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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - Book Review: Undoing Gender by Judith Butler, Reviewed by Erin Gray

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 28 Apr 2005 07:06:55 +0200 (CEST)

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In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler develops upon her earlier work in
gender and queer theory. Butler, a professor in Rhetoric, Comparative
Literature, and Women’s Studies at the University of California,
Berkeley, is best known for the groundbreaking Gender Trouble, in
which she outlined her theory of gender performativity and the
construction of sexuality. Since Undoing Gender appeared in 1990,
feminist, queer, and literary work in the humanities has been heavily
influenced by Butler’s nuanced exposure of gender’s
construction. Moving beyond a binary frame in which gender is
assumed to signify an essential self, Butler exposes the categories of
sex, desire and gender as effects of specific power structures.
Focusing more on linguistic action than on a theatrical sense of
performativity, Butler defines the latter as a stylized repetition of acts
that produces the effect of an internal, natural core on the surface of
the body. Because gender is often assumed to be an extension of
natural interiority, its sociality and public function is often
overlooked. Butler’s emphasis on the simultaneity of
improvisation/performance and constraint underscores the
paradoxical nature of gendered identity construction.

In Butler’s analysis, this is apparent in gender parodies such as
drag, which, though parodic, is not necessarily subversive.
Butler’s work has helped further expose the foundational
categories of sex, desire and gender as effects of specific power
structures, thus moving beyond a binary frame in which gender is
assumed to signify an essential self.

As in Bodies that Matter (1993), Undoing Gender takes from Gender
Trouble much of its conceptual and theoretical frameworks, but
situates a critique of the production of gender norms within a
materially-based understanding of the complex relationship between
survival and social transformation. Where Gender Trouble largely
focused on gender as a doing, here Butler is concerned with undoing,
or unperforming, hegemonic modes of gender and sexuality.

Gender is defined in Undoing Gender as a “practice of
improvisation within a scene of constraint,” one that is always
within a social context, and never outside of ideology (1). In her
introduction, Butler writes that Undoing Gender offers an
understanding of how “restrictively normative conceptions of
sexual and gendered life” might be undone (1). Butler stresses
throughout the book that this process of undoing is not necessarily
negative or positive, but is instead caught up in the paradoxical
tension between societal-mediated survival and individual agency.
Butler reminds us that one does not author one’s gender, for its
terms are always negotiated within collective social contexts (1). In
“Undiagnosing Gender,” for example, she addresses the
tension within transsexual communities around the diagnosis of
gender-identity disorder (GID). The tension arises because, though
the diagnosis is an economic necessity in order for transsexuals to
gain access to funds for sex-change operations, the diagnosis is
inherently pathologizing in its conflation of transsex with disorder.
Many people in trans communities view the diagnosis of GID as an
institutional barrier to transautonomy, as it forces transsexuals to
conform to the discursive power of the medical and psychoanalytic
communities. Butler points out that the diagnosis, necessary under
capitalism for economic access to surgery, exacerbates the tension
between autonomy and community, as transsexuals must submit to
discourse in order to gain autonomy at the level of the body (100). We
are never, Butler reminds us, able to remove ourselves from ideology,
and we must work with the dominant ideology’s tools in order to
subvert its material effects.

In Undoing Gender, Butler seems to be fighting off critics’
accusations that Gender Trouble espoused a humanist desire for
gendered autonomy, as she argues that individual bodily agency is
conditional on its place within a collective whole; “not only does
one need the social world to be a certain way in order to lay claim to
what is one’s own, but it turns out that what is one’s own is
always from the start dependent upon what is not one’s own, the
social conditions by which autonomy is, strangely, dispossessed and
undone” (100).

Desire, for Butler, is bound up with questions of power and social
normativity. Asking what gender wants, Butler links desire with
recognition in a Hegelian sense. It is through the experience of
recognition, she writes, that people are constituted as social beings
(2). Butler expands Hegel’s notion of recognition to point out
that, since the terms by which we are recognizable are constituted
socially, they are also alterable.

There is an implicit tension between desiring norms in order to
survive, and maintaining a critical distance from them. For Butler, a
critical relationship to norms depends on a collective ability to
articulate alternative, oppositional “norms” that necessitate
action (3). Doing, stresses Butler, is tied to being; “if I have any
agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social
world I never chose. That my agency is riven with paradox does not
mean it is impossible. It means only that paradox is the condition of
its possibility” (3). It is this paradox that Butler investigates
throughout the book, specifically in regards to the question of critical
social transformation. This transformation of norms, Butler
repeatedly reminds us, comes from within an understanding of how
one is constituted by them. If Gender Trouble’s main concern
was with exploring the dynamics through which genders are
constructed and performed, Undoing Gender is concerned with the
question of survival-based undoings, performative resistance at the
level of both ideology and the body, and which is, importantly, always
social and collective.

In examining how bodies are normalized and made “human,”
Butler explicitly concerns herself with the question of autonomy.
Choosing one’s own body means navigating among norms, and
individual agency is bound up with societal critique and social
transformation. One’s personal gender is determined to the
extent that social norms support and enable acts of claiming.

