Notes on: Butler J.  (1994) ‘Against Proper Objects.  Introduction’, in Differences. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 6 (2+3): 1-26.

[This piece takes the form of a critique of a recent Reader in Lesbian and Gay Studies (Abelove et al. 1993)] [herineafter lesbian and gay studies becomes L&G] A common distinction between feminism and L&G sees their concerns as gender and sex respectively as central concepts.  Some L&G theorists then go on to insist that the category of gender includes both females and males, which seems to offer a connection between sex and gender after all!  The category of sex itself covers a range of applications—identity regimes as in Foucault, but also sex and desire, sexual sensations and practices.  L&G's emphasis on sex is therefore intended to incorporate and reduce feminist interests: feminism properly specializes only in sex as identity: any attempt to extend into sexual practices involves crossing a boundary into another specialism, such as lesbian and gay studies.  Feminism has been reduced in order to justify the emergence of L&G as a successor specialism.  Ironically, the reduction involves accepting a simple binary notion of sex [division into men and women], and ignores the interrelationships in some feminist approaches.  It also ignores the diversity in sexual difference. The implication is that the kind of sex that one is, and the kind of sex that one does belong to two different domains.  This sort of reduction has long been criticized in feminism, but seems to be revived here in the interests of establishing the new specialism.

Butler says there is no feminist work that would operate with these simple binaries or see gender as incorporating both male and female [although some feminists claim that gender politics aimed at demolishing phallogocentrism would surely destroy conventional male identities as well?], nor would they see the separation between the biological and the social.  Instead, it has long been argued that gender is a matter of a network of power relations rather than a set of attributes [and lots of feminist writers are cited in support, page 5].  Feminism has also long seen the connection between gender, race, class and post colonialism.  [Spivak is the only name cited that I recognize].  Even sexual difference theorists see that category as a problematic one, not to be reduced to biology.

The whole issue is contradictory [‘chiasmic’], and seems to be driven by a need to isolate a proper object for lesbian and gay studies, ‘an idealization that is perhaps not without its aggression’ (6).  The claim to begin with an analogy with feminism in fact offers a serious reduction of its object of interest.  Establishing the proper objects of study is often accompanied with ‘a mundane sort of violence’ of this kind, or fabricated founding narrative.  Only after a considerable reduction and redefinition of concepts, can 'proper objects' emerge.  In this case, the break between the two disciplines is also excessive, since there is a great deal of overlap and common interests from which both have emerged.  The break emerged from dubious denials of this common history, and undue specialism which excludes the originating interests in race and class as well.

[The next bit clarifies further trends which have marginalised and reduced feminism, especially the campaign against pornography which has rendered women as helpless victims ,and sexuality as a simple matter of domination or subordination].

MacKinnon in particular has seen sexual domination as central to masculinity, with coercive subordination as defining women.  This is reductionist, both of gender and of heterosexual activity.  [Argued out at a conference in 1983!] Feminism has been seen instead as involving sexual liberation [more names, of whom I recognized only bell hooks, 8].  Sexual freedom involves danger but also pleasure, and this has involved more than simple opposition to pornography.  This is another tendency that resists the dualism announced by L&G.

The Reader apparently cites an essay by Rubin on the tendency in some feminism to equate gender and sexuality, but this was related to a debate within feminism at the time, and cannot be generalized.  [And then there is detailed critique which I think is arguing that particularly close connections between gender and sex have emerged in different places and at different times, but should be understood as hegemonic.  Other feminist strands have been effective at refusing the terms of this hegemonic equation].  Even Rubin apparently separated sexual and gender forms of oppression, and was arguing for an investigation of the specific politics of sexuality to include queer categories in 1983, before the announcement of the need for a new discipline.

It is important to refuse all reductions—of sexuality to class and of sexuality to gender—but there is a reduction to lesbian and gay studies being proposed in the Reader too.  The latter approach neglects factors such as race and class (or sees them as mere instances), and also excludes other sexual minorities—it tends to explain transsexualism as a kind of homosexuality, for example.  By avoiding the concept of gender, it also ignores transgender issues.  By claiming an exclusive focus on sex, it seems to be laying claim to heterosexuality as well.  Butler also thinks that even queer theory might not be able to achieve inclusiveness (11).

Rubin is really criticizing MacKinnon and her insistence that genders are the result of the construction and manipulation of sexual identity.  It is MacKinnon’s approach which has become associated with feminism [in popular discourse?], and this has opened Rubin to the unintended consequence of being a founding text for lesbian and gay studies.  It has also marginalized the sexual liberationists who are now not often recognized as being feminist at all.  It is also responsible for the apparent disinterest in feminism in sex.  Rubin actually was developing a Foucaldian line on the development of a separate regime of sexuality, splitting from kinship.  Kinship regulates gender, but a whole new series of state regulations are required to regulate sexual activity for Rubin.  [This argument apparently lay behind feminist interest in psychoanalysis, and then its rejection in favour of Foucault]. Does this distinction still work?  Foucault can be seen as unnecessarily Eurocentric [and also reproducing a particular context in other ways?]. 

