Spilling All Over the “Wide Fields of Our Passions”:
Frye, Butler, Wittgenstein and the Context(s) of Attention, Intention and Identity (Or: From Arm Wrestling Duck to Abject Being to Lesbian Feminist)*

I argue for a Wittgensteinian reading of Judith Butler’s performative conception of identity in light of Marilyn Frye’s analysis of lesbian as nonexistent and Butler’s analysis of abject. I suggest that the attempt to articulate a performative lesbian identity must take seriously the contexts within which abjection is vital to maintaining gender, exposing the intimate link between context and the formulation of intention, and shedding light on possible lesbian identities irreducible to abjection.

I. Spilling All Over Non-Existence

In her well-known 1983 essay “To Be and Be Seen: The Politics of Reality,” feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye endorses Sarah Hoagland’s contention that lesbians occupy the interesting and peculiar epistemic position of being something that doesn’t exist, which, argues Frye, may offer lesbians an “exciting epistemological privilege” with respect to the critique of heteropatriarchal conceptual schemes and political institutions (Frye 1983, 152–53). Frye then goes on to argue that the failure of subsequent attempts either to craft or discover a definition of lesbian that could illuminate what it means to say that we are excluded from such schemes “was itself a clue that Hoagland’s picture was right” (1983, 153–54): “If indeed lesbians’ existence is not countenanced by [End Page 1] the dominant conceptual scheme, it would follow that we could not construct a definition of the term ‘lesbian’ of the sort we might recommend to well-intentioned editors of dictionaries. If a conceptual scheme excludes something, the standard vocabulary of those whose scheme it is will not be adequate to the defining of the term which denotes it” (1983, 154). According to Frye, even the most promising possible definition, namely, that “a lesbian is a woman who has sex, or sexual relations, with other women” (1983, 156–57), is at best misleading in light of the observation that having sex is defined in terms of penile penetration, a definition reinforced systematically in, for example, heteropatriarchal juridical and medical discourse. Frye concludes that “[s]peaking of women who have sex with other women is like speaking of ducks who engage in arm wrestling” (1983, 157–58). In other words, given the absence of a penis, lesbian sex is a logical impossibility, hence to define lesbian in terms of “having sex” is to concede that there are no such things.

For Frye, however, not existing offers a critical vantage point from which to evaluate the conceptual and political dynamics of heteropatriarchal social institutions, for although invisible as lesbians, “[w]omen’s existence is both absolutely necessary to and irresolvably problematic for the dominant reality” as the unseen “background” whose labors ensure the seamless performances of those whose identity is “foreground” (1983, 166–67). As stagehands, in other words, women are essential to the performances of those men (primarily Anglo, economically affluent, Christian, heterosexual men) for whom the play instantiates a reality naturalized through its repetition. But just as in any theater performance, the stagehands’ labor must either be rendered invisible or incorporated into the play so as not to expose it as a performance. Any stagehand who resists or whose actions threaten to distract attention from the events onstage (and hence from reality) cannot, by definition argues Frye, exist. To continue the theatrical metaphor Frye writes, “[a]ll eyes, all attention, all attachment must be focused on that play, which is Phallocratic Reality [heteropatriarchy]. Any notice of the stagehands must be oblique and filtered through interest in the play [through coercion and/or co-optation]. Anything which threatens the fixation of attention on the play threatens a cataclysmic dissolution of Reality into Chaos” (1983, 170). Neither fully visible nor invisible, women occupy those positions that readily legitimate and endorse what philosopher Judith Butler calls those ontologically consolidated phantasms of “woman” and “man” whose performings become naturalized through the compulsory repetition of the heteropatriarchal drama: “In its effort to naturalize itself as the original, heterosexuality must be understood as a compulsive and compulsory repetition that can only produce the effect of its own originality; in other words, compulsory heterosexual identities, those ontologically consolidated phantasms of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ are theatrically produced effects that posture as grounds, origins, the normative measure of [End Page 2] the real” (Butler 1991, 21). As that normative measure of the real, compulsory heterosexuality forms a kind of taxonomy of “man” and “woman” replete with prescriptive and proscriptive behavioral performances whose repetition reinforces both the erasure/co-optation of the background and the effect of the foreground as the real and original. As an ontology, “man” and “woman” serve to consolidate what is (and hence affected) and to exclude from reality what cannot by definition be, namely, that which fails to identify with the (compulsively) heterosexual performance.

