Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 52:04 — 47.7MB)
On Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990). Is gender socially constructed, and if so, how?
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.
This discussion is being released in three parts; get the unbroken Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
We talk more about social construction in episodes 227, 228, and 230. We'll be interviewing Judith herself for ep. 236.
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.
here is Butler on :Why Bodies Matter” on June 2nd 2015 n the context of the celebrations of“Gender Trouble’s
25th anniversary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzWWwQDUPPM
her talk starts around 9mins in
ps she starts by addressing the questions of the materiality of the body and that “to say that a body is constructed is NOT to say that it is fully constructed or nothing but a construction,”
Butler does not make clear her views on trans identity here, but you can find inferences to them in other works and later interviews. In Gender Imitation and Insubordination , she expresses her discomfort with being labeled as a “lesbian theorist,” but further qualifies such labels as being necessary within our heteronormative framework to act as a contingent, inherently unstable identity through which heteronormativity is satirized, and ultimately disintegrated. Many gay and lesbian identities can be seen as perpetuating normative matrices through reflection and inversion of pre-established ways of “being,” yet Butler claims that these imitations are “always and only an imitation of an imitation, a copy of a copy, for which there is no original.” Heterosexuality and homosexuality are definitionally implicated within one another, and thus it cannot be said that one is derived from the other; Butler posits that “the parodic or imitative effect of gay identities works neither to copy nor to emulate heterosexuality, but rather, to expose heterosexuality as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization”. The bulk of the essay is dedicated to understanding subversive identities as a destabilizing force that engenders visibility to those under their banner while still aiming to deconstruct the matrix in which they are established, via satire.
Butler’s views on trans identity follow in a similar vein: in a 2009 interview, she responds to a question about transmedicalism thusly –
“In her [Sheila Jeffreys] view, a trans person is “constructed” by a medical discourse and therefore is the victim of a social construct. But this idea of social constructs does not acknowledge that all of us, as bodies, are in the active position of figuring out how to live with and against the constructions – or norms – that help to form us. We form ourselves within the vocabularies that we did not choose, and sometimes we have to reject those vocabularies, or actively develop new ones. For instance, gender assignment is a “construction” and yet many genderqueer and trans people refuse those assignments in part or in full. That refusal opens the way for a more radical form of self-determination, one that happens in solidarity with others who are undergoing a similar struggle.
Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore ‘unreal.’ That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported. I did not mean to argue that gender is fluid and changeable (mine certainly is not). I only meant to say that we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization. I join in the struggle to realize such a world.”
I agree with Jennifer here that Butler is often portrayed as more radical than I think she actually is; ultimately, rather than the relativist bogeyman that’s conjured up by analytic philosophers whenever her name is uttered, her actual writings, in context, paint her as a hyper-reflective sort of pragmatist.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks. Since there’s little chance we’re going to read a third Butler book (we’re reading “The Force of Non-Violence” right now to talk with her about it) that would clarify these issues, is there another work about trans issues that you know of that would be better?
I’m still quite new to this subset of philosophy myself, so I’m not sure I could recommend anything in good faith. To my understanding, trans-philosophy is still young and rife for exploration; one of the visible emergent voices that I’ve personally enjoyed reading is Talia Mae Bettcher, trans essayist and current associate chair of philosophy at Cal State LA, who came to public notoriety through an online dispute with Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at University of Sussex with “gender critical” leanings. Her Stanford Encyclopedia overview of trans perspectives in feminist theory is as good as any other I’ve seen, and I found her essay “When Selves Have Sex” – critiquing Ray Blanchard’s sexual typography (birth of the now infamous “autogynephilia” – to be instrumental in answering questions I had about my own identity.
Looking forward to your interview with Butler!
Jennifer Tejada says
I have been hoping for so long that you all would do a series like this and it’s more than I could hope for! 2 shows on Simone de Beauvoir and a three parter with Judith Butler! Wow. Jennifer is a really perfect addition for me – like she’s always been there and very well informed. Thank you so much! Looking forward to seeing the citizen edition pop up.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Finally up! Lots to edit.
Steven Frattali says
“…maybe the discipline of obstetrics itself…from the get go there’s kinds of medical procedures happening on babies, like a new born,that is constructing what we now see as the two sexes….” Jennifer Hansen.
You mean like male infant circumcision? [the most wide spread of these “procedures” [enthusiastically defended, by the way, by Luce Iragaray (I can’t recall her strange argument).
Will Jennifer Hansen be joining the men’s right movement in opposing this practice?
Kevin Wilson says
Here’s my twitter hot take on this:
New @PartiallyExLife is on Judy Butler. It’s a clear and cogent episode, but honestly, I feel exhausted giving time and energy to intellectuals who don’t care about common people. After backing alleged abuser Avitall Ronell, then carceral Kamala Harris, Butler should be forgotten.