However, modern medical regimes of sexuality can still be used to support kinship systems or ‘family values’.  So do some state regulations such as the management of the endangered child, the insistence on sexual privacy, the moral campaigns against people with AIDS and their dissociation from ‘normal families’.  Currently frozen notions of kinship still establish a norm, although there are attempts to think of more utopian forms such as the buddy system between male gays, rights for non heterosexual couples, property relations extending beyond heterosexual relations.  These are ways of moving not only beyond the idea of reproduction as central to kinship, but breaking with other conceptions as well.  There is a more radical attempt to break with psychoanalytic notions of family relations as well, and to identify specific sites of sexual constraint and prohibition.  It is necessary to see the strands as having common cause politically, not least in opposing MacKinnon’s campaigns.

So identifying feminism as simply a concern with gender ignores such interesting radical sexual politics and interest in the interrelations with race and class—feminism has established a number of anti racist practices, for example, especially in third world feminism.  MacKinnon is not the defining writer; gender is not a matter of fixed sexual identities and there has been considerable debate about the relation between the two; sexual regulation cannot be easily separated from the politics of gender.  Thus the objects of analysis of lesbian and gay studies are inadequately defined.

Braidotti is one feminist who shows the interweaving implications in sexual difference.  She and Grosz have tried to develop notions of corporeality that are not biologically or culturally reductionist, so that sexual difference can be reduced neither to gender nor to sex.  The critique of the subject prevents these easy reductions: the construction of the subject is what excludes the feminine.  Language is seen as crucial and this must be accepted by conventional gender approaches: the construction of the subject precedes Lacanian emphases on the subsequent gendering of the subject and the development of the unconscious (16).  The asymmetry of this structuring process can sometimes be ignored by some gender studies approaches.

[I think Butler is arguing that there could be an unholy alliance of these two trends.  In America, gender studies is being attacked by lesbian and gay studies, while European theorists see the turn to gender as an unnecessary constraint on feminist politics.  Both positions over emphasize the interest in gender in feminist politics as opposed to an interest in sexual liberation, or in combinations of gender and race, especially in the USA.  The term to gender began as an attempt to move beyond biological determinism, but it is now seen to be an unnecessary constraint—unfairly, Butler thinks in both cases?  Some American feminists have also seen gender as too simple a term compared to psychoanalytic approaches.  Again, it is possible to see all these positions as taking too simple a view of feminist work on gender].

Sexual difference approaches examine the asymmetrical construction of masculinity and femininity, often at the symbolic level.  Gender, however tends to be a sociologistic category, examining social configurations rather than the construction of subjects.  The former assumes that the symbolic is a prior category to the sociological. 

However, a further complication is found in the work of Irigaray on the feminine as a category that exceeds all representations in articulations.  Specifically, the feminine ‘is a signifier within a masculinist economy, but then it “exists” outside that economy’ (18), as something that must be controlled and ‘repudiated’ by masculinist economy.  Those approaches that focus on gender only in the former sense have misidentified it, and run the risk of reproducing masculinist categories instead of establishing a basis to criticise them.  So Irigaray claims that the feminine is always somewhere else; Spivak talks about simultaneous creation and erasure of the feminine as a process within masculinist economy.  The excessive nature of the feminine is not captured in conventional representation, which is based on masculinist assumptions: Cornell says that the ‘feminine has no place in reality’ (19), and thus escapes conventional representation and heads towards the sublime.

Thus sociologistic perspectives on gender miss this critical potential, and fail to explain why the feminine is so poorly represented in the first place—what must be done to overcome this tendency?  How can the feminine present itself when it is radically unrepresentable?

This argument that the feminine exceeds the limits of representation is also an argument to say that it structures representation and its articulation with the social.  Yet this can be too tight and eternal an articulation as in Lacan—‘the phallus emerges as the primary signifier, and the feminine as the always-already repudiated’ (19), and this underpins ‘the cultural presumption of heterosexist hegemony’.  There is clearly a need to rethink the relation between the social and the symbolic [the representational], possibly to think of ways in which changes in the former might affect the latter.  We might need to disentangle this search from Marxist teleology [not sure why, something to do with teleology now being contained entirely within the symbolic?] (20).  [Then I think a bit about whether sexual difference approaches could undo this repressive articulation with the social].

The Lacanian bond can be undone by a thinking of the symbolic as far more dynamic, subject to change as a result of social practices.  These must involve sexual practices [I think], and it will be a conservative move to separate sex and gender politics, especially if sexual practices are seen as having nothing to do with sexual differences of the conventional kind.  This would be a conservative kind of liberation that did not threaten masculinism.  This naivety extends to including lesbian and gay practices together as if both can escape equally. Others have warned about the tendency for male gays and queers to separate themselves from feminism, leading to gay conservatism.  The theoretical split between feminism and lesbian and gay studies ‘perform[s] the academic version of breaking coalition’ (21).

Both L&G and queer studies need to move beyond these positions and resist ‘the interests of canonization and provisional institutional legitimation’ (21).  Race and class, and their connections with relations of power need to be brought back in, against ‘institutional separatisms’.  We need conversations and self criticisms rather than ‘territorial claims’ which often turn into caricature of rival positions.  These are the real basis for claims of autonomy.  We want to re-establish links and resist institutionalization [perhaps this is a bit strong]: ‘For normalizing the queer would be, after all, its sad finish’ (21).

[Apparently, the piece goes on to examine two interviews to show the possibilities—presumably in the same journal?  The notes contains small extracts from these interviews as well?]

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