Judith Butler​

Cleveland, 1956

"There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results."

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. A prominent activist and philosopher, her contributions in the fields of feminist and queer theory, as well as gender studies, have caused a great impact in areas as diverse as political theory, literary studies, psychoanalysis and law. She received her PhD in Philosophy at Yale with a thesis on Hegel’s impact on 20th century French thought.

Her reflections on the genealogy of subjects and the production of identities, the power fields in which they emerge, the role of the otherness of the self, and performativity, are the common threads that spread through her extensive and varied work. Her thought has been influenced by very diverse authors, in which Michel Foucault plays a crucial role. In her enterprise to problematize the concept of gender, she thinks and criticizes authors such as Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig or Gayle Rubin. Her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) thrust her to the spotlight. This work revolves around the issue of how non-heterosexual practices shake normative categories of gender. Her reading of classical psychoanalytical works (more specifically, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan) also influenced her, as can be seen in The Psychic Life of Power (1997), a study on the psyche of power within which subjects are constituted. In addition to the authors already mentioned, Althusser and Nietzsche also play an important role in her thought.

As to the questioning of the mere constativity of language, her work on performativity means to show how in some cases saying is inseparable from doing. Following Derrida and his reflections on iterability, the reception of meaning would not be a passive act, but rather a performative one. Butler (especially in the article “Critically Queer”, 1993) returns to this debate to point out how resistance to forms of normalization must happen through the resignification of those expressions which, as performative acts, are (and may also cease to be) only normative.

Concepts such as vulnerability or precariousness crystallize her reflections on the reconsideration of the human. In them, existence would be ontologically marked by a vulnerable condition, which would be, on the one hand, open to the other, to violence, to death, and, on the other, to life, responsibility, and care. Thinking about vulnerability has the objective of reflecting politically on precariousness. To think of global politics implies questioning the borders (both real and abstract) of the neoliberal framework, which abandons the lives of those who are not recognized in no man’s land. Thus, the answer to the question of what it is that counts as a life must be thought anew, and to do this it is essential to recognize life in areas such as those of mourning, survival, and care tasks. Her work Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004), a work with a remarkable influence by Emmanuel Levinás, is essential to this problem. Other writings, such as The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (2011) or Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2013) continue this line of thought, enquiring more specifically into subjects such as religion, war, ethics, and the situation of non-chosen cohabitation of Israel and Palestine. In these books, as well as the ones that follow, Butler resorts to Hannah Arendt’s thought, often from a critical perspective.

Selected Works

1990, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge.

1990, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”, in: Fuss, Diana (ed.), Inside Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, London: Routledge, pp. 13-31.

1993, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith, et al., 1995, Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, London: Routledge.

1997, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York: Routledge.

1997, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

2000, Atigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death, New York: Columbia Universtiy Press.

2004, Undoing Gender, New York: Routledge.

2009, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, New York: Verso.

2015, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assemby (Mary Flexner Lectures of Bryn Mawr College), Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Secondary Literature

BIRULÉS, Fina, 2008, “El género es extramoral. Entrevista con Judith Butler“, Barcelona Metrópolis, núm. 72.

BURGOS, Elvira, 2008, Qué cuenta como una vida. La pregunta por la libertad en Judith Butler, Madrid: Machado Libros.

KIRBY, Vicki, 2006, Judith Butler: Life Theory, London-New York: Continuum.

SAEZ TAJAFUERCE, Begonya (ed.), 2014, Cuerpos, memoria y representación. Adriana Cavarero y Judith Butler en diálogo, Barcelona: Icaria.

SALIH, Sara, 2002, Judith Butler, London: Routledge.