There are myriad ways to introduce the work of political, critical, and gender theorist Judith Butler—as a founder of queer theory; as a public scholar of political violence and critical theory; as the person who gave us the now-overused (and often-misused) terms “precarity” and “gender performativity;” as a Hegelian indebted to his later French interlocutors; as a post-Zionist Levinasian Jewish ethicist; as a poststructuralist inflected by psychoanalysis and deconstruction; as, simply, the author of Gender Trouble. All are correct, and taken together begin to capture the breadth and depth of Butler’s oeuvre, a multifaceted collection of work that has reshaped public discourse and academic thought across the humanities over the past thirty years.
Butler’s trajectory is sometimes charted as shifting from an early analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality to a more recent focus on broader political concerns—from Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1995) to Precarious Life (2004) and Parting Ways (2012). However, these themes are not so simply separable—Butler’s analysis of gender intervenes and critiques operative assumptions still found within many studies of political subjectivity, serving as both a necessary framework and an evolving conversation partner for their more broadly political work. Reading across Butler’s corpus reveals gender’s very political-theological constitution, giving rise to a broader vision of ethics that proves useful for those thinking in and with political theology, and may in the process call into question some of the field’s base assumptions (for more on the importance of this work for the future of political theology, I point you to Basit Kareen Iqbal and Milad Odabaei’s excellent entry for Talal Asad in this collection).
Butler’s first book, Subjects of Desire, investigates how “desire” is formulated by Hegel and his later French interlocutors and critics, attending to the varying conceptions of subjectivity arising in the scholarship of Kojève, Sartre, Lacan, Deleuze, and Foucault. The work’s attention to the inescapability of desire in subjectivity’s discursive formation reveals the motivating questions concretized in their second and best-known monograph: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. A crucial text in the development of queer and trans theory, Butler’s ideas therein have played an outsized role in the seismic shifts in public perceptions of gender and sex since 1990, though sometimes Butler’s most insightful contributions have been lost along the way.
In Gender Trouble Butler explores “gender as an enactment that performatively constitutes the appearance of its own interior fixity” (70). That is, gender is not something one is or has, but rather what one does—and the doing is not a single, fixed moment denoting completion or stability, or even necessarily a conscious process. Gender is produced through the repetition and citation of modes of being that themselves do not chart back to any original, stably gendered position; “the essence or identity” our gendered actions “purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (136). Gender only appears fixed and stable due to the accretion of these signs into a “matrix of intelligibility,” and the contemporary (and perduring, I would argue) iteration Butler analyzes is the heterosexual matrix (17). Butler appeals to a future feminist politics not beholden to the stable subject “woman” to make political claims, which thus may be able to operate outside the confines of not only heterosexuality, but also our binary gender and sex system. Butler here elucidates a coalitional feminist politics without recourse to any stable notion of identity.
Butler argues gender and sexuality together create “a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility that assumes that for bodies to cohere and make sense there must be a stable sex expressed through a stable gender (masculine expresses male, feminine expresses female) that is oppositionally and hierarchically defined through the compulsory practice of heterosexuality” (151). Gender only “makes sense” as a culturally imposed dyad when one realizes it is meant to instantiate the heterosexual, reproductive unit. Butler recognizes early on in their work that sex, gender, and sexuality are not terms that can be easily treated one-by-one, but rather come to define and reify each other through cultural operations meant to corral difference through these appeals to intelligibility in a process Butler calls “naturalization,” carrying with it a dual sense of discursivity and materiality. Butler here uses “intelligibility” as a watchword to indicate that which is “allowed” to appear in discourse, components of subjectivity that make sense within the reigning schemas of sex, gender, and sexuality. Those who are “unintelligible,” then, may be able to use that lack of recognition to escape surveillance or come up with new modes of sociality, but this comes at a steep cost: access to power, knowledge, and support are contingent upon intelligibility to extant hegemonic structures.
Butler’s intense concern with the discursive sphere led to harsh criticism by some for their (necessarily) dense and (supposedly) inaccessible writerly style, and for a seeming failure to address material concerns by keeping their analysis at the level of “mere” discourse. This critique is addressed in Gender Trouble’s follow-up, Bodies That Matter (1995), where Butler shows how such intelligibility calls into question that very material-discursive split. Butler argues, against those who claim sex to be (only) a discrete, identifiable, material condition (and who consider material bodily being to be “most real, most pressing, most undeniable”), that sex is instead “an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialized “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms,” with that forcible reiteration being precisely what Butler means by gender performativity (ix, xii). Gender performativity, sometimes held as useful only for explaining the type of gender play contained in something like drag or the self-actualized stylization of resistance to gender norms (not to mention the contradictory explosion of “performative” into common lexicon as its very inverse, now shallowed into signifying artifice and disingenuousness as opposed to this material-discursive process), names the reiterative processes by which the ideal construct of binary sex is enforced and materialized—a process of discursive materialization that radically questions any sense that the material predates or can exist separate from the discursive. Performativity, then, cannot be separated from either the discursive or the material. Butler calls attention here to how these linguistic operations actually shape what we know, think, and feel about bodies—it is our discursive terrain that animates the materiality of as well as our structures of knowledge and feeling for sex, gender, and sexuality.
