Judith Butler on “Gender in Translation”

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Judith Butler
is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She served as Founding Director of the Critical Theory Program at UC Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University in 1984. She is also active in gender and sexual politics and human rights, anti-war politics, and serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace and their committee on Academic Freedom.

Learn more about the “Gender in Translation” French-American dialogue which will take place at UC Berkeley on December 10th, 2015.

-> What triggered your interest in Gender Studies?

There was no gender studies when I became interested in gender. Social movements concerned  with gender freedom, including feminism, pre existed anything called gender studies. Both feminism and gay and lesbian studies made use of the category, and gender studies only became a term very recently.

-> According to you, has the reflection on Gender Studies evolved over the past years, if we consider the publication of “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler (1990) a reference point?

In the US, the publication of Gender Trouble comes in the middle of the story about gender, not the beginning. This is generally misunderstood in France. Indeed, gender was developed by sexologists in the 1950s and 1960s and was then critically appropriated by feminist anthropologists and sociologists in the 1970s and 1980s. Those important histories predate the publication of Gender Trouble. Indeed, without those fields, social movements. feminist discussions of sex and gender, and the critique of normalizing forms of sexology, there would have been no Gender Trouble.

-> The operation “Gender in Translation” as it has been conceived originally tries to put into perspective French and American approaches to Gender Studies. Does this distinction still seem relevant to you? Why?

Of course, there are several scholars on both sides of the Atlantic who have something to say about the translation and mistranslation of gender. They include Eric Fassin, Bruno Perreau, Camille Robcis, Joan W. Scott, Elsa Dorlin. It might be useful to remember that the mistranslations occurred earlier when the U.S. Academy started to talk about “French Theory” and “French Feminism”. Neither entity exists, but we recognize such terms for their market value. The name a niche, as it were. But they also cover over a number of intellectual positions that are quite distinct from one another. Similarly, when the French press blithely refers to “la theorie du genre” us scholars recognize that this is a falsehood, even perhaps a slur. It does not exist. There are many theories developed in relation to a contested category, and gender studies is an international field with many schools and perspectives. To say there is a single theory or methodology is to efface the complexity of the field and to reveal one’s ignorance.

-> Could you define the specificity of your approach to Gender Studies?

I would not personally be able to do that. I am interested in the performative and relational dimensions of gender, the debate about intersex, the relation between soma and psyche. I am also interested in how norms enter into the very definition of gender.

-> Does your research in the field of Gender Studies bear a civic and/or political engagement? Is this an important aspect for you?

Yes. I try to contribute as I can to struggles against homophobia, transphobia and misogyny, to support the depathologization of gay, lesbian, and bisexual lives, and to support efforts to legalize and depathologize queer kinship and queer parenting arrangements. I also see to affirm the alliances between struggles for gender freedom and struggles against racism and economic inequality.

-> As a scholar/artist/thinker/curator/…, what does the title “Gender in Translation” evoke for you?

It figures “gender” as a term that is in transit. If is not defined by its context once and for all. It seems to be fleeing its context, morphing into something new and, like other strangers who speak another language, remains uncertain of its welcome.

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