Published in 1990, Judith Butler’s seminal book Gender Trouble not only spurred a new controversy with respect to the ongoing debates in feminist theory and movement but also led to the empowerment of groups who were marginalized in their struggle for rights and freedoms such as being visible, existing without any unbearable restrictions in society and being granted with the chance to properly mourn for their lost ones. It is well-known that the theoretically thought-provoking engagement of the book questions the concept of “gender” which had until then been predominantly tackled with through the analytical framework of feminist-social constructivist theories. Engaging in a critical dialogue with these theories, Butler’s intervention draws attention to the vector of discursivity in our understanding of the conflicted distinction between sex and gender and its clearly troubled implications.
The influence of Michel Foucault in Butler’s critical analysis of the prevalent ideas in the feminist canon is obvious in her constant emphasis on discursivity. The investigation of the term of discursivity in Butler requires grasping the relationship between power and discourse in Foucault. The concept of power which Foucault problematizes in “The Subject and Power” informs much of Butler’s sense of power. In this article, Foucault distinguishes his notion of power from the Hobbesian model where power is understood to be a kind of potency given up by each and every citizen of a society and transferred to the monarch. Foucault instead develops a theory of power understood in its relations. The term of power relations implies the relations between individuals and a set of modes of acts affecting actions of others. In this perspective, power relations should not be conceived as exercising direct physical violence or putting pressure on other people. It is not owned or possessed by one individual, it cannot be appropriated as if it were an asset or commodity. It feeds on a plane of possibility where acting-subjects’ actions are registered. Foucault says: “power provokes, encourages, seduces, catalyzes, obstructs, widens or restricts…” Power relations have influenced the entire social domain to such an extent that the idea of a society where there are no power relations can only be conceived as an abstraction. However, this should not lead us to think that power relations are static or unwavering. The ambivalence of power relations always leaves room for the possibility of their subversion.
How is it that power relations spread out and extend across the entirety of the social body we inhabit and thereby characterize and constitute it? Power relations cannot be thought separately from the production, accumulation and propagation of discourses of truth. Power relations operate through that economy working from within, and through power. Foucault states that power not only constantly forces us to produce truth and admit to it but also institutionalizes, encourages, and rewards the endeavour towards the search for truth. Most importantly, he establishes the fact that it is the production of truth which defines and determines the law. In this sense, we are all subjected to, judged, sentenced, and categorized by a regime of truth and are forced to live a certain life and die a certain kind of death. This Foucauldian analysis of the discourses of truth has been central to Butler’s theoretical project.
According to the Butlerian reading of power, it acts on the subject in at least two ways. Firstly, power is the condition of possibility for the subject and thus constitutes it. Secondly, power is taken over in one’s own agency and is reiterated.
Foucault’s postulation of power as a mode of action penetrating into the sphere of interpersonal relations, rather than a single point which holds power in its entirety, discloses power’s constitutive relation to the subject. In his lectures in 1976, Foucault argues that individuals are means of power in the sense that power is dispersed by “passing through” individuals. This presentation of power as relations of power suggests that there is no construction outside and against individuals. In this formulation which brings forth the equivocality of the word subject, we happen to be both an effect and a means of power: “the subject which is subject to other and the subject connected to their identity through consciousness or self-knowledge.” Here, the double meaning of the word signifies a form of power which subjugates and subjectifies at one and the same time. Butler highlights this connection between the process of subjectivation and power by implying that no individual can become a subject without being subjected to or going through the process of subjectivation. According to the Butlerian reading of power, it acts on the subject in at least two ways. First, power is the condition of possibility for the subject and thus constitutes it. Second, power is taken over in one’s own agency and is reiterated. This complex notion of power raises the question of whether the subjection of the subject is pre- or post- power, which places us in a double bind. Butler approaches this question as part of two modes of temporality. The first mode is active from the very beginning and always precedes and extends the subject. Being “the willed effect of the subject,” the second mode presents itself as one of the most controversial problems at the heart of identity politics since the subordination that the subject itself brings on is also the guarantor of its resistance. This ambivalence acquires an even greater complexity in that power is situated both outside of the subject and in the subject, the later being its locus. Nevertheless, this does not translate into a notion of power which is reducible to the subject, power cannot be identified with the subject alone. The subject serves as the locus of power’s activity and reiteration, which creates the possibility for the reversal of power relations. Butler refers to this reversal in relation to sexuality when she states the following:
“…the sexuality that emerges within the matrix of power relations is not a simple replication or copy of the law itself, a uniform repetition of a masculinist economy of identity. The productions swerve from their original purposes and inadvertently mobilize possibilities of ‘subjects’ that do not merely exceed the bounds of cultural intelligibility, but effectively expand the boundaries of what is, in fact, culturally intelligible.”
