Would anyone like to talk about Judith Butler with me?

(361 Posts)

I'm currently trying to get to grips with her writing. I read most of 'Gender Trouble' a while ago, in a rather hurried and sceptical mood. More recently, I've had a look at Undoing Gender. And now I'm trying to re-read Gender Trouble properly (there's an edition out with a new introduction where she explains how she's moved on a bit in response to criticisms, which is useful).

I'm really struggling, to be honest. My gut feeling is it's a bit Emperor's New Clothes, and I'm not keen - but I really want to give it some proper thought.

An example of what bugs me in a knee-jerk way is this sort of passage (from near the start of Undoing Gender):

If a decade or two ago, gender discrimination applied tacitly to women, that no longer serves as the exclusive framework for understanding its contemporary usage. Discrimination against women continues – especially poor women and women of color, if we consider the differential levels of poverty and literacy not only in the United States, but globally – so this dimension of gender discrimination remains crucial to acknowledge. But gender now also means gender identity, a particularly salient issue in the politics and theory of transgenderism and transsexuality.

I just can't help feeling this is an incredibly, even insultingly, privileged point of view? I mean, of course gender discrimination continues! She says it as if it's just in its dying gasp, but isn't it a huge issue?

Would anyone like to help me understand as I read?

Btw, I will totally understand if this thread dies a death, so don't worry!

AskBasil Sat 30-Aug-14 17:44:14

I've never read any Judith Butler but am happy you're doing the job for me and I'd rather be reading by proxy as I can't be arsed. grin Am happy to join in responses to random paragraphs / ideas you point to.

Re this one, she implies that gender discrimination is largely a problem for poor women and women of colour but this is simply not true. Gender discrimination is a problem for ALL women. Also the idea that gender now also means gender identity, is only true for a teeny weeny fraction of a tiny teeny percentage of people; I hate this lofty assertion that gender identity is the issue of the day, when in fact for most women, they don't have a choice about their gender identity, it's imposed on them from birth and they suffer the discrimination that goes with that.

grin Well, I totally understand and respect your can't-be-arsedness. I'd love to post random ideas and get them deconstructed, so that works.

I felt really angry about that paragraph. She is big on saying that how you use language and grammar is terribly important, so I do feel it's acceptable to nit-pick - and in a nit-picking way, starting that passage with 'If' is immediately opening up the idea for disagreement, as if gender discrimination might very well not be real.

I agree with you fully on the point about not having a choice about gender identity.

AskBasil Sat 30-Aug-14 18:18:24

Oh gosh I'd missed that "if".

As if there's even a debate about it.

Have you seen Caroline Criado Perez's article?

www.newstatesman.com/voices/2014/05/caroline-criado-perez-judith-butler-whats-phallus-got-do-it

I have, and I liked it (she's a such a clear writer).

I'm still trying to puzzle through, though (there is a good reason for me to do this, btw, I'm not just a masochist).

One thing I don't get - and I know this is to an extent me having issues with post-structuralism per se - is why Butler is so, so keen always to see gender identity in terms of what's 'legible' in the first place. I mean, I'm not quite clear why she chooses to use a metaphor from written language.

AskBasil Sat 30-Aug-14 18:30:26

That's where I don't feel I can even join the discussion, because I have literally no idea what she means by "legible" in this context.

I think she means 'understandable', but I don't know why she uses 'legible' instead.

I'll post more bits as I come to them, and perhaps they will make things clearer.

And maybe other people will join in!

andiewithanie Sat 30-Aug-14 20:57:27

I'm not qualified to talk about her (I find her almost enreadable), but I will be watching with interest.

A couple of my friends (academics) have pointed out that 'trans' as a field is the big new thing in academia, and that perhaps it's worth bearing in mind when it comes to the amount of coverage the topic receives (and also the concept of performativity). Not that I can really complain, being able to put I was trans on my personal statement meant I was able to punch well above my weight when it came to applying to uni (I start this year).

I do have a couple links to contribute though:

fwsablog.org.uk/2014/08/02/i-say-it-therefore-it-is/

And this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0HZaPkF6qE

ezinma Sat 30-Aug-14 21:12:29

I'd like to join in, as I'm probably a bit more sympathetic to Butler than you are. But then again I've only read Gender trouble. Later I'll search for the paragraph you quoted and read it in its context.

