Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"

Butler’s third book, Bodies That Matter, seeks in many ways to clarify and expand the arguments that she made in Gender Trouble. I started reading the book last week and on Friday night at dinner with my beloved after the Mystics basketball game I was telling her how profound it is to encounter Butler’s mind and the degree of complexity in her thinking in the book. I’ve read many references to Butler and I have heard many people talk about Butler’s work, but reading it directly for myself is an engagement in complexity and her own resistance to simplification or facile understandings.

The opening question of the introduction (after quotations from Haraway, Spivak, and Derrida - just so you know the background of the mind at work) is this: Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? (N.B. one of the things that has struck me about the introduction in this book and about how she sets up each chapter is the way she uses questions - primarily as a series - to frame what she is going to write about. This is something that I could use more of and would change how I think about my scholarly writing as well. I think that I too often start with answers and then back into what the questions may be. Beginning more with lists of questions and then seeking to answer them through the process of writing would be quite fruitful, I think.) The text organizes itself into two parts, each of four chapters.

This morning I am going to start with a few comments on the first chapter of Part Two, titled, “Dangerous Crossing”: Willa Cather’s Masculine Names. Perhaps this chapter was more accessible to me because Butler is writing about literature and not philosophy where I still feel I struggle to keep up and lack the background to engage with her. This chapter also appealed to me because it relates directly to my thinking about lesbian poets. Butler begins by saying that “Cather has appeared not to place herself in a legible relation to women or to lesbianism” (BTM, p. 143.) This I find fascinating because I have always read Cather in relationship to women and lesbianism. I suppose though that could be seen more as my reader’s practice than Cather’s presentation. Butler then does a nice reading of Sharon O’Brien’s biography of Cather and compare O’Brien’s readings with those of Hermione Lee. This brief paragraph fascinated me because it highlights some of the decisions made in writing biography. Butler concludes her introductory framework of Cather with this,

Within Cather’s text, this sexuality never qualifies as a truth, distinct from heterosexuality. It is almost nowhere figured mimetically, but it is to be read as an exchange in which sacrifice and appropriation converge, and where the name becomes the ambivalent site of this prohibited taking, this anguished giving away.

What interests me in this is the way sexuality is constructed as an exchange, which is what I wrote about in relationship to Sappho and the Victorians, and what I have been thinking about in regard to how sexuality is constructed communally.

Butler then reads the names of My Antonia, notably, of course, Jim Burden, and the short story by Cather “Tommy the Unsentimental.” Ultimately, Butler is exploring the ways of writing as a man while being a woman and being a lesbian and what that says about gender performativity. That is of course exactly the distillation that Butler resists throughout her work. Another aspect of the chapter is how the body - the materiality of a body and the body within a text - is written and constructed, by both Cather and also I would argue by Butler.

Butler’s next chapter is on passing and the internecine relationship between homosexuality and miscegenation - a topic that always interests me. I’ll return to talking about that - and about the earlier part of the book, including “The Lesbian Phallus,” shortly. I’ve also started to read her fourth book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. I need time both to read the books and to think about how to write about them in an intelligent and responsible fashion.

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