Queerantine Book Club: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the covid-19 pandemic, I launched a community-building project called The Judith Butler Infinite Genders Buffet. The goal of this project is to build a community of people who are interested and informed on queer liberation theories in the SF bay area, in order to use it as a platform to launch several future projects.

One of the first events is a Queerantine Book Club. We are reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble! There will be a weekly Facebook event for each chapter reading. This Facebook event will host an asynchronous online discussion. Then there is also a zoom meeting each week where we will discuss the book together in real time. Each weekly Facebook event will cover a single chapter from the book as this is dense material.

Chapter Discussions

  • Preface (1999)
    • Favorite Quotes
      • “the text asks, how do non-normative sexual practices call into question the stability of gender as a category of analysis? How do certain sexual practices compel the question: what is a woman, what is a man? If gender is no longer to be understood as consolidated through normative sexuality, then is there a crisis of gender that is specific to queer contexts?”
      • “I sought to understand some of the terror and anxiety that some people suffer in “becoming gay,” the fear of losing one’s place in gender or of not knowing who one will be if one sleeps with someone of the ostensibly “same” gender.This constitutes a certain crisis in ontology experienced at the level of both sexuality and
      • “Gender emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men and women.”
      • “To what extent does gender hierarchy serve a more or less compulsory heterosexuality, and how often are gender norms policed precisely in the service of shoring up heterosexual hegemony?”
      • “The act of harassment may be one in which a person is “made” into a certain gender. But there are others ways of enforcing gender as well. Thus, for Franke, it is
        important to make a provisional distinction between gender and sexual discrimination. Gay people, for instance, may be discriminated against in positions of employment because they fail to “appear” in accordance with accepted gendered norms. And the sexual harassment of gay people may well take place not in the service of shoring up gender hierarchy, but in promoting gender normativity… to have a gender means to have entered already into a heterosexual relationship of subordination.”
      • “There is thus a difference between sexist and feminist views on the relation between gender and sexuality: the sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womanness in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure (an essence emanates and is confirmed in the sexualized subordination of women); a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women.The latter accepts the power of the former’s orthodox description, accepts that the former’s description already operates as powerful ideology, but seeks to oppose it.”
      • “I think that style is a complicated terrain, and not one that we unilaterally choose or control with the purposes we consciously intend. Fredric Jameson made this clear in his early book on Sartre. Certainly, one can practice styles, but the styles that become available to you are not entirely a matter of choice. Moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself. As Drucilla Cornell, in the tradition of Adorno, reminds me: there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself”
      • “I am not outside the language that structures me, but neither am I determined by the language that makes this “I” possible. This is the bind of self-expression, as I understand it. What it means is that you never receive me apart from the grammar that establishes my availability to you.”
  • Preface (1990)
    • Favorite Quotes
      • “What configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? What restriction is here at work? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire? What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces and reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?”
      • “Consider the fate of “female trouble,” that historical configuration of a nameless female indisposition, which thinly veiled the notion that being female is a natural indisposition. Serious as the medicalization of women’s bodies is, the term is also laughable, and laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable for feminism.Without a doubt, feminism continues to require its own forms of serious play.”
      • “Female Trouble is also the title of the John Waters film that features Divine, the hero/heroine of Hairspray as well, whose impersonation of women implicitly suggests that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. Her/his performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates. Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established? Does being female constitute a “natural fact” or a cultural performance, or is “naturalness” constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex?”
      • “gender practices within gay and lesbian cultures often thematize “the natural” in parodic contexts that bring into relief the performative construction of an original and true sex.What other foundational categories of identity—the binary of sex, gender, and the body—can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable?”
      • “To expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as “genealogy.” A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task of this inquiry is to center on—and decenter—such defining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.”

