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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”?

Paper Proposal for Great Plains Computers and Writing Conference

The weekend of April 23-25, there's going to be a joint conference of the Red River Conference on World Literature and the Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing. For the latter, I've decided to submit the paper I wrote for my genre theory class last semester. Here's the proposal I sent:

Making the Adjunct Visible: Normativity in Academia and Subversive Heteroglossia in the Invisible Adjunct Weblog Community

In recent years, weblogs have evolved from a form used mostly by web designers and computer programmers to a cultural phenomenon used and analyzed by journalists, popular culture scholars, and rhetoricians. In this paper, I use a Foucaultian and Bakhtinian framework to examine one academic weblog, Invisible Adjunct, which takes as its primary topic adjuncts and academic labor, vis-à-vis the discourse about adjuncts and academic labor in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The tone in the Chronicle essays tends to range from resigned to the current state of academic labor, to libertarian individualism (i.e., “you made this choice; you knew what you were getting into when you got a Ph.D.; this is what you get”), to “I'm an adjunct by choice, and I am fulfilled by it.” This discourse in the Chronicle is a genre that upholds the institutional status quo, with its emphasis on bootstrap rhetoric, adjunct “success” stories in the academy (e.g. adjunct as entrepreneur), and a lack of institutional critique or serious calls or plans for institutional reform. As a result, adjuncts are made to feel disenfranchised, personally responsible for why they occupy their rank in the hierarchy. To an extent, they start to identify with the discursive category “adjunct,” which suggests Foucault's normalization at work (Sawicki, 1991, p. 85). Invisible Adjunct shows what happens when the other talks back to the institution.

Judith Butler and Identity Politics

In my (fantastic) Women's Studies class this semester, we read quite a few pieces on identity politics: basing one's politics on categories that one claims as one's identity, including woman, working-class, lesbian, and so on. Some theorists, most notably Butler and Wendy Brown, critiqued identity politics, in part for their normalizing tendencies. That is to say, some members in the group might not agree with the hegemonic group viewpoint/party line, so they must either keep quiet or leave the group. In a recent essay responding to comments by Harvard University president Lawrence Summers criticizing what he perceives as "anti-Israel" (and, Butler claims, by implication also anti-Semitic) views, Butler describes this kind of normativity at work:

One Down, Two to Go

Even though I am sick, I have just completed one of my seminar papers. Now I have one more, and a final exam, then I am dooooooooooonnnnnnnneeee. Gah. It's not as if I'll have that much less work to do once the semester ends or anything; I have a book review to write and a syllabus to design over the break. But, when I can take a breather, I can get more involved in the blogosphere again--the sector of it that I follow, anyway. I'm feeling pretty disconnected right now, but that's the way it has to be right now.

Diagramming a Sentence

Yesterday, for kicks, I diagrammed the following award-winning sentence on the chalkboard in my office:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

What follows is my attempt. Yeah, I know all the diagramming isn't right; I forgot some little things like how to diagram infinitives. I might try again later, but I consider this more of an artistic installation, a little roadside attraction in the rhetoric department:

Thomas R. Watson Conference

Submissions are due 15 February 2004 for the Thomas R. Watson Conference. More info:

The University of Louisville announces the fifth biennial Thomas R. Watson Conference in Rhetoric and Composition. “Writing at the Center” will be held October 7-9, 2004, at the University of Louisville. Under this theme, we encourage composition scholars to address the administration and institutionalization of programs designed to foster, support, and enhance students’ abilities to write. The conference seeks to examine writing program administration, with a particular interest in writing centers, and requests proposals in the following areas:

Promoting student agency

Cooperative relationships among Writing Program Administrators

The relation of writing programs to academic departments

Perceptions of upper administrators, accrediting agencies, and funding sources toward the work of composition professionals

Writing program research, history, and theory (One facet of the conference will highlight the Writing Centers Research Project archives at the University of Louisville.)

Efforts to change public attitudes and politics surrounding the teaching of writing

I hope people will consider going to a small southern conference! :-) I've heard from plenty of people that the Watson conference is worth the trip.

Feminist or postmodern critiques of Kenneth Burke?

One of Becky's recent posts inspired me to ask the question: Why aren't there more feminist or postmodern critiques of Burke? Celeste Michelle Condit's essay "Post-Burke: Transcending the Sub-Stance of Dramatism" is the only one I can think of (it's in Landmark Essays on Kenneth Burke. Years ago, I took a seminar on Burke and wrote a paper attempting a genealogy of his theory of form (form is the creation and fulfillment of desire in the audience, and I wanted to problematize Burke's use of "desire." Where does desire come from?) . Regrettably, I tried to use it as a chapter in my master's thesis, which was primarily about Donna Haraway and how composition theorists have used cyborg theory. To this day I call the chapter on Burke the cuckoo in the nest that is my thesis. Anyway, back to the lack of feminist critique of Burke. I will admit, I have no desire to engage Burke, not when Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Joan Wallach Scott, Michel Foucault, and so many others are out there. Perhaps I just don't get it...but after a whole semester of reading and discussing Burke's corpus of work, I still don't really see much value in it, and I don't think that's just because I'm an angry feminist. Okay, there is one little section of A Rhetoric of Motives on "Marx and Mystification" that, in my opinion, makes a real contribution to theory, but I can't think of anything else.

Can narrative do the work of theory? A look at Toni Morrison's Beloved

Here's a response paper I wrote for my Women's Studies class. We read Beloved by Toni Morrison and "The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition" by Satya Mohanty. We were asked to read Beloved as theory and also to connect Morrison's and Mohanty's work to the other material we read on experience in feminist theory. Mohanty, rejecting both the "ahistorical essentialism" of an uncritical acceptance of experience as a foundation for theory and the skeptical postmodern turn toward "experience" as completely discursive and the product of an individual interpretive framework, argues for a "realist" approach to cultural and political identity, in which you take as given that experience is mediated by discourse and by theory, but that you see experience as both cognitive and affective. Mohanty insists that experience can yield knowledge. That being said, when I finished Beloved and the Mohanty article, my head was swimming. I had read Beloved several times before, and I appreciate it more each time. I think I use this word pretty sparingly to describe things, but Beloved warrants it: it is monumental. There's just so much there. I read it once when I was writing a paper about folklore and alternative knowledge systems, and there's so much of that (for example, Amy uses the folk remedy of putting spiderwebs on wounds to stop the bleeding on Sethe's back, where she has been whipped). Anyway, here is the response I wrote, which I think I'll rewrite later, because I'm not satisfied with it right now.

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