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ABerkeley student approaches two older women. She has a flier in her hand. “Hey, happy No-Pants Day!” she exclaims, in the state of undress to match her words. One woman waves her off. The other is Judith Butler, perhaps the most famous theoretician of gender and its undoing. Butler laughs and points to the camera, which is filming a documentary for French television. “You’re gonna be on television, and you’re gonna get in trouble, and I’m gonna tell your parents.”

The student appears miffed at this appeal to parental authority. “I mean, I’m old enough to be on television without pants on.” Looking at the camera, Butler pokes fun at the young woman’s rebellion: “C’est la folie de Berkeley, n’est-ce pas? Sans-culotte, un nouveau sens du sans-culotte, pas révolutionnaire.” The sans-culottes of revolutionary France were the very poor, who did not wear the silk breeches (culotte) of the aristocracy. In the madness of Berkeley, those genuine revolutionaries were replaced, Butler implies, by fake revolutionaries, the pants-shedding Berkeley ­undergrads who were going to get in trouble with their mothers.

The episode is ironic, for Butler rose to prominence by troubling conventional views of sexuality and gender. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble opens with a meditation on the word “trouble” that ends with a coy twist typical of her work. In “the reigning discourse” of her childhood, she relates, “to make trouble” was bad, because it got one “in trouble.” Even in her childhood, the implications of troublemaking gave her a glimpse of how power worked. Those in authority issued prohibitions that “threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable.” Living, Butler implies, means negotiating with trouble, and we are all given “the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.”

Five pages later, Butler reveals that this tale of her childish reflection on “trouble” is “a fable irreducible to fact.” In other words, an invention. She fabricated the picture of her youthful self as possessed of self-awareness and philosophical precocity. But it is a fiction with a purpose, for the “fable” underscores Butler’s thesis, as well as her method. By her account, gender is a fiction that masquerades as fact. It passes itself off as “nature” but in fact is culturally constructed. And the cultural theorist should not aim to get behind or underneath this cultural construction to what is “real,” because there is no “reality” underneath. Instead, she should refashion and reconstruct in accord with the fictions she prefers.

But a reader of Butler’s work might wonder whether there is a bit of fact behind the fiction. Troublemaking with gender seems rooted in her childhood. Her mother’s family owned a chain of movie theaters in Cleveland, and Butler reports that her grandmother and mother, Jewish women in mid-twentieth-century America, mimicked the gender norms reinforced by Hollywood as a means of assimilation. “So my grandmother slowly but surely became Helen Hayes,” she states in an interview, smiling ruefully and speaking in crisp, measured sentences. “And my mother slowly but surely became kinda Joan Crawford.” One cannot know whether this is true; Butler is a fabulist, after all. Regardless, the “kinda” speaks volumes. The women in her family failed to assimilate ­completely. In her telling, their failure to embody gender norms was more interesting to young Judith than any success could have been, and in that failure the future theorist of gender discerned the inherent artificiality of the Helen Hayes and Joan Crawford norms—indeed of any norms for being a “true” man or “true” woman.

The discipline of sociology had long ago identified the importance of norms in shaping the roles we play in society. If Butler had stuck with the notion of gender as a cultural construction, Gender Trouble would have been just another statement of widely accepted views, an untroubling book. By the 1970s, feminists had adopted sociological insights and agreed that biological maleness or ­femaleness—sex—was distinct from cultural codes and roles for men and women, denoted by the repurposed grammatical concept of gender. So far, so second-wave feminist.

Butler went further. She argued that the sexed body itself is formed by cultural codes. Heterosexuality, the desire for the other sex, is not given by nature. It is created and reinforced by “heteronormative” social codes that classify the body in a binary way as male or female. In other words, what feminists regarded as a biological fact is in truth a “construct called ‘sex.’” By Butler’s reasoning, what we think is “biological” is simply another layer of the self that is “as culturally constructed as gender.”

This claim about the culturally ­constructed and sexed body was Butler’s Copernican ­Revolution. Heretofore, feminists had battled to liberate women from stultifying sex roles and other limitations; they had sought to allow women to be fully actualized women. Now the notion of “woman” itself posed a problem, for in ­Butler’s theorizing, both sexed bodies and gendered ­cultural codes were formed by social constructs, or what today’s cultural theorists call “­discourses of power.” It was a startling claim in 1990. The ­suggestion that our biological ­bedrock was shaped and formed by culture ­upended how people thought about sexual difference. The ­boldness of the hypothesis—that we can deconstruct the body itself!—rocketed Butler to fame.

