Thursday, February 21, 2008


Martha Nussbaum has a wonderful take down of Judith Butler here (PDF). I want to write some more about it but not tonight.


George Darroch said...

I haven't read it yet, but I love Judy, so it better be good ;)!

Terence said...

Hi George,

I'd love to hear your response, if you get the chance. I'm not an expert on Judith Butler so I did worry, while reading, that Nussbaum (who I like) might have been knocking over a characterisation more than a thank a real person. I have heard this counter argument made against similar critiques of post structuralists.

George Darroch said...

I did read the paper, and some responses to the paper, yesterday, and these are my thoughts on the matter.

I should start out by saying that I don't know where I'd be without Butler, despite having only read a small number of her works.

Her take on the constructed nature of gender seems indispensable for me - but only in a way that I understand, and by necessity my understandings are different from those of her critics.

Her primary work Gender Trouble (as I understand it) sets out to challenge assumptions of gender binaries, and to underline performativity in sexuality and gender, reinforced by certain acts and rituals. These acts are often ascribed as natural, rather than being cultural. It also sets out to reveal dominant understandings of gender as heteronormative, assuming a much narrower range of possibilities as normal.

I don't think that she says that we are in a position to choose gender roles, to put them on like items of clothing as some of her critics charge her with, nor that these identities are independent of biology.

I want to also defend her from those who claim that her focus on language and description, and performance and gender possibilities, is somehow unrelated to struggles of power suffering and violence. Regulation of behaviour and language is very much tied up in power and violence, and altering the categories that we inhabit, to make space for a greater set of behaviours is an act of resistance against power.

My complaint with her is perhaps directed at her, or perhaps at those who use her. I'm not sure yet. She appears to emphasise practices like drag as sites of resistance against heteronormativity, as disassociating bodies from the genders they were previously locked to. But drag can be - and I would say usually is - completely heteronormative, emphasising a dichotomous male/female divide and parodying the behaviour of the opposite sex in an act that distances the performer from the opposite sex. I go back to Foucault here, and simply say that no site should be privileged as either entailing power or resistance, but containing both.

It seems that Nussbaum's criticism relates to her perceived lack of engagement with the category 'oppressed women', when Butler, in her early work at least, is determined to go back to first principles and re-examine how the category of woman is constructed in the first place.

God, I hope that made sense, it's been a while since I engaged with Butler.

Terence said...

Thanks George,

That definitely makes sense. And it helps clarify my own thoughts on the matter. I really want to write something else on this - I'm flat out over the next couple of days but maybe next weekend (so long as I don't end up arguing with any more climate 'sceptics'). I'll let you know when I do.

Oh, if you're interested, I did once previously have a hack at post-structuralism: