Masculinities, Performativity, and Subversion
A Sociological Reappraisal
CHRIS BRICKEL University ofOtago
The study ofmasculinities has not escaped the influence ofJudith Butler’s writings on gender, performativity, and subversion. However, this article suggests that Butler’s formulations ofperformativity and subversion express a lack ofclarity and engender a number ofproblems with respect to agency, action, interaction, andsocial change. This article arguesfor reformulatingperformativity andsubversion in a more explicitly socio- logicalframe to render the concepts more usefulfor examining agency andsubjectivity in the study ofmasculinities. The writings ofErving Goffman sugest ways to reclaim the socialy constructed agency of “performance”from the mire of “performativity,” with the latter’s apparentdisappearance ofsubjective action. This article suggests reworking subversion awayfromparody and resignification towarda consideration ofresourcesfor subjectivity and challenges to prevailing social structures. In this way, performativity and subversion may be set more convincingly within a sociologically informed study of masculinity.
JudithButler’s writings on gender,performativity,and subversion have by now atained a wide purchase across a number of humanities and social science disciplines, and the study of masculinities is no exception. For example, Butler’s theorizing has been explored in studies of the anxieties induced by the continual and forcible production of masculinity within social interaction (Buchbinder 1998), alcohol consumption in the construction of rural masculinities (Campbell 2000), young men’s language use and conversational styles (D. Cameron 1997), the development of heterosexual identities by young men at school (Redman 2001), and masculinity and masochism in cultural production (Savran 1998).
There is something simultaneously enticing and problematic in Butler’s theorizing ofperformativity and subversion and in the ways these have been taken up in a range of writings about masculinities. In this essay, I question whether performativity and subversion, as they stand, are able to perform the intellectual labor often expected of them, both in the study of masculinities and elsewhere. As they have been framed by Butler, both concepts have become mired in difficulties around agency, interaction, and social structure. In contrast, these later concerns lie at the heart of much oft he best sociological theorizing of masculinity. However, performativity and subversion can be (re)thought in a manner that may prove more useful for those studies of masculinities that seek a specifically sociological frame of reference.
The discussion starts with an examination of Butler’s conceptualization of performativity and the problems with agency that this represents for her writing and that of others. Subsequent authors have tended to collapse performativity into the related notion of performance, although the two concepts actually imply different understandings of the gendered subject. I suggest that we can retain performativity’s antiessentialism and its querying of the order of sex, gender, and meaning while turning to the work of sociologist Erving Goffman to develop an account of masculinities as both (inter)active and performed. A number of authors have already noted some of the resemblances between Butler and Goffman (e.g., Bordo 1993, 289; Campbell 2000, 565; McIlveny 2002, 1 18). I want to suggest that Goffman’s analysis is compatible with the useful insights from Butler’s performativity, while in some respects it offers a more sociologically coherent perspective for considering the performance of masculinities.
In the second part of the essay, I consider Butler’s writing on subversion and argue that while suggestive in its potential for challenging hegemonic forms of masculinity, the concept is undertheorized and suffers from some of the same problems that beset performativity. Subversion might be beter understood if reinterpreted in light of Goffman’s concepts of “frames” and “gender schedules” and integrated with an analysis that pays close atention to the reflexive links between subjectivity, agency, and social structures. Using both Butler’s and Goffman’s analyses as a starting point, we can consider just what subversive performances of masculinities might involve.
Butler’s influential analyses of gender-as-performativity and the potential for subversion of the dominant gender order first appeared in an issue of Theatre Journal in 1988 and were then elaborated in the bestselling Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion ofIdentity, published in 1990. In Gender Trouble, Butler rejects naturalistic notions of inherent gendered essence, arguing that distinctions between male and female, homosexuality and heterosexuality are symbolic constructions, which, in turn, create an illusion of their own stability. What is more, gender and sexuality are relationally constituted; heterosexuality, for example, is constructed in contradistinction to its abject other, homosexuality. While eroneously regarded as the “original” form ofsexuality, with homosexuality as the “copy,” heterosexuality holds a tenuous grip on its status as the original and true sexuality—its coherence under threat from the homosexuality “outside.” Similarly, the stability of the male/female distinction is always at risk of disruption and subversion by dissident forms of gendering.
