Butler was born February 24, 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio. She earned a PhD in Philosophy from Yale in 1984 and now works at UC Berkeley in Rhetoric and Comparative Literature. Butler describes herself as gay/woman/philosopher/anti-Zionist American Jew.
In Butler’s work, we’ll see the influences of several major philosophers including Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Lacan, Irigary, and others. Butler is associated with third-wave feminism, social constructivism, and often employs psychoanalytic literary analysis in making her claims.
For a full bibliography that includes interviews and articles click here. The following are widely considered Butler’s most important works:
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1st ed. Routledge, 2006. First published in 1990, Gender Trouble sold over 100,000 copies and inspired the fanzine Judy!. Here, you’ll find the fundamentals of Butler’s argument that gender is performative and a following argument that drag, in destabilizing the performative iterations of gender, becomes a political way out of the gender binary structure.
Butler, Judith P. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. 1st ed. Routledge, 1993. Bodies that Matter follows up on Gender Trouble by clearing up the misunderstanding that gender performativity equates to a daily choice. Butler demonstrates the iterability of performativity, the repetition involved, and the difficulty escaping naturalized constructs of sex and gender through daily performative choices.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. 1st ed. Routledge, 1997. Butler uses Foucault’s argument from History of Sexuality that the censorship propagates the language it seeks to suppress. Applying this argument to modern day hate speech and censorship, Butler shows how complex and multilayered the notion of censorship and replaces the idea of an independent, censored or censoring subject with the notion of censhorship as tied up in language itself.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. 1st ed. Routledge, 2004. Butler takes up the case of David Reimer, who was born male and medically reassigned female at eight months old. Reimer’s case exemplifies the medical treatment of intersex and the oversimplification of gender therein.
Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press, 2005. Here Butler addresses the question of subjectivity in the form of the personal “I” formation. She argues for the “opacity of the subject,” that we only know ourselves in relation to others. This results in an ethic of action that requires the interrogation of social and political forces, since it is ony through those forces we are made known to ourselves.
Forthcoming: Frames of War: An Ungrievable Life. Listen to Butler discuss this upcoming work here. “To be embodied is to be exposed to social craft and form.”
Related to speech act theory, to the pragmatics of language, and to the work of J. L. Austin. It accounts for situations where a proposition may constitute or instantiate the object to which it is meant to refer, as in so-called ‘performative utterances.’
As in “I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Butler argues that gender is performative: no identity exists behind the acts that supposedly “express” gender, and these acts constitute—rather than express—the illusion of the stable gender identity.
Butler takes bodies as always already gender indeterminate and destabilizes their performatives further to show how bodies are marked by gender as well as race, class, sexuality, etc. and how these categories are also destabilized within the perfomative.
Under this construction, identity is free-floating and not connected to an “essence”, but instead to a performance.
“Performativity is neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation; nor can it be simply equated with performance” (Butler 95)
“the reading of ‘performativity’ as willfull and arbitrary choice misses the point that the historicity of discourse and, in particular, the historicity of norms (the ‘chains’ of iteration invoked and dissimulated in the imperative utterance) constitute the power of discourse to enact what it names” (187)
Performativity as a theory of Subjectivity
“Indeed, there is no ‘one’ who takes on a gender norm. On the contrary, this citation of the gender norm is necessary in order to qualify as a ‘one’ where subject-formation is dependent o the prior operation of legitimating gender norms” (232)
“repitition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject” (95)
“there is no body prior to its marking” (Butler 98)
“The insistence on coherent identity as a point of departure presumes that what a ‘subject’ is is already known, already fixed, and that that ready-made subject might enter the world to renegotiate its place” (115)
“‘sex’ is… that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility” (Butler 2) “bodies… materializing the norm qualify as bodies that matter” (Butler 16)
“Femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is inassociable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment” (232)
“Interpellation is the constitutive process where individuals acknowledge and respond to ideologies, thereby recognizing themselves as subjects.” (source) The police officer yells, “Hey, you!” and, by turning around, you render yourself as subject to the officer’s command.
“coined by Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser to describe the process by which ideology addresses the (abstract) pre-ideological individual thus effectively producing him or her as subject proper. Henceforth, Althusser goes against the classical definition of the subject as cause and substance: in other words, the situation always precedes the (individual or collective) subject, which precisely as subject is “always-already interpellated.” Althusser’s argument here strongly draws from Jacques Lacan’s concept of the Mirror stage and reveals obvious parallels with the work of his former student Michel Foucault in its antihumanist insistence on the secondary status of the subject as mere effect of social relations and not vice versa. Interpellation specifically involves the moment and process of recognition of interaction with the ideology at hand.”
The process of identification thus creates identity. You identify me and I become that me that you have identified.
Example: the word/signifier (“woman”) > definition by exclusion > enacts the group it names > doesn’t refer back because the group doesn’t actually exist
“Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act,” but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Butler 2)
Butler understands gender performativity to be a repetitive act that perpetually reproduces itself. “Sex is not an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of the body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms” (Butler 1-2)
And if we achieve subjectivity through production of these norms,we constantly reinforce/recreate the norms we are instantiated through.
“The practice by which gendering occurs, the embodying of norms, is a compulsory practice, a forcible production” and a continuous one (231).
- sex (male, female) is seen to cause gender (masculine, feminine) which, in turn, is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender). Butler smashes the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, free-floating and not ’caused’ by other stable factors.
- 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.
Judith Butler’s concept of ambivalence is closely related to Derrida’s concept of differance. Judith Butler is interested in the concept of ambivalence because she sees it as a site of subversion. She defines it as the slippage between the call of the law and its articulation, from which one can reveal the false claim to naturalness and originality of hegemonic norms.
