Sunday, April 02, 2006

Judith Butler and Gender Theory

"Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism. Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it."

Judith Butler, "Preface," in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).

Attacks on this essay continue on a regular basis. I will review the work periodically to repair any harm done by N.J. hackers. The image accompanying this essay may be blocked at any time.


We begin to think about ultimate philosophical issues from some "place." I do not mean simply that we are embodied creatures living in time, inhabiting a particular social class or economic category, speaking one language rather than another, equipped with masculine or feminine "plumbing" -- unless we opt for surgical alteration, of course -- and either black-, white-, or brown-skinned, and so on. All of that is true, but I wish to make a different point.

At some stage in our lives some of us question intensely things that most people find only slightly curious or odd, or just not very interesting or important at all. It may be useful to wonder why such curiosity is important for some people and not others.

I realize now that the experience of finding myself ripped out of one cultural context and transferred -- somewhat roughly -- to another, of being separated from my one remaining parent, from my home and language in childhood, forced me to contend, much too early, with questions that are usually reserved for later in life:

Where am I? Who am I? What should I be doing? Who is responsible for all of this suffering in my life and in so many other lives? What is life about? Are there transcultural truths and values?

People who ask these kinds of questions more often than others and at a highly sophisticated level, with some awareness of the vast literature of analysis of these issues that has emerged in our civilization over millennia, are called "philosophers."

I am not a professional philosopher and I do not even play one on television, but I do ask these questions, read and think about them every day as a matter of being human.

I cannot live without asking and thinking about such questions. For people with my sort of life-history, maybe this questioning is unavoidable. For millions of people -- including many who have never heard of philosophy -- the horrendous events of the twentieth century have made these questions important, even as professional or academic philosophy has shied away from them. ("Is clarity enough?")

Some persons who do not have the chance to study the "subject" of philosophy at Harvard University, will study ideas and philosophize somehow, somewhere, because we have to.

We will study philosophy and ask annoying questions even if it is illegal to do so, even if we are sent to jail, beaten or tortured for it, or despite being deemed intolerably "weird" in our families and neighborhoods and punished accordingly.

Since you are now reading this essay chances are that you also suffer (and yes, "suffer" is probably the right word!) from this condition.

My answer to the question of identity, as you may begin to surmise, centers on the idea of freedom. I think that persons are essentially a kind of "freedom" -- the freedom of self-discovery and invention, of ethical struggle, of thinking, especially about issues of identity, beauty, love, ethics and politics.

I decided some time ago just to be "human" and to allow others to place whatever labels they wish on me. I stopped worrying about how others react to my seemingly bizarre philosophical interests and opinions or values. Yes, Virginia, there is a human nature: It is called freedom. In his essay on Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Kensington, 1957), at page 46, Jean-Paul Sartre says:

"And in wanting freedom [for ourselves,] we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others depends on ours. Of course, freedom as the definition of man [and woman] does not depend on others, but as soon as there is involvement, I am obliged to want others to have freedom at the same time that I want my own freedom. I can take freedom as my goal only if I take that of others as a goal as well."

We experience ourselves as a "lack," for we are always missing something (or someone) and are incomplete. Hence, we define ourselves as the search for what is missing, or for what is without realization within ourselves. The white in terms of the black, the Christian in terms of the Jew, the masculine in terms of the feminine. Consequently, this search is also always incomplete, never finished, so that each of us may be described as " ... a useless passion." Existentialism and Human Emotions, p. 90.

To borrow my favorite of Lillian Hellman's titles, we are all "unfinished" persons.

The notion of completion or realization becomes meaningless, of course, if we have dispensed with the "Absolute" or fail to appreciate our defining or constitutive entanglements. Simone de Beauvoir says in The Ethics of Ambiguity (New York: Kensington, 1948), at page 13:

"Man [understood to refer to humanity in general] makes himself a lack, but he can deny the lack as lack and affirm himself as positive existence. He then assumes the failure. ... Existence asserts itself as an absolute which must seek its justification within itself and not suppress itself, even though it may be lost by preserving itself. To attain this truth, man must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept the task of realizing it."

The search for the black by the white, for the feminine by the masculine, for Self by Other takes place (most importantly) within the ordinary person, and only afterwards in the world.

We hunger for the realization of those parts of ourselves that remain withered and undeveloped, frustrated and denied. For me, this full realization is only possible with love which opens the door to what is relegated to the dungeon of unawareness and denial in the psyche, or in the subconscious.

I begin by finding what is African-American, feminine, Jewish, and so on, within myself, only then do I establish my connection with these qualities in the art or other expressions and in the humanity of others "out there" in the world.

The idea of freedom and the practice of philosophy are closely connected in my mind.

I have tried to focus on only one way in which this understanding plays out in my writings by examining the work of Paul Ricoeur.

The quest for freedom is also central to my political understanding of racial justice issues (the freedom I seek for myself I must be willing to give to others), and to my defense of the principle of non-discrimination generally, which is fundamental to the American Constitutional system, as I understand it, and to what is sometimes called, "the project of modernity."

Freedom is also at the center of my understanding of the dialectic of love or romantic relations. Love, like successful artistic communication, is only possible for free subjects. (See "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

We must always be free to decide who we are. Otherwise, with the loss of freedom, we lose our humanity. This wondering and deciding on what we are is another way of describing the activity of philosophy.

