General disclaimer – early Butler, as is widely acknowledged, is super unfun to read, plus I madly disagree with her, so it’s hard to get through it all without throwing the book against the wall. But I’m going to give you what I’ve got.
a) The first claim I’m going to make, just to set the cat right among the pigeons from the get-go, is that Butler is not a feminist, or rather, that what she’s doing in Gender Trouble is not feminist philosophy (it’s queer theory, and the reason why queer theory and feminist philosophy are different things is because they have a different set of political concerns (not, we might note, because they are defined by ‘excluding’ each other)). So, when I say she’s not a feminist I don’t mean, ‘she doesn’t identify as a feminist,’ or ‘she’s not concerned about women’s oppression in general terms.’ Whatever we might feel right now, Judith Butler is not a completely terrible person, and she cares about all people’s oppression in general terms. But, and it’s a great big BUT, what I am going to say is that women’s oppression is not what she is concerned with in Gender Trouble, that she makes a move that has created massive problems for the articulation and explanation of women’s oppression, and it’s less than evident how much she really cares about that (and I REALLY want lefty dudebro types to stop throwing her in my face every time I make a political claim about the oppression of women because Butler. Is not. A fucking. Feminist. *breathe*)
So, to try and back this up. The last time I re-read Gender Trouble I came across this passage at the start of the original preface that pretty much blew my mind.
“I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically assumed to be heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female ‘other’ who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the feminine ‘Other’ suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention.” (Routledge Classics Edition, p xxix-xxx, last emphasis, my own (!!!!!))
To break this down a little. What Butler is describing in this passage is one way of summarizing the essential insight of French feminist thought. Here it’s framed in terms of the way patriarchal masculinity denies its dependence on the feminine through denying the expression of women’s subjectivity in the gaze…but, as we just saw above, we can also frame it through the masculine dependence on the materiality of women’s bodies. The central point is this – the Western patriarchal subject is invested in denying its dependence on women, it is, therefore, invested in erasing and othering women, refusing to recognize both their personhood and their reproductive labour, and responds to all assertions of women’s psychic and material existence as a threat to its ‘illusory’ autonomy, invulnerability, sovereignty, or mastery. And what we have here, therefore, is Judith Butler – the great post-structural ‘feminist’ – summarizing post-structural feminism’s central thought about how the oppression of women works, and then telling us, basically, that she’s just not interested.
And she’s not interested – either intellectually, or politically. Philosophy, when it comes down to it, is an entirely motivated business (all that bullshit about rational disinterest is just another patriarchal ruse). What we work on is what matters to us, and what matters to us, more often than not, is what hurts us. We work on our wounds – on the places where we have bashed into the world or the world has bashed into us and we came away bleeding and tried to stem the flow of blood by imagining how things could be otherwise. When I say Judith Butler is not a feminist, what I mean is that her wound is not a wound of being oppressed as a member of the female sex class – or at least, that’s not how she experiences it. Her wound is a wound of being oppressed as a gender non-conforming lesbian, which she experiences not as a matter of being female, but rather, as arising through what she calls ‘the heterosexual matrix.’ As she goes on to say immediately subsequent to the passage above, what she is interested in is the way “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” or “that binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’ and the internal stability of those terms.” That is, Butler’s solution for dealing with her particular wound of homosexual gender-non-conformity, is to try and trouble the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘woman’ at a fundamental ontological level. (And for those of us who think we need the difference between men and women to describe how and why men oppress women, that is, seriously, trouble.)
b) To understand how she does this we need more than just a flattened reading of deconstruction as an assertion of linguistic idealism – although deconstruction will play its part. What I want to point to here is that, while Butler had, of course, inherited her fair share of deconstruction, her fundamental method in Gender Trouble owes a lot more to Foucault than it does to Derrida. In basic terms, what this is about is anti-normativity (queer theory as an intellectual movement more or less hinges on the thought of anti-normativity, which makes the uniformity of much of the present performance of queerness kind of hilarious and also sad-making). Foucault, famously, outlined an analysis of the ‘micro-politics of power’ which was principally interested not in how power negatively oppresses or represses people, but the way in which power operates through social norms in order to positively ‘produce’ subjects. And there’s a lot of good and useful stuff in there, about how legal and medical and educational norms and practices mould us into certain kinds of subjects – and how certain kinds of identities – ‘the homosexual,’ ‘the criminal,’ ‘the mad-man’ – do not only describe, but produce people in line with those identities, in a way, following Butler, we can reasonably understand as ‘performativity.’
So far so good. Now the problems. The first main problem is that there is a tendency among Foucauldians to get completely carried away with the idea of normativity (BAD) and to decide that all norms (BAD) are simply socially constructed algorithms designed to regulate and discipline human subjects (it’s never quite clear in whose interests, because power in Foucault is a diffuse kind of business that just goes about circulating and not necessarily for anyone’s particular benefit – HUGE problem). This is where the idea of ‘discursive constitution’ really ramps up. Because there is – at least in the early, most influential Foucauldian texts – no recognition that some of our social norms are there for good material reasons, or because actually, some things are just really harmful to people. There is a completely horrifying passage in the first volume of the History of Sexuality in which Foucault tells a story about a man with learning difficulties who sexually abuses a young girl, and all he cares about is how these terrible, puritan sexual norms about not abusing young girls are deployed to support the evil disciplinary treatment of this poor, hapless man who was just, he claims, engaging in “inconsequential bucolic pleasures.” (Fuck you Michel).
