Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Gender Trouble

I suspect most MOJ readers are not reading Judith Butler, the influential gender theorist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Since I have actually waded through much--but not all--of her fame-making Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, I thought I'd share some of it below, to shed some light on the intellectual underpinnings of the American gender/transgender movement. Butler's writing is almost impossible to decode, but the following passages are noteworthy for their unusual clarity. They also provide a decent summary of the rest of the book (or what I've been able to get through anyway).  

One note:  Butler's radicalism is rightly criticized by some gender feminists for rendering "woman" obsolete, such that there is no subject left for feminists to rally behind. As you will read below, for Butler, not only is (culturally constructed) "gender" a construct, but (bodily) "sex" is too...

Catholics, and especially those like myself who are seeking to give life to a robust articulation of a dynamic "new feminism," have a special responsibility, it seems to me, to defend human embodiedness, and the asymmetry, vulnerability and dependency that follows. Here's are two recent attempts of mine, which focus on asymmetry, one in Christian Bioethics (Oxford), the other a chapter in Mary Hasson's new book, Promise and Challenge. I recently presented a paper on embodiedness, vulnerability and dependency (that relies heavily on the great Alasdair MacIntrye and feminist philosopher Eva Feder Kittay), both at Steubenville and at a conference on women and the Church in DC this spring; publication is (one hopes) forthcoming.

From Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

Although the unproblematic unity of “women” is often invoked to construct a solidarity of identity, a split is introduced in the feminist subject by the distinction between sex and gender. 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.

If gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way. Taken to its logical limit, the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between the sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders. Assuming for the moment the stability of binary sex, it does not follow that the construction of "men" will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that "women" will interpret only femal bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will be become a question), there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two. 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.

This radical splitting of the gendered subject poses yet another set of problems. Can we refer to a "given" sex or a "given" gender without first inquiring into how sex and/or gender is given, through what means? And what is “sex” anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such “facts” for us?9 Does sex have a history?10 Does each sex have a different history, or histories? Is there a history of how the duality of sex was established, a genealogy that might expose the binary options as a variable construction? 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.  

It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category. Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, 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 construction of “sex” as the radically unconstructed will concern us again in the discus- sion of Lévi-Strauss and structuralism in chapter 2. At this juncture it is already clear that one way the internal stability and binary frame for sex is effectively secured is by casting the duality of sex in a prediscursive domain. This production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender. How, then, does gender need to be reformulated to encompass the power relations that produce the effect of a prediscursive sex and so conceal that very operation of discursive production? [Pages 8-10]


In this sense, gender is not a noun, but neither is it a set of free- floating attributes, for we have seen that the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence. Hence, within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative— that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed. The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” In an application that Nietzsche himself would not have anticipated or condoned, we might state as a corollary: 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. [Page 34]

Read more of Butler's book here.


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