Born In: Cleveland, Ohio, United States
Judith Pamela Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist, especially known for her theory of the performative nature of gender and sex. Born into a European-Jewish family, she had her early education in a Hebrew school, where she was introduced to philosophy at the age of fourteen. Later, she studied the subject at Yale University, eventually earning her doctorate degree from there at the age of twenty-eight. At thirty-four, she published her first major work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, adding a sequel (Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex) to it three years later. As of 2020, she has published 23 books in addition to numerous articles and book chapters, which have had great influence not only in the fields of political philosophy, ethics, and literary theory, but also on the feminist and queer movements. Currently serving as the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, she is also on the editorial board or advisory board of several academic journals.
Also Known As: Judith Pamela Butler
Partner: Wendy Brown
Born Country: United States
U.S. State: Ohio
Ancestry: Russian American, Hungarian American
City: Cleveland, Ohio
education: Bennington College, Yale University
awards: Guggenheim Fellowship
Theodor W. Adorno Award
Judith Pamela Butler was born on February 24, 1956, in the US city of Cleveland. Little is known about her background except that her father, a dentist, was of Russian-Jewish descent; while her mother, an advocate for fair housing, was of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry, who lost many of her relatives during the holocaust.
As a child, she was sent to a Hebrew school to discover the religion by herself mainly because her parents belonged to two different schools of Judaism. That apart, she also attended special classes on Jewish ethics, continuing with her Jewish studies alongside her public-school education in her high school years.
An avid and focused reader, she was introduced to philosophy early in her life. When asked about her future plan around the age of twelve, she said that she hoped to become either a philosopher or a clown.
By fourteen, she had developed a genuine interest in philosophy. Very soon, she was asking too many questions, which exasperated the rabbi and she was regularly scolded not only for talking too much, but also for talking back.
She was thrilled when eventually the rabbi directed her to attend a tutorial with him as a form of punishment. When asked to pick up a subject, she said she wanted to study existential theology, focusing on Martin Buber.
In an interview she had later explained that although she was so young she wanted to know if “German idealism could be linked with National Socialism”. Another question that was troubling her was that if the “tradition of Kant and Hegel responsible in some way for the origins of National Socialism”.
Apart from Nazism, which directly affected her family, she was also interested in a wide range of subjects including Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated from the synagogue. She later said that she wanted to know “what happened and whether the synagogue was justified” in excommunicating her.
After graduating from school, she entered Bennington College; but soon took a transfer to Yale University, where she studied philosophy, receiving her B.A. degree in 1978, her Masters degree in 1982 and her Doctor of Philosophy in 1984. Meanwhile in 1979, she spent one academic year at Heidelberg University as a Fulbright Scholar.
Judith Butler began her career at Wesleyan University. Later, she moved to George Washington University and then to Johns Hopkins University. Although her philosophical training was primarily in German Idealism, phenomenology, and the work of the Frankfurt School she began to turn towards post-structuralism during this period.
A prolific writer, she published her first book, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France in 1987. A revised version of her doctoral dissertation, she discussed the concept of desire in this work.
In 1990, she published her first major work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she discussed the works of various thinkers including Sigmund Freud. The book, translated into multiple languages, sold over 100,000 copies internationally. Another work published in the same years was Imitation and Gender Insubordination.
In 1993, she joined University of California, Barkley. Also, in the same year, she published her next important work, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, which is a sequel to Gender Trouble.
Continuing to write, she published Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative in 1996 and The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection in 1997. In 1998, she was appointed the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Continuing to write prolifically in the new millennium, she published Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death in 2000 and Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning and Undoing Gender in 2004. Meanwhile in 2002, she was appointed to the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.
In 2007, she collaborated with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic, to publish Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics ,Belonging. Two years later, she published Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?.
Also, in 2009, she co-wrote Is Critique Secular? with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, and Saba Mahmood. It was followed by another joint work, Sois Mon Corps (2011), which she co-authored with Catherine Malabou.
In 2012, she published ‘Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism’, which was followed by ‘Dispossessions: The Performative’ in the Political’ (2013). Meanwhile, she also served as Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in the spring semesters of 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Some of her more recent works include ‘Senses of the Subject’ (2015), ‘Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), and ‘The Force of Nonviolence’ (2020). Meanwhile she also served as a co-editor of ‘Vulnerability in Resistance’ which has been published by Duke University Press, in November 2016.
Judith Butler is best known for her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and its 1993 sequel, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Through these works, she has challenged the traditional idea about gender and established her theory of gender performativity, which in turn influenced the feminist scholarship.
In 2004, Judith Butler received the Brudner Prize from Yale University for lifetime achievement in gay and lesbian studies.
In 2008, she received the Andrew Mellon Award for Distinguished Academic Achievement in the Humanities.
In 2010, she was declared one among the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" by Utne Reader.
In 2012, she received the Theodor W. Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt in honor of her contributions to feminist and moral philosophy.
She has also received honorary degrees and fellowships including Guggenheim Fellowship (1999). In 2019, she was elected as Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In an interview given in December 2019, Judith Butler described herself as “legally non-binary”. Currently, she lives in Barkley with her partner, political theorist, Wendy L. Brown, and her son Isaac.
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