That the naturalization of this conceptual/ontological framework requires compulsory repetition indicates the extent to which it is threatened by identities that cannot be either erased or co-opted within its normative measure of the real. For Butler, then, lesbians pose a dual threat in that, because heterosexuality forms a constitutive feature of the framework, any evidence of intentional performances that do not at least tacitly signify the paradigmatic act, namely penile penetration, contains the potential to generate a dissonance far more chaotic than if mere women/stagehands disrupt the play. For while the stagehand may be irresolvably problematic, she is also penetrable; indeed, she signifies the penetrable in relation to the actors on stage. Lesbians, however, are not merely irresolvably problematic but coercible as women; rather, they represent what could be the intentions of (some of) their fellow stagehands and thus threaten to disrupt not only the onstage performance but (and without the warning offered by the visible) the labor that makes the play possible. According to this analysis, lesbians are not only politically dangerous but also ontologically destabilizing, for whatever could count as lesbian threatens to rend the curtain between background and foreground so seriously that the framework is exposed as the compulsive repetition without the grounds or origin that it is.

II. Policing the Borders of the Real: Interior Exclusion and the Abject

Policing the taxonomic borders of compulsory heterosexuality requires as a feature of its repetition, then, occasional reminders to both audience and stagehands of what counts as the real. Well-illustrated in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993), one such reminder describes the police brutality of gay bar raids in the 1960s:

The cops dragged Al in just after Mona left. She was in pretty bad shape. Her shirt was partly open and her pants zipper was down. Her binder was gone, leaving her large breasts free. Her hair was wet. There was blood running from her mouth and nose. She looked dazed, like Mona. [End Page 3]

The cops rushed into the cell. Then they approached me. I backed up until I was against the bars. They stopped and smiled. One cop rubbed his crotch. The other put his hands under my armpits and lifted me up, a couple inches off the floor, and slammed me against the bars. He pressed his thumbs deep into my breasts and jammed his knee between my legs. “You should be this tall soon, tall enough your feet will reach the ground. That’s when we’ll take care of you like we did your pussy friend Allison,” he taunted me. Then they left.

(Feinberg 1993, 35–36)

Such accounts illustrate how particular onstage performances such as the police assault of Butch Al and the terrorizing of the narrator, Jess, function as reminders whose purpose it is to (re)establish the ontological borders of “man” and “woman,” of the visible, of the invisible, and of the nonexistent. The violence that makes Butch Al visible as a woman is ironically instrumental to her exclusion as homo, that is, as she whose ritual dehumanizing “becomes identified with the very mechanism necessary to define and defend any sexual border” (Fuss 1991, 3). As Diana Fuss puts it, “[t]he homo in relation to the hetero, much like the feminine in relation to the masculine, operates as an indispensable interior exclusion . . . a transgression of the border which is necessary to constitute the border as such” (1991, 3; italics added). By transgressing this border as homo, Butch Al and Jess embody ontologically and politically those whose existence is at once excluded and constitutive of that repetition promised by the officer—a “patriarchal loyalist,” as Frye might put it—who in a gesture that at once identifies Jess as a transgressor, disempowers her as a woman and guarantees her labor as a sexual stagehand by insisting that she too will soon enough be taken care of.

