In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler evaluates the power structures that surround traditional notions of gender identity and sexuality while also examining the constraints proposed by differing philosophies of feminism. Butler refutes he theories of Foucalt, de Beauvior, Irigaray, and Wittig as being incomplete and too heavily reliant on physical, metaphysical, and social definitions of sex and gender. Butler’s theories are not feminism in the traditional sense due to the overarching concern with humanism and an individuality that defies easy categorization.
Phallogocentrism appears several times in Butler’s argument. The reader can benefit from a textbook definition as well as a contextualized meaning. Penguin’s Dictionary of Critical Theory defines phallogocentrism as a term used to “describe how Lacan perpetuates the traditional philosophical view that the word or logos is the site of truth by making the phallus the key signifier that both governs access to the symbolic, or language, and determines sexual difference” (Macey 296). Butler uses the word in this sense while positing that it is this governing by the phallocentric system is exactly the flawed reasoning that traditional feminism falls prey to and the cause for examination of all feminist theory.
Antifoundationalism is another term that is integral to understanding Butler’s argument. Simply stated, sexuality and gender have no foundation, or suffer from an arbitrary one used to categorize for the purposes of power retention and distribution. While this power may be that of an ancient system, Butler proposes its arbitrariness and inherent misrepresentation of certain individual and groups by forcing definitions upon that which has no true standard.
Butler speaks in several instances of the ontological nature of sexuality. Butler questions the very notion of a sexualized or gendered ‘being,’ referring to the performative nature of both, while also doubting the biological standards that have been employed for so long in gender classification.
“The strategic displacement of that binary relation and the metaphysics of substance on which it relies presuppose that the categories of female and male, woman and man, are similarly produced within the binary frame. Foucalt implicitly subscribes to such an explanation….Foucalt suggests that the category of sex, prior to any categorization of sexual difference, is itself constructed through a historically specific mode of sexuality. The tactical production of the discrete and binary categorization of sex conceals the strategic aims of that very apparatus of production by postulating “sex” as “a cause” of sexual experience, behavior, and desire. Foucalt’s geological inquiry exposes this ostensible “cause” as “an effect,” the production of a given regime of sexuality that seeks to regulate sexual experience by instating the discrete categories of sex as foundational and causal functions within any discursive account of sexuality.”
Butler uses Foucalt’s shifting of perspectives when searching for cause-and-effect power relations to the matter of sexual identity and sexual behavior. The prescribed sexual differences as they relate to male/female gender identification, the limits of these categories, influence sexual behavior.
Question 1: Butler describes identity as “a normative ideal” (16). How important is this ideal to the individual? Do individuals inherently desire clear lines of identity, and is this something that moves form the individual to the societal group?
Question 2: Can the person be “freed form the shackles of sex” (19). What can we conceptualize as the embodiment of this freedom, both on a personal level and on a cultural or societal level?
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, n.d. Print.
Macey, David. Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.