Butler exudes a calm authority when speaking—not surprising, given that she sits atop the academic food chain. Former president of the Modern Language Association, she holds an endowed chair at Berkeley and can claim to have transformed “women’s studies” into “gender” or “queer studies” almost singlehandedly. She even achieved the distinction of winning first prize in Philosophy and Literature’s 1998 Bad Writing Contest, for a sentence that began: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation . . .” And on and on, for fifty-nine more words. (Did I mention that her endowed chair was at one point in “rhetoric”?)

Yet Butler does not always present herself as a confident academic boss. Despite her professional standing, punk-rock affect, indigestible sentences, and irritable responses to critics, she sometimes shows a vulnerable side. “I’ve never found a place,” she states in another interview. “I don’t think I’ll ever find a place. You know, there are many people who argue that we should all have a place, a gendered place, that we should feel at home in our bodies, or at one with ourselves—this, maybe, is a possibility for others.” Shaking her head, she repeats, “I don’t think so.”

Feeling at home, having a place—there are ways of being that trigger deep metaphysical ­intuitions. In the flux of life, feeling at home suggests that there is an abiding permanence. In the flow of time, having a place bespeaks an anchoring reality. Butler’s rejection of a home or place for herself suggests that the trouble-making over gender that made her famous arises from deeper troubles with identity, a concept that is closely connected to a mental “home” or “place” where a person belongs. In an early essay, Butler confesses, “I’m permanently troubled by identity categories.” She leans toward an idea of life as exile rather than homecoming.

Butler has remained true to these metaphysical misgivings and to her refusal to embrace a “home” or “place.” Despite inspiring legions who demand recognition of their ­identities—including perhaps the sans-culotte Berkeley undergrad—Butler has always criticized identity politics. She relates with sarcasm that, prior to departing for a conference on “homosexuality” in the late-1980s, “I found myself telling my friends beforehand that I was off to Yale to be a lesbian.” She was not expressing doubts about her sexual preferences, for the author who would go on to write an essay titled “The Lesbian Phallus” was and is most definitely a ­lesbian. “The only way to describe me in my younger years,” she reports, “was as a bar dyke who spent her days reading Hegel and her evenings, well, at the gay bar.” But Butler dislikes the activist’s penchant for identity categories, because they only “produce a new and different ‘closet.’” They may signal a progressive politics, but they are yet more forms of “categorical violence,” the insistence that one must have a “place.” It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Butler recently announced her preference for the category-resistant pronouns “they, them.” All the better to escape being pinned down as “woman.”

Her dissatisfaction with labels runs deep. From an early age she was skeptical of a “certain kind of Jewish separatism. . . . You’d bring someone home, and the first question was ‘Are they Jewish, are they not Jewish?’ Then I entered into a ­lesbian community in college—late college, graduate school—and the first thing they asked was, ‘Are you a feminist, are you not a feminist?’ ‘Are you a lesbian, are you not a lesbian?’ and I thought, ‘Enough with the separatism!’”

By her account, the trouble-making began in Hebrew school. It was fairly ordinary stuff: skipping class and inattention. In an attempt to get her out of the classroom, she claims, her school sent her to private tutorials with the rabbi, Daniel Silver. For the precocious adolescent, the tutorials were an improvement. “I loved the rabbi . . . the rabbi spoke about extraordinary things.” Silver taught her how to read texts closely. A new philosophical world opened up. Initially, “he was very suspicious of me because I was this problem child.” He perhaps did not know that she sometimes cut class so that she could sneak into the temple to hear him speak. Young Judith laid out to him her preferred course of study: “I told him I wanted to know why ­Spinoza was excommunicated from the synagogue. I ­wanted to know whether German idealist philosophy was linked to the rise of Nazism, and I wanted to understand existential theology. And I was fourteen years old.”