There are, as I have indicated, constraints on our freedom. I cannot choose to live in the ninth century or to be black-skinned in a literal sense, although my identification with persons of African ancestry is pretty strong. Sexual-orientation may not be much of a choice either, though this is less clear. I am exclusively heterosexual in my sexual interests. Others prefer sex with persons of their own "gender." I am sure that this is a matter that should be left to each individual and that is not the State's business.

Whatever decisions or discoveries one makes with regard to sexual identity will be important to how we understand ourselves and our possibilities, that is, to achieving or realizing freedom.

This raises the question of whether what we understand by "gender," as distinct from "sexual-orientation," is exclusively a matter of biology and fully determined.

I have one of "these" and you have one of "those," therefore, we fall into different categories.

Or is gender (as opposed to sex) something "socially constructed"? Is it something chosen by each of us? or by societies for us? How free are we when it comes to these gender categories?

One American philosopher in the Continental tradition has devoted much of her professional concern and attention to examining these issues. Professor Judith Butler of Berkeley University and the European University has published learned works theorizing about the nature of gender and identity, making creative use of diverse authors, especially Foucault and Lacan.

Professor Butler is also an expert on Hegel and has studied with Hans-Georg Gadamer. These are impressive credentials. I mention them so that we will all take a moment to be suitably awed, before we go on to be critical even as we admire much in what Professor Butler has written.

I think that it was Descartes who suggested that "the greatest compliment one philosopher can give to another is to criticize his [or her] ideas." And anybody who goes to the trouble of reading philosophical prose carefully and with a concern to be clear about the issues is, for the purposes of this Cartesian sentiment, a philosopher.

I wish to examine one essay by Professor Butler entitled "Subjection, Resistance, Resignification," in Walter Brogan & James Risser, eds., American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 336.

My discussion proceeds in the following steps: First, I focus on criticisms of Professor Butler's writings and style by Martha Nussbaum and others together with Professor Butler's defense of her method; Second, I comment on some of the background theory to this specific article in Professor Butler's earlier work; Third, I turn to a critical exposition and analysis of her essay; Finally, I offer my opinions and comments by way of conclusion.

I. Philosophical Style(s) and the Problem of Gender.

A. Style Makes the Person.

Professor Butler is the darling of a large segment of the Left intelligentsia, even inspiring a "fan-zine," Judy!, but she also has her critics.

Camille Paglia was less than overwhelmed by Butler's early work, finding "Butler's academic writings on sex unpersuasive and jargon-ridden." Vamps and Tramps (New York: Vintage, 1994), p. 475.

The formidable Martha Nussbaum has taken Butler to task in a celebrated article which appeared in The New Republic, February, 1999. That essay was posted in November, 2000 at

Two distinct criticisms were raised against Butler's work: "First, ... that Judith Butler utilizes professional jargon to make her work appear novel, despite the similar work that came before it. Second, ... that Butler's work reveals a disengagement from the non-academic world." See the summary and analysis at

I am not in a position to judge whether Professor Butler is unoriginal. I think that what she is saying, as I shall argue later, is highly controversial and that it takes some courage to say these things even today. I respect Butler's learning and individuality. Yet the stylistic criticisms are more troublesome because there is also a political component to those criticisms.

Intellectuals in a free society, especially one like the United States in which post-secondary education at elite universities is increasingly reserved for the children of the affluent, who are mostly white and products of middle class "niceness" -- with a tiny token minority representation -- have a responsibility to bring their ideas and debates to the public square. This will require something that was taken for granted a generation ago: the ability to write the English language with clarity in order to allow the intelligent reader to grasp the content of one's thought.

Does Butler write jargon-filled "clubhouse" prose?

Well, Nussbaum seems to think so.

Butler responds that she is required to write in this dense style in order to escape the danger of banalization and trivialization that is always threatening to make subversive writing "un-dangerous" and safe for the power-structure.

Professor Butler does not wish to find one of her sentences or her picture on a t-shirt or bumper sticker, for that matter, because such a fate amounts to being turned into a joke. This would mean that her work had been rendered harmless by a system that is highly adept at deflating criticism.

These are legitimate concerns that I respect.

My guess is that the media-marketing system is going to select people for academic stardom anyway. Writers selected for such treatment -- which probably already includes Butler -- will not be able to avoid it. The best example of this is Foucault, whose death did not slow down the "star treatment."

I tend to agree with George Orwell's views in "Politics and the English Language." The most subversive writing is accessible writing. To write dense and jargon-filled prose is to guarantee one's own irrelevance, especially to the people who are most in need of understanding what Professor Butler has to say. Professor Nussbaum comments:

"The great tragedy in the new feminist theory in America is the loss of public commitment ... Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it."

Clarity and comprehensibility become moral and political obligations for philosophers -- granted the technicality and abstraction inherent in the subject matter -- when so much human suffering can be avoided if people will simply "get" the message in Butler's work, and in the writings of so many others concerned to liberate humanity from outdated thinking.

One answer to Nussbaum may be that what women and gays are likely to "discover" in Butler's writings is a better understanding and acceptance of themselves. Nevertheless, George Orwell reminds us that:

"[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."

