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A Buddhist Critique of Judith Butlers Gender Performativity:

Between Emptiness and Identity

Brandon Harrington

RTS-384-01: Engaging the Buddhist Experience


Dr. Jordan Miller
April 14, 2015

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Introduction
Judith Butlers radical solution to the problematics of essentialist feminism is nuanced
with an equally radical understanding of personhood. In Butlers earliest work, she overturns the
notions of genders naturalness and stability. Instead, she rethinks gender as performed and
ritually perpetuated according to historical-cultural constructs. It is this performative and
particularly theatrical fabricating of gender that respondents have connected with Buddhist
thought, especially through the concept of anatta non-self. One such comparative study has
proposed a practice of gender indifference that recognizes the value of detachment to the
fruition of Butlers project.1 In this paper, however, it is my intention to introduce Mahayana
teachings on emptiness to critique the foundations of Butlers vision for a new, performative
gender politics.
I will attempt to problematize the prescriptive intentions of Butlers redescripted
gender reality by explicating the tension between the emptiness, non-essentialism, of self and the
very intentionality that underpins the process of redescription. Accomplishing this goal will
require a threefold clarification. First, I will show that Butlers premises necessitate a refutation
of any ontological, essential self that underlies convention. Second, I will demonstrate how this
situation of non-self allows for the pure potentiality of unclassification that is crucial to the most
thorough liberation from the heteronormative binary. Last, I will demonstrate the
incompatibility of ultimate non-self with Butlers movement towards processes of conventional
1 See: Paddy McQueen, Butler and Buddhism: Identity, Performativity and Anatta, Studies in
Social and Political Thought 17 (2010): 137-151. My critique has implications for McQueens
utilization of Buddhism to assist Butler, but the confines of this paper require that I address those
points elsewhere. In summary, McQueens proposal for gender indifference relies too heavily
on the reality of causal relation, but this argument demands greater explanation.

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self-identification. Prescriptive self-identification undermines its own basis for the emergence of
multifarious gender identities. With conventional performativity, the empty self that ultimately
escapes classification undergoes conventional distinction, and thus restriction. Butlers
understanding of personhood in light of gender performance is therefore self-refuting when
envisioned as a revolutionary gender politics: her goal of redescribing gender reality through
performativity results in an attachment to conventional classification that terminates the pure
potentiality of the nonessential self.

The Conventional Performance and Non-Self


Butlers early work intervenes theatricality with identity to propose a theory of performativity
that argues against any notion of stable gender identity. Gender is constituted through acts it is
a doing rather than a being. To premise this conclusion, Butler has to undo the concept of the
stable doer; i.e. one capable of maintaining an essential or static gender identity. In terms of
theatricality, the actor can only be identified as such in so far as the actor is acting. With the
termination of acting, the actor is no more the constitutive acts that make the actor
identifiable objectify actor. In Butlers words: Though phenomenology sometimes appears to
assume the existence of a choosing and constituting agent prior to languagethere is also a more
radical use of the doctrine of constitution that takes the social agent as an object rather than the
subject of constitutive acts.2 As we see in Buddhist teachings on emptiness and impermanence,
the linguistic shift from noun to event is important as a signifier of a deeper, even more
radical ontological shift. Let us begin with the linguistic aspect at play, using Buddhist doctrine
2 Judith Butler, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and
Feminist Theory, Theater Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519-531,
http://www.jstor.org/stable/3207893.

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to develop Butlers explanation of the process through which gender is rendered seemingly
essential.
Alan Watts, British philosopher and interpreter of Eastern thought, has a particularly illustrative
explanation of the way language misconstrues event as stasis. He entreats us to look at life as if it
were water. In a flowing river, we have a proclivity to identify ripples and whirlpools as nouns
rather than as activities. However, this is an illusion because the water that a whirlpool consists
of is constantly changing.3 Watts points out a further problem of our habitual linguistic practices:
because we have divided events from one another in this arbitrary way, we do that and then
we sort of forget we did itand then we have a puzzle. How do events lead to each other?
Because, you see, in reality there are no separate events.4 In other words, by designating events
in thought as separate, we create the necessity for explanations of cause and effect. The duration
of an event can only be arbitrarily measured because it is imbued with other factors. Isolating a
limited part of the phenomenon in question fails to recognize the fluidity that it is part of. The
most important result of this habit of thought is our loss of the true activity of all things; we
forget that our distinctions, measurements, etc. are all arbitrarily contrived. So, in thought, we
refer to activities as separated and static as nouns instead of verbs.
Butlers theory of performativity raises the same problem regarding gender. For Butler, the
dramatic element to identity should not be understated: one does ones body.5 However, we
habitually think that gender is a state of being because the processes of cultural signification

3 Hans Aranzalez, Alan Watts Time & the More it Changes (Sausalito, California 1972),
Youtube video, 08:13-08:54, December 18, 2012, https://youtu.be/fCTI_iLavgM.
4 Hans Aranzalez, 07:51-08:14.
5 Butler, 521.

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obscure themselves under stable cultural signs; i.e. woman, man, etc.6 Both historical convention
and the individual acts performed accordingly concretize gender identity. The body bears
meaning in this way. This meaning is constantly legislated by the cultural normalization that
constructs individuals acts and, thus, finds the ideas perpetuation and stabilization through
those acts.7 In a very similar manner to the way we forget that a whirlpool is whirlpooling,
Butler argues that this historical-cultural process of signification conceals its genesis because
individuals acting gender perpetuate its specified ideas. The fiction of stability lies with a selfaffirming cycle of historical-cultural regulation of individuals acts that conform to and
materialize abstracted convention.8 For Butlers project, it is crucial to reveal the illusion of
stable gender identity. In doing so, she can establish a new understanding of personhood that
destabilizes this illusion and upholds the performative as the true source of gendering.
Taken seriously, Butlers understanding of self, in light of gendered activity, must refute an
ontological, substantial self underlying the conventional because all classification occurs through
the conventional. It is on this portion of Butlers work that we will draw heavily on the concept
of non-self, anatta. As Butler explains the implications of performativity, she clearly attends to
the problem we have discussed above: It isclearly unfortunate grammar to claim that there is
a we or an I that does its body, as if a disembodied agency preceded and directed an embodied
exterior.9 To inquire about this self is to grasp what is not there. Only the normative cultural
signs that conventionally stabilize gender can grasp a concept of self, but we have already shown
the fallacy in this practice.
6 Butler, 522.
7 Butler, 521.
8 Butler, 521.
9 Ibid.

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We might borrow from Theravada tradition on Kamma to illuminate the extent to which Butlers
performativity excludes a notion of essential identity or ego. In cosmological terms, the Buddhist
system of Kamma describes not simply good and bad human actions, but the multiplicity of all
action and motion in the universe. Kamma is like a spiders web of cause and effect that is so
complex and intricate that the beginning cannot be found.10 Similarly, the codetermination of
exterior forces and interior forces are elusive in Butlers understanding of the reproduction of
gender identity. In actuality, Butler claims, interiority is not actually interior, but is rather
constituted by social discourse.11 Even though gender performance reproduces that which
constructs it, it is not applicable to consider the performance a true interiority of a self, a stable
identity. Thus, for Butler, self is no more than a regulatory fiction.12 Like Kamma, what we
designate as an individual, an essential self, is more a vehicle for the actions of cultural
signification than a disembodied entity of its own. There is never a point when the interior
surfaces as a thing of its own, beyond exterior forces and unconstituted by them. So, the self
never truly exists.
But this is not as strong an explanation as we desire for our purposes. Let us delve further into
the illusion of ego via Butlers discussion of the body as a historical situation. She specifically
posits her theory antithetically to substance metaphysics and proposes an ontology of present
particles.13 While the word ontology may suggest being that exists beyond the process of
cultural signification, I argue that this ontology is truly empty because cultural signification is
10 Ayya Khema, Being Nobody Going Nowhere: Meditations on the Buddhist Path (Boston:
Wisdom Publications, 1987), 90.
11 Butler, 528.
12 Ibid.
13 Butler, 521.

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constant in Butlers view. We must understand the historical situation of the body as convention
itself. Watts explains: the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from
memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.14 So, the ritual of
constant gender performance not only builds a regulatory fiction, but it does so according to the
memory of past habituation; the memory that does not exist necessarily for the present. Looking
to the present, where could we find self?
Nowhere! Because embodiment occurs on a completely conventional level, it is necessary to
consider the self ultimately empty for this to be the case. The greatest evidence for this
conclusion is Butlers argument that not only gender but sex itself is artificial and only
conventionally substantive. Butler argues that gender is typically understood to be the expressive
element of sex; the outward materialization of what inward and inherent sexuality develops.15
Already we can see the incoherence of this explanation if gender is reconsidered as performance.
Yet, Butler elaborates on the distinction between expression and performance, and we will take
the same pains to relate this for the sake of clarifying and supporting our argument. In fact, the
distinction between expression and performance is important primarily because it uproots the
most deceiving concept of self, sex identity. Butler finally explains: If gender attributesare
not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are
said to express or revealthere is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be
measured.16 The ultimate reality of performative gender as empty necessitates that essential sex
must also be empty.

