Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Judith Butler: Une Nouvelle Existentialiste?

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Judith Butler: Une Nouvelle Existentialiste?

Article excerpt

For indeed no one has yet determined what the body can do.

-Spinoza, Ethics,

Part III, Proposition 2, Scholium

"There is thinking: therefore there is something that thinks": this is the upshot of all Descartes' argumentation. But this means positing as "true a priori" our belief in the concept of substance:-that when there is thought there has to be something "that thinks" is simply a formulation of our grammatical custom that adds a doer to every deed.

-Nietzsche, Will to Power, (secs)484

To be born is both to be born of the world and to be born into the world. The world is already constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities. But this analysis is still abstract, for we exist in both ways at once. There is, therefore, never determinism and never absolute choice, I am never a thing and never bare consciousness.

-Merleau-Ponty,

Phenomenology of Perception, p. 453

Judith Butler ends her preface to Bodies that Matter with the following remark: "This text is offered, then, in part as a rethinking of some parts of Gender Trouble that have caused confusion, but also as an effort to think further about the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the crafting of matters sexual and political. As a critical rearticulation of various theoretical practices, including feminist and queer studies, this text is not intended to be programmatic. And yet, as an attempt to clarify my `intentions,' it appears destined to produce a new set of misapprehensions. I hope that they prove, at least, to be productive ones."1 To date, Butler's work has been exceedingly productive for those working in both feminist and queer studies and, if my undergraduate students' enthusiasm for her work is any indication, it will continue to be productive for the next generation or two of graduate students at least. But her work has yet to be as productive in more traditional philosophical venues as I believe it deserves to be. While not wanting to take anything away from the positive reception that her writings, and in particular Gender Trouble, have received from readers interested in feminist theory and in the rapidly evolving field of queer theory, I want to suggest that her work warrants serious consideration from philosophers and theorists working in more mainstream political philosophy as well as the history of philosophy and, in particular, twentieth-century French philosophy.

It is primarily from this perspective that I read Gender Trouble, not for its account of gender identity and performance but for the role several French theorists, and in particular Michel Foucault, play in her argument. While her account of the subject as a performative is far more than simply an "application" of the Foucaultian analytic, it can certainly be engaged as one of the most interesting and innovative appropriations of Foucault, and in particular of the Foucaultian-Nietzschean account of the subject, that has appeared to date. I say "Foucaultian-Nietzschean" because while there are many different ways in which Foucault's work has been appropriated within contemporary theory, Butler has been at the forefront of those who have made a case for the relevance of Nietzsche to a critical project that seeks to rethink gender (and) identity insofar as she has positioned Nietzsche's challenge to a metaphysics of substance at the center of her articulation of a performative account of identity. Drawing upon Foucault and Nietzsche both, Butler challenges the language of interiority, offering in its stead the language of performativity in which "the gendered body [as] performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality."

While distancing herself from several of Foucault's positions on sexual difference and the body, the political dimension of Butler's conclusions that identity is a practice and gender a performative remained profoundly Foucaultian as she articulated the alternative gender possibilities produced within the repressive and constraining practices of our compulsory heterosexist culture. …

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