U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Shock and Awe; or, Reading Judith Butler for the First Time

Below is my belated contribution to the fantastic roundtable on Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble that Andy Seal organized. If you haven’t read the previous posts, be sure to do so:

Andy Seal, Gender Trouble @ 25

Claire Potter, Books that Matter: 25 Years of Gender Trouble

Andy Seal, Making Trouble: What is So Difficult About Butler

Eran Zelnik, Gender Trouble and the “Somatic Turn”

Now to my contribution:

Judith-ButlerJudith Butler wowed me the first time I read her challenging and groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, and her even more demanding follow-up, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. This was in graduate school. Since then, as I became an intellectual historian of the culture wars (becoming so by performative repetition!), Butler has for me seemingly turned into merely another figure in an historical drama I have sought to narrate. An important figure, no doubt—the title of Chapter 5 of my book, after all, is “The Trouble With Gender”—yet merely another figure.

Richard White has written that “history destroys without malice.” By putting Butler in my historical narrative of the culture wars, an obvious choice for a historian, I have managed to destroy (without malice) the sense of wonder that I experienced upon my first encounter with her. I quote from my book to give you a taste of how I have rendered Butler someone to be historicized, no more, no less (the following passage is from pages 162-163 in A War for the Soul of America):

Some of the leading feminist thinkers of the early 1990s conceptualized a theoretical approach unprecedented in its radical assault on gender norms. Lead amongst them was the philosopher Judith Butler, whose 1990 book, Gender Trouble, read widely in academic and activist circles, took the social constructionist theory of gender to drastic new heights, well beyond an earlier paradigm expressed by those like Kate Millett and Carol Gilligan. Whereas before Butler many prominent feminists thought it necessary to counter patriarchy with a politics of female solidarity—identity politics—Butler posited that “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” In other words, Butler contended that the female “self,” or individual, was non-existent apart from the culture that had created it. More important to the feminist debates about difference and equality, Butler argued against an essential feminist subject—and, as such, against utopian visions of matriarchy—on the grounds that such a position adhered to entrenched patriarchal norms. “Is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject,” she asked, “an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations? And is not such a reification precisely contrary to feminist aims?” Just as Nietzsche and Foucault theorized there was no humanist self that presupposed political culture, Butler opposed the idea that there is a pre-gendered subject. Butler thought that the best approach to subverting “masculine hegemony and heterosexist power” was to make “gender trouble,” or, to render all gender boundaries unintelligible. Such an idea, no matter how philosophically interesting, was politically confusing. “Feminists of the world, transgress the boundaries!” was hardly a winning manifesto. (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) [GT], 34, 7, 46.)

And yet, Gender Trouble provided feminist theorists with a new sense of confidence that their intellectual labors mattered. A new generation of feminist academics came of age believing they could disrupt the usual practices by which gendered languages were transmitted, and that in so doing they could transform gender relations. Poststructuralist feminist theory, they believed, held the key to liberating people from oppressive patriarchal norms.

Upon re-reading this passage, I continue to think it’s correct, and that it fits nicely with my larger argument about how even feminists—especially feminists—had difficulty thinking through the appropriate relationship between gender and politics in the late twentieth century United States. Moreover, Butler certainly comes off well. Again, no malice.

And yet that passage of A War for the Soul of America fails to capture the ways in which reading Butler for the first time astonishes.

I am finding that one of the joys of parenthood is the experience of reliving the astonishments of my own childhood through the eyes of my sons. Cliché but true, at least for me. Teaching is sometimes like this. In the recently completed semester I assigned Gender Trouble to the graduate students enrolled in my “philosophy of history” seminar. This is not the first time I have taught Butler, but this time was different. Previously most students disliked Butler either for her difficult prose or for her disturbing theory that sex is as constructed as gender—often for both reasons and moreover they often conflate these two sets of concerns. But this group of students—at least, a sizable number of them—embraced Butler. This was especially true of one unusual student—Lorenzo Schiavetta, an exchange student from Italy who, as is the case with many well-educated Europeans, is especially well grounded in European philosophy from Plato to Kant. (Also more common among Europeans: Lorenzo is fluent in at least four languages. But he has yet to learn about American football so I don’t feel totally insufficient around him!)

