Judith Butler, Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Judith Butler's Undoing Gender offers her latest thinking on a variety of issues related
both to gender and also to the larger idea of becoming "undone." In this volume, Butler goes beyond her earlier
examinations of gender performativity to explore what defines humanness. Butler's consideration of that
defining process offers new insights into issues pertinent to both feminist and queer theorists. More
importantly, however, the essays in this volume have practical implications for social movements; make new
connections between discourse and knowledge; and offer an important re-consideration of the current state of
the study of philosophy.
- The book collects eleven essays, many of which are revised versions of papers that have appeared in
journals and anthologies during the past few years. The diverse contexts from which these papers are drawn
make for lively and evocative reading. Indeed, this volume opens a variety of new lines of inquiry into the
broader applications of Butler's thinking for both scholars and activists. Undoing Gender comes
at a time when Butler's work is widely read outside of Gender Studies disciplines and is beginning to pursue a
wider breadth of philosophical investigation. During the past ten years, Butler, the Maxine Eliot Professor
of Rhetoric, Comparative Literature, and Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has come to
be a prolific writer and speaker, with a much more visible position within academia than at the time she wrote
what is perhaps her most well-known book, Gender Trouble.
- What is exciting about Undoing Gender's central analysis of gender is that it directly
addresses civil rights issues actively at stake within the larger culture. Several essays focus on the
relationship between an array of social movements--intersex, transgender, transsexual, feminism, queer
studies--and explore their differing positions around notions of sexuality and personal identity. In these
sections, Butler's analysis yields new insights into how sexual difference is politicized and policed. Early
in the volume, Butler notes that these issues are not simply relevant to "the New Gender Politics" (11), but
will speak to even larger issues, as
Importantly, Butler's analysis disaggregates the variety of movements too often grouped under the broad rubric
"queer rights," focusing on the often-overlooked transgender and intersex communities. In doing
so, Butler demonstrates the degree to which these different movements and communities are driven by competing
priorities and ontological claims. For example, she cites the intersex community's opposition to coercive
surgery on infants or children with hermaphroditic anatomy as a point at which a social movement is calling
into question generally held ontological concepts. That is, this community's opposition to surgery can be
interpreted as a resistance to sexual dimorphism and offers a "critical perspective on the version of 'human'
that requires ideal morphologies and the constraining of bodily norms" (4). By contrast, the transsexual
movement seeks to legitimize elective surgery to change from one gender to another. Both movements, operating
from different epistemological frameworks, seek to "undo" normative concepts of fixed, binary gender
identities within our culture.
the question of who and what is considered real and true is apparently a question of knowledge. But it is
also, as Michel Foucault makes plain, a question of power. (27)
- To some readers, this may sound like familiar territory for Butler: seeking to better delineate the
terms by which gender is defined against the backdrop of cultural production. However, the book represents a
deeper engagement for Butler with the practical politics and current issues in feminist and queer movements
today. In part, this may be in answer to critics who have expressed concern that academic feminists have
begun to split into two camps: those who are actively involved in practical social struggles and those who have
retreated into isolated academic positions. This latter group has been characterized perhaps most
famously by Martha Nussbaum in her essay "The Professor of Parody" which appeared in The New
Republic. Nussbaum suggests that these feminist theorists are interested only in the "verbal and
symbolic politics" of feminism and engage in little discussion around the status of women outside
of the United States. In that same essay, Nussbaum characterizes Butler as the "American feminist [who] has
shaped these developments more than any other."
- Undoing Gender, however, strikes new--and more pragmatic--critical ground for Butler by
its emphasis on the rules by which the policing of gender operates. The book's analysis focuses
on the specific working functions of various regulatory efforts--from the narrowing definition of gender norms
found in DSM-IV's Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis to the allowable definition of "woman" in the United
Nations Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) platform on the status of women. One essay, "Bodily
Confessions," focuses on the nature of psychotherapeutic discourse and was originally presented as a paper at
the 1999 American Psychological Division Meetings in San Francisco. The presence of this paper on that
convening's agenda suggests new opportunities for high theory to intersect with practice in the very arenas
where legal and institutional change can take place.
