Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Queer Studies, Presentation on Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” and Introduction to Bodies That Matter Feb. 6, 2008

This is the fortieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is the second of seven posts of material from Professor Kevin Floyd’s Queer Studies seminar at Kent State University. Most of these Recovered Writing posts are from summaries that we wrote during the semester on readings. Most of these were densely theoretical works, but we could not expend more than one page on these summaries–no more and no less–exactly one page. This was an incredibly useful exercise to get to the heart of an argument, study its supporting evidence, and identify its strengths and weaknesses. These summaries encouraged us to take a rigorous approach to understand arguments, express those arguments cogently, and adopt the jargon, terminology, and language utilized by the argument’s writer.

In this post, I am including my class presentation (each student led one seminar during the semester) and summary writing.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kevin Floyd

Queer Studies

6 Feb. 2008

Presentation on Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” and “Introduction” to Bodies That Matter

            My presentation today covers Judith Butler’s essays: “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” first presented in 1989 and published in 1991, and the “Introduction” to Bodies That Matter, published in 1993. These two works build on her arguments about the performative production of gender in her larger, 1990 work, Gender Trouble.

In “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler employs the concepts of play/performance, drag, and imitation to describe the formation of gender and sexuality as continually created subjectivities always at risk of dissolution from non-performance. Furthermore, she points out that gender is not something chosen, but rather something deep-seated in the psyche whereby, “the psychic subject is nevertheless constituted internally by differentially gendered Others and is, therefore, never, as a gender, self-identical” (133).

She begins by resisting labels/signifiers such as “lesbian theories, gay theories” as well as “lesbian,” because she is, “permanently troubled by identity categories,” which she understands as, “sites of necessary trouble” (120-121). It’s this “trouble” that interests Butler, and is the impetus of her political project. Butler goes on to explain that she resists a theorization of gay and lesbian identity, because there lacks a shared specificity to such an identity. Even on the common ground of experiencing homophobia, there would be different vocabularies and methods of analysis. She reveals that a lack of specificity, which seems to indicate that lesbianism is derived from heterosexuality or doesn’t exist at all, can be utilized in a deconstructionist argument that posits, “lesbian sexuality can be understood to redeploy its ‘derivativeness’ in the service of displacing hegemonic heterosexual norms” (124).

Butler argues that lesbian identity is both a “being” and “trying to be” at the same time. It’s the repetition of a deep-seated play that constitutes the lesbian “I.” Taking this concept, she links compulsory heterosexuality (i.e., normalized as the hierarchically dominant position) with drag. Drag is an appropriation of gender stylizations and performance, which suggests that gender itself is a stylized imitative performance. Therefore, gender is a simulacra—a copy without an original. This means that heterosexual genders are produced through imitation rather than originating from some natural origin.

She drives her deconstructionist argument home by pointing out that homosexuality is not a copy of heterosexuality. Instead, it’s an imitation, which is more simulation than “carbon copy.” This means that homosexuality is produced, as is heterosexuality, and it inverts the classically implied hierarchical primacy of heterosexuality. Therefore, heterosexuality is a performance that requires repetition at all times in order to maintain stability. Also, gender is a compulsory performance that generates subjectivity. There is no preceding subject that chooses gender and the according performance. Also, heterosexuality is continually at risk because it must be continually performed at all times to maintain itself.

Butler draws on Freud, and Borch-Jacobsen and Leys to develop a way of thinking about the psychic identification involved in gender presentation. The former’s concept of loss, and the latter’s primary mimetism both support the idea that the “psychic subject” is formed by identification with Others of various genders, and not from self-identification. Gender produces the “illusion of an inner sex,” and gender is “always a surface sign,” i.e., marked on/by the body (134). Additionally, the psyche comes about through gender production, and it’s a continuous paradox—compelling gender performance, thereby perpetuating the possibility of gender interruption.

