Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Assess the significance of Judith Butlers work
Assess the significance of Judith Butlers work The modern meaning of the word 'gender' emerged in the 1970s. Its original purpose was to draw a line between biological sex and how particular thoughts and behaviours could be defined as either 'feminine' or 'masculine' (Pilcher Whelehan, 2004). The reason for using the word 'gender' was to raise awareness of the exaggeration of biological differences between men and women. The popularity of this meaning for the word 'gender' resulted from the efforts of second wave feminism in the 1970s. This essay examines how second wave feminism attempted to construct a 'grand narrative' of women's oppression. It then examines Judith Butler's contribution to post-modern feminist theory through her performative theory of gender and how this fits into post-modern feminist debates. A product of second wave feminism, which began around 1970, was the attempt to place women within a 'grand narrative' history of their oppression. One of the seminal writers on this narrative was Simone de Beauvoir. Her work in describing how women had become 'the other' in her book The Second Sex (de Beauvoir, 1961) laid the foundations for what was to come in the second wave of feminism (Gamble, 2002). De Beauvoir argues that the way in which men think about women is only in relation to their fantasies, that they have no substance of their own. Unfortunately, for de Beauvoir, women have come to accept men's fantasies of womanhood as constituting their own conception of themselves. For de Beauvoir, it was for women to conceive of themselves in their own terms, to take back the power themselves. A criticism of de Beauvoir's approach was that it tended to blame women for their current condition (Gamble, 2002). The second wave feminists of the 1970s, however, such as Millet (1970), pointed to patriarchy as the root cause of women's oppression. It is patriarchy, so Millet argued, that has become a political institution, and from this flows all the other forms of women's oppression. Firestone (1970) also took a strong line against patriarchy, equating women's oppression to a caste or class system. Ideological support for patriarchy, in Firestone's view, has come from institutions such as the family, marriage along with romantic love. These ideas are referred to as constructing a 'grand narrative', a way of charting the history and development of particular ideas, in this case women's oppression (MacNay, 1997). One of the problems that much feminist thought has come up against in trying to provide a 'grand narrative' of women's oppression is that it is difficult to effectively give all women a common identity (Whelehan, 1995). If the very idea of gender flows from cultural origins, then it is only natural to conclude that gender has different meanings in different cultural contexts. How then can a common identity be posited? Other critics such as Richards (1982), examining second wave feminism from a liberal perspective, have seen it as a movement that has failed. Richards sees many of the feminist approaches as being extreme and unattractive, and not focussing, as she sees it, on rational debate. She criticises feminists for utilising 'eccentric' arguments which do not conform to the normative expectations of philosophical debate. Further, she criticises feminism for ignoring the obvious differences between men and women such as women's ability to have children and thereby presenting an unrealistic picture of utopian gender relations. Another vibrant stream of criticism against second wave feminism has been that it assumes that what is required is a reversal in the relative positions of men and women. In other words, if women can take the position of men in society then their oppression will finally be undone (Brooks, 1997). Instead, however, post-modernist forms of feminism have tended to criticise the placing of women and men in oppositional categories. Post-modernist writers, such as Judith Butler, Brooks argues, help the feminist debate move on from the grand narrative to the focussing on deconstruction and identity (Brooks, 1997). Judith Butler's work as a social theorist has been extremely influential. Some of the major themes of her work include important contributions to queer theory and her criticism of the way in which gender has been constructed (Clough, 2000). Her breakthrough work was Gender Trouble which strongly criticised existing feminist theory on gender such as the work of Firestone and Millet. Butler (1990) points out that feminist approaches have tended to emphasise the difference between gender and sex. In these perspectives sex is seen as a biological fact, while gender is a cultural construction. The problem for Butler is that this split has gone too far, such that it is not possible to analyse how the sexed body is constituted (Salih Butler, 2004). Rather than splitting gender and sex, then, Butler's work has actually collapsed one into the other (Fraser, 2002). Sandford (1999) explains that this is achieved by showing that gender actually produces sex. Butler (1990) asks whether it is possible to talk about the 'masculine' attributes of a man and then talk about their 'feminine' attributes and still be able to ascribe sensible meaning to the word 'gender'. Butler (1990) argues that when the idea of 'woman' and 'man' are dispensed with, it is more difficult to see how these gendered attributes can still be viable. Butler (1990) states that gender cannot necessarily be referred to in terms of these attributes, or as a noun, a thing of itself, but rather as a verb. In this sense Butler considers gender to be performative, to be an act which constitutes itself rather than flowing from some other source. The criticism aimed by Butler (1990) at feminist theory is precisely that it has argued there must be a source for actions. This means that gender cannot be 'performed' of itself; it must be performed by something. Butler (1990) provides an example in the relationship between sexual desire and gender. Freud's explanation that attraction comes from biological sex is considered by Butler. She argues that sexual attraction, rather than coming from sex, is a process that is learned over time, that is a performance we work on, not something flowing directly from biological sex. The political implications of this argument are vital, especially for homosexuality. Kirsch (2001) argues that some people in the queer movement have accepted the primacy of biology. This idea is related to essentialism which relies on factors such as the 'gay gene' to explain homosexuality. In contrast to this view, a constructionist approach concentrates on the ways in which society encourages certain types of behaviour through social norms. 