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Judith Butler: Introduction to Bodies That Matter
2007/03/26 14:53
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Constructivism vs. essentialism: After a highly condensed summary of the whole book (1-4), Butler introduces the problem of feminists trapped in the tired opposition of constructivism and essentialism. Her focus (as we know from the book's subtitle) is on "sex" in the sense of biological sex versus cultural gender. She finds that neither de Beauvoirian constructionists or eco-feminist essentialists have theorized "sex". On the one hand, extreme constructivism is rightly critiqued for denying the importance of biological sex: "the social construction of the natural presupposes the cancellation of the natural by the social" (5). For constructivists, because biological sex is unknowable, it doesn't matter. Butler responds that sex does of course matter. On the other hand, essentialism is rightly critiqued for ignoring the natural and social history of sex: "nature has a history, and not merely a social one [and] sex is positioned ambiguously in relation to that concept and its history" (5). For essentialists, because sex matters, it must be knowable. Butler responds that sex varies over time and across cultures, so we cannot know what it really is.

Subjectivating Subjects: Another variation of this debate is staged between two versions of constructivism, both of which falter on the question of agency. In one position, "constructivism is reduced to a position of linguistic monism" (6). There is no "sex" (or "nature" or "body" or "subject") except as a linguistic category. In the other position, "construction is figuratively reduced to a verbal action which appears to presuppose the subject" (6). Linguistic categories are imposed on subjects, but subjects exist before and outside of language. Butler critiques both positions: "If the first version of constructivism presumes that construction operates deterministically, making a mockery of human agency, the second understands construction as presupposing a voluntaristic subject who makes its gender through an instrumental action" (7). The first position treats "language" (or "culture" or "power") as an unmoved mover, that creates (the illusion of ) human subjects and human history. The second position mistakes grammar for metaphysics. Because a verb such as "to construct" has a grammatical subject (e.g., "I construct", or "They construct") we suppose that real subjects must exist before language, to do all of that constructing.

Consider the following condensed and important statement:

Subjected to gender, but subjectivated by gender, the "I" neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within and as the matrix of gender relations themselves (7)

Let's parse it. On the one hand, there is an "I" who is subjected to gender; gender appears to be imposed on an individual, usually in accord with his or her already existing biological sex. On the other hand, an "I" is created as an "I" by being assigned a gender; a fetus becomes a person when the doctor declares "It's a girl" or "It's a boy". In fact, an "I" is not a preexisting subject who is gendered or merely the (illusory) effect of gendering. An "I" cannot be understood outside of gender (either before or after it), but only inside gender.

Deconstruction: Butler argues that this approach "is no longer constructivism, but neither is it essentialism" (8). She also observes that the debate between those positions "misses the point of deconstruction" (9) because deconstruction is not the theory that "everything is discursively constructed" (8). Derrida does not argue that discourse creates a perfect world. Rather, he argues that discourse messily excludes, erases, and stigmatizes what does not fit, and that discourse is disrupted by those exclusions, erasures, and stigmas. (Butler cites the "abject" not the "stigmatized," but stigma is a concept we have already discussed in this class and the abject is not, so I made the substitution.)

Consider the following condensed and important statement:

[Construction is] a process of reiteration by which both "subjects" and "acts" come to appear [...]. There is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability (9).

Let's parse this one, too. Note that construction is an ongoing process, not a single performative utterance; it is the repeated and repeatable activity that makes a performative utterance possible. Construction also makes possible the "I" who utters (or signs) performative utterances. Mostly importantly, construction is both persistent and unstable. Derrida's concept of reiteration provides Butler with a way to understand construction as both dominating and resistable. We cannot speak (or act) without conforming to a script, but we can also never conform exactly to the script. Remember the undecidability of the word "reiterate". It is both a faithful repetition and something else again. The "re" suggests sameness, but he "iter" indicates otherness.

Similarly, and most importantly:

sex is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration. As a sedimented effect of a reiterative or ritual practice, sex acquires its naturalized effect, and, yet, it is also by virtue of this reiteration that gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which escapes or exceeds the norm, as that which cannot be wholly defined or fixed by the repetitive labor of that norm. This instability is the deconstituting possibility in the very process of repetition, the power that undoes the very effects by which "sex" is stabilized, the possibility to put the consolidation of the norms of "sex" into a potentially productive crisis (10).

reiteration means to repetition and change. That's why construction through reiteration is both persistent and unstable. It is also why "sex is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration." Reiteration produces the biological sexes in which we are trapped but reiteration also destabilizes those sexes.

sedimentation is a key concept in Butler's argument. It is an image that captures how discourse becomes matter. The doctor's performative utterance "It's a girl" (i.e., "I declare this "it" is now a "girl") is but the first of many performative utterances and practices. Other examples include each time an admirer says "She's so pretty" and each time she is dressed in pink or in a dress. As such words and deeds accumulate, they take on weight; they begin matter. The femaleness of the baby comes to seem natural.

gaps and fissures, are the inevitable failures that, as Derrida argued, are built into language. Just as the act of communicating is always an act of miscommunicating, the act of constructing is always an act of misconstructing. The admirers say and mean different things when they declare "She's so pretty" or when they make a gift of clothes that are appropriate for a girl. And the girl's body is never wholly captured by the feminizing words or deeds. There is always something that is not feminine or that is too feminine. Despite the naturalizing effects of feminizing words and deeds, a girl is always more than and different from her sex.

instability is built into the process of naming and training. The same process that makes a girl what she is also makes her something different. The power to feminize a girl can also put femininity into a "productive crisis." Again, Butler is staying close to Derrida's argument about how deconstruction works. It is not possible to escape the structures in which we live, but it is possible to mess them up. In fact, messiness is built into the structures. The critic's job is to put that messiness to good use.

Performativity: Butler

Performativity is thus not a singular "act," for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. Moreover, this act is not primarily theatrical; indeed its apparent theatricality is produced to the extent that its historicity remains dissimulated (and, conversely, its theatricality gains a certain inevitability given the impossibility of a full disclosure of its historicity (12-13).

The first part of this passage closely follows Derrida's reading of Austin. For a performative to be felicitous, there must be a convention to which it conforms, but it also must not seem as though it is a mere citation of that convention (e.g., words spoken by an actor on stage).

The second part of this passage introduces Butler's use of "theatricality," which is confusing and perhaps confused. For now I will just call attention to it. We will return to in our discussions of later chapters in Bodies That Matter and of Case's critique of Butler.

http://faculty.oxy.edu/tobin/wsgs254/classes/butlerintro.html
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