Judith Butler and Communication Studies
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.
Judith Butler is one of the most influential of contemporary critical theorists. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (first published 1990, reissued with a new preface in 1999) set the direction for thinking about gender in the 21st century. Beyond this, Butler’s wide range of political interests and engagements has made her a key interlocutor in some of the most essential questions of justice, violence, and humanity arising in global, transnational, and national contexts. Butler envisages a world in which gender is liberated from violently imposed rules and from strict social expectations about its “normality.” In insisting upon the conceivability of new possibilities of human being and the power of critique to intervene in the discourses that compose public life, her thinking has wide implications for reimagining the terms on which we approach both ethics and the political world.
If the impact of Butler’s work was first registered in the 1990s in relation to her startling rethinking of gender, it is worth noting from the beginning that her philosophical lexicon always provides a broader frame. She locates questions of gender in deep conundrums with long histories, spanning classical, modern, and postmodern perspectives and with extensive implications for today: the question of what a subject is, what a body is, what we are responsible for, how discourses produce the effects of reality, or what claims to equal rights require. Butler’s public intellectual engagement with “real world questions” draws on and develops this distinctive and nuanced philosophy, always arguing for the idea that ethical thinking requires social theory and critique, an understanding of the material and discursive conditions under which questions emerge as vital for deliberation (2005, p. 8, 2002).
Butler’s early influences as a student in philosophy were the French phenomenologists of the 20th century and, above all, the inspiration they found in Hegel’s phenomenology. Hegel criticized abstract universalism, of the kind Kant practiced when he conceptualized knowledge as requiring a law-like form that preceded all experience, and imagined that morality and its obligations could be founded on a universal respect for rational humanity. If Kant thereby neatly separated the world we know from the action we ideally prescribe, in each case with universal validity and applicability, Hegel, conversely, embedded the possibility of knowledge in the tensions and limitations of a historical world, where morality is never far from the custom and convention of social existence. Following this Hegelian track while extending, criticizing, and supplementing it with resources drawn from modern critical theory, post-structuralism, and feminist and queer thought, Butler develops a highly distinctive approach to ethics, politics, and epistemology, which she often characterizes using the term critique. By contrast with the Kantian paradigm of critique, Butler works out from a starting place in which disturbances to our preconceptions about the form reality must take, or the prerequisites of our moral universes, emerge as the fractured beginning of reflection. Only questions that directly address us with a sense of urgency—questions that trouble us, implicate us even, in the way that gender troubles us, for instance, when it is perceived as “not quite right” or “queer”—are genuinely critical questions, calling on us to investigate our framing epistemological, ethical or political assumptions (2002, p. 212, 2005, p. 24).
The experience of dissonance, of some element that disturbs the seamless narrative composing our orderly sense of reality or necessity, is the beginning of critical ethical work. Such orderly reality is also described as “hegemonic” normativity or as comprising “regimes of truth”; it is an intersecting set of discourses and practices at work in shaping action and thought while simultaneously disallowing and excluding dissonant gestures or ways of being. The analysis of hegemonic power, as organized into compelling normative frameworks for living and thinking, is at the center of Butler’s work. Citing Gramsci, Butler (2000) aligns her approach with an account of hegemony that “emphasizes the ways in which power operates to form our everyday understanding of social relations, and to orchestrate the ways in which we consent to (and reproduce) those tacit and covert relations of power” (p. 14). Thus in Gender Trouble we see gender construed as a hegemonic form of power, where power is understood not in the sense of discrete elements vying with one another for influence, but in terms of how “common sense” is fabricated and prevails, or how dominant epistemes (regimes of truth) are forged and reproduced in everyday practices. It is also a theory of counterhegemony, and the subversion of such institutionalized or sedimented realities, which forms the basis of Butler’s account of agency.
In this idiom, Butler speaks of “heteronormativity” as that which organizes the dominant narrative of gendered lives but also of the potent hegemonic and normative “frames of war” that organize perceptions of justice and violence (and the difference between the two) in our times. The task Butler sets for herself and for her readers is to make such “frames” visible, to reveal how they act and to learn to inhabit them differently, with greater regard for the many nonviolent possibilities of coexistence (1999, p. xxiv; 2012). Despite the emphasis she places on the ways in which lives are saturated with relations of power, she is also deeply concerned throughout her work with the possibilities and nature of resistance, the subversion of identities, the “resignification” of social norms so that they read “queerly,” or the public forms of protest and assembly that might shift the way in which the constituted world of political relations appears to us. Butler opposes structuralist accounts of how meaning is constituted because they make social forms seem necessary and unchangeable (2004b, p. 211). To understand how social meanings are generated on terms that make us see them as changeable, we must address the “habitus of the body,” where, as she puts it, cultural norms are reiterated and the symbolic and the social dimensions of meaning are intertwined (2000, p. 29). This also makes psychic as well as social accounts of the way norms are lived important, particularly at the level of sexuality.
Butler’s conception of critique is tied to an ontology that stresses relationality, also sometimes named the “ecstatic” nature of the self, and “precariousness,” our being fundamentally dependent on a sustaining and sustainable social world, which conditions our lives. We are “dispossessed in sociality,” as she puts it in the lecture she gave upon receiving the Adorno prize in 2012 (2015, p. 212). This signals that we do not exist as selves prior to our being thrown into a world of others—at the level of embodiment, at the level of language, in terms of desire, as well as through dependency and interconnectedness (p. 212). Responsibility, of the sort she develops in her work, and calls on her readers to engage, arises from a situation that is neither fully determined nor radically free. It is most often characterized by Butler in the language of struggle, “struggle with the unchosen conditions of one’s life,” which must, nonetheless, be avowed as the sign of our embeddedness in a socially articulated world that forms the condition of possibility of all agency (2005, p. 21).
