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Undoing Gender.


Judith Butler


In 1992, a critical theory fanzine, playfully entitled Judy! was launched by Miss Spentyouth (Andrea Lawlor-Mariano, an undergrad at University of Iowa). The zine romped its way through the scholarly starship, jesting and jousting at the academic tower of power and its luminaries. Judith Butler, the Maxine Elliot Professor in the departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and critical cultural theorist extraordinaire, was among the academic superstars with which Judy! had its way.


Judith Butler, let's call her Judy B., has had my heart since my first run-in with Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, midway through my second year at York University. The 1990 text posits her theory of gender performativity--"there need not be a 'doer behind the deed'--the 'doer' is variably constructed in and through the deed"--and put Judy B. on the map.

Misreadings abounded, and Butler's 1993 follow-up, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex,' attempted to redress any confusion by furthering her theory of performativity as an involuntary repetitive exercise in citationality that depends upon normative structures of power.

Though Butler has published plenty since then, it's her most recent book, Undoing Gender, that's done me in once again. Perhaps Butler's most accessible work (she's known for her intricately dense writing style), Undoing Gender interrogates not the "doing" of gender but its "undoing"--the ways in which hegemonic structures of power undo us by either "conferring recognition" or "withholding" it, and, consequently, its constitution of us "as socially viable beings." She also explores the ways in which we attempt to undo, given both our desire to be recognized within normative structures and to "maintain a critical and transformative relation to them."

Butler explores the existence of these tensions within notions of kinship, inter-sexuality and transsexuality, among other things, challenging the ways in which lives are rendered livable or not. She also examines the ways in which "New Gender Politics"--trans, intersex, queer and feminist theories--can undo, "not to celebrate difference as such but to establish more inclusive conditions for sheltering and maintaining life that resists models of assimilation."

As Butler notes: "If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social world I never chose. That my agency is riven with paradox does not mean it is impossible. It means only that paradox is the condition of its possibility."

Review by Lisa Foad

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Author:Foad, Lisa
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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