Home » Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity

Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity

Judith Butler exhibits the new wave of Anglo-American academic feminism, a feminism that goes beyond the delusional categories of male and female, and wishes to confuse or “trouble” these categories all together. As well, Butler “helped to create the discipline of queer theory. “[1] Butler’s “feminism” refuses the category of woman itself, exclaiming that it too participates in the hegemonic normative heterosexual matrix of identity, a binary system that enforces a “comedic” gender structure.

Thus, she is quite applicable to all areas of gender theory, especially gay ssues and goals, which wish to destabalize the notions of gender for socio- political gains. In Butler’s own questioning style she states in the Preface: I asked, what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? What restriction is here at work? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire?

What happens to the subject and the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that hich produces and reifies these ostensible categories of ontology (italics mine)? [2] Butler’s concern is epistemological and hermeneutical, even though she does not use the term hermeneutics as such. Butler is concerned with the interpretive power of heterosexual discourse in language and gender conception.

Thus, her inquiry questioning the binary conceptions of gender is primarily hermeneutical, if we take hermeneutical to mean a worldview process of interpreting reality. Butler starts her examination of the gender and feminism with reference to a universalizing notion of the feminist subject of woman Chapter 1: Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire). Butler references to the limits of a universal woman subject, stating, “Indeed, the fragmentation within feminism and the paradoxical opposition to feminism from ‘women’ whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary limits of identity politics. [3] The preoccupation with a universalizing feminist subject has led to “multiple refusals to accept the category. “[4]

If feminism cannot a assert a universal subject, which Butler later maintains as falling into the heterosexual and patriarchal discourse of language, how is feminism to ssert any socio-political influence? Butler would not doubt answer, as she does by the end of the book, that feminism should be reconstituted into a forward-looking, troubling of gender/sex identities.

Butler seems to assert (and I say seems because Butler is rarely specific in her articulations) that the whole notion of a feminine subject falls into a compulsive heterosexual reproductive framework, one that assumes the categories of heterosexual identity, without “troubling” these pseudo- ontological binary distinctions. [5] While the concepts of gender, sex, female/male and woman/man, have ndoubtedly led to some forms of oppression and subjection, one must question Butler’s analysis of “metaphysical substance. [6]

Butler’s deconstruction of sex, involves a critique of giving ontological significance to certain areas of the body-namely the penis, vagina, and breasts. According to Butler, the ontological significance of these organs has been created precisely because of the heterosexual reproductive matrix. Gender and sex have thus been divided along these precise lines of male/penis and female/vagina. [7] There seems to be a vast array of empirical evidence that would dispute the insignificance of both the vagina nd penis.

First, nature shows a general sexual significance to males and females in all mammalian creatures. Sex differentiation is a fact. Some people do have penises and some do have vaginas. It seems vastly counter- sensory to suggest that these organs are insignificant. There significance is brought to light, in the fact that they (and the reproductive tissues that accompany them) are the only physical differences between the sexes. Second, Butler seems to suggest that the heterosexual identity has enforced an eroticizing of these physical attributes over others, thus nforcing heterosexual relations. 8]

However, the human physical orgasm only happens through the stimulation of the sexual areas, exceptions being the few women who seem to reach orgasm through nipple stimulation alone. However, for the rest of us, the only recourse to the physical and mental state of orgasm is through contact with these organs. Perhaps, sexuality has been too constricted to only sexualizing the genital regions. If this is what Butler is attempting to say, then she has hit upon something that is very true. However, to simply assert that physical genitals have arisen n importance because of a heterosexual matrix is utterly ridiculous.

If anything, genital preoccupation and idolization, has come about precisely because of the physical pleasure associated with it. Granted, women’s physical pleasure has been conveniently absent for millennia in Western society. Female sexuality, as Butler shows, has been predominantly interpreted through a reproductive framework, instead of focusing on the aspects of sexual pleasure. If all Butler is attempting to say, is that these genitals have defined in terms of a heterosexual identity and function, which is built on unstable foundations, she is correct.

Only if one holds reproduction as an absolute can one possibly formulate the idolization of heterosexuality. However, Butler may seem to have an ally in technology itself, in the form of contraceptives, which “trouble” the perceived “naturalness” of heterosexual gender categories. Butler is too dismissive of reason and empirical enquiry as part of the heterosexual matrix. [9] Butler would do well to recognize that science has done much to destabalize sexual relations and categories. Contraceptives have allowed an unparalleled level of freedom to women to pursue a more open sexuality, one not onstrained to reproduction.

Butler’s lack of regard for empirical, scientific concerns is a major flaw in her analysis. While not being a scientist, and much more of a philosopher, Butler cannot be so dismissive of certain axiomatic metaphysical claims, claims that at their root (the validity of shared sensory perception) are necessary for any reasonable discourse to take place. Butler, in her second chapter, Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Heterosexual Matrix, analyzes the heterosexual matrix using psychoanalytic theory and various radical gender theorists. Butler employs such authors s Freud, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, and Riviere.