Her school years were not the last time Butler got in trouble with her ­co-religionists. In 2012, she published Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, which drew protests at speaking events and accusations of ­anti-Semitism. She passionately denies the charge. She points out that her mother’s family in ­Hungary was destroyed by the Nazis, and she argues that criticizing Zionism is not the same as hating Jews. In her understanding of Jewish history, the experience of diaspora reveals something intrinsic to the human condition: We are always in exile and never settled in the “place” that is our ­nationality—or our sex and body. Butler sees herself as never having found a place, and she takes her experience to be normative, to be affirmed rather than overcome. She therefore interprets Zionism as misguided: Jews should remain “homeless,” and so bear witness to the anti-metaphysical truth of the human condition.

This affirmation of exile has theological significance for Butler. Despite being a member of a synagogue, Butler does not affirm any transcendent or divine horizon. But she does not consider this demurral a rejection of Judaism. She insists that a refusal of the temptation of transcendence is a signal “Jewish value.” As she puts it, “Life is transient, and because of that, because there is no after world, because we don’t have any hopes in a final redemption, we have to take especially good care of life in the here and now. Life has to be protected. It is precarious.” Her sentiments are in many ways commonplaces of an older existentialism. Lacking any lasting home or final place of rest, we must focus on authentic living. What’s different, however, is Butler’s theoretical refusal to appeal to any fixed standards, any categories by which to judge authenticity. These would be simply more ­instances of “categorical violence.”

Her longstanding concern with “precarious life” animates Butler’s most recent book, which argues for an ethic of nonviolence and a new politics based on recognizing life’s precariousness. “There is no possibility of becoming invulnerable,” she laughs in an interview. “There is no possibility of evading death.” There will be no everlasting homecoming, no exodus from exile to a place in our Father’s house. This judgment shapes Butler’s thought. Rather than displaying the Nietzschean defiance typical of existentialism or the revolutionary utopianism characteristic of today’s advocates of identity politics, Butler’s writing is shot through with melancholy. Her cosmos is permanently postlapsarian. We are cast of out Eden, and there is no “final redemption.”

The same melancholy, the same wandering in exile, is evident in her writing on gender. Butler argues that we are born into a gendered world with scripts about how to “do” gender. We “do” our maleness and femaleness in the context of preexisting norms, never apart from them. Thus, though she dreams of nonbinary gender configurations, she insists that we cannot escape the fine net of social norms. She illustrates our inevitable captivity in her analysis of drag, which plays an important role in her thinking. Drag is a parody of gender norms, and its practice reveals that all gender performances are, in fact, parodies. “In imitating gender,” she insists, “drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.” Drag is “a failed copy” of womanhood. But so was her mother’s “kinda Joan Crawford,” as are “kinda John Waynes.” In truth, Joan Crawford and John Wayne were only kinda themselves. We are all failed copies of copies, as it were. It’s artificiality all the way down.

In trying to succeed with gender, we imitate and repeat gender norms. Or maybe we reject them and repeat the rejections, becoming kinda Andy ­Warhol or kinda Ellen DeGeneres. But whether leaning in or against, we never escape gender normativity. Our repetitions construct our gender, argues Butler. As a consequence, our sexed identities are rooted in “performativity,” the way that we “do” ourselves into gender by performing it. According to Butler, the constructive repetition at the heart of “doing gender” is the basic mode of human subjectivity. Every aspect of our identity—as fathers and mothers, teachers and doctors, citizens and ­believers—is constructed in this way. One can say, therefore, that identity is an effect, not a foundation. Like a cocoon spun by a silkworm, identity is “produced or generated.” This is why Butler prizes drag. It’s a self-conscious performance, producing and ­generating an identity in plain view, something we’re always doing in hidden ways. Metaphysically, we’re all drag queens.

It is not the case that first I am, and then I do, as we commonly imagine. The reverse obtains: My doing creates my being. Butler found this idea in Hegel, as read through twentieth-century French theorists such as Kojève, who made the development of the individual, desiring subject—and not the state or God—the central concern of Hegel’s thought. The desiring subject, Butler argues, is continually coming into being but never arriving, a verb and not a noun. Thus, “performativity” for Butler is not grounded in our interior, as though we were actors possessing identities prior to our roles. Rather, we are created from the outside in, constantly reshaped and reformed by our desires and actions. The roles create the actors.