Part 1: Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire

    1. 2020-05-10 – “Women” as the Subject of Feminism
      • Discussion Questions:
        • In patriarchy, who decides what it means to be a man or a woman?
        • What problems arise from focusing feminism on women?
      • Optional Further Reading:
      • Favorite Quotes
        • “Foucault points out that juridical systems of power produce the subjects they  subsequently come to represent.1 Juridical notions of power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms—that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, control, and even “protection” of individuals related to that political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice. But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures. If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representational politics. And the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation.”
        • “It is not enough to inquire into how women might become more fully represented in language and politics. Feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of “women,” the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought.”
        • “The prevailing assumption of the ontological integrity of the subject before the law might be understood as the contemporary trace of the state of nature hypothesis, that foundationalist fable constitutive of the juridical structures of classical liberalism. The performative invocation of a nonhistorical “before” becomes the foundational premise that guarantees a presocial ontology of persons who freely consent to be governed and, thereby, constitute the legitimacy of the social contract. Apart from the foundationalist fictions that support the notion of the subject, however, there is the political problem that feminism encounters in the assumption that the term women denotes a common identity. Rather than a stable signifier that commands the assent of those whom it purports to describe and represent, women, even in the plural, has become a troublesome term, a site of contest, a cause for anxiety.
        • “What sense does it make to extend representation to subjects who are constructed through the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the subject?”
    2. 2020-05-17 – Chapter 2: The Compulsory Order of Sex/Gender/Desire
      • Discussion Questions
        • If gender is socially constructed, how is sex not socially constructed?
      • Favorite Quotes
        • “Originally intended to dispute the biology-is-destiny formulation, the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex.The unity of the subject is thus already potentially contested by the distinction that permits of gender as a multiple interpretation of sex.”
        • ” The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it.When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.”
        • “Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests? If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.”
        • “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts.”
        • “This production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender”
    3. 2020-05-17- Chapter 3: Gender: The Circular Ruins of Contemporary Debate
      • Favorite Quotes
        • “Whether gender or sex is fixed or free is a function of a discourse which, it will be suggested, seeks to set certain limits to analysis or to safeguard certain tenets of humanism as presuppositional to any analysis of gender. The locus of intractability, whether in “sex” or “gender” or in the very meaning of “construction,” provides a clue to what cultural possibilities can and cannot become mobilized through any further analysis.The limits of the discursive analysis of gender presuppose and preempt the possibilities of imaginable and realizable gender configurations within culture. This is not to say that any and all gendered possibilities are open, but that the boundaries of analysis suggest the limits of a discursively conditioned experience.These limits are always set within the terms of a hegemonic cultural discourse predicated on binary structures that appear as the language of universal rationality. Constraint is thus built into what that language constitutes as the imaginable domain of gender.”
        • “Some feminist theorists claim that gender is “a relation,” indeed, a set of relations, and not an individual attribute. Others, following Beauvoir, would argue that only the feminine gender is marked, that the universal person and the masculine gender are conflated, thereby defining women in terms of their sex and extolling men as the bearers of a body-transcendent universal personhood”
        • “The cultural associations of mind with masculinity and body with femininity are well documented within the field of philosophy and feminism. As a result, any uncritical reproduction of the mind/body distinction ought to be rethought for the implicit gender hierarchy that the distinction has conventionally produced, maintained, and rationalized.”
    4. 2020-05-24- Chapter 4: Theorizing The Binary, the Unitary, and Beyond
      • Favorite Quotes
        • “.The effort to identify the enemy as singular in form is a reverse-discourse that uncritically mimics the strategy of the oppressor instead of offering a different set of terms. That the tactic can operate in feminist and antifeminist contexts alike suggests that the colonizing gesture is not primarily or irreducibly masculinist. It can operate to effect other relations of racial, class, and heterosexist subordination, to name but a few. And clearly, listing the varieties of oppression, as I began to do, assumes their discrete, sequential coexistence along a horizontal axis that does not describe their convergences within the social field. A vertical model is similarly insufficient; oppressions cannot be summarily ranked, causally related, distributed among planes of “originality” and “derivativeness.” Indeed, the field of power structured in part by the imperializing gesture of dialectical appropriation exceeds and encompasses the axis of sexual difference, offering a mapping of intersecting differentials which cannot be summarily hierarchized either within the terms of phallogocentrism