14 Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 47.
15 Butler, 528.
16 Ibid.

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The Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, provides one of the most in-depth explanations of
the emptiness of all phenomena. His work draws similar conclusions to Butler. For the sake of
this study, we can rely on Jay L. Garfields commentary on Nagarjunas dense verses to establish
this connection. Garfield explains, To assert the emptiness of causation is to accept the utility of
our causal discourse and explanatory practice, but to resist the temptation to see these as
grounded in reference to causal powers or as demanding such grounding.17 Similar to Butler,
Nagarjuna recognizes the emptiness of all phenomena and the complete conventionality
ultimate emptiness of the relations between them.18 Nagarjunas philosophy finds a middle
way between the philosophical conclusion that causation inherently exists and the view that there
is no rhyme or reason to arising phenomena at all nihilism. He demonstrates that all ontological
foundations themselves are conventional, for all other views of causation and ontology become
incoherent when considered as ultimate realities.19 With this in mind, we can realize the
totalizing emptiness of self in Butlers work. She summarizes: we need to think a world in

17 The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjunas Mulamadhyamakakarika, trans.


Jay L. Garfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 122.
18 Note that the connection to Butler is only partial. Introducing Nagarjuna is useful here to
penetrate the extent to which self is empty in Butlers work. On the other hand, Nagarjunas
emptiness goes further to stress the emptiness of causality as well. There is a cautionary piece,
warning not to become attached to the conventionally useful understanding of causality even if
the emptiness or non-expressiveness of identity is held. Keep this quote in mind, as we will
revisit it to form our criticism of Butler later.
19 Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, 122.

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which acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually
associated with gender, express nothing.20
Butler too takes a middle path by refuting an essential self, even an essential materiality,
and recognizing the process of signification as merely conventional. The expression of nothing
can and must be understood in its fullest sense; in the sense that beyond the conventional is
simply emptiness. Performativity reveals the self to be ultimately devoid of any stable and
essential identity. Though Butler approaches this non-essentialism through her reinterpretation of
gender, the ontological implications of her premises necessitate that every aspect of identity is
constructed. From our discussion above, it should be sufficiently apparent that if performativity
underlies the illusion of a stable idea, then all ideas of self are easily revealed as activity
activity that is only constitutive when subordinated to a conventionally secure sign. In the next
section, let us look at the benefit to Butlers project for thoroughly emptying the self of ultimate
or essential identity.

Emptiness, Formless Potentiality, and Possibilities for Gender


The Mahayana Buddhist tradition considers the realization of everythings emptiness as a
liberating process. In the Threefold Lotus Sutra, a foundational piece of Mahayana scripture, the
doctrine of Innumerable Meanings which concludes that the liberating mechanism can take
innumerable forms depends on one law, nonform. Nonform is the real aspect of things;
nonform is formless, and not form.21 It exceeds all definition and distinction and, thus, contains
all potentiality. Watts articulates this in simpler fashion through his explanation of store20 Butler, 530.
21 The Threefold Lotus Sutra, trans. Bunno Kato, http://www.rkworld.org/publications/lotussutra_toc.html, 8.

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consciousness. Store-consciousness is citta, the Mahayana term for mind that is nonlogical
and purposefully meaningless.22 However, it must be thought of as the supra-individual mind
which contains the seeds of all possible forms.23 This possibility-without-form extends beyond
what is logically understandable and linguistically communicable. As we have already touched
on, any act of distinction is a specification. Specification forms boundaries because, by
definition, it isolates what is specified. Mahayana Buddhism points to a consideration of the
empty beyond that is entirely free of those boundaries.
The Mahayana understanding of emptiness, thus, aligns with Butlers formulation of the nonessential self considerably. Butler aims to deconstruct the limitations of a heterosexual binary.
Her arguments for non-essentialism are, therefore, crucial to diversifying our considerations of
possible gender identities. She recognizes that the conventional process of self-identifying
gender through performative acts is, in a sense, liberated when we realize its ultimate reality of
non-self. The performance can become subversive to destabilize the perpetuation of historicalcultural signs.24 This is truly where theater takes on full relevance to Butlers project. Theatrical
conventions make acts imaginative, acceptable because of their recognized unreality.25 But
even further, the appearance presented in theater penetrates to the core of the real aspect of
things. Butler describes the theatrical act in greater detail:
one can maintain ones sense of reality in the face of this temporary challenge to our existing
ontological assumptions about gender arrangements; the various conventions which announce
that this is only a play allows strict lines to be drawn between the performance and life. On the

