Understanding Judith Butler


Anita Brady & Tony Schirato

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  • Glossary

    • Anaclisis: Freudian notion whereby the initial instinct of self-preservation (sucking the breast for nourishment) is used as a kind of prop by the sexual instincts.
    • Bio-power: for Foucault, the process by which power and knowledge works to dispose and regulate bodies.
    • Bodily hexis: the forms of bodies, and bodily movements and deportment, that are commensurate with, authorised by, and appropriately reflect the values of, a cultural field.
    • Butch-femme: a type of lesbian relationship in which one partner identifies with nominally masculine traits (the butch), and the other partner identifies with nominally feminine traits (the femme). Butch-femme has a specific social and political history, and is not reducible to an imitation of heterosexuality.
    • Camp: sensibility or gender performance characterised by artifice, irony and stylisation, and often associated with gay men.
    • Constructivism, constructionism: the notion that social or bodily traits often represented as natural are in fact socially and culturally produced. Usually positioned as the opposite of essentialism.
    • Critique, critical inquiry: a space opened up by the testing of reality in order to evaluate the possibility and desirability of change, and determine the forms it will take.
    • Cultural field: is a concept taken from Bourdieu; it can be defined as a set of institutions, rules, categories, discourses, dispositions, forms of capital and practices which form an objective hierarchy, and which produce and authorise identities.
    • Desire: for Hegel desire is understood as, or stands in for, reflexive consciousness, whereby consciousness seeks to know and comprehend itself through the mediation of otherness. Psychoanalysis posits desire as something that is sent away or repressed in order that the subject can exist; however repressed desire always returns without overtly manifesting or articulating itself, for instance in dreams. Desire for Nietzsche and Deleuze is the will manifested as the affirmation of life-as-force. For Foucault desire is, first and foremost, a name with a history; in other words, its status is fundamentally discursive.
    • Discourse: a kind of language that is specific to, and authorised by, cultural fields, and which categorises the world.
    • Essentialism: the idea that there is a necessary connection between the body and certain dispositions and forms of behaviour.
    • Ethics: understood as a necessary and consistent correlation between a subject's values, accounts and practices.
    • Foreclosure: the process whereby a subject's bodily dispositions and forms of identification are constrained as a consequence of non-normative alternatives being rendered unthinkable.
    • Gender: a set of bodily characteristics, values, desires, orientations, practices and typologies that are tied, through the operations of power, to the categories of male and female. According to Butler, feminist theory has tended to position gender as something one has, whereas she argues gender is something one does.
    • Genealogy: the attempt to trace and locate the moments and sites when power produces and naturalises meaning or sense.
    • Habitus: a set of dispositions, values and ways of seeing derived from our cultural trajectories, and which generate practices. Bourdieu characterises it as ‘history naturalised’.
    • Heteronormativity: the naturalisation of heterosexual desire as the norm. Butler argues that this also naturalises gender categories.
    • Hyperbolic mimicry: the citation and reproduction of an authorised gender performance as exaggeration or excess.
    • Identity: the subject takes on an identity within processes of discursive designation and location: the body-as-content is designated as being commensurate, or otherwise, with regard to socio-cultural and/or scientific categories, and is thus inscribed in terms of certain meanings, values, dispositions, orientations and narratives.
    • Incest taboo: the social prohibition that forbids sexual relations between close relatives.
    • Interpellation: refers to the process whereby power calls, addresses and categorises subjects.
    • Melancholia: is conventionally characterised in psychoanalysis as nonfunctional grieving. The melancholic subject psychically refuses to acknowledge the loss of the love-object, and may withdraw from the world, responsibilities, and regard for the self or others.
    • Mourning: is characterised as a relatively functional and non-pathological response to a loss.
    • Normalisation, norms: the association of bodily exemplars and typologies with authorised meanings, narratives and values in order to discipline, dispose and orient subjects.
    • Parrhesia: the Greek concept of parrhesia or ‘free speech’ can be dated to the fifth century bc. It refers both to a type of content (the parrhesiastes provides a full and candid account of the subject's thoughts and opinions on a particular matter), and a form of relationship (the purpose is not to use rhetorical devices to persuade, but rather to demonstrate to interlocutors that there is a corollary between one's words and one's beliefs and actions).
    • Performativity: linguistic performativity refers to speech acts that effect what they announce (‘I dare you’; ‘I sentence you’). Butler adapts this into a theory of gender performativity whereby certain announcements or performances of gender produce the effects they seem to describe (the announcement ‘It's a girl’ inaugurates the process of girling). Central to the theory of gender performativity are the mechanisms of citation and repetition.
    • Queer: in queer theory, queer usually refers to the use and performance of categories of sex, gender and sexuality in ways that disturb their taken-for-granted meanings. Queer performances are not outside those categories of identity; they use frameworks of identity against themselves in order to expose their contradictions, and the operations of power that sustain those categories.
    • Reflexivity: to think at, and through, limits that are constitutive of how we come to see, categorise, understand and relate to the world and to ourselves.
    • Sex: the two primary discursive categories (male and female) that render a body recognisable as a subject.
    • Sex/gender distinction: an influential framework in feminist theory that posits sex as the natural/biological differences between men and women, and gender as the cultural meanings attached to those differences. Butler critiques this distinction, and argues that both sex and gender are discursively produced.
    • Sexuality: libidinal regimes, orientations, dispositions and practices. In Western culture these are often understood as constituting an identity (so a man's sexual desire for another man constitutes him as a homosexual), an understanding that Foucault argues is a product of particular discursive regimes.
    • Subject: the result of a process involving the reiteration of discourses, performances and narratives of, and the repeated confirmation of relations of value regarding, the body, that make that body potentially visible and recognisable as a coherent set of forms, categories and meanings.
    • Subjection: Butler refers to the situation where the subject is not only constituted through and dominated by, but also remains necessarily tied to and reliant on, the practices and discourses of power, as a form of subjection.
    • Symbolic violence: the techniques, discourses and regimes of practice whereby the other is dehumanised or rendered abject.
    • Transgender: often used as an umbrella term that includes any body, gender performance, or gender identification that is at odds with, or deliberately critiques, the binary understanding of sex as either male or female. This may include (but is not limited to): transsexuals, drag queens and kings, transvestites, tomboys, butches and femmes, intersex people, and cross-dressers.


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