Butler continues their attention to the semiotic through Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997). Excitable Speech wades into the murky waters of the 1990s culture wars with its concomitant focus on hate speech and freedom of speech, arguing that “censorship produces discursive regimes through the production of the unspeakable” such that the sphere of discourse is always already delimited by “the very distinction between permissible and impermissible speech” (143). Butler expands on the workings of intelligibility to show that unintelligibility, a condition that oftentimes creates severe material consequences, is rendered such by those with (typically state-sanctioned) access to power. It is not that populations deemed unintelligible by structures of power are simply left by the wayside, but that the rendering-unintelligible is itself an operation of power, purposively creating an externalized “Other” that then becomes the target of all manner of political, material, and religious oppression.
For some, then, unintelligibility, or what Butler here names “illegibility,” becomes a tool for forceful domination: “the conditions of intelligibility are themselves formulated in and by power, and this normative exercise of power is rarely acknowledged as an operation of power at all. Indeed, we may classify it among the most implicit forms of power, one that works precisely through its illegibility: it escapes the terms of legibility that it occasions. That power continues to act in illegible ways is one source of its relative invulnerability” (134). Depending on one’s relation and proximity to power, unintelligibility can be a characteristic that engenders a violent reaction from those structures of power (as Butler elucidates in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter). However, these power structures’ own unintelligibility becomes the means through which domination is effected. Unintelligibility is both the means of oppression and its purported cause—a form of circular logic benefiting those already close to power.
Butler proposes an avenue for the expansion of livability for more people: misappropriation, or what Derrida calls reinscription. To Butler, “The force and meaning of an utterance are not exclusively determined by prior contexts or “positions”: an utterance may gain its force precisely by virtue of the break with context that it performs” (145). That is, the selective (mis)use of a given term of phrase “can have the effect of challenging existing forms of legitimacy, breaking open the possibility of future forms” (147). Butler here is thinking expressly with the resignification of anti-gay hate speech, such that “dyke” and “faggot” can become terms of love, eroticism, and endearment within the communities originally targeted through their hateful use. Here, Butler explicitly ties their concern with the lived conditions of queer life with the broader political stakes. Having now seen this movement continue such that fags are now sometimes dykes, dykes were previously (and may still be) fags, and all of them may be trannies (some of whom may even now find these misappropriations tiresome and wish for new forms of signification altogether), Butler’s call for misappropriation and reinscription has proven (at least some of) its utility and continued relevance.
Butler’s attention to the broader political concerns that condition not just queer life but contemporary life across the globe comes into more explicit focus in subsequent works, including Precarious Life (2004) and Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012). What others have articulated as an “ethical turn” in Butler’s work attempts to answer a question Butler poses in the introduction of their very first book, Subjects of Desire, and which they have been answering in all their successive work: “The unified subject with its unified philosophical life has served as a necessary psychological premise and normative ideal in moral philosophies since Plato and Aristotle. Without a discrete subject with internally consistent desires, the moral life remains indefinite; if the subject is ambiguous, difficult to locate and properly name, then to whom shall we ascribe this life?” (4, my emphasis). If Subjects of Desire posed the question and shook loose belief in desire’s consistency; and Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter articulated the gendered and sexed terms of this subjectivation and its ambiguity; then perhaps later work like Precarious Life and Parting Ways articulate an ethics for the indiscrete subject, for the collective in pieces.
Butler directly engages crucial terms and thinkers for political theology in Precarious Life, with Levinas serving as inspiration for “a conception of ethics that rests upon an apprehension of the precariousness of life” (xvii), and Agamben providing the occasion for an exploration of sovereignty that culminates in a necessary corrective to his conception of “bare life” (60-68). “Precarity,” Butler’s shorthand in this volume, emphasizes the often-overlooked (though present) material concerns engendered by illegibility and unintelligibility, while exposing how those deemed or rendered illegible are not seen as living grievable lives. The semantic field of illegibility and unintelligibility expands here to include “derealization” to name the process through which certain lives come to be seen as more or less real than others, with the least real being outside the sphere of the human and thus outside the sphere of the grievable. Precarity, then, marks proximity to an ungrievable death. Such unreal, illegible, unintelligible lives are precarious lives—and precarious lives become ungrievable deaths. Informed by the AIDS crisis’s decimation of queer life in the U.S. and beyond, Butler uses the example of the San Francisco Chronicle’s refusal to publish obituaries or in memorium announcements for Palestinians killed by the IDF as but one of countless examples of the direct link between intelligibility, precarity, and grievability (35-36).
