ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 23

 - Queer Theory and Gender Performativity


In this lecture on queer theory, Professor Paul Fry explores the work of Judith Butler in relation to Michel Foucault’sHistory of Sexuality. Differences in terminology and methods are discussed, including Butler’s emphasis on performance and Foucault’s reliance on formulations such as “power-knowledge” and “the deployment of alliance.” Butler’s fixation with ontology is explored with reference to Levi-Strauss’s concept of the raw and the cooked. At the lecture’s conclusion, Butler’s interrogation of identity politics is compared with that of post-colonial and African-American theorists.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 23 - Queer Theory and Gender Performativity

Chapter 1. Introduction to Judith Butler: What Is Sexuality? [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Now, I don’t think it’s ever happened to me before–although it might have but I can’t recall its having happened–that I found myself lecturing on a person who had lectured yesterday here at Yale, but that’s what happened in this case. You read–let’s just call it–the facetious article on the lecture in The Daily News this morning. Some of you may actually have been in attendance. I unfortunately could not be, but as it happened I ran into her later in the evening and talked to some of her colleagues about what she’d said, so I do have a certain sense of what went on.

In any case, as to what went on, I’m going to be talking today about the slipperiest intellectual phenomenon in her essay having to do with what she calls “psychic excess,” the charge or excess from the unconscious which in some measure unsettles even that which can be performed. We perform identity, we perform our subjectivity, we perform gender in all the ways that we’ll be discussing in this lecture, but beyond what we can perform there is “sexuality,” which I’m going to be turning to in a minute. This has something to do with the authentic realm of the unconscious from which it emerges. What Butler did in her lecture yesterday was to return to the psychoanalytic aspect of the essay that you read for today, emphasizing particularly the work of Lacan’s disciple, Jean Laplanche, and developing the ways in which sexuality is something that belongs in a dimension that exceeds and is less accessible than those more coded concepts that we think of as gender or as identity in general. So conveniently enough, for those of you who did attend her lecture yesterday, in many ways she really did return to the issues that concerned her at the period of her career when she wrote Gender Trouble and when she wrote the essay that you’ve read for today.

All right. Now I do want to begin with what ought to be an innocent question. Surely we’re entitled to an answer to this question, and the question is: what is sexuality? Now of course you may be given pause– especially if you’ve got an ear fine-tuned to jargon–you may be given pause by the very word ”sexuality,” which is obviously relatively recent in the language. People didn’t used to talk about sexuality. They talked about sex, which seems somehow more straightforward, but “sexuality” is a term which is not only pervasive in cultural thought but also has a certain privilege among other ways of describing that aspect of our lives. In other words, there is something authentic, as I’ve already begun to suggest, about our sexuality, something more authentic about that than the sorts of aspects of ourselves that we can and do perform. That’s Butler’s argument, and it’s an interesting starting point, but it’s not yet, or perhaps not at all, an answer to the question, “What is sexuality?”

Chapter 2. Foucault and the Deployment of Alliance [00:03:46]

Now for Foucault sexuality is arguably something like desired and experienced bodily pleasure, but the problem in Foucault is that this pleasure is always orchestrated by a set of factors that surround it, a very complicated set of factors which is articulated perhaps best on page 1634 in his text, the lower right-hand column. He’s talking about the difference between and the interaction between what he calls the “deployment of alliance” and the “deployment of”–our word–“sexuality.” I want to read this passage and then comment on it briefly: “In a word [and it’s of course not in a word; it’s in several words], the deployment of alliance is attuned to a homeostasis of the social body…” The deployment of alliance is the way in which, in a given culture, the nuclear reproductive unit is defined, typically as the “family,” but the family in itself changes in its nature and its structure. The way in which the family is viewed, the sorts of activities that are supposed to take place and not take place in the family–because Foucault lays a certain amount of stress on incest and the atmospheric threat of incest–the sorts of things that go on in the family and are surrounded by certain kinds of discourse conveying knowledge–and we’ll come back to the latter part of that sentence–all have to do with the deployment of alliance. On the other hand, the deployment of sexuality we understand as the way in which whatever this thing is that we’re trying to define is talked about–and therefore not by any state apparatus or actual legal system necessarily–but nevertheless simply by the prevalence and force of various sorts of knowledge police.