Butler also looks at the various ways in which humans are
normalized as human. She importantly points to the connections
between these types of gender discrimination, gender violence, and
the harsh normalizing mode of the promotion of gay and lesbian
marriage: “the critical question … becomes, how might the
world be reorganized so that this conflict can be ameliorated?”
(5). In the case of gay and lesbian marriage, for example, she writes
that gay and lesbian kinship forms are not recognized as kinship
unless they mimic a heterosexual familial structure (102). This
normative family form is predicated upon recognition from the state,
a site for the articulation of the fantasy of normativity, legitimation,
and anonymity. Like GID and surgery on intersexed babies, gay and
lesbian marriage diagnoses and institutes gender norms, but norms
which are necessary in order for many people to survive.

In detailing the paradox of autonomy, Butler writes that, until society
is radically altered, freedom will continue to require unfreedom, and
autonomy subjection. She does not however, offer an explanation of
how the paradox of autonomy, or, more precisely, the relationship
between gender normalization and gender self-fashioning, may be
resolved within a wider process of social transformation. This is,
obviously, out of the stated scope of Butler’s text, but something
which needs to be articulated between gender and queer theory, and
connected to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist theory and practice.

Butler has been criticized for replacing so-called “real”
politics with symbolic politics, leaving little room for large-scale
social change. Professor Martha Nussbaum, in an article in The New
Republic, accuses Butler of “hip quietism” and a pessimistic,
amoral, anarchic disavowal of the law and social normativity. Her
view of politics, according to Nussbaum, is oddly pessimistic in its
poststructuralist belief that there is no agent prior to social forces that
produce the self. Though Butler repeatedly stresses agency and the
need for resistance, Nussbaum questions where this ability comes
from if autonomy may only be sought by parodying dominant
discourses and practices; “there is a void, then, at the heart of
Butler’s notion of politics. This void can look liberating, because
the reader fills it implicitly with a normative theory of human equality
or dignity. But then we have to articulate those norms--and this
Butler refuses to do.”

Nussbaum’s critique was published in response to Gender
Trouble and Excitable Speech, and focuses largely on Butler’s
“difficult,” academic writing style. Though Butler, who was
trained in philosophy at Yale, may be inaccessible to those who have
no previous experience in the work of the theorists she references,
Undoing Gender is an arguably easier read than some of her earlier
work. While this may merely be the result of my having marginal
experience with Butler’s ideas, there is still something to be said
for Butler’s tenacious emphasis on subversion, even while she
recognizes how difficult that subversion may be. And it is not as
though Butler has no experience in activism; she has worked in
AIDS activism within queer communities, and is an outspoken, and
harshly criticized, Jewish anti-Zionist.

Gender is a project of cultural survival, a strategy, and, as stated
earlier, acts of gender create the idea of gender. The relevance of
theory for activism has been contentious in both the academy and on
the street, with many radical theorists, from Marx to bell hooks,
pointing out the need to theorize oppositional consciousness and
action. Theoretical practice helps destabilize the binary on which
dominant modes of thought have worked to create marked rifts
between how we define ourselves in relation to others. Butler’s
emphasis on survival and on the relationship between the tactile and
the discursive, emphasizes how neo-liberal rhetoric plays itself out on
the real bodies of the disenfranchised.

Butler’s emphasis on the extent to which our bodies have a
public dimension reminds us that struggling for autonomy requires a
struggle for a conception of the self within a community; “to live
is to live a life politically, in relation to power, in relation to others, in
the act of assuming responsibility for a collective future” (39).
Emotions such as desire, mourning, and rage allow people to relate to
others, as they enact an undoing of the self, and allow for an
apprehension of the social dimensions of embodied life. Grief and
rage, therefore, have implications for activism, as they allow people to
return to a source of vulnerability, to a collective responsibility for our
physical lives (23).

Butler therefore, steps away from the largely inaccessible tone of
Gender Trouble in order to explore the complex relationship between
social power and the embodiment of gender norms, as well as the
terms through which agency and survival may be articulated.
Focusing on the relationship between feminist and queer politics and
radical democratic theory, Undoing Gender is influenced by how
“New Gender Politics” (social movements concerned with
transgender, transsexuality, intersex, feminist, and queer politics)
may work together to construct a future of resistance.

Undoing Gender is thus indispensable not only for feminist, queer
and transsexed investigations of philosophical and practical social
change, but is useful for wider anti-imperialist work as well. It is
precisely our task, as anti-heterosexist activists, to articulate the
relationship between the radical ideologies we embody and how we
perform gender and grassroots politics. Butler’s philosophical
musings on subjectivity, and the conditions required by current social
relations for one to be considered a living, human subject, have
implications for our collective struggles against capital and empire,
and, as well as asking how we may subversively undo gender, we can
also ask how all oppressive structures may be undone. As Butler
contends, queer politics are about resisting assimilation, and
remaking reality at the level of the body: “to intervene in the
name of transformation means precisely to disrupt what has become
settled knowledge and knowable reality and to use …one’s
unreality to make an otherwise impossible or illegible claim” (27).
Desire is itself a transformative activity, and it is our task, as radicals,
to perform our resistance, our desire for change, and to demand the

Erin Gray is a student, writer, and activist in Toronto. She organizes
with GRAIN (Grassroots Anti-Imperialist Network) at York
University, and will be completing an MA on the politics of the
avant-garde in the coming year. excluded from the definition of class,
have been told that their confrontation with the white male power
structure in the metropolis is an “exotic historical accident.”
Divided by the capitalist organization of society into factory, office,
school, plantation, home and street, we are divided too by the very
institutions which claim to represent our struggle collectively as a
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]

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