May 04, 2007

Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions by Judith Butler

(in Gender Trouble (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, 1990). pp. 416 – 422).

Drag Artist

The redescription of intrapsychic processes in terms of the surface politics of the body implies a corollary redescription of gender as the disciplinary production of the figures of fantasy through the play of presence and absence on the body’s surface, the construction of the gendered body through a series of exclusions and denials, signifying absences. (p. 416)

In this extract, Butler asks what initiates the body as text, what power or law generates fantasy. She describes how, ‘words, acts, gesture and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause’ (p. 416). For Butler these ‘enactments’ must be performative because ‘the identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means’ (p. 416). Butler’s logic works as follows.

The gendered body is performative
It has no ontological status apart from the acts that constitute its reality
Reality is fabricated as an interior essence
This interiority is an effect and function of:
1. a public and social discourse.
2. the public regulation of fantasy through the body surface.
3. gender border control that differentiates between inner and outer.
4. the ‘integrity’ of the subject.

Her conclusion is that, ‘acts and gestures articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organising gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality’ (p. 416). If gender is fabricated, then genders cannot be true or false but only produced. Impersonation as one of the key fabricating mechanisms through which social construction of gender takes place. The drag artist subverts the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity. Butler quotes Esther Newton who states that impersonation is a double inversion that might be outside male, inside female and inside male, outside female. Butler pauses then to consider the parody of a primary gender identity via drag, crossdressing, butch/femme identities. Feminists have seen drag as degrading to women and butch/femme identities have been seen as confirming gender sex stereotypes.

For Butler, drag has three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality:
1. anatomical sex
2. gender identity
3. gender performance
Butler suggests that, ‘ n imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of drag itself – as well as its contingency ’ (p. 418) [Butler’s italics]. Butler quotes Jameson on pastiche: the imitation that mocks the notion of an original. Pastiche is here a blank parody that has lost its humour.

As fro the body, it has become a boundary and gender is a construction with a tacit agreement to perform. Social drama requires gender to be a repeated act and for Butler this is the only thing that holds conventional gender together – repetition.


- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Mimi

    thanks for the summary – I never seem to have the time or the patience to actually grasp how she puts together a position with cobblings from Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault and Searle. Is she really deserving of the canonical status she enjoys?

    best wishes

    05 May 2007, 08:49

  2. Her work is important – especially performativity and gender crossing – but it can be difficult I think if you are from a feminist theory rather than a philosophy background. Another interesting book is Precarious Life which is really interesting because it investigates the value of life in the US, in war, an Arab life versus that of a US citizen etc. It is very relevant for the current international political situation.

    13 May 2007, 15:03

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