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Judith Butler

b. February 24, 1956

by Brett Ashley Kaplan
Last updated June 23, 2021

Judith Butler, 2011. Photo by Andrew Rusk.

In Brief

From Hebrew school and the study of Jewish ethics, through a sustained reading and interpretation of many Jewish philosophers and thinkers (Levinas, Benjamin, Derrida, Freud, Arendt, and others), Butler’s groundbreaking work brings Jewish thought to bear on the most pressing issues of our times, from gender to war to activism to the global pandemic. Her twelve books have been translated into 27 languages and she is consistently listed as among the 21st century’s most influential thinkers. Butler has served as president of the Modern Language Association and is Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jewish Ethics

“The imperative to isolate coincides with a new recognition of our global interdependence during the new time and space of pandemic” (Butler, Verso, 2020). Thus Judith Butler, in typically brilliant and incisive fashion, even amid a terrifying global pandemic, articulates the simultaneous and perhaps counterintuitive merging of distance at the very moment of universal recognition of global connectivity. Her work engages the politics and situations of the moment and is not abstract or outside of the real. The gesture of naming contradictory events or phenomena and locating the entwining of unlikely strains characterizes much of Butler’s work. Indeed, most people, even if not aware of it, have likely been influenced by Butler’s ideas and the connections and tensions she enables us to see. Each new book in Butler’s extensive oeuvre has encouraged us to think more deeply about a range of concepts, including gender, hate speech, the precarity of life, the precarity of one’s position as a Jewish thinker in light of the unfortunate aspects of Israeli policy towards Palestinians, alternative kinship structures, non-violence, vulnerability, and other equally complex and important aspects of human existence. Butler’s ideas are multifaceted; this entry is written in the spirit of encouraging further reading and reflection and definitively not intended to summarize the contributions of this world-changing philosopher.

Education & Career

Butler was born on February 24, 1956, in Ohio, to parents who practiced Judaism in a variety of synagogues. Her mother moved from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, and her father had been in a Reform synagogue all along. Butler went to Hebrew school and studied Jewish ethics under the mentorship of Rabbi Daniel Silver, through which lens she tried to make sense, as she said in an interview with Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, of the world after the Holocaust, especially because many members of her mother’s extended Hungarian family had not survived (Haaretz, 2010; Yanklowitz, 2020). She works with Jewish Voice for Peace and is a member of the Kehilla Community Synagogue (Critical Legal Thinking, 2012). Butler studied at Yale University (Ph.D. 1984) and taught at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in 1993, where she remains the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature and the Program in Critical Theory. She and her partner, the brilliant political theorist Wendy Brown, have a son, Isaac Butler Brown.

The Performativity of Gender and the Materiality of the Body

Butler’s work Gender Trouble (1990) launched into wide circulation the concept of the performativity of gender and allowed us to understand the differences between sex, as given at biological birth (and not everyone is born male or female), and gender as conceived of as the roles that we choose to embody through our changeable forms. This transformative book washed over us like a tsunami of brilliant thought. It simply changed how people saw, grasped, and interpreted gender. Many years later, that perceptual transformation at times met opposition from trans people who say, as one commentator put it bluntly: “If one more person tells me that ‘all gender is performance,’ I think I am going to strangle them” (cited in Halberstam, 2018). In other words, some trans thinkers felt that by subsuming gender under the category of “performance,” their rightful need to transform biological sex physically through surgery and other interventions was denied. Jack Halberstam finds that trans theory has “swung around” and that “new understandings of ‘transrealities’ have emerged alongside deep engagement with notions of performance and performativity.” So the understanding of the performative nature of gender may have found cohabitation with the very real necessity many people feel to physically change genders.

Bodies that Matter (1993) began under the sign of clarification: Gender Trouble had launched the idea that the body lacked materiality and was “merely” performative, and Butler took that question head on by asking: “Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender?” (Bodies that Matter, 1). She answers this by exploring several cases of transformation, including passing and the drag performances lovingly detailed in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 film Paris is Burning. By examining the houses to which many young drag queens escaped in order to find safe space away from mostly biological family members who refused (sometimes violently) to understand their gender nonconformity, Livingston’s film also furnished Butler a concrete example of what would later come into play in her work as the important concept of alternative kinship structures. Butler develops this idea in multiple texts including Antigone’s Claim (2000), where she examines Antigone’s melancholic relationship to kinship that nonetheless forges structures outside the political norm. Antigone’s kinship, Butler argues, is in tension with the state and she asserts her rights to bury her brother despite the law. Among Butler’s other important texts are The Psychic Life of Power (1997), Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997), Undoing Gender (2004), Who Sings the Nation State? (with Gayatri Spivak, 2008), and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015).

Precariousness and War

In response to the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and other targets in the U.S., Butler published Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004). Butler noted therein that “the United States was missing an opportunity to redefine itself as part of a global community when, instead, it heightened nationalist discourse” (Precarious Life, xi). This sense of global interconnection would enliven all of her subsequent works and takes us right back to the current Covid-19 pandemic (I am writing in April 2020) when we need to see the interconnections that bind us, even at the very moment when they may seem most precarious. Butler turns to the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in many of her texts and cites him as the source for understanding the precariousness of human life that titles this book. Levinas grounds ethics in a recognition of the face of the Other—the full understanding of the precarious and vulnerable life of an other that enables care and an ethical approach to other humans.