The deliberation Butler takes to be called for here is named “critique,” the need for which arises when we are not “at one” with the normative world we encounter and must find an orientation beyond its established rules, while remaining irreducibly implicated in its power structures and social relations (2005, p. 8). This is not the deliberation of the rational and transcendent subject Kant imagined but, rather, with Hegel (as Butler reads him), it accepts that we know and judge only worlds that we are deeply immersed in. Far from beginning to think about what we should do from the secure position of the autonomous “sovereign subject” so often presupposed in philosophical ethics, what it is to be a subject, an “I” who reflects and deliberates, is here given an unconventional reworking. The “living I” is both dependent on the sustaining power of social norms and, in critique, takes up a relationship with them, such that the question of how to live or “do” them well, or how, indeed, to resist and transfigure them, becomes possible. Butler endorses both aspects of Foucault’s account of critique, on the one hand engaged in exposing “the limits of the historical scheme of things, the epistemological and ontological horizon within which subjects come to be at all,” and on the other, generating an “aesthetics of the self that maintains a critical relation to existing norms” by performing a revealing exposure of their limits (2005, p. 17). Although these themes become more explicitly articulated in the middle period of her work, sometimes leading to the claim that there is an unexpected “turn to ethics” with the publication of Giving an Account of Oneself in 2005, they are readily discernible in the early work as well.
Making Gender Trouble
In Gender Trouble, Butler’s critical inquiry into gender is described as “genealogical.” It follows methods developed by Nietzsche and Foucault in approaching “the foundational categories of sex, gender and desire as effects of a specific formation of power” (1990, p. xxxi). Genealogy can be understood as interested in hegemonic and socially embedded forms of normativity, including forms of power that have a close proximity to morality and thus support constructions of responsibility, legitimacy, and justice. It is a methodology that also brings into relief how “regimes of truth” operate to make the world appear naturally organized in one and only one possible way. Gender Trouble is focused on interrogating how discourses such as those surrounding the apparently obvious use of categories such as “men” and “women” serve to naturalize sex and gender identities. Reminding us of the many ways in which this simple approach can be troubled by “queer” presentations of gender, such as those of drag performance, Butler begins opening up a critical relation to this discursive construction of binary sexual difference, revealing that other possibilities of being are both real and realizable.
The typical or “normal” woman looks and acts a certain way; being feminine and desiring men are standardly assumed to be expressions of her gender as a woman. Here gender is taken for an inner core of the self. Butler, however, holds that gender is not something one is, but something one does; it is a sequence of acts, a doing rather than a being. Gender is performative. It is not “a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is instituted “through a stylized repetition of [habitual] acts” (1990, p. 179). The seamless ritual of engaging in “feminizing” and “masculinizing” acts congeals gender into a substance, implying a reality about the self that underlies its expression in action, and making people think of their gender as something given. Butler regularly quotes Nietzsche’s criticism of the illusion of a “doer behind the deed” (1990, p. 34), one that frames a certain conception of the self who can be held responsible for what they do. Likewise, the constitutive acts that gender individuals, not just through their own behaviors, but through the social frameworks and linguistic categories by which these behaviors are “read,” create genders as “compelling illusion[s]” (p. 271). Their appearance of composing and arising from an underlying truth is a complex effect of social norms and expectations, linguistic acts, modes of conformity and threatened sanctions against deviance. To be a subject at all is, as Butler puts it, to be “subjectified” or to undergo subjection by the social norms that confer recognizability (for instance, as being of one gender rather than another).
Butler also stresses that since the appearance of stable gender identity is produced by repetition over time, it can, in principle, be done differently. Gender subversion makes manifest the interplay of material, signifying, and bodily elements that normally appear conjoined into fixed forms. There is a fluidity and multiplicity in identities, and the chance of resignification that arises both from repetition (1990, p. 138; 1993, p. 10) and the criss-crossing or chiasmatic relation between materiality and signification (1993, p. 69). The innovation central to Butler’s work is shifting our focus on gender from the assumption that it is a substantial identity toward recognizing that if “one is not born but rather becomes a woman,” as Simone de Beauvoir put in her feminist classic The Second Sex, it requires a “conception of a constituted social temporality” (1988, p. 520) whose reach and significance goes much wider than de Beauvoir imagined.
Feminist theorists have long proposed that gender is something that has a social source and meaning, arguing that feminine and masculine behaviors reflect social arrangements and can be changed, while accepting that sex differences are natural and unchangeable. On a simple understanding of “gender as performance” Butler perhaps would not seem to be saying much that differs from a liberal feminist account of gender as conventional and constructed. However, Butler has a deeper target in mind, one that unsettles the opposition of nature and convention and leads her to pose a potent series of questions: How does the assumption of biological sex difference implicitly shape the way in which gender has been imagined by feminism? How well does feminism do in acknowledging nonnormative articulations of gender and sexuality, or nonbinary modes of embodiment?
Butler begins her analysis by investigating the “subject” of feminism: How does “womanhood” get defined, and on what assumptions does it depend? How does it “represent” women in seeking to politically represent them? And if a feminist movement defines itself as fighting for women’s rights, whose rights does it have in mind? It was in asking herself what it was to speak as a lesbian and a feminist that Butler began a critique of feminism’s invocation of “women,” which we see worked out in Gender Trouble (1999, p. xvii).
Butler’s approach places her in a critical relation not only with conservative approaches to gender but with progressive forms of feminism, leading her into a controversial interrogation of the sex and gender distinction that has been so important to feminists in acknowledging women’s biological differences from men as real but irrelevant to their political status as equals. An influential version of this distinction can be found in The Second Sex, which Butler closely engages with, alongside the work of theorists such as Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray, whose investigations into the potentialities of lesbian existence and the construction of sexual difference, respectively, offer critical inspiration, even as Butler eventually departs from them. Butler proposes that the relative intelligibility of heteronormative ways of “doing” gender and the stakes in how nonnormative gender is practically constituted at the level of social regulation have been a major blind spot in the feminist thinking of power relations. Indeed, the “women’s movement,” in the interest of pursuing political representation, contributes to stabilizing normative discourses of sex, gender, and sexuality, despite their seeming to mark the mere conventionality of gender behaviors.
