Hannah Arendt Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.
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).
Butler, Judith. Foreword to State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, by Isabell Lorey. Verso, 2015. ISBN: 1781685967
Dialogue: Antigone, Speech, Performance, Power
Butler, Judith, and Paul Rabinow. “Dialogue: Antigone, Speech, Performance, Power.” In Talk, Talk, Talk: The Cultural Life of Everyday Conversation, edited by S. I. Salamensky. Routledge, 2001. ISBN: 0415921716
The End of Sexual Difference?
Butler, Judith. “The End of Sexual Difference?” In Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century, edited by Elisabeth Bronfen and Misha Kavka. Columbia University Press, 2001. ISBN: 0231117043
How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are Mine?
Butler, Judith. “How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are Mine?” In Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory, edited by Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski. University of Minnesota Press, 2000. ISBN: 0816636141
Circuits of Bad Conscience: Nietzsche and Freud
Butler, Judith. “Circuits of Bad Conscience: Nietzsche and Freud.” In Why Nietzsche Still? Reflections on Drama, Culture, Politics, edited by Alan D. Schrift. University of California Press, 2000. ISBN: 0520218523
Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” In Gender. Readers in Cultural Criticism, edited by Anna Tripp. Palgrave, 2000. ISBN: 0333770374
Butler, Judith. “Ethical Ambivalence.” In The Turn to Ethics. Culture Works, edited by Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. Routledge, 2000. ISBN: 0415922267
The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess
Butler, Judith. “The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess.” In Feminism and Pornography, edited by Drucilla Cornell. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0198782500
Butler, Judith. “Performance.” In Readings: Acts of Close Reading in Literary Theory, edited by Julian Wolfreys. Edinburgh University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0748613528
Quandaries of the Incest Taboo,” in Whose Freud?
Butler, Judith. “Quandaries of the Incest Taboo.” In Whose Freud? The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, edited by Peter Brooks and Alex Woloch. Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0300087454
Subjection, Resistance, Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault
Butler, Judith. “Subjection, Resistance, Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault.” In American Continental Philosophy. Studies in Continental Thought, edited by Walter Brogan and James Risser. Indiana University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0253213762
Contagious Word: Paranoia and ‘Homosexuality’ in the Military
Butler, Judith. “Contagious Word: Paranoia and ‘Homosexuality’ in the Military.” In The Good Citizen, edited by David Batstone and Eduardo Mendieta. Routledge, 2001. ISBN: 0415929083
Headnote to Stanley Fish’s ‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too
Butler, Judith. “Headnote to Stanley Fish’s ‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,'” in The Stanley Fish Reader, ed. H. Aram Veeser . Blackwell, 1999. ISBN: 0631204393
Performativity’s Social Magic
Butler, Judith. “Performativity’s Social Magic.” In Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, edited by Richard Shusterman. Blackwell, 1998. ISBN: 0631188185
Butler, Judith. Afterword to Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender, by Sally R. Munt. Cassell, 1999. ISBN: 030433958X
Butler, Judith. Foreword to The Erotic Bird: Phenomenology in Literature, by Maurice Natanso. Princeton University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0691012199
Moral Sadism and Doubting One’s Own Love
Butler, Judith. “Moral Sadism and Doubting One’s Own Love.” In Reading Melanie Klein, edited by john Phillips and Lyndsey Stonebridge. Routledge, 1998. ISBN: 0415162378
Ruled Out: Vocabularies of the Censor
Butler, Judith. “Ruled Out: Vocabularies of the Censor.” In Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation, edited by Robert C. Post. Getty, 1998. ISBN: 0486267881
Selection from Bodies that Matter
Butler, Judith. “Selection from Bodies that Matter.” In Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader, edited by Donn Welton. Blackwell, 1998. ISBN: 1577181263
Passing Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge
Butler, Judith. “Passing Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge.” In Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian and Helene Moglen. University of California Press, 1997. ISBN: 0520206304
Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire
Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” In Feminisms, edited by Sandra Kemp, Judith Squires. Oxford Readers, 1997. ISBN: 0192892703
Excerpt from ‘Introduction’ to Bodies that Matter
Butler, Judith. “Excerpt from ‘Introduction’ to Bodies that Matter.” In The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy, edited by Roger N. Lancaster and Michaela di Leonardo. Routledge, 1997. ISBN: 0415910056
Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion
Butler, Judith. “Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion.” In Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Cultural Politics, 11, edited by Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. University of Minnesota Press, 1997. ISBN: 0816626499
Imitation and Gender Subordination
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Subordination.” In The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson. Routledge, 1997. ISBN: 0415917611
Butler, Judith. “Desire.” In Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. University of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN: 0226472035
For a Careful Reading
Butler, Judith. “For a Careful Reading.” In Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, 127-143. Routledge, 1995. ISBN: 0415910862
Stubborn Attachment, Bodily Subjection: Rereading Hegel on the Unhappy Consciousness
Butler, Judith. “Stubborn Attachment, Bodily Subjection: Rereading Hegel on the Unhappy Consciousness.” In Intersections: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy and Contemporary Theory, edited by Tilottama Rajan and David L. Clark. State University of New York Press, 1995. ISBN: 0791422577
Attachement obstiné et assujettissement corporel–Relire Hegel à propos de la conscience malheureuse
Butler, Judith. “Attachement obstiné et assujettissement corporel–Relire Hegel à propos de la conscience malheureuse.” Translated by Michel Vakaloulis. In Hegel passé, Hegel à venir, edited by Claude Amey and Henri Maler. Editions l’Harmattan, 1995.
