common sense knowledge

unraveling the taken for granted

an interview with Judith Butler August 20, 2007

Filed under: gender,interview,sexuality — abject @ 9:33 pm

Extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler taken by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, London, 1993.

RP: We’d like to begin by asking you where you place your work within the increasingly diverse field of gender studies. Most people associate your recent writings with what has become known as “queer theory”. But the emergence of gay and lesbian studies as a discrete disciplinary phenomenon has problematised the relationship of some of this work to feminism. Do you see yourself primarily as a feminist of as a queer theorist, or do you refuse the choice?

Butler: I would say that I’m a feminist theorist before I’m a queer theorist or a gay and lesbian theorist. My commitments to feminism are probably my primary commitments. Gender Trouble was a critique of compulsory heterosexuality within feminism, and it was feminists that were my intended audience. At the time I wrote the text there was no gay and lesbian studies, as I understood it. When the book came out, the Second Annual Conference of Lesbian and Gay Studies was taking place in the USA, and it got taken up in a way that I could never have anticipated. I remember sitting next to someone at a dinner party, and he said that he was working on queer theory. And I said: What’s queer theory? He looked at me like I was crazy, because he evidently thought that I was a part of this thing called queer theory. But all I knew was that Teresa de Lauretis had published an issue of the journal Differences called “Queer Theory”. I thought it was something she had put together. It certainly never occurred to me that I was a part of queer theory.

I have some problems here, because I think there’s some anti-feminism in queer theory. Also, insofar as some people in queer theory want to claim that the analysis of sexuality can be radically separated from the analysis of gender, I’m very much opposed to them. The new Gay and Lesbian Reader that Routledge have just published begins with a set of articles that make that claim. I think that separation is a big mistake. Catharine MacKinnon’s work sets up such a reductive causal relationship between sexuality and gender that she came to stand for an extreme version of feminism that had to be combatted. But it seems to me that to combat it through a queer theory that dissociates itself from feminism altogether is a massive mistake.

RP: Could you say something more about the sex-gender distinction? Do you reject it or do you just reject a particular interpretation of it? Your position on this seems to have shifted recently.

Butler: One of the interpretations that has been made of Gender Trouble is that there is no sex, there is only gender, and gender is performative. People then go on to think that if gender is performative it must be radically free. And it has seemed to many that the materiality of the body is vacated or ignored or negated here – disavowed, even. (There’s a symptomatic reading of this as somatophobia. It’s interesting to have one’s text pathologised.) So what became important to me in writing Bodies that Matter was to go back to the category of sex, and to the problem of materiality, and to ask how it is that sex itself might be construed as a norm. Now, I take it that’s a presupposition of Lacanian psychoanalysis – that sex is a norm. But I didn’t want to remain restricted within the Lacanian purview. I wanted to work out how a norm actually materialises a body, how we might understand the materiality of the body to be not only invested with a norm, but in some sense animated by a norm, or contoured by a norm. So I have shifted. I think that I overrode the category of sex too quickly in Gender Trouble. I try to reconsider it in Bodies That Matter, and to emphasise the place of constraint in the very production of sex.

RP: A lot of people like Gender Trouble because they liked the idea of gender as a kind of improvisational theatre, a space where different identities can be more or less freely adopted and explored at will. They wanted to get on with the work of enacting gender, in order to undermine its dominant forms. However, at the beginning of Bodies That Matter you say that, of course, one doesn’t just voluntaristically construct or deconstruct identities. It’s unclear to us to what extent you want to hold onto the possibilities opened up in Gender Trouble of being able to use transgressive performances such as drag to help decentre or destabilise gender categories, and to what extent you have become sceptical about this.

Butler: The problem with drag is that I offered it as an example of performativity, but it has been taken up as the paradigm for performativity. One ought always to be wary of one’s examples. What’s interesting is that this voluntarist interpretation, this desire for a kind of radical theatrical remaking of the body, is obviously out there in the public sphere. There’s a desire for a fully phantasmatic transfiguration of the body. But no, I don’t think that drag is a paradigm for the subversion of gender. I don’t think that if we were all more dragged out gender life would become more expansive and less restrictive. There are restrictions in drag. In fact, I argued toward the end of the book that drag has its own melancholia.

