Key thinker: Judith Butler (1956–)
Judith Butler (1956–)
Judith Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in a Jewish family. After graduating from high school, Butler attended Bennington College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, before enrolling at Yale University where they received BA (1978), MA (1982) and PhD (1984) in Philosophy (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Judith-Butler). In 1979, Butler received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Heidelberg University. In Heidelberg, Butler studied Hegel and German idealism (see Key Concept: transcendental idealism in Chapter 29 on Immanuel Kant) under Dieter Heinrich and the famous German philosopher of hermeneutics Hans-Georg Gadamer. Apart from German idealism, Butler’s philosophical training included phenomenology, Frankfurt School critical theory and, later, a turn towards poststructuralism (https://egs.edu/biography/judith-butler/). But Butler is best known for their pioneering work in queer theory (see Key Concept: Queer Theory), which questions conventional notions of gender and sex (see 36.2. Gender, feminism and identity).
Throughout their academic career, Butler has taught at George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University. In 1998, Butler was appointed Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where Butler still teaches today (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Judith-Butler). Butler also holds the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland (https://egs.edu/biography/judith-butler/). Butler’s work has enjoyed widespread popularity outside of academia, but there has also been a violent backlash by right-wing critics of ‘gender ideology’. Butler is an advocate of non-violence and has been active in human rights organisations including the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and Jewish Voice for Peace (https://vcresearch.berkeley.edu/faculty/judith-butler). Butler is openly queer and lives with their partner, the political theorist Wendy Brown, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Butler is perhaps best known for Gender Trouble (1990), a deconstruction of a binary interpretation of gender. Beginning in the 1960s, a wide range of political movements based on shared features of identity developed in response to social exclusion and discrimination (see Key Concept: Identity Politics). By the 1980s, however, these movements were being challenged by others who felt excluded by their narrow definition of what it meant to be a woman, gay or lesbian, for example. Butler echoed such concerns in their book, arguing that there are no essential qualities that define a person as belonging to a specific gender. Instead, Butler sets out to theorise a more inclusive feminism by tracing how the category of woman is produced, or constructed, in the first place. For Butler, second wave feminism too readily accepted the binary definition of gender, which essentialises the category of woman, and reproduces compulsory heterosexuality (see 36.2. Gender, feminism and identity). Compulsory heterosexuality, Butler argues, is harmful because it enacts violence on anyone who does not naturally conform to its norms.
Butler shows that gender is constructed through performativity and repetition (see 36.3. Parody and Performativity). But performativity is not the same as performance; we cannot simply choose to act like a woman or man by mimicking expected patterns of behaviour. Rather, performativity refers to a set of inherited norms and collective actions that iterate what is and isn’t ‘normal’ male or female behaviour (i.e., how we dress or walk, for example). For Butler, gender functions like a speech act (see Key Concept: Speech Acts): binary gender categories can only remain stable if these norms and practices are repeated until they become historical precedent. Gender and sex, then, are neither fully determined nor fully chosen, but exist in the space of tension between the two. This means that gender is inherently unstable and contingent; it can always be subverted by imperfectly reproducing heterosexual norms and practices. Once we come to understand that gender is constructed, Butler argues, we can begin to invent more inclusive ways of living that are no longer constrained by heterosexual expectations. Butlercites Drag as an example of an act that subverts gender by revealing the contingency of heteronormative practices.
Butler has been at the centre of controversies about ‘gender ideology’, whose detractors argue that it undermines the ‘natural’ order of things like sexuality and the family (see 36.1. Introduction). trans*-exclusionary feminists, for example, have similarly argued that the deconstruction of binary gender categories exposes women (understood according to a binary view of gender) to harm. But Butler insists that their work is not ‘destructive’ or ‘indoctrinating’, as critics claim. Rather, Butler simply provides a constructive account of how gender and sex are formed by our social context and institutions. Butler’s deconstruction of gender and sex has contributed to the development of trans* studies, a field of enquiry that explores that space of fluidity that exists between the two binary genders (see 36.3. Parody and Performativity). But Butler’s writing and trans* studies might not always be as closely aligned as they seem. Butler’s critique of identity politics, for example, clashes with some trans* scholars and activists who consider trans* a political identity. In any case, Butler has made an invaluable contribution not only to our understanding of gender, but to LGBTQI people struggling against transphobia, homophobia or misogyny across the world.
In Butler’s doctoral thesis, later published as Subjects of Desire (1987), Butler uses the idealist philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (see Key thinker: Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel), and particularly his theory of the development of the self-conscious subject (see Key concept: Hegel’s Theory of Recognition), to trace the emergence of the gendered (sexually) desiring subject. In Bodies that Matter (1996), Butler then turns to the psychoanalytic writing of Sigmund Freud to theorise ‘heterosexual melancholia’. Because heterosexual subjects are pushed to suppress same-sex desires, they develop a melancholic longing or grief for this lost desire. For Butler, heterosexuality relies on this ‘lost outside’ to function, although it constantly disavows it. Butler suggests that we should understand any subject, much like the heterosexual subject, as melancholic, since we have had to let go of something to be the people we are expected to be. For Butler, acknowledging melancholy can help us mourn, and therefore better understand, what anyone not deemed to be ‘normal’ has had to suppress to be accepted (see 36.4. Subjectivity, Resistance and the Psyche Key points).
Butler’s later work shifts the focus from subjectivity to ethics (see 36.5 Morality and ethics), though they never lose sight of the question of how ethics affects the formation of the subject. The Psychic Life of Power (1997) delves further into questions around subject formation in the work of Hegel, Nietzsche (see Chapter 14 on Nietzsche), Althusser and Foucault (see Chapter 33 on Foucault). Butler argues that their theories can account for how the subject is formed, but not how it can resist this process. To fill this lacuna, Butler suggests, we must read psychoanalytic theory, which argues that there is something in the unconscious that resists normalisation, alongside Foucault, who shows that the subject is formed and normalised by prevailing power relations. Butler argues that the ethical norms which govern our lives pre-exist the subject’s formation. But the subject is not powerless: it can challenge norms by critically reflecting and thereby distancing itself from them. Following Hannah Arendt (see Chapter 19 on Hannah Arendt), Butler insists that we are therefore forced to live with each other. Because human beings are inherently connected—the self can only recognise itself through the other (see Key concept: Hegel’s Theory of Recognition)— ethics and shared responsibilities are at the very core of our existence as subjects.
Because we rely on each other for understanding of ourselves and others, we are inherently vulnerable. But some people are more vulnerable than others. For Butler, anyone who is without the necessary networks of care and support exists in a state of precarity, meaning they are disproportionately likely to be exposed to violence, injury or death (see 36.5 Morality and ethics). Yet the lives of precarious people are often considered less ‘grievable’ i.e., less deserving of our grief than the lives of people who are less vulnerable. Accepting that we are all inherently vulnerable, Butler argues in Precarious Life (2004), might lead us to develop a more humane and inclusive politics that is centred around taking responsibility for others who are worse off than oneself. Butler’s re-consideration of ethics and morality aims to generate an entirely new and peaceful way of living together which breaks with the legacies of violence that dominate Western political thought and action. Butler’s radical egalitarian and non-violent politics provides us with a framework to develop structures of support that encourage peaceful co-existence not only among individuals, but among states.
Butler, Judith and Zeynep Gambetti (2016). Vulnerability in Resistance, ed. Leticia, Sabsay. Durham: Duke University Press.
Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble, London: Penguin.
Butler, Judith (2020) The Force of Nonviolence, London: Verso.
Carver, T. and S. Chambers, (eds) (2008) Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics: Critical Encounters. London and New York: Routledge.