- In her discussion of DSM-IV, Butler illuminates the interplay between the rhetoric of the medical
institution and personal declarations of gender normalcy. For example, it is necessary for one to declare
oneself as suffering from a diagnosable disorder in order to receive insurance reimbursement for a sex-change
operation and hormonal treatment as a "medically necessary" procedure. Thus, a transgendered person must
subscribe to the idea that their identity is a psychological disease in order to be "treated." In this and
other cogent examples, Butler makes clear the larger operations inherent in the self-reinforcing mechanisms by
which regulatory systems operate and the profound realness those mechanisms provide to the Law. This reality
effect is perhaps best described by Foucault, for whom
Butler goes on to discuss the Vatican's objection to including "gender" in the United Nations Non-Governmental
Organizations (NGO) platform on the status of women due to a concern that it was a coded word for
"homosexuality." In her analysis, Butler agrees to some extent with the Vatican's reference to "the possible
inclusion of lesbian rights as 'anti-human'," as Butler argues that to admit "the lesbian into the realm of
the universal might undo the human" and expand conventional notions of what it means to live a normative life
all [transgression] ends up doing is reinforcing the law in its weakness . . . The law is that shadow toward
which every gesture necessarily advances; it is itself the shadow of the advancing gesture. (35)
- Much of Butler's broader analysis focuses on how one is deemed to be an acceptable identity
category--human, citizen, normal--and the relationship between this phenomena and social justice. She begins
with the assertion that when a class of citizens' normalcy is called into question, the result is often denial
of civil rights and an increased frequency of violence. In thinking about the kind of resulting loss that
members of disenfranchised communities often face, she looks at how problematizing these people's normativity
calls into question the degree to which they are living a "grievable life" (18). Here, she cites the fact
that many people and institutions desensitize themselves to the catastrophic AIDS deaths in Africa or violence
against sexual minorities by categorizing the victims of such tragedies as the Other. This desensitization
operates by undoing a given population's right to full personhood. This very "experience of becoming undone"
(1) is the thread that connects the essays in this volume and offers a new entry point to consider
international human rights issues.
- Butler's discussions often turn to language as the point at which the issues of identity and social
power converge. The essay "Bodily Confessions" looks specifically at the nature of discourse in both
confession and psychoanalysis. Butler interrogates Foucault's claim in The History of Sexuality: Volume
I that psychoanalysis is a natural inheritor of the "pastoral power" inherent in confession, and
thereby creates an environment designed to manifest power and control. Though Foucault later recanted this
assertion, Butler uses this claim as a means to examine the nature of analytic speech and to explore the
relationship between the words spoken in the therapy environment and the need to confess. These discussions
touch upon the links between language and the body, thereby tying Undoing Gender to another of
Butler's earlier works, Bodies That Matter. In that volume, she offered an in-depth exploration
the relationship between speech acts and the body.
- Throughout the book, Butler raises Derridean questions of authorship and the extent to which we lose
control of the meaning of what we say once it is uttered. Butler shows that declarations of identity (whether
gendered, racial, or otherwise) inevitably belong in part to the public sphere that hears our spoken claims
and gives them meanings beyond our control. In order to examine more closely issues related to discourse, she
looks at a range of examples from contemporary politics. Both the DSM-IV and Vatican examples support
Butler's argument that civil rights are directly related to whether or not someone is recognized as normal or
human. And this recognition in the political sphere often occurs at the level of discourse. Invoking again
the idea of becoming undone, Butler argues that
Undoing an individual's right to full personhood can be achieved either by identifying them to be excluded or
ignoring them to render them invisible.
if the schemes of recognition that are available to us are those that "undo" the person by conferring
recognition, or "undo" the person by withholding recognition, then recognition becomes a site of power by
which the human is differentially produced. (2)
- Undoing Gender's interrogation of the complex relationship between exclusion,
discrimination, and identity places it squarely among the work of other contemporary queer theorists. Didier
Eribon's recent Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, for example, looks at the ways in which
queer identities are in part formed by the societal discourse that gays adopt in order to define themselves.
Eribon explores "the power of name-giving, the role of shame" as a shaper of personal identity, to which end
he focuses his analysis on early depictions of gays in literature. He situates representations of gay people
in Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Oscar Wilde in relation to theoretical frameworks presented by both
Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt in order to shed new light on the intermingled evolution of gay
identity and social power. Butler's book lacks the strong sense of historicity found in Eribon's and
therefore at times feels less grounded. However, Undoing Gender's consideration of social
movements does make the book feel more relevant. Gayatri Gopinath's Impossible Desires offers
another useful counterpoint to Undoing Gender. Gopinath identifies and analyzes queer female
subjectivities within a broad array of South Asian diasporic literature, film, and music to demonstrate the
destabilizing power of these perspectives often rendered invisible by the logic of blood, authenticity, and
patrilineal descent. Impossible Desires goes on to discuss events within the larger culture that
signify a lack of tolerance for sexual difference within both the national and diasporic states of India.
Gopinath's book reflects the growing number of scholars in contemporary queer studies discussing the
intersection between homophobia, racism, transnationalism, and globalization. Butler's book touches only
briefly on the intersection of these issues, and some readers may find themselves wanting more.
- Still, Undoing Gender is a natural companion to both Insult and the Making of the
Gay Self and Impossible Desires. All three texts look at ways in which negative
discourse--or the absence of discourse--around sexual minorities marginalizes them and contributes not only to
societal misperceptions, but also to how minorities understand themselves.