If sex appears, as we might think ordinarily, as an aspect of the natural or biological world, Butler’s argument is that it is because it has been constituted as such. Not only does this designation cover over a wide range of morphological and hormonal variations that do not simply conform to the male–female normative schema, but further, we should understand the foundational discursive role played by the reality attributed to sex. Individuals have “intelligible genders” if they conform to a normalized discourse, such that sexual orientation follows from feminine or masculine behaviors that are in turn thought to follow from biological sex (Butler, 1990, p. 23). For Butler, therefore, gender ought not to be conceived merely as “the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex . . . ; gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established” (1990, p. 7). Bodies that “trouble” the sex binary and are thus “unintelligible” or “illegible” are subject to forms of violence that will reveal essential contours of the system that keeps gender functioning as a binary order of difference. Moreover, this idea of an “apparatus of production” also signals that the constitution of “woman” as an identity is an effect of the injunction to be a woman that is performed in multiple intersecting contexts in relation to certain bodies. In a binary system of sex/gender/sexuality, other bodies will be enjoined to be men. Why, Butler asks, do we assume that this is or must be a binary system?
Butler takes it that behavior is important in producing the “effect” of intelligible gender, but so, too, are social norms and language. The process of “calling into being” that continually works to allocate gender throughout our lives could be said to begin at birth with the sex identification—“It’s a girl!” Butler focuses on that “interpellation” or “address,” as one that is made to both the world the child is born into (as an announcement that categorizes) and to the infant itself (even prior to the infant understanding it). This functions as a social and linguistic act that has a double character. On the one hand, “it’s a girl!” bears a decisive claim to describe a biological truth, which will form the basis for establishing the continuity of identity but also the possibilities of social relationality throughout future life (the child will be a daughter or a son, a wife or a husband, depending on sex). On the other hand, it is a speech act that plays a role in maintaining and constituting the truth it describes; not only does its affirmation perform a role in identifying the infant within a circumscribed set of options, but it functions as an ongoing delimitation of possibilities that must be reiterated over time. This emphasis on the speech act and its reiteration, as we will see, is where the idea of the “performative” takes hold and comes to mean something more than the simple interpretation of performativity as “doing gender” in a voluntary sense.
Here some philosophical background is helpful. Butler derives the term “performative” from speech act theory, which was first developed by philosopher J. L. Austin in a book titled How to Do Things with Words. Austin distinguishes between constative utterances—statements that can be true or false—and performatives—speech acts that do something in the act of being spoken. A further distinction within the notion of the “performative” is between the perlocutionary (in which the effect of the speech act is a result of it leading to action—e.g., an order like “close the door”) and the illocutionary (in which the speech act is itself the “doing” of a deed—e.g., “I pronounce you man and wife”). As Austin pointed out, illocutionary performative acts can be “infelicitous” or fail in ways that reveal their embedding in conventions and institutions—thus, saying “I do” doesn’t make the couple saying it married if they aren’t allowed to wed. This reveals that there is always an essential element of social context surrounding speech acts, a need for recognition, ritual, and reciprocity to make them function effectively as performatives. Their power is thus always entangled with social institutions and established expectations of efficacy. The point about how performatives work can of course also be reversed, as Butler reminds us, in order to imagine their subversion; challenging the terms or context of performative efficacy can have wide-reaching disruptive effects.
Philosophers have generally taken constative statements, which are either true or false, to be primary in language, and Austin follows them in presenting performatives as a neglected and important class of speech acts that, nonetheless, sit alongside more common uses of language to make nonperformative, descriptive statements about the world (thus “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” would usually be rendered as constatives, not performatives). However, in a critical engagement with Austin, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1982) demonstrates that the constative is never fully free of the performative act from which Austin would distinguish it. Butler follows Derrida here in proposing that we grasp even such seemingly straightforward claims about reality as “it’s a girl” as elements in a wider apparatus that organizes social relationships around gender. In the preface to the second edition of Gender Trouble, Butler tells us that Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s short story “Before the Law” was the most important inspiration in developing her version of performativity. On this account, the “truth” sought in the unrevealed law is what binds us to the performance that anticipates its fulfilment, such that the force accorded to the law comes from the anticipation of its effectiveness: “The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object. I wondered whether we do not labor under a similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” (Butler, 1999, p. xv).
Here the theory of hegemony and the theory of performativity overlap in considering the social world to be made through a collaborative relation with power—and this in turn leads to envisaging new possibilities as emerging through dissonant and dissenting everyday practices. The “fictions” that interest Butler are deeply binding and enter into the most basic operations of social norms, sustaining power relations within the political regimes in which we live. They become visible as fictions only through “subversive” work, which troubles and unsettles them, disputing the “force of law” that binds us to reproduce its injunctions. The way in which the idea of two “sexes” serves to support a binary “truth” of gender illustrates how what seems to be a simple acknowledgment of reality functions as an element in the reproduction of the authority of gender norms. Although we may often invoke seemingly innocuous versions of reality when we refer to “women” as those whom feminism speaks for, or when we uncritically use gender binary language, Butler argues that these are tacitly normative framings that work in wider social scenes to castigate certain ways of being as false or derivative, while stipulating others to be true and original.
Recognizability and Resistance
In the work of the 1990s that follows Gender Trouble, Butler draws on Foucault, as well as Gramsci, to develop a conception of power that functions to generate and regulate subjects and bodies. Normative power shapes both subjectivity and embodiment, constructing norms that constrain behavior and appearance (“performance”) without—to the extent that this is successful—the need for external controls. Fictions such as the stable identity of the sexed subject within a natural binary schema of sex, together with an image of legitimate sexuality that privileges heterosexual relations as both natural and fundamental to all other institutions, are further embedded in and mutually support wider conceptions of the prerequisites of moral responsibility, of agency, and of the very idea of the “human.” Challenging preconceptions of gender as involving a fictional form of subject construction is therefore a way of making visible the contingency of these arrangements; it takes aim at a wide set of ideas and practices that exercise influence across moral, political, and economic realms, shaping how human life is lived, as well as conceptualized and valued. Butler’s attention lies with the “very fields of description” in which ethical and political questions are deeply embedded, the background ways of describing the world that organize and thus circumscribe perceptions from the start. In practical and theoretical terms, the aim here is to trouble the description, and open up a sense for the possibilities for being, without specifying which of these possibilities “ought” to be adopted (Butler, 1999, p. xxii).
