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Diacritics 29.3 (1999) 81-101

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Sex without Sex, Queering the Market, the Collapse of the Political, the Death of Difference, and AIDS: Hailing Judith Butler

Brett Levinson

It is interesting to note that in Judith Butler's study of the social construction of sex, Gender Trouble (as well as in the sequel, Bodies That Matter), one finds barely a trace of sex. Or to put matters more bluntly: in Butler's study of gender critiques that avoid or dismiss the matters of hetero- and homosexuality, in her examination of the relationship of gayness and lesbianism to feminism, and in her exposition of a politics of queerness--as to fucking, not a word. This omission is not tangential to Gender Trouble. It determines Butler's entire undertaking.

1. The (In)difference of Performance

By illustrating that sex, like gender, is a social construction, Butler strives to tear not sex but both sex and gender from biological essentialism. For as Butler insists, as soon as we imagine sex (woman/man) as naturally given, and gender (feminine/masculine) as a product of social forces, we fall into the very gender essentialism that we seemingly called into question. This is because the sex/gender binary makes sex the ground of gender: a woman may be masculine or feminine, and she may subvert the social norms that demand that women act in a certain manner. But throughout all of these gender reversals, she remains a woman. Her behavior, therefore, is either far from her sex (if she is subversive) or close to it (if she conforms). But in either case, it is measured in terms of that sex, which stands as the essence or foundation of the conduct. Hence, within such a discourse, gender stereotypes do not actually emerge as social (thereby deconstructible) constructs since the substructure (sex) of their edifice is given prior to production.

This thesis, which ultimately reveals that the sex/gender split reproduces the woman/man binary--the foundation of sexism--opens the way for one of Butler's most renowned interventions: her theory of performativity. Butlerian performance traces the intersection of Derrida's concept of mimesis and Foucault's understanding of power. Derrida argues that if a mark (in writing) or a sound (in speech) is to form part of a language, it must be iterable. Language hinges on social conventions, and social conventions on repetition, ritual. Repetition, therefore, does not follow (from) a pregiven [End Page 81] [Begin Page 83] sign but is a condition of its possibility: a sign must be repeatable before it is a sign. 1

Derrida often translates these ideas into an analysis of "the citation," a fact Butler fully exploits. An articulation, Derrida argues, must be a priori citable (again, iterable) if it is to function as an articulation, as a "speech act." This means that deviance, miscitation, recontextualization, and the possible transformation or loss of an enunciation--any or all of which could occur via a citation--belong essentially to that enunciation. The repetitions that yield rituals, habits, and then norms are the same iterations that undermine those norms. But this is true not only for speech. It holds as well for the law: the citing, execution, reading, writing, and acknowledgment of the law, hence the possibility of the law's shift and even disappearance, pertain to the law's groundwork.

Gender Trouble posits patriarchy and compulsive heterosexuality as two such citable laws. And as laws, they are powerful but not inevitable. Indeed, because the law of normalcy harbors its own deviance as a condition of its public emergence or deployment, this normalcy opens the way for its own transgression. One is indeed subject to the law of the norm. But this subjection cannot not grant the very alternative agency/subjectivity it strives to suppress.

Hence for Butler, queer types such as the "femme" or the "butch," as they perhaps flaunt (through dress, bodily image, or public demonstration) the constructed character of their own sexual identities, recite and dis-cover the constructed, artificial...


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