Summary and Keywords
Judith Butler is one of the most important contemporary critical theorists. Best known for her influential concept of gender as performance and her critique of the idea of natural binary sexual difference, Butler also develops a critical perspective on wider issues arising from the idea that “being is doing,” insisting on the many alternate possibilities of lives that can always be “done” differently. In this context Butler develops a complex account of what it is to be a subject and revises some basic philosophical assumptions regarding how to think about moral deliberation. Butler displaces the assumption that the human subject is responsible only on the condition of being autonomous in order to reconceptualize subjects as beings thrown into a world of interdependency and cohabitation. Butler characterizes us as part of “precarious life,” beings whose exposure to desire, loss, and grief is constitutive of our existence, but who nonetheless find agency within a critical relation to constituting social norms and through building more generous public worlds.
It is helpful to understand the rich engagement that Butler’s work has with the philosophical perspectives in the background of these ideas, from the Hegelian criticism of abstract universalism to genealogy, deconstruction, queer and feminist theory, speech act theory, and the psychoanalytic account of subject formation, as well as the interlocutors who have become increasingly important in Butler’s recent work, including Levinas, Benjamin, and Arendt. These engagements ground a distinctive ethical and political approach that Butler brings to bear on contemporary and urgent questions, central to which is how alterity is engaged with. With a focus on how lives become “intelligible” as those of the kinds of beings that are recognized and find protection in law, Butler contributes rich insights into contemporary political phenomena. In particular, she describes how only certain lives appear as valuable in public discourses, while others lives and deaths become a matter of indifference, tracking the role of images and rhetoric in enforcing such differences. In demonstrating how state violence is bound up with this differentiation between “grievable and ungrievable lives,” Butler draws out a complex account of the relationship between violence, law, and justice. There are clear continuities between Butler’s earliest and latest work in the exploration of these issues, based in her methodological commitments to practices of critique and genealogy.
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