Okay. To continue the passage:

In a word, the deployment of alliance is attuned to a homeostasis [or a regularization; that’s what he means by “homeostasis”] of the social body, which it has the function of maintaining; whence its privileged link with the law [that is to say, the law tells us all sorts of things about the family–including whether or not there can be gay marriage, just incidentally: I’ll come back to that in a minute]; whence too the fact that the important phase for it is “reproduction.” The deployment of sexuality has its reason for being, not in reproducing itself, but in proliferating, innovating, annexing, creating, and penetrating bodies in an increasingly detailed way, and in controlling populations in an increasingly comprehensive way.

What he’s saying is, among other things, that a deployment of sexuality, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–these deployments aren’t meant somehow or another to be terroristic regimes–a deployment of sexuality, which for example favored forms of sexuality such as birth control or homosexuality, would certainly be a means of controlling reproduction. Just in that degree, the deployment of sexuality could be seen as subtly or not so subtly at odds with the deployment of alliance, alliance which is all for the purpose of reproduction or at least takes as its primary sign, as Foucault suggests, the importance, the centrality, to a given culture–or sociobiological system, if you wil– of reproduction. These are the ways in which the deployment of alliance and the deployment of sexuality converge, don’t converge, and conflict with each other. But in all of these ways, we keep seeing this concept of sexuality; but, as I say, it continues to be somewhat elusive what precisely it is.

Just to bracket that for the moment, let me make another comment or two on the concepts in the passage that I have just read. Let’s say once and for all at the outset that the central idea in Foucault’s text, the idea which he continues to develop throughout the three volumes on the history of sexuality–the central idea is this idea of “power” as something other than that which is enforced through legal, policing or state apparatus means. This is power which is enforced as a circulation or distribution of knowledge, which is discursive in nature, and which enforces its norms for all of us, for betteror for worse–because discourse can release and can constitute sites of resistance as well as oppress–which, for better or worse, circulates among us ideas that are in a certain sense governing ideas about whatever it is that’s in question, in this case, obviously, sexuality. Foucault calls this, sometimes hyphenating it, “power-knowledge.”

This is absolutely the central idea in late Foucault. I introduced it, you remember, last time in talking about Said. I come back to it now as that which really governs–and guides you through–the whole text of Foucault: the distinction between power as it’s traditionally understood as authoritative–as sort of top- down, coming from above, imposed on us by law, by the police, by whatever establishment of that kind there might be–the distinction between power of that kind and power which is simply the way in which knowledge–and knowledge is not, by the way, necessarily a good word, it’s not necessarily knowledge of the truth–the way in which knowledge circulates and imposes its effects on us, our behavior, the way we are or the way at least that we think we are–the way in which we “perform,” in Butler’s term. All of that in Foucault is to be understood as an effect of power-knowledge.

Now notice, however, in terms of our question–What is sexuality?–that Foucault is being quite coy. He’s talking about sexuality but he’s not talking about it in itself, whatever it “in itself” might be. He’s talking about the deployment of it, that is to say the way in which power-knowledge constructs it, makes it visible, makes it available to us, and makes it a channel through which desire can get itself expressed, but a channel which is still not necessarily in and of itself that natural thing that we look for and long for and continue to seek: the nature of sexuality. So when the emphasis in Foucault’s discussion is really on deployment, that is, the way in which alliance–the family, whatever the nuclear social structure might be–or sexuality–whatever it is that gets itself expressed as desire–the way in which these matters, these aspects of our lives, can be deployed, we still aren’t necessarily talking about the thing in itself. Foucault isn’t an anthropologist. He’s not talking about the family in itself either. He’s talking about the way in which a basic concept of alliance out of which reproduction arises and gets itself channeled can be deployed, and understood as manipulated by, the circulation of power-knowledge.

