Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity | Study Guide

Judith Butler

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Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity | Key Figure Analysis


Michel Foucault

The work of French theorist Michel Foucault has had a major impact on philosophy, history, cultural criticism, and other disciplines. Trained as a philosopher, Foucault was a major figure in the structuralism and post-structuralism movements during his lifetime. Structuralism is a way of analyzing human cognition, behavior, and culture in terms of conceptual systems. Foucault described his life work as the investigation of the inseparability of truth or knowledge and the historical power structures that produce and use truth for their own ends. In Gender Trouble Butler uses Foucault's ideas both as a methodology and basis for critiquing the work of other philosophers and as the springboard for developing her own theories.

Luce Irigaray

French author and activist Luce Irigaray's work spans the disciplines of linguistics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Irigaray was a student of psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, whose theories also receive major attention in Gender Trouble. Luce Irigaray investigated the phallogocentrism (male privilege of constructing meaning) of language, which, by associating women with passive matter or irrational nature, renders women unrepresentable. Butler prefaces Chapter 1 with Irigaray's contention that "woman does not have a sex," suggesting that the linguistic system of meaning excludes women from the subject position and thus renders the woman as "a point of linguistic absence."

Julia Kristeva

Bulgarian-born philosopher Julia Kristeva's work is centered on explorations of self and other and the construction of the body. Her framework both draws from and critiques the psychoanalytic positions put forth by Jacques Lacan. Kristeva is best known for her theories of abjection (low, looked-down-upon state) and the semiotic (or symbolic) dimension of multiple meanings and the primary construction of the maternal body. Both these accounts receive Butler's criticism in Gender Trouble.

Jacques Lacan

Trained as a psychoanalyst, French theorist Jacques Lacan developed ideas that profoundly influenced the field of psychoanalytic theory, as well as making foundational contributions to the post-structuralism philosophy that emerged after World War II (1939–45). His theories have also been applied to the criticism and theory of literature, film, politics, and aesthetics. In his work Lacan often reconfigured the thought of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Lacan's controversial and unique approach to psychoanalysis lead to his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1962. The following year, Lacan founded an institution to train psychoanalysts according to his conception of psychoanalytic theory. Lacan's account of the formation of the gendered/sexed subject and his concept of masquerade are the subject of Butler's critique in Chapter 2 of Gender Trouble.

Joan Riviere

In addition to translating the work of her contemporary Sigmund Freud, English psychoanalyst and writer Joan Riviere made lasting contributions to psychoanalytic theory. Her work dealt heavily with the concepts of defense mechanism and the development of female sexuality and identity. Elaborating on French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan's concept of the masquerade, Riviere conceptualizes masquerade as a covering women adopt for protection. Femininity is the mask women—who long for the power embedded in masculinity—use to protect themselves from male retribution. In Chapter 2 of Gender Trouble Butler critiques Riviere's conception of femininity as mimicry.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is one of the primary figures of the mid-20th-century structuralism movement in the philosophy of anthropology. While Lévi-Strauss's anthropological investigations focused on preindustrial societies, his concepts have been appropriated as critical lenses in a variety of disciplines. The basic tenet of structuralism is that human culture and activity can be understood in terms of the patterns that structure them. These patterns are common to all cultures and even the human mind. An example, which receives serious consideration in Gender Trouble, is Lévi-Strauss's theory of universal kinship structure. This is the idea that all human societies are organized according to the principle of exogamy, the intergroup (two or more social groups) exchange of women through marriage. As Butler notes, this exchange of women had practical as well as symbolic functions, and Lévi-Strauss pinned the origin of symbolic thought on this very process.

Simone de Beauvoir

French existentialist author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir is best known for 1949's The Second Sex, a text whose critique of the subordination of women in society helped spur the second wave of feminism after World War II. In The Second Sex Beauvoir analyzes myths and social archetypes, which comprise the oppressive ideal of the "myth of woman." Beauvoir's anti-essentialist claim that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" provides the springboard for parts of the critical inquiries of Butler and other feminist theorists whose work is critiqued in Gender Trouble.

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