PEL has a big fan base, yet they still tend to side with established figures of authority and power, to the point of not even regarding themselves as philosophers, despite spending a near lifetime publicly discussing philosophy. It makes me sad, really. Like, respect yourself!
How can you rightly pinpoint Butler as a crypto-idealist while remaining silent on the contingent material conditions that lead figures like Foucault and Butler to rise to the top? Why is it that intellectuals can recognize market failures in everything except intellectualism?
Maybe it’s the combined strain and uncertainty of the democratic primaries, but I’m feeling tired. Tired of kowtowing to those in higher society who simulate what so many ordinary people already are or want to be.
Butler perfectly plays the part, performing what idealistic dreamers at the cusp of real self-recognition imagine philosophy to be.
Again and again, though, the representation destroys what it purports to represent. And all you’re left with is a sense that, “Well, maybe philosophy really is meaningless, if it can’t even lead you to clear judgment in obvious matters where you aren’t personally affected.”
Anyway, that’s it. Too tired for a pithy closing line.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Kevin. I saw your comment on Twitter but hadn’t gotten up to responding and am not fond of the “divide my comment over several tweets” format.
Re. Butler in particular: I’m aware she’s taken some controversial political positions… I haven’t read up on the details. Perhaps we’ll regret having her on the show (that’s coming in ep. 36) but so far everything that I’ve read by or heard from her seems pretty cogent and at the very least interesting: a window into a section of scholarship that I don’t know a lot about. Perhaps there are other, better representatives, but she’s the most famous that I know of.
And yes, fame, in the form of requests from listeners, in the form of how many times we hear a person’s name thrown around, in the form of how often their material is taught in classes, is 80% of the criterion of which philosophers, living or dead, we cover. It’s an artificial, imperfect way of narrowing our possibilities, but insofar as someone’s words have had effects on lots of other people, then it behooves us to read those words to understand what all these other people are talking about.
What is your alternative suggestion? Can you provide us with some figures and readings that you think more deserving of our time and dissemination? We’re very happy to hear and perhaps eventually act on your suggestions, just as we heard and have now acted on the suggestions of I’m sure more than a dozen people over the years to talk about Gender Trouble.
Social Darwinism w/in academia is an interesting topic, and I think we’ve only touched on it with regard to the systematic campaign to get Wittgenstein canonized by Russell. I don’t pretend to understand the forces that gain one renown and power in academia, though I do know that it’s not ONE thing, that there’s not ONE institution, that in many departments the different branches of philosophers don’t even consider what their fellows are doing to be legitimate. I do value the peer review system, though, such that I can near guarantee that someone who’s gained accolades through cogent academic work (like Roger Scruton, whatever one might think of his politics) is going to be more enlightening to me than someone who got famous through more democratic, crowd-pleasing means (looking at you Robert Pirsig). (Of course, we’ve actually DONE a Pirsig episode, and not a Scruton, as of yet. Really, if there’s a fuss about someone being called a philosopher in any circle, we’ll consider covering it, so long as it doesn’t cause us physical pain… like no L. Ron Hubbard, and there’s a reason why we haven’t yet done Zizek, Alan Watts, Ken Wilber, or Derrida despite their being requested many times.
For a different balance of respect for the respected vs. embracing the unsung heroes, check out my music podcast… but it’s just such a lower time commitment to take a chance listening to a bunch of songs by an unknown (and to me, music is like pizza… even bad music is still pretty OK) than, like, reading a bunch of Bookchin. (I’m imagining that that’s the kind of figure you’d prefer we cover, but I may be totally off in understanding where you’re coming from politically.) I’m more likely to want to look at someone like Fichte or Malebranche who was a big deal at the time. Insofar as we delve into lesser known figures from olden times, like, because current philosophers are, for instance, tracking down and retroactively uncovering forgotten female figures who didn’t make the Darwinian cut into the canon, it will be entirely BECAUSE that’s something that people are now talking about. In a rare case (the couple of St. John’s people we’ve had on) when we have a personal connection with someone who’s not famous but who’s awesome, we’ll have them on. But really, many many thinkers who’ve gone through the rigor of grad school and teaching and writing loads of books are going to be great… many more of them than we can possibly have on the show, so I’d prefer to leave them to the “New Books in Philosophy” podcast or “Elucidations” or somewhere like that.
An example that may be close to what you have in mind: I researched Vine Deloria Jr. after we did our American Indian philosophy ep. I read a whole book he wrote about metaphysics (not as famous as the stuff he did on indigenous liberation like “God is Red,” but probably more up PEL’s alley), and I found it… well, not good. Too much like reading a Christian theologian, and if we’re going to spend time on stuff like that, I’d prefer it be Thomas Aquinas that people were forced to read for centuries.
