Margaret Sönser Breen and Warren J. Blumenfeld (eds.)
United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing, 2005
Reviewed by Margot Weiss, Visiting Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Sweet Briar College
This collection of thirteen chapters was originally published in a special issue of the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies (April 2001), a publication that marked both the 10th anniversary of Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and Butler’s arrival in the pantheon of critical theorists. As Edwina Barvosa-Carter, a contributor to this collection, argues, “in the decade since the publication of Gender Trouble…few, if any, feminist theorists have been as influential or as controversial as Judith Butler” (175). Yet, as Barvosa-Carter explains, Butler’s writing not only generated theoretical debate, but also “unusual adulation” (such as the fanzine Judy!) and “unusual disgust” (175). In these debates, the figure of Butler stands in for a larger critique of post-structuralism, textuality, and “strong” social constructionism (Vance 1991). Butler’s numerous critics charge that she is overly concerned with signification and not concerned enough with real or material women/bodies. In particular, she has been accused of being insensitive to the variety of bodily experiences, endorsing an individualistic/voluntaristic mode of resistance or subversion, being a-political, and, finally, employing, like many post-structuralists, a dense and difficult writing style.1
In the context of this critical reception, Butler Matters explores both Butler’s theories, especially her well-known articulation of gender performativity, and the uses and political value of her work. As Margaret Sönser Breen notes in her “Introduction,” Butler has both “affected and effectively shaped” (3) many disciplines, and this collection tracks her impact on Feminist and Queer Studies as well as Archeology, Literature, and Law. The text raises important questions for feminist and queer theorists across disciplines, especially for scholars interested in the relationships between systems of knowledge/power; subjectivity and identity; gender, sexuality, and corporeal bodies; and resistance and political power. As this and other recent commentary on the Butler oeuvre attest, it is next to impossible to do feminist or queer theory today without taking up Judith Butler.
The book is divided into four parts: “Introduction,” “Language, Melancholia, and Subjectivity,” “Body Matters: Archeology, Literature, and Pedagogy,” and “Agency, Poststructuralism, and Pragmatism.” The collection begins with Breen’s introduction, followed by an email-interview with Judith Butler. The interview, in which Butler responds to questions on intelligible/abject bodies, the performativity of race, essentialism in feminism and “gay gene” debates, LGBT activism, and even the question of her “difficult prose” (24) raised by several contributors to the volume, is clear and concise. The final chapter in this first part, by Frederick S. Rosen, describes the criticisms of Butler’s work, using Martha Nussbaum’s (1999) critique of Butler’s anti-materiality and political disengagement as a key example.
Departing from the collection’s thematic organization, I will divide my discussion of the eight chapters that form Parts 2 and 3 into two parts. In the first, I will discuss those chapters that provide close readings of Butler’s arguments, and in the second, I will address those chapters that apply some aspect of Butler’s theory to a case study or particular cultural artifact. Chapters by Vicki Kirby, Mena Mitrano, and Kirsten Campbell return to Butler’s primary texts for sustained analysis of particular aspects of her theories. Drawing especially on Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter (1993), and Psychic Life of Power (1997), the authors consider Butler’s theorization of language and the material body (Kirby), gender performativity and melancholy gender (Mitrano), and subjectivity, power, and the psyche (Campbell). For example, in a provocative chapter new to this volume, Mitrano traces the transformation of affect in Butler’s theories from the “levity and laughter” of performativity in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter to the “fear and shame” of melancholy gender in Psychic Life of Power (71). Mitrano suggests links between these emotional valences, feminism, and a larger American scene. These chapters engage with Butler’s theory in complex and interesting ways, and are oriented toward scholars deeply immersed in Butler’s theoretical terrain.
Chapters by Angela Failler, Elizabeth M. Perry and Rosemary A. Joyce, Belinda Johnston, Margaret Breen, and Natalie Wilson use aspects of Butler’s theories to explore particular cultural objects. These chapters are directed toward a general readership interested in how Butler’s theories can be applied. For example, Failler uses Butler’s understanding of discursive performativity from Excitable Speech (1997) to analyze Mae West’s risqué quips. Exploring West’s sexual innuendo in terms of foreclosure (what cannot be said and what remains unspoken), iterability (West’s, and other’s, repetitions of her famous lines), and the relations between intelligibility and iterable agency, the chapter is a very accessible, humorous reading of Butler’s key arguments about performative speech. Two chapters develop Butler’s theorization of the performativity of gender in very different directions. Perry and Joyce consider the use of her theory in the archeology of sex, gender, and embodiment, while Johnston rethinks Renaissance understandings of gender and sexed bodies in relation to Jacobean witches. Finally, both co-editor Breen and Wilson read literature against the ways Butler theorizes unintelligible genders/sexualities and the abject body, Breen through a reading of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and Wilson through a reading of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love and Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. These applied examples help illustrate difficult theory; some of these chapters would work well in the undergraduate or graduate classroom when read alongside Butler’s primary texts (e.g. Failler and Excitable Speech, Wilson and Bodies that Matter).