- Butler offers parody (for example, the practice of drag) as a way to destabilize and make apparent the invisible assumptions about gender identity and the inhabitability of such “ontological locales”as gender (146) . By redeploying those practices of identity and exposing as always failed the attempts to “become” one’s gender, Butler believes that a positive, transformative politics can emerge.
- On “woman”: “That the term is questionable does not mean that we ought not use it, but neither does the necessity to use it mean that we ought not perpetually to interrogate the exclusions by which it proceeds” (Butler 222).
Click here to access parts 2 through 6 of the series that played as part of the Introductory post.
For an anti-war teach in, click here.
For a lecture on narrative, war, and the holocaust, click here.
“I feel the reception of my work is none of my business. You know? It’s not my concern. It’s your concern. I just keep working.” — Judith Butler (link)
Butler’s work is widely accepted and frequently cited, making Butler one of the “academic superstars” of the 1990s. Gender Trouble sold over 100,000 copies and inspired the fanzine Judy! For an archive of works that cite Butler, click here. Despite her popularity with the public and profile in academic circles, Butler has come under heavy criticism, particularly from fellow feminists.
Camille Paglia, writing for Salon.com, has called Butler a “slick, super-careerist Foucault flunky.” In this article, she writes Butler is “no radical: She is one of the smoothest careerists and veteran conference hoppers in the entire American academic system. She shrewdly adapted herself to the prevailing chic orthodoxy at Yale and became a major player in the ruthless academic marketplace, with its platinum perks and golden parachutes.”
Butler made headlines in the New York Times when she won an award for “Bad Writing” — writing that was too theoretically obtuse, a trademark of postmodern critique. She, in turn, published a clearly written defense of her style on the Times’ Op-Ed page, making the case that complicated language is sometimes required to convey nuanced ideas.
In her New Repuiblic article The Professor of Parody, Martha Nussbaum attacked Judith Butler for her “hip quietism,” which Nussbaum characterized as infuriatingly coy, apolitical and pessimistic about the feminist quest for justice. She wrote:
- “an initial problem in reading Butler is that one is bewildered to find her arguments buttressed by appeal to so many contradictory concepts and doctrines, usually without any account of how the apparent contradictions will be resolved”
- “it is also obvious that Butler’s work is not directed at a non-academic audience eager to grapple with actual injustices”
- “Butler suggests to her readers that this sly send-up of the status quo is the only script that life offers”
- “Butler’s self-involved feminism is extremely American”
- “Judith Butler’s hip quietism is a comprehensible response to the difficulty of realizing justice in America. But it is a bad response. It collaborates with evil. Feminism demands more and women deserve better”
The chief criticism stemming from popular feminist activists seems to surround Butler’s theoretical, language-based approach that appears impractical for solving real-world inequalities. This criticism is echoed in academic circles, where Susan A. Speer and Jonathan Potter find her work too abstracted to be usefully applied to “real-life situations.”Susan Bordo criticizes Butler for reducing gender to languague and thus ignoring embodied reality. In Unbearable Weight, Bordo writes that for Butler, “there is one correct, unimpeachable position: it is that any conception of the ‘natural’ is a dangerous ‘illusion’ of which we must be ‘cured'” (290). From there, Butler shifts “to offering discursive or linguistic foundationalism as the highest critical court, the clarifying, demystifying, and liberating Truth” (291). Bordo notes that “Butler’s world is one in which language swallows everything up” (291).
The body… bears on language all the time. (Butler 68)
The question becomes one of materiality. In Bodies in Code, Mark Hansen’s mixed-reality “paradigm effectively repudiates all externalist accounts of the body” (13). He writes, “Butler’s theory of performative iteration… subordinates the agency of the body (the force of iteration) to the content of the social images that, following the paradoxical operation of (linguistic) performativity, open up the space of its exercise” (13). In Hansen’s paradigm, “coupling with the domain of social images occurs from within the operational perspective of the organism and thus comprises a component of its primordial embodied agency” (13). For Hansen, what matters about the body is that which is material to the body. (See also pages 146, 152-3 for a discussion of interpellation).
Because it focuses on language and not the material body, Peter Digeser argues that Butler’s idea of performativity is too pure to account for identity. 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 also argues is extremely important. Digeser argues that neither an essentialist nor a performative notion of gender should be used in the political sphere, as both oversimplify the concept of gender.
To these critiques, Butler answers:
“My thesis’ on social construction seems to be very frightening to people: the idea that sex is culturally constructed. They seem to fear that I am evacuating any notion of the real, that I make people think that their bodies are not real or that sexual differences are not real.”
Finally, some have argued that Butler does nothing new in working against gender binary. That her stuff is old hat. When asked whether her work is still relevant, Butler replied:
“it’s like a former love affair you had and you’re done. You know ? But look, Gender trouble includes a critique of the idea that there are two ideal bodily forms, two ideal morphologies: the masculine and the feminine. I want to suggest that today the intersex movement is very engaged with criticizing that idea. Not all bodies are born in male or female. There is a continuum of bodies and it seems to me that trying to persuade medical and psychiatrist establishments to deal with the intersex involves critique of the binary gender system. Similarly there continues to be extreme, sometimes very extreme violence against transgender people. And it seems to me that Gender trouble will always be important to try and open up our ideas of what gender is.”
Harum Karim Thomas’ article in Computers and Composition Online sets up Butler and performativity as a teaching tool. Thomas describes performativity and then shares a three-part assignment that incorporates identity, Ulmer’s popcycle, and notions of performativity through language.
Module for students on Butler’s notions of gender and sex.
Module for students on Butler’s performativity.
Clancy Ratliff’s draft of a brief encyclopedia article on performativity and citational practices.
A short article describing the history of performativity.
Performativity related to citizenship and democracy.
A detailed example of interpellation for students (particularly in a rhetoric course).