GUEST POST: Kile Jones Interviews Judith Butler

This is a guest post by Kile Jones, a religious studies PhD candidate at Claremont Lincoln University and founder of the Claremont Journal of Religion. He’s also a contributor to the Feminism and Religion blog. This is an interview he did recently with Judith Butler, one of the most prominent philosophers and feminists in the country.

Sex, Religion, and Discourse: An Interview with Judith Butler

One of my academic joys is interviewing people I find particularly interesting (see most of my posts here). This time I am honored to present a recent interview I did with Judith Butler.

Many wonder how gender performance relates to chromosomes, phenotypes, genitalia, and other scientific “evidence” for innate sexual differences. How do you respond to those who scorn the mentality behind Luce Irigaray’s notion that E=MC2 is a “sexed equation”?

JB:  It might be important to distinguish provisionally between performance and performativity, even though I think the two are interconnected.  When we think about debates within scientific paradigms concerned with the criteria for sex-determination, we can see that different standards apply at different times.  So those who believe that chromosomal structure should be the basis are often challenged by those who seek recourse to hormones instead.  And others think that sex should be determined by primary sexual characteristics, and so using some version of anatomy as the basis.  Yet others suggest that we would be better off understanding sex determination proves difficult to generalize on any of these bases because of exceptions, gradations, and a continuum of differences that cannot be reduced to a binary scheme.  So when any of these scientific paradigms are activated in moments where sex is determined or assigned, we can see that theory takes form as an action – that is what I would call performativity.  One might say the theory “acts” at the moment in which medical, health, or legal authorities assign sex.  I cannot speak for the Irigarayan view, but I presume that others can.

Those of us who do work relating to feminism and religion often wonder how one can do scholarship in these areas without assuming these categories are somehow “more” than mere constructs. What would you say to someone who thinks these categories refer to distinctions that occur in the “real world”?

JB:  Well, it is probably important to realize that “mere constructs” act in very powerful ways in the world, shaping our experience and our thought.  So one might argue, as many have, that “race” itself is a construct, but that does not keep it from being a quite powerful force in our daily lives. If it does not have a solid basis in biology, it still has a solid basis in social reality, and that, in turn, tends to enter into both scientific and extra-scientific ways of organizing and understanding the world.  Let’s remember that scientific hypotheses are very often the place where cultural prejudices enter.  In any case, those forms of stratification function in daily life, and usually in highly injurious ways.  So that is one reason why we want to know the history of such notions, how they emerged, and when and where they got ratified as both scientific and social knowledge. For then we can ask what kinds of interventions in the history of the category are possible in order to more effectively oppose racism.  It would be great if we could simply say that race is a category that serves racism, that race is a social construct, and that as constructed, we can deny it.  But, in fact, if we deny it on such grounds, we become “race-blind” which then leaves us without the critical analysis that can help us oppose its injurious operations.  So these are not “mere constructs” but very effective ones.

As someone interested in how discourse is shaped, and how it shapes us, how do you understand “religious violence”? Is it a constructed myth, a lived reality, or some mixture of the two?

JB: Well, it all depends on who is using such a term, and for what reason. If the term is meant to imply that religion leads to violence more easily than secularism,  then we can certainly come up with a host of examples that would show how religion can operate to mitigate violence, and how wars have been waged in the name of “secular” states, especially against religious minorities.  But even that kind of rejoinder suggests that there is absolute difference between religion and the secular domain, a thesis that has been ably contested by many people including Janet Jakobsen, Anne Pellegrini, Talal Asad, William Connolly, Saba Mahmood.  I think that the term “religious violence” is sometimes meant to describe the violence that emerges from “religious fanaticism” but is there, implicit in that argument, a view that religion has a potentially violent fanatic potential that non-religious positions lack?  Was the United States acting from religious grounds in its wars against Vietnam, the Taliban, or Afghanistan?  It was a war against religious communities perceived as fanatical, but was there nothing fanatical about our own acts of military aggression?  When irrationality and fanaticism are projected onto the religious Other, that gives those who are doing the projecting the chance to regard their own actions as “rational” or “civilizational” even though they are quite murderous, and include collateral damage – that ultimate euphemism for the practice of killing innocent civilians.  Of course, there are violent religious groups, but is it their religion that makes them violence, or their politics?  We still have a long way to go in sorting out these matters.

In light of our limits of self-knowledge and personal transparency, in what ways do you see feminist critiques of patriarchal religion as problematic? What ways do you see the discourse surrounding feminism and religion as noble, virtuous, and enabling?

JB:  I am not sure I am the one to answer these important questions. Of course, there are many religions, including my own, that have strong patriarchal bias.  Judaism actively celebrates the patriarchs, but many feminists have found ways to re-read or read against the patriarchal grain.  They have found women in the bible and sought to retell biblical stories from their perspective or in ways that figure them prominently.  Those are not my practices, but I understand and respect them. Perhaps what is most important is to understand that traditions have to be repeated in ritual and retold in story form in order to continue to remain alive as tradition.  When we speak about living traditions, we are speaking about traditions that, to stay alive, have to adapt to new historical challenges, and find ways of speaking to people where they live now.  So traditions can, and must, be revised to stay alive, which means not only responding to feminist challenges, but affirming feminism as a way of affirming some of the values you mention, dignity and equality – and perhaps even the affirmation of life.

