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Professor Judith Butler


Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Judith received her PhD in Philosophy from Yale University in 1984. She is the author of a large number of highly influential texts in social theory, from Gender Trouble in 1990 to Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly in 2016. Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Judith has received numerous awards, including the Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt in honour of her contributions to feminist and moral philosophy and the diploma of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Cultural Ministry. Judith is active in several human rights organizations, having served on the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. 



Today, it is my great honour to welcome Judith Butler to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Judith Pamela Butler is the most widely read philosopher on the planet and the most influential voice in contemporary gender theory. Their (Butler identifies as non-binary) name is inseparable from queer theory, feminism, radical ethics, and critical theory. Their books are foundational texts in gender and philosophy courses in universities throughout the world, but also central texts in literary, film, and performance studies. Butler’s reach extends far outside the academy; Butler’s name and ideas are widely referenced in popular culture as well. Even scriptwriters working in mainstream television, film, and comic books feel comfortable sprinkling in references to “heteronormativity” and “performativity”. As a Black character in the TV series “Scandal” casually mentioned, “Oh, race is just a social construct”!

So, where did this intellectual icon come from? Butler was born in 1956 to a dentist-father and a mother who advocated for fair housing. Their parents, who were of Hungarian-Jewish and Russian-Jewish descent, were practicing Reform Jews. They grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. One anecdote about their early life starts with the comment that they were a “too talkative” adolescent. When asked about their “dream job”, they responded: either a philosopher or a clown. Admittedly, as an adult, they are fun and funny, but philosophy was the correct decision! They attended Bennington College, a private liberal arts college in Vermont, before moving to Yale University for their BA, MA, and PhD in Philosophy. Their PhD, awarded in 1984, explored the concept of desire from a Hegelian perspective. Since 1993, they have been based at the University of California, Berkeley, becoming the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature in 1998. They are legally non-binary and live in Berkeley with their partner, distinguished political theorist Wendy Brown, and musician son, Isaac.

It is impossible to even hint at the full range of Butler’s intellectual work. They have made important interventions into our understanding of hate speech and censorship, the politics of Palestine, Jewish identity and ethics, intersex persons, the unknowability of oneself and others, the politics of mourning or why some lives are less valued than others, radical equality, the “force of non-violence”, and the significance of public protests and assembly. Relational interdependency is important to their way of thinking. Spurning an individualist perspective, Butler insists that each of our lives are bound up with the lives of others.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the impact that Butler’s books have had on the world. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (published in 1990 when they were only 33 years old) has been translated into 27 languages and sold over 100,000 copies. That book, and its sequel Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (published three years later) were influenced by continental philosophers such as Hegel, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, Irigaray, Derrida, Kristeva, and de Beauvoir, as well as the philosopher of language J. L. Austin. Butler argues that gender is constituted by a repetition of actions and speech acts that give the illusion of an underlying essence that does not in fact exist. When Butler writes about “performativity”, they are not referring to anything theatrical or phenomenological, since such approaches “take the gendered self to be prior to its acts”. Rather, they “understand constituting acts not only as constituting the identity of the actor, but as constituting that identity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief”. In their words, “gender is always a doing, although not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed…. The ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed”. For them, the name “women” “achieves stability and coherence only in the context of the heterosexual matrix”. This is “part of the pleasure” of drag which, “in the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity”. Although three decades old, these texts remain relevant to current debates about trans, for example. When, in 1990, they contended that “contemporary feminist debates over the meaning of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism”. This “trouble” in feminism today is represented by the small but vocal trans-exclusionary radical feminism, which attacks the dignity of trans people. Butler’s response to them is to insist that a feminism of inclusion that respects the complexity of gendered lives is the only feminism worth defending.

To say that Butler is an international celebrity academic fails to grasp the full range of activism that they have always been engaged with. They believe in the power of public gatherings and reflect eloquently on movements such as Black Lives Matter. They have been involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York. They adhere to an ethico-political position of non-violence, not as a “passive practice that emanates from a calm region of the soul” nor as “an individualist ethical relation to existing forms of power”, but rather as “an ethical position found in the midst of the political field”.

Awards, prizes, and distinctions have been showered upon Butler. They have been awarded the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities and the Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt for their contributions to feminist and moral philosophy. Yale University awarded them the Brudner Prize for lifetime achievement in gay and lesbian studies, while the City of Cologne awarded them the Albertus Magnus Professorship, awarded to a person of international renown who addresses issues that are important not only in many fundamental sciences, but also in public debate. They have received at least twelve honorary degrees. In 2014, they were awarded the diploma of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Cultural Ministry. They are a corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and members of both the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Butler has also been a generous contributor to our Birkbeck community. They have been a visiting Fellow in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck since 2009 and active not only in that Department but also in the Department of Law and the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. They are one of the busiest thinkers in the world, yet have found time to engage in numerous “Public Conservations” with Birkbeck staff and students, contribute to our books, give lectures and seminars to the wider public as well as graduate students. We have been inspired, enraged, and enthralled by their thinking. And humbled by their warmth and generosity of spirit.

Most of all, Butler has inspired us by insisting that, in order to achieve ideals of radical justice, equality, and freedom for everyone, but especially minoritized and marginalized people in this world, key concepts must be solidarity and the building of coalitions. Radical equality will require collective action. Butler invites us to ask: What kind of world do we want to build together? Then, imagine the radical possibilities; forge alliances with others to make them happen.

By accepting this College Fellowship, Judith Butler signals their support of our educational, ethical, and political mission to make a positive difference to the lives of others. We are thrilled that they have agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.