Judith Pamela Butler
February 24, 1956
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Yale University (BA, MA, PhD)
|Institutions||University of California, Berkeley|
|Doctoral advisor||Maurice Natanson|
Judith Pamela Butler (born February 24, 1956) is an American philosopher and gender theorist whose work has influenced political philosophy, ethics, and the fields of third-wave feminism, queer theory, and literary theory. In 1993, Butler began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where they have served, beginning in 1998, as the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory. They are also the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School.
Butler is best known for their books Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993), in which they challenge conventional notions of gender and develop their theory of gender performativity. This theory has had a major influence on feminist and queer scholarship. Their work is often studied and debated in film studies courses emphasizing gender studies and performativity in discourse.
Judith Butler was born on February 24, 1956, in Cleveland, Ohio, to a family of Hungarian-Jewish and Russian-Jewish descent. Most of their maternal grandmother's family perished in the Holocaust. Butler's parents were practicing Reform Jews. Their mother was raised Orthodox, eventually becoming Conservative and then Reform, while their father was raised Reform. As a child and teenager, Butler attended both Hebrew school and special classes on Jewish ethics, where they received their "first training in philosophy". Butler stated in a 2010 interview with Haaretz that they began the ethics classes at the age of 14 and that they were created as a form of punishment by Butler's Hebrew school's Rabbi because they were "too talkative in class". Butler also stated that they were "thrilled" by the idea of these tutorials, and when asked what they wanted to study in these special sessions, they responded with three questions preoccupying them 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 before transferring to Yale University, where they studied philosophy and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1978 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1984. They spent one academic year at Heidelberg University as a Fulbright Scholar. Butler taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University before joining University of California, Berkeley, in 1993. In 2002 they held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. In addition, they joined the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities in the spring semesters of 2012, 2013 and 2014 with the option of remaining as full-time faculty.
Butler serves on the editorial board or advisory board of several academic journals, including JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
This article possibly contains original research. (June 2021)
In the essay "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" (Performative Acts), Judith Butler proposes that gender is performative.
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was first published in 1990, selling over 100,000 copies internationally, in multiple languages. The book's title alludes to the 1974 John Waters film Female Trouble, which stars the drag queen Divine. Gender Trouble discusses the works of Sigmund Freud, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. The book has even inspired 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. Although the repeated, stylized bodily acts establish the appearance of an essential, ontological "core" gender, Butler understands gender, along with sex and sexuality, to be performative. Butler explicitly challenges biological accounts of binary sex. The performance of gender is not voluntary, in Butler's opinion, and they believe the gendered, sexed, desiring subject must be constructed within what they call, borrowing from Foucault's Discipline and Punish, "regulative discourses." These, also called "frameworks of intelligibility" or "disciplinary regimes," determine in advance what possibilities of sex, gender, and sexuality are socially permitted to appear as coherent or "natural". Regulative discourse includes disciplinary techniques that coerce the stylized actions and thereby maintain the appearance of "core" gender, sex and sexuality.
The supposed obviousness of sex as a natural fact attests to how deeply its production in discourse is concealed. The sexed body, once established as a natural fact, is the alibi for constructions of gender and sexuality, which then purport to be the just-as-natural expressions or consequences of sex. In 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. 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.
Butler offers a critique of the terms gender and sex as they have been used by feminists. Butler argues that feminism made a mistake in trying to make "women" a discrete, ahistorical group with common characteristics. Butler writes that this approach reinforces the binary view of gender relations. Butler believes that feminists should not try to define "women" and they also believe 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.
Judith Butler explores the production of identities such as homosexual and heterosexual and the limiting nature of identity categories. An identity category for Butler is a result of certain exclusions and concealments, and thus a site of regulation. Butler acknowledges, however, that categorized identities are important for political action at the present time. Butler believes that identity forms through repetition or imitation and is not original. Butler also states that imitation fosters the illusion of continuity, and that heterosexual identity is set up as an ideal and requires constant, compulsive repetition if it is to be safeguarded.
Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" seeks to clear up readings and supposed misreadings of performativity that view the enactment of sex/gender as a daily choice. Butler emphasizes the role of repetition in performativity, making use of Derrida's theory of iterability, which is a form of citationality:
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.
In Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, Butler surveys the problems of hate speech and censorship. They argue 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.
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 first volume of The History of Sexuality, 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 they 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".
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 their other books. Butler revisits and refines their 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". They argue 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. Butler 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 Butler's discussion of intersex issues and people, 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 died by 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. Butler 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 Butler 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 Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler discusses the power of public gatherings, considering what they signify and how they work. They use this framework to analyze the power and possibilities of protests, such as the Black Lives Matter protests regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014.
In The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, Butler connects the ideologies of nonviolence and the political struggle for social equality. They review the traditional understanding of "nonviolence," stating that it "is often misunderstood as a passive practice that emanates from a calm region of the soul, or as an individualist ethical relation to existing forms of power." Instead of this understanding, Butler argues that "nonviolence is an ethical position found in the midst of the political field."
Butler's work has been influential in feminist and queer theory, cultural studies, and continental philosophy. Yet their contribution to a range of other disciplines--such as psychoanalysis, literary, film, and performance studies as well as visual arts--has also been significant. Their theory of gender performativity as well as their 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. Before election to the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI wrote several pages challenging Butler's arguments on gender. In several countries, Butler became the symbol of the destruction of traditional gender roles for reactionary movements. This was particularly the case in France during the anti-gay marriage protests. Bruno Perreau has written that Butler was literally depicted as an "antichrist", both because of their gender and their Jewish identity, the fear of minority politics and critical studies being expressed through fantasies of a corrupted body.