As far as whether we call ourselves philosophers, I think that depends on which of us you ask and on which day. The day I finally publish my masterpiece, I’ll feel more comfortable with the title, and I already use it as shorthand on Pretty Much Pop to distinguish myself from my co-hosts “the writer” and “the actor.” I think given what dare we do with no permission given by any academic institution, we’re under constant threat of being regarded as “pretentious,” so I generally prefer to just put my cards on the table and call myself a perpetual student. At the same time, we routinely get scolded for being rude to our celebrity guests, probably because, e.g. when Francis Fukuyama is on, I’m just going to call him Frank (which is what he goes by…) and not spend the first five minutes listing all the various honorifics he’s received. I want to be gracious to people we invite on (we’re all learning together; I’m not going to get all belligerent), but I don’t have much patience for bullshit. I would be embarrassed to be the kind of person who insists (if I had the Ph.D., which Dylan, at least, does) that people call me “Doctor,” though I understand that that’s in part my privilege that makes me feel like I don’t have anything to prove through a title.
…Probably more of a response than you desired. Thanks for caring enough about what we do to have an opinion! 🙂
Kevin Wilson says
Wow, yeah, thanks for the response. I don’t know if I have any solutions, that’s why I sort of emphasized the emotive elements to my reaction. I kind of meant the whole thing to read as a sort of argument by alliteration. And I’m actually weary, also, of reducing thinkers to their personal histories and political opinions. Am I guilty here of this kind of reduction? Maybe, partially. These same issues arise in discussing literary canon formation, and the answers are similarly dissatisfying. The best I’ve come up with so far, and it’s not very good, is, as a general principle, allowing room to criticize thinkers regardless of fame or influence, and being able, even expected, to treat them as equals to oneself. In the past I’ve been “called out” for the “arrogance” of even thinking to criticize thinkers like Foucault, and the tone is always to the effect of, “How dare you! How dare you think you’re as intelligent and wise as my intellectual Master!” And this kind of attitude I think needs to be completely rejected. It’s actually, in fact, or at least in my opinion, not at all pretentious to think that one can approximate the mental achievements of historical greats, even, dare I say, Aristotle or Confucius, et cetera. It just isn’t. And often when I encounter this attitude in real-time, what I find is that it’s wrapped up in the sort of anti-social gestures all too common among intellectuals and academics whose minds and sensibilities have been warped by the atomizing effects of our present-day society. All too often the appeal to the classics acts as a means to detach oneself from actual, live dialogue, ironically, precisely the kind of dialogue out of which Socrates and Plato appear to have derived their ideas. PEL in my opinion is at its best when it is reinvigorates real forms of dialogue, and when, in particular, you all are able to bring guests down from the academic anti-dialogue to which many of them are accustomed.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Deference benefits no one; even if we readers are dumber than the classic authors (certainly we’ve spent less time than the author thinking about the topic), we can make use of the ideas only insofar as we’ve critically engaged with them. Is it necessary to do so “respectfully”? Yes, insofar as you don’t want to close the door to getting more out of the reading, and why be a jerk? But no, insofar as we do want to assert our intellectual independence, i.e. actual thought. So, wells we can keep returning to, yes, but intellectual masters, no. (I’m guessing that no one is going to actually admit buying into the latter formulation.)
August B Denys says
I can’t wait (I actually can because I can’t afford the $5 citizen thing) for the second part. I have been meaning to read Butler’s book, but haven’t found the time to do so. What I found interesting in the discussion so far was the groups reaction to postmodern or post-structuralist writing. So, instead of commenting on the episode, for I want to listen to it again but have very little time this week, I want to suggest some postmodern texts for future episodes. I know Butler heavily relies on Foucault, but I think you could really connect Deleuze and Guattari’s work well back to this. They are mentioned once in reference to their book Anti-Oedipus, but their sequel book A Thousand Plateaus, could be really fertile ground for discussion, especially if, as is said on the episode, the obscurantism typified by postmodernism isn’t as obscure as it once was. There has been a lot of scholarship on Deleuze and Guattari since their time which has come from this book. So, if you cannot, or are not interested in covering this book I would recommend Manuel DeLanda’s short book, based on the theories of Deleuze and Guattari, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. What might be interesting if you do read the book is the social ontology presented in the book. DeLanda poses Assemblages as opposed to Hegelian Totalities as one aspect of the book. There is much more than this of course, but if you decide to read it, then it could be an interesting counterpoint to your recent episode on Bruno Latour. If one reads the SEP article on Social Ontology, then one can find a small blurb where they mention Assemblage theory as a form of Flat Ontology, and Latour’s theory is also included in the category of Flat Ontology (Specifically Actor-Network Theory).
