What is meant by the category of 'women'? Feminists need to know, especially when trying to point to that which has been marginalised or repressed in patriarchy. Is the category 'woman' an essentialist one though, in both senses: relating to women as a group regardless of their various histories and situations, and referring to something which is separate from the 'conditions of oppression against which it has been formulated' (325). As a foundational category for feminism it can both unite and exclude. Many women are unable to recognise themselves in the category as defined by feminism, and would want to also talk about race, class, ethnicity, age, sexuality and so on as well. In response, some feminists such as Spivak, or Kristeva have argued that feminists should just use the concept strategically. However, such a tactical use could still exclude [if it were used politically, that might also consolidate its 'semantic integrity', Butler thinks].
Psychoanalytic theory has left an ambiguous legacy. It has shown how gendered identities can develop, but those drawing upon the work of Lacan have also tended to see the unconscious as the significant source of identity. This has supplied some universalistic basis for a shared agenda of identifications, and shown how widespread patriarchy is. However, it has also denied women some sort of permanent status as a subject, and kept them forever as some kind of Other. Thus for Irigaray, there can be no autonomy as subjects for women, since such subjects are always masculine, and autonomy must always mean 'hierarchy, exclusion and domination' (Butler citing Irigaray, page 326). Psychoanalysis has helped feminist to criticise the apparently gender-free nature of discourse and rationality, though, and at least opened a possibility of female emancipation, as in 'écriture feminine' (327).
But without the notion of agency, can feminism become a viable political movement --'If there is no subject, who is left to emancipate?' (327). Perhaps a more fragmented subject might still be possible, even if not a fully formed one? The category of women is a fragmented one, and this diversity ought to be celebrated, but this might still imply some originally unified subject. Further, there is a danger of seeing politics just as an attempt to reunite the fragments, which prematurely closes off alternative articulations. [There seem to be shades of Adorno's critique of the politics of the subject here, possibly, and his rejection of the term reification as involving a nostalgia for some integrated era?].
Reunifying subjectivity seems to be based on early marxism and humanism. It has been used in socialist feminism to criticise the apparently eternal separation of public and private spheres which justifies domestic exploitation. There are also some political projects connected to this which involve restructuring child rearing practices away from gender divisions while retaining feminine values of care, and the rejection of fear of dependency -- 'In this case, the unified self reappears... as a specifically feminine subject organised by a founding maternal identification' (328) [This derives, apparently, from post-Lacanian 'object relations' psychoanalysis, which sees the Oedipal phase as the most crucial]. The differences with Lacan turn on the conception of the subject and its integrity and also on the processes of psychic development, whether they are discontinuous, or whether there is some coherent and determining infantile primary stage.
However, there seems to be an agreement that there is stable development of gender, despite the possibilities of subversion. Gender categories appear to be universal, and gender experience suffers from narrative closure. Gender identities which challenge the narratives are excluded: thus narrative strategies are essentialist at least. 'In both cases, an originally undifferentiated state of the sexes suffers the process of differentiation and hierarchization through the advent of a repressive law' (330).
Both narratives have problems. For Lacan, there is some state prior to language, which can nevertheless be accessed through language, and it continues to disrupt speech and dreams, even though we cannot remember it. The object relations narrative assumes a nuclear family, and tends to exclude all those who grew up in a different kind of family. Both tend to confer some abstract and universal status on a culturally specific set of relations, and reduce the complexity of adult life by insisting on the primacy of early relationships (330). The force of the analysis thus turns on some narrative developing over time, and this sequences what would otherwise be 'an interplay of attributes without an abiding or unifying substance'-- which is just what Butler hopes to replace those narratives with (331).
It is quite possible to begin by pushing psychoanalysis to recognise that adult gender identities do not always simply relate back to infantile primary ones: this implies a role for context, 'cultural norms and opportunities' (331). Feminist literary critics have long argued that narratives are suspect, because they exclude or repress so much. The repressed constantly interrupts narratives, contesting and subverting them. This insight might be applied to psychoanalysis and its organising narratives too, however.
In particular, it is common to see gender identity and sexual orientation as unambiguous, or, at least, as only temporarily ambiguous. Ultimately, despite some detours, 'one identifies with one sex, and, in so doing, desires the other, that desire being the elaboration of that identity, the mode by which it creates its opposite and defines itself in that opposition' (332). Freud does talk about bisexuality, but even here he sees it as 'the coincidence of two heterosexual desires'. Thus a woman's desire for another woman is really the result of some male identification: 'One either identifies with a sex or desires it, but only those two relations are possible' (333).