She reconnects this to drag when she writes, “If gender is drag, and if it is an imitation that regularly produces the ideal it attempts to approximate, then gender is a performance that produces the illusion of an inner sex or essence or psychic gender core; it produces on the skin, through the gesture, the move, the gait (that array of corporeal theatrics understood as gender presentation), the illusion of an inner depth” (134). She calls gender a “surface sign” that comes about through the performance of gender, and from that performance there is the production of an “illusion of inner sex”. This “inner sex” or psyche, “is not ‘in’ the body, but in the very signifying process through which that body comes to appear; it is the lapse in repetition as well as its compulsion, precisely what the performance seeks to deny, and that which compels it from the start” (134). However, the psyche does not have a true gender in need of liberation. It is connected to the production of gender through performance by compelling the performance as well perpetuating the chance of interruption of gender.

Having considered the performative production of gender, Butler goes on to add another element to the mix in her “Introduction” to Bodies That Matter. In this selection, she reformulates performativity in terms of the materiality of bodies and the category of “sex.”

Butler initially engages Foucault in the elaboration of her argument. She writes that the category of “sex” is a “regulatory ideal.” This means that it is both a norm and, “a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs” (1). It has a productive function that defines bodies, in this case, a heterosexual matrix. Furthermore, body shaping, or the defining of bodies, is an effect of power. She explains that this effect of power is materiality, which, in terms of the category of “sex,” is part of the inextricable connection between the “materiality of the body,” and “the materialization of the [sex] regulatory norm” (2). Additionally, bodily norms, like her earlier formulation of the performativity of gender, are not produced by a subject, but instead the subject is produced by the assumption of a sex and identification. This identification is dependent on the formulation of heterosexual exclusion and abjection of particular identifications outside the heterosexual norm. However, the subject comes about through a rejection of certain identities, which forms “a domain of abjection,” that is actually within the subject as the basis of its identification.

In the next section, Butler challenges the constructionist views of gender production and formation. In her critique of three radical constructivisms, she reveals that, “constructivism is reduced to determinism and implies the evacuation or displacement of human agency” (9). Constructivism relies on a misreading of Foucault, which Butler describes as the personification of power. A significant point she makes about this is that, “There is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability” (9). Reiteration means dynamism over time, which leads to her proposal to replace constructivism. She proposes, “a return to the notion of matter, not as a site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (9). Thus, the theorization of gender is expanded to provide a way of theorizing the “matter” of sex (10). Furthermore, she reconfigures construction. She writes, “Construction not only takes place in time, but is itself a temporal process which operates through the reiteration of norms; sex is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration” (10). And, the destabilization leads to, “the possibility to put the consolidation of the norms of ‘sex’ into a potentially productive crisis” (10).

In the final theoretical section of the “Introduction,” Butler develops, “a poststructuralist rewriting of discursive performativity as it operates in the materialization of sex,” as a critique of structuralist-oriented “constructivist accounts of gender” (12). Most of her previous theorization is poststructuralist in that it takes place over time through repetition and reiteration, whereas a structuralist approach considers slices of time and singular acts. Derrida constructed a reformulation of speech acts through the idea of citations. Additionally, she relies on Derrida’s citational reformulation of speech acts. The power of the speech act derives from the act’s citation. This means that speech acts are reiterable by citing the “conventions of authority” (13). Butler extends this to “sex,” by writing, “the norm of sex takes hold to the extent that it is ‘cited’ as such a norm, but it also derives its power through the citations it compels” (13). Next, she aligns “sex” with Lacanian symbolic law so that, “the force and necessity of these norms…is thus functionally dependent on the approximation and citation of the law” (14). Also, she questions, “what would it mean to ‘cite’ the law to produce it differently, to ‘cite’ the law in order to reiterate and coopt its power, to expose the heterosexual matrix and to displace the effect of its necessity” (15)? She calls this process materialization, which is a kind of citationality that produces being by citing power. Furthermore, this means that a subject who resists these norms is actually both enabled and produced by those norms—hence, a reinforcement of Foucault’s theory of power.

Butler’s earlier formulation of the performativity of gender, and her later theory of the materiality of bodies produced by reiterative citation of “sex” norms, raises a number of questions.