          or any other candidate for the position of “primary condition of oppression.”
        • “Universalistic claims are based on a common or shared epistemological standpoint, understood as the articulated consciousness or shared structures of oppression or in the ostensibly transcultural structures of femininity, maternity, sexuality, and/or écriture feminine.”
        • “Some efforts have been made to formulate coalitional politics which do not assume in advance what the content of “women” will be. They propose instead a set of dialogic encounters by which variously positioned women articulate separate identities within the framework of an emergent coalition. Clearly, the value of coalitional politics is not to be underestimated, but the very form of coalition, of an emerging and unpredictable assemblage of positions, cannot be figured in advance. Despite the clearly democratizing impulse that motivates coalition building, the coalitional theorist can inadvertently reinsert herself as sovereign of the process by trying to assert an ideal form for coalitional structures in advance, one that will effectively guarantee unity as the outcome. Related efforts to determine what is and is not the true shape of a dialogue, what constitutes a subject-position, and, most importantly, when “unity” has been reached, can impede the selfshaping and self-limiting dynamics of coalition.The insistence in advance on coalitional “unity” as a goal assumes that solidarity, whatever its price, is a prerequisite for political action. But what sort of politics demands that kind of advance purchase on unity? Perhaps a coalition needs to acknowledge its contradictions and take action with those contradictions intact. Perhaps also part of what dialogic understanding entails is the acceptance of divergence, breakage, splinter, and fragmentation as part of the often tortuous process of democratization.”
        • “The power relations that condition and limit dialogic possibilities need first to be interrogated. Otherwise, the model of dialogue risks relapsing into a liberal model that assumes that speaking agents occupy equal positions of power and speak with the same presuppositions about what constitutes “agreement” and “unity” and, indeed, that those are the goals to be sought.It would be wrong to assume in advance that there is a category of “women” that simply needs to be filled in with various components of race, class, age, ethnicity, and sexuality in order to become complete.The assumption of its essential incompleteness permits that category to serve as a permanently available site of contested meanings. The definitional incompleteness of the category might then serve as a normative ideal relieved of coercive force.”
    5. 2020-06-31- Identity, Sex, and Metaphysics of Substance
      • Favorite Quotes
        • ” Sociological discussions have conventionally sought to understand the notion of the person in terms of an agency that claims ontological priority to the various roles and functions through which it assumes social visibility and meaning.”
        • “Within philosophical discourse itself, the notion of “the person” has received analytic elaboration on the assumption that whatever social context the person is “in” remains somehow externally related to the definitional structure of personhood, be that consciousness, the capacity for language, or moral deliberation.”
        • ““Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire. In other words, the spectres of discontinuity and incoherence, themselves thinkable only in relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, are constantly prohibited and produced by the very laws that seek to establish causal or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the “expression” or “effect” of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice. The notion that there might be a “truth” of sex, as Foucault ironically terms it, is produced precisely through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms.”
        • “The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist”—that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “follow” from either sex or gender.“Follow” in this context is a political relation of entailment instituted by the cultural laws that establish and regulate the shape and meaning of sexuality. “
        • “For Foucault, the substantive grammar of sex imposes an artificial binary relation between the sexes, as well as an artificial internal coherence within each term of that binary.The binary regulation of sexuality suppresses the subversive multiplicity of a sexuality that disrupts heterosexual, reproductive, and medicojuridical hegemonies.”
        • “the advent of individual subjects demands first destroying the categories of sex.”
        • “Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito.”
        • “The belief in language and, more precisely, in the truth of grammatical categories. It was grammar (the structure of subject and predicate) that inspired Descartes’ certainty that “I” is the subject of “think,” whereas it is rather the thoughts that come to “me”: at bottom, faith in grammar simply conveys the will to be the “cause” of one’s thoughts.The subject, the self, the individual, are just so many false concepts, since they transform into substances fictitious unities having at the start only a linguistic reality.”