I could go on a long rant here about how this aspect of Foucault’s thinking has spawned a whole sub-industry of Foucauldian feminists spouting the most inane, rage-inducing, drivel about how the problem with feminists talking about rape is that it creates ‘rapists’ and ‘victims’ and how rape would all just be not-very-harmful-at-all if only we stopped thinking it was harmful but I once wrote thirty-odd pages on it and spent three weeks wanting to smash things and feeling like I was being gaslit by people who are supposed to be on my side and so I won’t. NAME THE FUCKING PROBLEM. That is all. The basic point is this – some things are norms because as well as culture, and language, and discourse, or whatever we want to put in the box marked ‘ideas’ or ‘immaterial’ there is also nature, and biology, and basic human needs (which are both biological and psychic) and whatever else we want to put in the box ‘material.’ And some of our norms – eat vegetables, try to exercise, don’t sexually abuse children – are norms because they have something to do with promoting well-being or avoiding harm, and might well promote well-being or cause harm (somewhat) irrespective of whatever we happen to think or say about them, and will continue promoting well-being or causing harm even if people stipulate that we should not talk about them because talking about them is actually making them happen. (Because yeah, that whole not-talking-about-rape-thing worked out fabulously).
c) This, basically, is where Butler’s – let’s just call it – ‘assault,’ on the normativity of the “binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’” is coming from. In crude terms the thought is that sex is just another bad disciplinary form of discursive normativity. (Which is about as credible as saying that the idea there’s a problem with oil slicks in the sea is just a bad disciplinary form of normativity – so, go tell that to the poor puffins). Now, of course, had she just said ‘gender,’ we’d have had no problem with it, but as we know, and has become multiply apparent in the way this has come down the pipes, Butler has some serious investment in troubling the sex/gender distinction. Here we do return to deconstruction, and it’s where things get pretty technical – but I think it’s worth following, because Butler deploys deconstructive logic to try and break down the sex/gender distinction, and her argument is subtle, but, importantly, wrong.
It goes something like this. The determination of any identity – be it ‘sex’ or ‘woman’ – is formed in opposition to its other – in this case ‘gender’ or ‘man.’ (True, or at least, that’s how it works inside a patriarchy – we’ll come back to this) ‘Sex/Gender’ is a binary pair that roughly corresponds to the pair ‘Nature/Culture,’ or ‘Material/Discursive,’ and it would be an axiom of deconstruction that we can’t neatly separate these from each other and there is something wrong with pretending we can, because such acts of separation are associated with acts of erasure and exclusion which, as we saw above, are politically sketchy. (Okay) Now we get to the place where she makes the move I would question. In the part of the tradition I work in, we tend to think of deconstructive and feminist thinking as ‘both/and’ thinking, which we contrast with patriarchal ‘either/or’ thinking. A useful way to think about this is as a difference between thinking of concepts (or conceptual poles) as bounded solids which ‘can’t occupy the same space at the same time’ and hence have to exclude each other (‘either/or’), or thinking in terms of fluids or gases or something that can mix or interpenetrate with another thing while still being itself (‘both/and’). So, the way I would think about the relation of sex and gender, or nature and culture, is something like x (let’s say ‘woman’) is both and at the same time natural and cultural…in which we understand that x arises through an infinitely complex interaction of nature and culture in a manner our stupid monkey brains aren’t nearly clever enough to grasp. We can’t draw a perfectly neat line between ‘sex’ and ‘gender,’ just as we can’t neatly separate ‘bodies’ from ‘minds’, but that is not the same thing as saying they are the same thing. They would be, in a Derridean phrase I’m fond of, “heterogeneous but indissociable.”
But – (tahdah!) – this isn’t at all where Butler goes with it. Where Butler goes with it is to stay inside a way of thinking about the relationship between ‘two things that are different but inseparable’ that is much more in line with a patriarchal ‘either/or’ way of thinking. A way – as all the talk of ‘lines of demarcation’ will soon show us – that is still completely in thrall to thinking about the relation between things according to a ‘model of solids.’ (That’s Bergson’s phrase). For sex to have its own reality that is non-discursive, she suggests, it must be possible to draw a line between ‘sex/nature/unconstructed’ and ‘gender/culture/constructed.’ As she argues in Bodies That Matter, the “moderate critic might concede that some part of ‘sex’ is constructed, but some other is certainly not, and then, of course, find… herself…under some obligation to draw the line between what is and is not constructed.” (11) This is the bit I dispute. There is no obligation to draw a line, either precisely around ‘sex’ or precisely around ‘woman,’ in order for these to be meaningful terms that do work in the world. Thinking that we have to draw lines around concepts for them to be meaningful is exactly the same old essentialist, spatializing, phallic rubbish that we should be critiquing. As Wittgenstein once usefully noted, we do not have to be able to point at the line on the floor where ‘here’ becomes ‘there’ in order to use these words with sense. Because essences and clear delineations and phallic oppositions are not the only – or most important – way that concepts work (if they are actually how they work at all).
