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Review - Gender Trouble
Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
by Judith Butler
Routledge, 2006
Review by A. Singh and M. Singamsetty
Oct 23rd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 43)

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, simply put, traces the multivalent discourses around sex/gender and shows the trouble with them. First published back in 1990, the uniqueness, rigor, and finesse of Butler's analysis promptly served to propel the book and its author into the center of numerous academic debates: Was Butler a feminist or an anti-feminist? Does the text serve to privilege Gender Studies or undermined it? Whose side is she on, anyway -- or is she saying that there are no sides anymore?

In 1999, ten years after she had completed the original manuscript, a second edition of the work was released. The second edition included a lengthy new Preface wherein Butler reflected on the impact that her work had made in the decade following its publication. Rethinking the drives that lay behind the origin of Gender Trouble, Butler concluded that the book was written as part of the "cultural life of a collective struggle" that has increased the possibilities for those who "live, or try to live, on the sexual margins" (xxviii). In so concluding, Butler in a sense sidelined all those scuffles of scholars to hint instead at the concrete, practical, even personal effects that her text could have (had) on particular persons and the lives they were trying to live.

The 2006 reprint of Gender Trouble as a Routledge Classics edition (the book, to be precise, under review) thereby takes on a significance beyond the standard profit-oriented re-publication decisions of a major house. This book is a classic not simply in terms of having served as a "seminal" text in Queer Studies, or of being a canonical work in feminist critique; rather, Gender Trouble -- in hindsight -- is a classic work in terms of having sublimated the private struggle of marginalized persons into a collective struggle, which, nearly two decades on, stands as a testament to that very collective struggle. It is now, as a classic text, an authority that can be appealed to by certain private persons in their attempts to live livable lives.

But that's the macro level. Turning to the book's content and structure, the work is divided into three main chapters that together enumerate a critical genealogy of gender categories in different discursive domains.

The first chapter, "Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire," begins with the discussion of "woman" as the subject of feminism by looking at the recent feminist debate and the notion of what constitutes the category of a woman. Butler argues that it is not enough to enquire into how a woman might become more fully represented in language and politics, but that feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of "women" (the subject of feminism) is provided and restrained by the very power structures through which it is sought. According to Butler, an anti-essentialist position which deconstructs all fixed identities questions the boundaries of the subject as woman and lays it open. Butler feels that the "presumed universality or unity of the subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constructions of the representational discourse in which it functions" (6). She reveals that by conforming to a requirement of representational politics, feminism articulates a stable subject and thus "opens itself to charges of gross misrepresentation" (7).

Radically, Butler argues that sex and gender are both equally culturally constructed. She holds the two as inseparable, and attempts to examine them together. Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given point of time. Additionally, there are different ways in which the category of sex is understood, depending on the power structure(s) in which it is articulated. Using Foucault, Butler argues that the "being of gender" is an effect; certain cultural configurations of gender take the place of the "real" and augment their hegemony through self naturalization (45).

Chapter 2 investigates some aspects of the psychoanalytic structuralist account of sexual difference and the construction of sexuality with respect to power. The falling back on historical/prepatriarchal societies, Butler feels, only serves culturally conservative aims and constitutes an exclusionary practice in feminism, leading to the fragmentation that the endeavor tries to overcome. Butler shows how Engel's socialist feminism is problematic; Levi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology commits fallacies that lead to a self- defeating formulation of gender. Butler's critiques of both Freud and Lacan are also exceptionally insightful. For example, Butler argues that in Freud's system of bisexuality the taboo against homosexuality in fact creates heterosexual dispositions thereby making the oedipal complex possible.

The third chapter, "Subversive bodily acts," begins with a discussion of Kristeva. Butler claims that Kristeva depends upon the stability and reproduction of precisely the paternal law that she seeks to displace. Butler believes that any theory that asserts that signification is predicated upon the denial or repression of a female principle ought to consider whether that femaleness is really external to the cultural norms by which it is repressed.

Also in the third chapter, Butler at long last turns her attention to the domain that must constantly nag at any reader, irrespective of whether he or she is sympathetic to the main lines of her argument: science, or more specifically, biology. Butler remains relentless, challenging the authority of discoveries such as Dr. David Page's TDF (testis-determining factor). Dr. Page claimed to have found a sort of "master gene," "the binary switch upon which hinges all sexually dimorphic characteristics" (145). The problem, however, is that even after such so-called discoveries, "questions regarding the decidability of sex continue to be asked" (145). Dr. Page himself, as it turns out, relied on the external genitalia as the unambiguous determinants of sex assignment, the a priori conditions through which he conducted his technologically more sophisticated research. This, Butler claims, begs the question: "if external genitalia were sufficient as a criterion by which to determine or assign sex, the experimental research into the master gene would hardly be necessary at all (147).

Gender Trouble ends with a Conclusion entitled "From Parody to Politics." Here, Butler pulls together several open threads of the preceding three chapters and concentrates on gender as a performance. She argues that there need not be a "doer behind the deed"; agency is invariably constructed in and through the action, the performance. The question of agency is formulated and reformulated as a question of how signification and resignification work. Butler believes that the rules that govern identity operate through repetition. The subject is a consequence of certain rule-governed discourses that govern identity.

Hence for Butler the solution to subvert this identity also lies in repeated signification. She asks: "what interventions into ritualistic repetition are possible?"

Now, Gender Trouble, it should be clear, has sought throughout to establish that gender as inner substance is an illusion. Consequently, it should also be clear that Gender Trouble is itself an "intervention."

All that remains to be seen, then, is that through its third major reprinting (the 2006 Routledge Classics edition), Gender Trouble now even turns out to perform as a sort of "ritualistic repetition."

© 2007 A. Singh and M. Singamsetty

  1. Singh and M. Singamsetty (University of Delhi, New Delhi)