A Collection of Essays by George Orwell (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946), page 157.

Having read some of Professor Butler's work, I do not find it much more difficult, stylistically, than many other writings within the Continental philosophical tradition. Perhaps Butler's prose is more accessible than many other philosophers' writings. But then, anyone who has had the unenviable experience of reading legal prose -- especially the tax code -- will find other writings to be a sheer delight by comparison.

Professor Butler's writing is not visibly "bad" or unnecessarily convoluted, though she draws on sources in the German tradition that are difficult, notably Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer along with some other idealists and phenomenologists. An occasional perusal of one's Dictionary of Philosophy may be necessary, otherwise there should be no problem about understanding her work.

With regard to the writings of such a challenging philosopher, a student -- such as myself -- can render a valuable service to others by engaging with the texts and raising issues on behalf of ordinary readers who may be led to those works themselves. Readers may also be prompted to share their own struggles with the texts, without embarrassment. If I can lead others to Professor Butler's work then I will be very happy with my efforts in this essay, since her suggestions and insights -- whether original or not in terms of the existing scholarship -- can be liberating.

It may be that minority men, especially Latinos, will learn a great deal from Professor Butler, so as to re-think some of our own inherited attitudes to gender-roles, women's equality, and justice for gays and lesbians.

By the same token, it may help people from different backgrounds, such as most students and colleagues that Professor Butler is likely to know (with a few exceptions granted), who will be products of the middle and upper-middle class, to understand the humanity of those Latino and minority young men -- young men who are often coping with severe social deprivations themselves, together with many frustrations and anger, and who are "long-lived" if they make it to thirty in some of the worst urban areas of the United States.

Demonizing fathers, husbands, sons is an excellent way to hurt women -- often severely and permanently.

B. Butler's Early Writings on Gender Theory.

Now for the background theory.

Butler has published quite a few books and articles, but I will refer to a summary of the argument in only one of them for the purpose of providing some theoretical foundation for her discussion in the essay under examination. My comments are derived from the summary by David Gauntlett, at and refer to: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routlege, 1990).

I add The Psychic Life of Power: Theories of Subjection and Resistance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) to the reading list of the true student of Butler's views on these issues. However, I am not in a position to discuss that work. I should acknowledge that I have only read reviews of these works, only three of her later books, along with essays by Butler and other feminist philosophers contributing to gender theory. I will read Gender Trouble and will report on it eventually. According to Mr. Gauntlett:

"In her most influential book Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argued that feminism had made a mistake by trying to assert that 'women' were a group with common characteristics and interests. That approach, Butler said, performed 'an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations' -- [thereby] reinforcing a binary view of gender relations in which human beings are divided into two clear-cut groups, women and men. Rather, [feminism should be] opening up possibilities for a person to form and choose [emphasis added] their [his or her] own individual identity, therefore, feminism had closed the options down."

Developing a "field theory" of gender-identity(ies) and -roles, Professor Butler writes:

"There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; ... identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions' that are said to be its results." Gender Trouble, p. 25. ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

Butler claims that gender is less about "what you are" than the role you "perform" at any given time.

Obvious sources for this view are the phenomenologists, including Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the great theorists of alterity (notice that these "roles" are performed "socially") from Hegel to Levinas, also psychologists like Lacan. I would add Laing to her reading list, and Foucault on the ways that power distorts and alters people's choices and persons themselves in this sensitive area often causing great personal suffering in the process of making individuals into "subjects." ("A Doll's Aria.")

Picture a man and woman sitting in a garden. The man wears a top hat and the woman wears a cloth cap. They wear no other clothes. They face each other and, periodically, they exchange hats. The hats are masculininity (top hat) and femininity (cloth cap). Nothing has altered in their physical make ups. Genitals have not changed. They have only exchanged "hats." Furthermore, Butler points out. The association between top hat (masculinity) or cloth cap (femininity) is totally arbitrary. Hence, the couple might alter that association -- or the meaning of the hats as signs -- without exchanging or touching either of these hats. ("What you will ..." and "The Taming of Somebody I Don't Know Who.")

It is important to be clear on a few problem areas: First, this is not to suggest that "everybody is gay." Sexual preference is irrelevant to the point Butler makes about gender-roles or "performances," which are independent of who it is that one likes to sleep with.

Masculinity and/or femininity are options for each of us, for men and women, ways of being human, regardless of our relationships and are not determined, according to Butler, by biological equipment (that is, by genitals); nor by socially-mandated or -expected patterns of behavior; nor by the kinds of bodies that we lust after or even build for ourselves.

Compare Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 256-301 with Marjorie Garber, Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 423-525. ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

Femininity and masculinity are aspects or ways of being fully human, both of which exist as options and to various degrees in everyone. Furthermore, what these terms mean may be (and usually is) coded differently in different societies and times because acceptable meanings of key terms like "masculine" and "feminine" -- not to mention "normal" and/or "abnormal" -- are never unrelated to the prevailing power-structure in a society.

