This text does live up to its billing as Butler’s most accessible work to date (at least for me!). Chapter 10 is particularly wonderful in that respect, as Butler gives a succinct explanation of French feminist theory and her own response to it, and then goes on to summarize her own Gender Trouble, sketch out criticisms to it, and how she responds to these criticisms. Additionally, Undoing Gender makes overt the political ramifications and implications of her work on gender. Returning to the idea of social norms again and again, she interrogates not only how social norms construct gender, but she also discusses how social norms themselves must be influenced. Butler takes important, timely political issues—marriage equality, transgender identity, the DSM-IV diagnosis of gender identity disorder—and traces and teases out not only the ways in which these larger political issues emerge from, interact with, and reinforce normative gender constructions, but she also considers the meanings of different political positions within these debates.
Butler starts by asking about the meanings and ramifications of having one’s identity be more or less (or not at all) intelligible by institutional standards and social norms. Moving from the more pragmatic discussions of marriage equality to more abstract considerations of the contemporary meanings of feminism and even philosophy itself, Butler keeps returning to the very question of institutionalization and power in order to question (and “trouble”) gender from a variety of positions—social norms, post-structuralist discourse, continental feminism. Far from coming to any conclusions, her primary purpose is to keep these questions open and debatable: “resisting the desire to resolve this dissension into unity is precisely what keeps the movement alive. Feminist theory is never fully distinct from feminism as a social movement. Feminist theory would have no content were there no movement” (175).
Besides the incredible usefulness of chapter ten, her discussion of desire and recognition I think may be most useful for my own work. Her fundamental question of intelligible identity is one I need to consider in terms of what kind of status “ugliness” confers. Is ugliness intelligible? Or is it perhaps a shorthand for unintellibility of some sort? The ugly body is one which refuses interpellation? Undoing Gender is not the only place that Butler has discusses the significance of grief lately, in the way that it demonstrates our ultimate human connectedness—the ugly body is certainly rejected (not abject, though related). Her discussion of intersubjective space is important here, and I’ve requested a book by Jessica Benjamin, whose work on intersubjective space she references. Particularly in line with Scarry’s ideas of beauty is this idea of intersubjective space—another key term I need to keep in mind.