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.