Theorizing Butler

I am finally finished making up my incomplete in my Women's Studies class that I had to take because of my former ceiling, ugh. I took my final exam (like a dry-run of a comprehensive exam) the day before yesterday; I decided to choose the question about identity politics. Maybe I'll post that here sometime soon. As you might have noticed, though, I've been posting my short papers that I did in that class, which the professor called "problematics," and I thought, what the heck, for those who want to see my last one. I had a choice of topics, and I took the "Theorizing [Judith] Butler" one. It was the most difficult, but I need to take my medicine, right? Please don't get your expectations up; it's really not much.

Butler's theory is most often sound-bitten as the following sentence: “Gender is a performance.” One of the central terms in Butler's work is performativity, which comes from speech act theory. In language that is performative, the speaker has the authority to bring the utterance he or she makes into actual existence, an existence that is acknowledged by all members of the audience and interpreted as reality. The most common example is a clergy member's saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife.” Butler extends that idea to all reality as we recognize it, including material, bodily reality. For example, a man can have what is interpreted as a feminine attribute: a feminine way of walking. He might even have several more feminine attributes: long eyelashes, delicate skin, and a pouty, cupid's-bow mouth. We still interpret him as a man, though, because when he was born, a doctor announced, “It's a boy,” and when asked, he says he is a man. He circles the “Mr.” as his prefix on forms, and those who know him refer to him as “he.” Butler paraphrases Nietzsche, claiming that “[t]here is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results.” (Gender Trouble 33).

She argues that gender is logically prior to sex; we cannot contemplate or interpret the physical body at all without using language to do so. Butler argues that what we know as matter, the materiality of the body, is an effect of discourse and of heteronormative power (Gender Trouble 2). She calls for “a return to the notion of matter, not as site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Bodies That Matter 9-10). Matter is so interconnected with cultural norms, discourse, and power as to be inextricable from them. However, to claim that we can only know the body through language and that what we interpret as sex is an effect of the discourse surrounding gender is not to claim that language literally makes the body materialize: “it is to claim that there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (Bodies That Matter 10). In other words, there is no “pregendered substance or 'core'” (Gender Trouble 14). Butler is not, it should be noted, a linguistic determinist; she qualifies her claims about materiality by asking, “[t]o what extent does the body come into being in and through the mark(s) of gender? How do we reconceive the body no longer as a passive medium or instrument awaiting the enlivening capacity of a distinctly immaterial will?”(Gender Trouble 13, emphasis in original). Language does not determine the material body, and the material body does not determine language; I would argue that Butler's point is that they are too intricately entwined to be theorized separately.

Western notions of ontology and being are at stake in Butler's theory, and she brings them into question by citing Beauvoir and Irigaray, who declare the vast importance of the “signifying economy.” Language is productive of notions of ontology; Butler aligns herself with Beauvoir's claim that “one 'becomes' a woman, but always under a cultural compulsion to become one. And clearly, the compulsion does not come from 'sex'” (Gender Trouble 12). Beauvoir and Irigaray, who are influenced by poststructuralism, problematize ontology and argue for the body as producing and produced by linguistic signs in a way that creates a space for Butler's thought. Beauvoir argues that “the body is a situation” and that “there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facticity” (Gender Trouble 12). Butler does not necessarily agree with all of French poststructuralist feminist thought, but those ideas make possible Butler's extension of their analyses because, unlike North American second wave feminists such as Dworkin and MacKinnon, Beauvoir and Irigaray problematize and engage issues of ontology and language rather than the more immediate problems of rape and pornography. I would argue that Butler aligns herself with Beauvoir, Wittig, and Irigaray because they are both subverting epistemological binaries: masculine and feminine, subject and object, mind and body, self and other. Where she might part company with them, however, is in their conceptualization of a totalized, “phallogocentric signifying economy,” a “closed [masculine] circle of signifier and signified” that does not allow for agency in the realm of language (Gender Trouble 14-15). Such invocations of the masculine/feminine binary reify it.

In my own work, I plan to present Butler's theory as material rhetoric, particularly with regard to its implications for the notions of sex and gender, to expose problematics in the notion of women-born-women only space. The material world and discourse are inextricably linked, and discursive acts are material acts with material consequences. That is to say, proponents of the women-born-women only policy do not want bodies with penises and scrota to attend the MWMF because such bodies are violent and make the space unsafe; however, this is a discursive association. Interpreting a body with a penis and scrotum, or, as is the case with many proponents of the women-born-women-only policy, a body where a penis and scrotum once were, as violent, objectifying, and oppressive is to repeat and reify the gender binary. To make a totalizing claim that all persons born male are excluded is “a reverse-discourse that uncritically mimics the strategy of the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms” (Gender Trouble 19). Butler argues that subverting gender norms—through parody, cultural unintelligibility, and many genders—is a tactic of agency: “The loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: 'man' and 'woman'” (Gender Trouble 187).

Quick note on Butler's writing style--I was asked to think about Butler's style, the way she repeats the same thought over and over in different ways. My professor asked us if we thought her writing is itself performative, if the repetition has a rhetorical purpose. I thought about it and read through the assignments again, and I was struck by this passage:

That the power regimes of heterosexism and phallogocentrism seek
to augment themselves through a constant repetition of their
logic, their metaphysic, and their naturalized ontologies does
not imply that repetition itself ought to be stopped—as if it
could be. If repetition is bound to persist as the mechanism of
the cultural reproduction of identities, then the crucial
question emerges: What kind of subversive repetition might call
into question the regulatory practice of identity itself?

(Gender Trouble 42, emphasis in original)

In my first pass of Gender Trouble, I interpreted this last question as a challenge to the reader to pay attention to the subversive repetitions of gender normativity, especially the parodies and culturally unintelligible repetitions—gender play, also called “gender fucking”—that are all around us. Now I see that this excerpt is also self-referential. Butler often repeats the same thought many times in many different ways. She poses the thought as a rhetorical question, an if-then statement, and a response to another theorist or cultural artifact (such as Paris Is Burning). I used to think that she did this because it seems to be a fairly common way for philosophers to write, but now I see that Butler has a definite rhetorical purpose in her repetition. She is using the same rhetorical strategy as heterosexists and phallogocentrists to make her points. Her writing is indeed performative; she is trying to unmake gender norms the way they have been made. I am left to wonder if that is a viable strategy, though; is it a “master's tool”?


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subversive repetition/performative prose

You say: "Her writing is indeed performative; she is trying to unmake gender norms the way they have been made." You're asking if this is a viable strategy, which I think gets into questions of audience. I mean, you've mentioned that rhetoric of science critiques can be futile because "scientists are never going to listen," which to some extent I agree with. Similarly, I think that Butler's rhetorical strategy can be viewed as problematic on a couple of levels. First, it's so damn implicit that you've had to do all of this digging to really engage with it. Next, like the rhetoric of science issue, is the heterosexist, phallogocentric audience who she critiques, parodies, or performs going to listen to or notice this strategy, or with it, is she just preaching to a choir who themselves must be extra attentive to her subversive tactic?

Master's tools

Yeah, I'm definitely dealing with two very different paradigms, invoking Lorde's "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" and Butler's subversive repetition in the same paragraph, huh? I guess I'm conflicted.

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