Judith Butler (b.1956) received a PhD in philosophy from Yale in 1984, with a thesis on Hegelian influences in France. She is the Maxine Elliot professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley.
Butler’s collection of essays, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, written in 1989, first published in 1990, and published with a new preface in 1999 sold over 100,000 copies world-wide and has been translated into a number of languages. Thus – almost despite itself, because of the critical edge – it gave feminist studies, and subsequently, queer theory, a massive shot in the arm. In the book, Butler critically engages with the key presuppositions of feminist theory and practice as regards gender and sexuality, arguing that these are irreducible to naturalised heterosexual categories. She sets the scene for this by invoking the idea of performative as the key to gender and sexuality as constructed. Although an adept of literary theory and philosophy, it is as feminist theorist and inaugurator of queer theory that Butler has become well known. Her work has often been characterised as post-structuralist because of its concern to oppose all essentialist claims and to emphasise that gender relations are precisely that: relations, which implies that gender and sexuality are indeed constructed. In recent studies, Butler has engaged with queer theory, political theory and ethics. Perhaps partly stunned, despite her success, by the kind of criticism Martha Nussbaum mounted against her (Nussbaum 1999), Butler seems wedded lately to intervening in more public debates (on 9/11 and censorship, for example).
Critique of Kristeva – Critique of Essentialism
Rather than beginning by providing a general account of the argument in Gender Trouble, we shall focus on Butler’s critique of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the drive-based, semiotic, for it shows in a nutshell Butler’s general theoretical orientation.
For Butler, the semiotic is ultimately essentialist (and this is clearly a criticism), because of its connection to the drives – believed to be biological – and indebted, through opposition, to the socially sanctioned Symbolic: the Law of the Father, the sphere of the determination of ‘normal’ gender and sexuality. Kristeva thus shows herself to be ultimately Lacanian, even if she disagrees with Lacan on the role and status of the drives in Freudian theory. The semiotic is proposed by Kristeva as having subversive political implications in its capacity to disrupt the social order (language, for example), even if it cannot be the basis of a new order (for it to be so would entail a flirtation with psychosis). Before it can become truly subversive, the semiotic must be repressed by the Symbolic, so that the only way that the semiotic can find expression is ‘prior’ to meaning, as in the infant’s holophrastic utterances, or ‘after’ meaning, as in psychosis, where words are no longer used to signify. Butler does not give much of a hearing to poetic language or to artistic practice in general. Problems emerge, too, in Butler’s eyes, when the semiotic is equated with the organisation of the drives and the maternal body. For it seems to her that Kristeva privileges hetero over homosexuality and, in particular, over lesbian sexuality, so that homosexuality as judged by Kristeva, according to Butler, also risks toppling over into psychosis. Moreover, Kristeva is seen to privilege the maternal body and the act of birth even as these must remain without the symbolic outlet due of the Law of the Father.
Butler’s question is: how can one get an ontological purchase on the semiotic when access to it is only possible via the Symbolic itself? Surely, Butler implies, we are likely to end up, at best, without any clear knowledge of the semiotic, and at worst with the requirement that the drives of the semiotic be postulated as pre-Symbolic and existing prior to language but yet can become manifest only in and through language (the same Symbolic). Effectively, there seems to be no real outside to the Symbolic that can be accessed. Politically, Butler claims, ‘all manner of things ‘‘primitive’’ and ‘‘Oriental’’ are summarily subordinated to the principle of the maternal body’, which raises both the issue of Orientalism and multiplicity as a ‘univocal signifier’ (Butler 1999: 114).
Foucault and the Performative
In Foucault’s work, on the other hand, the notion of sex is constituted through the discourse of sexuality. Quite rightly, in Butler’s view, Foucault does not attempt to project anything beyond discourse. For him, there might as well not be any pre-discursive reality. Such a position would avoid the problem Kristeva faces with the semiotic as a challenge to, yet dependent upon, the Symbolic. Foucault also meets with Butler’s approval because, unlike the purely negative function of the Law, and thus of power, Foucault sees power as positive, in the sense that it is a productive force that brings things into being. It is not simply a mechanism of repression, or prohibition, for example.
