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Undoing Gender is a collection of recent essays from the feminist thinker Judith Butler. There are 12 articles in the book , including the introduction, ranging from the brief 'Quandaries of the Incest Taboo' (9 pages) to the more weighty 'The End of Sexual Difference? (30 pages). There is no obvious guiding principle at work in the organization of the articles which have a far reaching thematic range extending from transgender and intersex issues through psychoanalysis and arguments for recognition to the foolishly, according to Butler, isolationist stance of academic philosophy as a discipline in contemporary (American )universities.
Butler's writing is, as ever, extremely dense theoretically and it would be an impossible task to summarize all of the ideas explored in these articles within the confines of a short book review. However, Butler's position remains firmly rooted in postmodern / poststructuralist thought while also drawing on feminist and queer theory to explore the governing norms of gender and sexuality. Such an approach is not universally welcomed within the feminist community and Butler has, in the past, been the recipient of some fairly vitriolic criticisms. Such criticism has accused her work, as much for her writing style as for its content, for being obscure and poorly written. While I would agree that the ideas expressed and considered in this collection are highly complex and difficult I did not find Butler's style of argumentation so demanding as to be incomprehensible. Indeed she addresses her critics head on in the final, and very clearly argued, article of the collection, 'Can the Other of Philosophy Speak?'
Bearing my last remark in mind it is clear that this book is not intended for lay readers and I would argue, in fact, that a reasonably specialized and technical background knowledge and understanding of postmodernism, poststructuralist, feminism and queer theory would be required to fully engage with the ideas under consideration in these articles. Furthermore, I would also suggest that a working understanding of Butler's earlier works, in particular Gender Trouble, and her ideas concerning gender performance and iterability are needed to really understand her arguments in some of the articles contained in this collection. This book then is not the ideal starting point to somebody new to Butler's work. Finally, whether you agree with Butler or not it is impossible to engage with contemporary feminist theorizing without considering her arguments and so, then, this collection of essays is a valuable addition to that branch of inquiry.
© 2008 Kathy Butterworth
Kathy Butterworth is a PhD research student at the University of Kent (UK). Her research interestis primarily feminist philosophy with particular emphasis on accounts of autonomy, agency and the self.
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