|Full name||Judith Butler|
|Born||February 24, 1956
|Era||20th / 21st-century philosophy|
|School||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|
Judith Butler (born 24 February 1956) is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is currently the Maxine Elliott professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley.
Butler received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1984, for a dissertation subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. In the late-1980s she held several teaching/research appointments, and was involved in "post-structuralist" efforts within Western feminist theory to question the "presuppositional terms" of feminism. Her research ranges from literary theory, modern philosophical fiction, feminist and sexuality studies, to 19th- and 20th-century European literature and philosophy, Kafka and loss, mourning and war. Her most recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy, exploring pre- and post-Zionist criticisms of state violence.
Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio  to a family of Hungarian and Russian ancestry. Her mother was raised in Orthodox Judaism, later turning to Conservative Judaism, and finally to Reform Judaism; Butler's father belonged to a Reformed Synagogue since his childhood. As a child and teenager, she attended both Hebrew school and special classes on Jewish ethics where she received her "first training in philosophy."  Butler stated in a 2010 interview with Haaretz that she began the ethics classes at the age of 14 and that they were created as a form of punishment by her Hebrew school's Rabbi because she was "too talkative in class," "talk[ed] back," and was "not well behaved." Butler also stated that she was "thrilled" by the classes and chose to focus on Martin Buber. She also encountered the writings of Kant, Hegel, and Spinoza during these special sessions.
Butler studied philosophy at Yale University, receiving her B.A. in 1978 and her Ph.D. in 1984. Her dissertation was subsequently published as Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. She taught at Wesleyan University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins University before joining U.C. Berkeley in 1993.
Gender Trouble was first published in 1990, selling over 100,000 copies internationally and in different languages. Alluding to the similarly named 1974 John Waters film Female Trouble starring the drag queen Divine, 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 has also enjoyed widespread popularity outside of traditional academic circles, even inspiring an intellectual fanzine, Judy!
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.
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. 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. 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.
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 seeks to clear up readings and misreadings of performativity that view the enactment of sex/gender as a daily choice. 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.
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.
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. 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 those 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.
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. 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. 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".
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. 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. 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 collects Butler's reflections on gender, sex, sexuality, psychoanalysis and the medical treatment of intersex people 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, married and became a step father to his wife's 3 children, and went on to tell his story in As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl which he wrote with John Colapinto. Reimer had committed suicide in 2004.
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, Cavarero 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"? Butler accepts the claim that if the subject is opaque to itself the limitations of its free ethical responsibility and obligations are due to the limits of narrative, presuppositions of language and projection. "You may think that I am in fact telling a story about the prehistory of the subject, one that I have been arguing cannot be told. There are two responses to this objection. (1) That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking "I" does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers. (2) This prehistory has never stopped happening and, as such, is not a prehistory in any chronological sense. It is not done with, over, relegated to a past, which then becomes part of a causal or narrative reconstruction of the self. On the contrary, that prehistory interrupts the story I have to give of myself, makes every account of myself partial and failed, and constitutes, in a way, my failure to be fully accountable for my actions, my final "irresponsibility," one for which I may be forgiven only because I could not do otherwise. This not being able to do otherwise is our common predicament" (page 78).
Instead she argues for an ethics based precisely on the limits of self-knowledge as the limits of responsibility itself. 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. 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.
Many scholars have praised Butler's work. She has been referred to as "one of the superstars of '90s academia, with a devoted following of grad students nationwide," "the most famous feminist philosopher in the United States," "the queer theorist par excellence," and "the most brilliantly eclectic theorist of sexuality in recent years." In addition, Lois McNay argues that, "Butler's work has influenced feminist understandings of gender identity (1999: 175)." Others, such as Susan A. Speer and Jonathan Potter claim that her research has given new insight in several areas, especially in the concept of heterosexism. However, although Speer and Potter find Butler’s work useful in this respect, they find her work too abstract to be usefully applied to “real-life situations.” For this reason, they pair a reading of Butler with Discursive Psychology in order to extend Butler’s ideas to real-world scenarios.
Others are more critical. Susan Bordo has chastised Butler for reducing gender to language, arguing that the body is a major part of gender, thus implicitly opposing her conception of gender as performed. Peter Digeser argues that Butler’s idea of performativity is too pure to account for identity. Digeser doubts that pure performativity is possible, suggesting that in viewing the gendered individual as purely performed, Butler ignores the gendered body, which Bordo also argues is extremely important. He also argues that neither an essentialist nor a performative notion of gender should be used in the political sphere, as both simplify gender too much. Martha Nussbaum has argued that Butler misreads J.L. Austin's idea of performative utterance, makes erroneous legal claims, forecloses an essential site of resistance by repudiating pre-cultural agency, and provides no normative ethical theory to direct the subversive performances that Butler endorses. Finally, Nancy Fraser argued that Butler’s focus on performativity has distanced her from “everyday ways of talking and thinking about ourselves … Why should we use such a self-distancing idiom?”
Butler's prose-style has generated some controversy, according to Sara Salih, lecturer in English at the University of Kent at Canterbury. To the author herself this is not surprising; she has been misinterpreted and misunderstood because the concepts with which she deals are "philosophically challenging, often apparently ‘counter-intuitive’, and not always described in immediately accessible language."
In 1998, Denis Dutton's journal Philosophy and Literature "awarded" Butler "First Prize" in its "Bad Writing Competition," which claims to "celebrate bad writing from the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles." Dutton discontinued this "award" after being heavily criticized for its hostile spirit. Butler responded to Dutton's criticism, with a letter to the London Review of Books and an op-ed piece for the New York Times. She argued that writing clearly can make the author too reliant on common sense and as such make language lose its potential to "shape the world" and shake up the status quo.
Stanley N. Kurtz, in turn, argued against Butler's op-ed in a letter to the New York Times titled, "Bad Writing Has No Defense." Stephen K. Roney also responded that "many—indeed, most—generally recognized “great thinkers” have been clear and lucid in their writing [...] Is Butler claiming to be deeper than all of them?"
In "No, It's Not Anti-Semitic," an August 2003 article published in the London Review of Books, Butler argued against statements by Harvard President Lawrence Summers who suggested that criticizing Israeli policies is a form of anti-semitism. She responded by stating that it, "will not do to equate Jews with Zionists or Jewishness with Zionism" and argued against the notion that Jews such as herself who were critical of Israeli policies are "self-hating." She also referred to Post-Zionism as a "small but important" movement in Israel. In addition, Butler also argued that, "a challenge to the right of Israel to exist can be construed as a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people only if one believes that Israel alone keeps the Jewish people alive or that all Jews invest their sense of perpetuity in the state of Israel in its current or traditional forms.” 
In a later 2004 article, "Jews and the Bi-National Vision," published in Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Butler attributes this vision to the writings of Martin Buber. On September 7, 2006, Butler participated in a faculty-organized teach-in at the University of California, Berkeley, against the 2006 Lebanon War. Butler is also a strong supporter of the 2005 international economic campaign, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).