22 Watts, 73.
23 Watts, 75.
24 Butler, 520.
25 Butler, 527.

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street or in the bus, the act becomes dangerous, if it does, precisely because there are no theatrical
conventions to delimit the purely imaginary character of the act, indeed on the street or in the bus,
there is no presumption that the act is distinct from a reality; the disquieting effect of the acts is
that there are no conventions that facilitate making this separation. 26

Performativity, for Butler, can become a way to play ones conventional gender identity
beyond regulated and designated cultural signs. This depends, of course, on the notion of empty
self because it is the most thoroughgoing non-essentialism that gives way to the greatest
potentiality for new conventionally-arising gender identities. In this way, Butler empties the form
of heteronormativity, creating empty space for a multitude of gendering activities.

Incompatibilities of Non-Self and Self-Identification


Though we have looked at the connections between Butler and Buddhism, we come now to our
final purpose; to develop a critique of Butler at the point where she most explicitly departs from
Buddhist teachings on self and emptiness. But this is not simply a departure. Mahayana teachings
on emptiness actually reveal an internal contradiction that arises out of Butlers vision for a new
gender politics. Butlers gender performativity requires that the self is ultimately empty, yet she
continues to develop the process of gender identification on a conventional level. As we briefly
noted above, Garfields warning in his commentary on Nagarjuna goes unnoticed in Butlers
work: To assert the emptiness of causation is to accept the utility of our causal discourse and
explanatory practice, but to resist the temptation to see these as grounded in reference to causal
powers or as demanding such grounding.27 This last portion, demanding such grounding, is
the fallacy that Butler commits.
26 Butler, 527.
27 Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, 122.

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The intentionality of Butlers introduction of emptiness to form a conventional gender politics is
self-refuting. As we have discussed above, nonform allows for the purest potentiality and the
complete emptying of designation. We have seen how this emptiness is imbued in Butlers nonessentialism. However, Butler wants to de-realize the act of gender performance in order to
continue performance in a different way: a critical genealogy needs to be supplemented by a
politics of performative gender acts, one which both redescribes existing gender identities and
offers a prescriptive view about the kind of gender reality there ought to be.28 Already, Butler
has shown that gender reality is non-expressive, gender reality is empty. How can she
maintain this view while prescribing what that reality ought to be? Certainly, Butler is speaking
of a prescription within convention, but her entire theory of gender performativity relies on the
ultimate reality that gender expresses nothing essential, only the empty non-self. Intentionality
within convention is thus contrary to the premises that allow her to view convention as
performative in the first place. We have to remember that the activity of the Void is
playfulbecause it is not motivated action.29 But Butler has gone against this notion with her
intention to bring about a dramatic cultural interplay without punitive consequences.30
Again, we must recall Nagarjuna. If performative gender activity suggests and necessitates the
arising of stable gender identities that are actually unstable and ritually perpetuated, then we
must recognize those phenomena and the conventional causal relations that produce them to be
ultimately empty.31 Though there may be benefit to a process of constituting gender that is aware
of its own conventional genealogy, this awareness becomes an attachment in Butlers ideas for
28 Butler, 530.
29 Watts, 75.
30 Butler, 530.
31 Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, 122.

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future gender politics. The analogy of theater turns from pulling aside the curtain of an empty,
conventional facticity to serving as a method for making appearance seem that much more real.
How is Butler avoiding implication according to her own critique of self-concealing gendering
processes, of constitutingidentity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief?32
It should not be assumed that Butlers vision for gender politics merely raises a new illusion. She
must be given credit for rendering the heteronormative binary arbitrary and destabilized through
performativity. Moreover, she broadens the possibilities for gender identity beyond that binary.
This aside, however, her intention to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive
performances of various kinds limits her to the field of convention.33 She posits that it is
necessary for political and social progress to continue and develop the presence of womens and
non-normative-gendered persons experiences, but all the while, she claims that there is
fundamentally no self. Butlers project requires a very Mahayana understanding of emptiness,
but utilizes this understanding to work against its own requirements. The process of signification
is a process of differentiation, a process of reifying unreal identity formation. A significant
contradiction thus arises when Butler denies that either the identity, or the performance, or the
process in totality has any ultimate, substantial existence.