Butler makes it plain that biology is not destiny. Biology is never the dispositive consideration on these gender-choice issues. Those who are "into" scientism or who relish scientific explanations for social developments, should note that, as novelist and physician Michael Blumlein comments:

"The genes that determine sex lie on the twenty-third pair of chromosomes. They are composed of a finite and relatively short sequence of nucleic acids on the X chromosome and one on the Y. For the most part these sequences have been mapped. Comparisons have been made between species. The sex-determining gene is remarkably similar in animals as diverse as the wasp, the turtle and the cow. Recently it has been found that the male banded kait, a poisonous snake of India separated evolutionarily from man by many millions of years, has a genetic sequence nearly identical to that of the human male."

The Brains of Rats (New York: Dell, 1997), page 4 (emphasis added).

New York women have been saying this for years. But there is a more interesting point made by geneticists:

"Sexual differentiation in humans occurs at about the fifth week of gestation. Prior to this time the fetus is sexless, or more precisely, it has the equal potential to become either (or both) [male or female]. Around the fifth week a single gene turns on, initiating a cascade of events that ultimately gives rise to testicle or ovary. In the male this gene is associated with the Y chromosome; in the female with the X. An XY pair normally gives rise to the male; an XX pair, to the female."

The Brains of Rats, pages 6-7 (emphasis added).

Francine du Plessix Gray, "Dispatches From the Other: A New Translation of 'The Second Sex,'" in The New York Times, Book Review, Sunday, May 30, 2010, at pp. 6-7. This is a review-essay of a new translation of a feminist classic which does not sound like much of an improvement over the original. If you are a young woman interested in de Beauvoir's philosophy (I hope you are), then try approaching her ideas through a novelization of the French intellectual scene in the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins. See if you can identify the original of each of the characters in the novel. Hint, everyone is there -- from Sartre to Camus, Malraux to Merleau-Ponty, even (I suspect) Paul Ricoeur and Simone Weil. Fascinatingly, "Castor" could be a bitch. Elizabeth Wurtzel, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), pp. 383-414. ("Did I shave my legs for this?")

Those who want to pursue the "scientific" discussion ("hey, you mean this is not just some weird philosopher saying this?"), should consult: Stephen Wachtel, H-Y Antigen and the Biology of Sex Determination (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1983), p. 170; and I.E. Rudolph, et al., Whither the Male?: Studies in Functionally Split Identities (Philadelphia: Ova Press, 1982).

More recent scholarship in this area is pretty conclusive on the issue. Biology geeks will be happy to fill us in on this material.

Butler's work amounts, first, to an invitation to recognize our freedom with regard to these issues of gender-identity, to acknowledge and celebrate our powers of self-invention with regard to gender. Second, it is a call to recognize the ways in which political power shapes the gender options that we normally recognize, that is, the ways in which we think that we "must" behave or the "performances" that we allow ourselves to give in this sensitive area in order to be deemed "normal."

Some gender patterns are more convenient than others for the powers that be, as I have suggested, so that we can expect that these "safe" patterns of gender identity and behavior will be instilled in us early on, as somehow dictated by nature or God, or otherwise made mandatory, that is, if we are to be regarded as "docile subjects" (Foucault) and rewarded accordingly. ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review.")

My exchanges with New Jersey persons troubled by these ideas is good for a laugh on a rainy afternoon. I have yet to figure out why my interest in Judith Butler's philosophical writings makes me a "Communist!" ("'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review.")

Gore Vidal says that the United States is "a very well-managed zoo in which the best cuts of meat are flung to those who least question the zoo's management."

Viewers of the FOX News Network may agree with Gore's observation. I regard Gore Vidal's point to be the deeper one that every human society is organized in such a way as to strengthen its patterns of privilege, that is to say, to ensure the preservation of the existing power hierarchy by rewarding some "ways of being" and discouraging others.

If a man has to worry about keeping his job by kissing all the right asses at the office and a woman puts up with an abusive husband who beats her -- because she does not have skills to survive in the work place -- then both are more easily controlled.

Power is wielded through control of what you do, but also (much more) of how you think and what you assume to the only options in your life.

The process of harassment and error-insertion, the censorship that you witness in these blogs, is an attempt to control someone's expressions and mind. The offensiveness inherent in this illegitimate attempt to enslave an intellect is independent of the degree to which the effort succeeds or fails.

The very invasion and denial of autonomy involved in hundreds of alterations of these texts, obstructions, frustrations, and much worse is alone sufficient to qualify as evil.

What is on display at these blogs is the well-organized, subtle, surreptitious effort by mechanisms of the state to invade and coopt subjectivity. This should frighten you whatever you may think of me or my opinions.

I agree that what we regard as "masculine" as opposed to "feminine" behavior is arbitrarily designated as such and seems like a suspiciously convenient way of controlling people, which certainly keeps the therapists busy.

Why should a heterosexual male not be fond of the ballet, or knitting, or interior decoration and cooking, even if he also happens to be a professional prizefighter who is resolutely and enthusiastically heterosexual? No reason.

Also, if a woman cannot cook, but displays a knack for brain surgery and is handy with a chain saw, but also enjoys the occasional roll in the hay with a person of the male persuasion, or even with a "guy" -- when she has finished weightlifting for the day, of course -- then this too should be hunky-dory.

In New York, in fact, such affairs among "multi-gendered others" are distressingly ordinary, but we are often shocked to discover a "normal" family right living next door.