Biography from The European Graduate SchoolJudith Butler, Ph.D., Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School EGS, attended Bennington College and then Yale University, where she received her B.A., and her Ph.D. in philosophy in 1984. Her first training in philosophy took place at the synagogue in her hometown of Cleveland. She taught at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins universities before becoming Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • eric

    There’s some interesting nuggets there, but I have to say that the style and way she answers questions is skirting pretty close to the edge of being postmodernist babble. At least IMO.

  • naturalcynic

    Of course, there are violent religious groups, but is it their religion that makes them violence, or their politics? We still have a long way to go in sorting out these matters.

    It is often the closeness of religion to politics where problems occur. In fundamentalist Islam and Dominionist Christianity they become essentially inseparable.

    But. then again, you have the same thing with MLK.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    So, she recognizes that conventional Judaism is patriarchal, and she recognizes that there are legitimate(?) ways to practice Judaism in a less patriarchal way, but she doesn’t do that. Uhhh… what? She is a major feminist writer, but she knowingly perpetuates a patriarchal system when an alternative is available? That seems mighty hypocritical.


    Of course, there are violent religious groups, but is it their religion that makes them violence, or their politics?

    She speaks as though you could separate “religion” from “politics”, which is silly. She’s ready to say that “well those politics aren’t true religion”. This is just a “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

    And most importantly: I strongly dislike how she implicitly invoked Pol Pot, Stalin, and the other spectres of “atheistic regimes” as a moral evil comparable to extremist religions in order to deny the claim that religion leads to violence. Apparently she is a believer, which helps explain her apparent twisting of the truth to suit her ends. All of us should know the errors here, so I’ll simply end with this: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” – Steven Weinberg


    I don’t see much postmodernist tripe in there. I see just the usual defenses of religion (as outlined above).

  • grumpyoldfart

    I gave up at E=MC2 is a “sexed equation”.

  • eric

    @3 – performativity? paradigms? scientific hypotheses as social constructs? Perhaps I’m being too harsh about the latter, as the questioner brought up the idea of social constructs and she responded to his question. But to me that sort of discussion rings the pomo bell.

  • M can help you with that.

    re: eric @ 5 —

    The alternative to what you object to is the claim that science and scientific hypotheses are reality in a very absolute sense. If you’re saying that any claim that science is a human practice which is practiced by humans is objectionable on the grounds of being “postmodern”…I’m not sure that it’s possible to have a conversation with you.

    (I mean, really not possible — not in the sense of a scientifically rigorous conversation, sure, but also not in the sense of any basic utilization of language, given that your objection to “postmodernism” is broad enough to demand the rejection of every utilization of language, ever, with the possible exception of your own thoughts.)

  • wayneturner


    I started to give up at that point too, because I could not conceive of a sexist equation (does it have ‘phallic’ symbols?).

  • nrdo

    Beyond the annoying, opaque philosophical lingo though, I would agree with her to the extent that we get into dangerous territory when we claim that religion is the ultimate cause of a given form of violence. I think there are many cases in which it can be regarded as a “proximate cause” in the legal sense, while in most other cases it’s a catalyst when combined with other grievances. I think that’s a more defensible position.

  • lpetrich

    Luce Irigaray – Feminist Philosopher – Quotes:

    “Is E=Mc² a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged that which goes faster.”

    What did she expect?

  • eric

    If you’re saying that any claim that science is a human practice which is practiced by humans is objectionable on the grounds of being “postmodern”…

    No, I’m saying that when I read an interview and the interviewee focuses on the social construction aspect of theories in three out of three questions, and the intervewee takes a nonjudgemental ‘its all relative’ approach to even things like the patriarichical aspects of her own jewish traditions, those things are an indication to me of postmodernism.

  • freehand

    “For then we can ask what kinds of interventions in the history of the category are possible in order to more effectively oppose racism.”


    LOL whut?


    Seriously, how does one intervene in the history of a concept? Rewrite the history books?


    Many of the philosophy academics I met in the university seemed to be interested in neither clear thought nor clear speech. I had a metaphysics professor tell me that there were no toy guns, “because guns aren’t toys”. He was quite serious.

  • democommie

    ” then we can certainly come up with a host of examples that would show how religion can operate to mitigate violence, and how wars have been waged in the name of “secular” states, especially against religious minorities.”

    I don’t know if that qualifies as “pomo” but it is most certainly bullshit. The number of “secular states” that have persecuted religious minorities pales in comparison to the various pogroms of the jews and other “religious cleansing” conflicts–which, oddly, resulted in lots of property being transferred from the hands of the unGODLY to those of the GODLY.

    I’m pretty much with the rest of it being bullshit, too.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal


    About postmodernism in the interview. The first two replies (on sex and race) are good. Maybe they’re using some dog whistles, but I see generally solid points.

    The third reply is where it gets dicey. I don’t see any actual strong postmodernism at work here. I just see someone desparate to avoid the obvious conclusion that the traditions, politics, practices, beliefs, etc., of some particular religious traditions cause violence. I see someone dodging by saying that sometimes religion prevents violence, and sometimes other belief systems can cause violence. I see someone dishonestly trying to separate politics from religion. I do again see some dog whistles of postmodernism, but I don’t see the rejection of truth independent of culture and tradition, which is the defining characteristic of (the bad kind of) postmodernism. Instead, I see someone in damage control.

    I understand the last reply as “Well, my particular religious tradition is sexist, and there are other ways to not be sexist while practicing my religion, but I don’t do them. And here’s a brief intro to some of the terms and theories involved which is me dodging – dodging the questioner or myself, I do not know.”