On this account, then, the potentially destabilizing ontological danger lesbians pose is also epistemological; Butch Al is beaten for what she is in a position to know, namely, that by being/performing as a woman who binds her breasts, wears a tie, and has sex with other women, she inhabits/enacts what Butler calls the “social zone” of the abject (Butler 1993, 3). Butch Al is raped as well as beaten as a reminder to her of her status as that nonsubject whose postulation as the interior excluded constitutes the sexual border and who as such must know that the attention she pays to other women endangers it. Beyond Butch Al’s hair, gait, clothes, and gestures, her attention to other women must be disrupted and disabled for it signals the possibility that she is in a position to know something to which the performers onstage have little access; other women who may recognize such attention as the intentional expression of desire and/or resistance could acknowledge or even reciprocate Butch Al’s attentions and thereby disrupt not only the background labors [End Page 4] that condition the performance of the play but also the epistemic constraints which make its originary repetition possible.

The epistemic position Butch Al occupies involves both a risk and a privilege in that what is epistemically made available to her is also that which her attentions potentially disrupt, namely, the ontological conditions of the play. The violence to which she is treated serves, then, a specifically epistemological purpose: it reminds her that she would be neither beaten nor raped (at least under these conditions) were she willing to conform to the taxonomy of “woman.” That Butch Al is not so willing is evidenced, however, in the officer’s reference to her given name, Allison. His recognition of her as a repeat offender indicates that he understands her actions to be deliberate and hence fully deserving of whatever he deems necessary, given his authority, to reestablish her status as stagehand. In other words, if Butler’s and Frye’s analyses are correct, Butch Al is both postulated and erased as abject in the very course of being beaten. And to the extent that she is willing to repeat the attention that solicits this beating, she risks not only her life but also a kind of epistemic privilege in that this repetition implies something about what she is in a position to know, namely, that her value to the maintenance of the sexual border as an interior exclusion is indispensable.

I am not suggesting that the experiences of violence and oppression alone can adequately support claims to epistemic privilege; I am suggesting that such experiences can create the epistemic and psychological dissonance necessary to motivate a critical investigation into the conceptual frameworks within which such violence is made both possible and compulsory. The experience of violence can, in other words, create the conditions under which she who is postulated as abject could come to recognize herself as such and hence makes explicit that what threatens to destabilize such a framework is not merely what the abject do, but what we are in a position to know: the reality made possible through compulsory heterosexuality consists in an indefinite but more or less salient set of complex and evolving relationships that empower the performances of specific theatrical roles, in this case, those that delimit the conditions under which “men” and “women” exist as such.

As Feinberg recounts in both Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Transgender Warriors (1996), the violence required to police the sexual border is partly responsible for the emergence of movements whose legal and political demands threaten to further rend the metaphysical curtain. On the one hand, since the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, Queer Nation, Act Up, the Human Rights Campaign, and PFLAG, along with smaller grass roots movements have emerged. In the fifteen years since Frye’s The Politics of Reality (1983), a veritable flowering of lesbian and lesbian feminist art, music, film, culture, fiction, and philosophy is exemplified in the art and criticism of Harmony Hammond or the Guerrilla Girls, in the music of Lillith Fair, in films like “Go Fish,” in sitcoms [End Page 5] like “Ellen,” in journals like Lesbian Ethics and Sinister Wisdom, or in the work of self-identified lesbian feminists such as Frye, Claudia Card, or Minnie Bruce Pratt. Real lesbian lives seem to be more visible and viable. Even a cursory tour through a women’s bookstore reveals a rich and diverse panoply of lesbian work ranging from Stone Butch Blues (Feinberg 1993) to The Femme Mystique (Newman 1995) such that any new defense the patriarchal loyalists mount seems doomed to be rearguard at best.

On the other hand, it seems equally clear that much of the violence, both political and conceptual, that Frye’s and Butler’s analyses imply accompany lesbian visibility. From the bombings of reproductive health clinics and lesbian nightclubs to the repeal of LGBT rights ordinances, the effort to renaturalize the heteropatriarchal claim to origin and its benefits is well-evidenced in, for instance, the religious fundamentalism of the Promise Keepers or President Clinton’s midnight signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It is, moreover, too easy to opt for the liberal feminist argument that such conflicts are merely part and parcel of the struggle for the practical enfranchisement of newly empowered political constituencies. For, if Frye and Butler are correct and heterosexual performances form a constitutive feature of heteropatriarchal ontology, the sexual border cannot be disrupted without raising serious, even cataclysmic, questions about what counts as a performance of attention sufficient to divert a stagehand from her labors and in whose recognition the performance is acknowledged as intentional or deliberate.

