Reception and Criticism

April 6, 2009 at 7:17 pm Leave a comment


“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,  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.”


Entry filed under: Criticisms.

Teaching Butler Lectures on the Web

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The Application

"The way in which we understand gender actually changes the way we live gender. As we interpret ourselves differently, we also live ourselves differently." -- Judith Butler


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