Judith Butler, Performance and Performativity

judith-butlerOne of America’s most renowned philosophers, Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has taught since 1993. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University in 1984 on the French reception of Hegel. She is most famous for her notion of gender performativity, but her work ranges from literary theory, modern philosophical fiction, feminist and sexuality studies, to 19th- and 20th-century European literature and philosophy, Kafka and loss, mourning and war.

A champion of feminist theory on the American academic scene since the early 90s, Judith Butler boldly confronted establishment ideas of normative behavior. In her most influential book, Gender Trouble, Butler argues that “performance” must replace “essence” as a way to understand the nature of identities. Her contributions to gender theory, for example, are based on the revelation that concepts are tributaries of behavior, and that behavior can generally be understood as the performing of accepted social norms. The roles bodies play are shaped and regulated by disciplinary regimes which, in turn, use these performances as justification for the established model, all the while pretending to deny the element of performance.

Indeed, the idea of the performative is a primary nexus in Butler’s work, used to explain the development of social norms and the lengths to which people go to conform to such constructions, as well as to provide a positive model for how categories can embrace their own instability. As a philosopher who demonstrates that ambivalence and precariousness correspond more genuinely to the actual nature of concepts and identities, her work, needless to say, runs counter to traditional theories bent on defining clear roles, not only for how gender should be played, but also for how thinking should be structured.

Spanning a wide variety of topics, performance thus forms the connecting link in Butler’s thought between speech, ethics, political agency, gender relations and social justice. For example, in Antigone’s Claim, Butler tightens the bond between speech and action, surpassing J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts by emphasizing the way in which an utterance performs a deed or embodies a claim (Cf Rokem, Freddie. Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance. Stanford University Press, 2010). Repetition, as an integral part of what it means to perform, is what inscribes speech within meanings or norms that oppress, but also what gives speech such a deeply subversive potential.

In other words, the very failures of the system to assimilate everyone into a coherent narrative can be appropriated as forms of protest and subversion. In fact, Butler seems to suggest that operating in the cracks and wounds of disciplinary regimes is the only non-violent approach to resist systemic oppression. Coercion and exclusion are such integral parts of human constructions, be they linguistic, political, ethical, or sexual, that the unshackled mind must find ways of responding which are uncanny and destabilizing.

Throughout her career, Butler has remained on the political scene, frequently speaking out against discrimination, racism and war. Recognizing the common stakes among a wide range of fronts, she participated in Occupy Wall Street and has served as the chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission and is currently on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her latest book uses the obligation to object to state violence embedded in Jewish ethics to criticize political Zionism.

Butler has received countless awards for her teaching and scholarship, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a Rockefeller fellowship, Yale’s Brudner Prize, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award, and the Theodor W. Adorno Award. She has also received honorary degrees from a number of institutions, including the Université de Paris VII and the Université de Bordeaux III in 2011.

Performance against power is Butler’s legacy, not only to academia, but to the world at large. Making bodies matter in the face of abstract ideologies is paving the way for the failure of disciplinary regimes. This conference wishes to pay homage to the conceptual revolution engendered by Butler’s pioneering work, by using performance as a means of embodying or enacting philosophy in the theater of society.

Selected Bibliography (English):