But to bring this back to Butler, it might be interesting to view Butler’s Gender Trouble from the perspective of Social Ontology. That is, because of the nature of DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory, there could be interesting overlap. This is probably strange for a comment, but I’m always up for more postmodern philosophy.
does DeLanda take up subjectification in that work?
If not probably a better bridge between D&G and Butler/Foucault is:
Dan Johnson says
For the guest on the trans philosophy episode, I’d suggest Contrapoints, aka, Natalie Wynn. Not sure how to get in contact with her, but you could probably reach out on her YouTube channel or Twitter. She’s a philosophy grad school dropout, so she fits in well with the “but then thought better of it” thing.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I’ve emailed her twice with no response…
hey Mark you should reach out to https://english.columbia.edu/content/jack-halberstam
Captain Dasein, all aboard -- next stop Being 0_o says
Discourse refers to the logos, the silent language at the heart of the cosmos. Yes, species, identity, the nature of things (present-at-hand) etc are wrong since Aristotle. The logos is the union of heaven and earth prior to separation. So you have to work backwards through gathering negentropic energy to return to the force of creation — virtual spiritual light, the holy gathering which takes place during dream incubation/meditation, turned around is the light of no light. The force of creation is prior to the emergence of light. That is The Father whom not even Jesus has seen. The nature and significance of what it means to be human is wrong since Plato. What one can say about things is wrong too. Anthropomorphism is a fiction. “Man has to be overcome.”
The male and female bodies are different. The internal processes and meridians are different. Females are yang internally, males are yin. Males have to be celibate, females sync their menstrual cycles with the moon on the lunar calender.
Western science is a patriarchal solar cult. Nature doesn’t accord to what is wrong, Aristotle use visually contained space (an effect of being literate) to predicate what can be said about bodies in his Physics. The idea mother nature isn’t doing her thing according to wrong identification of man therefore Father Science is going to intervene with chemicals and surgery is just the latest incarnation of the patriarchy in the form of science.
You want to gather spiritual energy? Then you have to follow healthy habits in order to create good character traits. If you think you know better and think of transgresses some kind of moral order through thinking trans-identity is amoral then please explain to me where I’m going wrong. I’ll tell you now none of the presocratic philosophers would recognise anyone in the western tradition as real philosophers other than perhaps a few saints. This stuff is in the Bible. One must live according to the spirit otherwise you are living in sin and darkness.
A is A is self-reflective. Self is not something in the mode of presence-at-hand. Auto-poesies is a type of phusis, nature coming to presence under her own powers. There is no “self” the way westerners like to think of things. This stuff is in Heidegger. Being-in-the-world is a kind of nondualism. No subject, no object. The world is simple. The cosmos is simple. Western ontological status for number is wrong since Plato. Geometry is wrong since Plato. Architectonics is wrong since Plato. Truth is wrong since Plato. The only place to get a real education is in meditation. Meditation is where truth is unconcealed.
Quantum nonlocality is the basis for reality. But fundamental phenomena have to be understood experientially through the inner change brought about through the cyclonic asymmetric circulation of the harmonic ratios born from the holy one. One begets two as the ratio 1:2. 2 the first feminine number begets the 3 as the ratio 2:3. From the inherent movement of yin and yang things come into being.
Reverse the process, work backwards in time, negentropically. Read the beginning of the Gospel of John. That’s what has to be reversed, from faithful man to being baptised as purification of mind and body, to recognition of the logos after the holy spirit has circulated around the body to transform the flesh and nourish the soul then the spiritual nonlocal light, which is prior to matter, turns around to face the mysterious force of creation in unity.
Come on guys, nothing identities with gender in a negative sense i.e. the absence of Being — nihilistic corruption. Strange semiotic signifiers are an effect of literate minds using electric technologies. Electric media are non-visual, same as the oral tradition, but simulated by the aura stealing biomachine. Western metaphysics is an effect brought about through the use of the phonetic alphabet.
PLEASE WAKE THE HELL UP. CAN YOU HEAR WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IN THIS PODCAST?!?? There are no static essences apriori, yes. No timelessness. The significance of what can be said about things is wrong for the whole western tradition starting with Aristotle. Material accidents and linear time are technological effects. Need to deconstruct western ontology back to the “Other beginning” i.e. too the established western tradition there is an Other strange tradition, which got covered over, behind Platonism. Otherness follows from a mistaken idea concerning identity. A is A, A self refers to Being. There is no logical negation because logic is a deviation of the more original logos.
Mark Linsenmayer says
So meditation on the Word in the opening parts of John is going to be more fruitful than critically and carefully trying to understand what an author has said and charitably trying to see how that might apply to reality as we understand it? Sounds like a lot of dogmatic mystification.