It is important to understand performativity – which is distinct from performance – through the more limited notion of resignification. I’m still thinking about subversive repetition, which is a category in Gender Trouble, but in the place of something like parody I would now emphasise the complex ways in which resignification works in political discourse. I suspect there’s going to be a less celebratory, and less popular, response to my new book. But I wanted to write against my popular image. I set out to make myself less popular, because I felt that the popularisation of Gender Trouble – even though it was interesting culturally to see what it tapped into, to see what was out there, longing to be tapped into – ended up being a terrible misrepresentation of what I wanted to say!

[…]It is important to distinguish performance from performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of the subject. The place where I try to clarify this is toward the beginning of my essay “Critically Queer”, in Bodies that Matter, I begin with the Foucauldian premise that power works in part through discourse and it works in part to produce and destabilise subjects. But then, when one starts to think carefully about how discourse might be said to produce a subject, it’s clear that one’s already talking about a certain figure or trope of production. It is at this point that it’s useful to turn to the notion of performativity, and performative speech acts in particular – understood as those speech acts that bring into being that which they name. This is the moment in which discourse becomes productive in a fairly specific way. So what I’m trying to do is think about the performativity as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names. Then I take a further step, through the Derridean rewriting of Austin, and suggest that this production actually always happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation. So if you want the ontology of this, I guess performativity is the vehicle through which ontological effects are established. Performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed. Something like that.

[. . .]

[Butler is then asked about the way in which she apparently ignores biological constraints on bodies, most obviously the fact that male bodies can’t produce children whilst female bodies can]. Yes, there will be that exasperated response [to what I do there], but there is a good tactical reason to reproduce it. Take your example of impregnation. Somebody might well say: isn’t it the case that certain bodies go to the gynaecologist for certain kinds of examination and certain bodies do not? And I would obviously affirm that. But the real question here is: to what extent does a body get defined by its capacity for pregnancy? Why is it pregnancy by which that body gets defined? One might say it’s because somebody is of a given sex that they go to the gynaecologist to get an examination that establishes the possibility of pregnancy, or one might say that going to the gynaecologist is the very production of “sex” – but it is still the question of pregnancy that is centaring that whole institutional practice here.

Now, it seems to me that, although women’s bodies generally speaking are understood as capable of impregnation, the fact of the matter is that there are female infants and children who cannot be impregnated, there are older women who cannot be impregnated, there are women of all ages who cannot be impregnated, and even if they could ideally, that is not necessarily the salient feature of their bodies or even of their being women. What the question does is try to make the problematic of reproduction central to the sexing of the body. But I am not sure that is, or ought to be, what is absolutely salient or primary in the sexing of the body. If it is, I think it’s the imposition of a norm, not a neutral description of biological constraints.

I do not deny certain kinds of biological differences. But I always ask under what conditions, under what discursive and institutional conditions, do certain biological differences – and they’re not necessary ones, given the anomalous state of bodies in the world – become the salient characteristics of sex. In that sense I’m still in sympathy with the critique of “sex” as a political category offered by Monique Wittig. I still very much believe in the critique of the category of sex and the ways in which it’s been constrained by a tacit institution of compulsory reproduction.

It’s a practical problem. If you are in your late twenties or your early thirties and you can’t get pregnant for biological reasons, or maybe you don’t want to, for social reasons – whatever it is – you are struggling with a norm that is regulating your sex. It takes a pretty vigorous (and politically informed) community around you to alleviate the possible sense of failure, or loss, or impoverishment, or inadequacy – a collective struggle to rethink a dominant norm. Why shouldn’t it be that a woman who wants to have some part in child-rearing, but doesn’t want to have a part in child-bearing, or who wants to have nothing to do with either, can inhabit her gender without an implicit sense of failure or inadequacy? When people ask the question “Aren’t these biological differences?”, they’re not really asking a question about the materiality of the body. They’re actually asking whether or not the social institution of reproduction is the most salient one for thinking about gender. |In that sense, there is a discursive enforcement of a norm.

[. . .]

