Monday, June 25, 2012

Judith Butler--Bodies that Matter (1993)

Ultimately, in this text Butler wishes to “think further about the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the crafting of matters sexual and political” (xii).  Specifically, she asks if there is a “way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender” (1), a question which is connected to my different question about the materiality of the body which is judged “ugly.”  Though she admits that even the materiality of the body is difficult to differentiate from its surroundings— “Not only did bodies tend to indicate a world beyond themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies ‘are’” (ix)—she still insists that there is such a thing as materiality of the body.  Further, this materiality has a demonstrable effect on the performance of gender.  Addressing criticisms that her previous work has been so focused on the performative aspects of gender, to the point of some questioning if there’s anything but constructions.  However, I like her observation that even constructions have a real effect, that “certain constructions appear constitutive, that is, have this character of being that ‘without which’ we could not think at all” (xi).
While Butler goes along with the general understanding that gender is culturally constructed[1] and sex is physiologically based, she makes the important point that sexual difference itself is also culturally constructed: “Sexual difference, however, is never simply a function of material differences which are not in some way both marked and formed by discursive practices” (1).  Invoking Foucault, she observes that sex not only functions as a norm in society, but “is part of a regulatory process that produces the bodies it governs” (1).  She stresses the importance of reiteration in the process of sexual differentiation, and points out “that this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled” (2).[2] 
Butler defines materiality in terms of power,[3] as “an effect of power, as power’s most productive effect” (2).[4]  As “the materiality of the body will not be thinkable apart from the materialization of that regulatory norm,” so sex is “one of the norms by which the ‘one’ becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility” (2).  Butler is talking about abjection here, as intelligibility being necessary for acknowledgement by and interpellation in the system.  She delineates the following as being at stake in her discussion:
(1) the recasting of  the matter of bodies as the effect of a dynamic of power, such that the matter of bodies will be indissociable from the regulatory norms that govern their materialization and the signification of those material effects; (2) the understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains; (3) the construal of “sex” no longer as a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but as a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies; (4) a rethinking of the process by which a bodily norm is assumed, appropriated, taken on as not, strictly speaking “I,” is formed by virtue of having gone through such a process of assuming a sex; and (5) a linking of this process of “assuming” a sex with the question of identification,[5] and with the discursive means by which the heterosexual imperative enables certain sexed identifications and forecloses and/or disavows other identifications. (2-3)
And in conclusion, this “exclusionary matrix…requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (3).[6]
Butler explains that “the forming of a subject requires an identification with the normative phantasm of sex”; this identification “creates the valence of ‘abjection’ and its status for the subject as a threatening spectre” (3).  This seems to be a good explanation for the gothic nature of so much the ugly women in the work I’m looking at; the threat of ugliness is always there.  Butler goes on to say that “the mobilization of the categories of sex within political discourse will be haunted in some ways by the very instabilities that the categories effectively produce and foreclose” (4).  Again, there’s this idea of hauntedness and ghosts: I wonder if this might speak to Yeager’s thesis in Dirt and Desire, that the dirt and ugliness in southern literature marks a history of racial violence?  Incorporating Butler’s ideas here, perhaps ugliness in a similar way speaks to a history of gender and sexual insecurity and even violence?  Certainly, the racial aspect is coded in the very definitions of ugliness, as beauty is typically defined in terms of a white, upper-class idea.  As sex is used to regulate “which bodies matter,” as Butler articulates (4), so, too, beauty is used to regulate which personae matter.  Those who are marked as ugly, then, inhabit a different space—but it’s an important space worth investigating.
Butler refers to these spaces, these “excluded sites,” as ones which “come to bound the ‘human’ as its constitutive outside, and to haunt those boundaries as the persistent possibility of their disruption and rearticulation” (8).  So perhaps that’s why the 1930s and 1940s—with the fear of the “new woman” rampant—have so many ugly women in them, as the fear of “rearticulation” was wide-ranging.  As Butler says, “the limits of constructivism are exposed at those boundaries of bodily life where abjected or deligitimated bodies fail to count as ‘bodies’” (15), and so what is counted as “ugly” so exposes the limits of acceptable bodies in the South.  Further, the South itself as a marginalized space—one which the rest of the country uses to confirm its own boundaries and identities—is so often the “ugly” side of the United States (accused of racism, racial violence, sexual deviancy) that perhaps some of the ugly women in the literature are simply reaffirming this idea?  Or perhaps it’s what Flannery O’Connor said, that those in the South can still identify a freak.  Given the emphasis on southern beauty,[7] are ugly women perhaps are deployed to act as a foil to southern beauty?  Or simply reflect the ugly nature of the South?  Southern literature itself so often tells the stories of those considered less than human (whether through the dark humor of Tobacco Road or more tragically in Barren Ground) that it’s already comfortable with a mode that presents what’s often considered uninhabitable zones. 
She begins by addressing the antagonism she observes between “post-structuralism” and :the body.”  Questioning the “material irreducibility of sex” as well as the idea that everything can be reduced to a text (and thus is rendered ultimately meaningless), Butler wishes to consider “the scenography and topography of construction.  This scenography is orchestrated by and as a matrix of power that remains disarticulated if we presume constructedness and materiality as necessarily oppositional notions” (28).  Importantly, she goes on to consider the very category of “woman”: “the category of women does not become useless through deconstruction, but becomes one whose uses are no longer reified as ‘referents,’ and which stand a chance of being opened up, indeed, of coming to signify in ways that none of us can predict in advance” (29); in fact, she says it is possible to both use the term woman at the same time one is subjecting it to critique.
She then gives a rather extensive consideration to the “sex of materialism,” concluding with the observation that, “to invoke matter is to invoke a sedimented history of sexual hierarchy and sexual erasures which should surely be an object of feminist inquiry, but which would be quite problematic as a ground of feminist theory” (49).  From here, she moves on to examining the meaning of the phallus by both Freud and Lacan, considering the ways in which it has been both connected to and disconnected from the material site of the penis.  In her section on the “lesbian phallus,” Butler states that, “Insofar as any reference to a lesbian phallus appears to be a spectral representation of a masculine original, we might well question the spectral production of the putative ‘originality’ of the masculine” (63). 
In this section, she addresses the very question of what we should consider as constituting the very body itself.  She says, “psychic projection confers boundaries and, hence, unity on the body, so that the very contours of the body are sites that vacillate between the psychic and the material.  Bodily contours and morphology are not merely implicated in an irreducible tension between the psychic and the material but are that tension” (66).  In reaching a consideration of Lacan’s description of the recognition of bodily boundaries during the mirror stage, Butler explains how such bodily differentiation is connected to language development as well.  She then focuses more specifically on the emergence of sexed positions (or gender), particularly in Lacan’s system.  She importantly not only highlights the heterosexual bias implicit in Lacan’s description of interpellation into gender, but more importantly calls attention to the necessity of paying attention to the function of repudiation inherent in identity formation.  Admitting that repudiation is irreducibly a part of differentiation, Butler insists that “It will be a matter of tracing the ways in which identification is implicated in what it excludes, and to follow the lines of that implication for the map of future community that it might yield” (119).

