member of an academic audience a few years ago whether I thought Hamas and Hezbollah belonged to “the global left” and I replied with two points. My first point was merely descriptive: those political organizations define themselves as anti-imperialist, and anti-imperialism is one characteristic of the global left, so on that basis one could describe them as part of the global left. My second point was then critical: as with any group on the left, one has to decide whether one is for that group or against that group, and one needs to critically evaluate their stand."
Her books include Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth Century France (1987, 1999), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990, 2007), Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993, 2011), Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997), Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Undoing Gender (2004), Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning (2004), Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), Krieg und Affect (2009), Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009). Her most recent monograph is Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012). All of her books have been translated into numerous languages; Gender Trouble, alone, has been translated into twenty-seven different languages. In addition, she has co-authored and edited over a dozen volumes — the most recent of which is Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (2013), coauthored with Athena Athanasiou. Over the years she has also published many influential essays, interviews, and public presentations. Butler is considered by many as "one of the most influential voices in contemporary political theory," and as the most widely read and influential gender theorist in the world.
The following is a partial list of Butler's publications.
Butler has received honorary degrees from St. Andrews University (2013); McGill University (2013); Université Paris VII (2011); University Bordeaux-III (2011), and Grinnell College (2008). She is the recipient of a range of awards, including the Theodor W. Adorno Award (2012), the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award (2008), two American Council of Learned Society Fellowships (2008, 1988), a Ford Foundation Fellowship (2008), the Brudner Memorial Prize for Lifetime Achievement for contributions to Lesbian and Gay Studies from Yale University (2004), a Laurence Rockefeller Fellowship (2001), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1999), as well as a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship (1978). She has been a member in the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1987–88), and received an Andrew Mellow Postdoctoral fellowship in the Humanities Center at Wesleyan University (1985–86). Butler has had visiting appointments at Birkbeck, University of London (2009—), Columbia University (2012, 2013), The New School (2011), the École Normale Supérieure (2008), the University of Amsterdam (2002), Princeton University (2001), Stanford University (1998), and York University (1991). Until 2011, she was also the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, and from 2003 to 2007 she was the Andrew White Professor at Large at Cornell University. She has been an invited plenary speaker in diverse venues and delivered public lectures in North and South American, Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
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