A professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, Butler is best known for the controversy surrounding her 1990 book Gender Trouble, in which she forcefully argues that there is nothing “natural” about gender stereotypes, whether promulgated by sexist men or radical women. “Because there is neither an essence that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.” Turning feminism inside out, Gender Trouble radically challenged its foundation. If sexual difference is “tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts,” rather than being an incontrovertible fact of nature, then the idea of “woman” that feminists have historically relied upon will necessarily place restrictions on many of the people they seek to free. “We regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right,” Butler notes, underscoring the irony in a supposedly liberatory political project relying on the bondage of its participants.Those of you who have read Butler will know that I'm not making any bold claims here. But I'm happy enough with the wording to be content with the absence of innovative content. I've spent many, many hours trying to distill what I find valuable about her work for people who have only learned of it secondhand. It's only now, though, that I feel I have the critical distance necessary to do the job right.
A decade and a half later, Butler has applied the same incisive logic to her analysis of the relationship between Jews and Israel. In taking Lawrence Summers to task, she makes it clear that we also regularly punish those who fail to do their Jewishness right. Although she never makes an explicit analogy between the category of “Jew” and the category of “woman,” the logic of her argument in Precarious Life implies that they function similarly. Just as, in her view, there is no common denominator that determines once and for all that one is or is not a “real” woman, there also isn’t one to determine once and for all that one is or is not a “true” Jew. It is crucial to note that this absence of a single unifying feature does not indicate, as Butler’s detractors tend to believe, that she regards the categories she critiques as empty or meaningless. Just because a collective identity cannot be reduced to a common denominator does not mean that the people who claim it have nothing in common. After all, Butler writes, “what do we make of Jews, including myself,” despite her reservations about the way in which the category of “Jew” functions in contemporary political discourse. She is willing to speak as a Jew, despite or perhaps because there is no indisputable essence to Jewishness. At one point in the chapter devoted to Summers’s charge, Butler describes speaking to a reporter from The New York Times. “I explained to her that I was, like many others who wrote in, a progressive Jew (handling the discourse of identity politics for the moment), and that I rejected the notion that to support Palestinian self-determination was in itself an anti-Semitic act.” The parenthesis is key. She knows the potential risks and rewards entailed in describing herself as a “progressive Jew.” So when Butler does, she does it not for all time but provisionally. Butler recognizes that there are times when it makes good personal and political sense to be counted as something specific. In the interview that closes The Judith Butler Reader, Butler tells a story. “I remember once walking on a street in Berkeley and some kid leaned out of a window and asked, ‘Are you a lesbian?’ Just like that. I replied, ‘Yes, I am a lesbian.’ I returned it in the affirmative. It was a completely impulsive moment.” Realizing that the questioner was really asking, “Are you the thing that I fear and loathe?” Butler concludes that, “to the extent that I was able very quickly to turn around and say, ‘Yes, I am a lesbian,’ the power of my interrogator was lost. My questioner was then left in a kind of shock, having heard somebody gamely, proudly take on the term—somebody who spends most of her life deconstructing the term in other contexts. It was a very powerful thing to do.”
This sense of timing—when it makes sense to speak as something specific, when it would be better to question the construction of that something—is what makes Butler’s thought particularly valuable to those of us on the Left. Regardless of what her critics may claim, she is no hidebound idealist, who declares, “Women do not exist!” over and over from her mountaintop hermitage. Butler knows why, how, and when to descend from the heights of philosophical complexity to communicate the importance of her approach to a broader audience than the graduate seminar. She writes for Art Forum. She does interviews. She composes opinion pieces for The New York Times. The essay on the charge of anti-Semitism originally appeared in the London Review of Books. She acts, in short, as a public intellectual, despite the stress that role surely brings her.
What makes Precarious Life so compelling is that it manages to do double duty, fusing scholarly sophistication with the accessibility Butler has until now cultivated outside the academy. Begun in the wake of September 11, 2001, the book bears witness to the sense of urgency she felt as the American response to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. threatened to initiate a state of permanent war. This was no time to write only for scholars or only for mainstream progressive. This was a time to write for both groups at the same time, to bring them together on the page in the hope of inspiring greater collaboration off it.
Of the formulations I worked out for this review, I'm most pleased with the one about the lack of a common denominator. I've spent years approaching the problem of collective identity from different sides. One angle obviously derives from post-structuralism, a category to which I somewhat anxiously consign Butler. Another comes from my extensive reading in the Marxist tradition. A third takes shape in my heterodox indoctrination in American Pragmatism.
The fourth perspective, however, may be the most important of all to me at present. Although I would never deign to call myself a "philosopher" and recognize that I will never have the knowledge necessary to read philosophy as philosophers do, I've spent enough time poring over Ludwig Wittgenstein's work to believe myself justified in using his work for my own theoretical ends. When I argue, giving my own take on Butler, that identity categories do not need a common denominator to function, I do so in the spirit of post-1930 Wittgenstein collections such as Philosophical Grammar, The Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty. To be sure, I could have arrived at my rather unimpressive destination via many other routes, both ones I know about and ones I do not. But I think it's important to be honest about the intellectual journeys one takes, so I declare now, for anyone who cares to listen, that I think it makes a great deal of sense to read Judith Butler though a Wittgensteinian lens.