[1] Her discussion about the nature of construction is quite useful, especially in terms of quelling criticisms about the prime mover in gender construction.  More importantly, I like her characterization of gender (and gendering) as a relational action: “gendering is, among other things, the differentiating relations by which speaking subjects come into being.  Subjected to gender, but subjectivated by gender, the ‘I’ neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering, but emerges only within and as the matrix of gender relations themselves” (7)
[2] Ugliness, perhaps, calls attention to itself in never quite meeting these ideals.  And reiteration only works to emphasize their failure to comply—like the sounds of corners of square pegs scraping against round holes.  As Butler notes, “it is the instabilities, the possibilities for rematerialization, opened up by this process that can mark one domain in which the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law” (2).
[3] She later clarifies power, in Foucault’s original use of the term, as that which “orchestrates the formation and sustenance of subjects,” and construction as “a process of reiteration by which both ‘subjects’ and ‘acts’ come to appear at all”: “there is not power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability” (9).
[4] Throughout the text, Butler returns to the problem which grammar brings to discussions of power, as “power is not a subject which acts on bodies as its distinct objects.  The grammar which compels us to speak that way enforces a metaphysics of external relations, whereby power acts on bodies but is not understood to form them.  This is a view of power as an external relation that Foucault himself calls into question” (34)
[5] Perhaps this is related to the poor aunt in The Old Order, whose life was determined by her lack of a chin?
[6] Ugliness complicates this inside/outside binary.  Ugly people have a particular kind of subjecthood—in fact, that which makes us stare (as opposed to appearances which we try to ignore or don’t even see) gives the ugly person a certain kind of power, in that she can’t be ignored.  The kind of ugliness caused by indifference to appearance demonstrates another kind of freedom (as Barbara Ladd discusses).  And while perhaps the ugly are abject to a certain kind of system—Lily Daw, for example, being unsuitable for the marriage economy—this dismissal frees them for other things.  Because there are so many women in southern literature who live in this “zone of uninhabitability” (3) as Butler calls it, I think there must be some sort of interesting life going on there.  Maybe because traditional southern femininity is so often unable or unwilling to bestow subjecthood on women?
[7] See that annoying post-feminist Garden and Gun article.


  1. Very helpful. Thanks.

  2. I could not follow your ideas easily. The cohesion was missing in many places and so I prefer to read another summary.