Jamie's Reviews > Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
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's review
Nov 03, 10

bookshelves: philosophy-theory, lgbt, read-in-2010
Read from September 25 to October 13, 2010 — I own a copy

Butler has numerous loud detractors, and faces a variety of underhanded compliments, even on this very website, along the lines of comments such as: "oh, she's smart, but *only* when she's not talking about gender." OR "Butler would be great if she wasn't such an impenetrable writer."

Well, I'll say it outright. I love Butler. I love Gender Trouble. I love Bodies that Matter. I love Giving an Account of Oneself. I love basically everything I've read by her, and I'm always excited to have the opportunity of reading more. I think she's a brilliant thinker, a strangely poetic writer, and a sorely underappreciated figure in contemporary philosophy. I suppose she inadvertently falls into a sad trap: conventional philosophers fume at her for taking up the 'non-philosophical' (?) subjects of gender and sexuality in a serious fashion; feminists hate her because of her supposed theoretical elitism. Undergraduates hate her because they find her impossible. Or at any rate, this has been my experience of seeing Butler interjected into the classroom.

Gender Trouble is what I'd like to call a "genealogy of the (de)naturalization of gender in 20th century thought." Why does it take nearly 200 pages for Butler to arrive at her conclusion, where it seems her claims are finally staked? Because the past hundred years of theoretical consideration on the subjects of gender, sex, sexuality, and desire are such a fucking mess. From Freud & Levi-Strauss to Lacan and Foucault, to Irigaray, Wittig, and Kristeva--Butler's got a problem with all of 'em. And so these huge paradigms have first to be apprehended and refigured or dismantled in order for Butler to situate herself in an ongoing and incredibly difficult dialogue.

This is a tough book, there's no doubt about it. I think it's far more manageable when you've read the works and thinkers she's discussing at length (namely, de Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault, Kristeva, and Irigaray, among a handful of others), but at the same time, I think Butler's a really fantastic teacher. For all of her obtuse prose, Butler is also persistently methodical about leading her reader by the hand through the thoughts she's working through; she's often repetitive, constantly figuring out different and/or better ways to say the same thing. And I don't think this means that she needs an editor; I think it means that much of what she's working through doesn't quite fit the 'languages' and tools we work with. To conceptualize the notion of a subject without a 'core,' an 'I' that is incoherent, and an identity that is merely the effect of a number of situated and contingent discourses--these are ideas that go against basically everything we know, and so this truly does feel as though you're learning a new language. But once you've got the basics down, it becomes a quite thrilling experience, if you ask me.

In any case, Butler--and I suppose most likely Gender Trouble, since that's what skyrocketed her to academic fame and remains the most commonly taught text of hers--is a must-read for anyone interested in post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, queer politics, subjectivity, &co. Love her or hate her, she remains one of our most famous living thinkers on these subjects. To my mind, this is a deserved status.
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