III. From Frye’s “Wide Fields of Our Passion” to Butler’s “Unlivable Social Zone”

How, then, can we conceive of those whose actions signal an attention neither penetrable nor expungable within the heteropatriarchal conceptual framework, identities in whose interior exclusion the sexual border consists, whose repeated erasure and postulation are indispensable to that border? As this analysis suggests so far, such a task will not be easy because, argues Butler, the “exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings,” who signal the “unlivable and uninhabitable” “zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of subject, but whose living under the sign of the ‘unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject” (Butler 1993, 3). Given that the ontological status of the abject consists in that which real subjects are not, that their unlivable lives define an entire domain of indispensable non-existence, it is at best unclear what it would mean to describe the actions of such a domain’s inhabitants as intentional. Yet how else can we account for the disruption of the sexual border? On what other grounds could the beating and rape of Butch Al be a reminder to her of her status as abject? [End Page 6]

If those performances that circumscribe the domain of the subject are ontologically constitutive of subjects as such, they must be conceived as intentional regardless of the objection that abject is by definition devoid of all those qualities reserved to subject. Whatever the abject do to distinguish the contexts of their performances as unlivable must count as both intentional and sexual, for otherwise the concept abject could not exert the ontological force required to maintain the sexual border as hetero. However inchoate, the ascription of sexual intention to the abject is essential to sustaining the ontological integrity of the real; to the extent that this integrity hinges on compulsory repetition, the real is as dissoluble as its constitutive performances. The threat of an intentional transgression provides, then, precisely that pretext and absolution against which the identity of “man” and “woman” can be repeated and in whose vigilant defense compulsion can be justified. It is no surprise that the abject are held responsible for the brutality sanctioned to police the border. The consolidation of “man” and “woman” as the natural depends on their innocence, their focus on the performance. Responsibility notwithstanding, however, what could count as a transgressive sexual intention and hence what could count as justifiably relegated to the social zone of the unlivable remains obscure.

Frye offers the first clue as to what could count as a transgressive sexual intention when she argues in “Lesbian ‘Sex’” that the term sex “is inappropriate to describe what lesbians do” (Frye 1991, 1). She argues that the ways in which we pose questions such as “How frequently do lesbians have sex?” suggest that while such notions may now be vaguely formulable, no useful conception of such intentions are likely to be forthcoming. Without the requisite penis or facsimile, it remains unclear what could count as a discrete, differentiable variety of action, as involving specific organs, orifices, or technology, or as spatio-temporally located (see Frye 1991, 4). Consider, for instance, Judith McDaniel’s poem “She Had Not Expected This Sudden”:

She had not expected this sudden thaw the wet mouth of spring on her cheek her thigh lusty and raw at an hour when she had been sure of the snow sure the quiet time would linger before the torrential spring

Stay she warned the plants and deep-rooted bulbs stay she felt danger in the quickening light and in the sap-starting warmth don’t move against the season stay [End Page 7]

And yet she opened wet like summer rain she opened like a windblown jonquil nodding serenely at the edge of a crusted snow melting from the rim of a hill joyfully she opened.

(McDaniel 1991, 110)

Though beautifully erotic in its imagery and cadence, McDaniel’s poem should not be interpreted as being about lesbians “having sex,” much less as a formulation of the intention to “have sex”; and yet the poem is also about sex. Whatever could count as a relevant sexual intention, then, seems to remain a something which is not a nothing; neither exhausted by nor co-optable as an intention to penetrate or be penetrated by a penis, such intentions are at best acknowledged indirectly by, for example, the violence they solicit, the legal sanctions erected to discourage them, or the commonplace stereotypes that serve to regulate them as crimes against nature (see Dow and Lee-Lampshire, n.d., 5–10).

