Judith Butler - Biography
Judith Butler (born February 24, 1956) is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is a professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley. Butler received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984, for a dissertation subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. In the late-1980s she held several teaching/research appointments, and was involved in "post-structuralist" efforts within Western feminist theory to question the "presuppositional terms" of feminism. Her research ranges from literary theory, modern philosophical fiction, feminist and sexuality studies, to 19th- and 20th-century European literature and philosophy, Kafka and loss, mourning and war. Her most recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy, exploring pre- and post-Zionist criticisms of state violence. Politically, she is a strong supporter of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio to a family of Hungarian and Russian ancestry. Her mother was raised in Orthodox Judaism, later turning to Conservative Judaism, and finally to Reform Judaism; Butler's father belonged to a Reform Synagogue since his childhood. As a child and teenager, she attended both Hebrew school and special classes on Jewish ethics where she received her "first training in philosophy." Butler stated in a 2010 interview with Haaretz that she began the ethics classes at the age of 14 and that they were created as a form of punishment by her Hebrew school's Rabbi because she was "too talkative in class," "talk[ed] back," and was "not well behaved." Butler also stated that she was "thrilled" by the classes and chose to focus on Martin Buber. She also encountered the writings of Kant, Hegel, and Spinoza during these special sessions.
Butler studied philosophy at Yale University, receiving her B.A. in 1978 and her Ph.D. in 1984. Her dissertation was subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France.
She taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University before joining U.C. Berkeley in 1993. She will join the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as a visiting professor in the spring semesters of 2012 and 2013 and has the option of remaining as full time faculty. In 2009 she received the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award for her contributions to the to humanistic inquiry. The prize money of $1.5 million is supposed to enable the recipients to teach and research under especially favorable conditions. Since 2006 Judith Butler is the Hannah Arendt Professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland.
Butler currently lives with her partner, the political scientist Wendy Brown.
Overview of works
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
Gender Trouble was first published in 1990, selling over 100,000 copies internationally and in different languages . Alluding to the similarly named 1974 John Waters film Female Trouble starring the drag queen Divine, Gender Trouble critically discusses the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig, Jacques Derrida, and, most significantly, Michel Foucault. The book has also enjoyed widespread popularity outside of traditional academic circles, even inspiring 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. These stylized bodily acts, in their repetition, establish the appearance of an essential, ontological "core" gender. This is the sense in which Butler famously theorizes gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. The performance of gender, sex, and sexuality, however, is not a voluntary choice for Butler, who locates the construction of the gendered, sexed, desiring subject within what she calls, borrowing from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, "regulative discourses." These, also called "frameworks of intelligibility" or "disciplinary regimes," decide in advance what possibilities of sex, gender, and sexuality are socially permitted to appear as coherent or "natural." Regulative discourse includes within it disciplinary techniques which, by coercing subjects to perform specific stylized actions, maintain the appearance in those subjects of the "core" gender, sex and sexuality the discourse itself produces.
A significant yet sometimes overlooked part of Butler's argument concerns the role of sex in the construction of "natural" or coherent gender and sexuality. Butler explicitly challenges biological accounts of binary sex, reconceiving the sexed body as itself culturally constructed by regulative discourse. The supposed obviousness of sex as a natural biological fact attests to how deeply its production in discourse is concealed. The sexed body, once established as a “natural” and unquestioned “fact,” is the alibi for constructions of gender and sexuality, unavoidably more cultural in their appearance, which can purport to be the just-as-natural expressions or consequences of a more fundamental sex. 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. In this way, 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.
Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993)
Bodies That Matter seeks to clear up readings and misreadings of performativity that view the enactment of sex/gender as a daily choice. To do this, Butler emphasizes the role of repetition in performativity, making use of Derrida's theory of iterability, a form of citationality, to work out a theory of performativity in terms of iterability:
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.
Iterability, in its endless undeterminedness as to-be-determinedness, is thus precisely that aspect of performativity that makes the production of the "natural" sexed, gendered, heterosexual subject possible, while also and at the same time opening that subject up to the possibility of its incoherence and contestation.
Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997)
In Excitable Speech, Butler surveys the problems of hate speech and censorship. She argues 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. She develops a new conception of censorship’s complex workings, supplanting the myth of the independent subject who wields the power to censor with a theory of censorship as an effect of state power and, more primordially, as the condition of language and discourse itself.
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 History of Sexuality Vol. 1, 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 it 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".