It’s not just the norm of heterosexuality that is tenuous. It’s all sexual norms. I think that every sexual position is fundamentally comic. If you say “I can only desire X”, what you’ve immediately done, in rendering desire exclusively, is created a whole set of positions which are unthinkable from the standpoint of your identity. Now, I take it that one of the essential aspects of comedy emerges when you end up actually occupying a position that you have just announced to be unthinkable. That is funny. There’s a terrible self-subversion in it.

When they were debating gays in the military on television in the United States a senator got up and laughed, and he said, “I must say, I know very little about homosexuality. I think I know less about homosexuality than about anything else in the world.” And it was a big announcement of his ignorance of homosexuality. Then he immediately launched into a homophobic diatribe which suggested that he thinks that homosexuals only have sex in public bathrooms, that they are all skinny, that they’re all male, etc, etc. So what he actually has is a very aggressive and fairly obsessive relationship to the homosexuality that of course he knows nothing about. At that moment you realise that this person who claims to have nothing to do with homosexuality is in fact utterly preoccupied by it.

I do not think that these exclusions are indifferent. Some would disagree with me on this and say: “Look, some people are just indifferent. A heterosexual can have an indifferent relationship to homosexuality. It doesn’t really matter what other people do. I haven’t thought about it much, it neither turns me on nor turns me off. I’m just sexually neutral in that regard.” I don’t believe that. I think that crafting a sexual position, or reciting a sexual position, always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way. I don’t know if that’s a Foucauldian point. It’s probably a psychoanalytical point, but that’s not finally important to me.

RP: Would it apply to homosexuals’ relationship to heterosexuality?

Butler: Yes, absolutely.

RP: Although presumably not in the same way…

Butler: Yes, there’s a different problem here, and it’s a tricky one. When the woman in the audience at my talk said “I survived lesbian feminism and still desire women”, I thought that was a really great line, because one of the problems has been the normative requirement that has emerged within some lesbian-feminist communities to come up with a radically specific lesbian sexuality. (Of course, not all lesbian feminism said this, but a strain of it did.)

[. . .]

Lesbians make themselves into a more frail political community by insisting on the radical irreducibility of their desire. I don’t think any of us have irreducibly distinct desires.

[. . .]

The heterosexual matrix [in Gender Trouble] became a kind of totalising symbolic, and that’s why I changed the term in Bodies That Matter to heterosexual hegemony. This opens the possibility that this is a matrix which is open to rearticulation, which has a kind of malleability. So I don’t actually use the term heterosexual matrix in Bodies That Matter.

[. . .]

There’s a very specific notion of gender involved in compulsory heterosexuality: a certain view of gender coherence whereby what a person feels, how a person acts, and how a person expresses herself sexually is the articulation and consummation of a gender. It’s a particular causality and identity that gets established as gender coherence which is linked to compulsory heterosexuality. It’s not any gender, or all gender, it’s that specific kind of coherent gender.

[. . .]

One of the problems with homosexuality is that it does represent psychosis to some people. Many people feel that who they are as egos in the world, whatever imaginary centres they have, would be radically dissolved were they to engage in homosexual relations. They would rather die than engage in homosexual relations. For these people homosexuality represents the prospect of the psychotic dissolution of the subject. How are we to distinguish that phobic abjection of homosexuality from what Zizek calls the real – where the real is that which stands outside the symbolic pact and which threatens the subject within the symbolic pact with psychosis?

[. . .]

RP: Perhaps we could move on to the politics of queer theory, and in particular to the ideas of subversive repetition and transgressive reinscription, which we touched on earlier when we asked you about drag. Alan Sinfield has suggested that the problem with supposedly subversive representations of gender is that they’re always recuperable. The dominant can always find a way of dismissing them and reaffirming itself. On the other hand, Jonathan Dollimore has argued that they’re not always recuperable, but that any queer reading or subversive performance, any challenge to dominant representations of gender, can only be sustained as such collectively. It’s only within critical subcultures that transgressive reinscriptions are going to make a difference. How do you respond to these views on the limits of a queer politics of representation?

Butler: I think that Sinfield is right to say that any attempt at subversion is potentially recuperable. There is no way to safeguard against that. You can’t plan or calculate subversion. In fact, I would say that subversion is precisely an incalculable effect. That’s what makes it subversive. As for the question of how a certain challenge becomes legible, and whether a rendering requires a certain collectivity, that seems right too. But I also think that subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read, challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities of reading.