Butler does not hesitate to work out the metaphysical implications of this doing-­into-being. A person’s identity does not remain stable through time. Instead, identity is constructed as one is formed into a gender in and through its performance. In a classical view of identity, the notion of a stable substrate can be expressed metaphysically as “substance,” which Butler questionably defines as “a self-identical entity,” something that cannot help being itself. She rejects substance in this sense, as did Nietzsche: There is no “doer” without the “doing.” As she says in a play on the notion of self-defense, “I’ve always wondered what that self is that we’re defending.”

In the place of substance, Butler puts what metaphysicians call “accidents.” If substances are nouns, accidents are like adjectives: the qualities and states of being that exist in substances but are not independent of them. A person might be tall or short, quick-tempered or patient. Traditionally, accidents were thought to be dependent on substance. Accidents must have a metaphysical “home,” as it were. There needs to be a leaf in order for there to be a brown leaf. There must be a horse to which we can assign the quality “feral.” Postmodernism ­reworks this hierarchy. It insists that accidents operate without substances—or more accurately, they create the illusion of substances. This is the metaphysical reversal that stands behind the notorious postmodern “death of the subject.”

Michel Foucault offers an image for this new ontology. Evoking the Cheshire Cat, he contended that pleasures could endure without subjects, like “grins [that] hung about without the cat.” On its face, this proposal is difficult to apply to human life. ­Butler helps by bringing it into conformity with the contemporary assumption that reality is “socially ­constructed.” Her ontology does not feature accidents without a subject, or grins without the cat; instead, she proposes that accidents build the subject, from the outside in, as it were. The grins make—or unmake—the cat. Our performances of maleness or femaleness make or unmake us. In his book on prisons and punishment, Foucault writes, “It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those that are punished.” Butler adopts this view of personhood: the soul is “an instrument of power through which the body is cultivated and formed.” In this respect she articulates the postmodern consensus, which holds that our interiority, the experience that feels most like the “real me,” is an illusion formed by punishing powers that act on us, social norms that make their authority felt, whether we conform or rebel. What’s real is “power”: I am its creation, an accident, as it were, to the “substance” of social authority.

Most purveyors of identity politics are inconsistent in adopting this ontology of the social construction of reality, for they exempt the “authentic self” in order to preserve the “real me” as a metaphysical lever of social change. Butler is not inconsistent in this way. She affirms the condition of permanent diaspora, a world of perpetually troubled identity. If she is a doing without a doer hidden within, then there is no way “out,” no pathway toward her “true self.” She accordingly eschews motifs of deliverance and regards the endless wandering of becoming as our fate—and the illusion of homecoming as a threat. “The prospect of being anything,” she confesses, “has always produced in me a certain anxiety.” Flux is more reassuring. This preference makes sense, for, according to her theory, we feel as though we are something only because we have performed a socially assigned role so many times that it seems “natural.”

With Butler’s fame came criticism. Early on, Martha Nussbaum accused her of promoting a “hip quietism.” ­Nussbaum’s attack reflects the concerns of more traditional feminists, who worry that the denial of the categories of “women” and “the subject” undermines feminist gains. Seyla Benhabib connected the feminist dots: “Given how fragile and tenuous women’s sense of selfhood is in many cases, . . . this reduction of female agency to a ‘doing without the doer’ at best appears to me to be making a virtue out of necessity.” Rather than advancing the agency of women, Butler seemed to eliminate the very notion of female empowerment. If there is no “doer,” there is no subject to be empowered.

Butler’s gender theory is especially ill suited to trans-activism, which is committed to a rigid and binary understanding of male and female. The transition narrative insists that a male-bodied person’s inner experience of being a woman means that, in fact, the person is not a man but a woman; moreover, the essence of being a woman resides in one’s appearance, just as Butler’s mother and grandmother seemed to think. As Caitlyn Jenner once said, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.” And he wears not just a dress but a femme fatale dress, complete with heavy makeup and carefully done nails. It’s drag-chic, just more expensive.

But Butler says that in drag—as in all gender performances—we are failed copies. That would make Jenner a “failed copy” of womanhood, a conclusion that is anathema to the trans narrative. Further, Butler’s “queer” performativity calls into question the “sexual binary.” She urges “proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity, and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: ‘man’ and ‘woman.’” “Male” and “female” are symbols, “never inhabited by anyone, and that’s what defines them as symbolic: they’re radically uninhabitable.” Yet the entire trans narrative doubles down on “man” and “woman,” arguing that those sexes are habitable. One transitions to a destination, the narrative insists, not to Butler’s endless wandering. Without this assumption, one cannot justify hormonal interventions and the surgical removal of breasts and genitalia in the service of “matching” the body to a person’s conviction of being the ­opposite sex.