Such “framing” of normativity will most often be at work in the background of our lives, seamlessly connecting the way things appear to be to how we take it they really are, or the way we ought to behave with what is objectively correct, as when heterosexual subjects seamlessly align their gender, sex, and sexuality and take this to define what is “natural” and “normal.” The construction of legitimate and illegitimate relations of desire is part of the hegemonic “heteronormative matrix” Butler describes. Not everyone will wish or be readily able to live within that seamless experience, however, and for anyone at all, the formation of a relative sense of ease will be haunted by the possibilities and alternatives it has excluded.
Psychoanalytic accounts of the formation of selfhood, which pay attention to the identifications and punitive gestures by which selfhood is shaped, are an important source for Butler in thinking about the “abjections” that shape the sense of a coherent identity. These are repudiations of nonheteronormative attachments and desire, which linger in the psyche as charged sources of its energies and form the residue of normative identity formation. The everyday practices and epistemes that articulate sexual identity as a binary with the complementarity of gender difference are highly effective in shaping desire; but they also leave a residue of that shaping which is discernible at both the psychic and social levels. This spectral residue manifests as melancholy repudiation (demanding a repetition of the gesture by which certain possibilities are refused as “impossible” for the self). Abjection generates “unliveable” relations and spaces, where lives are nonetheless lived by those who stand for “otherness.” On Butler’s account, “straight” gender formation involves disavowal of same-sex relationality and attachments, and demands an ongoing repudiation issuing not only in homophobic behaviors but also in a deep attachment to a sense of what is legitimate that is based in heteronormativity. The repetition of repudiation is crucial to the “social temporality” of gender that Butler seeks to foreground.
In several of Butler’s works (1993, 1997, 2005) she seeks to marry a genealogical approach to the self, derived from Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, with psychoanalytic approaches drawn from Jacques Lacan, Jean Laplanche, Julia Kristeva, and Melanie Klein. In both theoretical approaches, the assumption that the “I” is simply given as a unified or coherent “person” is called into question. Butler’s way of bringing these theorists into conversation proposes an emphasis on the formation of subjectivity in power relations together with an account of the emergence of selfhood through the infant’s early formation in intimate relations of touch and address, as well as active identifications and repudiations. On Butler’s rendition, the exclusions formative of gendered subjectivity are sites of potentiality that we can, on the one hand and under certain social conditions, choose to honor and explore—they may carry the chance of resistance to normative pressures; while on the other hand, these discarded and repudiated aspects of our psychic and social formation constitute potent sites of threatened violence insofar as the viability of the alternative path they might represent is forcefully denied by the dominant “reality.” Indeed, the task of critique, as Butler takes it up, is to reveal that such “impossible” domains are already inhabited and viable sites of existence whose challenge to—or way of troubling—the hegemonic order should not lead to their violent refusal and exclusion (1993, 2004b).
Butler also puts this in terms of challenging and expanding what can count as “intelligible” and thus truly human life. Nonnormative gender all too readily renders a life “unintelligible,” less than fully human and thus highly vulnerable in a context where only fully recognizable humanity receives political representation and protection. Thus, in a further move, we must see how recognizable human life is constituted by the protections of law and by the acknowledgment as valuable that it receives. Recognizable identities emerge in part in conformity with the pressures on subjects to become coherent in ways that allow them to access the protection and enabling force of law. It may seem, then, that Butler is arguing for expanded recognition of a wider range of intelligible gender identities. However, throughout her account of this, the question of social temporality that Butler argues is critical for gender should be kept in mind and thus repetition of acts, over and against the view that gender is an “identity.”
If our focus lies with the operation of power that is embedded in the collaborations effected by the repetition of gender “acts,” questions emerge that are somewhat different from those that would be captured by speaking of a simple demand for better recognition of individuals or groups. Her questions evaluate the performativity of hegemonic norms: What has to be “done” to maintain the sense of identity across time? How does this involve forms of violence that are legitimated through their instrumental role in maintaining the privileged site of identity? And when does the very framework for thinking of an identity as one that matters presuppose violence against the background social relations (and possibilities) it distinguishes itself from? This leads Butler to be critical of certain dominant “norms” that enter into many aspects of ethical and political evaluation, for instance, that of autonomy insofar as it requires us to assume the “coherent” identity of the moral agent. As she writes in Bodies That Matter,
The insistence on coherent identity as a point of departure presumes that what a “subject” is is already known, already fixed, and that that ready-made subject might enter the world to renegotiate its place. But if that subject produces its coherence at the cost of its own complexity, the crossings of identification of which it is itself composed, then that subject forecloses the kind of contestatory connections that might democratize the field of its own operation . . . The question here concerns the kind of tacit cruelties that sustain coherent identity, cruelties that include self-cruelty. (1993, p. 115)
Undoing the capacity of often-unacknowledged or invisible forms of violence to shape our sense both of the possible and of the realities of the world we share is at the core of Butler’s intellectual and political project. Here, the task of critique should always be kept in mind. Butler does not aim at a prescriptive politics or ethics aimed at the “autonomous” subject of deliberation but rather seeks out the “incoherence” and “unknowability” of selfhood as it emerges at fractured sites of contestation. It is this order of subjectivity that reveals and thereby calls into question inchoate yet powerful regimes of truth, the reigning notions of the ethical and political worlds we inhabit.
