Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dialogue about Judith Butler

This summer one of my projects has been to read Judith Butler. I’m nearly done with her books, though behind on posting about them on the blog. I’ve noticed on my weblogs that Judith Butler is one thing that brings visitors to the blog. Apparently many others are reading her as well. One person who read my posts on Butler is Lindsey, with whom I had this dialogue - I am in green while Lindsey is in blue.

Here's where I struggle with Butler and I've come to realize reading her that it is less of a struggle with Butler than with others readings of Butler. Yes, gender is something that is performative and inscribed and reinscribed constantly, but it is also something that exists beyond personal actions, even beyond community actions. Granted the body is the most politically charged template for imparting meaning, the body also serves as a mediator between the public and the private spheres. But, while _the_ body is meaningful politically, how is a specific woman’s body inscribed? To what extent does she/can she perform? I agree that gender exists beyond personal and community actions. I also tend to get a little pluralistic (as many genders as there are bodies, but admittedly this is not a very useful), but this causes other problems – intelligible gender is coded and all too often split in two. What is the “beyond”? 

Is the body the most politically charged template? Doesn't our template for meaning extend beyond the body? I think that we write as much meaning through things beyond the body - our words, what we say, what we write. As well as how we live, the spaces that we create for ourselves, the places where we put our bodies and where we interact with others. Can our lives and our inscriptions be really limited to our physical beings? Doesn't the performance of ourselves extend far beyond how we present the body? Can a person be known only through a physical encounter? To what degree to we present ourselves online (an increasingly important presentation - and performance?

Yes, it is interesting that there is a worldwide network with no bodies. =)
I agree, our template for meaning is multifaceted, and exists outside and inside the body. Consider a word such as “Rape” one of the most politically and bodily charged word, perhaps. Take “date rape” for example, which was not a term before the late 80s. Did women experience date rape before then? Bodies are what we have words for.
Regarding the pluralism, I find it interesting, but I don't think it holds up beyond theoretical. That is, I think that people perform a gender, or a multiplicity of genders, but that it is shaped by the community in which people exist. I think that there are microcosms of gender that get performed in peer groups. For instance, I was a particular type of lesbian (read woman) when I was in college. That changed when my peer group changed. Now my gender is read in particular ways as a partnered lesbian, as a lesbian living in the suburbs. People read my gender in terms of what is understandable and discernible to them which is based on THEIR experience much more so than my presentation.

Neat. Ok, does this mean that I am (or am not?) only the “seen” and the “interpreted”? Theatrically who is really whom. There are gender codes (or marks of gender performativity) that are and aren’t intended to be read. Some of these gender codes may not even be conscious, but we, as those who are hyper aware, would recognize more than most. There are degrees of awareness of performance, I think. Nonetheless I do tend to think there is multiplicity, and that is my concern when we split simply gender into two, three, or even four. But, given a person’s gender codes are legible (to or by any group), and even if these codes can change (even like socks), then the person’s performance is more likely intelligible. Anyway, that’s part of why I enjoy teaching first-year students in the English department, because in lieu of creating an environment for scholastic writing, we encourage them as thinkers to be better readers of marks of every sort of culture around them.
There are power relations at work in the world and understood by the world and those power relations are an integral part of the inscription and reinscription of gender.
I’m curious about these power relations. Are they fundamentally linguistic?                                                                                                                                                                                             AH! This is exactly what Butler talks about in Excitable Speech. I've not finished nor digested the book so that is about all that I can say about it. The opening, however, is very much about how power is and is not linguistic. At this moment, I actually don't think that power relations are fundamentally linguistic. I think that they are material. The power relations that I think of are related to who has access to decision making that influences other people and who has access to resources to the exclusion of others. Certainly there are linguistic implications to this, but much more, to me, there are economic questions. I have a bit of the Marxist perspective and union organizing perspective - who has the right to hire and fire? Who has the right to tell people to leave early? Who has money to secure his/her own time? Who has the ability to care for his/her basic needs and those of his/her family? These to me are the questions of power relationships. If I have the money and the decision making authority to control my own life, I have the power to inscribe and reinscribe my gender. If I do not, the question of gender has an entirely different framework.

Interesting, I wonder what this framework would be like…without money, per se.
To suggest, as some do - though I can't tell if you would - that gender is something performative by individuals and without material consequences in the world is something that is greatly concerning to me because it ignores history and historical placement of bodies. I don't think that Butler does this at all, but some of her disciples do. So I often just find myself adding too much of the performativity that Butler writes about gender that it has material and historic consequences. Again, Butler understands this and part of her project is in sussing out those consequences.

Yes! I agree. The body, and bodies, are texts (as suggested by “inscribed”), and texts are historically situated. Individual texts, canons, etc. In the 102 writing class I taught this spring, one of my assignments was “An historical approach.” Students chose a painting (visual text) and “read” it in terms of its historical moment – politically, artistically, symbolically, etc. 21st century “first” world United States American patriarchally determined able bodies have received and adapted on many levels bodies that are intelligible to their cultural time/space; and historical bodies are intelligible only through a contemporary cultural lens. That being said, how does an individual performance have any substantive consequence whatsoever? 
[A side note, I am reminded of a private school setting where everyone wears the same uniform, but everyone finds a way to express themselves – different color shoestrings, a barely visible tattoo, a different kind of scarf. Does this performance really differentiate one from another? or make any real material consequence?]

Individual performance does have a substantive consequence, but it depends at how wide the lens is. So for example in the private school, the lens is more narrow. Everyone is wearing the same uniform, but expressing gender or some other statement of individuality within that context. Extend the lens however, to include those students and the students of the nearby public school and there are different systems of gender and expression at play.
I’m still curious about this. The lens, wide enough, may allow for every marker of gender and expression. The private school sector, however, tries to stifle and constrict performance. So does society (close or far reaching). There is intelligible gender performance, and society determines, invents words to include and exclude, to appropriate gender within its framework.

What is really fascinating me about Butler is the way that gender has become an identity and her critique of that. I think in some ways feminism has produced the identity of male and female in a similar way to how Marx and Engels produced the notion of the proletariat. The analogy becomes interesting to me at the point that the identity of proletariat begins to come undone in some ways as male and female is now becoming undone. (As a side note, I was at  the Newseum in WDC yesterday and the front page of the English language paper in the United Arab Emirates was the story of Thomas Beattie having a baby. The first "man" to give birth. Why was this on the cover of the English language paper in the UAE? What does that mean?)

So I feel like what Gender Trouble did in 1990 when it was published was question a lot of assumptions of feminism and women's studies which opened up new thinking about post-colonialism and queer studies, but I also think that the materialist critiques of her work have a lot of value and that she is highly responsive to them as her work continues. I've been really compelled by two questions while reading her: what import does the lens of gender have for thinking about the world today? and what would our lives be like if we were not constructed with identities along the lines of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality?

To what extent do these identities liberate and to what extent are these bins constricting? By that I mean, how easily can gender, race, etc. can be thrown out or shoved aside even in the very making of a statement, an article, or a movement? Does the lens distort (make things seem close or far), or to what extent does the lens allow for a more clear vision of reality? Further, is there a way to bend vision? Even to the extent of bending vision back on itself?
It seems to me that the nature of the bins is both to liberate and in the process of liberating to constrict. I think that is part of what JB talks about that the inscription of liberation is by its very nature generating what is the next constriction. 

There is a lot more dialogue still to be had here - care to join in?

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