Judith Butler

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Judith Butler (b. February 24 1956) is a prominent post-structuralist philosopher and has made major contributions to feminism, queer theory, political philosophy and ethics. She is Maxine Eliot professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She also has a professorial appointment at the European Graduate School.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and political theorist well known for her early role in shaping the field of queer theory and for defining the anti-identitarian turn in feminist thought. Butler and Žižek’s intellectual conversation spans nearly two decades, and includes their collaboration with Ernesto Laclau on Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Butler teaches rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) is frequently cited as one of the most influential books of the 1990s. There she proposed the theory of performativity to intervene in the ongoing feminist debate over whether sexual and gender identities are either biologically or symbolically given. Instead, Butler posits the notion that sex and gender are performative – that is, the effect of the repeated citation of a set of symbolic norms. Drawing on Foucault’s assertion that power produces its own resistances, Butler stresses the subversive potential of those performances that exceed their disciplinary production, including parodic and non-normative gender and sexual acts such as drag and lesbian sex. For her, political revolt inheres in attaining social recognition for this proliferation of subjectivities that always exceed the symbolic law of which they are the by-product.

It is on the question of the failure of the symbolic law fully to define the subject’s identity that Butler and Žižek have entered into a collegial debate, evidence of which has appeared in chapters of Butler’s follow-up to Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), and Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (1999), and their collaborative Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. The debate centres upon how each understands “the negativity at the heart of identity” and the relationship of this negativity, or gap, to hegemony and political contestation (CHU: 2). While Butler and Žižek both draw on psychoanalytic conceptions of the subject as rendered incomplete by an internal limit, where their antagonism ultimately lies is in the meaning of this inherent limit, defined by Žižek as the Lacanian Real. Th is difference underlies the specific disagreements the two have engaged in over the status of the subject’s attachment to symbolic norms, sexual difference and political action.

Butler accounts for the radical contingency of history through recourse to the Freudian unconscious and a model of the gendered and sexualized subject who, like the Foucauldian subject, is produced under the pressure of restrictive social norms, but, like the Hegelian subject, is profoundly attached to their subjection. She suggests that the Oedipal threat of castration produces a sexualized subject whose identities and desires can never live up to the ideals set out by their culture, and who therefore assumes their sexed position always as an iterative failure, but who is nevertheless attached to that failure. Butler reduces the symbolic law to a series of “performative speech acts” or “hegemonic norms”, which are subject to subversive re-inscription (Butler 1993: 106). For Butler, then, the possibility for political intervention lies neither in the Real nor in the Symbolic, but in the Imaginary – wherein periodic performative iterations of symbolic norms have the effect of displacing these norms themselves.

In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek attacks Butler on precisely this point, claiming that Butler is “simultaneously too optimistic and too pessimistic” (TS: 264). She is too optimistic because she posits that performative practices have the power to displace oppressive socio-symbolic norms, without seeing that each iteration, parodic or not, remains within the field defined by the big Other. And she is too pessimistic because, by limiting her critique to this fild, she fails to see the possibility of the overhaul of the whole system through the unpicking of the quilting point effected by the ethical act (ibid.). Žižek critiques Butler’s imaginarization of the Real and the Symbolic because it presents a subject who is always already trapped – free only in so far as they maintain some ironic distance from their own passionate attachment to subjection.

To this impasse, Žižek counters with the Lacanian Real. Žižek has consistently argued, following Lacan, that it is only by understanding the symbolic law to be rendered incomplete by an internally constitutive limit – the Real – that we can understand that law as ultimately contingent and subject to historical transformation. He argues not that the law excludes some set of acts or identities, but that the constitutive exclusion of the law is its own impossibility or gap. Žižek uses the logic of the Real to critique Butler’s understanding of the subject’s unconscious attachments to subjection. In The Psychic Life of Power (1997), Butler posits the unconscious as the site of “passionate attachments” to the very laws that pathologize desire and restrict its forms. To this model of the unconscious, Žižek opposes Lacan’s assertion that “the fundamental fantasy (the stuff ‘primordial attachments’ are made of) is already a filler, a formation which covers up a certain gap/void” (TS: 265). In other words, the Real of the subject’s desire is not constituted by a passionate attachment to some set of repressed or foreclosed desires prohibited by the symbolic law, but is constituted by a fantasy that covers over the impossibility at the heart of all desires.

This differential understanding of the subject also grounds Butler’s disagreement with Žižek over sexual difference. In Bodies that Matter, Butler critiques Žižek for suggesting that the Real is produced through the foreclosure induced by the threat of castration on the basis that “Žižek’s theory thus evacuates the ‘contingency’ of its contingency” because it relies upon a fixed notion of castration that is always already gendered by the Oedipus complex (Butler 1993: 196). She goes on to suggest that what is lacking in Žižek’s formulation of the traumatic kernel of the Real is the very social and historical specificity of each one of his examples of trauma (including the family, the camps and the Gulag) (ibid.: 202). Put simply, Butler’s real problem with the Real is that it is a concept that she believes evades history and thus political appropriation. As she writes: “The problem here is that there is no way within this framework to politicize the relation between language and the real” (ibid.: 207). As a feminist philosopher and political theorist, Butler is invested in the field of the political, and because of this choice to align herself with history, she refuses, by definition, to accept a concept that she understands to be outside of history. By applying the same logic, Butler takes on Lacan’s assertion that “the Woman does not exist”, arguing that positioning the Woman as the always already “lost referent” is to preclude the possibility of her resignification (ibid.: 218).

In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek responds by reiterating his point that sexual difference and symbolic castration and the “Woman” have no positive existence, but are the traumatic residues of the failure of the Symbolic fully to capture or define us. As he puts it in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, “Every translation of sexual difference into a set of symbolic opposition(s) is doomed to fail, and it is this very ‘impossibility’ that opens up the terrain of the hegemonic struggle for what ‘sexual difference’ will mean” (CHU: 111). The fact that sexual difference is Real means that all signifiers of sexual identity are precisely not transhistorical norms, but are fully historically and culturally specific and may therefore be subject to reconfiguration.

Žižek posits that Laclau’s concept of hegemony as constituted by an inherent antagonism bridges the gap between Butler’s insistence on the historical production of the sexed subject and his own neo-Lacanian notion of the subject rendered incomplete by the Real (ibid.). In this conception, hegemony is the unavoidable consequence of the splitting of the subject by language and subsequent structuring of the symbolic universe by a master-signifier given by culture. The radical absence that Lacan posits as the universal core of subjectivity (the Real) is the condition both for the necessary functioning of the master-signifier to quilt the subject’s desires to the social will and the ultimate contingency of this quilting. In other words, the apparent necessity of our cultural forms of sexuality is rendered contingent on the basis that it is the phallic signifier that serves to quilt the subject’s desire to the social link. It follows from this, as Laclau asserts, that the hegemony of the master-signifier “defines the very terrain in which a political relation is actually constituted” (CHU: 44).

For Žižek, then, the Real constitutes the internal limit of the political field itself, rendering power and our attachments to power always incomplete and subject to re-inscription. Butler’s feminist politics engage in what Laclau stresses as the “hegemonic struggle” over the social meaning of the Real of sexual difference. It is no surprise, then, that Butler ultimately refuses Lacanian theory because of her political insistence that the “Real” of sexual difference must be understood as always subject to history so that both universality and difference might be considered the effects of hegemony. By the same token, Žižek remains immune to Butler’s accusations of the heteronormative foundations of Lacan’s account of sexual difference because he can evacuate all social forms of their historical specificity by recourse to the Real as internal limit or excess.