The issue of gay marriage is very interestingly, by the way, between the concepts of the deployment of alliance and the deployment of sexuality, because there’s a certain sense in which the deployment of sexuality is at odds with the deployment of alliance. If sexuality is something that is really just looking around for ways to get itself expressed, taking advantage of deployment where that’s a good thing and trying to resist deployment where that seems more like policing–if it’s just looking around for a way to get expressed, it’s not particularly interested in alliance. It’s not interested in the way in which relationships involving sexuality could settle into any kind of a coded pattern or system of regularity, so that there is this tension which, of course, gets itself expressed whenever, within the gay community, people strongly support gay marriage and see that as the politicized center of contemporary gay life; or people also in the gay community, many of them theoretically advanced, think of it as a non-issue or a side issue which loses track precisely of what Foucault calls the deployment of sexuality, simply trying to extend the domain, arguably a tyrannical domain, of the deployment of alliance–in other words, to redefine the basic concept of alliance in such a way that doesn’t really touch very closely on the deployment of sexuality. So it’s an interesting and rather mixed set of issues that the whole question, the whole sort of profoundly politicized question, of gay marriage gives rise to. So that’s what sexuality is [laughter] in Foucault.

Chapter 3. Performing Gender [00:14:53]

In Butler it’s just clearer that to ask the question–What is sexuality?– is–well, it’s just been a false start. We thought it was an innocent question, but you get into Butler and you see very clearly that you simply can’t be a certain sexuality. You can perform an identity, as we’ll see, by repeating, by imitating, and by parodying in drag. You can perform an identity, but you can’t wholly perform sexuality precisely because of this element of psychic excess to which her thinking continues very candidly and openly and honestly to return. Butler’s work, in other words, is not just about “the construction of identity.” It’s not just about the domain of performance, as one might say. It acknowledges that there is something very difficult to grasp and articulate beyond performance. Its main business is to explain the nature and purview and purposes of performance, but it’s nevertheless always clear in Butler, as she returns to the question of the unconscious in particular, that there is something in excess of, or not fully to be encompassed by, ideas of performance.

So we’ve made a false start. We’ve asked a question we can’t answer, but at the same time we have learned certain things. We’ve learned certainly that sexuality, whatever it is, is more flexible and also in some sense more authentic–that is to say, closest to the actual nature of the drives. Yesterday Butler made a distinction between instinct and drive which I won’t go into because it had to do with her reflections on what is cultural and what is biological or not cultural in the life of the unconscious. For our purposes, whatever role sexuality may play in the unconscious, and however authentic–that is to say, however not culturally determined that role may turn out to be–it’s more flexible. That’s the important thing, more than any kind of social coding: the sort of coding, for example, that Foucault would indicate in speaking of alliance or deployed sexuality and the sort of coding that Butler refers to repeatedly as “gendering.”

Still, for both of them–and this is the other thing we’ve learned–even sexuality through deployment, or through the way in which it can get expressed in relation to gender and performance, is discursive. It’s a matter of discourse. It arises out of linguistic formations, formations that Foucault understands as circulated knowledge and that Butler understands, again, as performance. Foucault sees sexuality as the effect of power-knowledge, power as knowledge. Butler sees it as the effect–insofar as it’s visible, insofar as it is acted out–sees it as the effect of performance.

So now to take the way in which Butler makes this relationship between what one might suppose to be authentic, actual, all about one’s self, and that which is performed, that which is one’s constructs toward being a self, let’s take one of the most provocative sentences in her essay, which is on page 1711 about a third of the way down: “Since I was sixteen, being a lesbian is what I’ve been.” Now what she’s doing–remember at the very beginning of the essay she says that her whole purpose is to reflect, is somehow or another to register a politicized intervention in gender studies in terms of a philosophical reflection–on ontology, on “being.” What is it in other words, she says, to be something? Now what she’s doing in this sentence, which is an awkward-seeming sentence, “[B]eing a lesbian is what I’ve been,” is pointing out to us that to be something is very different from to be “being” something.

For example, I can say I’m busy. (By the way, I am.) I can say I’m busy and I expect you to take it that there’s a certain integrity, there’s a certain authenticity in the fact that I’m busy. Yes, I’m busy, but suppose you say, suspecting that I’m not really busy, “Oh, he’s being busy.” In other words, he’s performing busy-ness. He’s going around being busy, sort of imposing on me the idea that this lazy person is actually accomplishing something. So, the performance of being busy. But here’s the interesting point that Butler is making: the ontological realm is supposed to be about the simple being or existence of things, and it’s always in philosophy contrasted with agency, with the doing of things, with getting something done, with the performance of things. But what Butler is saying–and that’s why she says that she takes an interest in the ontological aspect of the question–what she’s saying is that there is an element of the performative which actually creeps into the ontological. Even being, she says, is something that in some measure–perhaps not altogether but in some measure–something we perform. Hence the doubling up of the word “being” in the sentence, “Since I was sixteen, being a lesbian is what I’ve been.”

