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Inspiring Thursday: Judith Butler

“If there is something right in Beauvoir’s claim that one is born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end. As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification.”
― Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Judith Butler is one of the most influential theorists writing today. She is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California Berkeley. She rose to prominence with Gender Trouble, which unearthed foundational assumptions of ´gender´ and ´sex´ and challenged the confines of disciplinary thinking.

Judith Pamela Butler was born February 24, 1956 in Cleveland, Ohio in the United States to a dentist and a mother advocate for fair housing. Growing up in a Jewish family, she was introduced to philosophy at the age of fourteen by a rabbi from her local synagogue. She attended Bennington College and then went to Yale University where she received a Bachelors (1978), Masters (1982) and Doctorate in Philosophy (1984). Her work centred on the understanding of the performative nature of gender and sex – which was very influenced by Eurocentric thinkers, cultural theory, queer theory and some school of 20th century feminism.

Following her degrees, Butler went on as an academic where she taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, John Hopkins University and UC Berkeley where she was appointed Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature in 1998. Butler also served as Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee (Switzerland). She has earned many high profile positions in academia as being one of the founders of the Critical Theory Program and the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs at UC Berkeley, served as Department Chair of the Department of Rhetoric from 1998-2003 and 2006-7 and the Acting Chair of the Department of Gender and Women´s Studies, 2002-3.

Butler is an acclaimed theorist in the field of feminism, her major works include: her first book Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987) which derived from her doctoral dissertation and ventures in a discussion on the concept of desire trough the Hegelian lens Phenomenology of Spirit. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and its sequel Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ´Sex´ (1993) became Butler´s staple works to expose her theory that gender is socially constructed and is therefore not natural. Gender is the result of socialization, but it is not something that we find in a natural setting. In fact, this broadly conceived notion of gender serves to perpetuate women´s role and its submissive state and justify the normalcy of a hetero normative binary system.

Her celebrated works assumed that gender was constituted by action and speech “by behaviour in which gendered traits and dispositions are exhibited or acted out” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The constant repetition of those actions and speeches create the illusion that it is natural while it is, in fact, a conditioned behaviour. Butler even went to saying that the term `sex` was to some degree a performative social construct because it describes something quote on quote natural or biological through a heterosexual matrix.

What is striking is that in Gender Trouble, Butler suggests that much of feminist political theorizing was exclusionary and reinforced the stability of the heterosexual matrix. She rather encouraged a subversive destabilization of women and other categories through conscious deviant gendered behaviour thus exposing the artificiality of gender. Gender Trouble was a founding text for queer theory.

Butler’s other works include Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1996), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997), Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009), and Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012). Her works continually criticized the constitution, production, and reproduction of marginality.

“For me, violence is not male or masculine. I don’t think that it comes from the recesses of men or is built into a necessary definition of masculinity. We can talk about structures of masculine domination, or patriarchy, and in those cases it is the social structures and their histories that call to be dismantled. It is difficult to know how to understand individual acts of violence within social structures that encourage, permit and exonerate such acts. It may be that we are social creatures whose lives are lived out in social structures that we have some power to change. So I don’t think individual men can point to “social structures” as an excuse, i.e. “the social structure of masculine domination made me commit this act of violence” (Judith Butler, NY Times, 2019).

Her theories received much criticism not only in content but also in the style that she conveyed her argument to which she responded that “radical ideas are often best expressed in writing that challenges conventional standards of lucidity, grammar, and “common sense.”

Butler´s activism is very diverse among many of her distinctions she is involved with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. In 2014, she was awarded the diploma of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Cultural Ministry. In 2015, she was made an “honorary geographer” by the American Association of Geographers and was elected as a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.

Written by Claire Davis, WAVE Intern

Sources

Duignan, Brian. “Judith Butler.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Judith-Butler.

“Judith Butler Quotes (Author of Gender Trouble) (Page 3 of 4).” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5231.Judith_Butler?page=3.

“Judith Butler.” Research UC Berkeley, 10 Oct. 2012, vcresearch.berkeley.edu/faculty/judith-butler.

“Judith Butler.” The European Graduate School EST. 1994, egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler.

Yancy, George. “Judith Butler: When Killing Women Isn’t a Crime.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 July 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/07/10/opinion/judith-butler-gender.html.