- Theory That Matters
Editor’s note: readers may also be interested in the PMC-MOO discussion of this book, archived here.—JU
Judith Butler has certainly produced a body of work that matters. It matters not only because it takes “theory” into the realm of difficult socio-political analysis, but also because it does so without sacrificing the complexities, hesitations and difficulties that necessarily surround such a project. For Butler, theory matters precisely as practice, as material response to specific (and often horrific) political situations: it is an analysis of how these situations have come to be structured as they are, and how they can be changed without simply reinstituting the very same normative interpellating discourses that gave rise to such situations in the first place. In Bodies That Matter, Butler takes up “the notion of matter, not as site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface” (9, italics removed). And it is precisely in accounting for identity as the product of still-conflicted exclusionary normative practices that Butler asks us to consider the possibility of reinscribing “our” heterogeneous present and future. While categories of identity certainly cannot and should not be abandoned in such a project, Butler nonetheless argues for the theoretical and political necessity “to learn a double movement: to invoke the category, and, hence, provisionally to institute an identity and at the same time to open the category as a site of permanent political contest” (222). It is because her work has this relentlessly dual focus—calling for concrete responsive action in the present while preserving the possibility, indeed necessity, of a reinscribed future—that Butler’s work matters so singularly and crucially. Bodies That Matter is a book very much written in the margins of 1990’s Gender Trouble, itself a kind of feminist rewriting of Butler’s vastly underrated (or at least underquoted) book on Hegel and contemporary French thought, Subjects of Desire (1987). There is, in other words, a great deal of Bodies That Matter devoted to correcting or complicating certain (mis)readings of Gender Trouble, especially those readings that took it to be arguing for an understanding of gender as a performance. As Butler writes, if she were arguing that gender was a performance, “that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night” (Bodies, x).1 But as Butler makes clear time and again in Bodies That Matter, her notion of gender as performative is not simply equatable with understanding gender as a performance; “The reduction of performativity to performance,” she writes, “would be a mistake” (234).
But how, then, are we to understand this crucial distinction? Drawing from Foucault’s work on discursive formation, Derrida on speech act theory and iterability, and Eve Sedgwick’s work on queer performativity, Butler fashions a notion of performative identity that “must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (2).2 According to Butler, because the subject is the product of specific constraining normative frames, it cannot simply choose its gender as actors pick parts in plays; but, at the same time, because these compulsory normative frames never merely determine a subject without simultaneously opening spaces of resistance (in other words, because interpellation sometimes fails), agency is made possible and efficacious precisely because of and within these frames. “And if there is agency,” Butler writes, “it is to be found, paradoxically, in the possibilities opened up in and by that constrained appropriation of the regulatory law, by the materialization of that law, the compulsory appropriation and identification with those normative demands . . . Moreover, this act is not primarily theatrical” (12).3 The subject, in other words, is itself a product of interpellating codes, and therefore it cannot simply enforce a critical...