In 1990, both Eve Sedgwick (Epistemology of the Closet) and Judith Butler (Gender Trouble) made significant contributions to the ever burgeoning field of queer studies with theories about sexuality as performance. Following the central Foucauldian thread in which sexual conduct is but a construct specific to one’s cultural context and a factor of historical and cultural connotations, queer theorists proposed gender as a socially and culturally constructed performance.
The performance of gender is described as an enactment of a culturally shaped sexual script which is irrevocably linked to the governing discourse on exuality (power-knowledge). The concept of power to Foucault is that which is enforced not by authoritative top-down legal policing and state disciplinary apparatus, but rather a power enforced through the circulation and distribution of a knowledge discursive in nature and which enforces its norms on society as culturally hegemonic norms that govern sexuality.
The deployment of sexuality is therefore constrained by the socially sanctioned channels of gendered performances which are not necessarily the natural sexual expressions individuals most privately desire. Instead of one’s sexual expression being authentically aligned with his desire, it is instead transformed by the social channels through which desire is permitted expression. Sexuality becomes a performance insisted upon by the social network of alliances manipulating behaviour, and more specifically, conduct.
This concept of power can be likened to an invisible hand regulating the expression of desires through a coded pattern, a system of regularity conforming to the effects of this power-knowledge. Butler agrees there is a divide between sexuality and the act of being sexual in gendered onduct, where gender is the deployment of desire through these culturally sanctioned channels of expression. One cannot “be” a sexuality, one can only perform an identity related to a gendered sexual role. By repeating and imitating, one can perform an identity but never wholly a sexuality.
Like Foucault, Butler acknowledges that there is something beyond the performance: there is an excess of sexuality which is never expressed completely in the role played. Sexuality is more flexible and possibly closer to the nature of the sexual drive than the performance can ever be; sexuality is more authentic han the coding that Butler refers to as gendering, and sexuality can never be encompassed by the gendered role in play. To Foucault and Butler, sexuality is discursive, arising out of linguistic formations; that which Foucault describes as circulated knowledge Butler describes as performance.
The ontology of being, to Butler, comprises an authentic sense of self/being and the performance/being associated with that: the action of performance/being can never wholly manifest the inner self/ being, or Self/Being, if you will. Butler recognizes, as does Foucault, that politically marginalised gender roles and the imitations of the self to a sexual performance are shattered only when, and if, gender is destabilised: when individuals create “trouble” for gender, as it were, and violate the social and cultural norms that fashion the sex-gender-desire continuum.
By destabilising the more commonplace cultural configurations of gender performances which structure society’s sexual norms, and by troubling gender through subversive confusion, we can challenge society to confront the regulation and reification of existing gender categories, effectively opening the doors of perception and creating new knowledge/power.
Through the proliferation of gender and performance, social and cultural discourse circulates new possibilities, new avenues for human expression and identity, empowering the individual to live out an existence more closely aligned with the Self; his act of self/ being can mirror more his essential Self/Being. Discourse is the means by which power-knowledge circulates, and power- knowledge creates identity; where there is no discourse there is no identity, no role to perform and so no outlet for one’s sexuality.
Discourse is central to sexual identity. Butler sees the rasure of gender through discursive non-existence/omission to be worse even than to be declared deviant; “to be prohibited explicitly is to occupy a discursive site from which something like a reverse discourse can be articulated. To be implicitly proscribed is not even to qualify as an object of prohibition” (p. 1712) Butlers 1990 text was written at the other influential texts and helped instigate queer theory as a popular post-modern framework for investigating culture and sexuality.
Her goal with the book was to challenge those taking for granted certain assumptions about what constitutes gender nd sexuality through investigation of the complexities of gender: to those categories by which we become unwittingly confined and to the sexual ideologies we impose upon each other that take away our freedom. Butler returns to the same problems again and again in her texts tackling recurring themes of precariousness of life, desire and grief, melancholy and mourning in gender, sexuality and war. What is it to be a man, a woman, masculine, feminine, homosexual, heterosexual?
And ame time as many what do we label all that doesn’t enter into the into the spectrum of the alternative? Butler reflects on identity, the norms and politics of norms which are, and are not, founded upon identity. For Butler identity is inherently unstable and we are actively moving between the different communities to which we belong and identify and the ideologies espoused by them. We play at many different roles and identities, and we are always aware that it’s possible that we might lose that identity, or fall out of that role if we don’t perform it convincingly.
We try to embody norms, to assimilate and belong and we fail and succeed as we play. “Becoming” is a process which manifests in any myriad of ways. Butler maintains that we fail at gender because stereotypes and images we have of gender as the accumulation of effects of social relations become adopted, assimilated, configured and naturalized over time, are exercised coercively; there is a deep social anxiety that pertains to gender norms and gender compliance.
And so there is this communal policing which goes on to ensure people are identifiable in their behaviour, gender, sexuality and desires. Butler believe personally that gender is performed, which is to say that we are acting in some way: we have adopted a role and playing the role onvincingly is crucial to the gender that identify as, and that we present to those in our social communities. We walk, talk and speak in distinctly identifiable ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman, being gay or straight, a sissy or a tomboy.
We behave and perform that gendered role as if that being is an internal reality when rather than it being essential to us, it is a phenomenon which is being produced and reproduced continuously. So to claim that gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start. Those that don’t fit the mold are often bullied or belittled and harassed, sometimes dicipline is institutional in nature, other times informal; both measures confine individuals their gendered place.
These gender norms are established and policed in society, and Butler believes that the best way is to disrupt these structures of power and overcome the police function. It is her view that gender is culturally formed but also a domain of agency or freedom; society must resist the violence that is imposed by ideal gender norms to give a better quality of life to those who are gender nonconformist in gender presentation.