Bodies That Matter

Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge, 1993.

Critically Queer

Butler opens the chapter with an interrogation of the word queer, a word that has become "refunctioned" to represent new and affirmative meanings. How did this come to be? Was it a reversal of values whose past was degradation and whose present is affirmation? Does a reversal retain the degrading history? She points out that the use of the term as a slur, an attempt to force rejection onto those labelled queer, has made its user an agent of normalization. What aspects of the term queer make its rehabilitation and reappropritation positive and empowering, when other slurs only reinscribe pain? She cites Nietzhe's "sign-chain" to attempt to understand this better - is it simply that adapations and new interpretations have happened by chance? Adopting a discursive power analysis, a la Foucault, Butler writes: "It is not only a question of how discourse injures bodies, but how certain injuries establish certain bodies at the limits of available ontologies ... how is it that the abjected come to make their claim through and against the discourses that have sought their repudiation?"

Performative Power

Once more, along the lines of Foucault's power through discourse, Butler discusses the authorative power of performative acts as statements, through their action and utterance, "exercise a binding power" (pg. 225). She calls performatives "statements which not only perform an action, but confer a binding power on the action performed" (e.g., legal sentences) (pg. 225). Discourse produces that which it names - it makes it come into being through its naming. Butler argues that performatives are power acts as discourse. Discourse is used to bind the action being performed; for example, pronouncing someone as guilty binds that person to specific legal action.

In Butler's terms, defined earlier in the book, performatives are repetitive actions given power through persistence and instability. Therefore, there is no singular and deliberate act, so much as a "nexus of power and discourse that repeats or mimes the discursive gestures of power" (pg. 225). In the case of the judge pronouncing someone as guilty, it is not simply the words or action that give this pronouncement power. The judge cites the law, and the citation of the law gives the performative (the action of saying guilty) its binding power. Rather than power stemming from the judge or prior authority, it is through the citation of the law that the judge's will is born and textual authority is established. It is not in this single instance that the words guilty are bound to law, but "the context of a chain of binding conventions" - the repetition of law applied in this way (pg. 225).

In terms of the "I," as an individual, Butler argues it cannot come to exist through simple will. It can only come to exist after it has been named and hailed in a way that has mobilized it. Further, social recognition precedes and conditions the individual; it is not placed onto an individual, but forms them. She argues this social recognition is never complete; one can never fully inhabit the social identity mobilized through discourse. The social identity is unstable and incomplete. However, it precedes the individual, and one cannot speak without it.

Queer Trouble

Queer, as a slur, has operated as a discursive practice aimed at shaming the subjects - producing a subject through shame. She argues that this invocation of a shaming "queer" has created a social bond among homophobic communities. Through use of the slur, the interpellation of the gay subject has bound homophobic speakers through time to one another. The word has been given power through this repetitive use of shame, as if the target can hear all of the angry "queer!"s that came before. The success of a performative, like the yelling of "queer!", is only successful through the accumulation of force preceding it; all of the set of practices that gave it authority. Therefore, "discourse has a history that not only precedes but conditions its temporary usages, and ... this history effectively decenters the presentist view of the subject as the exclusive origin or owner of what is said" (pg. 227).

By viewing discourses as performatives, maintained through a historicy of repetive action which awards it authority, Butler argues for the critique of the modern queer subject. For the sake of the democratization of queer politics, one must interrogate the exclusionary relations of power that have come to form contemporary queer politics. For example in affirming "outness," she questions: "For whom is outness a historically available and affordable option? Is there an unmarked class character to the demand for universal 'outness'? Who is represented by which use of the term, and who is excluded? For whom does the term present an impossible conflict between racial, ethnic, and religious affiliation and sexual politics?" (pg. 227).

Despite the contemporary necessity of identity categories for political action, Butler feels it is impossible to "sustain that kind of mastery over the trajectory of those categories within discourse" (pg. 227). There is a wishful thinking in "the expectation of self-determination that self-naming arouses" (pg. 228). The history of use of the term queer, which has been out of contemporary control, has shaped its reclamation as an empowering term. This is perhaps reminiscent of AnzaldĂșa's issue with the term queer: one which she did not find empowering, but white and homoegnizing. In fact, for queer to be this vision of empowerment, Butler argues the autonomy remains with the word: "if the term 'queer' is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and future imaginings, it will have to remain that which is ... never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding poliical purposes" (pg. 228). That also means it will have to be scrapped in favor of words that could do that political work more effectively.

