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Judith Butler and The Many Subjects of Feminist Theory

This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

Despite their differences, various authors of feminist theory have been mobilized by a similar question regarding the subject of feminism — more precisely, what kind of theory of the subject is most productive for the feminist debate? Ever since Simone de Beauvoir showed us that, in Western culture, the woman is always the Other of a male subject, theorists have been coming back to the problem of how women can be freed from this condition, without having necessarily to identify with the subjectivity defined by men. This problem has become increasingly complex in times wherein a neoliberal co-optation of the feminist ideals of independence seems to reshape new forms of oppression.

In Gender Trouble (Routledge, 2007) Judith Butler succeeds in organizing the preceding debate — from Beauvoir to Luce Irigaray, materialism to psychoanalysis — in a powerful way. Perhaps one of the greatest qualities of her text is its ability to move beyond specific quarrels, reaching the very foundation of the question where gender and sex are defined — and define us. She begins with the attempts or projects that try to legitimize a feminist movement or identity in essentialist terms.

Butler shows how oppressive as well as subversive discourses often draw their legitimacy precisely from a condition that is naturalized outside or before discourse. However, Butler will argue that this “pre-discursive” ideal is actually produced by and through discourse. In this sense, any attempt to reach an idea of feminine identity, or outline a project of feminist coalition organized around certain definitions, would fall short insofar as it draws its “substance” precisely from the discourse that it tries to undermine. Moreover, Butler adds, “the specters of discontinuity and incoherence, themselves thinkable only in relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, are constantly prohibited and produced by the very laws that seek to establish causal or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the ‘expression’ or ‘effect’ of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice” (p. 23). But if the question is not about the before or the outside, could it lie in the possibilities of a beyond?

In The Second Sex (Vintage, 2011), Beauvoir calls us to write the feminine, in order to give consistency to a feminine subject. “Symbolism did not fall out of heaven or rise out of subterranean depths: it was elaborated like language, by the human reality that is at once Mitsein and separation” (p. 81). This specific social order, in which we are inserted, thus entails two different forms of alienation: for the boy, the alienation in an object, his penis, as an alter-ego gifted with will and feelings; for the girl, the alienation of her entire self as an object, a demand “to posit herself as the Other” (Ibid). If, by contrast, the social conditions were available for women to succeed in affirming themselves as subjects, they would hence find equivalents for the phallus in other objects.

Irigaray shows that, if both sides of this duality (subject and Other) belong to the same phallogocentric order, we cannot hope to solve women’s oppression by trying to accede to the condition of a subject. Rather, the entire order needs to be subverted, through affirmation of a feminine subjectivity that is not defined by comparison with only men. The conditions to do so seem to be laid out in the feminine body, which is from the very start not one, but rather a multiplicity.

Julia Kristeva makes a similar move, because the unique possibilities of feminine subjectivity are given, if not in poetry, then in maternity. Butler denounces, however, Kristeva’s Semiotic, as never fully subverting the phallogocentric Symbolic (except in psychosis); the former can breach the latter only momentarily, but still maintains the dominance of the symbolic. In this sense, to posit maternity as a liberating experience retains too many echoes of standard conformity, under the dominance of the same subject, still submitted to the primacy of the phallus. Would it then be possible to conceive a different subject, one that is not all about conception and reproduction — neither of human beings nor of power structures?

Michel Foucault and Friedrich Nietzsche come into play to remind us that, first, there is no need to think of a preexisting agent of some practice: Quoting Nietzsche, Butler notes, “the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed” (p. 34). Analogously, she adds, “identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Ibid). Moreover, because sexuality and power are coextensive, Foucault “implicitly refutes the postulation of a subversive or emancipatory sexuality which could be free of the law” (p. 40). For Butler, “[o]ntology is, thus, not a foundation, but a normative injunction that operates insidiously by installing itself into political discourse as its necessary ground” (p. 203). Psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose adds in her Introduction to Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne (Norton, 1982, p. 56), “But for Lacan they [the questions of the unconscious and sexuality] function as the question of that speech, and cannot be referred back to a body outside language, a place to which the ‘feminine’, and through that, women, might escape.” In other words, for Rose, an exaggeration in characterizing the feminine position as equipped with the potency to overcome subjection to language, and the constraints it imposes, would turn this into a different philosophical project.

Butler posits an understanding of identity and of the subject as an effect of a practice. Hence, it is constantly being produced. Despite the similarity with Lacan, wherein the subject of the signifier is always being diachronically redefined by the next term of the battery, alienated in the meaning given by the Other, Butler wants to move away from the idea that a breach in the symbolic could entail difference — or that what is relevant, in the experience, is what leads towards a beyond. The compulsion to repetition takes place and has its liberating potential within the constant agency of signification. Butler adds, “In a sense, all signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat; ‘agency’, then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation of that repetition” (p. 198).

Conversely, power structures are continuously reproduced precisely by naturalizing these affects and turning them into phantasmatics, masking the very fact that they are a process, and not a given. This is why repetition can lead to a displacement of identity, where the same surfaces can become a “dissonant and denaturalized performance that reveals the performative status of the natural itself” (Ibid, p. 200). For Butler, these displacements provide the means for new and subversive significations of the feminine to appear. By contrast, the unity of representation, the recourse to an “I” that precedes signification, will lead us only to new versions of the same old formulas of power relations.


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