Frye goes on to argue that what is needed to provide substance to any notion of what counts is an investigation of the experiences of women who self-identify as lesbians. She advises a return to “the wide field of our passions and bodily pleasures” on the basis of which “meanings that weave a web across it” (Frye 1991, 8) can be crafted and through which we may yet be able to articulate working, revisable notions of whatever intentions are relevant to lesbian sex. Optimism aside, however, Frye’s approach begs the question about what counts as intentional to the extent that it presupposes a more substantive conception of lesbian than her analysis can sustain. Unless she can show that to identify oneself as a lesbian to some relevant other(s) provides sufficient criteria for the inclusion of one’s particular experiences as instances of transgressive sexual intention, the claim that such experiences do count remains unfounded. Frye does not, so far as I am aware, provide this argument, and even if she did, such a criterion still fails lesbians like Butch Al for whom such terms mean neither quite the same nor as much as do butch and femme. What other epistemic factors, we may well ask, (for example, ethnicity, culture, economic class, or religion) raise similar concerns?

What the articulation of Frye’s wide field of our (transgressive) passions needs is a conception of lesbian qua epistemic privilege. Such a conception, cognizant of that disruptive attention at the sexual border, is differentiable from the abject and hence accountable to such disruptions regardless of particular actions or events, regardless of what counts as having sex. This conception can empower resistance to erasure to whatever extent the paying and receiving of attention can be described as intentional, for qua intentional, the [End Page 8] actions of the abject must also be irregulable. That is, this conception of lesbian consists in the recognition of oneself as an instance of that which cannot exist and thus cannot be regulated, yet, postulated as abject is regulated and hence, at least tacitly, is acknowledged to exist. The claim to epistemic privilege, then, is not grounded merely in invisibility per se, but is grounded in what the recognition of oneself postulated as invisible makes possible, namely, the knowledge that the performance of attention among women both reinforces and disrupts the sexual border and empowers the abject as an irregulable transgressive performative identity, that is, as lesbian.

Two questions remain to be answered. First, how does the compulsory repetition that characterizes “man” and “woman,” inside and outside, foreground and background, actor and stagehand inform the epistemic situations of those designated abject? That is, what does it mean to say that the abject are in a position to be able to envision how to ground a specifically lesbian epistemic privilege? Second, even if it turns out to be possible to articulate a concept of abject that is both resistant to compulsory heterosexuality and deliberately (self) identified as lesbian, is this articulation politically desirable in light of other relevant epistemic differences? That is, can a domain of epistemic privilege be drafted that is sufficient to ground a conception of abject qua lesbian, to accommodate without distortion the differences among its inhabitants’ particular experiences? Can we imagine a field of passion sufficiently intentional that the violence to which its members are subject serves not merely to define the sexual border but, and subversively, to crystallize a deliberately lesbian identity performed as a positive alternative to the political and epistemic constraints enforced within the taxonomy of “man” and “woman”?

IV. Wittgenstein: Surrounded by Our Intention’s Pictures

Adopting an example reminiscent of both Frye’s and Butler’s theatrical metaphors, later Wittgenstein offers a picture of intention that may point us in the right direction:

It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame, and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intentions pictures, and we are inside them. But when we step outside intention, they are mere patches on a canvas, without life and of no interest to us. When we intend we exist in the space of intention, among the pictures (shadows) of intention, as well as with real things. Let us imagine [End Page 9] we are sitting in a darkened cinema and entering into the film. Now the lights are turned on, though the film continues on the screen. But suddenly we are outside it and see it as movements of light and dark patches on a screen.

(Wittgenstein 1967, 42e; 1958, 163e, 181)

According to this picture, to intend involves the occupation of a particular “ontological” context, that which, like the inside of a film (or the foreground of a play), gives life to the performance of those actions understood as intentional. Reality is confirmed within the context of the film through the actions of its phantasmic subjects whose exchanges serve to naturalize it, to render it a normative measure of the real. Such subjects exist in the space of intention, as do audience members, in that, by entering the film, they are surrounded by their intention’s pictures, they are inside them. As such, they are constituted as subjects through their tacit participation in that space represented by and in the film.