Precarity comes to mark closeness to death, and more specifically closeness to a future unmarked, unacknowledged, ungrieved death—a death about which society does not care. In the face of precarity, Butler calls for a more robust understanding of our interdependencies—the ways we are all made and unmade by one another, over and over again—as a way to rethink grief not as privatizing, but as something that “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility” (22). Grief, then, and its political potential when properly expanded beyond the limiting spheres of hegemonic legibility, becomes the path Butler hopes to chart out of such precariousness.
Throughout their career, Butler has identified and worried the uneven possibility and impact of recognition, which I find a helpful categorization for their use of terms like grievability, intelligibility, and legibility. Once again, as early as Subjects of Desire, recognition takes shape as a site of ethics: from Hegel, Butler argues “True subjectivities comes to flourish only in communities that provide for reciprocal recognition… In the effort to gain reflection of itself through the recognition of and by the Other, this subject discovers its dependency not only as one of many attributes, but as its very self” (58). In Parting Ways, Butler uses Levinas, Said, Benjamin, Arendt, and Darwish to articulate a form of Jewishness and Jewish ethics not beholden to Zionism but instead committed to recognition of the Other, while untangling some of the convoluted political ideologies at Zionism’s heart.
Parting Ways continues Butler’s work by showing one possible application of an ethical framework that does not begin with a shared understanding of the unified subject, by reading major figures in political theology—Arendt and Levinas, particularly—against themselves in an attempt to name a post-Zionist Jewish ethics that is politically engaged through recognition of our shared, collective precarity as often found in the face of the Other. This is a shared precarity engendered by recognizing subjectivity’s instability as well as the material precarity of the unrecognizable. For Butler, this involves rethinking crucial terms and ideas central to political theology. Butler proposes “that plurality disrupts sovereignty, time and again,” moving from an Arendtian appeal to the sovereign to oppose legalized violence to instead reimagine the social “not only as a site of belonging, but as a site of struggle” (174). This focus on community and interdependence as sites of encounter and recognition of and by the Other—on how we are caught up with and in each other in ways that render a stable understanding of subjectivity nonsensical— serves as the political antidote for sovereignty’s failures (174). A work necessary for the study of religion, Parting Ways provides a blueprint for thinking capaciously and critically about the state of Zionism today and for what it might mean to be politically engaged in anti-Zionist Jewish work, doing so by turning Levinas’s own failure to recognize the face of the Arab as a self-reflexive moment to articulate a Jewish ethic of living-together with difference and in diaspora.
In the process of writing this piece, once again the IDF brought Palestinian life to a halt through a campaign of death and debilitation (for more on this context, please see the excellent recent roundtable on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim), and over 500 religious studies scholars signed on to a statement organized by Religious Studies Scholars for BDS (RS4BDS) in support of the BDS movement. Butler provides a window into the difficult but necessary road ahead of envisioning ethics for a more just world, while also engaging deeply with thinkers crucial to political theological work across traditions. Judith Butler, from their enduring focus on gender, recognition, legibility, precarity, justice, and the very construction of subjectivity, proves a crucial critical theorist for political theology today, from their earliest monographs to their more recent public scholarship. Butler’s vision of ethics untethered from a stable subjectivity but instead founded in community enmeshment and shared precarity may prove quite useful for political theology today.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
A tour-de-force that has irrevocably changed the terrain of gender and sexuality studies, Gender Trouble attends to and critiques the demand that there be a stable subject “woman” as the basis for feminist politics, instead outlining a theory of gender performativity that pushes back against such identitarian demands.
—–. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Here, Butler examines the power of language to both cause harm and generate political solidarity. Focusing on touchstone issues from the 1990s that maintain relevance today, including the policing of hate speech and freedom of speech, Butler outlines a political program based on the strategic resignification and misappropriation of language.
–—-. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004.
In Precarious Life, Judith Butler dives into our deep imbrication with one another—the ways we are all made and unmade by anonymous others. She uses this reflection as a steppingstone for a political theory that draws its power from mourning and interconnectedness, drawing on figures central to political theology to do so.
—–. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Through engagement with thinkers including Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Emmanuel Levinas, Butler here outlines a Jewish ethics against Zionism based in notions of diaspora, translation, and criticality.