From Identity Trouble to Gender Trouble
From this point of view, “identity”, in the trajectory of Butler’s theoretical investigation, problematizes the relation between the politics of recognition and the fact of subordination. The subject in question who demands recognition is forced to take over a category that is not of its own making and necessarily affirms its existence in a discourse which remains hegemonic and indifferent to the subject. Therefore, while demanding the recognition of its existence, the subject pays a price by becoming subordinated in the very process of subjectivation. To the extent that our urge to be recognized and our desire to affirm our existence make us vulnerable and even subject us to the conditions of power, the politics of recognition is both enabling and disabling at the same time. When Rosemary Hennessy talks about identity policies in her article in The Socialist Feminist Project, she refers to identities’ being in possession of “stories of a history of suffering”. This shared history of trauma makes them fruitful resources for resentment to surge, a kind of resentment that excludes and negates other forms of existence, authorized by feelings of fragility arising from the violent past of oppressed identities. Such fragility is almost always accompanied by feelings of security in belonging to and finding territory in an identity. Does this not suggest, then, that power in the Butlerian sense would take advantage of our psychic fluctuations for its own ends? This brings us to the essential theme in Butler’s Psychic Life of Power in which she relentlessly presents us the risks of identity politics. When we speak through a narrative of victimhood, Butler claims, we are more likely to grow a bond to the identity which power establishes through its injurious connotation. We might indeed find ourselves developing an even stronger bond to the injurious concepts amidst strong feelings of narcissism. And if we dare to withstand these terms, we might reinforce power, this time by authorizing it simply in our act of defiance. In this regard, “self-colonizing trajectory of certain forms of identity politics”, Butler argues, is a sign and a symptom of this paradoxical bearing of the hurtful term. Butler’s philosophical route exposes this paradox which manifests itself as a major conflict at the core of identity politics and forewarns against policies which are less cautious of the potential problems and risks of identity politics.
To the extent that our urge to be recognized and our desire to affirm our existence make us vulnerable and even subject us to the conditions of power, the politics of recognition is both enabling and disabling at the same time.
Aiming at the full recognition of a diverse spectrum of sex and sexuality, gender politics and queer theory base much of their theoretical vocabulary on Butler’s project essentially developed in Bodies That Matter. In this book, she takes up speech act theory and focuses, in particular, on the performative function of speech acts. Power codes identities such as “queer”, “gay”, “lesbian” as marginal and unintelligible through the heterosexualizing discourse and exclusively includes them in order to institute a certain kind of social bond. What power conveys through discourse, as mentioned before, materializes as reality. In a society where the heterosexual matrix operates; hateful words, homophobic violence, and lynching are circulated through discourse which power puts into operation all over the social domain. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy to recall that the matrix of power relations enables its own subversion and the reversal of injurious forms of utterance and address. Departing from this point of view, Butler suggests that inversely laying claims to these identities- reappropriation and resignification of these identities- in the sphere of law, public and private lives could bring about the refutation of the homophobic arrangement of the terms:
“The arguments in favor of a counter-appropriation or restaging of offensive speech are clearly undercut by the position that the offensive effect of the speech act is necessarily linked to the speech act, its originating or enduring context or, indeed, its animating intentions or original deployments. The revaluation of terms such as “queer” suggest that speech can be “returned” to its speaker in a different form, that it can be cited against its originary purposes, and perform a reversal of effects.the gap that separates the speech act from its future effects has its auspicious search implications: it begins a theory of linguistic agency that provides an alternative to the relentless for legal remedy. The interval between instances of utterance not only makes the repetition and resignification of the utterance possible, but shows how words might, through time, become disjoined from their power to injure and recontextualized in more affirmative modes.”