For Wittgenstein, then, intention is “neither an emotion, a mood, nor yet a sensation or image” (1967, 10e). Intention is not, he argues, “a state of consciousness” (1967, 10e), nor is an expression of intention by itself sufficient evidence of its existence (see 1958, 164–65e). Rather an intention is “embedded in its situation, in human customs and institutions. If the technique of the game of chess did not exist, I could not intend to play a game of chess. In so far as I do intend the construction of a sentence in advance, that is made possible by the fact that I can speak the language in question” (1958, 108e; 1967, 41e).

For Wittgenstein, actors’ epistemic and linguistic situations inform the context of their action or behavior. The intention to play chess, to make cupcakes, to name a kitten, or to have sex is embedded in human customs and institutions in the sense that these intentions provide the epistemic and ontological framework within which specific performances make sense and have meaning. According to this picture, I can no more play chess without knowing its rules than I can have sex without knowing what could count as a relevant instance. Customs and institutions define what it means to be in a position to know what counts as a relevant instance. For example, if I name a kitten Daphne after the mythological Greek huntress who, in love with the goddess Diana, fails to escape the god Apollo and then transforms into a tree to escape capture, I invoke a context whose symbolic significance invests my intention in ways incomprehensible outside those customs and institutions that serve to situate my performance. My intention to name the kitten Daphne is embedded in this context to the extent that it conditions what I am in a position to know, and hence what I could intend with respect to the performance of any action.

However, while Wittgenstein’s film metaphor describes well the actions of [End Page 10] that “we” for whom participation in a particular space of intention is given, it remains unclear whether any such account can be supplied for those whose necessary exclusion functions to circumscribe what counts as its inside, and who, postulated in opposition to this “we,” can step neither inside nor outside the borders of such institutions or customs without potentially violent repercussions. How can Wittgenstein’s account be applied to the abject for whom participation in the space of intention must count as an intentional transgression, and yet who is excluded from this same space? What could intentional mean in such cases?

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) offers us another kind of picture:

He put his head down and nibbled at the back of her leg. His mouth trembled at the firm sweetness of her flesh. He closed his eyes, letting his fingers dig into her waist. The rigidness of her shocked body, the silence of her stunned throat, was better than Pauline’s easy laughter had been . . . a bolt of desire ran down his genitals, giving it length . . . He wanted to fuck her—tenderly . . . the gigantic thrust he made into her then provoked the only sound she made—a hollow suck of air in the back of her throat. Like the rapid loss of air from a circus balloon . . . Again the hatred mixed with tenderness. The hatred would not let him pick her up, the tenderness forced him to cover her.

(Morrison 1970, 162–63)

The force of this passage turns the lights on; like with the rape and battery of Butch Al, an especially potent reminder of the violence required to police the sexual border disrupts our participation as audience members in this particular performance of compulsory heterosexuality. Here, an eleven-year-old girl named Pecola plays the role of stagehand as Cholly, her drunken father, assaults her while she scrubs dishes over a sink. On the one hand, it seems clear enough that, paradigmatically heteropatriarchal, Pecola’s rape squarely locates her as the penetrable and Cholly as the patriarchal loyalist whose intentions can be read off his actions. Conditioned by the “whole history of the incident” (Wittgenstein 1958, 165e), Cholly occupies the space of intention that identifies him as a man whose performance constitutes him as a subject participating in that drama whose natural expression, like the cat who stalks the bird, is compulsive as well as compulsory (Wittgenstein 1958, 165e). Indeed, even condemning him for assaulting his child contributes to the reinforcement of the sexual border to the extent that it situates him as father, defined in terms of a specific performance subsumable within the taxonomy of “man.”