  • Butler, Judith. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Columbia University Press, 2013.
  • Butler, Judith and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Polity, 2013.
  • Butler, Judith. « Can One Lead a Good life in a Bad Life? » In Radical Philosophy. Adorno Prize Lecture, September 11, 2012. Published Nov/Dec 2012.
  • Butler, Judith. « Judith Butler responds to attack: ‘I affirm a Judaism that is not associated with state violence’. » In Mondoweiss. August 27, 2012.
  • Butler, Judith. « Final Remarks on my Controversial Remark. » In European Graduate School. July 8, 2012.
  • Butler, Judith. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Butler, Judith and Elizabeth Weed. The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism. Indiana University Press, 2011.
  • Butler, Judith. « I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism. » In ‘Civil Courage Prize’ Refusal Speech. Christopher Street Day. June 19, 2010.
  • Butler, Judith. « You Will Not Be Alone. » In The Nation. April 13, 2010.
  • Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Verso, 2009.
  • Butler, Judith and Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood and Wendy Brown. Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. University of California Press, 2009.
  • Butler, Judith and Cornel West. ”Rethinking secularism. Judith Butler and Cornel West in conversation.” In Cooper Union. October 2009.
  • Butler, Judith and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging. Seagull Books, 2007.
  • Butler, Judith and Bronwyn Davies. Judith Butler in conversation: analyzing the texts and talk of everyday life. Routledge, 2007.
  • Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press, 2005.
  • Butler, Judith and Sara Salih (Editor). The Judith Butler Reader. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
  • Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. Routledge, 2004.
  • Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
  • Butler, Judith. ”Bodies and Power Revisited.” In Dianna Taylor and Karen Vintges (Editors). Feminism and the Final Foucault. University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • Butler, Judith, Shoshana Felman and Stanley Cavell. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Butler, Judith, Thomas C. Grey, Reva B. Siegel and Robert C. Post. Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Antidiscrimination Law. Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Butler, Judith and Paul Rabinow. « Dialogue: Antigone, Speech, Performance, Power » S. I. Salamensky (Editor). Talk, Talk, Talk: The Cultural Life of Everyday Conversation. Routledge, 2001.
  • Butler, Judith. « The End of Sexual Difference? » in: Elisabeth Bronfen, Misha Kavka (Editors). Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century. Gender and Culture. Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith and Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Verso, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith, John Guillory, Kendall Thomas (Editors). What’s Left of Theory? New Work on the Politics of Literary Theory. Essays from the English Institute. Routledge, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « How Can I Deny That These Hands and This Body Are Mine? » in: Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, Andrzej Warminski (Editors). Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « Circuits of Bad Conscience: Nietzsche and Freud » in: Alan D. Schrift (Editor). Why Nietzsche Still? Reflections on Drama, Culture, Politics. University of California Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « Critically Queer » in: Anna Tripp (Editor). Gender. Readers in Cultural Criticism. Palgrave, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « Ethical Ambivalence » in: Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Editors). The Turn to Ethics. Culture Works. Routledge, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess » in: Drucilla Cornell (Editor). Feminism and Pornography. Oxford Readings in Feminism. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « Performance: in: Julian Wolfreys (Editor). Readings: Acts of Close Reading in Literary Theory. Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « Quandaries of the Incest Taboo » in: Peter Brooks, Alex Woloch (Editors). Whose Freud? The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. Subjection, Resistance, Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault. In Walter Brogan, James Risser (Editors). American Continental Philosophy. Studies in Continental Thought. Indiana University Press, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. « Performativity’s Social Magic » in: Richard Shusterman (Editor). Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Critical Readers. Blackwell, 1998.
  • Butler, Judith. « Foreword » in: Maurice Natanson’s The Erotic Bird: Phenomenology in Literature. Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Butler, Judith. « Moral Sadism and Doubting One’s Own Love » in: John Phillips, Lyndsey Stonebridge (Editors). Reading Melanie Klein. Routledge, 1998.
  • Butler, Judith. « Ruled Out: Vocabularies of the Censor » in: Robert C. Post (Editor). Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation. Issues & Debates. Getty, 1998.
  • Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Routledge, 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection. Stanford University Press, 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. « Passing Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge » in: Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, Helene Moglen (Editors). Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. University of California Press, 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. « Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire » In Sandra Kemp, Judith Squires (Editors). Feminisms. Oxford Readers, 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. ”Sovereign Performatives in the Contemporary Scene of Utterance.” In Critical Inquiry. Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 350-377, Winter 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. « Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion » In Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, Ella Shohat (for the Social Text Collective) (Editors). Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Cultural Politics, 11. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. « Imitation and Gender Subordination » in: Linda Nicholson (Editor). The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Routledge, 1997.
  • Butler, Judith. « Desire » in: Frank Lentricchia, Thomas McLaughlin (Editors). Critical Terms for Literary Study. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Butler, Judith. « For a Careful Reading » in: Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. Thinking Gender. Routledge: London, New York, 1995.
  • Butler, Judith. « Stubborn Attachment, Bodily Subjection: Rereading Hegel on the Unhappy Consciousness » Tilottama Rajan, David L. Clark (Editors). Intersections: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy and Contemporary Theory. SUNY Series: The Margins of Literature. State University of New York Press, 1995.
  • Butler, Judith. « Burning Acts-Injurious Speech. » In Andrew Parker, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Editors). Performativity and Performance. Essays from the English Institute. Routledge: London, New York, 1995. pp. 197-227.
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. Routledge: London, New York, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith and Maureen MacGrogan (Editors), Linda Singer. Erotic Welfare: Sexual Theory and Politics in the Age of Epidemic. Routledge, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith. « The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva » In Kelly Oliver (Editor). Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writings: A Collection of Essays. Routledge, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith. « Critical Exchanges: The Symbolic and Questions of Gender » In Hugh J. Silverman (Editor). Questioning Foundations: Truth/Subjectivity/Culture. Routledge, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith. « Kierkegaard’s Speculative Despair » In Robert C. Solomon, Kathleen Marie Higgins (Editors). The Age of German Idealism. Routledge, 1993.
  • Butler, Judith, Joan W. Scott (Editor). Feminists Theorize the Political. Routledge, 1992.
  • Butler, Judith. « Sexual Inversions: Rereading the End of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I » In Domna C. Stanton (Editor). Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS. RATIO: Institute for the Humanities. University of Michigan Press, 1992.
  • Butler, Judith. « The Nothing that Is: Wallace Stevens’ Hegelian Affinities » In Bainard Cowan, Joseph G. Kronick (Editors). Theorizing American Literature: Hegel, the Sign, and History. Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
  • Butler, Judith. ”A Note on Performative Acts of Violence.” in: Cardozo Law Review. Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 1303-1304, December 1991. (English)
  • Butler, Judith. « Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism’. » in: Praxis International.Vol. 11, No. 2, July 1991, pp. 150-165.
  • Butler, Judith. « Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) » In George Stade (Editor). European Writers: The Twentieth Century. MacMillan Publishing Company, 1990.
  • Butler, Judith. « The Pleasures of Repetition » In Robert A. Glick, Stanley Bone (Editors). Pleasure Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Role of Affect in Motivation, Development, and Adaptation, Vol. 1. Yale University Press, 1990.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1989.
  • Butler, Judith. « Commentary on Joseph Flay’s ‘Hegel, Derrida and Bataille’s Laughter' » William Desmond (Editor). Hegel and His Critics: Philosophy in the Aftermath of Hegel. SUNY Series in Hegelian Studies. State University of New York Press, 1989.
  • Butler, Judith. « Sexual Ideology and Phenomenological Description: A Feminist Critique of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception » Jeffner Allen, Marion Young (Editors). The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern French Philosophy. Indiana University Press, 1989.
  • Butler, Judith. « Gendering the Body: Beauvoir’s Political Contribution » In Ann Garry, Marilyn Pearsall (Editors). Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorartions in Feminist Philosophy. Unwin Hyman, 1989.
  • Butler, Judith. ”Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” in:Theatre Journal. Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 519-531, December 1988.
  • Butler, Judith. « Review of Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet’s Dialogues. » in: Canadian Philosophical Reviews/Revue Canadienne de Comptes rendus en Philosophie. Vol. 8, No. 5, May 1988, pp. 163-166.
  • Butler, Judith. Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France. Columbia University Press, 1987.
  • Butler, Judith. « Desire and Recognition in Sartre’s Saint Genet and The Family Idiot, Vol. 1. » in: International Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 26, No. 4 (104). December 1986, pp. 359-374.

