Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

75: Judith Butler part I:
Performativity and Variations on Sex and Gender

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Performativity and Variations on Sex and Gender
         If something appears to be obvious and agreed to by everyone then it is the duty of a postmodern philosopher to look at why it is “obvious and agreed to by everyone.” In our world today we live in the heterosexual matrix: a grid of cultural intelligibility. Action and thought are good, true and rewarded if they correspond to the following formula: From biology, Sex (of which there are only two) leads to the cultural notion of gender (of which there are only two), which leads naturally to desire of opposites (heterosexual love)(Q1). In the first essay Butler demonstrates the empirical un-sustainability of the first point; in the second she exposes the faulty logic of gender acquisition.
         In her essay “Variations on Sex and Gender,” Judith Butler confronts the problem of nature versus nurture in the debate on sexual and gender identity. The traditional narrative would make it seem that sex (the biological aspects of the body) determines the gender (the cultural aspects of the body); there are two sexes therefore there are two genders – everything should be simple and clear.
         However it is not that simple. The first problem is biological: in determining our sex we label some processes normal and others abnormal. Normality and abnormality are political categories introduced into science.(Q2) The second problem is the notion that we become our gender: culture is not determined and therefore there is an element of choice to accept or reject a cultural project (or thirdly to create a cultural project).(Q3)
         When considering the ways that our culture foists gender on us we are confronted with a third problem: there is an over abundance of cultural pressures and rewards; prohibitions and privileges that are offered for conforming to the corresponding gender of the “two” sexes. Why so much pressure for a “natural” development? Butler's answer: our present day notions of sex and gender are not natural in any sense of the term “natural”. As a result we are confronted with a political choice: A) do we keep the status quo? B) do we eliminate sex and gender (in the same way we eliminate class) – this is Monique Wittig's preferred option or C) do we transcend the duality of sex and gender thereby destabilizing the duality, weakening hierarchies of power and expanding inclusiveness of the world (Butler's preferred option)?(Q4)
         In her essay “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions,” Butler considers what exactly is gender and how does it come to dominate our lives. The limits and boundaries of our bodies seem to be imbued with social taboos that support social institutions and discourage other behaviours. The limits and boundaries of the body are the limits and boundaries of acceptable social actions.(Q5) Butler sees the incest taboo and the taboo against homosexuality as the starting points of gender identity. These taboos enforce a disciplinary regime that over time appears to regulate sexuality so it is thinkable only within a reproductive domain. (Q6)
         Empirically, in any alternative sexuality, there are many forms of desire and sexuality that do not follow the heterosexual matrix. “That regulatory ideal is then exposed as a norm and a fiction that disguises itself as a developmental law regulating the sexual field that it purports to describe.”(Q7)
         Butler continues: “...acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.” If gender is performative then there is not any real essence to gender and it can, in theory change and expand to the limits of our imagination.(Q8) However, in practice, for most people, it is very hard to imagine a different world with expanded gender let alone life in a world with malleable gender. (Q9)
         Binary gender is a political fantasy inscribed on bodies that produces a truth effect from a discourse based on the second fantasy of a stable identity.(Q10)
         Gender is not expressive; we do not express our gender because there is no “I” in the sense of an active agent. Rather gender is a performance in which we are actors that have given up our “selves” to conform to the role that was given to us without a script. Gender is recreated at every moment of social contact through sustained and sedimented social performances. (Q11)
         Q1 Do you believe there are two sexes, male and female; and two genders woman and man?
         Q2 A sperm fertilizing an egg is only one step in becoming an adult. There are thousands of “conditions” and “syndromes” of abnormal human development. Abnormal only in comparison to the politically privileged type. Consider just two “conditions”: gynecomastia and androgen insensitivity syndrome: calling these “conditions” as abnormal is an unjustified value judgment. Binary gender categorization is an all encompassing conforming violence imposed on all of us. Should we introduce the notions of normal and privileged types into science? Should politics really dominate science?
         Q3 It is usually quite difficult to change our culture (at work, in the family, or of the nation) but it is possible. How much freedom do we have to accept our culture? How much freedom do we have to reject culture? Are they equal? The difference is the array of political forces determined to keep the status quo.
         Q4 Do you see a problem with our notions of only two sexes and two genders? If you do, which of Butler's options would you recommend and why?
         Q5 The limits of the body refers to what is acceptable. In western culture it is acceptable that any two people can shake hands but it is not OK for just any two people to rub noses or kiss. Other cultures are different. Butler claims that we can get insight into the institutional workings of a culture by watching the acceptable limits of the body. Do you know any gender norms that are different in different cultures? If so there should be an institution in that culture that does not exist in ours (or is very different). Agree or not?
         Q6 Traditional Catholic doctrine teaches that the act of sex is for procreation only. Women's rights are often worded in terms of reproductive rights. Can we talk seriously about sexuality without reproduction?
         Q7 Today alternative forms of sexuality are more tolerated than in the past. Some may call this moral decay; others a form of liberation from a type of tyranny. Is there a purpose or reason for sexuality?
         Q8 An essence is usually defined as that quality of a substance without which the substance would not be what it is. To put it another way: a thing's essence is what makes it what it is. Do you believe that essences are real or are essences, as Butler believes, fictions we use to simplify our thinking?
         Q9 Part of the reason Butler claims we find it hard to imagine malleable gender is because the political machinations have hidden themselves in our own psychological self-image: we are taught to think of ourselves as having our own identity. We take ownership of the outwardly imposed self-identity (you are a boy/you are a girl) and now we feel we really have accepted and belong to the category. Imagine how you would feel if you became aware that people were not sure whether you were male or female. If this idea strikes terror into you then you have accepted the political discipline of a two sex/gender dichotomy. How does this linking of politics into psychology strike you?
         Q10 Butler, like David Hume before her, believes in the bundle theory of the self. “I” is a convenient socio-linguistic construct that lumps together our memories and sensations. The only thing “real” is the sensations; all of which exist and then disappear sometimes to re-emerge. In every moment of our lives we are in a different state of mind and body and all of these desperate and unrelated states are bundled in a fiction of the Self in which there is an “I”. Is your Self; your “I” really a fiction?
         Do you perform your role in the gender matrix or do you express your Self as a gendered person?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren