Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity:What Next?

Cover of Gender Trouble

Title: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

Author: Judith Butler

Publication Year: 1990

Library of Congress Call Number: HQ1154 .B88

As promised, I have finished reading Gender Trouble, and am writing what I hope is a more substantive post.  I mentioned in my last post that it seemed to get easier as I went along, and that continued to be true; however, I’m  still trying to work through the implications and I can’t say I’m sure what Butler’s analysis means for feminism or for my thought processes.

I was on the right track when I said that one of Butler’s aims was to create confusion in order to further complicate the nature of gender as a construct which we take for granted.  Her constant insistence on the impossibility of speaking from outside of this construct is perhaps her most important tool in this regard; she demolishes every theory of gender, whether it appears to rely on essentialism, psychology or discursive construction, by showing that finally, they all rely on some concept of a position outside discourse. That is, to borrow her vocabulary a little less, they all end up treating gender as something that really exists, even if they don’t intend to.

There are several consequences to this move of Butler’s. For one thing, it becomes clear that thinking of the subject (that is, the being who thinks and perceives) as created by language and culture rather than being influenced by it is really difficult to sustain.  We all believe we really exist, and even if we’ve been immersed enough in the world of high theory to understand the idea that there is no I separate from the culture in which I exist, we still continue to believe it. (As a professor of mine once put it:  Consciousness is an illusion, but a very persistent one.) As a reader, it also tempts me to find a place where Butler’s rigor fails and she unconsciously posits a subject prior to discourse.  I’m not good enough to pull that one off, though.  And of course, she picks up several useful ideas on the way, while examining and discarding several that initially appear promising.

The most important things to keep in mind in order to make sense of Butler’s argument are these:

1)      There is nothing outside of discourse. In particular, there is no subject (no identity, no consciousness and definitely no gender) outside of discourse. When Butler refers to discourse, she has in mind a culturally determined system of understanding   the world, one is understood as hierarchical and thus oppressive.

2)      Positions that appear to be excluded by a particular discourse are in fact created by it and are necessary in order to define it.  So, for instance, if you consider the system of compulsory heterosexuality (the term is Adrienne Rich’s—and perhaps we should throw her into the mix for next year as well??), it’s not exactly the case that those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual or otherwise noncompliant fall outside the system; rather, the system of compulsory heterosexuality defines them as such.  Without the system, these subject positions wouldn’t exist.  So the very existence of, say, a category of people somehow (by whatever means) designated as “women” is actually just a part of this discourse and agreeing that it exists precludes resistance of the system of gender.

3)      Any attempt to talk about what things were like before these systems were instituted, or what things would be like after they are dismantled, is doomed, at least from a liberatory perspective, because we are speaking from inside of hegemonic discourse and whatever we say will only strengthen this system by helping to obscure the constructed nature of all these categories.

So, okay, if we agree to accept all this, then we are starting from a rather discouraging place, one where we have to ask whether feminism can actually do anything. Kristeva brings up the potentially disruptive possibilities of another kind of discourse, but Butler dismisses her argument as once again too essentialist. It is not until after Butler has ruled everything out that she brings up her idea of performativity, which she does believe has subversive potential. If gender is constantly inscribed and reinscribed through our actions and our self-identifications, then, Butler argues, there is the possibility for resistance in everyday actions that blur the preset categories. Everything remains within discourse, but the meanings of these signs becomes less stable, and in this way we are less likely to believe that gender is a real thing that really constrains us.

This leaves me with a lot of questions.  If discourse already defines some actions and some individuals as outlaws and uses them to draw the circle in which defines the legitimate, what does it do with this blurring of categories? And what sorts of actions constitute this blurring for Butler?  It seems that the most likely result would be that discourse would simply push all those who do gender in a way that doesn’t fit what is allowable in the standard model  into the category of “outlaws” and continue, perhaps, unchanged.  Butler’s idea is that these moments cause people to rethink their assumptions that gender is a real thing; I don’t know. Maybe it does work that way and this can at least bring in brief moments of awareness that eventually add up to people being more skeptical about gendered assumptions, but I’ve noticed that at such moments, it sometimes works the opposite way, and the temporary violation of these norms causes privileged observers to retreat back to their assumptions.

I also found myself wondering if there is ever any possibility of establishing a less hierarchal, oppressive means of doing discourse. It is pretty clear that we need to establish categories of one sort or another in order to be able to think at all, but can we do this without the good/bad, greater/less than binaries that seem to dominate discourse as it exists? Is oppression an essential characteristic of discourse? This question is not answered anywhere, although I doubt that Butler is optimistic, because of her pessimism throughout the book. Her aim seems to be primarily to establish a means of constantly reminding participants that gender is something we’ve agreed to participate in and not a characteristic of ourselves (that is, it is social rather than psychological). I also wonder whether discourse, as it’s described, a feature of Western culture, or does it also apply to others? (Butler criticizes the assumption that we can universalize gender—is discourse a universal thing?)

The most practical takeaway from this book, for me, is that if we’re invested in feminism, it shouldn’t be as a way of protecting the interests of people who have, for whatever reason, been designated as women, because that necessitates participating in drawing those boundaries and to do so is to cooperate with them.  It’s probably more useful to look, in particular cases, at how the way that gender is understood for any particular individual limits how that person can be understood and what that person is allowed to do. Although it’s a little mind-bending, it’s often useful to refocus on systems rather than individuals, on many many levels. Maybe this is one of them.