Butler also questions the efficacy of censorship on the grounds that hate speech is context-dependent. Citing J.L. Austin's concept of the performative utterance, Butler notes that words’ ability to “do things” makes hate speech possible but also at the same time dependent on its specific embodied context. Austin’s claim that what a word “does,” its illocutionary force, varies with the context in which it is uttered implies that it is impossible to adequately define the performative meanings of words, including hate, abstractly. On this basis, Butler rejects arguments like Richard Delgado’s which justify the censorship of certain specific words by claiming the use of those words constitutes hate speech in any context. In this way, Butler underlines the difficulty inherent in efforts to systematically identify hate speech.
Undoing Gender (2004)
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 her other books. Butler revisits and refines her 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". She argues 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. She 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 her discussion of intersex, 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 3 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 committed suicide in 2004.
Giving an Account of Oneself (2005)
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. She 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 she 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.
Many scholars have praised Butler's work. She has been referred to as "a big-deal academic, ... and oft-cited academic superstar", "the most famous feminist philosopher in the United States," "the queer theorist par excellence," and "the most brilliantly eclectic theorist of sexuality in recent years." In addition, Lois McNay argues that, "Butler's work has influenced feminist understandings of gender identity (1999: 175)." Others, such as Susan A. Speer and Jonathan Potter claim that her research has given new insight in several areas, especially in the concept of heterosexism. However, although Speer and Potter find Butler’s work useful in this respect, they find her work too abstract to be usefully applied to “real-life situations.” For this reason, they pair a reading of Butler with Discursive psychology in order to extend Butler’s ideas to real-world scenarios.
Others are more critical. Susan Bordo has chastised Butler for reducing gender to language, arguing that the body is a major part of gender, thus implicitly opposing her conception of gender as performed. Peter Digeser argues that Butler’s idea of performativity is too pure to account for identity. Digeser doubts that pure performativity is possible, suggesting that in viewing the gendered individual as purely performed, Butler ignores the gendered body, which Bordo also argues is extremely important. He also argues that neither an essentialist nor a performative notion of gender should be used in the political sphere, as both simplify gender too much. Martha Nussbaum 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 ethical theory to direct the subversive performances that Butler endorses. Finally, Nancy Fraser argued that Butler’s focus on performativity has distanced her from “everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves … Why should we use such a self-distancing idiom?”
Commentary on style
Butler has become famous in some circles for her "impenetrable, jargon-ridden prose," which has also generated some controversy, according to Sara Salih, lecturer in English at the University of Kent at Canterbury. The author ascribes this to the fact that the concepts she writes about are "philosophically challenging, often ‘counter-intuitive’, and not always described in immediately accessible language."
Harvard professor Steven Pinker, has cited her work as an example of confused, Postmodernist writing which detracts from the public appreciation and support of art.
In 1998, Denis Dutton's journal Philosophy and Literature gave Butler First Prize in its "Bad Writing Competition," which claims to "celebrate bad writing from the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles." Butler's 94 word long sentence, published in the journal Diacritics, for which she received the award was:
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.
Dutton discontinued the contest after being criticized for its apparently hostile spirit. Butler responded to Dutton's criticism, with a letter to the London Review of Books and an op-ed piece for The New York Times. She argued that writing clearly can make the author too reliant on common sense and as such make language lose its potential to "shape the world" and shake up the status quo.
Stanley Kurtz, in turn, argued against Butler's op-ed in a letter to the New York Times titled, "Bad Writing Has No Defense." Stephen K. Roney also responded that "many—indeed, most—generally recognized “great thinkers” have been clear and lucid in their writing [...] Is Butler claiming to be deeper than all of them?"
Nussbaum's "The Professor Parody" essay also raised the issue of Butler's style, calling it "ponderous and obscure" and "dense with allusions to other theorists, drawn from a wide range of different theoretical traditions...It bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding."
In 1999, politically conservative literary journal The New Criterion cited Butler as one of a "triumvirate of absurd figures" including Homi K. Bhabha and Fredric Jameson, for bad writing.
In "No, It's Not Anti-Semitic," an August 2003 article published in the London Review of Books, Butler argued against statements by Harvard President Lawrence Summers who suggested that certain forms of criticism of Israeli policies is a form of anti-semitism. She responded by stating that it "will not do to equate Jews with Zionists or Jewishness with Zionism" and argued against the notion that Jews such as herself who were critical of Israeli policies are "self-hating." She also referred to Post-Zionism as a "small but important" movement in Israel. In addition, Butler also argued that, "a challenge to the right of Israel to exist can be construed as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people only if one believes that Israel alone keeps the Jewish people alive or that all Jews invest their sense of perpetuity in the state of Israel in its current or traditional forms.”