Continuing to examine precarity and grievability, Butler published Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? in 2009. This text argues that there “ought to be a more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognizing precariousness, and that this should take form as concrete social policy.” Further, “there ought to be recognition of precariousness as a shared condition of human life (indeed, as a condition that links human and non-human animals)” (Frames of War, 13). Precariousness and vulnerability may not seem, at first glance, to be intuitive grounds for social policy. And yet, Butler argues convincingly that the recognition of the other through his/her/their precarity and vulnerability is the condition of possibility for a more egalitarian political and economic landscape. If a life is grievable, Butler contends, then and only then can we see that life as a life. If we take a step further and apply the question of grievability to animals, we see an immediate problem with the global consumption of meat. But Butler’s primary concern remains with human ethics and politics.

Controversy and Zionism

In one of her most important works, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012) Butler situates herself through her “schooling and early childhood formation within Jewish communities as well as an engagement with the educational programs of my synagogue that prompted me to study philosophy”(Parting Ways, 20). She goes further, throughout the carefully written text, to specify that Jewish ethics in fact demands an examination of some of the policies of the Israeli state and that recognizing the grievability of Palestinian lives has remained elusive among the right-wing in Israel; there, Others are unseen, their humanity unrecognized. In an interview in Ha’aretz Butler explained the bind in which many leftist Jews find themselves:

I would also say that what became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticize Israeli state violence— precisely because as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism—then one is in a bind, because one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism. And yet for me, it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice. So how can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew? This is the bind of my current situation (Haaretz, 2010).

Butler has been roundly and sometimes vociferously critiqued for her ethical stance on Israel. Despite clear statements in Parting Ways and elsewhere that Zionism is not Nazism, the claim is made that Butler debunks all Zionism by using the worst adjective a Jew could concoct: “Nazi” (Parting Ways, 121). But this is simply not in the text. What is there, instead, is a careful reading of Zionism using the philosophical tools of Jewish thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt to maintain a distinctly Jewish positionality while simultaneously calling for an ethical approach to Palestinian lives. By recognizing the grievability, precarity, and vulnerability of these lives, Butler argues, we can and ought to construct an egalitarian Israeli state.

Aggressive Non-Violence

Butler takes up the call for egalitarianism forcefully in her most recent book, The Force of Non-Violence (2020). Following on the earlier arguments around the importance of grievability and vulnerability, Butler here makes an important, if counter-intuitive argument that aggressive non-violence, following the impetus of activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, is a crucial element in the global fight for egalitarianism. Precarity itself, Butler finds, is a form of persistence. We must simultaneously recognize our interdependence and recognize the forms of ambivalence and destruction that persist within that very interdependence. “An ethics and politics of nonviolence,” Butler contends, “would have to account for this way that selves are implicated in each other’s lives, bound by a set of relations that can be as destructive as they can be sustaining” (Force of Non-Violence, 9). Turning to Freud and other psychoanalytic accounts, Butler traces how love itself usually engages ambivalence, destruction, and conflict, not just its cheesier sides such as care and compassion. Love is “defined by its ambivalence, structured by the oscillation between love and hatred. The task appears to be finding a way to live and act with ambivalence—one where ambivalence is understood not as an impasse, but as an internal partition that calls for an ethical orientation and practice” (Force of Non-Violence, 172).

Honors & Impact

Butler has received numerous honorary degrees from universities around the world in addition to being named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, offered the Adorno prize by the city of Frankfurt, and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She held the prestigious presidency of the Modern Language Association in 2020. Her books have been translated into 27 languages and she regularly appears on lists such as “The Most Influential Women of the 21st Century” or “The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers.”

From Hebrew school and the study of Jewish ethics, through a sustained reading and interpretation of many Jewish philosophers and thinkers (Levinas, Benjamin, Derrida, Freud, Arendt, and others), Butler’s groundbreaking work brings Jewish thought to bear on the most pressing issues of our times, from gender to war to activism to the global pandemic.

Selected Works by Judith Butler

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

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.

Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009.

The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind. London: Verso, 2020.

Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

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

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

co-written with Gayatri Spivak. Who Sings the Nation State? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. “Capitalism Has Its Limits.” Verso, March 30, 2020. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits

Halberstam, Jack. “Toward a Trans* Feminism.” Boston Review, January 18, 2018. http://bostonreview.net/gender-sexuality/jack-halberstam-towards-trans-feminism

“Judith Butler: As a Jew, I was Taught it was Ethically Imperative to Speak Up.” Haaretz, February 24, 2010. https://www.haaretz.com/1.5052023?=&ts=_1586463918946

“Judaism, Coronavirus, and Care: Judith Butler interviewed by Shmuly Yanklowitz,” April 7, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsNU7RgQwlY

“Judith Butler: I Affirm that Judaism is Not Associated with State Violence” https://criticallegalthinking.com/2012/08/29/9979/

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How to cite this page

Kaplan, Brett Ashley. "Judith Butler." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 20, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/butler-judith>.