reading Judith Butler

Reader, I did it.  I sat down and read ‘Gender Trouble.’  NB, trigger warning.  It helps to read Sheila Jeffreys’ Unpacking Queer Politics first to ground yourself in love for lesbians, especially if you are one.

Butler’s avowed aim from beginning to end and throughout the book, is to destroy feminism as a politics of women’s liberation, and substitute a politics that takes as its starting point the irreducible fact of patriarchy as a ground of being.  (She does not quite avow the aim at the beginning, but says feminism is headed for destruction, and maintains throughout that feminism is fatally flawed because its political subject, women, does not exist as a coherent class.  She invokes the differences in women’s experiences including diversity of cultures in support of this premise, while ignoring the ways that feminism in fact responds to diversity while maintaining its project as the liberation of women, understood as adult human females wherever they are oppressed by a system of male dominance and exploitation known as patriarchy.  At different points in the book she both generalizes this attack on liberatory politics to any political class constituting itself in resistance to oppression, and says plainly that diversity of specific forms does not negate the ability to name the general phenomenon.)

Butler relies on discredited and simply false theories about the origin of language and culture in patriarchal gender relations – Levi-Strauss and Lacan – and about the basis of human psychological development and culture in male infantile ‘sexual’ frustration – Freud’s psychoanalysis.  She maintains throughout the book that the ‘law’ of gender as a social construct, including compulsory heterosexuality and male-female hierarchical relations expressed as masculinity and femininity, is inescapable and that it is not possible to constitute oneself as a personal or political subject exercising independent agency outside of these constructs.  Instead of seeing possibility for creation of something new, in the evolution over time of the natural world, sensory experience, human history, disasters and unexpected joy, Butler sees the *only* possibility for agency in the repetition and parody or pastiche of gender relations as they were constructed by men (or by an unnamed general agency without an agent, which we know to be implicitly male in our linguistic and cultural constructs), based on male experience and men’s domination, once and for all as a foundational basis for human existence as she understands it.

In fact, patriarchy as a form of social organization, in which men “exchange” women with other men and exercise ownership over women, is not universal and does not constitute the basis for language and culture.  While the origins of language are not known, competing theories exist including ones that posit women as the originators of language, in their nurturing and guiding of children, and cooperation with each other.  Butler wrote in 1990, and did not benefit from recent scholarship on women’s autonomous and resistant culture even within patriarchal societies, such as Max Dashú’s recent book Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion.  Barbara Alice Mann describes relations of difference between the sexes in Iroquoian culture as mutually constituted autonomy and cooperative interdependence, in Irooquoian Women: The Gantowisas; Sally Roesch Wagner describes the inspiration drawn by first-wave white feminists from their Iroquois neighbors, in Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists.  Still, in 1986 Paula Gunn Allen had already written The Red Roots of White Feminism and a great deal of similarly subtle and beautiful work had been done that documented women’s culturally-situated legacies of autonomy and resistance, from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands: La Frontera, to Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives and Nurses.  It is only by dismissing feminist scholarship, and by glossing over the fatally flawed premises of the theories on which she bases her entire analysis, that Butler is able to sustain a conclusion that patriarchy is inevitable, resistance is futile, we are condemned to perpetual repetition and the only hope is destabilization by the limited agency allowed by parody or pastiche.

Similarly, the criticisms of Freud’s psychoanalysis from a feminist perspective are well known, principally that Freud constructed his own fantasy of infantile sexual experience as incestuous desire of the child for the parent, with the son-mother dyad as the paradigm, as a reversal of the actual narratives of rape and sexual assault by fathers brought to Freud by his female analytical subjects.  How Butler manages to ignore this elephant in the room is astounding.  Reading her chapter on psychoanalysis with recourse to one’s own critical thinking skills and personal experience is useful and instructive, if potentially painful.

Edited: Martha Nussbaum’s careful critique of Butler is worth attending to.

I want to close with some thoughts on the potential for feminist political practice in light of the development of queer and trans politics that uses Butler’s theory to delegitimize feminism and substitute its own identity politics as a pastiche of feminism, identity politics as such, and garden variety patriarchy.


1. Support indigenous women’s and communities’ action to protect land and water – in particular the current #NoDAPL movement and all related actions – earth-based, earth-responsive, political action and cultural action initiated by women and respecting women’s authority and integrity.  Information and calls to action can be found on various sites and facebook pages, including:; keep updated with news at independent sources like and; follow environmental and indigenous rights activist Winona La Duke (founder of Honor the Earth), and Donna Brave Bull Allard, who set up the Sacred Stone camp on her land.

2. Understanding the limits of identity politics by virtue of parodic and pastiche nature of queer/trans identity politics, as a limit of the state and hierarchical class-based political systems as site for contestation.  In other words, reflecting on the ways that the state and underlying class-based systems including patriarchy and capitalism are inherently oppressive, and opening our minds and experiences to the possibility of political action outside these systems.

-> 2a. or 5. Learning from the constitution of duality in some non-hierarchical non-state societies as side by side, interactive, pre-sex/gender pre-hierarchical, duality as mutually constitutive and respectfully separate, each its own integrity and wholeness.  See especially Barbara A. Mann, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (above), and Giti Thadani, Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India.

3. Continue and intensify the building of women’s autonomous spaces as sites we create to expand possibilities for connections with each other and develop our non-hierarchical ethics of separateness and relatedness and mutuality.

4. Love as an outward (e)motion to vanquish the oppressor:

In this I have been grateful for the teaching and example of women associated with the #NoDAPL movement, and the prayerful character of the actions there, see for example Lyla June’s Guide to Getting Arrested 😀.  This does not negate resistance and naming oppression, it is the ground for relentlessly overcoming oppression.

In this time of perpetual war, we cannot afford to give in to despair or to resign ourselves to repetition of patterns we know are un-loving and death-dealing.  Gina Heathcote, in The Law on the Use of Force: A Feminist Analysis, invokes Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality as creative possibility that allows us room to move and create new value.  I relate this to the gift of material being, the body experienced from within, evolving in time, each moment a new breath.  It is this material being in time, that is never dominated by patriarchal constructs in fact but only to the extent we believe in them, that allows us to find freedom.



4 thoughts on “reading Judith Butler

  1. Pingback: Why We Fight: Domination and Subjectivity | tastethespring

  2. Pingback: Reading Alexandra Kollontai and Gerda Lerner, and countering Judith Butler (again) | tastethespring

  3. Pingback: On lies, legal fictions and cognitive dissonance | tastethespring

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