Yet in a deeper sense, Butler’s way of thinking supports today’s transgender activism. What unites Butler and the trans-activists is the assumption of the non-naturalness of the sexed body. In Butler’s theory, the body is created by sex roles and social discipline. If that’s the case, then why can’t we seize control of this process and recreate the body in accord with our own designs? This logic explains the strange fact that, for Butler and queer theory, heterosexual gender ideals are understood to be “violent,” whereas cutting off healthy breasts is not.

According to Butler, normative gender ideals are violent because they form behaviors and even bodies extrinsically, whereas the release of behaviors and bodies from those norms—even by means of a scalpel—is a nonviolent liberation. If the sexed body were a natural fact, changing it forcibly would be violent; but if sex is gender, and if gender consists only of symbols, then the sex-transition revolution will be bloodless—like the faux revolution of the pantsless Berkeley ­student, perhaps. The body may bleed and scar, but it is not real in the way the power of symbols is real. Thus does Butler’s nonviolent gender ­theory ironically normalize violence against the body.

In the end, Butler’s theory is a kind of idealism, proposing a world made by symbols, as many have pointed out. It disconnects humanity from the wider animal world. According to the traditional definition, the human person is a rational animal. Our bodies connect us to the animals and make us unlike, say, the angels, who have no bodies and thus are not animals. But higher animals are sexed as male and female. What formed that sexuality? Was it a mammalian or reptilian discourse of power? Or perhaps Butler does not believe that human sexuality is related in any way to the sexuality of other animals. Such an assumption is supported by the widespread use of artificial contraceptives, which eliminates the reproductive aspect of sex and to that extent distinguishes human from animal sexuality. In Butler’s theory, we are exceedingly rational (if we reinterpret rationality as the undergoing of power’s linguistic construction of our selves) and barely animal at all. Not surprisingly, therefore, her theory is unconcerned with human generation, which receives no significant discussion in her books on gender. When the “mother-child dyad” is raised in her writing, the atmosphere is oppressive—another baleful binary that threatens to make a person be something.

Butler’s 2004 book Undoing Gender moves away from how we “do” gender and toward an analysis of how gender “undoes” us. She argues that masculine and feminine norms both craft us and prevent us from crafting ourselves. Gender Trouble urged resistance to these discourses of power. But the notion of resistance encourages covert appeals to substance—to the real me who is being oppressed. Undoing Gender and other later works adopt a more consistent outlook, which forestalls such appeals. “We don’t want to say that we never want to be undone again, [or] we only want to do ourselves. That is to privilege a certain idea of self-making that I am criticizing. We are inevitably undone by other people, we become ­undone in our relations with others.” To be human is to be vulnerable to others.

Butler contrasts this vulnerability with what she calls a non-human and “lethal” vision of the unencumbered and independent individual who seeks to be “self-standing.” In a recent interview, Butler notes that “self-standing” is “a translation from German. They say selbstständig, implying that you stand on your own. But who actually stands on their own?” As Butler tells the interviewer, “We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things. Even coming to see you today—the pavement allowed me to move, and so did my shoes, my orthotics, and the long hours spent by my physical therapist. His labor is in my walk, as it were.”

These remarks about our dependence on the labor and cooperation of others echo proposals by Catholic thinkers such as David L. Schindler and the early Joseph Ratzinger. But the ­differences are great. Emphasizing the self as “gift,” a relational ontology combats modern individualism by giving priority to relation over substance. We are constituted by our lives in community; we are not self-sufficient or self-making. But the ontologies proposed by Catholic thinkers presume that some relations are natural, expressing qualities innate in human persons, whereas others are unnatural and diminish us. By contrast, Butler relies on a false binary, one that makes substance into a rival of relations. In her view (which is typical of a stream of modern thought), substance is “self-­identical” stuff, and insofar as we see personal identity as rooted in substance, the self seems to be trapped in the vicious, narcissistic imperative of having to be always the same. To such a self, our vulnerability to being changed and influenced by relations with others can only be a threat, whereas Catholic proponents of relational ontology see relations with others, including our vulnerability to their ­influence, as a fulfillment of our substance as human persons.

