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Butler: Is It All Greek? | The Nation

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Butler: Is It All Greek?

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Judith Butler, who is a Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is a troublemaker. She announced as much when she arrived on the critical feminist scene in her second and most well-known work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, first published in 1990:

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Georgette Fleischer
Georgette Fleischer is completing a manuscript on "Genre Departures: Women Writers and the Crisis of Representing...

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It really is about time we had the letters of Rebecca West.

Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: The prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.

In the 149 dense pages that follow this preface, Butler took on a host of psychoanalytic theorists, from "Freud and the Melancholia of Gender" to "Lacan, Riviere, and the Strategies of Masquerade." She also critiqued "The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva" (who uses semiotics in the service of psychoanalytic critique) and "Monique Wittig: Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex," whose The Lesbian Body and other works are, according to Butler, limited by Wittig's humanism. In Gender Trouble, Butler's admiration is reserved for Michel Foucault, the openly gay philosopher of power most famous for his History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish, a philosopher whose terms are evident in Butler's preface above: "the reigning discourse of my childhood"; "rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms"; "the subtle ruse of power." Butler's genealogical critique of gender, i.e., a critique of gender's very origins, a critique of the very terms of the critique, was a grand synthesis of the most radical European ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. Simone de Beauvoir's famous statement in The Second Sex that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is a conceptual starting point, but only a starting point. Foucault's work on the journals of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite so tortured by his/her predicament in a sexually normative world that s/he commits suicide, enables Butler's challenge not only to the categories of gender but to the categories of sex itself. But what stands head and shoulders above Butler's illustrious collection of radical theories is Gender Trouble's overarching claim that gender, and possibly even sex itself, is not an expression of who one is but rather a performance.

Toward the end of Gender Trouble, Butler poses a set of questions that indicate the practical, political direction of her critique:

What performance where will invert the inner/outer distinction and compel a radical rethinking of the psychological presuppositions of gender identity and sexuality? What performance where will compel a reconsideration of the place and stability of the masculine and the feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire?

Not only did Gender Trouble immediately appear on feminist-theory syllabuses around the country, it became a foundational text of queer theory. Is it any wonder it provoked a backlash?

Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death is a slender, very well-written book that is the published version of the Wellek Library Lectures Butler gave at the University of California, Irvine, in May 1998. Butler starts out:

I began to think about Antigone a few years ago as I wondered what happened to those feminist efforts to confront and defy the state. It seemed to me that Antigone might work as a counterfigure to the trend championed by recent feminists to seek the backing and authority of the state to implement feminist policy aims. The legacy of Antigone's defiance appeared to be lost in the contemporary efforts to recast political opposition as legal plaint and to seek the legitimacy of the state in the espousal of feminist claims.

Butler's study of Antigone led her someplace she had not anticipated. Rather than view Antigone as the figure who defies the state in the person of her uncle, Creon the King, who has forbidden her to bury her brother Polyneices--"I say that I did it and I do not deny it"--Butler follows some of her own most important intellectual mentors, namely, the Enlightenment philosopher and founder of dialectics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the poststructuralist psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray, in viewing Antigone "not as a political figure, one whose defiant speech has political implications, but rather as one who articulates a prepolitical opposition to politics, representing kinship as the sphere that conditions the possibility of politics without ever entering into it." Butler is interested in Antigone as a liminal figure between the family and the state, between life and death (this is the choice she must make, and in her defiance of Creon she chooses the latter), but also as a figure, like all her kin, who represents the nonnormative family, a set of kinship relations that seems to defy the standard model.

In addition, there is a contemporary occasion for Antigone's Claim, one that is elucidated in Butler's new preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, in which she declares her interest in "increasing the possibilities for a livable life for those who live, or try to live, on the sexual margins." I do not think it amiss to describe Antigone's Claim as dedicated to those who try to die on the sexual margins. Though directly referred to only occasionally in her text, it is the specter of death as a result of AIDS that haunts Antigone's Claim, and the particular dilemma AIDS presents to those who live and die outside the boundaries of normative family and kinship relations. Toward the end of the third and final chapter, "Promiscuous Obedience," Butler states:

For those relations that are denied legitimacy, or that demand new terms of legitimation, are neither dead nor alive, figuring the nonhuman at the border of the human. And it is not simply that these are relations that cannot be honored, cannot be openly acknowledged, and cannot therefore be publicly grieved, but that these relations involve persons who are also restricted in the very act of grieving, who are denied the power to confer legitimacy on loss.

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