Part 4 contains two chapters that explore the politics of Butler’s theories, and are useful for thinking through the (feminist) stakes of the Butler debates. Barvosa-Carter analyses some of the unquestioned assumptions embedded in feminist critiques of Butler, especially around the claim that she valorizes only some (parodic, not legal) forms of political action and seems interested in individual acts, not collective action. In their chapter, Robert Alan Brookey and Diane Helene Miller link these political claims to queer theory. The authors explore Romer v Evans, an anti-gay rights initiative in Colorado, as an example of a case where anti-identitarian, post-structuralist, queer argumentation was politically efficacious for securing more inclusive sexual rights. They conclude by arguing, with Rosen, that social movements need a multiplicity of positions, strategies, and tactics. Opting out of what have become rather rigid ideological positions on Butler (e.g. her impassioned critics vs. her passionate defenders), these chapters begin the work of thinking through the theoretical assumptions that undergird the very terms of the debate. One reason that Butler arouses both adulation and disgust is because her work has come to represent thorny theoretical issues that have been pushed aside, but not resolved. Scholars of gender, sexuality, bodies, and power continue to think through the problems of structure and agency, strong social constructionism, relationships between psychoanalysis and Foucauldian theory, and the relationship between criticism and activisms, each issues and questions that point not to Butler’s singularity but rather to larger problematics in feminist and queer theory and praxis.
Overall, the collection explores the rich and fruitful results of engagement with Butler’s work. I found the chapters that took up materiality and the abject body (the body that does not matter) to be particularly relevant, especially as Butler continues to ask “what will and will not constitute an intelligible life, and how do presumptions about gender and sexuality determine in advance what will qualify as the ‘human’ and the ‘livable’” (Butler 1999: xxii, cited on p. 35). Thus, both Natalie Wilson and Vicki Kirby argue that Butler’s theory figures the body as a cultural product rendered through discourse, and both ask if flesh, or substance, might also be an active, literate agent (Kirby) or at least co-construct and shape subjectivity (Wilson). In the interview, Butler responds to questions asked by both Wilson and Kirby on nature, materiality, the abject, and the body; taken together, these three pieces explore the strengths and weaknesses of Butler’s account of body corporealization or naturalization. This focus is given fresh resonance in Butler’s most recent work, especially her exploration of transgender and intersex politics in Undoing Gender (2004b) and her work on vulnerability in post-9/11 America in Precarious Life (2004a).
Although it is a bit uneven and repetitive at times, especially in the multiple summaries of performativity several authors provide within their chapters, overall the collection is a fine companion to Butler’s texts, especially Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. Those who have not made a substantial investment in these works will find less of interest in the theoretical material. However, I would recommend the interview and the more applied chapters as a particularly effective way to teach Butler to advanced undergraduate and graduate students without strong background in critical theory and continental philosophy. I would also recommend portions of the text — Part 1 and Part 4 in particular — for the important questions they raise about the politics of Butler’s uncomfortably foundational status in post-structuralist feminist and queer theory.
1 In the context of this hostility, I found it fascinating that the collection includes a frontispiece photograph of Butler and entitles an interview with Butler “There is a Person Here.” This quote, from the new preface to Gender Trouble (1999) in which Butler explains that Gender Trouble emerged not just out of academic feminism, but also the social movements and networks of which she was part (Butler, 1999: xvi-xvii), alongside the photograph can be read as attempts to humanize or person-alize Butler.
Judith Butler. 1990, 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
New York: Routledge.
_____. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex.’ New York:
_____. 1997a. Excitable Speech. New York: Routledge.
_____. 1997b. Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
_____. 2004a. Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.
_____. 2004b. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.
Katherine Dunn. 1989. Geek Love. London: Abacus.
Barbara Gowdy. 1996. Mister Sandman. Vermont: Steerforth Press.
Radclyffe Hall.  1981. The Well of Loneliness. New York: Doubleday.
Frantz Kafka.  1972. The Metamorphosis. S. Congold, trans. New York: Bantam.
Martha Nussbaum. 1999. “The Professor of Parody: The Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler.”
The New Republic, 220 (February 22): 37-45.
Carole S. Vance. 1991. “Anthropology Rediscovers Sexuality: A Theoretical Comment.”
Social Science and Medicine, 33:875-884.
Margot Weiss is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Sweet Briar College. She is currently at work on a manuscript that explores the relationships between late-capitalism, neoliberalism, and gendered and raced performances in San Francisco’s SM communities, entitled Techniques of Pleasure, Scenes of Play.