But there are other possibilities, where identifications work against such fixed agendas. These are found best in fantasy (which can be embodied in semiotic possibilities for Kristeva). Fantasies are normally seen as exceeding identity, but there may be other relations too. Schafer argues that the whole notion of internal psychic space is a fantasy, that fantasies are usually imagined as mental contents 'somehow projected on to an interior screen, a conception conditioned by a cinematic metaphorics of the Psyche' (333). Identifications are not just fantasies in this sense, but always involve wish-fulfilment -- 'the mother one wishes one had... some imagined relation whom one also imagines to be the recipient of love' (334). What is introjected is both a fantasised figure and a fantasised locale, in a whole 'figurative production' that 'produces the effect of the empirical other' (334). Gender identifications are like this too, where fantasies 'condition and construct the specificity of the gendered subject'.
Foucault also challenges the language of internalisation: in Discipline and Punish, he talks of inscriptions, of the incorporation of law rather than internalisation. Internalisation is an effect of these inscriptions, although one which appears real. The 'soul' is thus 'a figure of interior psychic space inscribed on the body as a social signification that perpetually renounces itself as such' (335). We can use this to see gender as a similar process of inscription 'the disciplinary production of the figures of gender fantasy through the play of presence and absence in the body's surface' (335).
What generates the figuration of the gendered body? Freud suggests the incest taboo, which includes the taboo against homosexuality and thus which stabilises gender as heterosexual. This is a 'regulatory ideal', though, 'a fiction that operates within discourses and which, discursively and institutionally sustained, wields enormous power' (335), even though few people can embody it with regularity [Butler seems to be arguing that this is because it is permanently necessary to figure one's body as heterosexual, in a way which runs the risk of overcoming all social prohibitions].
Gender can now be seen as a matter of some interior identity which subsequently has to be manifested. If gender is seen as identical with sex, then sex conditions it, and this may explain the untheorised binary notion of gender. Sex is therefore seen as the substance, and gender as a mere reflection (and desire is a reflection of gender). Psychoanalytic theory tends to reinforce this view in its construction of coherence and its denial of gender discontinuities (seen 'within heterosexual, bisexual, and gay and lesbian contexts in which gender does not necessarily follow from sex, and desire, or sexuality generally does not seem to follow from gender') (336) Such contexts help expose the regulatory ideal as a cultural norm, disguised as a law.
In the fantasy of identification, coherence is desired. 'Acts, gestures and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance', but do this in such a way as to conceal the causal effects of identity. Such acts are performative, not expressing an identity but fabricating one. The gendered body has no status other than the acts which constitute its reality. The fact that gender seems an interior matter only shows the effects of a powerful Foucaldian discourse. By locating desires and the origin of acts inside a 'self', political analysis is precluded. Thus genders are 'neither true nor false but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity' (337).
We can see these fabricating mechanisms and the social construction of gender by looking at female impersonators. Drag subverts the apparent distinction between internal and external, and denies the nature of a natural true gender identity. Drag indicates that appearance is an illusion, but also that 'true' genders may lie within and not on the surface of the body. Both claims are contradictory, and thus radical questions are raised about gender enactments as more than just simply true or false expressions.
The parody often found in drag need not be degrading for women [pursued further in this piece] . Anatomical sex, gender identity and gender performance are separated, and this can help to deconstruct the idea of a natural or necessary unity found in hegemonic heterosexuality. There is no original unity to be parodied, but a much more fluid and open set of identities. The very categories of misogynist culture are subverted, and their claims to naturalness exposed as mythical.
Thus the construct of 'woman' is far from unproblematic. Sex itself is a category, and is an effect of the regulation of sexuality, and so it is likely that gender coherence is also an effect of politics. We need to understand the interests and power relations that underpin this coherence, and celebrate the proliferation of gender styles and identities: these 'indicate the possibility of complex and generative subject positions as well as coalitional strategies' (339). [Indeed, if these arguments apply to masculinity as well, as surely they must, there is no reason why men should not join with feminists in opposing fixed and binary categories of gender].
Thus feminists who claim some universal unity between women are also constructing a narrative based on the denial of greater complexity and gender dissonance. Narrative coherence should be revised, and narratives should admit to greater complexity: or perhaps performance should replace narrative 'as the scene of gender production' (339). The myth of interior origins must be resisted, and gender coherence understood as 'a regulatory fiction... rather than the common point of our liberation' (339).