For instance, when Act Up (the lesbian and gay activist group) first started performing Die-ins on the streets of New York, it was extremely dramatic. There had been street theatre, a tradition of demonstrations, and the tradition from the civil disobedience side of the civil rights movement of going limp and making policemen take you away: playing dead. Those precedents or conventions were taken up in the Die-in, where people “die” all at once. They went down on the street, all at once, and white lines were drawn around the bodies, as if they were police lines, marking the place of the dead. It was a shocking symbolisation. It was legible insofar as it was drawing on conventions that had been produced within previous protest cultures, but it was a renovation. It was a new adumbration of a certain kind of civil disobedience. And it was extremely graphic. It made people stop and have to read what was happening.

There was confusion. People didn’t know at first, why these people were playing dead. Were they actually dying, were they actually people with AIDS? Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were HIV positive, maybe they weren’t. There were no ready answers to those questions. The act posed a set of questions without giving you the tools to read off the answers. What I worry about are those acts that are more immediately legible. Those are the ones that I think are most readily recuperable. But the ones that challenge our practices of reading, that make us uncertain about how to read, or make us think that we have to renegotiate the way in which we read public signs, these seem really important to me.

[. . .]

Some people would say that we need a ground from which to act. We need a shared collective ground for collective action. I think we need to pursue the moments of degrounding, when we’re standing in two different places at once; or we don’t know exactly where we’re standing; or when we’ve produced an aesthetic practice that shakes the ground. That’s where resistance to recuperation happens. It’s like a breaking through to a new set of paradigms.

RP: What are the relations of this kind of symbolic politics to more traditional kinds of political practice? Presumably, its function is in some way tied to the role of mass media in the political systems of advanced capitalist societies, where representations play a role they don’t necessarily have elsewhere.

Butler: Yes, I agree.

RP: Yet at the same time, it is a crucial part of this role that the domain of representation often remains completely cut off from effective political action. One might argue that the reason a politics of representation is so recuperable is precisely because it remains within the domain of representation – that it is only an adjunct to the business of transforming the relationship of society to the state, establishing new institutions, or changing the law. How would you respond to that?

Butler: First of all, I oppose the notion that the media is monolithic. It’s neither monolithic nor does it act only and always to domesticate. Sometimes it ends up producing images that it has no control over. This kind of unpredictable effect can emerge right out of the centre of a conservative media without an awareness that it is happening. There are ways of exploiting the dominant media. The politics of aesthetic representation has an extremely important place. But it is not the same as struggling to change the law, or developing strong links with political officials, or amassing major lobbies, or the kinds of things needed by the grassroots movement to overturn anti-sodomy restrictions, for example.

I used to be part of a guerrilla theatre group called LIPS – it stood for nothing, which I loved – and now I’m contemplating joining the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. There is nothing to stop me from doing one rather than the other. For me, it does not have to be a choice. Other people are particularly adept working in the health care fields, doing AIDS activism – which includes sitting on the boards of major chemical corporations – doing lobbying work, phoning, or being on the street. The Foucauldian in me says there is no one site from which to struggle effectively. There have to be many, and they don’t need to be reconciled with one another.

[. . .]

RP: We’d like to end by asking you how you see the future of feminism.

Butler: Catharine MacKinnon has become so powerful as the public spokesperson for feminism, internationally, that I think that feminism is going to have to start producing some powerful alternatives to what she’s saying and doing – ones that can acknowledge her intellectual strength and not demonise her, because I do think there’s an anti-feminist animus against her, which one should be careful not to encourage. Certainly, the paradigm of victimisation, the over-emphasis on pornography, the cultural insensitivity and the universalisation of “rights” – all of that has to be countered by strong feminist positions.

What’s needed is a dynamic and more diffuse conception of power, one which is committed to the difficulty of cultural translation as well as the need to rearticulate “universality” in non-imperialist directions. This is difficult work and it’s no longer viable to seek recourse to simple and paralysing models of structural oppression. But even her, in opposing a dominant conception of power in feminism, I am still “in” or “of” feminism. And it’s this paradox that has to be worked, for there can be no pure opposition to power, only a recrafting of its terms from resources invariably impure.

Full version of the interview originally published in Radical Philosophy 67 (summer 1994).


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