Towards a Genealogical Feminism: A Reading of Judith Butler's Political Thought

Contemporary Political Theory 4 (1):4-24 (2005)
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Abstract
Judith Butler's contribution to feminist political thought is usually approached in terms of her concept of performativity, according to which gender exists only insofar as it is ritualistically and repetitively performed, creating permanent possibilities for performing gender in new and transgressive ways. In this paper, I argue that Butler's politics of performativity is more fundamentally grounded in the concept of genealogy, which she adapts from Foucault and, ultimately, Nietzsche. Butler understands women to have a genealogy: to be located within a history of overlapping practices and reinterpretations of femininity. This genealogical understanding of femininity allows Butler to propose a coalitional feminist politics, which requires no unity among women but only loosely overlapping connections. For Butler, feminist coalitions should aim to subvert, not consolidate, entrenched norms concerning femininity. Butler has been criticized, however, for failing to explain either how subversive agency is possible or why the subversion of gender norms is desirable. Reviewing these criticisms, I argue that Butler offers a convincing explanation of the possibility of subversive agency, but that the normative dimension of her political thought remains relatively underdeveloped. I explore how the normative aspect of Butler's thought could be strengthened by recasting her notion of genealogy along more thoroughly Nietzschean and materialist lines, in terms of an idea of active and multiple bodily forces.
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