Talk:Judith Butler

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Butler received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University in 1984, and her dissertation was subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. In the late-1980s, between different teaching/research appointments (most notably at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University), she was involved in "poststructuralist" efforts within Western feminist theory to question the "presuppositional terms" of feminism.

Gender Trouble (1990)

To question the very foundational presuppositions of Western feminism meant opening it up to what others would later name queer theory, and criticizing the imperialism of a Western feminist theory that purports to represent "all" women. In 1990, Butler's book Gender Trouble burst onto the scene, selling over 100,000 copies internationally and in different languages. The book critically discusses the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, and, most significantly, Michel Foucault. (At the same time, like most of Butler's work, it is regarded by some readers to be written in an unnecessarily complex, dense style). The book was popular enough that it even inspired an intellectual fanzine, Judy!, that poked fun at her academic celebrity status.

The most widely read and misread move in Gender Trouble is the redeployment of Derrida's reading of J. L. Austin's theory of the "performative statement," and Franz Kafka's story, "Before the Law"; both in convergence with Butler's readings of Foucault's Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. This convergence is the crucible of Butler's famous "performative theory of gender," in which "gender" is a kind of repeated, largely forced (Foucault's "discipline") enactment or "performance" that produces the imaginary fiction of a "core gender," as well as the distinction between the surface/exterior of "the body" and the "interior core." Paradoxically, it is a kind of forced, repetitive "doing" of gender that itself produces the fiction that an individual has a stable "gender" which they are just "expressing" in their actions. And this imaginary fiction crucially produces an equally fictive distinction between the "interior" of "the body" and its "exterior".

The concept of performativity is at the core of Butler's work. It extends beyond the doing of gender and can be understood as a full-fledged theory of subjectivity. Indeed, if her most recent books have shifted focus away from gender, they still rely on performativity as a theoretical matrix.

Bodies That Matter (1993)

Butler's next book, Bodies That Matter, seeks to clear up confusions produced by both willful and inadvertent misreadings of both her work in Gender Trouble and poststructuralist feminism in general. To disrupt readings of the gender performative that simplistically view gender enactment as a daily voluntaristic "choice," Butler strengthens the performative theory of gender with a consideration of the status of repetition. Here she cites Derrida's theory of iterability or citationality, and goes on to work out a theory of performativity as citationality.

Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997)

In Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, Judith Butler began to address the issue of "hate speech", language and censorship. Warning that she was not totally opposed to juridical limitation of hate speech in some circumstances, she then argued that hate speech exists only retrospectively; that is, when it has been declared such by juridical authorities. As such, the state appropriates to itself the possibility of defining hate speech and the limits of acceptable discourse (Butler is drawing here on Foucault's episteme concept or theory of discourse), declaring, for example, that burning a cross in front of a house in a Black neighborhood is not a form of "hate speech" (even though it is a common KKK warning of impending action), but that "pornography" constitutes such "hate speech", on the sole grounds that US courts have decided so. Judith Butler thus discusses Catharine MacKinnon's anti-pornography stance, not so much for being against pornography but for conferring on the state the power of censorship to condemn it. Butler warns that this tactic of appealing to the state may backfire on progressivists, in an argument which is reminiscent of Foucault's description of the usage of the lettres de cachet by families referring to the sovereign to condemn members of their own family.

Moreover, quoting Foucault's first volume of the History of Sexuality, she argues that any attempt of censorship, by justice or otherwise, is forced to duplicate the forbidden language.[1] Censorship produces its own discourse, and the discourse on sexuality has never been as great as when it was completely censored. This repetition of words now declared forbidden (by the state) spread those hate words in the very attempt of stopping them. This is the paradoxical problem of censorship. The Dada movement had already declared, at the beginning of the 20th century: "if you don't like Dada, you're already talking about Dada; if you like Dada, you talk about Dada; both ways you're talking about Dada".[2]) Indeed, Butler argues that censorship is primitive to language, and that the "subject" is only an effect of this original censorship (in the same way as Foucault argues that the "subject" is an effect of power, instead of power being a property of individual subjects; see also Althusser's concept of interpellation). Butler appeals to Lacan's "forclusion" concept or Derrida's "constitutive limit" to explain this original sense of censorship. "If discourse depends on censorship, then the principle to whom we would want to oppose ourselves is also the principle of production of the discourse of opposition". "Silence is the performative effect of a certain type of discourse, the discourse which address itself to someone to delegitimate his discourse". State power is presupposed by the one who carries this type of repressing discourse.

A part of the problem of the duplication of "hate speech" in the juridical discourse that outlaws it, lies in the issues of signification: if J.L. Austin's concept of "performability" is correct, and that it is possible to "do things with words" (hence the problem of hate speech), words themselves do not have one absolute signification, but various meanings depending on the context. Language is a mix of words and body, and bodies can alter the meaning of a spoken word. Butler cites Richard Delgado, for whom it is possible to identify hate speech on the use of certain key-words: "Words such as 'nigger' and 'spick' are badges of degradation even when used between friends: these words have no other connotation." Therefore, according to Delgado, the act of calling someone a name should be censored if the name used belongs to a previously-identified hate speech. However, Butler points out that "this very statement, whether written in his text or cited here, has another connotation; he has just used the word in a significantly different way." Judith Butler thus underlines the difficulty of identifying a hate-speech. Ultimately, the state itself defines the limits of acceptable discourse, according to her. However, Judith Butler takes the precaution to explicitly deny being against all forms of limitation of discourse, the object of her book being only to point out the different issues at stake when one address the problem of hate speech and censorship.

Judith Butler's complex demonstration shows that it is not possible to easily judge censorship: in some cases it is useful and necessary, in others it may be worse than tolerance. This debate is also cultural, as shown by the different legislation concerning historical revisionism, which can be protected in the US under the First Amendment, but forbidden in European countries as dangerous forms of hate speech. Most important, Butler shows that our conception of the workings of censorship must be renewed, as must be our ideology of an independent subject to whom the power of censorship could be attributed: censorship ultimately relies on the state and, even before, is the condition of discourse itself.

Style and politics

Butler's academic (though not her popular) writing is very dense and theoretical. Martha Nussbaum in a review in the New Republic, accused Butler of willful obscurantism.[3] Butler has responded to these charges by citing ideas from Theodor Adorno on the necessity to break from traditional language if one is to subvert the dominant cultural narrative.

In 1998, Philosophy and Literature admonished Butler with first prize in its Fourth Bad Writing Contest, for a sentence in the scholarly journal Diacritics. In their press release, however, they quoted Warren Hedges who praised her as "one of the ten smartest people on the planet."[4]

In a London Review of Books article, Butler identifies as an anti-Zionist Jewish American who is concerned with the loss of academic freedom implicitly advocated by pro-Israeli groups.[5]


Lacan's hegemonic imaginary

  1. Judith Butler was drawing here on Foucault's concept of episteme, or the conditions of possibility of discourse before the subject even attempts to speak - see also Butler's use of Lacan's concept of forclusion.
  2. This last Dada example is not given by Butler in her book, but explains how discourse can proliferate even if censored (or the more that it is censored).
  3. Template:Cite web.
  4. Template:Cite web. The runner-up that year was Homi K. Bhabha; the prior year's winner was Fredric Jameson. Following controversy, and perceptions of mean-spiritedness, over the "Bad Writing" award Denis Dutton gave out under the auspices of his academic journal, Dutton stopped the award in 1999 (Template:Cite web).
  5. Template:Cite web