Selected Bibliography (French):

  • Butler, Judith. Qu’est-ce qu’une bonne vie ? Payot, 2014. Forthcoming.
  • Butler, Judith. Vers la cohabitation : Judéité et critique du sionisme. Fayard, 2013.
  • Butler, Judith, Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Georges, Didi-Hubermann, Sadri Khiari, Jacques Rancière. Qu’est-ce qu’un peuple ? La Fabrique, 2013.
  • Butler, Judith. « Une morale pour temps précaires. » In Le Monde. September 28, 2012. Translated into French by Frédéric Joly.
  • Butler, Judith. « Judith Butler répond à l’attaque: ‘Oui je revendique un judaïsme qui n’est pas associé à la violence de l’Etat’. » In European Graduate School. August 29, 2012. Translated into French by Cécile Aubert.
  • Butler, Judith. « Butler Remarques finales. » In European Graduate School. October 1, 2012. Translated into French by Cécile Aubert.
  • Butler, Judith. Sujets du désir : Réflexions hégéliennes en France au XXème siècle. Presses Universitaires de France, 2011.
  • Butler, Judith and Joëlle Marelli (Translator). Ce qui fait une vie : Essai sur la violence, la guerre et le deuil. Zones, 2010.
  • Butler, Judith and Charlotte Nordman (Translator). Ces corps qui comptent : De la matérialité et les limites discursive du sexe. Editions Amsterdam, 2009.
  • Butler, Judith, Gayatri Spivak and Françoise Bouillot (Translator). L’Etat global. Payot, 2009.
  • Butler, Judith and Charlotte Nordman (Translator). Le Pouvoir des mots : Discours de haine et politique du performatif. Editions Amsterdam, 2009.
  • Butler, Judith and Charlotte Nordmann (Translator). Le pouvoir des mots : discours de haine et politique du performatif. Éditions Amsterda, 2008.
  • Butler, Judith, Bruno Ambroise and Valérie Aucouturie (Translators). Le récit de soi. Presses Universitaires de France, 2007.
  • Butler, Judith, Éric Fassin (Preface) and Cynthia Kraus (Translator). Trouble dans le genre = Gender trouble : le féminisme et la subversion de l’identité. La Découverte, 2006.
  • Butler, Judith and Maxime Cervulle (Translator). Défaire le genre. Editions Amsterdam, 2006.
  • Butler, Judith, Jérôme Rosanvallon and Jérôme Vidal (Translators). Vie précaire : Les pouvoirs du deuil et de la violence après le 11 septembre 2001. Editions Amsterdam, 2005.
  • Butler, Judith, Jérôme Vidal and Christine Vivier (Translators). Humain, inhumain : Le Travail critique des normes – Entretiens. Editions Amsterdam, 2005.
  • Butler, Judith and Guy le Gaufrey (Translator). Antigone : la parenté entre vie et mort. Epel, 2003.
  • Butler, Judith and Brice Matthieussent (Translator). La vie psychique du pouvoir : l’assujettissement en theories. Leo Scheer, 2003.
  • Butler, Judith and Brice Matthieussent (Translator). La Vie psychique du pouvoir. Léo Scheer Editions, 2002.
  • Butler, Judith and Gayle S. Rubin (Authors). Eliane Sokol and Flora Bolter (Translators). Marché au sexe. Epel, 2002.
  • Butler, Judith and Michel Vakaloulis (Translator). « Attachement obstiné et assujettissement corporel–Relire Hegel à propos de la conscience malheureuse » in: Claude Amey, Henri Maler (Editors). Hegel passé, Hegel à venir. Futur antérieur. Editions l’Harmattan, 1995.
  • Butler, Judith and Arno Mayer (Translator). « Repenser la politique et l’ontologie ou ‘répétition et oubli' » in: Jacques Poulain, Wolfgang Schirmacher (Editors). Penser après Heidegger. La Philosophie en commun. L’Harmattan, 1992, pp. 125-134.

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A propos de l'auteur : Anna Street

Anna Street est doctorante en cotutelle à l’Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne et à l’Université du Kent à Canterbury. Sa thèse étudie le rapport des développements philosophiques au théâtre européen de l’après-guerre, en examinant comment l’effondrement des idéologies a transformé non seulement les scènes de théâtre, mais aussi l’écriture de la philosophie. Membre de VALE et du Labo LAPS, elle est fondatrice du groupe Tragedy and Comedy: Genres of Dramatic Thought au sein de Performance Philosophy,