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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: Judith Butler
Birth: Template:Birth date and age
[[Image:Template:Country flag alias USA|22x20px|Template:Country alias USA]] Cleveland, Ohio
Death: {{{death}}}
School/tradition: Continental Philosophy, Third-Wave Feminism, Critical Theory, Queer Theory, Postmodernism, Post-structuralism
Main interests
Feminist Theory, Political Philosophy, Ethics, Psychoanalysis, Discourse, Embodiment, Sexuality, Jewish Philosophy
Notable ideas
Sex and gender as social construction, performativity
Influences Influenced
Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, J.L. Austin, Luce Irigaray, Gayle Rubin, Monique Wittig, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel |
Eve Sedgwick, Michael Warner, Judith Halberstam, José Muñoz, Lauren Berlant, Kate Bornstein

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 the Maxine Elliot professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and the present chair of the Rhetoric Department.

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 (such as at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University), she was involved in "post-structuralist" efforts within Western feminist theory to question the "presuppositional terms" of feminism. Her most recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy, engaging in particular with "pre-Zionist criticisms of state violence." [1][2]

Major works

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

Main article: Gender Trouble

In 1990, Butler's book Gender Trouble was published selling over 100,000 copies internationally and in different languages [How to reference and link to summary or text]. Alluding to the similarly named 1974 John Waters film Female Trouble starring the drag queen Divine[3], 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 was popular enough that it even inspired an intellectual fanzine, Judy!.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

The concept of gender 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 treat performativity as theoretically central.

Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993)

Bodies That Matter seeks to clear up mis/readings of performativity that view the enactment of sex/gender as a daily choice.[9] 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.[10]

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. [How to reference and link to summary or text] 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. Butler warns that such appeals to state power may backfire on progressivists like MacKinnon who seek social change, in her case to end patriarchal oppression, through legal reforms. She cites for example the R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul 1992 Supreme Court case, which overturned the conviction of a teenager for burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family, in the name of the First Amendment.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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".[13]

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. [How to reference and link to summary or text] 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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 for a more general readership than many of her other books. Butler revisits and refines her notion of performativity, which is the focus of Gender Trouble.

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, and ultimately committed suicide.[14].

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, the limits of self-knowledge. Borrowing from Adorno, Foucault, Nietzsche, Laplanche and Levinas, among others, Butler develops a theory of the formation of the subject as a 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. The subject is therefore dispossessed of itself by another or others as the very condition of its being at all, and this process by which I become myself only in relation to others and therefore cannot own myself completely, this constitutive dispossession, is the opacity of the contemporary subject to itself, what I cannot know, possess, and master consciously about myself.

Butler then turns to the ethical question: If my narrative account of myself is necessarily incomplete, breaking down tellingly at the point precisely when "I" am called to elucidate the foundations of this "I", my genesis and ontology, what kind of ethical agent, or "I", am "I"? [How to reference and link to summary or text] Butler rejects the claim that if the subject is opaque to itself it is necessarily free of ethical responsibility and obligations. [How to reference and link to summary or text] Instead she argues for an ethics based precisely on the limits of self-knowledge as the limits of responsibility itself. [How to reference and link to summary or text] 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. [How to reference and link to summary or text] 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. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Style and politics

Butler's academic (though not her popular) writing is dense and theoretical. Butler explains the density of her academic writing by reference to Theodor Adorno, who comments on the necessity to break from traditional language if one is to subvert the dominant cultural narrative. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

In a London Review of Books article published in August 2003, Butler identifies herself as an anti-Zionist Jewish American who is concerned with the loss of academic freedom implicitly advocated by pro-Israeli groups.[15] She expounds upon her views on Zionism in a section of Precarious Life examining a debacle surrounding Harvard President Lawrence Summers. On September 7th, 2006, she partook in a faculty-organized teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley, scrutinizing the Israeli war on Lebanon during the summer.[16]


Martha Nussbaum wrote an article in The New Republic entitled "The Professor of Parody" criticizing Butler's writing for obscurantism and for its merely "verbal and symbolic politics," which Nussbaum associates with postmodernism; in contrast, Nussbaum associates effective feminist scholarship with thinkers such as Catharine MacKinnon, Nancy Chodorow, and Andrea Dworkin. According to Nussbaum, without a universalizable notion of social justice and normative principles, Butler's projects constitute mere moral passivity. To Nussbaum, an anti-essentialist "postmodern" call for the subversion of norms, rather than their enforcement, appears both non-ethical and misguided.[17]

In 1998, Philosophy and Literature admonished Butler with first prize in its Fourth Bad Writing Contest, for a sentence in the scholarly journal Diacritics.[18] Following controversy, and perceptions of mean-spiritedness, over the "Bad Writing" award that Denis Dutton gave out under the auspices of his academic journal, Dutton discontinued the award in 1999.[19] Butler commented on the event in an interview.[20]


  • 2005: Giving An Account of Oneself
  • 2004: Undoing Gender
  • 2004: Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
  • 2003: Women and Social Transformation (with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and Lidia Puigvert)
  • 2000: Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek)
  • 2000: Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death
  • 1997: The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection
  • 1997: Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative
  • 1993: Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"
  • 1990: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
  • 1987: Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France


  • Recipient of the 2004 Brudner Prize at Yale
  • May 2007, won the annual Best Improvised Hat award (Stanford)


  1. Judith Butler's Faculty Biography, Department of Rhetoric, University of Berkley.
  2. Butler, Judith. "The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and the Risks of Public Critique. Wrestling with Zionism: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Ed. Tony Kushner and Alisa Solonmon. New York: Grove, 2003. pp. 249-265.
  3. Butler, Judith [1990] (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, xxviii-xxix, New York: Routledge.
  4. Larissa MacFarquhar, "Putting the Camp Back into Campus," Lingua Franca (September/October 1993); see also Judith Butler, "Decamping," Lingua Franca (November-December 1993).
  5. Butler explicitly formulates her theory of performativity in the final pages of Gender Trouble, specifically in the final section of her chapter "Subversive Bodily Acts" entitled "Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions" and elaborates performativity in relation to the question of political agency in her conclusion, "From Parody to Politics." See Butler, Judith [1990] (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 171-90, New York: Routledge.
  6. For Butler's critique of biological accounts of sexual difference as a ruse for the cultural construction of "natural" sex, see Butler, Judith [1990] (1999). "Concluding Unscientific Postscript" Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 135-41, New York: Routledge.
  7. For Butler's discussion of the performative co-construction of sex and gender see Butler, Judith [1990] (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 163-71, 177-8, New York: Routledge. The signification of sex is also addressed in connection with Monique Wittig in the section "Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegrations and Fictive Sex," pp. 141-63
  8. For Butler's problematization of the sex/gender distinction see Butler, Judith [1990] (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 9-11, 45-9, New York: Routledge.
  9. For example, Jeffreys, Sheila (1994). The Queer Disappearance of Lesbians: Sexuality in the Academy. Women's Studies International Forum 17 (5): 459-72.
  10. Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex", 95, New York: Routledge.
  11. Butler, Judith (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 129-33, New York: Routledge.
  12. For example, Foucault, Michel [1976] (1990). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol 1., Trans. Robert Hurley, 23, New York: Vintage. "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."
  13. Butler, Judith (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 140, New York: Routledge.
  14. Butler discusses Reimer's case as part of her continued interrogation of those norms and discouses which decide in advance who counts as recognizably human. See, for example, Butler, Judith (2001). Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7 (4): 621-36.
  15. Judith Butler. No, it's not anti-semitic. London Review of Books. URL accessed on April 5, 2006.
  16. Judith Butler. Questioning the 'New Middle East:' War and Resistance in Lebanon. Berkeley Teach-In Against War. URL accessed on September 17, 2006.
  17. Nussbaum, Martha. "The Professor of Parody"
  18. Philosophy and Literature. Winners of the Fourth Bad Writing Contest (1998). Press Release. URL accessed on April 13, 2006.
  19. Dennis Loy Johnson. Who Killed Lingua Franca?. URL accessed on April 14, 2006.
  20. JAC, vol. XX, no 4, reproduced in The Judith Butler Reader, Judith Butler and Sarah Salih (ed.), 2004

See also

  • List of deconstructionists

Further reading

  • Judith Butler: Live Theory by Vicki Kirby
  • The Judith Butler Reader by Sara Salih
  • Routledge Critical Thinkers: Judith Butler by Sara Salih

External links

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