While I will later return to the possibilities for subversion with respect to masculinity in particular, it is important to outline in some detail the key concept of performativity, as it underpins much of Butler’s analysis. Butler’s performativity is derived in part from John Austin’s work on performa- tives—that is, linguistic declarations that perform actions, including calling into being the objects they name (Austin 1962; Butler 1996, 112). Thus, for Butler,performativity is “the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed” (1996, 112). In developing Austin’s work for a discussion on gender, Butler suggests that gender categories—female/male, woman/man, girl/boy—are brought into being performatively. This is an antiessentialist position; these categories are not imported into culture or society from the “nature” outside but rather are fundamentally shaped through discourse. So, for example, the proclamation “It’s a girl!” that is utered at birth is the initiator of a process of “girling” the female subject (Butler 1993, 232). Further, performativity involves subsequent repetition or citation of gender norms. This citation takes place under conditions of cultural constraint or “regula- tory regimes,” which compel some appearances of masculinity and femininity while prohibiting others.
So far, so good. What, however, does performativity have to say about the subject, the socially located person who is apparently produced by these discursive processes? Butler is unclear in her answer to this question, and her writings continuously shift backward and forward across a number of not entirely consistent positions. At times, the subject exists only tentatively and, even then, predominantly as a discourse, a “regulatory fiction.” In other moments, subjects loom into view and possess something of a “real” existence, but they have litle capacity for social action. While acts may exist, they are often abstracted from actors in the sociological sense. Elsewhere, Butler invokes subjects with some capacity for engagement in the social order. These different strands weave through Butler’s later writings and interviews as well as among the pages of Gender Trouble.
In the first strand, Butler contests “the very notion of the subject” as a “regulatory fiction” to be undermined in the course of political challenges to liberalism and humanism (Butler 1996, 112; 1998, 285). This discursive counterpolitics involves challenging such humanist ontologies “in order to produce a counterimaginary to the dominant metaphysics,” subjecting its terms “to abuse so that they can no longer do their usual work” (1998, 279).
In this vein, Butler sets out to reject the “metaphysics of substance,” a phrase associated with Nietzsche that signifies the notion of the individual or person as a “substantive thing” (Butler 1990, 20). ForButler, the notion of the subject is problematic as it implies abeing behind “doing, effecting, becoming,” and it often leads to a humanist understanding of the subject as autono- mous and sovereign (1990, 25). In contrast, what is required is a critique of the subject as an originator of action and a focus on the performative power of discourse. Butler (1990) argues, following Nietzsche, that gender is “not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed” (p. 25). Therefore, “the ‘being’ of the subject is no more self-identical than the ‘being’ of any gender; in fact, coherent gender, achieved through an apparent repetition of the same, produces as an effect the illusion of a prior and volitional subject” (Butler 1991, 24; original emphasis).
It follows, then, that there is no coherent “we” who might “do” our gender:Performativity canot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition ofnorms. . . . This repetition is not performed by a subject: this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the tempo ral condition for the subject (Butler 1993, 95; original emphasis).
Here, Butler departs from Austin, for whom performatives are actively and intentionally utered by speakers (Austin 1962, 8; also McIlvenny 2002, 1 16). However, a subject does now appear, enabled by repetition, albeit a repetition it does not itself perform. The repetition through language of phrases like “It’s a girl” (or “It’s a boy”) creates the preconditions for the emergence ofgirls and boys and, subsequently, women and men as subjects who then become invested with meaning.
What might be the connection between this tentative, performatively enabled subject and social action? The doer-deed statement asserts that subjects do not perform deeds but are enabled by them. However, action appears in some form in the first chapter of Gender Trouble, where gender is defined as “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 a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990, 33). In the third chapter, gender is conceptualized as “a kind of becoming or activity”, one that ought to be understood as “an incessant and repeated action of some sort” (p. 1 12), while action is also implied in the suggestion that “bodily gestures, move- ments and styles constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (p. 139).