In a later 2004 article, "Jews and the Bi-National Vision," published in Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Butler attributes this vision to the writings of Martin Buber. On September 7, 2006, Butler participated in a faculty-organized teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley, against the 2006 Lebanon War. Butler is also a strong supporter of the 2005 international economic campaign, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).
In June 2010 Judith Butler refused the Civil Courage Award (Zivilcouragepreis) of the Christopher Street Day Parade in Berlin, Germany at the award ceremony, citing racist comments on the part of organizers and a general failure of CSD organizations to distance themselves from racism, and from anti-Muslim excuses for war specifically. Criticizing the event's commercialism, she went on to name several groups who she 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, 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."
- 2009: Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? : ISBN 1844673332
- 2007: Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging (with Gayatri Spivak) : ISBN 1905422571
- 2005: Giving An Account of Oneself : ISBN 0823225046
- 2004: Undoing Gender : ISBN 0415969239
- 2004: Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence : ISBN 1844675440
- 2003: Kierkegaard's Speculative Despair in The age of German idealism (edited by Robert C. Solomon): ISBN 041530878X
- 2003: Women and Social Transformation (with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and Lidia Puigvert) : ISBN 0820467081
- 2000: Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek) : ISBN 185984278X
- 2000: Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death : ISBN 0231118953
- 1997: The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection : ISBN 0804728127
- 1997: Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative : ISBN 0415915872
- 1993: Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" : ISBN 0415903653
- 1991: "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (edited by Diana Fuss): ISBN 0415902371
- 1990: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity : ISBN 0415389550
- 1987: Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France : ISBN 0231064519
Films and video lectures
- Judith Butler. "Cohabitation, Universality and Remembrance" Birkbeck College, London. May 24, 2010 (Audio only)
- Judith Butler. "Hannah Arendt, Ethics, and Responsibility." European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 97 minutes. 2009
- Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben. "Eichmann, Law and Justice." European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 71 minutes. 2009
- Judith Butler. "Quién le canta al estado- nación." Buenos Aires International Book Fair. (Feria Internacional del Libro). Buenos Aires, Argentine. Video Lecture. 81 minutes. 2009
- Paule Zadjermann. "Judith Butler: Philosophical Encounters of the Third Kind." DVD. 52 minutes. Color. 2007
- Judith Butler. "Primo Levi for the Present." European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 90 minutes. 2006
- Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Larry Rickels. "About Psychoanalysis." European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 29 minutes. 2006
- Avital Ronell and Judith Butler. "The Contemporaneity of Philosophy." European Graduate School. Saas-Fee, Switzerland. Video Lecture. 23 minutes. 2006
Selected honors and awards
- 2010: "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World", Utne Reader
- 2008: Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award, University of California, Berkeley
- 2007: Elected a Member of the American Philosophical Society
- 2004: Brudner Prize, Yale University
- 2001: Rockefeller Fellowship
- 1999: Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1998: The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest
- Chambers, Samuel A. and Terrell Carver. ''Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics. New York: Routledge, 2008. : ISBN 0415763827
- Cheah, Pheng, "Mattering," Diacritics, Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 1996, pp. 108–139.
- Kirby, Vicki. Judith Butler: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2006. : ISBN 0826462936
- Eldred, Michael, 'Metaphysics of Feminism: A Critical Note on Judith Butler's Gender Trouble' 2008.
- Salih, Sarah. The Judith Butler Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. : ISBN 0631225943
- —. ''Routledge Critical Thinkers: Judith Butler. New York: Routledge, 2002. : ISBN 0415215196
- Thiem, Annika. Unbecoming Subjects: Judith Butler, Moral Philosophy, and Critical Responsibility, Fordham University Press, 2008. : ISBN 0823228991
- Biography – University of California, Berkeley
- Biography – European Graduate School
- Interview of Judith Butler about her new book "Frames of War" on New Statesman
- Interview with Judith Butler: “Gender is Extramoral”, Barcelona Metropolis, Summer 2008.
- Review of "Giving an Account of Oneself. Ethical Violence and Responsibility", by Judith Butler, Barcelona Metropolis Autumn 2010.
- "Dictionary of Literary Biography on Judith P. Butler (page 3)"
- Interview with Judith Butler about politics, economy, control societies, gender and identity (2011)
- Radio interview on Philosophy Talk