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.
Robert Alan Brookey and Jason Phillips
Michael Warner is the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, and his career has followed an interesting trajectory, beginning with the study of print and its importance to the emerging American nation and extending into queer theory and contemporary politics. There is an important line of thought that connects three of Michael Warner’s books: The Letters of the Republic (1990), Publics and Counterpublics (2002), and The Trouble with Normal (1999). In The Letters of the Republic, Warner begins to outline the way in which publics emerge and are discursively produced. In Publics and Counterpublics, he more thoroughly engages both the production of normative publics and the resistant communities of counterpublics, the latter of which he often illustrates with examples drawn from queer communities. Finally, in The Trouble with Normal, Warner challenges the efforts of gay and lesbian rights advocates to accommodate and assimilate to heteronormative standards in an effort to join the public constituted by the dominant heterosexual society. As he notes, these efforts effectively undermine the transformative qualities that queerness can bring to a society in refiguring the way sex and relationships are regarded. In effect, The Trouble with Normal seems to be a queer, counterpublic polemic, one that mirrors (in purpose, if not in content) the emerging revolutionary discourse in 18th-century America. In addition, Warner provides some valuable perspectives on the development of public discourse in American, and makes several observations that pre-date, yet bring into sharp relief, some of the issues and concerns that have been raised about social media.
Claire Sisco King
Within the field of communication studies, critical cultural scholarship examines the interarticulation of power and culture. Drawing from critical theory and cultural studies, this research offers analysis of texts, artifacts, practices, and institutions in order to understand their potential to promote or preempt equality and social justice. Critical theory, which has Marxist origins, uses theory as a basis for critiquing and challenging systems of domination or oppression. The field of cultural studies focuses on social formations with a particular emphasis on media texts and the reception practices of audiences. Both critical theory and cultural studies emphasize the important interrelationship between ideology, or structures of belief, and the material conditions in which people live. Critical cultural research examines discourse and representation, including language and visual culture, as well as social relations, institutional structures, material practices, economic forces, and various forms of embodiment. Central to critical cultural scholarship is attention to the construction, regulation, and contestation of categories of identity, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, and class. A significant branch of critical cultural studies examines how ideas about gender and sex develop and circulate, asking how and why some constructions of gender and sex become normative and gain hegemony—or, cultural privilege—in a particular context. For example, such scholarship might critique the idealization of certain performances of masculinity and the attendant devaluation of femininity or other subordinated masculinities; or, this research might consider how particular iterations of masculinity or femininity may be counter-hegemonic, operating in opposition to prevailing ideologies of gender and sex. Critical cultural approaches also emphasize the intersectionality of gender and sex with other categories of identity. For instance, ideas about masculinity or femininity can rarely be separated from assumptions about race and/or sexuality; as such, prevailing ideologies of gender and sex often reflect the presumed normativity of whiteness and heterosexuality.