In one sense, yeah, I am–that’s what I am, but in another sense I’ve been performing it. I’ve been being one. [laughs] I’ve been outing myself, if you will. I have been taking up a role that can be understood, as all roles can, intelligibly in terms of its performance. So that’s why she puts the sentence that way, and if you made a big mark in the margin and said, “Aha, got her! This is where she says she really is something. No more of this stuff about just constructivism, making oneself up as one goes along. This is where she says she really is something,” then you’re wrong. [laughs] She’s escaped your criticism because she says, “Oh, no, no, no. I have been being a lesbian: I’ve been being one, which is a different thing, although not altogether a different thing, from being one.” She is deliberately, in other words, on the fence between the sense of the ontological as authentic and her own innovative sense of the ontological as belonging within the realm of performance. She doesn’t want to get off the fence. She really doesn’t want to come down squarely on either side because for her–and this is what I like best about her work, even though it’s perhaps the most frustrating thing about it–because for her, what she is talking about is ultimately mysterious. She has a great deal to say about it, but she’s not pretending that in what she has to say about it she’s exhausted the “subject.” That’s why it seems to me to be admirable that she stays on the fence about this, and not simply an occasion for our frustration.

Chapter 4. The Political Agenda of Gender Theory [00:24:10]

So with all of this said–and mystification aside, if you will, as well–with all of this said, it seems plain that Foucault and Butler do have a common political agenda. Foucault is a gay writer who was, in the later stages of writing The History of Sexuality, dying of AIDS; Butler is a lesbian writer. Both of them are very much concerned for the political implications of their marginalized gender roles, while at the same time–of course, being theoretically very sophisticated about them. Their common political agenda is to destabilize the hetero-normative by denying the authenticity, or in Butler’s parlance “originality,” of privileged gender roles. In other words, who says heterosexuality came first? Who says the nuclear family is natural? Who says sexuality can only get itself expressed in certain ways that power-knowledge deploys for it? These are the sorts of questions, the politicized questions, which these discourses raise in common.

So it seems to me that they have a very broad agenda in common, and it also seems to me that they are very closely in agreement. I say that just in order to pause briefly on the moment in which they seem not to be. You’ve probably noticed that one text is referring to another at one point in your reading, and so let’s go there: page 1712, the right-hand margin. The context for this, of course, is Butler talking about Jesse Helms having deplored male homosexuality in attacking the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, and by implication, Butler argues, simply erasing female homosexuality because his diatribe pays no attention to it. Butler then complains that there’s a certain injustice in that because, in a way, it’s even worse, she says, sort of to be declared nonexistent than it is to be declared deviant. At least the male homosexual gets to be declared deviant: we’re simply erased. That’s the position she’s taking here, and then at that point, what she says is:

To be prohibited explicitly is to occupy a discursive site from which something like a reverse-discourse can be articulated; to be implicitly proscribed is not even to qualify as an object of prohibition.

Here’s where she gives us a footnote on Foucault, footnote fifteen (you know we love footnotes):

It is this particular ruse of erasure which Foucault for the most part fails to take account of in his analysis of power.

Butler’s argument is that in Foucauldian terms, there’s got to be discourse for there to be identity. Helms’s refusal of the category of “lesbian” simply by omission–and of course, we know, by the way, that this is a refusal only by omission–Helms’s refusal of this category is, in other words, an erasure of discourse. No discourse, no identity. That is, in other words, what Butler is claiming Foucault’s position entails. Discourse creates power-knowledge. Power-knowledge creates identity. Therefore, where there’s no discourse, there can be no identity, and since Helms has erased the lesbian by refusing discourse about it, it must follow that there is no such thing as a lesbian. That’s the implication of this footnote. To continue:

He almost always presumes [and we must do honor to that word “almost”] that power takes place through discourse as its instrument, and that oppression is linked with subjection and subjectivization, that is, that it is installed as the formative principle of the identity of subjects.

