Key Concepts

April 6, 2009 at 7:18 pm Leave a comment


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.’ j-alexander-miss-j-splitgreenqueen-335a0516072

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.

Theory Enacted:

  • Butler offers parody (for example, the practice of drag) as a way to destabilize and make apparent the invisible lady_bunny_249assumptions 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).

Entry filed under: Key Concepts.

Lectures on the Web Brief Bibliography

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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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