Inspired by Foucault, Butler employs the notion of performative to emphasise that the gendered body is enacted. And she adds, in a key passage:
That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if that reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of decidedly public and social discourse, the public regulation of fantasy through the surface politics of the body, the gender border control that differentiates inner from outer, and so institutes the ‘integrity’ of the subject. (Butler 1999: 173)
In contrast to the approach which inserts the gendered body into pre-existing categories (such as heterosexual) linked to an ontology based on origins, ‘performative’ suggests that gender and subjectivity are radically contingent and subject to change. Indeed, this approach suggests that gender relations can be changed. And for Butler, writing in 1989, things needed to be changed; for heterosexually gendered bodies were hegemonic, while gay and lesbian bodies were designated as pathological. Butler considers that despite all her theoretical sophistication, Kristeva participates in the maintenance of hegemonic heterosexuality. According to Butler, even though feminism had been engaged in achieving rights for women, it had not really questioned the hegemonic characteristics of a male who identifies with being male and who therefore seeks out a female sexual partner, or of a female who therefore identifies with being female and seeks out a male partner. The Freudian principle at work here is embodied in the notion that one cannot desire the sex with which one identifies, so that if one identifies oneself as a woman, one cannot (normally) desire another woman. Butler seeks, above all, to challenge this theoretically by saying that, through ‘subversive bodily acts’, the gender bodily relations need not be beholden to such a framework. As opposed to a naturalist view, which says gender relations are imposed by nature and therefore cannot be changed in any fundamental way, the performative principle precisely enables the subversion of fixed
notions of identity.
In her book, Excitable Speech (1997a), Butler invokes J.L. Austin’s idea of performative (also called a ‘speech act’) to investigate the ways people can claim to have been injured by language. For Austin, it is possible to ‘do’ things with words (see Austin 1980). Thus for Austin, language is not only a medium of communication, or a tool for describing the world. Events such as promising, marrying, giving advice, opening a meeting, naming and launching a ship, ordering someone to do something, Austin called ‘performatives’ because uttering the words of these events in the correct context is to perform an act. Through the words alone the act is performed. Thus, in contrast to the sense of the proverb, ‘words are only words’, Austin effectively argued that words are not just words, but can be acts. These kinds of performative utterances, Austin calls ‘illocutionary acts’. In addition, ‘perlocutionary acts’ may be defined as using words to get (persuade, seduce, cajole) someone to do something. Through the uttering of words alone perlocutionary acts take place.
Along with Foucault on sexuality and Althusser on interpellating people as subjects through the uttering of words, Butler uses the notion of performative as illocutionary and perlocutionary to analyse notions, such as ‘hate speech’, ‘contagious words’ and censorship. She finds that such events are as much or more constitutive of the subject of the utterance than they are constituted. In other words, Butler invokes her earlier use of performative as ‘subject formation’. To this she adds, in her appropriation of Austin, that such subject formation takes place within a milieu of ‘ongoing political contestation and reformulation of the subject as well’ (Butler 1997a: 160).
Power and Resistance
Generally, Butler has been concerned with the issue of resistance to power and the place in society of gay rights and queer politics. However, critics such as Zizek have asked whether perversion can lead to subversion of the existing order (see Zizek 1999: 248). The issue is not perversion as unnatural practices, but of that, for example, of the order of the Law creating the criminal, the prohibition inciting the transgression, as seen in Foucault’s work on power. A perverse theory of power, then, sees power as having an ‘interest’ in resistance, whereas a progressive view argues that resistance generated by power undermines the existing form of power, or even power itself. Hegel, in his theory of Lordship and Bondage, a key reference for Butler in the Psychic Life of Power (1997b), shows a disavowal of the body similar to that in the relation between man and woman in patriarchal society. The misconception of feminine autonomy here is more restricting than the notion that woman is a symptom of man.
Through Althusserian interpellation, where ‘the subject is constituted by being hailed’ (Butler 1997b: 95), Butler’s performative means, as we have shown, that subjectivity is established in the act, and does not exist as some a priori essential element. Can such absolute contingency be sustained? This is a question arising from Butler’s approach. Butler’s criticism of Lacan centres on the idea that resistance depends on the symbolic structure which is to be resisted. But here two meanings of resistance need to be specified: social-political and psychic. Although the two domains relate and interpenetrate, they are not reducible to each other. Butler often risks doing precisely this. Psychic resistance to power, where issues of sexual identity might be at stake, is often reduced to the social-political articulation of power where one might want to resist the law that declares that no same sex marriages are permitted. Often, Butler gives the impression that for her, the social-political sphere determines the nature of psychic space.
Butler, then, favours Foucault over Lacan and rejects the Lacanian Symbolic as the sphere which sets the coordinates of our existence in advance. However, if, as Butler says, Foucault shows that resistance to power is at the same time an effect of power (the perverse thesis), this seems to be a no win, because there is no exit, situation.
