Judith Butler, Phenomenologically

Posted: January 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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As promised, I have more research to share. Today I will be discussing Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” For those who don’t know, Butler is one of the most important voices in feminist theory, and one of the most cited authors in the humanities (almost more than Marx and Nietzsche put together).

One of the things I like best about this article is how it talks about gender as a performance, as something in flux. Butler tells us early on that “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (519, emphasis in original). She is saying that the way we act informs our gender identity. That is, we have to act a certain way in order to have a gender. Theoretically, if we acted a different way, if we did not repeat the acts , the gestures, movements, and other enactments, we would lose or change that gender identity.

This is because gender is more than just biology, more than just what is there in the body. Butler tells us that “One is not simply a body, but, in some very key senses, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors as well” (521). We perform our bodies, we do them in ways that others do not, or have not in the past. We act with our bodies, in the process defining them. This means we could change them, if we did them differently. This is pretty obvious in the basic changes (hair color, glasses vs. contacts, clothing style, posture, etc), but, according to Butler, can be done on a much grander scale.

Doing so, however, does not come without a price. “as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (522). It’s dangerous to perform a different gender, especially if it is not one of the heteronormative genders (ie, male or female). Without that clear separation, our culture tends to punish those who ‘fail’ to do their gender ‘right’. And there must be a right way to do gender, Butler tells us, saying “Surely, there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions, is clearly not a fully individual matter” (525, emphasis in original). This gender is done by each of us individual, but it clearly not an individual choice. As she earlier wrote, we are forced to perform our gender in a very specific way if we want to avoid the punitive consequences.

So we are stuck with gender the way we think it needs to be done. As Butler says, “Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis. The tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of its own production. The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness” (522). We follow the tacit collective agreement of the polar genders, and we do so with such fervor that we convince ourselves that it is necessary and natural that there be only two genders.

But is that the way it really is, or just the way we think it is? Butler seems to suggest the latter. When she writes “In effect, gender is made to comply with a model of truth and falsity which not only contradicts its own performative fluidity, but serves a social policy of gender regulation and control. Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all” (528), it seems to me like she is saying that gender is broader than two distinct types, that the performance can result in more than just male or female. That perhaps gender is formed as it is because of historically mediated acts of individuals, and that those individuals are influenced by the status quo (523).

Butler’s believe in the position of the body is that “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time. From a feminist point of view, one might try to reconceive the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined or foreclosed structure, essence, or fact, whether natural, cultural, or linguistic” (523).  The body developes gender over time, and alters that gender as time goes by. Sometimes in drastic ways, sometimes much more subtly.

What is significant is that “Gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy. Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds” (531).

Gender is not a set state. Instead, “gender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again” (526). Because it is rehearsed, that means it is performed, and “As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act,’ broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority” (528).

Gender is performance. And there is more than one way to perform. There are more than two ways to perform. Which might mean that there are more than two genders. And I think there are. But I’ll get to that.

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