As Truman Capote once said to the opponents of the sexual revolution: "Come on out of the trenches, the war is over and your side lost." With a smile in the direction of a celebrated Christian fundamentalist, Mr. Capote added: "Now we can have some fun." ("Is there a gay marriage right?")

I now turn to the specific essay by Professor Butler in this excellent collection of articles by American contributors to the Continental philosophical tradition.

II. Subjection, Resistance, Resignification.

"The answer seems to be to accept, in the first place, that the business of finding out what men and women are really like, and what kinds of social arrangement would make both happiest, is a slow and unending process."

Janet Radcliffe, The Skeptical Feminist (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), page 153.

"The process is [slow and] unending because there is nothing that women and men are 'really like' independent of the social arrangements and determinations through such arrangements that we take ourselves to be."

Stephen David Ross, "The Limits of Sexuality," in Alan Soble, ed., The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2nd Ed., 1991), p. 174.

A. Subjection.

Butler begins by reminding us of Foucault's haunting account of the gruesome torture of Damiens that opens his book, Discipline and Punish. She goes on to argue that it is through "being written on the body" that power "inscribes itself" upon the person. The ways in which we come to acquire a particular physical appearance (as men and women) has to do with the acceptable forms of masculinity and femininity in a society. Hence, the pressure to be "thin" -- which becomes literally life-threatening -- in young women, or weight-lifting and other displays of brawn celebrated in young men, are ways in which both men and women are made into subjects or controlled. Butler writes:

"Foucault suggests that the prisoner is not regulated by an exterior relation of power, whereby an institution takes a pregiven individual as the target of its subordinating aims. On the contrary, the individual is formed or, rather, formulated through his or her discursively constituted 'identity' as prisoner. Subjection is, literally, the making of a subject, the principle of regulation according to which a subject is regulated or produced. Such subjection is a kind of power that not only unilaterally acts on a given individual as a form of domination but also activates or forms the subject." (page 336.)

Elsewhere Butler notes: "Hegel claims that 'self-consciousness in general is desire,' by which he means that desire signifies the reflexivity of consciousness, the necessity that it becomes other to itself in order to know itself. As desire, consciousness is outside itself, consciousness is self-consciousness."

Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth Century France (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1987), p. 7. ("Ex Machina: A Movie Review.")

By the time that you are an adolescent and have emulated this year's beautiful x-ray thin celebrity, if you are a young female, or the latest muscle-bound sports figure or screen "Gladiator", if you are a male, the power-system has already inscribed itself "on your body," like a hideous tattoo. This is to make prisoners of all of us. Compare Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body (New York: Vintage, 1992) ("Let me penetrate you.") with A.S. Byatt, Angels & Insects (New York: Vintage, 1992). ("Morpho Eugenia")

"What Foucault describes as the full siege and invasion of that body by the signifying practices of the prison [or society] -- namely inspection, confession, the regularization and normalization of bodily movement and gesture, the disciplinary regimes of the body -- have led feminists to consult Foucault in order to elaborate the disciplinary production of gender. The prison thus acts on the prisoner's body, but it does so by forcing the prisoner to approximate an ideal, a norm of behavior, a model of obedience. This is how the prisoner's individuality is rendered coherent, totalized, made into the discursive and conceptual possession of the prison; it is, as Foucault insists, the way in which he becomes 'the principle of his own subjection.' This normative ideal inculcated, as it were, into the prisoner is a kind of psychic identity, or what Foucault will call a 'soul.' " (page 337.)

For Foucault, the prison serves as the model of society, just as it is this "soul" of the individual which is the "prison of the body."

You have already absorbed the coded instructions governing the range of acceptable options for your "natural gender" by the time you get to middle school. You have already been programmed, for instance, by the time a young female discovers herself "being" a girl, purchasing frilly skirts and "edible" make up, planning her "moves" on the "boy" of her choice; or by the time a boy finds himself lifting weights and popping steroids like M&M's, and spitting on the sidewalk with the "guys" so as to be noticed.

As the father of a young daughter I am mystified by the sudden transformation (for a brief time) of a sports-loving and not-very weight- or looks-conscious child, in early adolescence, into an embryonic version of Brittany Spears.

Despite my struggles against social pressures for my child to be utterly "normal," I find my daughter's interest in sports is waning and a sudden bizarre fascination with America's next "supermodel" and with the right outfit developing quickly, not to mention a new concern to be "pretty" and a strange curiosity about the wonders of show business that she seems to share with American adolescents of all ages. Luckily, these are interests that afflict most American young women -- hopefully, very briefly -- during adolescence.

Is this still my daughter? Or has she has been replaced by a kind of "pod" Spice Girl? Time will tell. ("Not One More Victim.")

My struggles against all of this lapsing into a "safe" gender role runs against the tidal wave of an overwhelming media and cultural system that intends to program girls into a set of behaviors -- behaviors that I do not find particularly desirable or moral, but that are intended to render them "safe," or make them "nice." ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review.")

Luckily, my child retains some interests in athletics and politics, reads a great deal, and she can count on her parents' provision of self-esteem and encouragement no matter what happens in her life. She will have our support for independence and increased awareness of feminist literature -- even of writers with whom I disagree -- as an invitation to make her own choices.

