- The Judith Butler Reader
The contemporary academic culture of celebrity includes no star brighter than Judith Butler. Her work, which has been translated into over twenty languages, has consistently attracted large audiences in both traditional disciplines and more recent interdisciplinary formations. This collection ably illustrates why her impact has been enormous across diverse fields: philosophy, gender studies, queer theory, politics, feminist theory, ethics, literary studies, cultural studies, law, film studies, sociology, and studies of race.
This Reader comprises twelve selections, along with an extended interview with Butler and a selected bibliography of her works. Seven are excerpts from Butler's books, through Antigone's Claim and the coauthored Contingency, Hegemony, Universality; four essays from edited collections and one journal article make up the rest. The book provides a convenient introduction for students approaching Butler for the first time. In addition, for those who have read her sporadically, it offers a compelling overview of the current shape of her career, beginning in 1987 with an early essay on Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault and her first book, developed out of her Yale dissertation, through the 2001 publication of 'What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault's Virtue,' originally the Raymond Williams Lecture at Cambridge University.
The arrangement is mainly chronological, with divisions into three thematic clusters reflecting major concerns of Butler's scholarship: 'Sex, Gender Performativity, and the Matter of Bodies,' 'Fantasy, Censorship, and Discursive Power,' and 'Subjection, Kinship, and Critique.' The collection reflects the range of Butler's thought, with analyses of subjects ranging from Antigone and Althusser to us Supreme Court opinions and the infamous Rodney King video. Her signature themes, from gender performativity to the political potential of resignification and 'affirmative deconstruction,' emerge throughout the selections, as she develops the eclectic theoretical strands in continental philosophy, poststructuralism, feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and, above all, Foucauldian thought that have shaped her work. Butler herself offers a succinct summary of her ongoing academic explorations: 'In a sense, all of my work remains within the orbit of a certain set of Hegelian questions: What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?'
The dynamic developmental patterns in Butler's work emerge clearly in this collection, as does her scrupulous intellectual honesty. Carefully situating her arguments and limiting the scope of her claims, she is willing to rethink earlier positions, admit problems, and revise and refine accordingly. The new prefaces she produced in 1999 for reprintings of [End Page 408] Subjects of Desire (1987) and Gender Trouble (1990), reproduced in this collection before the excerpts from the originals, are models of autocritique. Because she supports radical democratic politics not only as a theoretician but also as an activist, Butler has been able to use insights from her own political work in reworking some of her early positions. For all of these reasons she remains one of our most powerful contemporary critics of language and its political consequences. Demanding much of herself, she also makes multiple demands on her readers; the difficulty of her style, and the viciousness of attacks on it despite her explanations, are legendary.
The editor's introductions to the volume and before each selection are uniformly excellent. Her extensive cross-references within and beyond the texts included in this collection will be useful both to neophytes and to long-time fans of Butler (although one last round of proofreading was needed). The editor indicates that Butler was 'actively involved in selecting the texts.' Both of them have done an outstanding job in constructing this Reader. [End Page 409]
Martine Watson Brownley, Department of English, Emory University