First, to what extent do you accept Butler’s overarching reformulation of performativity? Is her earlier theory about gender performativity easier to accept than the citational formation of bodies?

Second, Butler briefly touches on the human subject and less-than-human non-subject divide in the heterosexual matrix in the “Introduction.” When it’s known that biological sex is varied and not always binary (e.g., the thirteen sexes of slime mold described in Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson, or the medicalized “anomalies” of Klinefelter’s Syndrome, Ulrich-Turner Syndrome, and others that refute a chromosomal definition of human sex), what are your thoughts about removing the physical construction of sex from a formulation of bodies with a “sex?” Is this compelling or troubling?

And finally, Butler, following Foucault, talks about bodies on a local level. Is there a way to reconcile Butler and Foucault with Sedgwick regarding community? Does community come about in what Butler calls the “outside” (i.e., on the excluded borders of the heterosexual matrix), and if so, how might that alliance work in terms of the production of “sexed” bodies?

 

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Judith Butler Reader. Eds. Sara Salih and Judith Butler. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 119-137.

—. “Introduction.” Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993. 1-23.

——————————–

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kevin Floyd

Queer Studies

6 Feb. 2008

Queer Studies, Summary of Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”

            “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” is an expansion of some of Butler’s ideas in her previous, larger work, Gender Trouble.  In this essay, she employs the concepts of play/performance, drag, and imitation to describe the formation of gender and sexuality as continually created subjectivities always at risk of dissolution from non-performance.  Furthermore, she points out that gender is not something chosen, but rather something deep-seated in the psyche whereby, “the psychic subject is nevertheless constituted internally by differentially gendered Others and is, therefore, never, as a gender, self-identical” (133).

She begins by resisting labels/signifiers such as “lesbian theories, gay theories” as well as “lesbian,” because she is, “permanently troubled by identity categories,” which she understands as, “sites of necessary trouble” (120-121).  It’s this “trouble” that interests Butler, and is the origin of her political project.  Butler goes on to explain that she resists a theorization of gay and lesbian identity, because there lacks a shared specificity to such an identity.  Even on the common ground of experiencing homophobia, there would be different vocabularies and methods of analysis.  She reveals that a lack of specificity, which seems to indicate that lesbianism is derived from heterosexuality or doesn’t exist at all, can be utilized in a deconstructionist argument that posits, “lesbian sexuality can be understood to redeploy its ‘derivativeness’ in the service of displacing hegemonic heterosexual norms” (124).

Butler argues that lesbian identity is both a “being” and “trying to be” at the same time.  It’s the repetition of a deep-seated play that constitutes the lesbian “I.”  Taking this concept, she links compulsory heterosexuality (i.e., normalized as the hierarchically dominant position) with drag.  Drag is an appropriation of gender stylizations and performance, which suggests that gender itself is a stylized imitative performance.  Therefore, gender is a simulacra—a copy without an original.  This means that heterosexual genders are produced through imitation rather than originating from some natural origin.

She drives her deconstructionist argument home by pointing out that homosexuality is not a copy of heterosexuality.  Instead, it’s an imitation, which is more simulation than “carbon copy.”  This means that homosexuality is produced, as is heterosexuality, and it inverts the classically implied hierarchical primacy of heterosexuality.  Therefore, heterosexuality is a performance that requires repetition at all times in order to maintain stability.  Also, gender is a compulsory performance that generates subjectivity.  There is no preceding subject that chooses gender and the according performance.  Also, heterosexuality is continually at risk because it must be continually performed at all times to maintain itself.

Butler draws on Freud, and Borch-Jacobsen and Leys to develop a way of thinking about the psychic identification involved in gender presentation.  The former’s concept of loss, and the latter’s primary mimetism both support the idea that the “psychic subject” is formed by identification with Others of various genders, and not from self-identification.  Gender produces the “illusion of an inner sex,” and gender is “always a surface sign,” i.e., marked on/by the body (134).  Additionally, the psyche is not within the body, but is a continuous paradox—compelling gender performance, thereby perpetuating the possibility of gender interruption.

 

 

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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