Some academics and political activists maintain that Butler's radical departure from the sex/gender dichotomy and Butler's non-essentialist conception of gender--along with their insistence that power helps form the subject--revolutionized feminist and queer praxis, thought, and studies. Darin Barney of McGill University wrote 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.
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." Butler's unwitting entry, which ran in a 1997 issue of the scholarly journal Diacritics, ran thus:
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.
Some critics have accused Butler of elitism due to their difficult prose style, while others claim that Butler reduces gender to "discourse" or promotes a form of gender voluntarism. Susan Bordo, for example, has argued that Butler reduces gender to language and has contended that the body is a major part of gender, in opposition to Butler's conception of gender as performative. A particularly vocal critic has been 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 theory of social justice and human dignity." 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 them from "everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves. ... Why should we use such a self-distancing idiom?"
Butler responded to criticisms of their prose in the preface to the 1999 edition of their book, Gender Trouble.
More recently, several critics--most prominently, Viviane Namaste --have criticised Judith Butler's Undoing Gender for under-emphasizing the intersectional aspects of gender-based violence. For example, Timothy Laurie notes that Butler's use of phrases like "gender politics" and "gender violence" in relation to assaults on transgender individuals in the United States can "[scour] a landscape filled with class and labour relations, racialised urban stratification, and complex interactions between sexual identity, sexual practices and sex work", and produce instead "a clean surface on which struggles over 'the human' are imagined to play out".
German feminist Alice Schwarzer speaks of Butler's "radical intellectual games" that would not change how society classifies and treats a woman; thus, by eliminating female and male identity Butler would have abolished the discourse about sexism in the queer community. Schwarzer also accuses Butler of remaining silent about the oppression of women and homosexuals in the Islamic world, while readily exercising their right to same-sex-marriage in the United States; instead, Butler would sweepingly defend Islam, including Islamism, from critics.
Much of Butler's early political activism centered around queer and feminist issues, and they served, for a period of time, as the chair of the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Over the years, Butler has been particularly active in the gay and lesbian rights, feminist, and anti-war movements. They have 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, Butler 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. They emphasize that Israel does not and should not be taken to represent all Jews or Jewish opinion.
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. They 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, Butler went on to name several groups that they 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, they 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.
Butler is an executive member of FFIPP - Educational Network for Human Rights in Israel/Palestine. They are also a member of the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. In mainstream US politics, they expressed support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
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, Efraim Zuroff; and the German Central Council of Jews. They were upset at Butler's selection because of Butler's remarks about Israel and specifically their "calls for a boycott against Israel". Butler responded saying that "[Butler] did not take attacks from German Jewish leaders personally". Rather, they wrote, the attacks are "directed against everyone who is critical against Israel and its current policies".
In a letter to the Mondoweiss website, Butler asserted that they 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 anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating".
Butler was criticized for statements they had made about Hamas and Hezbollah. Butler was accused of describing them as "social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left." They were accused of defending "Hezbollah and Hamas as progressive organizations" and supporting their tactics.
Butler responded to these criticisms by stating that their remarks on Hamas and Hezbollah were taken completely out of context and, in so doing, their established views on non-violence were contradicted and misrepresented. Butler describes the origin of their 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.
What is implied by this statement [Black Lives Matter], a statement that should be obviously true, but apparently is not? If black lives do not matter, then they are not really regarded as lives, since a life is supposed to matter. So what we see is that some lives matter more than others, that some lives matter so much that they need to be protected at all costs, and that other lives matter less, or not at all. And when that becomes the situation, then the lives that do not matter so much, or do not matter at all, can be killed or lost, can be exposed to conditions of destitution, and there is no concern, or even worse, that is regarded as the way it is supposed to be...When people engage in concerted actions across racial lines to build communities based on equality, to defend the rights of those who are disproportionately imperiled to have a chance to live without the fear of dying quite suddenly at the hands of the police. There are many ways to do this, in the street, the office, the home, and in the media. Only through such an ever-growing cross-racial struggle against racism can we begin to achieve a sense of all the lives that really do matter.
The dialogue draws heavily on their 2004 book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.
On May 11, 2018, Butler led a group of scholars in writing a letter to New York University following the sexual harassment suit filed by a former NYU graduate student against his advisor Avital Ronell. The signatories acknowledged not having had access to the confidential findings of the investigation that followed the Title IX complaint against Ronell. Nonetheless, they accused the complainant of waging a "malicious campaign" against Ronell. The signatories also wrote that the presumed "malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare" for a highly regarded scholar. "If she were to be terminated or relieved of her duties, the injustice would be widely recognized and opposed." Butler, the chief signatory, invoked their title as President Elect of the Modern Language Association. James J. Marino, a professor at Cleveland State University and a member of the MLA, started a petition to demand Butler's resignation or removal from their post. He argued that "Protesting against one instance of punishment is only a means to the larger end of preserving senior faculty's privilege of impunity. ... [Butler] was standing up for an old, corrupt, and long-standing way of doing business. The time for doing business that way is over. We should never look back." Some three months later, Butler apologized to the MLA for the letter. "I acknowledged that I should not have allowed the MLA affiliation to go forward with my name," Butler wrote to the Chronicle of Higher Education. "I expressed regret to the MLA officers and staff, and my colleagues accepted my apology. I extend that same apology to MLA members."
All of Butler's books have been translated into numerous languages; Gender Trouble, alone, has been translated into twenty-seven languages. In addition, they have 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 Butler 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.
Similarly, MacKinnon's appeal to the state to construe pornography as performative speech and, hence, as the injurious conduct of representation, does not settle the theoretical question of the relation between representation and conduct, but collapses the distinction in order to enhance the power of state intervention over graphic sexual representation.
A censorship of sex? There was installed [since the 17th century] rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect in its very economy.