Having laid out the power of reappropriation and resignification, we can now focus on how this relates to Butler’s understanding of violence which is central to her political motivation and philosophical landscape. Her analysis of discourse is principally invested in revealing the mechanisms of power and violence operating through discourse. Aside from physical violence, Butler talks about a kind of derealizing violence which a speech act performs by setting the standards for the culturally intelligible and acceptable. Such violence takes place at the level of discourse and by the omission/erasure of certain identities. In this regard, we can take a look at Butler’s approach to the incident of Jesse Helms’ attacking Robert Mapplethrope’s photograph portraying male homosexuality on ground that the artwork is deviant. Butler reconstrues Helm’s attack by arguing that Helms sees gay men as “objects of prohibition”. However, lesbianism is not even portrayed as an object of prohibition or abjection in that photo. For Butler, the omission of lesbianism is much worse than the explicit prohibition of male homosexuality; lesbianism has not even made it, in Butler’s words, into the grid of the thinkable, imaginable, and nameable. Here, we are faced with an effect of power which is described as “erasure” at this point. Explicit prohibition still manages to occupy a place within the discursive domain where things can be articulated as counter-discourse whereas implicit prohibition or rather omission/erasure is equivalent to not being presented as an object of prohibition at all. Therefore, it is a serious concern in Butler’s political horizon to include every excluded and erased position in the given discursive regime rather than ensuring a radical and full representability. Anchored in a network of hierarchical relations, this struggle for making room for every position (especially queer) in the cultural domain cannot be translated as exercising violence towards, discriminating against, and putting pressure on cis-individuals, insofar as it seeks to escape the repressive strategies of heterosexist culture. Butler’s main concern is and has always been that no one should fear to lead the life they want.
Her analysis of discourse is principally invested in revealing the mechanisms of power and violence operating through discourse. Aside from physical violence, Butler talks about a kind of derealizing violence which a speech act performs by setting the standards for the culturally intelligible and acceptable.
Sex and Gender in the Heterosexual Matrix
Butler’s understanding of gender identity goes beyond the mainstream constructivist theories which consider gender to be a social construction, a fiction, and an effect of theheterosexualized life that is not of one’s choice. These theories postulate a biologically neutral and passive body, a body which acquires certain identities through a set of structural practices. Such a conceptualization of the body presumes two biological sexes: the feminine and the masculine are conceived to exist as pure canvases outside the signifying economy. Strongly influenced by French poststructuralism and Foucauldian analysis of discourse, Butler dedicates most of her efforts to come up with a theory which does not make the mistake of affirming either social determinism or free will. She states the following in Gender Trouble:
…the notion that gender is constructed suggests a certain determinism of gender meanings inscribed on anatomically differentiated bodies, where those bodies are understood as passive recipients of an inexorable cultural law. When the relevant “culture” that “constructs” gender is understood in terms of such a law or set of laws, then it seems that gender is as determined and fixed as it was under the biology-is-destiny formulation. In such a case, not biology, but culture, becomes destiny.
The trouble Butler detects in the assumption of biologically neutral sexes is that it ignores that the body does not have a signifable existence prior to the cultural gender mark. She takes this idea further so much so that she even refutes much of Foucault’s analysis of Herculine.
Therefore, when she explicates how one becomes a gendered person, she refers to the heterosexual matrix that accounts for discontinuities and inconsistencies between one’s ostensible sex, intelligible gender, and sexual/desire dispositions. This suggests that the heterosexual matrix of power does not beget the same uniform and symmetrically gendered bodies, since the patriarchal Law and the matrix of power not only impose uniform heterosexual categories but also provide possibilities for their own subversion.
Despite all the Foucauldian gestures in her work, Butler finds it quite problematic that Foucault refers to the presence of a libidinal multiplicity of sex before its discursive construction, since Foucault had an interest in the forms of desire that escape the repressive law and float in the pre-discursive richness of the unformed matter.
