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Judith Butler - Biography

Judith Butler, Ph.D., Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School EGS, attended Bennington College and then Yale University, where she received her B.A., and her Ph.D. in philosophy in 1984. Her first training in philosophy took place at the synagogue in her hometown of Cleveland. She taught at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins universities before becoming Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Judith Butler is the author of Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (Columbia University Press, 2000), Hegemony, Contingency, Universality, with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, (Verso Press, 2000), Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (Columbia University Press, 1987), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (Routledge, 1993), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection (Stanford University Press, 1997), Excitable Speech: Politics of the Performance (Routledge, 1997), as well as numerous articles and contributions on philosophy, feminism and queer theory. Her recent project is a critique of ethical violence and an effort to formulate a theory of responsibility for an opaque subject that works with Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche.

In her most influential book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Judith Butler argued that feminism had made a mistake by trying to assert that 'women' were a group with common characteristics and interests. That approach, Judith Butler said, performed 'an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations', reinforcing a binary view of gender in which human beings are divided into two clear-cut groups, women and men. Judith Butler notes that feminists rejected the idea that biology is destiny, but then developed an account of patriarchal culture which assumed that masculine and feminine genders would inevitably be built, by culture, upon 'male' and 'female' bodies, making the same destiny just as inescapable. That argument allows no room for choice, difference or resistance.

Judith Butler argues that sex (male, female) is seen to cause gender (masculine, feminine) which, in turn, is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender). This is commonly regarded as a kind of continuum. Judith Butler's approach – inspired in part by Michel Foucault – is basically to smash the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, free-floating and not 'caused' by other stable factors. Judith Butler suggests that certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold, and calls for subversive action in the present: 'gender trouble' – the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders, and therefore identities. This idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to an 'essence', but instead to a performance, is one of the key ideas in queer theory. Seen in this way, our identities, gendered and otherwise, do not express some authentic inner 'core' self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances.

Judith Butler looks at psychoanalysis as a 'grand narrative', about how 'woman' as a unitary category is formed. Psychoanalysis is a story about origins and ends, which includes some aspects, and excludes others. This narrative 'gives a false sense of legitimacy and universality to a culturally specific and, in some cases, culturally oppressive version of gender identity' (Butler). Judith Butler understands gendered subjectivity 'as a history of identifications, parts of which can be brought into play in given contexts and which, precisely because they encode the contingencies of personal history, do not always point back to an internal coherence of any kind'. Gender, then, as the identification with one sex or one object (like the mother) is a fantasy, a set of internalized images, and not a set of properties governed by the body and its organ configuration. Rather, gender is a set of signs internalized, psychically imposed on the body and on one's psychic sense of identity. Gender, Judith Butler concludes, is thus not a primary category, but an attribute, a set of secondary narrative effects.

In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993), Judith Butler clarifies much of what Michel Foucault examined in The History of Sexuality. Judith Butler is careful, however, not to borrow the models Michel Foucault uses, thereby avoiding some of the gaps that occur in his thinking, namely his silence on the subject of women. Judith Butler is not willing to settle the debate on sexuality merely as the obtaining and disseminating of pleasures and how those bodies perform them. Rather, she takes bodies as always already gender indeterminate and destabilizes their performatives further to show how bodies are marked by gender, as well as race, class, sexuality, etc., and how these categories are also destabilized within the perfomative.

In Excitable Speech: Politics of the Performance (1997), Judith Butler analyzes name-calling as both a social injury and the way in which individuals are called into action for political purposes. She cannot see a way to refuse the interpellating call, or chain of calls, outright, for it is through interpellation that the subject is constituted, and therefore, the 'I' who would oppose its construction is always in some sense drawing from that construction to articulate its opposition. Further, the 'I' draws what is called its 'agency' in part through being implicated in the very relations of power that it seeks to oppose.

Judith Butler is interested in the concept of ambivalence because she sees it as a site of subversion. Her concept of ambivalence is closely related to Derrida's concept of différance. She defines it as the slippage between the call of the law and its articulation, from which one can reveal the false claim to naturalness and originality of hegemonic norms.

In Antigone's Claim (2000), Judith Butler redefines Antigone's legacy, recovering her revolutionary significance and liberating it for a progressive feminism and sexual politics. Judith Butler's new interpretation reconceptualizes the incest taboo in relation to kinship and opens up the concept of kinship to cultural change. Antigone, the renowned insurgent from Sophocles' Oedipus cycle, has long been a feminist icon of defiance. What has remained unclear is whether she escapes from the forms of power that she opposes. Antigone proves to be a more ambivalent figure for feminism than has been acknowledged, since the form of defiance she exemplifies also leads to her death. Judith Butler argues that Antigone represents a form of feminist and sexual agency that is fraught with risk. She considers the works of such philosophers as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigaray, and she asks how psychoanalysis would have been different if it had taken Antigone – the "postoedipal" subject – rather than Oedipus as its point of departure. If the incest taboo is reconceived so that it does not mandate heterosexuality as its solution, what forms of sexual alliance and new kinship might be acknowledged as a result? The book relates the courageous deeds of Antigone to the claims made by those whose relations are still not honored as those of proper kinship, showing how a culture of normative heterosexuality obstructs our capacity to see what sexual freedom and political agency could be.

Judith Butler is Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where she teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.