Sexuality and the Masquerade
In her earlier work, Butler argues that the masquerade, where heterosexuality is a play of appearances, becomes central for Lacan: a man fears becoming a woman because this reveals an unconscious desire to be loved by another man, a desire for sameness, not difference. Thus Butler counters Lacan’s claim that female homosexuality is a disappointed heterosexuality by claiming that female heterosexuality might be a disappointed homosexuality (Butler 1999: 63).
As Butler’s critique of Kristeva shows, her key argument is that the Symbolic sets up gender identities in advance and that, in contrast to Lacan’s view, gender identities can be viewed as instituted within and by a given cultural and social matrix (another name for performative) that can be subverted.
The Production of Subjectivity, Identity and Desire
In her work, Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), Butler returns to a consideration, opened up in The Psychic Life of Power, of Foucault’s theory of identity formation. The latter is seen to be formed according ‘to certain requirements of the liberal state’ and its juridical apparatus (Butler 1997b: 100). Individuals are effectively produced by this set of arrangements and made into ‘subject of the state’ (1997b: 100). In the later work, Butler discusses Foucault on the subject of power, as this is effected within a ‘re´gime of truth’ (Butler 2005: 22). In The Psychic Life of Power, she focuses instead on his call to create new forms of subjectivity, forms which refuse those offered by the State and the existing power structure, and which have been imposed on people for ‘several centuries’ (Foucault, cited by Butler, 1997b: 101). Rather than follow Foucault to the letter here, Butler notes the change in Foucault from a position in Discipline and Punish (1977 ), which argued that no resistance to power was possible, to one in 1982 where it is possible.
Butler not only notes this discrepancy, but also reflects upon the possibilities such a position might, or might not, open up. And she points out that identity, being a fundamental attachment for the subject, cannot simply be thrown off at will. Unlike Foucault, she also wants to make a space for a psychoanalytic interpretation of the Law, which says that there is no desire without the Law that, in fact, prohibition eroticises the Law. For Foucault, in Butler’s reading, the Law is always external to desire, and thus an impediment which must be overcome. A certain place is thus secured for psychoanalysis as any opposition to subjection will first have to take subjection itself as a resource.
This suggests an attempt by Butler to refine the voluntarism of the performative in her earlier stance in Gender Trouble. By the time of her book, Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), which has a clear ethical focus, Butler, although referring to Foucault in order to pose key questions, nevertheless raises the prospect of an opacity in the self that remains, and which, if not inaccessible, is at least only accessible after a great deal of reflexive labour. The point is that although an ideological, and therefore relatively transparent, relation to oneself is possible, the real material bases of identity, including, if one likes, ‘a re´gime of truth’ (Butler 2005: 22), are much more difficult to ascertain. Indeed, how does one refuse what one is (the Foucauldian proposition), if it is unclear as to exactly what one is? More pointedly: the question that Butler still needs to answer is: How can performativity work as a principle of resistance (to stereotypes, etc), when a certain opacity is at the heart of every identity?
Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition John Lechte Routledge 2008
Austin, J.L. (1980 ). How to Do Things with Words, Oxford, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Butler, Judith (2005), Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press.
—— (1999), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London: Routledge.
—— (1997a), Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York and London: Routledge.
—— (1997b), The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Foucault, Michel (1977 ), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Allen Lane.
Nussbaum, Martha (1999), ‘The Professor of Parody’, The New Republic, 2 February, accessible via ‘The New Republic Online’ at <http://www.tnr.com/index.mhtml>.
Zizek, Slavoj (1999), The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London and New York: Verso. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.
Butler’s Major Writings
(2005) Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press.
(2004a) Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge.
(2004b) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London and New York: Verso.
(2003) The Judith Butler Reader, ed., Sara Salih, with Judith Butler, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
(2000a) Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, New York: Columbia University Press.
(2000b) Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (with Ernesto Laclau and Slovoj Zˇ izˇek), London and New York:Verso.
(1997a) The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.
(1997b) Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York and London: Routledge.
(1993) Bodies That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of ‘‘Sex’’, London and New
(1990 and 1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New
York and London: Routledge.
(1987) Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France, New
York: Columbia University Press.
Bell, Vicki (1999), ‘Interview with Judith Butler’, Theory, Culture and Society, 16 (April).
Kirby, Vicki (2005), Judith Butler: Live Theory, London and New York: Continuum.