All of this is comprised in Butler’s understanding of normative life, reflecting a complex sensitivity to intersecting orders of normativity. These are oversimplified and, in many respects, unduly purified of their relationship with violence when they are understood simply as concerned with prescriptive ethics (determining what ought to be) or when their normative force is assimilated into pure description of reality. The deconstruction of idealized and realist accounts of normativity and the genealogical interpretation of the institutional frameworks that allow “ought” and “is” to become mutually supportive elements in hegemonic norms, together shape Butler’s distinctive approach to gender and a wide range of political questions.
The emphasis of Butler’s intellectual and activist project expands over time to include a close attention to the politics of honoring and dishonoring human lives, public registers for regarding them as valuable and worthy of protection or as disposable and insignificant. This question shapes Butler’s writing in the first years of the new millennium, and emerges starkly for her as the “war on terror” unfolds in the wake of the attack on the World Trade towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. In particular, she notes how an uncritical gulf opens between state-sanctioned mourning for the victims of the attack and a willingness to sacrifice lives as “collateral damage” in the ensuing military strikes on locations loosely associated with the terrorists. Here, Butler poses the question, “whose lives are grievable?” and asks how mourning losses might become the basis for a politics of nonviolence and an equal concern for the vulnerability of life instead of fostering a partisan, divisive, and vengeful set of reactions. Butler also asks what can be said and what can be heard in a world that proscribes expressing grief over certain kinds of loss, but mandates its expression in the case of “recognizable” lives (2004a, 2009, 2012).
These questions first arose for Butler (1993) in the context of the AIDS crisis in the United States, and initially were a response to the public and state indifference to the loss of life as that disease wreaked havoc in a mainly gay population. Butler draws attention to the connections between this heteronormative distribution of grief and the disavowal and abjection of certain possibilities of being and same-sex relationality that form the “straight” subject, constituting an “ungrievable” other life whose nonvalue seems a condition of its complete denial as an aspect of the self’s formation. Likewise, the normative “frames of war” propose a complete disarticulation between grievable lives (which occupy a spatial and temporal frame consonant with the interests of the state and the protection of law, rendering them real and meaningful lives) and ungrievable nonlives, the lives of those who exist outside (and thus threaten) the state-sanctioned “reality” of loss and meaning. The role of critique in this context is, again, to respond to the “trouble” or sense of dissonance that this affords us, to make the dissonance more visible, and to propose ways of rethinking social bonds on terms that will not give rise to the violent negation of the lives or potentials of others.
The hegemonic frames of war that form Butler’s concern in essays that respond to the events of 9/11, are operative in the public discourses of government and media, which circulate “truths,” as well as exclude certain events from the domain of what matters. In Precarious Life and Frames of War, Butler (2004a, 2009) shows how these “frames” link domestic and foreign policy, how they draw immigration policies into a relation with the fate of radical sexual politics, as much as they are complicit in the generation of spaces of action where torture will become licit. This broad concern with how populations are figured within hegemonic discourses as being in need of security, entitled to protection, or deprived of it, aims to address specific liberal impasses in the configuration of a field of political priorities that include universal rights to freedom and human dignity, but often protect these rights exclusively for those identified with the West. Butler also pays particular attention to the discursive regimes of truth articulated through the global circulation and governmental use of images and rhetoric as tools for framing the presentation of threats to Western interests. These threats are presented as issuing from those who are in fact the most vulnerable, thereby constructing an image of a radically antagonized and divided world.
For example, one image that Butler discusses in Frames of War appears in a film that was for some time shown to would-be migrants from the former Dutch colonies to the Netherlands, typically poor Muslims seeking to join their families (2009, p. 105). The image is of two men kissing in the street, and it represents the sexual freedom enjoyed by citizens of the Netherlands. This image, under specific conditions of circulation, which allow it to address simultaneously both “others” and members of the nation, functions to conjure and distribute a sense of where threat lies, and who is threatened by whom (here, the West by what is imagined as its fundamentalist Muslim other). Here the offense the Muslim other is anticipated to feel at seeing homosexuality functions as a moment in its circulation, vindicating a sort of preemptive offense taken at this other and licensing a range of harsh immigration policies. The gay embrace depicted is aggressively mobilized to position the difference between civilized and uncivilized, the free and the unfree. Presented as an icon of liberty, the image functions performatively to interpellate these subject positions and to generate their “others.” Subverting that effect, Butler argues that this use of the image forgets its political history and context in the ongoing social and political struggles by which gay freedoms have been secured; indeed, it fails to acknowledge the questionable extent to which they have been secured against the forms of homophobic violence that continue in the West (2009, p. 107). Although in one vector, the image sustains an imaginary consensus of “the free world” on questions of sexuality, it simultaneously functions to capture and fix a set of polarized relations. The distribution of affect generated by the image and its circulation overlays and reproduces a set of economic and political relations. These function in practice to reinforce the vulnerability of a certain group who will be excluded from the benefits of free movement enjoyed by those who belong to the West (2009, p. 108).
Butler (2009) proposes to intervene in this field of hegemonic power on the basis of a rethinking of responsibility—a responsibility that focuses “not just on the value of this or that life, or on the question of survivability in the abstract, but on the sustaining social conditions of life” (p. 35). Such responsibility arises, or is located, as what Butler names the “socially ecstatic structure of the body” (p. 33)—that is, the body’s being fundamentally dependent on and conditioned by a “sustained and sustainable world” (p. 35). Within this notion of what is sustained and sustainable, Butler seems to deliberately run together what might be thought to be the material and the symbolic conditions of life, that is, the structures of meaning that support a legal status quo. Butler argues that we need to develop a critical form of biopolitics that no longer segregates populations on terms that render some lives “unlivable” but is organized around the forms of ethical responsibility that arise from understanding “precariousness as a shared condition, and precarity as the politically induced condition that would deny equal exposure through the radically unequal distribution of wealth and the differential ways of exposing certain populations, racially and nationally conceptualized to greater violence” (p. 28).