The last quotation repeats the earlier suspicion of the subject as a substantive thing. What is constituted is an illusion ofself, not selfitself. Despite this cautiousness about the existence of a subject, the acts, activity, and action occuring in the definitions of what gender is beg the question of whether we might understand subjects as doers of some of it.Where otherwise might gestures, movements, and repeated acts originate? Stylization ofthe body would appear to depend on the existence at some level of a body that may be stylized, even though Butler (1990) argues just three pages earlier that the gendered body “has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (p. 136). Precisely which body might then be stylized and at whose instigation?1
A degree of conceptual slippage is apparent here. On one hand, the very notion ofthe subject is problematic for its implicit humanism, while other moments Butler is more prepared to acknowledge the subject as more than only a regulatory illusion while maintaining her antiessentialism. While the volitional or prior subject is ruled out (although the precise meaning ofprior requires further exploration), the subject per se is seemingly not precluded (Butler 1998, 280). In Bodies ThatMatter (1993), for example, she argues the following:
Indeed,it is unclear that there can be an “I” or a “we” who has not been submitted, subjected to gender, where gendering is, among other things, the differentiating relations by which speaking subjects come into being. Subjected to gender, but subjectivated by gender, the “I” neither precedes nor folows the process ofthis gendering, but emerges only within and as the matrix ofgender relations themselves. (p. 7)
Here a subject emerges, “subjectivated” within gendered relationships and presumably becoming involved in these relationships. At a later point, I will suggest some directions in which this involvement might be theoretically expanded. However, a lack o fclarity exists over the capacity for action held by such subjects relative to the power that enables their existence in the first place. While in The Psychic Life of Power Butler (1997) suggests that the subject is “compelled to reiterate” that very power “upon which [he or she] depends for existence” (p. 12), she also argues that “agency exceeds the power by which itis enabled” (p. 15). Such a lack of clarity over the question of agency has resulted in Butler being read as advocating both voluntarism and determinism (see Livia and Hall 1997, 8; Webster 2000, 8).
What is reasonably clear is that performativity itself does not refer to subjects “doing gender,” as performativity is primarily a constitutive process. Gender is not a performance that “a prior subject elects to do”; instead, “gender . . . constitutes as an effec tthe very subjectit appears to express” (Butler 1991 , 24). While the term performance implies enactment or doing,performativity refers to the constitution of regulatory notions and their effects. The repetition that creates the illusion of gendered authenticity is not a subjective action so much as a linguistic interpellation in the Althusserian sense (Althusser 1984).
The vexatious questions are those that adress whether the effects of performativity might be subjects with a “real” existence and, if so, whether we can identify acts in which those subjects might engage. A number ofunre- solved tensions over subjectivity and agency remain, and these have signifi- cant implications for Butler’s own theorizing as well as its adoption by other researchers and theorists. Indeed, those drawing on Butler’s writings both generally and in the masculinities field more specifically can end up tangled or even mired in contradiction (see Allen 1998, 459-60; D. Cameron 1997, 49; Campbell 2000, 565; Lloyd 1999, 196-201). Is the subject a politically problematic effect ofthe metaphysics of substance, an active originator of gendered acts, or something in between?
One thing a clarification ofthese questions does not require is renouncing a thoroughly antiessentialist account of masculine subjectivities. Butler’s performativity usefully suggests that masculinities appear within language and society as effects ofnorms and power relations rather than presocial bio- logical essences. What Goffman’s writing offers is a way ofreintroducing a reflexive, acting subject into this picture without returning to either biologi- cal or psychological essentialism orto the autonomous, male, sovereign sub- ject ofliberalism and humanism. Butler can then offer a corective to some of Goffman’s blind spots (particularly his heterosexism), while Goffman’s work on gender schedules and experience-organizing “frames” offers ways to extend Butler’s discussion of subversion in the context ofmasculinities.