Judith Butler (1956-) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Judith Butler (1956-)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Judith Butler was born in cleveland, ohio, and studied at Bennington college and Yale University, where she completed her doctorate in philosophy in 1984. She published her dissertation as Subjects of Desire:

Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France in 1987. She has held teaching positions at Wesleyan University and Johns Hopkins University, and is currently Chancellor Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Butler made her reputation in the 1990s with two important works on gender and sexuality. Gender Trouble (1990) critiqued the norm of compulsory heterosexuality and argued that IDENTITY was a function not of ESSENTIALIST gender roles or characteristics but rather of PERFORMATIVITY. Unlike performance, which is connected to traditional gender identity and presupposes a stable, essential SUBJECT, performativity challenges the very notion of such a subject. It also challenges the category of “sex.” Butler argues that what we think of as biological sex is itself a function of gender. This argument was pursued further in Bodies that Matter (1993), a text that analyzes the status of sex as a regulatory social norm, with particular emphasis on how this norm is inscribed on the body, how it in fact animates and “materializes” the body.

With Excitable Speech (1997), Butler began to pursue questions of ethics, focusing on the ways that public speech can both cause social injury and mobilize individuals to take political action. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Butler collaborated with Ernest Laclau and Slavoj Zizek to produce a collection of essays on problems in Critical Theory, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000). Butler’s contributions address, among other things, the possibilities of “contingent universals” that could avoid the absolutism of Enlightenment traditions of critical thinking but that could also galvanize and consolidate movements for social change. Precarious Life (2004) examines the ethics of mourning in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in

2001. Butler’s innovative critique of gender and ethics has made her something of a celebrity, despite the oft-cited difficulty of her work.


Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993

---- . Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. . Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

---- . The Judith Butler Reader. Ed. Sara Salih. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell

Publishers, 2004.

---- . Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso, 2004.