Precariousness is the condition of being a body fundamentally dependent on what lies outside it, sustained by modes of social address and by the supply of material needs; it is the “condition of being conditioned” (Butler, 2009, p. 23). This emphasis on the “condition of being conditioned” and upon the social dependencies it entails are also at the center of Giving an Account of Oneself. Here, Butler (2005) seeks to show how ethics is possible for a subject whose responsibility is never fully its “own” or purely for itself. Responsibility is for the “shape of the collectively inhabited world,” and therefore moral reflection always implies social critique. Already in her work, as we have seen, Butler has criticized the Kantian idea of the “subject,” following Nietzsche in declaring that there is a problematic association of this figure with moral responsibility and a “doer behind the deed” that is supposed to bear free will. In continuing to negotiate between a psychoanalytic and a Foucauldian account of our psychic relationship with, and mode of being constituted by, social norms, Giving an Account also introduces a new lexicon for approaching questions of responsibility, in particular, for embracing Levinas’s vocabulary for an ethical relation to the other based in vulnerability, a noncontractual obligation that arises from the imperative inherent in the precarious “face” of the other. One of Butler’s objections to the ways in which others are represented in the global media is that alterity is only ever presented as threatening; the “face” of the other as a site of precariousness, and the claims arising from that condition, is obliterated. This obliteration is integral to the sanguine use of violence against those who figure only as “collateral damage” in view of priorities associated with Western security.
As Butler foregrounds the role of grief in revealing how we are, in reality, “bound” to one another, the question of the “social bond,” not just the operation of social norms, begins to emerge for her as vital to the problem of how some lives are rendered more human than others. In a correction of what Butler suggests is a limiting aspect of Levinas’s thought about the “face of the Other,” she insists that we must attend to the political conditions under which the claim of vulnerability and shared precariousness can be avowed. How such lives might come to be protected is a matter of ethical obligations that avow dependency, as Levinas saw, but also of achieving forms of cohabitation and solidarity that undermine the present constructions of violently realized differentiation. The responsibility for others Butler tracks is not an ethical order of perception that simply “arrives”; rather, it is precisely a form of responsiveness that has to be generated through active challenges and interventions into ways of “seeing” that are also ways of “being” (2009, p. 51). Awareness of vulnerability does not automatically give rise to recognition of humanity. Indeed, populations are vulnerable when, as she puts it, they are regarded as “‘lose-able’ or can be forfeited, precisely because they are framed as already lost or forfeited; . . . cast as threats to life as we know it rather than as living populations in need of protection from illegitimate state violence, famine or pandemics” (2009, p. 31).
These issues raised by the grievability of lives and the relation this bears to the social temporalities that are at work in “framing” certain lives as already lost or forfeited continue as large themes in her most recent work.
The Politics of Cohabitation
In Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Butler (2012) examines the legacies of Zionism in view of the violence inherent in the establishment and preservation of Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East, again attending to the repercussions of dispossession and loss in the construction of a sense of legitimacy and justice. Butler is arguing in this work for a conception of Judaism that is not Zionist in its commitments and instead embraces a condition that she describes as “exilic,” entailing a way of being that is never able to return to what is imagined as an originary site of belonging. Butler assembles a set of readings of Jewish thinkers, whose self-critical or complex relations with Judaism and critical distance from Zionism she tracks—Levinas, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Primo Levi all figure in the work. They are placed alongside the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and the poet Mahmoud Darwish to develop ideas about the constitution of a sense of identity that Butler first honed in relation to gender, describing both how identity formation is perpetually “troubled” by what is “other” to itself and how this “trouble” can become a positive ethical and political resource. To attempt coherence or self-identity is to be haunted by violent exclusions. The avowal of social relations of cohabitation across differences, by contrast, leads to a decentered experience of identity, embedded in social temporality, in which the question of the legitimacy of the means by which social differences are preserved comes to the fore (p. 34).
Once the self-preservation of Jewishness as an identity undergoes critique and avows its embeddedness in a social temporality—that is, in a “repetition of acts”—Butler suggests, it cannot justify the ongoing violence of the Jewish state against Palestinians. Butler draws heavily on Benjamin’s account in his essay “Critique of Violence” (1921) of the roles of law-creating and law-preserving violence, figuring the state as a vehicle of legalized violence that strives for a self-preservation that entails violence. Using this to once again diagnose how distributions of loss, victimhood, and desert are organized in relation to populations, Parting Ways offers its own critique of state violence and proposes paths forward. This work ambitiously claims that to explicitly open out the question, less of commonalities of experience than of its just temporalities would make possible the cross-cultural but nonreductive translation of experiences of loss, as the basis for finding more peaceful modes of cohabitation in Israel and Palestine.
Also central to the argument of this book is an account of Benjamin’s philosophy of history and his pursuit of recognition and remembrance of the dispossessed. Butler (2012) casts this in terms of the ways in which opposed sites of historical narration and consciousness may come to bear on one another, often first in scenes of violence, but then in a “form of action” (p. 122) characterized as prompting an “attunement or opening to the dispossession of another” (p. 123). Such dispossession has a literal sense—it refers both to the biblical and historical status of the Jews as a nation in “exile” and to the dispossession of the Palestinians from their lands. It also, however, describes for Butler how identities are never “in their place,” secured by some metaphysical ground or core, and thus how existence is always adjacency, proximity, the “up-againstness” of beings who are bound together by “spatial and temporal relations” that are all too often disavowed (p. 130).
The “exilic condition” is normally thought of as one from which one has to return to a homeland; here, however, Butler revalues the term as one that requires affirming exile as the “nonteleological form that redemption now takes” (2012, p. 123)—no return should be anticipated, in other words, but instead, a consequential avowal must be made of its impossibility. What is let go of here is the idea of recovering some original meaning or lost past that must be fulfilled in the present (recall the lesson Butler draws from Kafka’s “Before the Law”). In the “Theses on History,” Benjamin writes of a past that can be seized only as it “flashes up” as an image that is never seen again, breaking the cycle of repeated violence. As Butler reads this, “what flashes up is a memory of suffering from another time [which] interrupts and reorients the politics of this time” (2012, p. 124). As one temporality emerges within another, we have a form of convergence that is not readily legible and that requires “translation.” This signals for Butler that “one discourse is interrupted by another; it cedes hegemonic ground in order to make room for what challenges its scheme of intelligibility”; it is thus the “condition of a transformative encounter, a way of establishing alterity [rather than fidelity to originals] at the core of transmission” (2012, p. 17).
