The Trouble with Judith Butler.

Here is a recent interview in the Guardian with Judith Butler, the doyenne of queer theory, “performative” gender theory, and liberal feminism – a label she would reject. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/sep/07/judith-butler-interview-gender?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other

Butler is immensely frustrating. She gets some things right and other things so horribly wrong. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here is a sampler. I’ve included my own views in square brackets. Where I agree I put [✓].

“Gender is an assignment that does not just happen once: it is ongoing. We are assigned a sex at birth [no we are not – our sex is observed at birth or long before] and then a slew of expectations follow which continue to “assign” gender to us. The powers that do that are part of an apparatus of gender that assigns and reassigns norms to bodies, organises them socially, but also animates them in directions contrary to those norms. [✓]

Perhaps we should think of gender as something that is imposed at birth, through sex assignment [observation of sex from soon after conception] and all the cultural assumptions that usually go along with that [which can include death, such as in sex selective abortions]. Yet gender is also what is made along the way – we can take over the power of assignment, make it into self-assignment [✓], which can include sex reassignment at a legal and medical level. [Except no actual literal change in sex is physically possible – only the performance, appearance or expression of gender can change].”

“So what does that [identity politics] mean for the left? If we base our viewpoints only on particular identities, I am not sure we can grasp the complexity of our social and economic worlds or build the kind of analysis or alliance needed to realise ideals of radical justice, equality and freedom. [✓] At the same time, marking identity is a way of making clear how coalitions must change to be more responsive to interlinked oppressions [not sure I agree that gender identity performs any useful role in politics at all].”

“The Terfs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) and the so-called gender critical writers [repeating offensive language and demeaning the intelligence and integrity of your opponents is a fool’s game – and Butler should know better] have also rejected the important work in feminist philosophy of science showing how culture and nature interact (such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, EM Hammonds or Anne Fausto-Sterling) in favor of a regressive and spurious form of biological essentialism [this is false – none of the writers she cites would reject scientific inquiry out of hand, and no one is denying that culture and nature interact]. So they will not be part of the coalition that seeks to fight the anti-gender movement. The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism [notice the logical fallacy here – she equates the “anti-gender movement” with fascism, without any evidence of what this means, thus relegating anyone who won’t join “the struggle” as fascists – this is not only false logic, it also invites a twisted narrative of what revolutionary struggle actually means from a Marxist perspective. Again, Butler the philosopher should fucking well know better], one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people [again, notice the misuse of language marginalizing femicide – the murder of women – and replacing women with “trans and genderqueer” people, without once defining who those people are].

She begins this interview by saying that her original purpose in writing “Gender Trouble” was to decentre heterosexuality within feminism. What she has done is to decentre women from left-wing discourse altogether, and replace it with a “gender” theory with no clear parameters or substance. She equates all gender with performance or repetition of social rituals as an operation of power – while seeming to ignore or dismiss the real power of violence inflicted on human bodies, both female and male. This is a direct inheritance from Foucault. She conflates gender and sex repeatedly, while appearing to, at times, separate them. She also conflates biological reality with “biological essentialism” and situates all discussions of sex onto a right wing agenda – surrendering women’s rights to a conservative political agenda, and rendering feminism as an unwinnable struggle. Her confusion, and her lack of linguistic clarity (which is apparent even in a media interview designed for the “lay”, ie ignorant, reader) is quite deliberate.

I’m rereading some of the gender theory literature (including Butler) for my own research. In its heyday (the 1990s) it was exciting and groundbreaking stuff. It has now been utterly corrupted and degraded into mindless “identity politics” through the very discourses of power it was originally designed to critique. Most critics of critical theory also have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s all performative nattering for attention and money. None of this has aged well.

A new development in this story. Passages from the Butler interview were pulled after complaints that the references to TERFs were inappropriate. The UK editorial team demanded the redactions from the US edition of the Guardian and an entire series on gender has-been pulled. Well done team!! See https://eoinhiggins.substack.com/p/guardian-pulls-judith-butlers-comments.

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