The content of my child's choices is less important (to me) than the autonomy of those choices.

Not all young women are equally fortunate, some are far less so.

Young men face equally daunting challenges to self-realization or even to the development of civilized emotions and taste. No such pressure to conform can ever lead to full satisfaction or happiness, for anyone, but a total rejection of normality may lead to ostracism and hostility from peers, so that young people (both male and female) are placed in an untenable double-bind situation by gender-programing that can only produce schizoid reactions or, in most cases, abject surrender.

Girls become "feminine" in the safe meaning of the word; boys become "masculine."

This safe gender identity has nothing to do with sexual-orientation necessarily, but with the ways in which young persons permit themselves to "feel" or experience life -- or one another -- or allow themselves to be human.

There are always plenty of people trying to make you "adjust" to an absurd notion of normality. Ignore them.

This is to determine socially those aspects of persons' talents and intellects that are cultivated as opposed to those which are ignored, sometimes with tragic deprivations resulting not only to the individual but to society.

Rates of suicide among young people are frightening, especially among gay and minority children and young adults. This sort of suffering from bad ideas and an absence of philosophical awareness can be remedied.

I am informed that "Latinos are not smart enough to be philosophers." I am tortured and censored by persons who make it clear that I am "unethical." The goal of such evil is to force an acceptance of this nonsense on the victim. Much the same is true when it comes to sexism or racism. By being different (horrors!) you can force the so-called "definers of normality" to take a "good look" at themselves. That "good look" is what really scares the hell out of them. ("What a man's gotta do.")

Perhaps this is something for presidents (or ex-presidents) of universities to ponder when asking why women are not good mathematicians.

My daughter's scores in high school literature have far surpassed her math scores, something that was not true in the lower grades, when she was happily indifferent to nail polish and earrings. I cannot avoid the conclusion that there is a connection between the emergence of these phenomena.

I do what I can to reinforce her self-esteem and to instill non-materialistic and non-sexist values, yet there are limits to the influence that I can have on her now.

So many young people -- especially young males -- are without a father-figure in their early lives, with far from encouraging consequences for their future development. Something for young men to ponder is the great responsibility that comes -- or should come -- with fatherhood. Professor Butler notes:

"This viable and intelligible being, this subject is always produced at a cost, and whatever resists the normative demand by which subjects are instituted remains unconscious, is very different from the subject: the psyche is precisely what resists the imprisoning effects of the discursive demand to inhabit a coherent identity, to become a coherent subject." (page 338.)

With gender-conditioning comes the human impulse to rebel and the yearning for freedom from roles that are always experienced -- even if only subconsciously -- as inadequate or insufficient.

All of this leads to the continuing effort to achieve freedom, a value which is problematic for both Foucault and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and which Professor Butler does not fully explore in this essay. Butler raises two questions concerning this resistance:

"In what follows I will ask two different kinds of question, one of Foucault, and another of psychoanalysis (applying this term variously to Freud and to Lacan). First, if Foucault understands the psyche to be an imprisoning effect in the service of normalization, then how might he account for psychic resistance to normalization? Second, when some proponents of pychoanalysis insist that resistance to normalization is a function of the unconscious, is this guarantee of psychic resistance merely sleight of hand?" (pages 338-339.)

B. Resistance.

Butler reads Foucault as accounting for psychic resistance to normalization in terms of the constant struggle between power and freedom.

Power cannot avoid producing its own resistance. Accordingly, the body becomes "contested territory," the "site" of struggle; and psychoanalytically -- by way of Freud and Lacan -- the unconscious becomes the repository of what is excluded through the normalizing process by which power turns persons into subjects.

What is excluded will always find a way of resurfacing into consciousness (and action) through an agent (or mechanism) of liberation. Furthermore, the excluded and acceptable aspects of the self are always "in relation," dialectically, each dependent upon the other. These themes are found in world mythology long before Professor Butler's books appeared. (See "'Diamonds Are Forever': A Movie Review" and the Cuban film "Cecilia.")

Freedom emerges from "it," from the subconscious, as the experience of a lack, of precisely what has been cast out from consciousness in the effort to be "normal," or to "fit in," and in relation to that normality. Normal becomes meaningful in relation to what is abnormal; homosexual is a meaningful term, for example, only in relation to heterosexual; subjection is meaningful only in relation to resistance.

In a society that does not demonize homosexuality the practice of same-sex love ceases to differ from heterosexual relationships becoming a matter of choice for persons.

Incidentally, some great warrior societies have been remarkably homosexual -- Sparta, for example. Spartan warriors were pretty tough cookies and also as gay as they come. They were fearsome fighters because of all they were fighting for in the form of fellow soldiers who were often lovers. Professor Butler says:

"Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish that the soul becomes a normative and normalizing ideal according to which the body is trained, shaped, cultivated, and invested; it is a historically specific imaginary ideal ... under which the body is materialized." (page 340.)

Butler emphasizes:

"But more often than not, in Foucault the possibility of subversion or resistance appears (a) in the course of a subjectivation that exceeds the normalizing aims by which it is mobilized, for example, in 'reverse-discourse,' or (b) through convergence with other discursive regimes, whereby inadvertently produced discursive complexity undermines the teleological aims of normalization. Thus, resistance appears as the effect of power, its self-subversion." (pages 341-342) (emphasis added).

