English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplementary Remarks about Butler's
"Variations on Sex and Gender..." (1987)

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Judith Butler begins her selection by asking, "How can gender be both a matter of choice and cultural construction"? (612) Another way to pose the question is, "If gender is the corporealization of choice, and the acculturation of the corporeal, then what is left of nature, and what has become of sex?" (612) Butler means, then, to examine Simone de Beauvoir's suggestion that gender is not the same thing as one's sex at birth. Once we say that gender is not a natural or a given but that it still develops in a way that involves the body, what do we say about supposedly prior "natural" categories like "the body" and "sex"? We shall see how Butler addresses those questions.

As with the existentialist de Beauvoir, the category of choice is important to Butler, and her aim is to deepen our understanding of the term--we shall find, she says, that choice "comes to signify a corporeal process of interpretation within a network of deeply entrenched cultural norms" (612). But choice is not as transparent a category as it might appear: it might easily be taken as presupposing a Cartesian split between mind and body, with some primal identity or self having to be firmly established in advance so that we can choose to develop in the way that we subsequently do. In Butler's language, that anterior self would be "an egological structure that lives and thrives prior to language and cultural life" (613). However, for Jean Paul Sartre, explains Butler, this Cartesian self becomes only a stage or moment of human consciousness. The body is itself a place for striving and surpassing; it is a "mode of becoming" (614) without which what we call "self," "individuality," "identity," and so forth would not be possible. De Beauvoir applies this understanding to the realm of sex and gender, with the result, says Butler, that the author of The Second Sex concentrates on the "move from the natural to the acculturated body" (614). Just as for Sartre we exist our bodies (Note 1), for de Beauvoir we become our gender, and we do so not all at once but continually. Gender is a "project," an ongoing dialectic between embodied individual choice-making and cultural constraints and presuppositions. Butler's language is precise on this point: "gender is a contemporary way of organizing past and future cultural norms, a way of situating oneself in an through those norms, an active style of living one's body in the world" (614). We do not move from some absolute state of "disembodied freedom" to "cultural embodiment"; rather, we move towards gender by way of "a sculpting of the original body into a cultural form" (614).

It is useful to provide a specific instance of what is meant by choice. What kinds of things involve choice? Butler's example is motherhood, and she uses that example to illustrate the powerful cultural need to naturalize what a given society says needs doing. It is far more comforting (perhaps for many women as well as for men) to think of child-bearing as an imperative absolutely imposed on us by nature than as an optional act with institutional import, something that has cultural and even political implications. If something is natural, one just has to do it--not analyze it or place it in some broader social framework. After all, the idea goes, who needs all those attendant questions about the distribution of societal rank and power that such analysis might raise?

Of course, seeing necessities rather than choices is a move that works to men's advantage, explains Butler. It is convenient for men to reduce women to their bodily functions rather than to see them as "living" their bodies as a continual project. Why? Because women then become the inessential Other, the natural, the purely domestic, over against which men may define themselves as bundles of activity and spirit. (Note 2) Women have to be the fixed, eternal categories that men need to transcend, even the men achieve thereby not transcendence of the body but instead a mode of living based on denial. To counter this, Butler returns to de Beauvoir's emphasis on the body as "situation"--it is both "a locus of cultural interpretations" and it is itself the "situation of having to take up and interpret that set of received interpretations" (616).

Butler's return to that idea takes the form of exploring the work of Monique Wittig and Michel Foucault. As for Wittig, she explicitly declares that "sex" was always gender, i.e. that there is no such thing as sexual difference prior to cultural interpretation and valorization. Simply put, Wittig's argument is that heterosexual, male-centered societies predefine the development of sexual identity in accordance with reproductive function; sexuality revolves around the binary male/female genitalia. Selected anatomical features are made to determine one's sexual identity. The point, as Butler says, is not to claim that there are no physical differences between men and women--that would be lunacy; the point is rather to argue that such differences as there are get valorized according to societal demands until they become defining characteristics. Nature has nothing to do with gender, with sexual identity. Ultimately, Wittig calls for a society that has done away with sexual categories, that has transcended them. But as Butler suggests, to claim that we can get beyond sexual differences altogether risks simply overturning one gender-hierarchy for another, perhaps equally oppressive one that might, for instance, assert that lesbians are normal while everyone else is abnormal. Being "beyond" a given order still involves you in a relation to it, and you will end up reinscribing the binary logic and social oppression correlated with it.

For that reason, Butler supplements Wittig's fantasy or "myth of transcendence" (619) The Lesbian Body with Foucault's interest in the operations of power as regards social hierarchy. Foucault, as Butler says, argues that power multiplies and distributes itself in a controlled, binary fashion. There is no way really to escape the operations of power; they cannot simply be dismissed or talked away. Butler's interpretation of Foucault's History of Sexuality is that the book promotes a proliferation of binary relations to the point at which the sheer complexity of such relations confounds the normal operations of power. What was controlled with almost mathematical precision now becomes much harder to contain, and the Juridical model loses its power consistently to reduce the social many to the two things necessary--male and female anatomy. Foucault's example of this kind of proliferation is rather an unusual one: he describes the life of one Herculine Barbin, a hermaphrodite whose anatomy, Butler says, was "invested" in a subversive way that calls forth postmodern emphasis on the logic of both/and rather than either/or.

But finally, to what extent does Butler offer a practical way to advance gender relations? That is a question she herself raises in concluding "Variations on Sex and Gender." One might, with a Marxist emphasis, insist that even one's lived, embodied choices are constantly challenged by the constituting gaze of others, so that any new relations are bound to remain unstable and unsatisfactory. One might also, with the psychoanalysts, say that the sort of proliferation Butler invokes amounts to nothing but a lapse back into a state of "pre-oedipal ambiguity" (621)--an attempt, in other words, to return to the forbidden realm of the Lacanian Real. So is Butler's theory an unrealistic negation of culture and of the everyday reality we all must negotiate? I do not see that Butler lightly dismisses such objections. Her basic gesture is to ask whether we are so certain that what we label "reality" needs no second look. And her final gesture is to return us to Beauvoir's basic insight that we must not speak of male and female "essences" but must instead remain continually aware that "what we call an essence or a material fact is simply an enforced cultural option which has disguised itself as natural truth" (622). That sort of language infuriates practitioners of natural science, of course, but it is worth remembering that when theorists like Butler criticize naive acceptance of observations as "fact" and "nature," she refers to the social sciences far more than to the more distant natural sciences. Those interested in Judith Butler's work would do well to examine her recent short volume Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. In it, she deals with recent issues about censorship and free speech in a way that would prove interesting to connect with her remarks on gender.


Note 1. Those familiar with the television show Allie McBeal will recall that Allie's "biological clock" ticks at the strangest times and causes this well-schooled, sophisticated character a great deal of anxiety. She knows better than to believe in such a shadowy thing as a biological clock, but she does it anyway.

Note 2. See also my essay on de Beauvoir. I recently saw a special on an avant garde artist who breaks up and reconfigures perceptions of the female body in a very interesting way. To counter the tendency to see the individual female body as purely a sexual or natural object, this artist stages "standings" of perhaps two dozen women, some scantily clad and others completely naked. The women strike up an impassive attitude and stand or kneel in various ways. Their numbers and spatial distribution make them seem "objects" quite out of the realm of sexuality or nature.