Judith Butler

Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.

BIOGRAPHY

Judith Butler (b. 1956) holds the Hannah Arendt Chair at The European Graduate School / EGS and is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a philosopher and one of the most challenging thinkers of our time. She rose to prominence in 1990 with Gender Trouble, which caused an unexpected stir as it unearthed foundational assumptions both in philosophy and in feminist theory, namely the facticity of sex. Controversial debate on the subject(s) extended far beyond academia to which Butler responded, in part, in Bodies that Matter (1993). Butler’s academic rigor is pursued through innovative and critical readings of a wide range of texts in philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature, challenging the confines of disciplinary thinking. Within, and beyond that, Judith Butler is also known for her critical voice in socio-political discourse and debate. Her qualities as a thinker are reflected in her openness to what is at stake in the present and in her passionate engagement in conversations with contemporaries in and outside academia.


Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Butler was raised in a Jewish family and according to her own words, was initiated into philosophical thinking at the age of fourteen by a rabbi from her local synagogue. She attended Bennington College and then Yale University, which included a Fulbright Scholarship to Heidelberg University in 1979. In 1984, she received her PhD in philosophy from Yale University. Her philosophical training was primarily in German Idealism, phenomenology, and the work of the Frankfurt School. The turn towards post-structuralism, to which her work is considered to make a significant contribution, followed her PhD.


Judith Butler taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, and Columbia University and was appointed the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998. An incomplete listing of her works includes: Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex” (1993), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (1997), Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997), Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Undoing Gender (2004), Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004), Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (co-authored with Athena Athanasiou, 2013), Senses of the Subject (2015), Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015).


Judith Butler's most influential book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity can be read as an intervention into feminism. Unmooring feminism at its basis, the book questions the assumption that there is such a thing as the unity of the experience of women. Women of color, who could not accept the category of women as their privileged one, articulated a critique of a unified subject of feminism and the reductive scheme operating within white feminism. Attuned to that polyphonic discourse, Butler maintained that the construction of the category of women involves a regulation of gender relations, which reverses feminist aims. She demonstrated that a feminism premised on the category of women is complicit with compulsory heterosexuality, as heterosexuality is the unreflected condition of a binary coded system of gender and desire.


Gender Trouble tackles the problem of exclusion yet in another way. The text analyzes the categorical violence that is exercised in the act of naming “men” and “women.” It's a violence that particularly affects those who cannot or don't want to conform to a binary system of gender. Judith Butler troubled the seeming fixity of this system by making the major point that the “naturalness” of the female and male sexed bodies is in fact the effect of repeated performative acts and as such culturally constructed and open to contestation. She also criticized the categorical address for representing "totalizing gestures." Later, especially in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, Judith Butler would revise her profound suspicion of categories of identity she expressed in this text by admitting the inevitability to make use of them and, in doing so, to become dirtied by the language.


Clearly, the achievement of Gender Trouble was that it launched a more nuanced understanding of identity and its mechanisms of exclusion. However, the radical critique of categories of identity can also be couched in positive terms, as in opening up new political possibilities. In this sense, Gender Trouble also marks the advent of a new feminism.


The enormous popularity of Gender Trouble exceeded Judith Butler's early intentions and not without consequence. All too often, her work gets tethered to notions of gender or performativity, ignoring that Judith Butler hasn't dwelt upon theorizing within the narrow terms laid out by Gender Trouble. However, Gender Trouble can still be looked at as an overture to her later thinking. Judith Butler remains indebted to an intellectual project that seeks to unsettle common beliefs and sets out to challenge the taken-for-granted through an approach she calls, with reference to Michel Foucault, “politics of troubling.” Another continuity in her work is the concern for the constitution, production, and reproduction of marginality and a desire to show more diverse forms of life have guided her writing throughout the years. While the genealogical analysis of power was central to Judith Butler's early work, it was later increasingly displaced by the deployment of an ethical framework, which introduced a significant shift.


Undoing Gender is influenced by and contributes to the “New Gender Politics,” dealing with issues of "transgender, transsexuality, intersex, and their complex relations to feminist and queer theory." The title of the book, however, doesn't herald a post-gender scenario. Instead, the “undoing” is the cipher for the challenge posed by outside and unknown others, limiting volition and self-making. The expression “being undone” seeks to capture that we are, prior to choice, lost in and to the other, and it's this losing that constitutes our sense of self. However, such openness, porosity and dispossession of the self do not ring in the death of the subject; rather, it's the condition of life “essential to the possibility of persisting as human.” In Frames of War, Judith Butler exposes the existential dimension of relationality: “If I survive, it is only because my life is nothing without the life that exceeds me, that refers to some indexical you, without whom I cannot be.”


The idea of a constitutive relation to alterity is a key motive that underpins all of Judith Butler's writing. It can be traced back to her very first publication, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflection in Twentieth-Century France, where she locates the ek-static character of being in the Hegelian life and death struggle that transforms into a relationship between Lord and Bondsman. In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler revives this early motive, yet she aspires to displace the dyadic structure of the Hegelian recognition. What surfaces in her later writings is a renewed attention to desire, calling forth a politics prominently featuring corporeality, antagonism and passion. Simultaneously, dispossession, ek-stasis, and relationality gain centrality which are the guiding ideas under which Judith Butler's later writings can be construed.


In introducing the concept of bodily vulnerability, Judith Butler brings her ontological aspirations linked to the ek-static structure of being on normative grounds. In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), she makes the central assertion that life is essentially precarious and vulnerable. This grounds life negatively in its exposure to violence and death, but equally endows life, as a positive feature, with its capacity to be responsive and open towards the world. Whereas precariousness captures the shared condition of all existence, precarity, its complementary figure, is the conceptual lens under which the unequal distribution of vulnerability can be comprehended, namely the unequally assigned disposability and the differential access to material resources resulting from neoliberal governmentality and war. By the same token, Judith Butler affirms the idea of global bonds, that is to say a fundamental dependency that is neither restricted to those we know, nor to the imposition of national or cultural boundaries. From there, Butler concludes, arises the ethical obligation to create political institutions and forms of life that guarantee the persistence of (distant) others.


Butler reconsiders these ideas in a global scenario of war in Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? What takes center stage is the epistemological question of how vulnerability can be apprehended given the existence of media frames that preconfigures affective responses and ways of seeing.


In recent lectures and writings, Judith Butler embarks on new terrain. Focusing on political collectives, the coming together of people in public assembly–– the people, citizenship, and public space––Butler revives her sentiment for the performative. Expanding beyond the speech act, she offers a new perspective to her concept of the performative as it is the appearance of corporeal life that establishes performatively a field of the political and supports concerted action. It is the appearance of bodies not only being precarious, but also resistant and persistent. A first systematic approach to these lines of thought can be found in Judith Butler's recent publication, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015).