Notes on selections from Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge

Dave Harris

[I am in a bit of a rush at the moment so I am only making notes on the last sections of this massive book. The first sections seem extremely good at sketching out the theoretical ground. There is a very good critique of Kristeva,Lacan and Foucault, for example. When I have a day or two, I'll get round to taking notes on those sections as well. For the moment, these are the bits that are always quoted]

Bodily Inscriptions, Formative Subversions

The central categories for both feminist theory and politics are 'true sex, discrete gender, and specific sexuality' (128), so feminist politics assumes there are "women' independently of their political interests. What is it that takes the site of the female body as 'the firm foundation' (129) for all this? What role is played by political forces in defining and constraining that body ? Sex appears to be based on a general notion of the body, often as a passive medium inscribed by some cultural source, activated by discourse. It is 'a construct of suspect generality', with Christian and Cartesian precedents, supported by later vitalist biologies. Even in Sartre and Beauvoir, the body is still awaiting a meaning to be attributed by consciousness. The body is contrasted with a disembodied consciousness, in a Cartesian dualism. If we're not careful, these dualism still operate in feminist politics.

Wittig [who comes in for a lot of criticism earlier] takes sex as natural, the body as a 'prima facie given'. Even Foucault sees the body as a surface, with cultural inscriptions on it, and says we should look at the imprintings of history --but this is itself based on freudian notions of civilisation, where various forces and impulses are constrained by various signifying practices that subject the body, through 'a "single drama" of domination, inscription and creation' (130) that runs through history. As values are created, so the body needs to be further domesticated and sacrificed, inscribed on the body as some kind of blank page. The social field itself does this. Eventually the body itself gets 'fully trans-valuated into a sublimated domain of values' and cultural coherence emerges.

Mary Douglas says that the contours of the body are established through culturally coherent codes, so that particular taboos are naturalised, part of imposing a system on unruly nature. As she operates with a fixed nature/binary, she can see no possibilities for change, although she does suggest at least that the surface is signified by 'taboos and anticipated transgressions'. This is a necessary hegemony, however and pollution constantly threatens accepted cultural structures and divisions. Watney has developed this argument to see the person with AIDS as a classic polluter, enabling all sorts of themes about homosexuality and its threats to be woven in, picking up on the dangers of permeable bodily boundaries exchanging bodily fluids, of margins generally. Back to Douglas, we can now see that anal and oral sex involve these dangerous bodily permeabilities threatening social order, and the same goes for the anxiety about lesbians and their bodily exchanges. However, these are not normally just dismissed as nature threatening culture either — they are 'both uncivilised and unnatural' (132). Bodily boundaries have to particularly police open surfaces and orifices, and abandoning all regulation of them threatens the very notion of the body itself.

Kristeva's notion of abjection continues this argument. The abject has been expelled from the body, rendered as other, and this establishes otherness as something not me — something originally part of us is rejected and trans-valued. Others have found this mechanism of expulsion followed by repulsion at work in other areas of race and sexuality. This work stresses the boundary between inner and outer worlds of the subject as the key, with excretion as the main mechanism of regulating it. Excretion becomes a kind of legitimate form of managing permeability. Stability  and incoherence is determined by cultural orders, like those sanctioning the subject and making it different from the abject, but there can be challenges. The issue is how did this particular process of internalisation become so important? What language is associated with it? 'How does a body figure on its surface the very invisibility of its hidden depth?'.

Foucault sees the language of internalisation as part of the disciplinary regime of subjection, for example with criminals. Here, internalisation takes the form of inscription, the compulsion of bodies, the production of docile bodies. The very soul is inscribed on the body in an invisible way — the soul is what the body lacks and what must be signified. There are implications for gender. The issue is, how this prohibitive law constructing body through exclusion and denial, 'signifying absences' (135) gets generated. {all these questions lead to the importance of discourse, of course]

She has already considered the claims of the incest taboo or the taboo against homosexuality as foundational [socially necessary] generative moments [and has been critical]. How has the 'idealised and compulsory heterosexuality' developed that makes it a whole 'culturally intelligible grid'? Coherence is constructed but discontinuities still 'run rampant' — gender does not necessarily follow from sex, nor does desire follow from sex or gender. The regulatory ideal becomes a mere norm and fiction disguising itself as a law. It still works to produce some coherence, but only on the surface of the body where the organising principle is never actually revealed. This makes the relevant 'acts, gestures, enactments… [as]… performative… Fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means' (136).