Butler blew Lorenzo away, and the excitement with which he described his experience of being blown away was infectious. Not only did Lorenzo force his fellow students to take Butler seriously as an intellectual giant, he compelled me to see Butler in a new light, or at least in an old light anew. Lorenzo told the class that he cannot believe his luck that there is a Kant among us. He has sworn to travel to see Butler give a talk at some point during his stay in the United States. This gives a whole new meaning to the college road trip!

I asked Lorenzo to write a few sentences about how he conceptualizes the importance of Butler:

Alfred Whitehead once wrote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

If I were asked to choose two thinkers who personified the history of philosophy, I would choose Plato and Kant. With Plato, philosophy as we imagine it emerges from natural research, from an inquiry into humans, an investigation into the ratio between humans—their ideas—and the outdoor world. Although the notion of subject/object is modern (thanks, Descartes), we can say that in Plato we have a first hint in this sense. We are a subject; we have to try to understand an immutable and fixed reality outside ourselves.

Diverse explanations, filters, and views have been offered to explain the ratio between subjects (us) and objects (outside), but none overwhelmingly challenged its essence until Immanuel Kant, specifically Kant’s bringing together of rationalism and empiricism, and—most of all—his so-called ‘Copernican revolution’. The verb fàinomai in Ancient Greek means ‘to appear’; the use of this verb through the term phenomena, was one of Kant’s favorite expressions. The nub of the aforementioned ‘Copernican revolution’ will be in moving the subject from us to the phenomena, namely those things that appear to us; which is why this expression is so important to comprehend Kant’s thought. Phenomena appear to us, and we are not the subjects anymore; we become objects. In fact, the importance and the genius of the Kantian philosophy lies essentially in his capacity in reversing the relationship between subject and object.

Do these two thinkers meet? Where do the subject and the object melt together in a dualistic and inseparable fusion? In Butler!

Such a reading of Gender Trouble seems particularly apt if we take into account its conclusion, where in the process of dismantling even social constructionist notions of feminist subjectivity, Butler writes: “the subject-object dichotomy, which here belongs to the tradition of Western epistemology, conditions the very problematic of identity it seeks to solve” (GT, 196). In other words, there is no “I” in feminist knowing.

Whereas Plato separated subject from object and made us the subjects, and whereas Kant turned Plato on his head and made us the objects—made human existence a categorical imperative—Butler compels us to think beyond subject and object. She writes: “the enabling conditions for an assertion of ‘I’ are provided by the structure of signification, the rules that regulate the legitimate and illegitimate invocation of that pronoun, the practices that establish the terms of intelligibility by which that pronoun can circulate” (GT, 196).

Obviously this Plato -> Kant -> Butler formulation oversimplifies millennia of intellectual history. And obviously Butler is not alone in the most recent rethinking of the subject-object relationship. Foucault, Derrida, and Sedgwick come immediately to mind. So do Dewey and James. Not to mention Hegel! But no such intellectualizing and historicizing can destroy the shock and awe that Lorenzo experienced in reading Butler for the first time, and that I experienced vicariously through one especially smart and enthusiastic student.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One of things I like about this post, perhaps more than the philosophical shift outlined, is the teaching lesson.

    The post underscores the non-hierarchical aspect of the student-instructor relations. The vector of lessons isn’t one way. We all know that students teach things to instructors, but we don’t always document those moments, or put them on display for others. In this case, Lorenzo taught Andrew a new way of seeing, or reading, Butler—a new angle or line of vision. Every student has that potential, but only some fulfill it. It’s our job as instructors to bring this out, to midwife it when possible.

    Apart from our jobs, I love it when a new reader, or different reader, whether in class or in an article, articulates her/his line of vision. It’s what makes discussion fun and rewarding. – TL

  2. One of the great pleasures and privileges of teaching (at least at a good university) is that you get to sit with students who are every bit as smart as you are, and who therefore teach you as much as you teach them. This is especially useful if you’re teaching what you are currently researching — this is the synergy of the research university in action.

  3. Andrew, this is a really great post — I’m so glad you shared it.

    Regarding the parenthetical aside in Nils’s comment above…

    One of the great pleasures and privileges of teaching at a non-elite institution, or a second-tier state school, or a community college, is getting to work with eager students who are just as sharp, just as smart, and just as enthusiastic about encountering new ideas as students at the most elite universities. The man from Chehaw station is in those classrooms too — if not always at the podium, then certainly always seated at one of the desks, notebook open, eyes bright, ready to learn.

    Teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had, and you may find that the students you have turn out to be much more promising than you imagined them to be.

    Just my two cents.

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