Title: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
Author: Judith Butler
Publication Year: 1990
Library of Congress Call Number: HQ1154 .B88
I’m about halfway through Gender Trouble; I’ve finished the second chapter, so that means I’m about 70 pages in. The intro post asked me to post on this even if I wasn’t finished, so I will. In any case, with a book like this I wanted to write about the process of reading it as well as the book itself; I’ll write a “real” post when I’m finished.
I’d heard a lot about Gender Trouble, and about the allegedly Olympic-level difficulty of Butler’s prose. I knew it was a significant text, and it was one I’d thought I’d maybe read sometime, although I was intimidated by its reputation (and I’m not easily intimidated by books!). In reality, I’d probably never have gotten around to reading it if it weren’t for the Year of Feminist Classics, so on that level, I’m really happy that it was included. However, as I make my way through it, I’m not at all sure that it was a good pick for a collaborative reading effort like this one. The book is indeed difficult, but it’s not the difficulty, or not only the difficulty, that makes me say this. It’s the lack of context.
Once again I’m thinking back to the theory class that I took and I find it’s coming in useful. You see, Gender Trouble is an advanced text, and it’s an advanced along a line that we have not been following. We’ve read Wollstonecraft and Mill and Woolf and Beauvoir and Wolf and hooks and so on, which is great, but Beauvoir is the only one that offers any assistance in reading Butler. If you really want to understand her, you need to read Sassure and Lacan and Freud and Foucault and Kristeva, but this wasn’t the Year of Theory, so we didn’t. (Would I have participated in the Year of Theory? Ehhh…possibly, but maybe not.) I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to them previously; I can’t say I’m an expert on any of them and certainly couldn’t explain them satisfactorily, but I came into this with some understanding of what Butler has in mind when she refers to discourse and signification, and what she means by social systems being always already constructed and inventing the things they exclude. Without that background, these things are not only not obvious but actually more or less incomprehensible, and I’m having trouble even imagining what it would be like to try to read this book if I hadn’t come across these ideas before.
This is not to say that having a slight prior acquaintance with relevant ideas makes it easy; it’s still a heavy and challenging read, and I’ve definitely found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs and often feeling confused. But there are two different kinds of confusion in play here; one stems from inexperience and lack of context, but I think that the other is intentional on Butler’s part. Someone unacquainted with the necessary background reading, or someone unadvisedly attempting to read quickly, would experience the first kind, which feels like reading a foreign language. It’s not just the unfamiliar vocabulary, although there is plenty of that; she’s coming at this with a set of assumptions that was built up over the course of the twentieth century and is familiar to those who are part of that discourse and essentially impenetrable to those who aren’t.
But, for those readers who have done all the background reading, there is a second, more sophisticated way of being confused that is an essential part of Butler’s aim. In addition to all the other background stuff, one needs to come in with the understanding that gender is constructed, in order to appreciate the way that she plays with this. It’s not enough to say that gender is constructed; Butler wants to ask who constructs it, how, and to what ends. She’s not happy with any of the current theories and she carefully unravels several of them to show that they are nonsensical, self-contradictory, or misguided because they refer implicitly to some state outside the symbolic order (and one of the critical assumptions I mentioned above is that nothing exists outside the symbolic order, because it’s the symbolic order that determines what we are able to think and perceive). So a certain amount of confusion is both intentional and necessary because she in the business of unpacking things with malice—that is, examining them closely until they cease to be comprehensible. Things that appeared clear become muddled and confusing by the time she is done with them. There’s a reason that she writes in the preface about troubling gender.
Will Butler end up making her own argument about gender construction? Where is she going to land with this? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that she will resist saying that, ultimately, gender is something specific that she can point at, define and describe, or even that there is a particular process or particular purpose that she can attach to it. An important part of her point is that to define concepts is to make them appear real and solid, and she wants to show that they are not and that they are only accepted because we have already accepted this larger, and potentially objectionable framework. She doesn’t want to build up another symbolic order; she wants to point out the order that we’ve somehow failed to notice.
This means frustration is inevitable, because it leaves her little room to come to a satisfying conclusion (and in fact, would appear to pit her against satisfying conclusions). But a little frustration is okay sometimes. So I’m working through it, slowly, carefully, and in anticipation of feeling worried as the primary reward, but I am getting there.
And in case this sounds utterly uninviting, I’ll point out one of the things that surprised me: Butler does, in fact, have a sense of humor. She appropriates an idea of Nietzsche’s, qualifying it:
In an application that Nietzsche himself would not have anticipated or condoned… (25)
That’ll show him! Later, she turns Lacan on his head, and gets a little snarky about it:
If Lacan presumes that female homosexuality issues from a disappointed heterosexuality, as observation is said to show, could it not be equally clear to the observer that heterosexuality issues from a disappointed homosexuality? …Lacan is perhaps suggesting that what is clear to observation is the desexualized status of the lesbian, the incorporation of a refusal that appears as the absence of desire. But we can understand this observation to be the necessary result of a heterosexualized and masculine observational point of view that takes lesbian sexuality to be a refusal of sexuality per se only because sexuality is presumed to be heterosexual, and the observer, here constructed as the heterosexual male, is clearly being refused. Indeed, is this account not the consequence of a refusal that disappoints the observer, and whose disappointment, disavowed and projected, is made into the essential character of the women who effectively refuse him? (49)
In other words, dude, Lacan, just because lesbians are not interested in you, that does not mean that they are desexualized!
So there are some aspects of her style that I’m actually enjoying, and I see why this is written the way it is—and why it’s difficult.
A word of encouragement, though, to anyone who is still working through the early parts of this book: I found the second chapter a much easier read than the first. I’m not sure whether that’s because the writing is clearer or because I’m getting used to it.