'Men' and 'women', within Butler's theory, are no longer essentialist universal categories but rather free-floating categories which are socially produced. The norms to which Butler is referring are those which see the body as being directly related to the types of sexual desire and practices that are associated with it (Salih Butler, 2004). Sexual desires and practices which do not fit within this matrix are 'not allowed'. In order to understand how sexed bodies are produced, Butler uses Lacan's reading of Freud (Salih Butler, 2004). Lacan argues that it is through fantasy that the sexed body is created. Salih (2002) points out that it is Butler's use of Freud that is one of her most important achievements. Here, she analyses Freud's idea of the Oedipus complex. This is where the child is forced to give up its desire for its parents by the incest taboo. Butler reinterprets this by arguing that the child desires the parent of the same sex, but finds that this is taboo. Sex and gender identities are then formed from this taboo. Butler argues that everyone's gender identity is formed from this homosexual ta boo. Butler refers to the formation of gender identity in terms of melancholic identification (Salih, 2002). The place where this identification can be seen, according to Butler, is on the body in the form of gender and sex identities. While Butler's theory of performativity along with her work in post-modern feminist theory has been extremely influential, it has also provoked a fair degree of criticism. Benhabib (1995) has argued that the death of the subject, which is at the heart of Butler's thesis, leads to an incoherent picture. Benhabib (1995) points out that it is difficult to believe there is nothing behind the mask of gender, that agency appears completely absent. In a parallel argument to Benhabib, Kirsch (2001) makes the point that this negation of the subject has negative consequences for ideas of identity and collective action. A sense of collectivity, in particular, is often seen by those 'coming out' as providing support. In Butler's theory, however, there is only the focus on the individual. To Kirsch (2001) it seems that Butler's theory tends to reduce the ability of the wider community to provide support to the individual. A more generalised criticism of modern feminism, however it is labelled, is that there is a sense in which it is an exclusive club. Butler's ideas relating to the performativity of gender are only available to a certain restricted group in society: white, middle-class, intellectual (Whelehan, 1995). Each feminist sub-movement implicitly creates its own lists of what can be done, and what cannot. Women, therefore, can find it difficult to label themselves as feminists as there are now many apparent bars to entry and negative associations with it (Whelehan, 1995). Perhaps in this sense second wave feminism, as enunciated by Firestone and Millet, provided a vision with which it was easier to associate. In contrast, post-modern perspectives, a category in which Butler's work has been put, provide a much more complex and illusory analysis of gender; even, as some critics would have it, making it harder for those attempting to live outside society's norms. It has been argued that theories such as those put forward by Butler have lead to the need for a new type of feminism (Pilcher Whelehan, 2004). This is precisely because postmodernist thought has rejected the 'grand narratives' associated with second wave feminism. As a result, women may find it difficult to claim the identity 'woman' as its nature is so contested in postmodernist thought (Pilcher Whelehan, 2004). This is part of the problem that so-called 'post-feminism' has attempted to address. This leads to an attempt to answer the question: What gender am I? Viewed through the influence of Butler's theories, it is increasingly difficult to provide a clear answer. The two answers that are most 'natural', male or female suddenly become obsolete expressions which appear devoid of their previous meaning. With the 'subject' apparently removed from the equation, it is difficult to lay claim to any particular gender. Certainly Butler's theory does not imply that both men and women can travel without hindrance across the boundaries of gender, far from it. Naturally society's norms still apply and even transgressions are carried out in relation to the norms themselves. Ultimately, though, the question comes back to the problem of agency. If it is up to me to choose my gender, as I wish, then who is doing the choosing? When Butler even rejects the idea of there being an actor at all, all meaning fades from the question What gender am I? In conclusion, the second wave of feminism brought a grand narrative view of the history of women's oppression. It pointed to oppression as a political institution enforced through social mechanisms such as the family, marriage and economics. Critics of this approach, however, questioned whether it was possible to set women up in direct opposition to men. Judith Butler responded to the second wave view by collapsing the ideas of gender and sex into each other. Gender, she argues, is performed, and so the subject in feminist thought, was apparently destroyed. But, argued critics of Butler, these notions of gender appear to restrict the political power of feminism, to leave it toothless, without its subject. 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