I'm sympathetic to Butler's ideas, but I find her reputation for impenetrable writing to be well-earned. And it's not a problem of being precise: she can be sloppy, and often I find her syntax unnecessarily complicated. If she did an extra re-write with the reader in mind, she could be more accessible. But I don't think she knows how, or cares.

Would your interpretation of her first sentence be any more generous if she had used 'Whereas' instead of 'If'? That's how I read it. (Maybe you do too.)

I don't think she's saying anything controversial up there (indeed I don't think she's saying very much at all!). The new concept of 'gender identity' does not alter the existence or pervasiveness of discrimination against "women" (I'm surprised she seems to be using "women" to mean "non-transwomen"), which is intersectional; it merely adds a new dimension. I don't think she does suggest that discrimination against women is in its dying gasp; on the contrary, I'd interpret it as a kind of corrective to backlash theory — the idea that intersectionality, queer theory et al mean that women's oppression is no longer important/existent.

Does that fit with what she says in the subsequent paragraphs?

"Salient issue" is always waffle isn't it? I used to put that in my undergraduate essays when I'd come across an idea I thought was important but couldn't work out how to squeeze it into the argument I was trying to make.

scallopsrgreat Sat 30-Aug-14 21:37:40

I literally don't understand what she is saying. Seriously, what happened to words, in the right order in a sentence?

So bear with me. After reading the first sentence four times I was expecting her to say discrimination on gender also applied to men. After the second sentence I was absolutely sure she was going to say that. But then, I think, she said that it applies to trans*? Is it significant that I thought that? Like: make way women again here come more pressing issues. Such a male narrative.

Thanks andie, will have a look.

I should say, I'm not primarily interested in what she has to say about trans issues, really. I'm mainly trying to understand what she thinks about gender in general.

ezin - brilliant, thanks! The passage I quoted is from Undoing Gender (near the beginning). I've not read the whole book, just got stuck on that bit. I don't feel it makes a difference whether it's 'if' or 'whereas' - the point is that she puts the oppression of women into the subordinate clause!

I don't follow what new dimension 'gender identity' adds? Which may well be my issue with Butler rather than you!

scallops - I'm not quite sure. I think that's what she's saying, but she seems to be saying elsewhere it's not so much 'discrimination agains trans people is more important than discrimination against women' but 'discrimination against trans people tells me something important about gender'. Only, I don't get what that important thing is. confused

almondcakes Sun 31-Aug-14 16:18:43

I don't understand either what she says or the critique.

gincamparidryvermouth Sun 31-Aug-14 16:44:55

The way I read it, she's not saying that discrimination against women is in its last gasp. To me it reads as if she is talking about the way the language used to talk about feminism has been altered.

She's saying that 20 years ago, "gender discrimination" just meant "discrimination against women." That was the meaning of the phrase and everyone understood that that's what it meant ["gender discrimination applied tacitly to women"]

I think she is acknowledging that that has not changed and that it is still absolutely an issue. ["Discrimination against women continues... so this dimension of gender discrimination remains crucial to acknowledge"]

She acknowledges that discrimination against certain groups of women is even worse than it is for women in general ["...especially poor women and women of color, if we consider the differential levels of poverty and literacy not only in the United States, but globally..."]

She is pointing out that we can no longer use "gender" as the universally understood shorthand for "women" in the way that we used to because whereas "gender" was previously almost perfectly synonymous with "sex" (inasmuch as it was a cultural phenomenon based on a biological reality), "gender" has now been untethered from "biological sex" and is essentially meaningless and undefinable. ["But gender now also means gender identity, a particularly salient issue in the politics and theory of transgenderism and transsexuality"]

I don't know anything at all about Butler, so I'm reading it completely blind, but on the face of it this looks a bit to me like someone who is trying to say "transgenderism and transsexuality have rendered some of the language we previously used to do feminism unuseable by rendering words such as 'gender' and 'woman' virtually meaningless."

She is pointing out that we can no longer use "gender" as the universally understood shorthand for "women" in the way that we used to because whereas "gender" was previously almost perfectly synonymous with "sex" (inasmuch as it was a cultural phenomenon based on a biological reality), "gender" has now been untethered from "biological sex" and is essentially meaningless and undefinable.

Ah, thank you, that makes much better sense. Though I don't think, from reading more, that she thinks it's a bad thing if gender is undefinable.

Reading more from Gender Trouble, she seems to be saying that, if you believe gender isn't innate (men aren't innately 'masculine' and women aren't innately 'feminine'), then you have to be able to explain why we still use gender as a binary. She reckons part of what the concept of 'gender' does is to make us believe that it's entirely natural and obvious that there are two sexes.