She claims that the use of "queer" as an autonomous self-naming project is one of "conceit," which stems from a "belief that there is a one who arrives in the world, in discourse, without a history, that this one makes onself in and through the magic of the name, that language expresses a 'will' or a 'choice' rather than a complex and constitutive history of discourse and power which compose the invariably ambivalent resources through which a queer and queering agency is forced and reworked" (pg 228). She also feels that, though queer is now meant to be expansive, its use has "enforce[d] a set of overlapping divisions" (pg. 228). For some, it is a more liberating term beyond gay and straight; for others, a predominately white term which ignores the experiences of people of color; in others, a false unity between certain groups under its umbrella. Butler insists we are not free to decide the political terms which come to represent freedom or injury.

She posits we must also examine terms like "women" or "gay" as terms that have "laid claim" to use before we even knew to identify with them, and their engagement is required to refute homophobic deployments of such terms in law, policy, and in public and private spaces. Queer cannot be separated from these other terms and their associated power; it should be focused on understanding the relations of power imbued in these categories. She points queer studies to examine: "(a) the formation of homosexualities (a historical inquiry which cannot take the stability of the term for granted, despite the political pressure to do so) and (b) the dormative and misappropriative power that the term [queer] currently enjoys" (pg. 229).

Her view on identity is one of necessary error - necessary to mobilize politically, but an error in that such terms will never fully describe those they are meant to represent. She believes this means the term queer should be purposefully fluid and critiqued: to be cast away by those who feel excluded by the term but do not feel they should be, to be allowed to take on new meanings by those who cannot currently predict how it might change.

Gender Performativity and Drag

In this section, she explores how discourse is enacted through drag, and whether drag is an impersonation of a gender, if one can even understand gender as an impersonation. She is in some ways responding to those who felt drag was exemplary of the theory of performativity, and thus all performativity should be viewed as drag. She does not actually believe that clothing is gender, or that clothes make someone a certain gender. She argues that "to the extent that gender is an assignment, it is an assignment which is never quite carried out according to expectation" (pg. 231). She argues that drag is not inherently subversive, for while there is power in undermining heterosexual gender roles through exposure, there is no guarantee that exposing heterosexuality will lead to its subversion. Reidealization of heterosexuality can happen through its denaturalization. Through a discussion with the "inside" of gender, a psychic disposition, and the "outside" of gender, appearance or presentation, Butler distinguishes between performance and performativity. Performativity consists of the reiteration of norms which precede, constrain, and extend the performer - thus, it is not the performer's will. She argues that performance, the intentional performing of a gender, hides the opaqueness of performativity.

She states that drag is an attempt to perform cross-gendered identifications, but it is not rooted in homosexuality, but rather heterosexuality. Drag incorporates a melancholic loss for the heterosexual: heterosexual melancholy. She states that the masculine refuses to grieve the loss of the masculine as a possibility of love, so a feminine gender is formed and performed. For a gay person, the "truest" melancholy is a straight love interest.

Drag is the "sign" of a gender, not the same as the body but unreadable without it, but less of an assignment and more of a command. The hyperbolic conformity to the feminine reveals the hyperbolic status of heterosexual gender norms, as heterosexuality is regulated through hyperbolic symbols for man and woman. The performances of man and woman are compulsory, which no one chooses but all are forced to negotiate. Butler states these norms are "haunted" by inefficacy, leading to the continuous repetition of trying to resolidify its place. Drag does not oppose or threaten heterosexuality, but brings into the light the understated and taken for granted qualities of heterosexual performativity (pg. 237).

I am not a fan of Butler's discussion of gender transcendence, asking if we can move beyond the masculine and the feminine. She asks whether the analytic separation of male and female can be distinct from fact, whether a specific pain provokes such "fantasies of a sexual practice that would transcend gender difference," and whether it would be a sexually fetishistic paradigm. However, I enjoy her anaysis of gender as both identification and desire, and how refusing a line of causality between the two opens doors to the "imaginary logic" of heterosexuality. That is, being a woman is not defined by desiring men, and desiring women does not determine one as masculine, which breaks down the heterosexual logic of of "if one identifies as a given gender, one must desire a different gender" (pg. 239).

Like Foucault, Butler does not believe the goal is subversion - subversion is not enough to direct political struggle - but to focus on the many paths power and discourse might take. To question how resignification of terms like queer might lead to reinstalling the abject, alongside affirmation. "How will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose?" (pg. 241).