What Butler is doing here, effectively, is taking the way metaphysical binaries have traditionally worked as systems of exclusionary opposition, either nature or culture, either discourse or materiality, and then naturalizing it (which is kind of ironic really). (And what is doubly ironic is that in doing this, her thinking of the relation between sex and gender is precisely the opposite of ‘fluidity’ or ‘flux’). We could only grant reality to ‘sex’ by drawing a “line of demarcation” between the ‘unconstructed’ and ‘constructed,’ and such a “delimitation… marks a boundary that includes and excludes…What will and will not be included within the boundaries of ‘sex’ will be set by a more or less tacit operation of exclusion.” (Bodies That Matter: 11) To my mind, this is only true if we think that the phallic system of binary hierarchy, and the way it constructs the poles in exclusionary opposition to each other, is actually the only way meaning or existence arises. And I think that is a really patriarchal assumption. What this comes down to is that Butler is collapsing the idea of ‘difference’ and the idea of ‘exclusion’ (and the current political resonance of that should be clear), and suggesting that the only way there can be differences is though mechanisms of exclusion. This amounts to a refusal to think the possibility of difference, and of relations between things that are different, in any way other than the way that is currently mandated by exclusionary patriarchal logic. And that is to miss the whole point of French post-structuralist feminism. ‘Difference’ is not phallic-opposition, and it is not exclusion. Woman is not not-man. Just as man is not not-woman. Women have their own existence outside the grid of patriarchal oppositions. And so does sex. And nature. And materiality.
What Butler does with the fact that we couldn’t define ‘sex’ without an ‘operation of exclusion’ (and it’s not a great leap from this rhetoric to ‘Die in a Fire’), is to use it to refuse sex its own reality – and analogously, to refuse ‘woman’ reality as well. (How anyone got away with convincing a ton of people that undermining woman as a political category was a totally rad feminist move will never cease to fry my brains, even though the answer as to why it’s been taken up so enthusiastically – patriarchy – seems pretty evident). If we can’t neatly define sex, but sex and gender are indissociable, what that then means for Butler is that gender subsumes sex – viz. “If gender consists of the social meanings that sex assumes, then sex does not accrue social meanings…but rather, is replaced by the social meanings it takes on; sex is relinquished… and gender emerges…as the term which absorbs and displaces ‘sex’” (Bodies That Matter: 5) If you’re going to make this move, you could equally well argue that sex ‘absorbs and displaces’ gender – but oh yeah, that really would be conservative. Either which way, denying reality to either pole of a binary, or claiming one pole ‘absorbs’ the other (how the hell can ‘exclusion’ be bad but ‘absorbing’ things okay????), or that because you can’t neatly distinguish them they’re actually the same thing, is not any kind of deconstructive thinking worth its name.
d) The last thing I want to point at is why Butler makes this eminently patriarchal move of thinking that the reality of things must be locked inside this grid of exclusionary binary opposition. To me this looks like a bit of a weird Foucauldian/Derridean mish-mash. She takes the Foucauldian account of the way power produces subjects (“juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent,” (Gender Trouble: 2)), and the Derridean idea that patriarchal subjectivity functions through a logic of hierarchization and exclusion of its other, and then fuses them together and totalizes them, so you get the claim that all “subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices” (3) that “constitute the contemporary field of power” such that “there is no position outside this field.” (7; my emphasis) This is, from a French feminist, well, from any feminist perspective, a catastrophe. It is, at base, a claim (and here I suspect Butler’s Hegelian/Lacanian roots are showing) that the being of all things – subjects, signs, political groups, political states, whatever – can only ever and exclusively be produced through hierarchical operations of exclusion, erasure and othering, Which is to say that all subjects are basically patriarchal (or conversely, no subjects are patriarchal), and that hence – and this is all where is all starts to feel sickeningly familiar – that ‘woman’ as a political category is produced by exactly the same exclusionary operation of power as is ‘man.’ To momentarily put this in the language of race – which I know has been decreed verboten but no one has yet given me an adequate explanation as to why – this would be equivalent to a claim of reverse racism, or that white people have been constructed as the ‘other’ of Black people in exactly the same way as Black people have been constructed as the ‘other’ of white people. And as we know, that’s nonsense. Because power. Not just circulating indiscriminately after all.
What Butler has done by generalizing Foucault’s account of productive power to suggest that patriarchal mechanisms of hierarchical exclusion equally inform the creation of all subjects, is, effectively, destroy the analysis of patriarchy as a hierarchy of power. And that’s, y’know, not very feminist. In a 1998 interview she gave with some post-structuralist feminists who work in the same tradition as I do, she wondered aloud whether the “symbolic order” of our culture is actually “primarily or paradigmatically masculine?”
To which I’d say, yeah Judith, yeah it is.