[Note: a slightly expanded version of this post is up at Souciant, titled “Looking for Judith Butler.” I’m keeping the post as-is for posterity’s sake.]

I really enjoyed Molly Fischer’s piece about Judith Butler for New York, but I think it misses something significant about Butler’s ongoing relevance. The piece ends with the suggestion that discourse about gender has moved beyond the performative theories Butler expounded in Gender Trouble. Paragraphs like this one convey the idea that Butler has triumphed, but also that she has been surpassed:

Isaac belongs to a generation for whom Butler is part of the canon. Today, it is possible to go online and read Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity as explained with cats. There are Facebook pages like “Judith Butler Is My Homegirl.” Quotes from Gender Trouble are reliably reblogged on Tumblr. And yet, Maria Trumpler, director of Yale’s Office of LGBTQ Resources and a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, says that for the kids she sees at Yale today, 40 years after Butler was an undergraduate there, Gender Trouble is “really old-fashioned.” The last four years in particular have seen an enormous growth of student interest in identities “beyond the binary,” Trumpler says, like agender, bigender, genderqueer.

Fair enough. But Butler still remains wildly relevant on college campuses, particularly for undergraduates. Nathan Heller’s recent piece for the New Yorker and reports about campus protests makes it clear that it’s Butler work on speech (in Excitable Speech) and assembly (in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly) that have the most relevance to campus life right now. In fact I would say that, from the perspective of the present, Butler’s work as a theorist of gender looks like a special case of her broader work as a theorist of speech. It is difficult for me to read accounts of students calling the speech they hear on campus “violence” without thinking of Butler’s work after Gender Trouble.

Here, for example, is a passage from the introduction to Excitable Speech:

Understanding performativity as a renewable action without clear origin or end suggests that speech is finally constrained neither by its specific speaker not its originating context. Not only defined by social context, such speech is also marked by its capacity to break with context. Thus, performativity has its own social temporality in which it remains enabled precisely by the contexts from which it breaks. This ambivalent structure at the heart of performativity implies that, within political discourse, the very terms of resistance and insurgency are spawned in part by the powers they oppose (which is not to say that the latter are reducible to the former or always already coopted by them in advance).

In other words, Butler is saying that when you “resist” dominant social forces by construing their hate speech (like racial slurs) as violence, you are actually participating in validating a model of language that can work against you as well. Butler uses the example of arguments about pornography, but we could just as easily look at arguments against gay marriage. We may scoff at a straight, married couple who says their religious rights are being infringed upon when two people of the same gender get married. But what they’re saying is that the political act that legitimizes gay marriages changes the terms of the institution of marriage without their consent, and so does injury to them in the same way that a slur or hate speech does injury.

Performativity, though it is often thought of as a tool of insurgent political analysis, has no political allegiances. I think this is the push-pull we see on campuses now, with some campus activists calling for protections from what they see as hate speech and others saying that such protections constitute a restriction on free speech, and thus a form of injury. Butler has spent a long time describing and theorizing this sort of structure, where, as she puts it, “language constitutes the subject in part through foreclosure, a kind of unofficial censorship or primary restriction in speech that constitutes the possibility of agency in speech.” In other words, what we think of as a freedom of speech, with all of the privileges of expression that implies, is only enabled by a tacit agreement not to speak about certain things or in certain ways.

Right now the nature of those certain things and certain ways is becoming more and more uncertain. The limits of speech are being tested on both the left and right. They are tested on the left by campus activism that demands institutional protection from forms of speech they consider to be violence. They seek the power to punish people for certain kinds of hurtful language. Though Butler’s writings do not endorse those sorts of punitive measures (at least that I can see, I’m not a Butler expert), it seems clear to me that the dissemination of her ideas has influenced these activists. From the right, those same forms of hurtful speech are becoming part of the political lingua franca. Utterances that would otherwise be called hate speech are drawn into a zone of acceptance that protects them from any plausible claim that they constitute a form of violence. Butler’s ideas, far from approaching comfortable retirement, need to be engaged now more than ever.