BUTLER, JUDITH (1956– ), U.S. theorist and philosopher. Butler's interest in philosophy grew out of many years of education at the synagogue in her hometown of Cleveland, where she was first exposed to existential theology and ethics. After attending Bennington College, she received a B.A. and, in 1984, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University. She was named Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and also taught at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins Universities.
Regarded as one of the founders of queer theory, Butler is best known for her work addressing gender, identity, power, and desire. In her influential 1989 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, she draws on thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jaques Lacan, and Jean-Paul Sartre in order to argue against the assumption that one's masculine or feminine gender identity is necessarily linked to his or her reproductive sex. Rather, she argues, gender is a fluid variable, with no independent existence of its own, and it shifts and changes depending on a person's context. She describes this phenomenon as "performance," suggesting that repeated, subtly gendered acts take shape to form a "coherent" gender identity. But, she maintains, this identity can never be stable, both because it is never performed the same way twice, and because a myriad of acts are performed daily which, though unacknowledged in significance, ultimately disrupt the otherwise consistent pattern of gender. In other words, all people do things that "perform" gender in different ways depending on the situation, but they also are responsible for other actions that, if included in a reading of one's gender identity, would tell a very different story about that same person's gender. She suggests that the deconstruction of assumptions about gender and even the unconscious performance of acts that subvert a neat binary "male/female" system has the potential to create a more equal society in which people are not constrained by masculine and feminine gender roles.
Butler extends this premise in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (1993), in which she integrates an analysis of race in her examination of power's effects on our understandings of materiality itself. She addresses the intersection between the notion of "subjection," or the act of becoming a subject, and gay and lesbian identity in The Psychic Life of Power (1997), and applies a theory of agency to hate speech in Excitable Speech: Politics of the Performative (1997). Undoing Gender (2004) investigates the ways in which gender is regulated in social policy, aesthetics, and psychology. In Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004), Butler examines war's impact on language and thought, using the political landscape after September 11, 2001, as a reference point.
Some of Butler's other publications include The Judith Butler Reader (2004), Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (2000), Hegemony, Contingency, Universality (2000), What's Left of Theory?: New Work on the Politics of Literary Theory (2000), Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (1995), Feminists Theorize the Political (1992), Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987).
[Danya Ruttenberg (2nd ed.)]