Her interweaving analysis is painstakingly complex. Often times these authors are presented to contradict one another, but Butler rarely provides any means to resolution or in the least a dialectical synthesis of their thought. Butler ponderously formulates the heterosexual matrix through both the incest taboo and the homosexual prohibition that logically precedes it. The incest taboo operates to maintain heterosexual relations by using a veiled homosexual intercourse between men, in which women are traded to men, thus maintaining a masculinist hierarchy.

It is ironic to note that a compulsive heterosexuality requires a passive homosexuality. Indeed, Butler maintains the heterosexual matrix “requires an intelligible conception of homosexuality”[10] and its “prohibition of that conception”[11] to preserve its intelligibility. This would seem to follow along the same methodological lines as good being only conceivable with its antithesis of evil. However, are ethical and sociological phenomena only perceivable and enforceable, when their antitheses exist?

While Augustine answered this question saying that evil is merely the privation of the ood, instead of existent in itself, it does not seem intuitively correct to merely assert that evil is in fact illusionary or the good privated or misapplied. A compulsive heterosexuality would seem to need an unethical homosexuality to maintain any coherence. For how could one speak of heterosexuality without it? Language is built on referencing, and without the antithesis of homosexuality, heterosexuality would cease to even exist as a word and perhaps as a behavior.

However, Butler is also speaking to a more sociological and cultural phenomenon than just philosophical talk. Butler uses the concept of melancholia”[12] to explain how early libidinal homosexual drives are subverted into a heterosexual framework. This melancholia is hard to exactly define because of Butler’s annoying preoccupation with wordiness and ambiguous language. However, melancholia seems to operate by the “internalization of the tabooed object of desire. “[13] By internalizing an object of same-sex love, the person can move beyond the object to the proper culturalized heterosexual object.

The prohibition of the object leads to its internalization. [14] The internalization, thus acts as a preservation mechanism, allowing both the preservation of the same-sex love- bject and the supposed proper mode of heterosexual ontology. The heterosexual matrix is thus completed, through the displacing of early homosexual libidinality by the ego’s use of melancholia. The above paragraph may seem needlessly complex. The reader is right. In this second chapter, even more than the first and last chapters, Butler barrages the reader with terms, theorists, and ideas, using long sentences and words of the academy.

The reader is so intimidated by the complexity of the thought that one is almost forced into acquiescence. Martha C. Nussbaum provides an excellent critique of this aspect of Butler, stating: In this way obscurity creates an aura of importance. It also serves another related purpose. It bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.

When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin. When Butler’s notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, ithout a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don’t [sic] go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument. [15] Butler’s thought is curiously devoid of a holistic approach.

Instead, it seems to focus primarily on abstract notions of thought, with little connection to reality. Although to be fair, the very conception of reality is disputed by Butler as part of the heterosexual matrix. However, the reader still longs for some empirical verification that would connect the text to some sort of ontological certainty. The reader finds none of this and is left in an intellectual quandary. Butler’s convoluted style impinges its comprehension. The whole book suffers from simplistic views wrapped in sophistry.

Recognizing this fact, the journal Philosophy and Literature, awarded Butler with first prize in the annual “Bad Writing” contest, for the following sentence: The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality nto the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. [16] One wonders if Butler ever took a first year writing class in college.

The sentence, typical of her style, is so long, that by the time one finishes it and defines all the terms, one is exhausted to even analyze the truth of her claims. Complex terms, concepts, and words, such as: structuralist, capital, homologous, hegemony, power relations, convergence, rearticulation, temporality, Althusserian theory, and totalities, all evidence her outrageousness. German continental philosophy has often been accused of very much the same thing, but Butler takes these absurdities to new heights. Butler begins her third chapter, Subversive Body Acts, with a thorough deconstruction of the heterosexual matrix.

This chapter and her conclusion, From Parody to Politics, explore what gender is or could be, envisioning an antifoundationalism. 7] Like her coalitional politics, which do not presuppose an outcome, Butler’s gender theory is a forward looking one, with the only criteria seeming to be the “troubling” of the binary categories. Butler deconstructs this binary interpretive device as not “naturalistic” or having ontological significance, but rather as a self- fulfilling foundation, that operates in a circular fashion, maintaining its own coherence and viability by its structures of identity. [18] Butler’s somewhat fascinating approach to gender is evidenced in her multiplicity of genders. Instead of a binary conception, she asks, why not three, four, or ive? Western philosophy has remained famous for its excessive dichotomizing and dualizing nature, whether it is mind-body, fact-value, spirit-flesh, God-man, gay-straight, feminine-masculine, or nature-nurture.

