Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
The Professor of Parody

Four books by JUDITH BUTLER: Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997); The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997); Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993); Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)


I

For a long time, academic feminism in America has been closely allied to the practical struggle to achieve justice and equality for women. Feminist theory has been understood by theorists as not just fancy words on paper; theory is connected to proposals for social change. Thus feminist scholars have engaged in many concrete projects: the reform of rape law; winning attention and legal redress for the problems of domestic violence and sexual harassment; improving women’s economic opportunities, working conditions, and education; winning pregnancy benefits for female workers; campaigning against the trafficking of women and girls in prostitution; working for the social and political equality of lesbians and gay men.

Indeed, some theorists have left the academy altogether, feeling more comfortable in the world of practical politics, where they can address these urgent problems directly. Those who remain in the academy have frequently made it a point of honor to be academics of a committed practical sort, eyes always on the material conditions of real women, writing always in a way that acknowledges those real bodies and those real struggles. One cannot read a page of Catharine MacKinnon, for example, without being engaged with a real issue of legal and institutional change. If one disagrees with her proposals—and many feminists disagree with them—the challenge posed by her writing is to find some other way of solving the problem that has been vividly delineated.

Feminists have differed in some cases about what is bad, and about what is needed to make things better; but all have agreed that the circumstances

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