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

76: Judith Butler part II:
Imitation, Gender Insubordination

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         In her essay “Imitation and Gender insubordination,” (1990) Judith Butler considers what it means to be lesbian. She fits the profile of a lesbian but rejects the label because any label is never significantly true and almost always works in the service of an oppressive, exclusionary and disciplinary regime. Even when a category appears to be trying to legitimize itself and/or working against existing oppressions it is actually unjustly simplifying our thinking and molding people into categories imposed from outside (Q1).
         Consider her example of a lesbian “coming out of the closet:” the standard narrative would support “coming out” as a good thing, as a stand against intolerance etc. But what it really is doing is changing the center of our blindness: before coming out the audience may wonder: is she? However after coming out the audience will wonder: what is she? (a lesbian, being outside the dominating heterosexual matrix, is undefined and therefore a puzzle as to what that means)(Q2). In this sense the audience has gained nothing but a meaningless word. Yet, for the lesbian that has “come out,” she is now out of a closet that must continue to exist for her to be out: the closet (and the whole regulatory regime associated and created by the term “lesbian”) is perpetuated by the act of “coming out.” The existence of a perpetuating part means that the label “lesbian” supports the oppressive heterosexual matrix; while the created part universalizes a new unjustified regulatory regime onto everyone who fits the striped down profile. (Q3)
         Butler stresses that there is no necessarily common element among members of any category: we create these categories unjustly to simplify our thinking (that in itself is a bad thing) and take away from individuals the ability to chose their own defining characteristics while imposing a violent body altering regulatory discipline.
         In any label's indeterminacy is both its strength and its weakness. “Lesbian” can mean almost what ever you what it to mean. This comes with great human creative potential. However the heterosexual matrix attempts to impose its categories with notions like butch lesbian and fem lesbian to claim that even in lesbian relations one is dominant and the other is submissive just like in good and normal heterosexual couples. The implication is that all lesbian couples are bad copies of heterosexual couples. This is one example of an insidious power play to prop up the heterosexual matrix as normal and dominant when it is just one of a multitude of possible social relations. (Q4)
         In her essay “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary,” (1993) Butler takes Jacques Lacan's phallus theory of human relations to task for being heterosexist. Lacan's theory incorporates the notion of the phallus (a signifier of apparently veiled power or movement but actuality at a deeper level it is a signifier of the veiled desire of the Other). The phallus is not a permanent quality; but anything can become invested with the phallus function. Thus a car can be phallic if at one level it is invested with signifiers of power and movement and at a deeper level it is invested with the desire of the Other. In Lacan's experience women prefer to BE the phallus in relation to men. And so stereotypical female behavior is seen as BEING the phallus. Men prefer to HAVE the phallus in relationships to women and stereotypical male behavior is indicative of HAVING the phallus. Butler's critique focus on the assumption of conflict between the sexes. For Lacan most intersexual human relations are games of seduction at some level in which we try to castrate each other by taking the phallus from the other. (Q5)
         Butler's criticism centers around the privileged position of the Phallus as a part of the male anatomy in the social imaginary. Women may be the phallus for men but what about to each other? Our morphology of language has failed us by trapping any alternative relation into a poor copy of the ideal presented by the heterosexual matrix. Since, in the English of the early 21st century the notion of a lesbian phallus is unimaginable it is therefore anything a “lesbian” wants it to be (except what is imposed from outside). This amounts to the hope of the future for Butler because it provides for the possibility to overcome the hegemonic violence of the heterosexual matrix with a legitimate, rewarding and free alternative for those who choose to live that way.(Q6)
         Q1 Does every label really simplify our thinking and oppress us?
         Q2 When we learn that a couple love each other and want to get married we also know what kind of sex they will engage in: Normal pro-creative sex. If we learn later that there is some other kind of sex (say S&M) or if there is no sex we wonder about them: there is apart of that couple that is not normal. Notice the assumptions: normal pro-creative sex is expected and all others are not. In the case of lesbian sex there is no normal or expected socially condoned sex acts. And so we are left to wonder: what exactly does “lesbian” mean in each case. However in another sense we do have expectations of what a lesbian does. Butler claims these expectations are imposed, unjustifiably and unwarrantedly on lesbian couples. In fact most social labels are impose expectations that are unsupportable and unjust. Do you agree or disagree?
         Q3 Every social label drops a large part of each person's identity in order to find a common denominator between many different people. However people have varying degrees of the common factor and they also have a large list of unincluded defining characteristics which are implicitly (sometimes explicitly) devalued and diminished by the label. Is it a big deal to have a part of us diminished in order to be part of a group? What about when we feel we have to hide a part of ourselves to fit in?
         Q4 Should alternative lifestyles and relationships have their own independent legitimacy? Or should we accept only a few alternatives? Or should we impose on everyone the heterosexual matrix?
         Q5 Consider two examples of Lacan's phallus theory: the motivation of a male flasher and the game of seduction:
         The motivation of a male flasher: The flasher believes his woman victim has a special power: the phallus because she can move or excite him. He believes that he can symbolically castrate her (that is take away her phallus) by showing her his penis and pointing out that she doesn't have one. A reaction that shows shock or surprise is the flasher's joy and is usually interpreted to symbolically represent a woman's acknowledgment that she does not have the phallus. This 'acknowledgment' is the victory of the flasher to castrate the phallus holder for the purpose of reestablishing his possession of the phallus.
         A great deal of human relations are games of seduction in which two phallus holders (usually a man who thinks he has the phallus and a woman who thinks she is a phallus) compete to take away the other's phallus. Seduction is a game in which one person issues a challenge and tries to castrate (tries to take the phallus of) the other through a joke, action, comment or innuendo. The target of the seduction must choose one of two courses of actions: 1) be castrated; lose the phallus – that is: fold, end the game and give in or 2) raise the stakes – that is issue a counter challenge and keep the phallus. Each player trys to castrate the other but actually wants to be castrated after the stakes have been raised to a level in which their goal has been achieved. Thus in a sexual game of seduction most men are happy to end the game (that is be castrated by the woman) after their orgasm.
         Is there any sense to Lacan's theory. Is it really supportive of the heterosexual matrix?
         Q6 For Butler we live in a very politicized world in which we must prove over and over every single minute of our lives that we are male or female. If a doctor does un-doctorly things (like playing poker) no one questions the doctor's credentials; no one has to prove they are a doctor every minute of the day. But if a man says: “most days I like to dress up in women's clothes for a few hours” suddenly his manhood is questioned (what kind of man is he?). This is a disciplinary political regime that Butler would like to see vanquished. Do you support her quest?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren