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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.




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Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity: In the Middle of Trouble

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

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.

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