Butler’s refreshing multiplicity allows for an open-ended conception of gender that strays away from the heterosexual need to polarize reality. While dichotomies will always exist and are not always wrong, Butler shows these dichotomies to be hurtful and illusionary in gender formation. Obviously, the whole of Butler’s book is trying to assert that gender is a social artifice. She has quite adequately deconstructed the circular notions of the heterosexual matrix that keeps its intelligibility. Butler uses gay and lesbian notions of gender and sexuality to show that their very presence and articulation allows for a troubling of these gender categories.

An acceptable homosexuality by its nature subverts the heterosexual matrix, by giving new ontological significance to differing body parts and locales. The presence of gay and lesbian activity destroys the heterosexual matrix of identity, constituting an almost political act. Stating as much, Butler writes: The structuring presence of heterosexual constructs within gay and lesbian sexuality does not mean that those constructs determine gay and lesbian sexuality nor that gay and lesbian sexuality are derivable or reducible to those constructs. Indeed, consider the dis-empowering and denaturalizing effects of a specifically gay deployment of heterosexual constructs.

The presence of these norms not only constitute a site of power that cannot be refused, but they can and do become the site of parodic contest and display that robs compulsory heterosexuality of its claims to naturalness and originality. 19] An example of this “parodic” and “comedic” homosexual display of heterosexual norms can be found in the common usage of “top” and “bottom” in gay culture. These terms parallel the male and female terms employed in heterosexual culture. The “top” is said to be the sexually aggressive partner who penetrates the submissive “bottom” partner. The appropriation of heterosexual norms within a homosexual matrix shows the foolishness of a compulsory heterosexuality. Butler’s analysis in this regard is quite insightful.

Social conservatives, who see homosexuals as ontological olitical revolutionaries, would seem to have an ally in Butler. The crucial difference is that Butler applauds the revolution, while the conservatives rally against it. Butler’s main political argument is contained in her gender as “performative. ” Gender is not a specific psychological identity, rooted in the ontological essence of a person. Rather, gender is created through the performance of the adherents. [20] People establish the categories of gender by continuously upholding and acting upon the accepted norms of the respective gender categories. In essence, one acts like a “man” and thus s one.

Paradoxically, the troubling of these binary gender categories takes place through the very means that institute them. Through acts, gestures, and speech, we have the power to “trouble” the gender categories. Butler expounds on this idea in her book, Excitable Speech: The Politics of the Performative. However, one can already see the evidence in the current work being discussed. Performative political action exposes the parodic and comedic elements of compulsory heterosexuality. In essence, performative speech/acts involve “poking fun” at the traditional gender roles. Butler is adamant in maintaining a crucial distinction between expression and performance. Expression derives out of the interior, while performance is the taking on of an identity.

Butler states this as such: The distinction between expression and performance is crucial. If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which the body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distored acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be evealed as a regulatory fiction. [21] Butler’s theory of gender motivates her subversive politics. It involves a sort of lifestyle mockery of traditions within the existing gender matrix. Since, for Butler, wide scale social order change is a romantic and unrealistic expectation.

Using the very terms, acts, and language of subjection, one subverts the original usage and challenges the social order. Politics becomes an individuated parodic mockery of established norms. Butler has been criticized for overemphasizing performative politics, to the detriment of macro-level social change. 22] Her belief on the sovereign speaker, who almost creates reality through speech, constitutes an almost radical displacing of any normative ethical categories. Normative categories are needed for broad political action. In Butler, one may be disheartened to find very little. However, feminism and gender politics, has often suffered from a lack of individuated theory.

It has often focused on the macro while disregarding the micro levels of people’s lives. Butler provides that micro analysis without buying into an enlightenment idolization of the individual and its subsequent capitalist overtones. By changing speech patterns, the way we interact, and how we speak of men and women (ultimately displacing these words altogether), Butler allows for a tacit, graspable “feminism” or perhaps more aptly stated, “queerism? ” However, Butler has led many to confusion over her politics of the performative. She specifically fights against a voluntarist understanding of gender while embracing a voluntarist socio- political model.

Subsequent works show this discontinuity and much criticism, rightly so, has been leveled against her. [23] While there is much more in Butler than covered in this paper, her ain ideas have been explicated and critiqued. Those ideas being: feminism without a female subject, the intricate (one could say too intricate) deconstruction of the heterosexual matrix, the subversive nature of homosexual acts to heterosexuality, gender as performative, and the politics of parody. While Butler suffers from a definite bad writing complex, her work does offer a fresh way of looking at, conceiving, and acting upon gender. Particularly her parody politics, allows for a very grassroots socio-political action.

Butler does seem to suffer from a need f normative categories, particularly involving social justice. The critique that these normative categories somehow participate and perpetuate the heterosexist framework would seem somewhat nave and self-defeating to her own goals. This being the case, Butler provides a revolution for feminist studies, in dislocating the feminine subject and initiating a “feminism” that attacks the very foundations of the discrimination-binary, compulsory, reproductive heterosexuality. While Butler may not be completely original, the response and movement she generated is. This is perhaps her even greater accomplishment.

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