If the gendered body is performative in this way, 'it has now ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality' any apparently interior essences are themselves 'an effect and function of decidedly public and social discourse, the public regulation of fantasy… Gender border control… [Differentiating] inner from outer and so institut[ing] the integrity of the subject'. Words,  acts and gestures create an illusion, 'an interior and organising gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality'. A further step is to isolate the cause of desire within the self of the actor, and this helps disguise political regulation and disciplinary practice — a psychological core means we do not have to look at the political constitution of the subject and its fabricated notions.

It follows that 'genders can be neither true nor false, but only produced as the truth effects of discourse of primary and stable identity'. The structure of impersonation can reveal this, and 'drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity' (137). [Newton, an evident fan, says that drag offers a double inversion, a female outside appearance but a different male inside essence, and sometimes a further allusion that it is the other way about].

These 'parodic identities' have been seen as degrading to women, and as an uncritical acceptance of sex role stereotyping, but there is more at work, a play 'between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed'. We come to realise there are 'three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance'. Drag sometimes suggests a dissonance between these, and shows how distinct these aspects are as opposed to the 'falsely naturalised' unity of heterosexual coherence. Drag imitates gender and this 'implicitly reveals the imitated structure of gender itself — as well as its contingency'. Indeed this is part of the pleasure in the performance.

We are not claiming that there is an original from which parody derives. 'Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original' (138), revealing that gender is performed as 'an imitation without an origin'. It 'postures as an imitation', in a 'perpetual displacement'. Identity becomes fluid, open, something that can be re-signified and re-contextualised, and it attacks the naturalism or essentialism of gender in hegemonic culture. Of course the parodic styles are still part of this culture, but they do denaturalise it. There is no original identification, but rather 'a personal/cultural history of received meanings', which include imitations. In Jameson's terms, drag offers pastiche rather than parody — '"the wearing of a symbolic mask — without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse"'  without implying that there is something normal
which is being made comic,But the loss of the normal can itself be comic if it is revealed to be a copy in the first place, something that nobody can actually just reproduce. 'Parody by itself is not subversive' (139), but some parodies can indeed be disruptive, while others get domesticated. Much depends on the context and reception for the parody. Which sorts of gender performances will reveal the performativity of gender best?

What sort of language can be developed to understand corporeal enactment? Is it a style of being or a stylistics of existence, a style of the flesh [citing Sartre, Foucault and Beauvoir respectively]. All such styles have their own history. So gender can be an act which is 'both intentional and performative where "performative" suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning' [real weasels here, combining intentions and a dramatic form which can be contingently adjusted].

Wittig sees gender as the working of sex in a project to generate cultural signs and materialise itself. Butler thinks that strategy might be better because there is always some duress. Gender becomes a strategy of survival, because it is 'a performance with clearly punitive consequences'. It is necessary in order to demonstrate that we are humanised individuals, and those who fail to do it are regularly punished. There is no essence, 'the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all', but this has to conceal its own genesis, a 'tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions'. These have to be credible or they will be punished, and it is this that makes them compulsive, seemingly necessary and natural — 'punitively regulated cultural fictions alternately embodied and deflected under duress'. (140)

The idea of natural sex or real women is a sedimentation that has produced a set of styles 'in reified form', appearing as in a binary relation — the subjects produced 'pose' as the originators of particular gender styles. The performance has to be repeated reenacted and re-experienced, as a public action. It is not really a stable identity or locus of agency, but something 'tenuously constituted in time, instituted… through a stylised repetition of acts'. A whole series of 'bodily gestures, movements, and styles' create the illusion of permanent gendered self.

