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Source:
A Dictionary of Critical Theory
Author(s):

Ian Buchanan

Butler, Judith 

(1956–)

Americanfeminist philosopher and gender theorist, Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She completed her PhD in the Department of Philosophy at Yale University in 1984, where she attended seminars by Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, whose work would influence her in interesting ways. After holding visiting positions at Princeton, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins, Butler obtained a permanent position at the University of California, Berkeley. She is probably the most widely read and influential gender theorist in the world.

A highly sophisticated work, Butler's PhD, which was published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987), maps out a clear project that subsequent works would set out to complete, namely the attempt to understand how social constructs like gender come into being and more especially how they come to be seen as naturally occurring rather than historical. As Butler points out, while it is possible to choose a gender one wishes to identify with, it is presently impossible to choose not to have any gender at all. Society constrains us to have a gender, whether we want to or not. Her subsequent books, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (1993), try to theorize this situation in terms of the concept of performativity (which she adapts from J. L. Austin's concept of the performative).

In Gender Trouble, Butler argues that contrary to popular wisdom both sex (generally assumed to be a biological ‘fact’) and gender are culturally constructed terms and the binary relation between the two is mutually reinforcing. By refusing this binary relation and showing that sex is fully as much a cultural construct as gender, Butler opens the way for a genuine critique of both terms. Both, she subsequently claims, can be understood in terms of performativity: sex and gender are, she argues, using Drag Queens as her case in point, the coded constructs that result from countless performances of gender and sex roles. Drag Queens turned out to be an unfortunate choice of example for Butler as many of her readers misunderstood her as saying that ultimately gender is simply a matter of choice. Bodies that Matter corrects this viewpoint with an extremely rigorous account of the various discursive ways in which gender is regulated.

Outside of her work on gender theory, Butler identifies herself as an anti-Zionist Jew and is a stern critic of Israeli politics. Her later works, especially Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997), Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), and Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (2009) extend the notion of performativity to contemporary politics, while Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), basing itself in a critique of Emmanuel Levinas, offers an ethics for the contemporary world.

Further Reading:

S. Chambers and T. Carver Judith Butler and Political Theory (2007).Find this resource:

    G. Jagger Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative (2008).Find this resource:

      V. Kirby Judith Butler: Live Theory (2006).Find this resource:

        S. Salih, Judith Butler (2002).Find this resource:

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