The trouble Butler detects in the assumption of biologically neutral sexes is that it ignores that the body does not have a signifable existence prior to the cultural gender mark. She takes this idea further so much so that she even refutes much of Foucault’s analysis of Herculine. Despite all the Foucauldian gestures in her work, Butler finds it quite problematic that Foucault refers to the presence of a libidinal multiplicity of sex before its discursive construction, since Foucault had an interest in the forms of desire that escape the repressive law and float in the pre-discursive richness of the unformed matter. In his analysis of Herculine, Foucault claims that the case of Herculine sheds light on pleasures which are thought to exist prior to the imposition of a uniform gender law. However, Butler argues that Foucault fails to acknowledge that those pleasures themselves are always already embedded in the law. Should this lead us, then, to posit that there is no biological sex? Butler says “no” in her reply through e-mail. Rather, she maintains that the assumption of pure biological/natural sex reinforces the paradigm of a heterosexually gendered society. In her reply, she states the following:
There is biological sex. It is, however, assigned at birth, and according to certain criteria. The felt sense of not belonging to a sex is a real one, and that takes a phenomenological approach. The question is how feelings of strong identity and identification form through time. No one is denying biological sex. It is just that it is always determined by criteria that change and about which there is not always agreement.
With that said, we can observe the heterosexual translation of distinctive qualities of female and male bodies through the discursive criteria within the operation of power-knowledge. The lens of the heterosexual matrix assumes a certain morphological distinction between male and female bodies, naming those who do not fit in either one of the clear-cut categories abject. This framework of the female and the male body has serious implications for the gender arrangements compatible with cultural intelligibility. The conception of a female body whose function in the natural teleology is strictly limited to reproductive tendencies is a perfect example of a not so innocent reference to a natural quality. Here, such an account of pure and natural biology locates the female body within a set of norms. Therefore, Butler uncovers the heterosexism at the core of the sexual difference fundamentalism by blurring the distinction between sex and gender.
Gender Trouble has received a lot of criticism due to both the misunderstandings that the book has caused and Butler’s constant recourse to discursivity. Is biological sex fully constructed by cultural norms and the power-knowledge regime? Does sexual difference exist?
Sex of Materiality and Sexual Difference
Gender Trouble has received a lot of criticism due to both the misunderstandings that the book has caused and Butler’s constant recourse to discursivity. Is biological sex fully constructed by cultural norms and the power-knowledge regime? Does sexual difference exist? And does the claim about the non-existence of sexual difference not add to the history of exploitation? Determined to substantiate her claims against sexual difference and the affirmation of the materiality of sex, Butler exposes the philosophical grounding of sexual difference in Bodies That Matter. Attempting to clarify the sedimentation of sexual hierarchy in philosophy, she traces a line of thought concerning the theme from Aristotle to Foucault, and Plato to Irigaray. Firstly, she examines the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter and its relation to the soul/body couplet in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Butler reads Aristotelian understanding that Form gives a certain shape to Matter along with Foucault’s analysis referring to the soul in its capacity to inscribe power over the captive body in the prison. Contrary to the exhausted idea that the soul is captivated in the body, Foucault proposes that the body is actually a captive inside the soul precisely because the body is produced and formed through the power-laden schema of the soul. Therefore, the captive is subjected to power not simply because it is inside a prison, but because the power inscribed on the body makes the captive feel like it is imprisoned. This portrays in a nutshell the principle through which power operates in order to give “form” to the subject simultaneously in the foundation of its materiality. So our bodies become the loci of power, materializing the regulatory norms as we perform and reiterate them:
In this sense, what constitutes the fixity of the body, its contours, its movements, will be fully material, but materiality will be rethought as the effect of power, as power’s most productive effect. And there will be no way to understand “gender” as a cultural construct which is imposed upon the surface of matter, understood either as “the body” or its given sex. Rather, once “sex” itself is understood in its normativity, the materiality of the body will not be thinkable apart from the materialization of that regulatory norm. “Sex” is, thus, not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the “one” becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility.
Contrary to the exhausted idea that the soul is captivated in the body, Foucault proposes that the body is actually a captive inside the soul precisely because the body is produced and formed through the power-laden schema of the soul.