We have to come to see gender as 'a constituted social temporality' (141), whose coherence is a performative accomplishment, believed by both performer and audience. It follows that gender can never be fully internalised, 'gender norms are finally phantasmal, impossible to embody'. The occasional discontinuity gives the game away. Showing up arbitrary relations, glitches in repetition, or a parodic repetition can raise new possibilities of gender transformation.

There is a distinction between expression and performance — the latter assumes 'no pre-existing identity by which an act or attribute might be measured… No true or false, real or distorted acts'. A true gender identity is 'a regulatory fiction'. There is no essential sex, but the claim is only part of a strategy to conceal the performative character of gender and 'the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames'. All the effort to make genders credible can also help render them 'thoroughly and radically incredible'.

Conclusion: From Parody to Politics

There can be no simple subject 'woman'. It follows that 'the feminist "we" is always and only a phantasmal construction', with purposes, but which denies internal complexity. It constitutes itself 'only through the exclusion of some part of the constituency that it simultaneously seeks to represent'. However, this radical instability can make us question any foundational restrictions on theorising, and open new possibilities of genders and bodies and of politics.

The foundationalist notion of identity politics assumes that an identity is in place first and then political interests are elaborated. However rather than take the idea of a doer behind the deed, we should see that 'the "doer" is variably constructed in and through the deed' this is not going back to existentialism which operates with a 'pre-discursive structure'. Instead there is always 'discursively variable construction'.

Agency should not be located in the subject which can then be formed by culture and discourse, and weakening determinism does not help. There is still an assumption agency is only established by referring to some pre-discursive 'I', and that the only possibility for discourse to constitute the subject is through a determination which [undesirably] limits agency. These notions still persist, in Beauvoir for example, where there is a subject never fully identifiable with its gender, never fully cultural. More mundanely, we see problems of identifying the subject of 'woman' by the need to qualify it with all sorts of other predicates colour, sexuality, class and so on. The failure to complete the list is instructive — there is always an et cetera, a supplement, an excess, but this might be useful for new political theorising.

We should not want to return to some subject pre-existing significations — people only become subjects by taking up the opportunities of significations, the rules and practices that make it intelligible. 'Language is not an exterior medium or instrument into which I pour a self', which I can then regain in the familiar subject/object dichotomy [in Hegel or Marx, and in other 'contemporary liberatory discourses'].

Instead we need to see that it is a discursive tradition that establishes separate self
and other and that determines a limited understanding of agency. Other kinds of agency 'are foreclosed' by this separation, even though we recognise in ordinary life that the subject/object dichotomy is 'strange and contingent', a philosophical imposition. Splitting selves from others is also implicated in domination, and goes together with distanciation and instrumentality. Subsequent questions about how to know and recover the other are 'artificial'. It is signifying practices that establish the I and which are reified as the opposition to other. We can see that the dominant epistemological mode of doing this is itself 'one possible and contingent signifying practice'. We should be asking instead how significations work to constitute agency. Identities can appear as 'so many inert substantives', and it is useful to make this the starting point, but the signifying practice is crucial even if it has concealed its own workings and naturalised its effects. We see in ordinary life that substantive identities have to be maintained, by repeated invocation of rules, that identity is a practice. Discourses are particular configurations of the abstract possibilities of language, and they always present themselves as plural, temporal, sometimes with 'unpredictable and inadvertent convergences'[that produce new identities].

This means that signification 'harbours within itself'(145) what can be seen as agency. Rules emerge 'partially structured along matrices of gender hierarchy and compulsorily heterosexuality' and these generate repetitions. Recognisable subjects have had their identity invoked. It is important to see that signification is not another foundation 'but rather a regulated process of repetition that both conceals itself and enforces its rules precisely through the production of substantialising effects'.

