Judith Butler is a name that crops up a lot in recent writing on performance, so I thought I’d better get myself acquainted with her work. Her first book Gender Trouble was published in 1989, and succeeded in stirring up a storm of controversy, establishing the terms of debate for much of her later writing. In the book, Butler contests the widespread notion that gender is a cultural expression of a pre-existing, biologically-determined sex. Instead, she argues that both gender and sex are produced by a cultural discourse that, in the very act of producing them, sets limits on what the two terms can mean. Butler understands ‘discourse’ as a set of acts that come to establish cultural norms and values through incessant repetition, to the point where they take on the illusion of being ‘natural’ (that is, originating in some biological or psychological essence that precedes culture).
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