A narrow, inert, and modern concept of substance fuels Butler’s anxiety about being anything, for in such an account, rootedness in a substantial identity closes one off from the adventure of growth and change. This presumption about the imprisoning ­consequences of being something is the most basic reason for the postmodern hostility to strong concepts of permanence, such as nature and truth. Postmodernity prefers fluid, developmental notions such as construction. But we do not need to make a ­zero-sum choice between being “at home” and being open to relations with others. On the contrary, a proper explanation of our “givenness” as persons helps us understand why we can give ourselves in relation to others—even to God—without ­forsaking ­ourselves.

St. Thomas Aquinas helps us understand substance and relation—being something essentially and being open to others—as complementary. The anchoring power of substance rests in subsistence: It is that which endures across change. By contrast, accidents exist only in substances; in Latin, they have inesse, “being-in,” instead of subsistence, which simply is. For example, sexual differentiation is an accident. “Femininity” exists not on its own but in substances, in a human person or another animal. Likewise, relation is an accident; it does not subsist but exists in substances. “Fatherhood” does not subsist; persons subsist who are fathers. The man who before was childless and now is a father is vulnerable to this change precisely because he subsists as the self-same subject, the man who before was childless and now is a father. Far from imprisoning us, substance, properly understood, makes our lives far more adventurous and vulnerable than they would be in Butler’s world without subjects, for there is a “real me” that is at risk.

Without a proper understanding of substance, Butler loses both the subject and the recipient of action. Her physical therapist labors, and he labors for her. Both persons are important, the giver of care and the receiver. We see this even more clearly in love. The lover does not love a process or a relation but a person. The person who loves changes and grows, yes, as does the person who is loved. But what stands under those changes (the literal meaning of sub-stance) are the loving and beloved persons. For this reason, a mother can love her child, even as she encourages him to grow and develop, knowing that he will not become someone other than the child she loves. A proper view of substance explains why we give freedom to those we love—and why we grieve when those we love are hurt and harmed in their vulnerability. My child is damaged by bullying at school; and it pains me because he remains my child, not, as Butler’s theory suggests, a new subject being performed in a sad key.

By eliminating substance and making persons ­into processes, Butler eliminates what allows relations to exist at all. The paradox is tragic. Motivated by a desire to save life from imprisonment in something fixed and unchanging, she ends up articulating a view in which we are mere social constructions, too insubstantial (literally) to bear the weight of enduring, consequential, and defining relations to others. Hers is a fluid world in which each of us dissolves. Never at home, we cannot offer ­hospitality.

Older ways of thinking about life are more humane. I exist, not as a process or as some immovable modern substance, but as a woman, as a mother, with a certain age and height and history, with a certain store of knowledge and emotional responses. All these qualities are accidents, metaphysically speaking, but that does not make them unimportant. In fact, they are the stuff of my life. The becoming of accidents that come to be in me and pass away, as I enter into new friendships, learn new things, lose loved ones—all this is held in being by me as a personal substance. Accidents give me color and distinctiveness. I give them being.

All of this makes me legible to other human beings and thereby vulnerable to “categorical ­violence.” By allowing accidents—including my femininity—to make me legible, I allow them to delimit me; but they also reveal me to the world, to the community of embodied persons, who know me as formed in certain ways. Through knowing accidents, ­Aquinas writes, the intellect “penetrates to the interior” of the substance. The postmodern world is deathly afraid of being so transparent and vulnerable to others. But it has opened itself to other risks. The loss of the “home” of the stable self perpetually undermines contemporary people, who exist in a permanent, fluid exile. No wonder we, and our culture, are imprisoned within our obsessions with security and safety.

Butler’s trouble with sexed identity arises from her fear that stability opposes the permanent exile that is human life. Rather than being a word read from her body, she prefers to be the unfinished sentence, the perpetual refugee from sexed legibility. Of course, she is right that the intellect sometimes penetrates in order to colonize. But it is also the case that love begins with a true word, spoken and understood. What causes the most ­trouble—the sexed body—also initiates what is most dear.

Angela Franks is a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston.

Image by Miquel Taverna via Creative Commons. Image cropped.