Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Performance Theory

“Imitation and Gender Insubordination” is superb. I want to turn this into a pamphlet and hand it out to people who are skeptical of the utility of critical theory and philosophy in daily life. By “coming out” (a phrase that she deftly interrogates and skewers as iterative, even while affirming its importance and utility) in an essay that resists the entire stated theme and raison d’être—lesbian theory—of the collection in which it appeared, Butler performs her own theory.

The argument of the essay hinges on the limited and limiting categories of identity described by terms like “man,” “woman,” “lesbian,” “queer,” “homosexual,” and “heterosexual,” and on the attendant instability of those categories and any perceived hierarchies among them. These terms are rigid or narrow enough to require ways of “playing” those categories, as when Butler talks about going to a conference to “be” a lesbian, even though she already “is” a lesbian. One is or is not many categories: lesbian, left-handed, woman, queer, mother, Ashkenazi Jew, African-American, and then one also has to “be” those categories at times, in the same way that one might “be” a dutiful daughter or supportive friend, even if one already *is* those things.

Throughout this essay, Butler constantly reflects on the terms of the essay itself. What is a lesbian? What is theory? Yet she questions these terms even as she performs them, effectively stating, “I am a lesbian academic now writing about gender theory for an edited collection on lesbian theory,” and—through her almost parodic self-reflection—”I am now performing the role of self-identified lesbian academic and philosopher in an environment in which it is useful or expected of me to do so.” Butler uses the essay form to perform an identity that she simultaneously claims and critiques, tacitly demonstrating the constraints of identity categories and also their inherent instability.

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