Conclusion
The Mahayana critique of Judith Butler's early theorization of gender performativity
reveals its inherent incompatibilities. There is significant tension between the non-essential,
empty self and a new gender politics that attaches to convention, albeit in a subversive and
liberating manner. Whatever liberating quality Butler's work has, her conception of a gender
32 Butler, 520.
33 Butler, 531.

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reality according to performativity limits itself through conventional processes. Selfidentification through subversive gendering acts approaches too closely to the cultural
normalization that she attempts to deconstruct. The importance Butler places on conventionality
is understandable, considering its centrality to the critique of gender regulation. Still, our
interpretation of Butler's non-essentialism has everything to offer without resorting to a
revolutionized method of constitution.
A future gender politics in which self-identification enjoys the free potentiality of nonself tempts one to dignify the process of constitution. This presents the possibility of losing sight
of the performative and all its implications. Perhaps Butler simply exceeded the dictates of her
premises by delving into the political sphere through the conventional. Nevertheless, her aim to
aid rather than obstruct the progress of women and non-normative gendered persons begs for an
applicable political step. To satisfy these various agendas and consistency, we need to take
Butler's non-essentialism even more seriously than she anticipated in her early work. We need to
overcome the incoherence of finding liberating possibility in acts of designation. Our destination
cannot be a new understanding of how to manipulate and subvert present convention. We must
rather seek a better understanding of what it means for personhood if we exist ultimately as the
emptiness of non-self.

Lingering Concerns, Further Questions, and Reflections


This studys limitations are frankly boundless. To begin, the work that I refer to is among the
earliest of Judith Butlers publications. Her seminal contribution of the theory of gender
performativity developed over the next decade, taking fullest form in her books Gender Trouble
(1990) and Undoing Gender (2004). Further research would provide a more nuanced

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understanding of the implications of performance on personhood and vice versa. Moreover, it is
very possible that Butler accounts for philosophical incongruences, within which my critique
may be satisfied.
On a different score, my critique as it stands may be inconsequential to Butlers purposes
entirely. Butler is forthright about her aim to establish philosophy as a cultural practice.34 One
of Butlers fundamental concerns is to produce theory for use and offer greater livability to
persons existing on the fringes or wholly outside of codified gender binaries. Could Butler affirm
a theory that is internally flawed so long as it produces sufficient representation in application?
Again, this question demands further research. And, in a sense, the possibility that Butler would
write off my critique is not necessarily antithetical to Buddhist teaching. The Buddha repeatedly
refused to attend to metaphysical questions that were irrelevant to the satiation of suffering.
Indeed, even within the Mahayana development of Theravada teaching, there remains the aim to
ultimately liberate, not to philosophize.35 Butler elucidates the fluidity of gender through
performativity and widens the range of gender possibilities well beyond the historically
constructed heterosexual binary. Plus, livability is an important part of Buddhist doctrine,
regardless of how thoroughgoing each schools understandings of emptiness, non-self, etc. may
be. To this point, I consider a study of Butler through the lens of Zen Buddhism to be hugely
important. Zen most explicitly attends to everyday experience, and its theory may lend itself
more congruently to Butlers, explaining away the incompatibilities that I attempt to raise.36
It is also important to note that my aim in this paper critique falls short of my full hopes for
scholarly contribution. It is certainly important for the progress of thought to refine, redirect, and
34 Butler, 530.
35 Watts, 57.
36 Watts, 81.

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sometimes destroy work of the past. That being said, it is far more important to let critiques be
creative through their arguments. It is not my intention to obstruct the great progress left to be
made in gender theory, queer theory, and womens studies (though, to say that I have
successfully obstructed anything would be thoroughly presumptuous). So, this paper is missing
one section and suffers because of it; I have not provided some solution to the problem I
recognize in Butlers work. Once more, this is due in part to the narrowness of my researches and
my background. Yet, in reflection, it is possible to consider any scholarly failure here to be a
personal success in another way. Isolating my current contention with Butlers work has
demanded a closer look at the depth of her theory and, most importantly, has revealed a direction
for my future considerations on the relationship between gender theory and Buddhism.
Finally, I hope that by reading Judith Butlers work Buddhistly, I have answered some
criticisms to her elusive linguistic style. Eastern modes of thinking are often radically foreign to
a Western readership; something as revolutionary as non-essentialist gender performativity
requires a similarly alien approach to reality. Therefore, the importance of intellectual effort
cannot be understated. A rejection of Butlers theory should not be formed through a Westernized
intellectual rigidity, but should rather embrace the novelty of her approach and seek alternative
modes of thought to gain the fullest understanding of her arguments.

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