I don't quite get why this is such a big deal? Or if I'm missing something?

Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex .... gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselve are established....it is already clear that one way the internal stability and binary frame for sex is effectively secured is by casting the duality of sex in a prediscursive domain. This production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender.

I can sort of see this. I can believe that, if we didn't have gender, we wouldn't really give a shit that some people have penises and some don't, and we might never have started categorising people according to what bits they had.

But, well, so what?

gincamparidryvermouth Sun 31-Aug-14 17:13:36

She reckons part of what the concept of 'gender' does is to make us believe that it's entirely natural and obvious that there are two sexes

Does she say it like that's a helpful thing - like that's the utility of gender? confused

gincamparidryvermouth Sun 31-Aug-14 17:15:59

I don't understand what is meant by "production" in this context blush

No, I don't think she think its helpful, simply that it's the case.

I hope this thread isn't a daft way to go through the book - I just find that when I'm reading on my own, I get really confused because some things she spends a lot of time establishing seem to me to be just obvious, or kind of irrelevant.

Of course, that might be because she wrote this a fair while ago and maybe we've absorbed some of her concepts into the mainstream so much I'm not giving her credit.

Cross post.

I think she means, the concept of gender makes 'sex' into something we can understand. She reckons we don't realize this - we think sex is 'just natural' and we can't imagine a world where we wouldn't always have said 'right, it's simple, we're all one or other of two sexes'.

But (and I do think this is pretty obvious), she reckons this is a bit naive. We could have had a world where we just didn't give a shit who had a penis and who didn't, and in that world, we would not have thought that sex is a 'natural' category at all.

So, gender makes sex into a category we think about. It 'produces' it as a concept rather than just describing it.

gincamparidryvermouth Sun 31-Aug-14 17:28:21

Ah, ok.

This is probably a really stupid question but if we need gender to "produce" sex in this way then how did gender come into existence in the first place?

Well, all of my questions are stupid, so ... grin

But no, I've no idea and I agree with you, that doesn't make sense. Or rather, I'd be fine if she would spit out why it matters so much to say sex might be partly 'produced' rather than innate.

I think gender comes about because of the way human reproduction works, and that has to do with our bodies. She seems to talk only about how we conceptualise sex and bodies, not about how we actually use them - because the question of whether or not sex is culturally constructed surely can't change the actual experiences of giving birth, or being raped?

scallopsrgreat Sun 31-Aug-14 17:46:15

LRD I can't imagine what discrimination against trans* can tell us that discrimination against women can't, when it comes to gender. Maybe that yes being or wanting to be a woman is the bottom of the pile. But listening to women's experiences can tell you that. Or it doesn't matter who performs femininity, the fact it is associated with women is enough for ridicule and violence? But homophobia has it's roots in misogyny and can demonstrate this. So no I don't know what she thinks the important thing is either.

scallopsrgreat Sun 31-Aug-14 17:48:49

Oh I started writing that post about an hour and a half ago and didn't refresh! Ignore me!

gincamparidryvermouth Sun 31-Aug-14 17:54:00

I think gender comes about because of the way human reproduction works, and that has to do with our bodies

Yeah, I agree with this (the only alternative source of gender that I can think of would be ladybrain); and being able to bear children/not being able to bear children (ie sexual dimorphism) is the only difference between male and female bodies that is absolute an unwavering, I think.

She seems to talk only about how we conceptualise sex and bodies, not about how we actually use them - because the question of whether or not sex is culturally constructed surely can't change the actual experiences of giving birth, or being raped?

I agree.

scallopsrgreat Sun 31-Aug-14 17:54:10

This thread is tying my brain into knots. Does she have to make it so complicated? Sex is well sex (and yes it is useful to know who is going to bear the children so to that extent it matters) and gender is a hierarchy imposed by those who oppress women to help maintain that oppression.

Surely it just is that simple?

almondcakes Sun 31-Aug-14 17:57:03

I may be straying from the point here, but if she thinks that biological sex isproduced through gender, then is that not an acknowledgement that bio sex is perceived as a separate social category to gender?

And if that is the case, no amount of playing with gender actually has any inevitable consequences for bio sex and the way it is understood as a social category. And we could socially construct bio sex in different ways than a binary. It isn't impossible to do; other cultures havedone so.

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