- While Undoing Gender does move beyond Butler's earlier thinking on gender and sexuality,
it also includes a reconsideration of her ideas regarding gender performativity outlined in Gender
Trouble. In this earlier volume, Butler sought to expose the heterosexism present in feminist theory
and to explore the extent to which gender identities are largely socially constructed from a series of
gestures, speech acts, and other theatrically produced reality effects. In Undoing Gender, she
directly answers critics and others who have commented on Gender Trouble, responding to their
concerns and better articulating some of the book's finer points. Here, she addresses arguments raised by
formalist Lacanians such as Joan Copjec, Charles Shepherdson, and Slavoj Zizek, as well as critic Carol Anne
Tyler and theorist Rosi Braidotti. Tyler, for instance, asserts that it will always be different for a woman
to transgress gender norms than for a man, due to predefined, differing positions of social power. In
response, Butler states her "worry that the frameworks we commit ourselves to because they describe
patriarchal domination well and may well recommit us to seeing that very domination as inevitable or as
primary" (213). Here, Butler reaffirms the radicalism that makes her philosophical work so important and also
underscores the necessity for the writing of Undoing Gender: the need to destabilize the very
regulatory functions and frameworks that police culturally produced gender identities described in her earlier
- The final essay in this volume, "Can the 'Other' Philosophy Speak?" helps us learn more about
Butler's personal history and understand how she came to study philosophy, feminism, and gender issues. We see
her early encounters with Spinoza when in the family basement, "hiding out from painful family dynamics"
(235). We hover alongside her in Paul de Man's classes at Yale as she finds herself "compelled and repelled" by the
scholar's discussions of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (238). Like Derrida's The
Work of Mourning, these sections of the book examine Butler's own lineage of thinkers and texts that
have shaped who she is. This effort at personal criticism (which also appears, in a more limited way, in
Eribon's book) follows the recent trend among scholars to offer a window into their own experiences and to
suggest their own relationship to the material they study. Butler's choice to include personal criticism here
underscores a way that academics involved in high theory can more deeply engage with readers and connect to
the cultural contexts which their exegeses examine. For Butler, her personal disclosure naturally segues into
a discussion of how one seeks out philosophy, and whether philosophy can have practical implications for our
- Interestingly, Butler invokes this very question of the relationship of one's life and influential
texts in her recent essay eulogizing Derrida's life in the London Review of Books. In that
essay, Butler recalls sharing a stage with Derrida in 1993 and asking him "whether he had many debts to pay."
Derrida has difficulty understanding her, and believes she is asking him about his "death," rather than
"debts." Butler recalls,
The final section of Undoing Gender invokes this same sentiment. That is, it feels as if Butler
is offering an homage to those works, thinkers, and experiences that have profoundly influenced her. Readers
familiar with her earlier work may feel, as Butler describes feeling in the quote above, that such linkages and
influences become clearer as one reads Undoing Gender in the context of Butler's other books and
at this point I could see that there was a link between the two . . . but it was not until I read his later
work that I came to understand how important that link really was.
- This same essay contemplates how philosophy, or at least the modes of philosophical critique, has begun
to appear in English, comparative literature, and other academic departments. Butler explores how philosophy
has unintentionally produced a "spectral double of itself" (241) and engendered a broader understanding of who
can be said to practice philosophy, including interdisciplinary thinkers from Walter Benjamin to Cornel West.
Here Butler also discusses the trend among graduate students and young scholars outside traditional philosophy
departments to seek out thinkers--such as Derrida, Irigaray, and Cixous--to pursue new methods of critique
falling under the broad name of "theory." This essay may both galvanize philosophy departments to consider
how to re-position themselves as relevant to graduate students today and may also encourage more universities
to explore adopting interdisciplinary programs such as U.C. Berkeley's Rhetoric Department on whose faculty
Butler sits or Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program. "Can the 'Other' Philosophy
Speak?" is the liveliest of the book's essays, the kind that helps the reader better define their own position
in relation to a lineage of thinkers and within the larger scholarly community.
- Some critics may argue that, with this book, Butler does not break the same radical ground that she did
with Gender Trouble. However, what is refreshing about Undoing Gender is its frank
openness, its willingness to introduce new lines of inquiry and leave many questions unanswered. Butler
herself suggests that "we make no decision on what sexual difference is but leave that question open,
troubling, unresolved, propitious" (192). At this and other points, Undoing Gender takes
important steps--both for Butler as a critic and for queer theory as a discipline--toward new opportunities to
expand frontiers, make boundaries more porous, and build new coalitions between both social movements and
schools of thought.
COPYRIGHT (c) 2006 BY John Garrison.
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---. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge 1990.
---. "Jacques Derrida." London Review of Books 26.21 (4 Nov. 2004): 32.
Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault. Chicago: U of Chicago
Eribon, Didier. Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. Trans. Michael Lucey. Durham: Duke
Foucault, Michel. "Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from the Outside." Foucault/Blanchot.
Michel Foucault and Maurice Blanchot. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman and Brian Massumi. New York: Zone, 1990. 7-58.
Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures.
Durham: Duke UP, 2005.
Nussbaum, Martha C. "The Professor of Parody: The Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler." Review. The New
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