Friday, June 06, 2008

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

I’m not quite done with Gender Trouble, (N.B. The image shown on the link is a reissue of the book for its tenth anniversary - I have the original edition) Judith Butler’s second book, published in 1990. (Here’s the dirty secret: I’ve not purchased and am not planning to read her first book, which was her dissertation, titled, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections on Twentieth-Century France. I feel like it has less to help me with on my project of being literate on feminist theory. I’m open to quibbles from readers - or would love a report from someone who has read the book.) In spite of not being done, I’m going to write a bit about it. My intention in writing blog entries on Butler’s work is initially to simply understand it. To in some ways recount her arguments so that I may understand them better for myself. I imagine as time progresses I may share some of my reflections and thinking beyond her work, but for tonight at least, I know that this will primarily be a reporting out on the book.

Gender Trouble, subtitled Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, is divided into three chapters with a preface and conclusion. The book is an intervention into the basic assumption of feminist theory in which women are a category of people who exist and can be the subject of theoretical consideration. One of the interesting things for me about reading this book is recalling my own first encounter with it when it was published in 1990. I was twenty years old and in my final year of my undergraduate education. I remember being riveted by the book, but also frightened by it. What Butler suggests, then and now, is a complete new direction in thinking about feminism. Let me start with the preface, however. Butler outlines the general arguments of the book quite succinctly in the preface. She writes,

Precisely because “female” no longer appears to be a stable notion, its meaning is as troubled and unfixed as “woman,” and because both terms gain their troubled significations only as relational terms, this inquiry takes as its focus gender and the relational analysis it suggests. Further, it is no longer clear that feminist theory ought to try to settle the questions of primary identity in order to get on with the tasks of politics. Instead, we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity? What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constrains the discourse of feminist politics? And to what extend does the effort to locate a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself? (Gender Trouble, p. ix.)

The first chapter is Butler’s analysis of “women” as the subject of feminism. By the conclusion of this chapter, she writes, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” (p. 33.) Butler reaches this assertion through an analysis of the construction of gender as a binary category and the placement of gender within a binary system.

The second chapter is Butler’s analysis of psychoanalysis and the construction of heterosexuality and homosexuality. The opening of this chapter interested me in particular because she positions the analysis as a critique of strands of feminist theory that imagine an “origin, a time before what some would call “patriarch” that would provide an imaginary perspective from which to establish the contingency of the history of women’s oppression.” This interests me especially because I have been reading Judy Grahn’s The Highest Apple, which makes that move about Sappho’s place in history. Butler’s critique of that “utopic origin” strand of feminist theory is important. She writes, “As feminism has sought to become integrally related to struggles against racial and colonialist oppression, it has become increasingly important to resist the colonizing epistemological strategy that would subordinate different configurations of domination under the rubric of a transcultural notion of patriarchy.” (p. 35.)

Butler begins this second chapter with a recapitulation of the structuralist’s work, particularly Levi-Strauss, and then moves through a conversation with Lacan, Riviere, and Freud. This chapter looks at how psychoanalytic theory informs thinking about gender and sexual orientation. Butler draws on Gayle Rubin’s work in mobilizing her critique of Levi-Strauss and in formulating the conclusion of this chapter which comes to an understanding of prohibition as power.

The third chapter, titled, “Subversive Bodily Acts,” is about Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Her work on Kristeva, which is a pretty powerful critique of Kristeva’s work, makes me think that Kristeva should be my next reading project, especially as much of what she wrote was about poetry in particular. Butler has a particularly cheeky and interesting conversation about Foucault and the case of Hermuline. It’s fascinating and worth many chuckles. I’m still reading the part about Wittig.

Butler’s conclusion is basically within this sentence: “My argument is that there need not be a “doer behind the deed,” but that the “doer” is variably constructed in and through the deed.” (p. 142.) She then in the conclusion explores how parody functions as a way to construct the doer and to suggest ways that her work relates to feminist politics.

Reading this after eighteen years (with my original marginalia - I was reading it for university work then, too), reminds me of how profoundly exciting and frightening I found this text then. It is less frightening now because I can begin to understand the implications that it had both for theory but also for how our lives have been lived in the intervening years, something I couldn’t understand or anticipate then. This was frightening to me those years ago because of the instability that it suggested. It truly was troubling about things I needed to believe as foundational. I think this is an area that I’ll write more about as I work through Butler’s other books this summer.

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