Now in defense of Foucault, let’s go to page 1632, the upper right-hand column, a passage that’s fascinating on a number of grounds. It’s rather long but I think I will read it, upper right-hand column. Foucault says:

Consider for example the history of what was once “the” great sin against nature. The extreme discretion of the texts dealing with sodomy–that utterly confused category–and the nearly universal reticence in talking about it made possible a twofold operation.

Okay. Here’s Foucault saying that this is a category. The homosexual identity, as understood in terms of sodomy, is a category. He’s going to go on to say that it’s punishable in the extreme by law, but in the meantime he’s saying there’s no discourse. There’s a kind of almost universal silence on the subject. You don’t get silence in Dante, as I’m sure you know, but in most cases in this period nobody talks about it. It’s punishable, severely punishable by law, and yet nobody talks about it. This would seem to violate Foucault’s own premise that discourse constitutes identity but also plainly doescontradict Butler’s claim that Foucault supposes that discourse always constitutes identity.

Let’s continue:

… [T]he nearly universal reticence in talking about it made possible a twofold operation: on the one hand, there was an extreme severity (punishment by fire was meted out well into the eighteenth century, without there being any substantial protest expressed before the middle of the century) [Discourse is here failing also in that it’s not constituting a site of resistance, and nobody’s complaining about these severe punishments just as on the other hand nobody’s talking very much about them: there is, in other words, an erasure of discourse], and [he continues] on the other hand, a tolerance that must have been widespread (which one can deduce indirectly from the infrequency of judicial sentences, and which one glimpses more directly through certain statements concerning societies of men that were thought to exist in the army or in the courts)–

In other words, he’s saying there was an identity and that identity was not–at least not very much– constituted by discourse. As you read down the column, he’s going to go on to say that in a way, the plight of the homosexual got worse when it started being talked about. Yes, penalties for being homosexual were less severe, but the surveillance of homosexuality–the way in which it could be sort of dictated to by therapy and by the clergy and by everyone else who might have something to say about it–became far more pervasive and determinate than it was when there was no discourse about it. In a certain way, Foucault is going so far as to say silence was, while perilous to the few, a good thing for the many; whereas discourse which perhaps relieves the few of extreme fear nevertheless sort of imposes a kind of hegemonic authority on all that remain and constitutes them as something that power-knowledge believes them to be, rather than something that in any sense according to their sexuality they spontaneously are. It seems to me that this pointed disagreement with Foucault, raised by Butler, is answered in advance by Foucault and that even there, when you think about it, they’re really in agreement with each other. Foucault’s position is more flexible than she takes it to be, but that just means that it’s similar to her own and, as I say, that fact together with the broad shared political agenda that they have seems to me to suggest that they’re writing very much in concert and in keeping with each other’s views.

Chapter 5. Foucault’s Method, Butler’s Method [00:33:39]

Now in method they are somewhat different. Foucault is a more historical writer, although historians often criticize him for not being historical. The reason historians don’t think he’s historical is that he never really explains how you get from one moment in history to the next. He talks about moments in history, but he talks about them in terms of bodies of knowledge–“epistemic moments,” as he sometimes says. Then these moments somehow mysteriously become other moments and are transformed. The kind of causality that might explain such a thing from an historian’s point of view tends in Foucault’s arguments to be left out.