Subjection, Resistance, Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault
Butler, Judith. “Subjection, Resistance, Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault.” In The Identity in Question, edited by John Rajchman. Routledge, 1995. ISBN: 0415906180
Thresholds of Melancholy
Butler, Judith. “Thresholds of Melancholy.” In The Prism of the Self: Philosophical Essays in Honor of Maurice Natanson, edited by Steven Galt Crowell. Kluwer, 1995. ISBN: 0792335465
Burning Acts-Injurious Speech
Butler, Judith. “Burning Acts-Injurious Speech.” In Performativity and Performance, edited by Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 197-227. Routledge, 1995.
Burning Acts: Injurious Speech
Butler, Judith. “Burning Acts: Injurious Speech.” In Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the Political, edited by Anselm Haverkamp, 149-180. New York University Press, 1995.
Collected and Fractured: Response to Identities
Butler, Judith. “Collected and Fractured: Response to Identities.” In Identities, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 439-447. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva
Butler, Judith. “The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva.” In Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writings: A Collection of Essays, edited by Kelly Oliver. Routledge, 1993. ISBN: 0415907047
Critical Exchanges: The Symbolic and Questions of Gender
Butler, Judith. “Critical Exchanges: The Symbolic and Questions of Gender.” In Questioning Foundations: Truth/Subjectivity/Culture, edited by Hugh J. Silverman. Routledge, 1993. ISBN: 0415906245
Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia
Butler, Judith. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” In Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams. Routledge, 1993. ISBN: 0415907357
A Skeptical Feminist Postscript to the Postmodern
Butler, Judith. “A Skeptical Feminist Postscript to the Postmodern.” In Postmodernism Across the Ages: Essays for a Postmodernity That Wasn’t Born Yesterday, edited by Bill Readings and Bennet Schaber. Syracuse University Press, 1993. ISBN: 0815625774
Butler, Judith. “Gender.” In Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, edited by Elizabeth Wright, et al. Blackwell, 1992. ISBN: 0631183477
Kierkegaard’s Speculative Despair
Butler, Judith. “Kierkegaard’s Speculative Despair.” In The Age of German Idealism, edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Marie Higgins. Routledge, 1993. ISBN: 0415056047
Repenser la politique et l’ontologie ou ‘répétition et oubli
Butler, Judith. “Repenser la politique et l’ontologie ou ‘répétition et oubli’.” Translated by Arno Mayer. In Penser après Heidegger. La Philosophie en commun, edited by Jacques Poulain and Wolfgang Schirmacher, 125-134. L’Harmattan, 1992. ISBN: 2738410642
Sexual Inversions: Rereading the End of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I
Butler, Judith. “Sexual Inversions: Rereading the End of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I.” In Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS, edited by Domna C. Stanton. University of Michigan Press, 1992. ISBN: 0472065130
Imitation and Gender Insubordination
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, edited by Diana Fuss. Routledge, 1999. ISBN: 0415902371
Imitation and Gender Insubordination
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. Routledge, 1993. ISBN: 0415905192
The Nothing that Is: Wallace Stevens’ Hegelian Affinities
Butler, Judith. “The Nothing that Is: Wallace Stevens’ Hegelian Affinities.” In Theorizing American Literature: Hegel, the Sign, and History, ed. Bainard Cowan, and Joseph G. Kronick. Louisiana State University Press, 1991. ISBN: 0807116289
Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse
Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse.” In Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda J. Nicholson. Routledge, 1990. ISBN: 041590059X
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Butler, Judith. “Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).” In European Writers: The Twentieth Century, ed. George Stade. MacMillan Publishing Company, 1990. ISBN: 0684179164
The Pleasures of Repetition
Butler, Judith. “The Pleasures of Repetition.” In Pleasure Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Role of Affect in Motivation, Development, and Adaptation, Vol. 1, edited by Robert A. Glick and Stanley Bone. Yale University Press, 1990. ISBN: 0300047932
Commentary on Joseph Flay’s ‘Hegel, Derrida and Bataille’s Laughter’
Butler, Judith. “Commentary on Joseph Flay’s ‘Hegel, Derrida and Bataille’s Laughter’.” In Hegel and His Critics: Philosophy in the Aftermath of Hegel, edited by William Desmond. State University of New York Press, 1989. ISBN: 0887066682
Sexual Ideology and Phenomenological Description: A Feminist Critique of Merleau-Ponty’sPhenomenology of Perception
Butler, Judith. “Sexual Ideology and Phenomenological Description: A Feminist Critique of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.” In The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern French Philosophy, edited by Jeffner Allen and Marion Young. Indiana University Press, 1989. ISBN: 0253359805
Gendering the Body: Beauvoir’s Political Contribution
Butler, Judith. “Gendering the Body: Beauvoir’s Political Contribution.” In Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorartions in Feminist Philosophy, edited by Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall. Unwin Hyman, 1989. ISBN: 9780044452225