Welcome to our series that brings you original content from individuals in the news. We’re calling it “Verbatim” because these posts will let the authors speak for themselves.
Judith Butler—author of the pioneering monograph Gender Trouble is the kind of crossover academic thinker formidable enough to merit both a 2016 New York magazine profile and an irreverent/reverent 1993 paper fanzine dedicated to her. But long before either of these appeared, she was writing cutting edge speculative philosophy. Butler emerged sui generis and took on the Continental big dogs (a little Hegel here, a little Foucault there) right when Academia was getting sexy in America. Actually, her pairing of French psychoanalytic, feminist, and post-structural theory with American gender studies may be one of the reasons that Academia got sexy here.
In this early essay from Theatre Journal entitled “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” you can see her working out the ideas that eventually became Gender Trouble:
When Simone de Beauvoir claims, “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” she is appropriating and reinterpreting this doctrine of constituting acts from the phenomenological tradition. In this sense, gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gender.
For sure, Butler inspired a whole generation of American queer theorists, but all of her work on bodies and politics is pure theoretical delight. Here’s the recent “Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation:”
We struggle in, from, and against precarity. Thus, it is not from pervasive love for humanity or a pure desire for peace that we strive to live together. We live together because we have no choice, and though we sometimes rail against that unchosen condition, we remain obligated to struggle to affirm the ultimate value of that unchosen social world, an affirmation that is not quite a choice, a struggle that makes itself known and felt precisely when we exercise freedom in a way that is necessarily committed to the equal value of lives. We can be alive or dead to the sufferings of others—they can be dead or alive to us. But it is only when we understand that what happens there also happens here, and that “here” is already an elsewhere, and necessarily so, that we stand a chance of grasping the difficult and shifting global connections in ways that let us know the transport and the constraint of what we might still call ethics.