He nevertheless is concerned, however, with the way in which views of things change over time, and it’s the change in those views that his argument in The History of Sexuality tends to concentrate on; so that he can say that starting in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present, there are essentially four cathected beings around which power-knowledge deploys itself. He describes them as the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple–meaning the couple that is enjoined not to reproduce too much because the economy won’t stand for it, which is a way of, you see, of deploying alliance in such a way as to manipulate and control reproduction. That’s a moment, by the way, in which the deployment of alliance and the deployment of sexuality may be in league with each other, because obviously birth control and homosexual practices can also control reproduction. As you see, it’s not always a question of conflict between these two forms of deployment. So in any case, there’s the Malthusian couple and then the perverse adult, meaning the queer person in whatever form. He says about this–on page 1634 in the left-hand column–that you get these four types, and he says that therapy, the clergy, family, parental advice, and the various ways in which knowledge of this kind circulates have to do primarily with the preoccupation with, tension about, anxiety about these four types. The hysterical woman is determined to be hysterical once it begins to be thought that her whole being is her sexuality. The masturbating child violates the idea that children are born innocent and must be–because it suggests something terribly wrong about the cult of the innocent child that begins in the nineteenth century–it’s something that is subject to extreme and severe surveillance. “Who knows what will come of this?” Scientific thinking about masturbation had to do with the notion that it led to impotence, that by the time you got around to being in a relationship, there wouldn’t be anything there anymore. Just terrible thoughts–also it stunted your growth and you died sooner–just terrible, terrible thoughts about masturbation existed. All of this dominated the scientific literature until well into the twentieth century.

Then the Malthusian couple, which was primarily a phenomenon of what’s called “political economy” in the earlier nineteenth century but has prevailed, by the way, in what we suppose to be, and indeed what is, our progressive technology of the promotion of birth control around the world. “We must control population” is still the Malthusian principle on which we base the idea that people really need to be enlightened about the possibility of not just having an infinite number of children. Again you see that Foucault is right still to suppose that the notion of the Malthusian couple prevails among us. Then finally the perverse adult, who is first discoursed about in the nineteenth century, as the earlier passage that I read suggested, and is still, of course, widely discoursed about. Of course it now has a voice and discourses in its own right: a literature, a journalism and all the rest of it, and is in other words very much in the mainstream of discourse and still has controversy swirling around it, precisely because of the discursive formations that attach to it.

All of this Foucault takes to be in the nature of historical observation. For Butler on the other hand, as you can tell from her style–I am sure that, as in the case of reading Bhabha, you recognize a lot of Derrida in Butler’s style–in Butler it’s a question of taking these same issues and orienting them more in the direction of philosophy. I’ve already suggested the way in which she understands this particular essay as a contribution to that branch of philosophy called “ontology,” the philosophy of being. In general she takes a particular and acute interest in that. Her basic move is something that I hope by this time you’ve become familiar with and recognize and perhaps even anticipate.

For us, perhaps, the inaugural moves of this kind were the various distinctions made by Levi-Strauss. The one that I mentioned in particular–as accessible and I think immediately explanatory of how the move works–is “the raw” and “the cooked.” I tried to show that intuitively, obviously, the raw precedes the cooked. First it’s raw, then it’s cooked, and yet at the same time if we understand the relationship between the raw and the cooked to be a discursive formation, we have to recognize that there would be no such thing as the raw if there weren’t the cooked. If you talk about eating a raw carrot, you have to have had a cooked carrot. You don’t just pick up a carrot, which you’ve never seen before, and say, “This is raw.” The only way you know it’s raw is to know that it can be and has been cooked.

Well, this is the Butler move, the move that she makes again and again and again. What do you mean, the heterosexual precedes the homosexual? What do you mean, the heterosexual is an original and the homosexual is just a copy of it? Who would ever think of the concept of the heterosexual? You’re the only person on earth. You stand there and you say, “I’m heterosexual.” [laughs] You don’t do that. You just say, “Well, I have sexuality.” You could say that. If you had enough jargon at your disposal, you could say that, but you can’t say, “I am heterosexual.” You can’t have the concept heterosexual without having the concept homosexual. They are absolutely mutually dependent, and it has nothing to do with any possible truth of a chicken and egg nature as to which came first. In sexuality, the very strong supposition is for Butler that neither came first. They’re always already there together in that psychic excess with which we identify sexuality, but in social terms the idea that what’s natural is the heterosexual and what’s unnatural, secondary, derivative, and imitative of the heterosexual is the homosexual is belied simply by the fact that you can’t have one conceptually without the other.