Relating this to the psychoanalytic perspective, Butler comments:

"The Foucauldian subject is never fully constituted in subjection, then; it is repeatedly constituted in subjection, [the process is never-ending] and it is in the possibility of a repetition that repeats against its origin that subjection might be understood to draw its inadvertently enabling power. From a psychoanalytic perspective, however, we might ask whether this possibility of resistance to a constituting or subjectivating power can be derived from what is 'in' or 'of' discourse. What can we make of the way in which discourses not only constitute the domains of the speakable but are themselves bounded through the production of a constitutive outside; the unspeakable, the unsignifiable?" (page 342.) (emphasis added.)

Professor Butler's Hegelian sources are visible in passages such as these in which normalization is seen in terms of a struggle against the deformations of power, a Master/Slave "dialectic" of sorts, while the subject is understood as moving towards that which it is at the same time seeking to exclude -- or being made to exclude -- through subjectivation. Differance?

James Bradley states in his essay on F.H. Bradley's "Metaphysics of Feeling," in The Philosophy of F.H. Bradley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), page 232: "The red object is thus essentially not-blue; its contradictory is its contrary and all its relations are internal or essential to it. In short, its identity is an identity-in-difference." ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

Normality is "identity-in-difference" or in-relation-to-abnormality. Yet this process of rendering persons into "docile subjects" is never finished and persons are, accordingly, always "unfinished" because no set of power-relations and no political or social structure is ever fully satisfactory nor complete in light of the freedom that we are.

Philosophers of religion and mythologists have commented on similar lines of thought in the religions of Asia, in their critiques of Western binary oppositions:

"But what our social institutions repress is not just sexual love, the mutuality, of man and woman, [or any two persons,] but also the still deeper love of organism and environment, of Yes and No, and of all those so-called opposites represented in the Taoist symbol of the yang-ying the black and white fishes in eternal intercourse. It is hardly stretching a metaphor to use the word 'love' for intimate relationships beyond those between human organisms."

Alan Watts, Psychotherapy: East and West (new York: Random House, 1961), page 42 and compare: Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1962), pages 51-60. (This is a very Christian view of human love -- that is also defended in secular terms -- as well as found in some form in all of the world's religions.)

Tantric sex is worship of the feminine procreative power expressed in mutual self-giving through eros: Agehananda Bharati, The Tantric Tradition (New York: Anchor, 1965), pp. 185-199 ("On Initiation") and Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 137-227. (Forget Mitchell's chapters on Freud and Laing, concentrate on the discussion of Wilhelm Reich and the search for what Norman Mailer called: "the perfect orgasm.")

The subject is always seeking his or her freedom from the straightjacket of confining power relations that would limit the human's protean nature, including freedom from mandated gender identities and roles. Spirit wishes to overcome alienation so as to know itself as Spirit. To be human is to be engaged in the Promethean effort at escape from this "soul that is a prison of the body." (Foucault)

We often fail to realize that the escape is through the body.

By celebrating our animal natures, we also transcend bodily limitations. Love-making between any two adults is one example. Hence, one detects in Butler (as indeed in Foucault) some vestiges of Romanticism -- though both would deny this, perhaps. This is certainly a discovery that I am surprised and pleased to make.

Butler is a bit of a Romantic poet hankering for a perhaps impossible freedom and "oneness," integration, by choosing to own those aspects of herself that power seeks to deny to her.

Echoes of Butler's graduate study of the German Romantics in literature and philosophy are always a part of the experience of reading her books. One seems to detect the voice of Isolde and symphonies of Beethoven as one ponders her arguments. A book on Nietzsche should be coming up soon.

Obvious analogies to the Jungian literature on "individuation" are available at this point, so are references to the literature of self-realization from Aristotle to the existentialists.

Are there forms of appropriation by which we can take what is foisted upon us and turn it into mechanisms of liberation?

C. Resignification.

In Puccini's Opera Turandot the Princess and title character -- who might be thought of as an Operatic or mythical version of Professor Butler, except that Turandot is much less intimidating than the good professor -- is given the challenge of discovering the "name" of the suitor who has managed to answer all three of her riddles, entitling him (or her) to the Princess's hand in marriage.

This discovery of a name by dawn will result in his/her willing death if Turandot chooses to end this suitor's life, rather than in the nuptials to which he/she is entitled by having satisfied the princesses's challenge.

Turandot (as love-object) is "mediated" by Calaf who, in turn, is loved by Liu. The two soprano parts are one image of woman's dual-aspects as sexual identity. ("Duality in Christian Feminine Identity.")

Marriage does not interest Calaf if it is forced upon Turandot. Her freedom in deciding whether to accept him means everything to him, even more than his life.

Although the Princess does obtain his name, she chooses instead a new name for him, so that as the sun rises (a symbol of hope), she sings: "Your name is love." (Again: "Is there a gay marriage right?")

This request for a name is a way of asking to be seen. It is a seeking of recognition from the other. The labels imposed upon us, the "names" that we are given, are often ways in which we are not seen. They are ways of falsifying the full and complex reality of another person by denying that person's freedom through a cruel reduction of persons to the categories by which power is imposed upon us.