Filed under Literary thoughts

9 responses to “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity:What Next?

  1. My mind is even further blown. This book sounds absolutely fantastic. While I think I’ll miss a lot without that theoretical background you reference in your first review, I definitely want to read this and think that your reviews will help me come at it from a place of better understanding. Really looking forward to it and kind of bummed I’m behind in reading it!

  2. I found it a lot of fun. Butler does do a good job of noting what all her influences are and giving some explanation of them, but I was glad that I’d encountered this stuff before. I’m looking forward to reading your post!

  3. Again well done. I think you have understood Butler, but where does all this go in actually making lives better for any women? And you are right to note the rational Western bias of her discreption of discourse. What about Eastern cultures which have traditionally not divided mind and body as sharply as our culture does.
    There is much more to discuss here, and I’d love to be in touch.

  4. mdbrady–Thanks for your comments! Sorry about my tardiness in responding (and I will get to your other comments soon, though it looks like perhaps not tonight).

    The impracticality of Butler… well, I don’t think this is *completely* useless (there’s an endorsement, right?) But you’re right that it’s definitely not something that left me feeling like that it had solved actual problems in the world, especially since the number of people who will ever read a text like this is, obviously, very limited.

    But I suspect, given its status as a classic (and I can’t say I’ve done the research to back this up) that this book had quite a bit of influence on academic feminists who had a lot of power within the feminist movement, and who, prior to this, were defining womanhood in a restrictive and essentialist way. If reading Butler shook up their ideas about who feminism is for and countered some of their transphobia, then this book certainly had a positive effect. It’s certainly less immediate and practical than some of the other books that were part of this challenge, though.

    As for what Butler looks like from the viewpoint of nonwestern cultures–I would LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE to see someone write about that! It won’t be me, though, because I don’t know enough. Hmmm.

    • I’d say Butler is less an important influence on others and more a representative of a bunch of post-modern feminists in various disciplines.

      I see some real value in what they are doing, but only up to a point. Understanding gender and other categories as constructed means we can change how we view them. Honesty about what has influenced us helps remove some of the tendency to assume that what we know is univerisally true. And yes, it is great fun to see how the pieces fit.

      I disagree with Bulter’s claim that gender, and other social categories, are not real. How we, as a society, define gender and the other creates the concrete realities that shape lives. In her new book, Melissa Harris Perry does a wonderful job of discribing how stereotypes of black women are used to control their behavior and how stereotypes shape the public policies that affects their lives. I’ve been reading Bell Hooks for the 2012 Feminist Classics and I think part of her point is that the experience of race and class are real, more obviously for those who are hurt by them than by those of us whom they priviledge.

      Your point about can we live without hierarchy is a good one. I don’t know. I do know that we could profit by a lot less of it. Some feminist fantasy tries to imagine what that would be like. I lke how blogging seems unhierarchical.

      And I know no one interested in non-European world views who has addressed what Butler and the postmodernists are saying. I do not know enough to address the issue myself, which is part of why I am reading so globally at this point. So far I could ‘apply’ Butler and deconstruct what I am reading about gender, but I can’t imagine the arthors doing anything but ignoring Butler. Even the postmodernist novels don’t seem relevant to Butler although for me they have some of the same appeal.

  5. I didn’t read Butler as denying that people have these experiences and are shaped by them. On the contrary, in her analysis, we’re so shaped by our understandings of race, gender, etc, that it’s a huge challenge to think beyond them at all, and nearly impossible to discuss them explicitly without somehow buying into them. Actually, to me, this is the biggest problem–if she is correct, and we can’t talk about gender without reinforcing it, how is it possible to resist oppression based on gender? That’s where I get frustrated and want to go read hooks instead 😉

    Blogging, of course, isn’t really free of hierarchies. I’ve read some essays from the beginning of the internet, when people believed that communicating online would level all hierarchies because people would never be primarily seen as their gender, their race, their disabilities, and so on. Now we know that isn’t true. But I do believe that blogging represents a -less- hierarchical space, and one in which there are more opportunities for voices to be recognized. Then again, I’ve mostly been an observer rather than a participant, so what do I know?

    • Right. Sorry, if I exaggerated. But I do care about the concrete results more than she does. For me that is what Hooks’ point about the needs all the oppressed means.
      Her point about never escaping our social constructions is one on which I do agree with her. To me that means putting down our hopes and dreams of absolute knowledge, absolute truth–which I see as always dangerous. Hard to do, of course.
      I don’t think we can or must give up social catagories. We must reconstruct them in more humane and flexible ways and not always from the top down. I just finished Nicola Griffin’s Ammonite, a fantasy/scifi that comes as close as I have seen to creating a world without gender, race, class, etc. I found it fun and you might enjoy it.
      Of course, blogging has hierarchy, but enough less than academia had to be a relief.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts–I agree with you about the desire for absolute reality being dangerous, and that we need to be careful about how we construct the world around us. My very favorite thing on the subject is an essay by Stuart Hall which I read republished in an anthology; I suppose I ought to look up the whole thing, but it’s called “The Rediscovery of Ideology.” (from Culture, Society and the Media) He discusses the relationship between politics and identities and social narratives at some length and with great insight, and I think he goes a long way toward bringing some of these very theoretical ideas into a practical context.
    Thanks, also, for recommending Griffin–I’ll take a look at that when I get a chance.

  7. Thanks. I will look up the article you suggest.
    I just posted my review of Griffith.

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