Butler, Judith

Assigned: Butler, Judith. “Preface” and selection from Ch. 3. “Subversive Bodily Acts” in Gender Trouble (2375-88). Also read the editors’ introduction (2372-75).

From Gender Trouble (1990)

From Preface

1. On 2375-77 (“Contemporary feminist debates over…”), how does Judith Butler describe the focus of her study, Gender Trouble? In what sense does she mean to explore the “trouble” that gender has for so long entailed in male-centered societies, and for the constitution and wielding of social and political power? What ideas from Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre (2376) and Michel Foucault (2377) does Butler enlist in articulating the questions about gender and power (social, political, and discursive) that she means to explore?

From Chapter 3: Subversive Bodily Acts: Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions

2. On 2377-78 (“Categories of true sex, discrete gender…”), how does Butler begin to put into question the foundational assumptions of feminist theory with regard to identity, gender, and the status of the female body? (2378) How does she explore the implications of Cartesian dualism (which separates “mind” from “body” and treats the latter as indifferent or unimportant) and other philosophical constructs that would seem to posit “the body” as something given prior to any gender-based operations being carried out, or indeed any claims at all being made upon it? Why does this issue matter to Butler, given her focus in this excerpt?

3. On 2378-79 (“Wittig suggests that a culturally specific…”),  what criticism does Butler make of Foucault (whose work she clearly admires; see Leitch 1388-1450) with respect to the assumptions he makes about the relationship between the human body and the realm of culture, politics, and history? In what sense does Foucault’s main assumption about the body—namely, that “cultural values emerge as the result of an inscription on the body, understood as a medium, indeed, a blank page” (2379 middle)—limit his ability to deal with the gender issues that are of paramount interest to Butler?

4. On 2379-80 (“Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger suggests…”), Butler turns to the work of Mary Douglas for insight on the body’s status as a site for “codes of cultural coherence” (2379) and thus for the operations of power in society and politics. What problem does Butler find with Douglas’ structuralism-indebted analysis in its reliance on “the inevitably binary structure of the nature/culture distinction” (2380)? Nonetheless, what valuable potential does she identify in Douglas’ work with regard to the need to move beyond conceiving of the body as “merely material”? What would a worthwhile “poststructuralist appropriation” of Douglas’ work be?

5. On 2380-81 (“In a sense, Simon Watney…”), Butler mentions Simon Watney’s work on the timely, distressing late-1980s topic of AIDS among gay men, which Watney analyzes in terms of media portrayals of the disease as a kind of “pollution” brought on through the transgression of sexual “boundaries” in both a material (i.e., bodily) and social or ideological sense. What insight for her own focus does Butler draw from this analysis in combination with the key question posed by the previously discussed author Mary Douglas, “Why should bodily margins be thought to be specifically invested with power and danger?” (2381) In conjunction with Douglas’s 1969 study Purity and Danger, how does Butler go on to respond to this question?

6. On 2381-83 (“Significantly, Kristeva’s discussion of abjection…”), Butler transitions to Iris Marion Young’s 1988 reading of Julia Kristeva on “abjection” (see Butler’s gloss on this term, 2381 bottom) as a way of comprehending “sexism, homophobia, and racism” (2382). How, then, does this process of “abjection” result in such negative, destructive attitudes or tendencies, and how does this theory illuminate Butler’s emphasis on the boundaries of the body and the danger those boundaries represent for the dominant heterosexual/patriarchal order and its conception of stable identity?

From Chapter 3: Subversive Bodily Acts

From Interiority to Gender Performatives

7. On 2383-84 (“In Discipline and Punish Foucault challenges…”), Butler sets forth an argument made by Michel Foucault in his 1979 study, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In that work (see Leitch 1409-21), Foucault calls into question the “language of internalization” whereby the “prohibitive law” that condemns criminals is forcibly inscribed upon the surface of the criminals’ bodies. It becomes, in Foucault’s language, “the essence of their selves, the meaning of their soul, their conscience, the law of their desire” (2383). How does Butler apply this Foucauldian insight to her own concern for the “generative moments of gender identity” (2384), and for the way in which we mistakenly come to see even gender as essential, fixed, natural, something that comes from deep within? What conclusions does Butler now draw about the performative quality of the “acts, gestures and desire” that produce the seeming interiority of a stable gender identity? (On the meaning of the term performative, see J. L. Austin’s selection “Performative Utterances,” Leitch 1234-48.)

8. On 2384-86 (“If the inner truth of gender…”), how does Butler assess “drag” performances in terms of what they reveal about the construction of binary, essentialist notions of gender identity? Why have such performances generated a certain amount of controversy among feminists, and why does Butler, by contrast and following the work of anthropologist Esther Newton in Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, see such performances favorably? How does her discussion of this practice, along with strategic borrowing from theorist Fredric Jameson regarding parody and pastiche, help her introduce a way of talking about a possible alternative to binary gender logic? (2385-86)

9. On 2386-88 (“If the body is not a ‘being,’ but…”), Butler states that “gendered bodies are so many ‘styles of the flesh’” (2387) and that we ought to think about gender as involving “an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (2388 top). How do these statements, along with the final two paragraphs of our selection beginning “If gender attributes, however…” encapsulate her hopes for a freer future for those who don’t conform to heteronormative standards of sexuality? Why is it vital to think about gender not in terms of “expression” but rather in terms of “performativeness” (2388)? Finally, how confident does Butler seem in her conclusion that the approach she describes might eventually make gender “thoroughly and radically incredible”?

10. General question: To what extent do you find Judith Butler’s notion in Gender Trouble that gender can be made to seem “thoroughly and radically incredible” (2388) practical or achievable? If you say “yes, it can be that way,” what is the basis of your optimism? If you say “no” or “not anytime soon,” how might Butler’s argument nonetheless be valuable? If you are not favorable to this kind of argumentation whereby a fundamental category such as “gender” (and even, to some extent, biological sex, at least in Butler and certain other “radical” feminists and gender studies authors) is rendered problematic, what is the basis of your disagreement with it?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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