Sometimes "naming" is an attempt to destroy a person. A label is attached to us, as with a commercial product, and we become only that label as opposed to being accepted in our full humanity, which always transcends all categories and names.

Naming is a way of placing us all into a box from which some of us will not emerge. A prescribed gender-identity is one such box. But there are many others in our society which is addicted to categorizing and classifying persons by race, sexual-orientation, religious affiliation(s), and other such fictions or abstractions.

When asked to fill-in a choice on a form concerning such categories, I always write: "All of the above."

This process of confinement within a name that becomes a category is all the more effective, as Professor Butler suggests, when it can be internalized by the subject, when he or she chooses to wear this straitjacket that has been fitted for him or her by the power-structure. In rejecting this garment there will be a price to pay, but it is the only way to remain free and human.

Sartre speaks of the waiter who becomes only a waiter. The cruelest forms of human spiritual deformation may seen in the person who becomes (or who disappears into) his or her "normality," or "label," for this is also a kind of death. I always wonder about those who bitterly oppose homosexual love. What are they so frightened of in themselves? ("'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review" then "Romance and Cigarettes.")

There is something at the center of one's being that insists that we will not be reduced to a stereotype or platitude, whether of the Left or Right, nor to an ideological, political, or social category. Yet there are persons who are so impoverished by subjectivation (or professional deformation) that as part of that very process (think of most lawyers or "therapists"), they can only think and "be" in terms of jargon; worse, they have become jargon terms themselves in a horrifying sacrifice of authenticity. (See the fifties sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

"Consider the force of this dynamic of interpellation and misrecognition when the name is not a proper name but a social category," Professor Butler writes, "and hence a signifier capable of being interpreted in a number of divergent and conflictual ways. To be hailed as a 'woman' or 'Jew' or 'queer' or 'Black' or 'Chicana' may be heard or interpreted as an affirmation or an insult, depending on the context in which the hailing occurs (where context is the effective historicity and spaciality of the sign). If that name is called, then there is more often than not some hesitation about whether or how to respond; for what is at stake is whether the temporary totalization performed by the name is politically enabling or paralyzing, whether the foreclosure, indeed the violence of the totalizing reduction of identity performed by that particular hailing is politically strategic or regressive or, if paralyzing and regressive, also enabling in some way." (pages 343-344.)

And yet there is something in the human spirit that resists this all-encompassing subjectivation through categorizing, by way of "resignification." To borrow James Baldwin's memorable title: "Nobody Knows My Name." There is always a feeling that we escape the names by which others seek to confine us -- by redefining them for ourselves -- or by giving others a taste of the experience of dehumanization:

"... even the most noxious terms can be owned, that the most injurious interpellations could also be the site of radical reoccupation and resignification. [Think of African-Americans' reinvention of some of the most offensive terms used against them.] ... Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms [or names] that injure me because they constitute me socially." (page 348.) ("Jennifer Velez is a 'Dyke Magnet!'")

We will always escape -- especially together -- all efforts to capture us in a category, or a word, or a name. We will always be free. I am not a slave. I am not a laboratory animal. My "ethics" are not to be determined by the likes of you in New Jersey. ("New Jersey's 'Ethical' Legal System.")


Professor Butler contends that gender is a social category that is never unrelated to the power-structure in a society, but that gender roles are also never fully exhaustive of human possibilities. Hence, gender becomes a performance, a role or attitude adopted or chosen by subjects. These categories -- masculine and feminine -- are distinct from the biological facts of human nature and are always dynamic and relational.  Gender is Costume. Gender is a dialectic. ("Serendipity, III.")

These suggestions hint at the values underlying Professor Butler's discussion which are not expressed explicitly or overtly: 1) A recognition of the importance of freedom, in a metaphysical or spiritual sense, for all human beings; 2) the equality of persons apart from all such normalizing categories, whether of gender, race, sexual-orientation, and so on; 3) the significance of naming to the construction of the categories of power and identity in a society.

Professor Butler is not a nihilist, nor is there in her work any hostility to men, nor the sort of irresponsible vitriol often found in the writings of others claiming her authority. The predicament with regard to gender-identity is universal. ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

I find Professor Butler's work stimulating. There is much that I can agree with in her writings. My criticisms center on the issue of accessibility. Also, I welcome a discussion of foundations that is explicit about the values to which Butler appeals in developing her critiques of the social construction of identity. Foucault-like guardedness about what one is "for" is simply not very attractive to me in the work of a major philosopher which Judith Butler certainly seems to be.

Butler may well have earned the right to be considered among the foremost philosophers of our times. I will read more of her work and report on it before coming to any final conclusions on this matter. Finally, Butler closes her essay with a caution for the reader, which is also the point of my review:

"... injurious interpellations [names] will constitute identity through injury. This is not the same as saying that such an identity will remain always and forever rooted in its injury as long as it remains an identity; but it does imply that the possibilities of resignification will rework and unsettle the passionate attachment to subjection without which subject formation -- and reformation -- cannot succeed." (page 349.)

There will be pain in the struggle against gender-stereotyping, but without that struggle all of us will suffer in the prison of a "particularity" that is always too small for the protean "universality," that is, for the freedom that we are as human beings.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home