        • “The mark of gender, according to grammarians, concerns substantives. They talk about it in terms of function. If they question its meaning, they may joke about it, calling gender a “fictive sex.” . . . as far as the categories of the person are concerned, both [English and French] are bearers of gender to the same extent. Both indeed give way to a primitive ontological concept that enforces in language a division of beings into sexes. . . . As an ontological concept that deals with the nature of Being, along with a whole nebula of other primitive concepts belonging to the same line of thought, gender seems to belong primarily to philosophy.”
        • “This conception of gender presupposes not only a causal relation among sex, gender, and desire, but suggests as well that desire reflects or expresses gender and that gender reflects or expresses desire. The metaphysical unity of the three is assumed to be truly known and expressed in a differentiating desire for an oppositional gender—that is, in a form of oppositional heterosexuality.”
        • “Although male and female anatomical elements are jointly distributed in and on this body, that is not the true source of scandal.The linguistic conventions that produce intelligible gendered selves find their limit in Herculine precisely because she/he occasions a convergence and disorganization of the rules that govern sex/gender/desire. Herculine deploys and redistributes the terms of a binary system, but that very redistribution disrupts and proliferates those terms outside the binary itself. According to Foucault, Herculine is not categorizable within the gender binary as it stands; the disconcerting convergence of heterosexuality and homosexuality in her/his person are only occasioned, but never caused, by his/her anatomical discontinuity. “
        • Butler/Foucault disagreement on Barbin
        • “If it is possible to speak of a “man” with a masculine attribute and to understand that attribute as a happy but accidental feature of that man, then it is also possible to speak of a “man” with a feminine attribute, whatever that is, but still to maintain the integrity of the gender. But once we dispense with the priority of “man” and “woman” as abiding substances, then it is no longer possible to subordinate dissonant gendered features as so many secondary and accidental characteristics of a gender ontology that is fundamentally intact. If the notion of an abiding substance is a fictive construction produced through the compulsory ordering of attributes into coherent gender sequences, then it seems that gender as substance, the viability of man and woman as nouns, is called into question by the dissonant play of attributes that fail to conform to sequential or causal models of intelligibility.”
        • “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”
    6. 2020-06-07- Language, Power, and the Strategies of Displacement
      • Favorite Quotes:
        • A great deal of feminist theory and literature has nevertheless assumed that there is a “doer” behind the deed. Without an agent, it is argued, there can be no agency and hence no potential to initiate a transformation of relations of domination within society.
        • the notion of development can be read only as normalization within the heterosexual
        • If the model of a more diffuse and antigenital sexuality serves as the singular, oppositional alternative to the hegemonic structure of sexuality, to what extent is that binary relation fated to reproduce itself endlessly? What possibility exists for the disruption of the oppositional binary itself?
        • the construction of a coherent sexual identity along the disjunctive axis of the feminine/masculine is bound to fail; the disruptions of this coherence through the inadvertent reemergence of the repressed reveal not only that “identity” is constructed, but that the prohibition that constructs identity is inefficacious (the paternal law ought to be understood not as a deterministic divine will, but as a perpetual bumbler, preparing the ground for the insurrections against him).
        • In the place of a “male-identified” sexuality in which “male” serves as the cause and irreducible meaning of that sexuality, we might develop a notion of sexuality constructed in terms of phallic relations of power that replay and redistribute the possibilities of that phallicism precisely through the subversive operation of “identifications” that are, within the power field of sexuality, inevitable.
        • The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original.Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of “the original,” reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original… Which possibilities of doing gender repeat and displace through hyperbole, dissonance, internal confusion, and proliferation the very
          constructs by which they are mobilized?
        • What kind of subversive repetition might call into question the regulatory practice of identity itself?
        • the medicolegal alliance emerging in nineteenth-century Europe has spawned categorial fictions that could not be anticipated in advance. The very complexity of the discursive map that constructs gender appears to hold out the promise of an inadvertent and generative convergence of these discursive and regulatory structures. If the regulatory fictions of sex and gender are themselves multiply contested sites of meaning, then the very multiplicity of their construction holds out the possibility of a disruption of their univocal posturing.
        • Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.