On the other hand, however, the epistemic position that Cholly occupies with respect to this drama does not readily lend itself to an account of his [End Page 11] actions as intentional in the sense heteropatriarchal ontology requires. The requisite surroundings are either missing or compromised (Wittgenstein 1980, 138–39e). As Wittgenstein remarks:

“It is as if our concepts involved a scaffolding of facts.” That would presumably mean: If you imagine certain facts otherwise . . . then you can no longer imagine the application of certain concepts, because the rules for their application have no analog in the new circumstances.—So what I am saying comes to this: A law is given for human beings . . . Nevertheless its validity presupposes all sorts of things, and if the being [a jurisprudent] is to judge is quite deviant from ordinary human beings, then, e.g. the decision whether he has done a deed with evil intent will become not difficult but (simply) impossible.

(1967, 64e; 1980, 116e)

As a black man in the post-slavery, mid-twentieth century United States, Cholly’s history does not neatly locate him in either the foreground or the background of patriarchal ontology. He is a man, but not a white man; he is a stagehand, but not a woman. He is not positioned to adopt for his own those phantasms of “man” and “woman” whose compulsory performances instantiate that normative measure of the real. Neither abject, nor ordinary, his actions suggest a being who is quite deviant in that the scaffolding of facts necessary to make a judgment about him do not easily lend themselves to an interpretation within which “we” can assign evil intent. He does not pick up the daughter who he has rendered unconscious, yet he covers her—an act suggesting, as Morrison so eloquently puts it, that what Cholly experiences is desire and disdain, love and hatred.

Wittgenstein remarks that “[d]escribing an intention means describing what went on from a particular point of view, with a particular purpose” (1967, 5e; 1980, 117–18e, 156e). Yet it is difficult to imagine what went on from Cholly’s point of view. This would require an effort to imagine certain facts otherwise, that is, to consider not only the point of view of Cholly, situated as the deviant but onstage other, but also the point of view of Pecola, whose rape cannot be noticed without exposing reality as the repetition that enjoins and excludes her involuntary participation as a stagehand to ensure that her assailant is included—though not fully—as an instance of “man.” Little motivates the project of imagining Cholly’s point of view and much discourages it (Wittgenstein 1980, 117–18e, 156e). Even if assigning intention to him were possible, its likely result would expose precisely that which cannot become epistemically accessible to the “we”: “man” and “woman” have “no [non-opaque] analog in the new circumstances,” and that as the normative measure of the real, such phantasms offer us no clear way to make a decision about whether [End Page 12] Cholly has “done a deed with evil intent” (Wittgenstein 1980, 39e, 46e, 126e, 134e).

Analyses of examples like Morrison’s help to illustrate the extent to which an action’s epistemic context informs both what is possible to intend and what intentions are possible to assign to those who count as its subjects. If, moreover, Butler is correct and contexts that instantiate heteropatriarchal customs and institutions are best characterized in terms of their capacity to enforce the assignment of specifically sexed identities through their compulsory repetition, then whatever is possible to intend depends on the stability of that repetition. If that context just is an expression of compulsory repetition, then whatever counts as an intentional action within it is only as stable as are the performances that legitimate its repetition as the real. No wonder, given the stakes, these performances are often violent; what their interior exclusions represent is nothing less than the corporeal and metaphorical embodiment of abjected intentions not regulable qua “man” and “woman,” that is, not subsumable to identity per se.

These abjected can no longer be defined in terms of what they are not, for they cannot be postulated as anything other than those intentional and irregulable performances whose material and violable embodiment resists identity per se. Instead, their actions comprise the exposure of the rift between the phantasmatic and the real; they are in a position to recognize and hence to perform a repetition not fully constrained by the compulsory nature of “man” and “woman.” Butler remarks: “The ‘real’ and the ‘sexually factic’ are phantasmatic constructions—illusions of substance—that bodies are compelled to approximate, but never can. What, then, enables the exposure of the rift between the phantasmatic and the real whereby the real admits itself as the phantasmatic? Does this offer the possibility of a repetition that is not fully constrained by the injunction to reconsolidate naturalized identities? Just as bodily surfaces are enacted as the natural, so these surfaces can become the site of a dissonant and denaturalized performance that reveals the performative status of the natural self” (Butler 1990, 146). Like turning on the lights, exposing this rift reveals the performative status of the natural self only insofar as it can become the site of a dissonant and denaturalized performance, that is, only to the extent that what situates the performances of the abject can be recognized as a site of intentional resistance. Qua resistance, such sites can no longer be exhaustively characterized as the social zones of the unlivable, for to the extent that such contexts may situate performances not fully regulable as hetero but rather intentionally dissonant and denaturalized, they more closely resemble Frye’s “wide field” than they do the invisible domain of the abject.

Consider, for instance, Sappho’s “Supreme Sight on the Black Earth” as a last example of the subversive potential of attention and its reciprocation: [End Page 13]

Some say cavalry and others claim infantry or a fleet of long oars is the supreme sight on the black earth. I say it is

the one you love. And easily proved. Didn’t Helen, who far surpassed all mortals in beauty, desert the best of men, her king,

and sail off to Troy and forget her daughter and her dear parents? Merely Aphrodite’s gaze made her readily bend and led her far

from her path. These tales remind me now of Anaktoria who isn’t here, yet I for one

would rather see her warm supple step and the sparkle of her face than watch all the chariots in Lydia and footsoldiers armored in glittering bronze.

(Sappho 1998, 17)

Like the attention Aphrodite pays to the beautiful Helen, Sappho is reminded of Anaktoria whose reciprocal gaze signals that wide field within which the potential for a dissonant and denaturalized performance is as threatening as it is irregulable to the heteropatriarchal order ostensibly governing the black earth. Led far from her king and daughter, Helen becomes that interior exclusion in whose identity the sexual border is both reinforced and transgressed, but more importantly in whose transgression lies the potential for Sappho’s self-reflection. Sappho is reminded of the one she loves and would rather see the “warm supple step” of Anaktoria than all the foot soldiers of Lydia. The compulsory repetition characteristic of the epistemic conditions under which Sappho desires Anaktoria inform her at once of both the border her love transgresses and the risk entailed by the possibility of a repetition not constrained to the hetero (that is, the cavalry, the foot soldier, and the king).

Given this risk, the denaturalized repetition Sappho engages can only be described as intentional for it is premised in the knowledge that while transgression is punishable it is also as transformative as is the dissolution of the real. As Wittgenstein remarks, intentions do not merely accompany actions, they are neither single notes nor complete tunes (Wittgenstein 1958, 217). Rather intention defines a space, in this case a wide field of erotic and political [End Page 14] passion engendered through the dissonant performances of its actors in whose deliberate and self-cognizant attention it becomes possible, as Frye puts it, to see and be seen. Within this space of experientially but self-critically grounded epistemic privilege, it becomes possible to differentiate abject from lesbian in a fashion that, free from the need to search for reductionistic criteria such as “having sex,” both promises and risks a repetition as irregulable as the many other epistemically relevant differences animating and crystallizing a performative identity as lesbian.

Wendy Lee-Lampshire

Wendy Lee-Lampshire is Associate Professor of Philosophy and interim director of Women’s Studies at Bloomsburg University. She is also the current executive secretary for the Eastern Division of the Society for Wom en in Philosophy. Her philosophical work is interdisciplinary and focuses primarily on issues in philosophy of language and mind, feminist and lesbian philosophy and ecological feminism. She is currently working on an epistemology of anthropocentrism in h opes of showing how, given the ubiquity of anthropomorphizing, anthropocentrism is intimately but not inevitably wedded to heterosexism and racism. Her work can be found, for example, in Hypatia, The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Feminist Studies (forthcoming), and Karen Warren’s Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature (Indiana University Press). (lamp@bloomu.edu)


* Hypatia vol. 14, no. 3 (Summer 1999) © by Wendy Lee-Lampshire

**. Among the many persons I would like to thank for their contribution to the writing of this essay are included Sarah Towne whose writing encouraged me to read Leslie Feinburg’s Stone Butch Blues as a philosophical novel, Lori Swanger for her insight, good humor, and enduring patience, Jennifer Mundale for her acute ability to listen and to hear, Marla Brettschneider whose life reminds me why I love philosophy, and Laura Dow for her ability to ask just the right critical question at that point where it makes all the difference.


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