Translation (and its difficulty) thus names not only the challenge of developing counterhegemonic perspectives and actions, but also the condition under which it is possible for ethical claims to be heard from another we do not already identify with or feel we know (Butler, 2012, p. 17). Since translation, on Benjamin’s terms, does not return us to an original, but rather is concerned with “transmission” and thus a dissemination of meaning, it is, one might say, engaged with creating a new relationality rather than preserving identity. It is thus the basis for a process of universalization, distinct from the abstract universalism of moral law. Cohabitation, from which the demand for translation arises, is a fundamentally temporal as well as a spatial relation. It requires the remaking of difference and relationships, and therefore the openness to their being “done” differently. This constitutive cohabitation with others, unchosen and unwilled, is the exilic condition that deprives the nationalistic idea of homeland of both coherence and legitimacy; while at the same time affirming that each must have a home, a way of counting and belonging—but this only through and as adjacency with others. Here Butler draws heavily on Arendt’s account of the “right to rights” and of political life as necessarily involving plurality and the action in concert that calls it into being. In refusing the metaphor of discrete identities implied by merely spatial neighborliness Butler is rejecting a simple or uncontentious form of plurality in favor of admitting a political world of contest, and often violent disagreement. However, she is also seeking terms for thinking cohabitation that can impose obligations toward ongoing engagement with those dispossessed by history—and thus the effort at attunement between nonidentical histories of suffering. To honor the exilic condition is, then, to recognize that Jews have always lived among non-Jews, and that the dependency, contiguity, and proximity this entails may expose each to the fear of destruction (violence); but implies at the same time, the irreducibly interwoven conditions of being bound together as self and other.
“Attunement” implies a responsiveness to claims emerging from the convergence of (exilic) histories, and as Butler here makes clear, it is only possible when one history of suffering does not negate another. An example of such negation occurs when the legitimacy of the founding of Israel is claimed in terms that cite the subjection of the Jews to genocidal violence and their dispossession from homelands, but assumes immunity from critical questioning in relation to the suffering the establishment of this nation-state has inflicted on Palestinians. If this may seem like simple hypocrisy, or a failure to apply principles consistently, Butler suggests a more complex and demanding process of critique. The “attunement” demanded by another’s suffering is refused by constituting a sense of identity (the State of Israel) whose own terms of legitimacy appear to foreclose the other’s claims. The stakes in play here, whereby the lives annihilated in the name of the security of a given regime are rendered not simply dead but, as Butler puts it, “ungrievable” concern both the themes of the exilic we have been tracking and questions over how claims of universality are to be interpreted and made. The analysis given is also central to Butler’s criticism of how the “war on terror” has instated a violent and aggressive sense of Western identity, one that depends on refusing significance to human lives outside its narrowly drawn sphere of protection (2004a, 2010).
Universalism and the Politics of Assembly
This question of the “human,” and who counts as such when it comes to receiving the protection of the law, returns us to themes that we have seen recurring in Butler’s work. Universals such as the “human” are all too often inclusive in their rhetoric but discriminatory in their effects; for every claim to valuing being human there is a remarking of the “inhuman” or “nonhuman” other. By speaking of universalization as a political process, Butler aims to retain its virtues as a way of making claims on others, just as women claimed that the “rights of man” must include them in a series of protesting gestures that began the feminist movement. Yet to claim the mantle of universal, and pursue a cognate legitimacy, one cannot simply seek to include all members within an existing category, for instance “women.” Rather, the universal must allow its own comprehensiveness to be disturbed by those who fall outside prevailing conceptions of membership. The universal announces its fundamentally temporal modality, precisely when challenges to its existing formulations emerge from those who are not covered by it, who have no entitlement to occupy the place of the “who,” but nevertheless demand that the universal, as such, ought to address them (2012, p. 39).
Here we return to the critique of abstract universalism that runs throughout Butler’s work. In her major work of ethics, Giving an Account of Onseself, ethical violence is precisely defined in terms of the failure of allegedly universal precepts to address themselves to those they would bind or to be addressed and potentially transformed by those who are enjoined to take them up. As Butler put it earlier, reading Hegel in a manner designed to dispel certain preconceptions about his thought, “The relation of universality to its cultural articulation is insuperable”; however, “the very concept of universality compels an understanding of culture as a relation of exchange and a task of translation” (2000, p. 24). “Translation” is counterhegemonic by virtue both of accepting the disturbance one discourse offers to another and as concerned with transmission, with forging terms of relationality. If cultures are places of ongoing translation and exchange, only a temporalized conception of universality is adequate to historical understanding itself. The question Butler places at the center of ethics becomes how the claim to embody the universal—to speak on behalf of humanity or truth—must always be politically engaged in concert with others, thus negotiated or translated into a mode of critical contestation and a problem of address. Within this, a degree of what she calls “unknowingness” is in play, because the futures implied by these encounters are always open.
The universal that fails in this respect and commits what Butler follows Adorno in calling “ethical violence” is in some sense “dead” or, better, “deadening” law. It gains its force by refusing the temporalizing and exilic forms that “translation” suggests it must take. As such, ethical violence is committed in uncritical commitments to “founding” moments and frames of legitimacy whose violence is erased in the name of necessity, and whose exposure to alterity and relationality is interpreted as existential threat. An ethical and “living” politics by contrast requires an ongoing reworking of its founding legitimacy, pursued with and alongside others who do not “fit” the preestablished sense of identity. In articulating a politics of assembly, Butler (2015) is therefore again interested in how questions of political identity, captured in phrases like “we the people,” might be reconsidered on the basis of a critique of the established normative framing and stabilization of their meaning. Here she both engages in theorizing the political significance of movements such as Occupy and Tahrir Square, and reapproaches questions present from her earliest work: how do bodies materialize in public space, and how can bodies that are never self-identical, but always formed in relation to one another, come together in powerful movements of resistance? How can political organization be imagined in nonidentitarian terms? Gender politics are here brought into a relationship with the “right to appear” that has been present from the earliest work, but they now enter into the conceptual space created by a nuanced critical engagement with Arendt’s conception of the public sphere.
Reception (Discussion of the Literature)
The world has greatly changed since Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was first published in 1990. The last decade has seen an enormous growth of interest in identities “beyond the binary.” Agender, bigender, genderqueer, cisgender, and so forth, mark a proliferation of nuances of gender conceptualization. The idea of “gender trouble” arising from the nonnormative performance of gender may, in certain quarters, seem somewhat quaint, even as Butler’s influence in changing perceptions and practices of gender has been profound. This radical work, over the 30 years since its composition, has seen its message in many respects become mainstream and the limitations of its thinking on nonnormative gender surpassed. Some—including Butler herself—do not believe that the book deals with transgender very well, for instance (Undoing Gender, 2004b, is in part an attempt to do better). Yet debates continue to rage about the meaning and rights that should be accorded to non-binary-conforming identities and nonheterosexual relationships. At a time of explosion of new lived forms of differences, we also see severe conservative reactions. Moreover, Butler’s (2004b) questions about what constitutes progress are highly relevant in contexts in which recognizing homosexuality is equated with establishing forms of inclusion, such as rights to marriage, rights that arguably serve to strengthen and extend a set of limiting and restrictive norms about legitimate forms of relationship.
Gender Trouble is one of the most widely cited of contemporary writings on gender, though, arguably, the specifics of its key concepts and the overall character of Butler’s critique are often poorly understood. Besides the interrogation of Butler’s work from the perspective of transgender activism and studies, there are two main arenas of criticism of her work from the 1990s. First, Butler’s focus on gender rather than “women” and her related critique of feminist categories have been seen as attacks on essential feminist principles and practice. Seyla Benhabib gives an early version of this, charging that Butler’s account of the work of social norms is deterministic and deprives women of political agency. Martha Nussbaum (1999) tries to reclaim liberal feminist ground from Butler’s influence, mounting charges that the “subversion of identity” amounted to an ineffectual, passive “hip quietism” and ignored the “material suffering of women who are hungry, illiterate, violated, beaten” in favor of focusing “narcissistically on personal self-presentation.” Nancy Fraser, though more sympathetic to Butler, associates her work with claims for cultural recognition that do insufficient justice to the demand for redistribution that the feminist movement of the 1970s, as well as critiques of capitalism, had stressed. Fraser (1997) charges Butler with failing to engage an adequately materialist version of left politics in favor of a merely cultural critique. In other respects, however, Butler’s work has been realigned with trends in feminist theory. The category of “women” that seems to form the basis for feminist politics ignores “the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed” (Butler, 1990, pp. 19–20). This point about the importance of intersectionality has become familiar and has other sources than Butler herself (Crenshaw, 1989). However, Butler’s special contribution is to determine how such intersectionality functions to render certain lives, as she puts it, “unliveable and ungrievable,” thereby putting the emphasis on the intersecting normative frameworks of incitement and prohibition rather than on the need to adequately account for these intersections at the level of identity.
Second, other critics responding to the work from the 1990s also cite Butler’s lack of an adequate materialism, but this time with respect to an overreliance on a discursive analysis of sex and gender that amounts to linguistic idealism and fails to grapple with either the materiality of bodies or the salience of sexual difference. The assumption that Butler’s thought led to the denial of some crucial reality of sexual difference inspired the first wave of criticism of Gender Trouble. Butler was said to have ended up in a position that echoed the lack of material thinking inherent to the legacies of liberal feminist politics she herself had set out to critique. Susan Bordo (2004) claims that “Butler’s world is one in which language swallows everything up” (p. 291) and that for Butler, “there is one correct, unimpeachable position: it is that any conception of the ‘natural’ is a dangerous ‘illusion’ of which we must be ‘cured’” (p. 290). Other critics who hail from what has come to be known as the new materialism (Braidotti, 2002; Kirby, 2006) also reject the deconstructive approach Butler uses and her critique of sexual difference. Butler’s (1993) nuancing of her position in Bodies That Matter failed to convince such critics that materiality and discourse are in a productive and inescapable relationship with one another, as Butler there argues.
Some have argued that what is perceived as a turn to ethics post 9/11 is problematic in relation to the theoretical insights of the earlier work (Mills, 2007), while others worry over the potential displacement of politics implied by an “ethical” turn. In line with this latter thought, Butler is read by some as problematically seeking to regenerate a contemporary humanism, one which, though helpfully sensitive to all the ways in which the question of who can “count” as a subject presupposes conditions of recognition, nonetheless is proposing an apolitical form of universalism, based in shared conditions of “precarious” existence (Honig, 2013). Jodi Dean (2009), who claims that preaching “love, peace and understanding” has been the inept response of many on the “academic and typing left” to the injustices and intensification of neoliberal and capitalist modes of power in our times, cites Butler as exemplary of a wider evasion of the task of drawing political battle lines. For Dean, instead of condemning the right, Butler is optimistically foregrounding the common intensity of the affect of grief as the site of potential opening to others and to ourselves, enabling us to “understand how our human being is necessarily and unavoidably a being-together” grounded in mutual vulnerability (p. 124). Lauren Berlant (2007) also tracks a problematic optimism, alongside a sentimental politics in Butler’s construction of the claims of “ungrievable life” (p. 293). It has, however, perhaps become more possible to read the idea of ungrievable life as political in the context of Butler’s work of the last few years, with Parting Ways (2012) and Forms of Assembly (2015) developing an explicitly political theory entwined with the ethical gestures derived from Levinas. Here Butler draws on an account of obligation phrased in terms of the shared condition of precarious life, which, nonetheless, is not posed in terms of the presuppositional universality of some shared condition of humanity (Jenkins, 2015).
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