Repetition is compulsory to all significations, so agency 'is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition' the rules that govern significations both restricts and enable alternative intelligibility, including new possibilities for gender. This is the only way to subvert identity, 'within the practices of repetitive signifying'. It is not easy just to be a given gender without failure and incoherence, and all injunctions to repair can take place only through discursive routes, to try and respond to different demands. Again, reconfiguration is possible because there is no transcendental subject, no prior self with integrity — 'there is only taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very "taking up" is enabled by the tool lying there'. [A defensive sentence on page 146 says that even when she refers to herself as I, 'it is the grammar itself that deploys and enables this I', yet paradoxically, this I can also contest this grammar].

It is common to see sex as the real material ground and gender as mere cultural inscription, but this still requires a cultural apparatus to relate instrument and body, and this also reveals possibilities for intervention. Complete relation is only a phantasm, bodies can never fully achieve them. Bodily surfaces themselves can become 'the site of a dissonant and denaturalised performance' that will itself reveal performativity in the natural itself.

Practices of parody are particularly effective, although parody has also been implicated in a politics of despair, as a last resort for the marginalised. Yet this is possible for all gender enactments, because no 'ontological locales are fundamentally uninhabitable'. All gender enactments fail, so 'subversive laughter in the pastiche effect' is chronic, once we see 'the original, the authentic, and the real… [as]… themselves constituted as effects'. If we can break these gender norms, new genders will be possible, and old compulsory binary ones rejected. Everyone will see that gender is an act, 'open to splittings, self-parody, self-criticism' (147), with the natural seen as fundamentally phantasmatic.

Feminist politics should reject its foundational concepts and identity categories, because they limit cultural possibilities. What seems to be intelligible and natural sex should be seen instead as 'generative political structures rather than naturalised foundations'. Identity will be seen as an effect, something produced or generated, and this opens up far more possibilities of agency rather than those based on foundational identities —  identities are not fully determined, nor entirely artificial and arbitrary, [2 varieties of feminist politics] but constituted.

Construction is not opposed to agency but is necessary to it, so we can see agencies articulated and made intelligible. We should not try and establish a point of view outside constructed identities, which would reproduce imperialism and some globalising perspective. Instead we should look at 'strategies of subversive repetition enabled by those constructions' [cf Guattari on micropolitics], find local possibilities of intervention, by participating in repetition.

This will lead to a new radical politics about disrupting foundations, destabilising fantasies at the root of identity politics. We have done a critical genealogy of how sex and bodies of been naturalise, and rejected the idea of the body as inert, awaiting significations, dangerously close to the idea of the feminine awaiting inscription by masculine signifiers before they can enter into language. Sex is neither binary nor hierarchical, it is not fixed by something interior expressed in various external forms. These notions persist even in arguments for bisexuality as primary (148). Strategies of exclusion and hierarchy persist even when we reformulate sex and gender, if we see sex as something pre-discursive. Nor should we uphold the idea that there is a prior doer to the deed, some global subject 'who disavows its own locality as well as the conditions for local intervention).

These are not foundations, and to argue they are only helps misdescribe signifying practices, take them for granted even in feminist theory or politics. We must 'enter into the repetitively practices of this terrain of signification' because there is no outside, including no outside agent or reality. The issue is how to repeat, in a way that displaces gender norms. There is no outside ontology for gender because they always work inside establish political contexts, determining what qualifies as sex, for example or how sexed or  gendered bodies should be made intelligible — 'ontology is, thus, not a foundation, but a normative injunction that operates insidiously by installing itself into political discourse as its necessary ground' [so take that Barad].

If we deconstruct identity, we establish it as political. This will challenge any foundationalist notion of identity politics, but that's good because it is internally paradoxical — it presumes, fixes, and constrains the very "subjects" that it hopes to represent and liberate'. We cannot explore every possibility, although we might start with those that already exist but which are deemed culturally unintelligible and impossible. Politics will become a matter of thinking of new cultural configurations and proliferating them, even 'within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binaries of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness' (149). This is the only effective local strategy to engage the naturalisation of gender.

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