Philosophy and Social Criticism 31 (3):343-368 (2005)

In this essay I explore the role of dialectics for how social theory can take account of the problem of structure and agency, or, determination and freedom, in a critical and emancipatory way. I discuss the limits and possibilities of dialectical, and of anti-dialectical, criticisms of Hegelian dialectics. For this purpose, I look at Judith Butler’s discussion of dialectics and the concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in her writings between 1987 ( Subjects of Desire ; republished 1999) and 1990 ( Gender Trouble , republished 2000). Butler’s book Gender Trouble remains a key text of contemporary feminist theory. Butler formulates in this book a critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex based on her claim that Beauvoir makes a distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ that implies the notion of the sexed body as a pre-cultural entity. In her earlier writings, though, her evaluation of de Beauvoir had been much more positive. The change in Butler’s evaluation of de Beauvoir is part of her increasing rejection of dialectics: Butler rejected in Gender Trouble any form of Hegelian dialectics with reference to Luce Irigaray’s (1985) claim that it is ‘phallogocentric’. Although Butler subsequently returned to Hegelian themes, she seems never to have revoked this claim made in her most momentous work. I argue that this change in the theoretical structure of Butler’s argument weakens her critique of identity politics and I suggest reading Butler backwards, from Gender Trouble to the more open discussion of dialectics in her earlier texts. Drawing on Adorno’s Negative Dialectics and other formulations of critical theory, I argue that the valid aspects of the critique of Hegelian dialectics can better be formulated as a dialectical critique of dialectics (Adorno; Butler, 1987a) than as a rejection of dialectics (Derrida; Irigaray; Butler, 1990). Retracing the genealogy of Butler’s argument will be a necessary backdrop, too, for evaluating her more recent comments on the Hegelian and ‘Frankfurt School’ traditions such as her Adorno Lectures given in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in November 2002. Key Words: Theodor W. Adorno • agency • Judith Butler • Simone de Beauvoir • dialectics • emancipation • G. W. F. Hegel • sex/gender distinction • structure • subjectivity.
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DOI 10.1177/0191453705051709
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Speculum of the Other Woman.Luce Irigaray - 1985 - Cornell University Press.

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