It’s the same thing with gender and drag. Drag comes along and parodies, mimics, and imitates gender, but what it points out is that gender is always in and of itself precisely performance. This could, of course, take the form of a critique, I suppose, but we’re all quite virtuoso when it comes to performing. Here I am. I’m standing in front of you performing professionalism. I’m performing whiteness. I’m performing masculinity. I’m doing all of those things. I’m quite a virtuoso: what a performance! [laughter] Perhaps it’s kind of hard to imagine my standing here sort of exclusively performing masculinity as opposed to all the other things that I am performing, but okay, I’m certainly doing that too. I’m insecure about all of these things, Butler argues, because I keep performing them. In other words, I keep repeating what I suppose myself to be. I’m not comfortable in my skin, presumably, and I don’t just relax into what I suppose myself to be. I perform it. It is, in other words, a perpetual self-construction which does two things at once. It stabilizes my identity, which is its intention, but at the same time it betrays my anxiety about my identity in that I must perpetually repeat it to keep it going.

All of this is going on in this notion of performance, so what drag does is precisely bring all this to our attention. It shows us once and for all that that’s what’s at stake in the seemingly natural categories of gender that we imagine ourselves to inhabit like a set of comfortable old clothes. Drag, which is not at all comfortable old clothes, reminds [laughs] us how awkward the apparel of ourselves that we can call our identity actually is, and so it plays that role. The relationship between identity and performance is just the same. This notion of performing identity should recall for you “signifyin’ ” in the thinking of Henry Louis Gates. It should recall for you, in other words, the way in which the identity of another is appropriated through parody, through derision, through self-distancing, and through a sense of the way in which one issomething precisely insofar as one is not simply inhabiting the subject position of another.

It should also recall for you the “sly civility” of the subaltern in Homi Bhabha’s thinking: the way in which double consciousness is partly in the subject position of another, partly in one’s own in such a way that one liberates oneself from the sense that it’s the other person who is authentic and that one is oneself somehow derivative, subordinate, and dependent. All of these relations ought to gel in your minds as belonging very much to the same sphere of thought. The way in which you can’t have the raw without the cooked is the way in which, generally speaking, categories of self and other and of identity per se simply can’t be thought in stable terms in and for themselves, but only relationally.

Chapter 6. The Gendering of Reading [00:46:20]

Now “why is this literary theory?” you ask yourself, or you have been asking yourself. Of course, Butler gives the greatest example at the end of her essay when she says, “Suppose Aretha is singing to me.” “You make me feel,” not a naturalwoman, because there’s no such thing as natural. “You make me feel like a natural woman,” “you” presumably being some hetero-normative other who shows me what it is really to be a woman. Suppose, however, “Aretha is singing to me,” or suppose she is singing to a drag queen. That is reading. That’s reading a song text in a way that is, precisely, literary theory.

Now obviously I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in writing this sentence [gestures to sentence on chalkboard: “The philosopher in a dark mood paced on his oriental rug.”]. It’s a terrible sentence for which I apologize. Virginia Woolf never would have written it; but just to pass in review the way in which what we’ve been doing is literary theory: the Marxist critic would, of course, focus on “his” because the nexus for the Marxist critic in this sentence would be possession–that is to say, the deployment of capital such that a strategy of possession can be enacted. The African American critic would call attention to white color-coded metaphors, insisting, in other words, that one of the ways in which literature needs to be read is through a demystification of processes of metaphorization whereby white is bright and sunlit and central, and black, as Toni Morrison suggests in her essay, is an absence, is a negation, and is a negativity. This is bad, a dark mood. For the postcolonialist critic, obviously the problem is an expropriated but also undifferentiated commodity. By “Oriental” you don’t mean Oriental. You mean Kazakh or Bukhara or Kilim. In other words, the very lack of specificity in the concept suggests the reified or objectified other in the imagination or consciousness of the discourse.

Finally, for gender theory the masculine anger of the philosopher, Mr. Ramsay–you remember he is so frustrated because he can’t get past r; he wants to get to s, but he can’t get past r–the masculinized anger of the philosopher masks the effeteness of the aestheticism of somebody who has an Oriental rug. That in turn might mask the effete professorial type, that might mask an altogether too hetero-normative sexual predation and on and on and on dialectically if you read this sentence as an aspect or element of gender theory.

Okay. I will certainly end there, and next time we’ll take up the way in which what we’ve been talking about for a few lectures, the construction of identity and of things, which has obviously been one of the common features of this course, is theorized at an even more abstract level, with certain conclusions.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]