Part 2: Structuralism, Psychoanalysis, and The Production of the Heterosexual Matrix

    1. 2020-06-21 – Structuralism’s Critical Exchange
      • The very notion of “patriarchy” has threatened to become a universalizing concept that overrides or reduces distinct articulations of gender asymmetry in different cultural contexts.
      • Some feminists have found in the prejuridical past traces of a utopian future, a potential resource for subversion or insurrection that promises to lead to the destruction of the law and the instatement of a new order.
        • The postulation of the “before” within feminist theory becomes politically problematic when it constrains the future to materialize an idealized notion of the past or when it supports, even inadvertently, the reification of a precultural sphere of the authentic feminine.
      • My interpretation: The search for a pre-patriarchy paradigm to use as a blueprint for a utopian feminist future can reinforce biological essentialism and binary gender.
      • This very concept of sex-as-matter, sex-as-instrument-of-cultural signification, however, is a discursive formation that acts as a naturalized foundation for the nature/culture distinction and the strategies of domination that that distinction supports. The binary relation between culture and nature promotes a relationship of hierarchy in which culture freely “imposes” meaning on nature, and, hence, renders it into an “Other” to be appropriated to its own limitless uses, safeguarding the ideality of the signifier and the structure of signification on the model of domination.
      • To what extent does the articulation of a body prior to articulation performatively contradict itself and spawn alternatives in its place?
      • She reflects masculine identity precisely through being the site of its absence. Clan members, invariably male, invoke the prerogative of identity through marriage, a repeated act of symbolic differentiation. Exogamy distinguishes and binds patronymically specific kinds of men. Patrilineality is secured through the ritualistic expulsion of women and, reciprocally, the ritualistic importation of women. As wives, women not only secure the reproduction of the name (the functional purpose), but effect a symbolic intercourse between clans of men.
      • To what extent do identitarian logical systems always require the construction of socially impossible identities to occupy an unnamed, excluded, but presuppositional relation subsequently concealed by the logic itself?
      • (Regarding the purported logical completeness of identitarian systems.) The totality and closure of language is both presumed and contested within structuralism. Although Saussure understands the relationship of signifier and signified to be arbitrary, he places this arbitrary relation within a necessarily complete linguistic system. All linguistic terms presuppose a linguistic totality of structures, the entirety of which is presupposed and implicitly recalled for any one term to bear meaning.
      • In other words, the differentiating moment of social exchange appears to be a social bond between men, a Hegelian unity between masculine terms that are simultaneously specified and individualized. On an abstract level, this is an identity in-difference, since both clans retain a similar identity: male, patriarchal, and patrilineal. Bearing different names, they particularize themselves within this all-encompassing masculine cultural identity.
        • this phallogocentric economy depends essentially on
          an economy of différance that is never manifest, but always both presupposed and disavowed. In effect, the relations among patrilineal
          clans are based in homosocial desire (what Irigaray punningly calls
          “hommo-sexuality”), a repressed and, hence, disparaged sexuality, a relationship between men which is, finally, about the bonds of men, but which takes place through the heterosexual exchange and distribution of women.
    2. 2020-06-28 – Lacan, Riviere, and the Strategies of Masquerade
    3. 2020-06-05 – Freud and the Melancholia of Gender
    4. 2020-07-12 -Gender Complexity and the Limits of Identification
    5. 2020-07-19 – Reformulating Prohibition as Power

Part 3: Subversive Bodily Acts

    1. 2020-07-26 – The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva
    2. 2020-07-02 – Foucault, Herculine, and the Politics of Sexual Discontinuity
    3. 2020-08-09 – Monique Wittig – Bodily Disintegration and Fictive Sex
    4. 2020-08-16 – Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions