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  • The Politics of Ontology
  • John Garrison
Review of: Judith Butler, Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender offers her latest thinking on a variety of issues related both to gender and also to the larger idea of becoming “undone.” In this volume, Butler goes beyond her earlier examinations of gender performativity to explore what defines humanness. Butler’s consideration of that defining process offers new insights into issues pertinent to both feminist and queer theorists. More importantly, however, the essays in this volume have practical implications for social movements; make new connections between discourse and knowledge; and offer an important re-consideration of the current state of the study of philosophy.

The book collects eleven essays, many of which are revised versions of papers that have appeared in journals and anthologies during the past few years. The diverse contexts from which these papers are drawn make for lively and evocative reading. Indeed, this volume opens a variety of new lines of inquiry into the broader applications of Butler’s thinking for both scholars and activists. Undoing Gender comes at a time when Butler’s work is widely read outside of Gender Studies disciplines and is beginning to pursue a wider breadth of philosophical investigation. During the past ten years, Butler, the Maxine Eliot Professor of Rhetoric, Comparative Literature, and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has come to be a prolific writer and speaker, with a much more visible position within academia than at the time she wrote what is perhaps her most well-known book, Gender Trouble.

What is exciting about Undoing Gender’s central analysis of gender is that it directly addresses civil rights issues actively at stake within the larger culture. Several essays focus on the relationship between an array of social movements—intersex, transgender, transsexual, feminism, queer studies—and explore their differing positions around notions of sexuality and personal identity. In these sections, Butler’s analysis yields new insights into how sexual difference is politicized and policed. Early in the volume, Butler notes that these issues are not simply relevant to “the New Gender Politics” (11), but will speak to even larger issues, as

the question of who and what is considered real and true is apparently a question of knowledge. But it is also, as Michel Foucault makes plain, a question of power.


Importantly, Butler’s analysis disaggregates the variety of movements too often grouped under the broad rubric “queer rights,” focusing on the often-overlooked transgender and intersex communities. In doing so, Butler demonstrates the degree to which these different movements and communities are driven by competing priorities and ontological claims. For example, she cites the intersex community’s opposition to coercive surgery on infants or children with hermaphroditic anatomy as a point at which a social movement is calling into question generally held ontological concepts. That is, this community’s opposition to surgery can be interpreted as a resistance to sexual dimorphism and offers a “critical perspective on the version of ‘human’ that requires ideal morphologies and the constraining of bodily norms” (4). By contrast, the transsexual movement seeks to legitimize elective surgery to change from one gender to another. Both movements, operating from different epistemological frameworks, seek to “undo” normative concepts of fixed, binary gender identities within our culture.

To some readers, this may sound like familiar territory for Butler: seeking to better delineate the terms by which gender is defined against the backdrop of cultural production. However, the book represents a deeper engagement for Butler with the practical politics and current issues in feminist and queer movements today. In part, this may be in answer to critics who have expressed concern that academic feminists have begun to split into two camps: those who are actively involved in practical social struggles and those who have retreated into isolated academic positions. This latter group has been characterized perhaps most famously by Martha Nussbaum in her essay “The Professor of Parody” which appeared in The New Republic. Nussbaum suggests that these feminist theorists are interested only in the “verbal and symbolic politics” of feminism and engage in little discussion around the status of women outside of...

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