Butler describes gender not as an essential quality of a person, but as “performed,” as habits of acting in certain ways in accordance with customs. But it’s not that we can simply recognize that customs could have been different and so throw out gender concepts. Gender is part of how we identify something as human at all and is tied up with our self-conceptions.
As a post-structuralist, Butler believes that the circle of language and culture makes up how we perceive and conceptualize the world, that in fact there is no raw, uninterpreted nature (at least not one that could have anything to do with our knowledge) that we then use language and culture to interpret, but that our world is just language and culture all the way down. This means that the model of gender as socially constructed is not one where there’s this brute physical fact, biological sex, which culture then comes along and inscribes gender on, but instead we perceive the physical as split into binary sexual categories because we already have gender concepts.
Though Butler’s book is seen as a foundational text for queer theory, rejecting as it does the naturalness of masculinity and femininity as they’re traditionally conceived, it provides a puzzle as to what practical action to take to break out of these binary conceptions, given how globally culture controls our thinking. Our past guest Martha Nussbaum attacked the book in a 1999 article as divorced from concrete political action, and given that Butler doesn’t believe in a self-experienced “true gender” that might differ from one’s biological sex, it’s not obvious how to apply her insights to the situation of a trans* person.
One of the first issues Butler deals with in the book is the effect that problematizing the notion of gender might have on feminism. She says that feminists (like Beauvoir) often take as a starting point for feminism that there is a discretely defined group “women” who have common experiences and a common situation of oppression. But what about non-binary folks? Butler thinks that one can have a liberating political coalition without artificially imposing a unity on all feminists.
This discussion continues to include Jennifer Hansen from our Simone de Beauvoir episodes. We all read the two prefaces (one of which was added in 1999 and responds to some of the objections raised by Nussbaum), all of part I, “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire,” part III, section iv: “Subversive Bodily Acts: Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions,” and the conclusion. Buy the book.
Image by Solomon Grundy.
If we have any non-binary philosopher (or podcaster or other representative or commentator of some sort) listeners who might want to contribute feedback in some form to this episode, please contact Mark.