Secondly, Butler goes on with her analysis on the sex of materiality in relation to Plato and Irigaray. According to Irigaray, the feminine corresponds to the non-signified term in the masculine signifying economy. When we trace the issue back to Plato, we see that the main set of conceptions and definitions cannot offer any explanation on the feminine’s relationship with philosophy. The reason for this, according to Irigaray, is that the construction of the man of reason throughout the history of philosophy establishes itself in a language which excludes the feminine. This is what Irigaray defines as phallogocentric language in which the feminine and fluidity constitute the unrepresentable insofar as logos has been organised in accordance with the masculine rock solid reason. Butler writes: “Women represent the sex that cannot be thought, a linguistic absence and opacity. Within a language that rests on univocal signification, the female sex constitutes the unconstrainable and undesignatable.” Outside the phallogocentric distinction between form and matter, there issues a specular surface which this distinction cannot occupy. For Irigaray, this specular surface corresponds to a kind of materiality that is different from the category of matter. This is the point where things get blurred, as this materiality cannot be thematized. Such materiality becomes a receptacle for the feminine and is owned by the feminine in the phallogocentric economy. This secondary matter in question stipulates the feminine to be excluded as ‘the external’ in the Platonic economy of matter. In light of this configuration, the feminine, as the receptacle that is forbidden from entering the realm of Form, is destined to be useful merely to situate the masculine, i.e. she is destined to be formed and penetrated by the masculine in the realm of Form which is the source of all creation. The materiality of the feminine is considered within “an outside” which is unthematizable. Furthermore, the dirty desires of the body, as opposed to the purity of the soul, are associated with the feminine in the Platonic cosmogony.
According to Irigaray, is that the construction of the man of reason throughout the history of philosophy establishes itself in a language which excludes the feminine. This is what Irigaray defines as phallogocentric language in which the feminine and fluidity constitute the unrepresentable insofar as logos has been organised in accordance with the masculine rock solid reason.
There is more to this gruesome portrayal of the feminine in Plato. Plato, allowing for one and only one representation of the feminine -the feminine being a mere receptacle in an undesignatable position- hinders the multiplication of all the normative possibilities flowing in her undesignatable position. Therefore, Irigaray’s strategy against the exclusion of the feminine in this representational economy is to show what this receptacle is capable of doing. Instead of accepting to be a pathetic replica/copy in this system, the feminine is to actualise the virtual feminine, defined by Irigaray as “sex which is not one”, through mimesis and feminine strategies, that is to say, to replicate the textual registers of the system. Trying to figure out a way to make the excluded term visible and invite it back into the system, Irigaray thus seeks to displace the phallic economy by miming it. In this picture, the disembodied masculine reason is embodied in a certain figure through the exclusion of other bodies. Although Irigaray argues that the receptacle can attain beauty, goodness and intelligibility by submitting to the imprints of the Form, it can do so only insufficiently. Therefore, we encounter women who are confused about and uncertain of what to do with their lives, as they do not know their definition, they are not represented. That is why it is important for Irigaray to affirm the feminine body through the feminine textual strategy where the feminine/fluid language in relation to the feminine body is put into operation. Butler, on the other hand, regards such a strategy as repeating the origin as origin. For this reason, Butler discards Irigaray’s strategy of mimesis claiming that it is an attempt to cultivate an identity with no replica, a project that would basically be reinforced by phallogocentric practice. She rather maintains that the feminine body has hitherto been conceived as lacking a certain morphology and contours since it can only represent exclusion and serve as a means for contouring others (mainly the masculine) throughout the entire history of philosophy. For Butler, the question is: why should we recover this infelicitous narrative and revive the sexual hierarchy buried in matter?
How can we expect to do away with social issues such as domestic violence, ageism against women, body shaming, income injustice, mobbing, rape, beauty fascism if we take sexual difference out of the picture?
Butler’s project of removing sexual difference from our philosophical landscape is not without its troubles as it fails to account for the oppression, exploitation and violence maintained in the constant reterritorializations operated by capitalism and patriarchy. How can we expect to do away with social issues such as domestic violence, ageism against women, body shaming, income injustice, mobbing, rape, beauty fascism if we take sexual difference out of the picture? Furthermore, Butler opposes Irigaray’s effort to affirm the feminine body due to its essentialist implications and think of its aspects as virtual domains of possibilities in saying that they lack a certain form. Such a position, unfortunately, feeds phobia against the feminine body resulting in its systematic trashing. There has been a remarkable change in Butler’s position since her engagement with Deleuzian feminists who try to philosophize the material and sexed aspects of the subject in a burgeoning field of studies. In my view, such genuine engagement and self-reflexivity tell us a lot about a true attitude towards philosophical activity.
Special thanks to Özge Serin for the proofreading of the text.
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