Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

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Feminism and the Subversion of Identity


Routledge New York and London

Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.


Preface (1999)

Preface (1990)

One Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire

I “Women” as the Subject of Feminism

II The Compulsory Order of Sex/Gender/Desire

III Gender: The Circular Ruins of Contemporary Debate

IV Theorizing the Binary, the Unitary, and Beyond

V Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance

VI Language, Power, and the Strategies of Displacement

Two Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual

I Structuralism’s Critical Exchange


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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

Preface (1999)
Ten years ago I completed the manuscript of Gender Trouble and sent it to Routledge
for publication. I did not know that the text would have as wide an audience as it has had,
nor did I know that it would constitute a provocative “intervention” in feminist theory or
be cited as one of the founding texts of queer theory. The life of the text has exceeded my
intentions, and that is surely in part the result of the changing context of its reception. As
I wrote it, I understood myself to be in an embattled and oppositional relation to certain
forms of feminism, even as I understood the text to be part of feminism itself. I was
writing in the tradition of immanent critique that seeks to provoke critical examination of
the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs. There was and
remains warrant for such a mode of criticism and to distinguish between self-criticism
that promises a more democratic and inclusive life for the movement and criticism that
seeks to undermine it altogether. Of course, it is always possible to misread the former as
the latter, but I would hope that that will not be done in the case of Gender Trouble.

In 1989 I was most concerned to criticize a pervasive heterosexual assumption in
feminist literary theory. I sought to counter those views that made presumptions about the
limits and propriety of gender and restricted the meaning of gender to received notions of
masculinity and femininity. It was and remains my view that any feminist theory that
restricts the meaning of gender in the presuppositions of its own practice sets up
exclusionary gender norms within feminism, often with homophobic consequences. It
seemed to me, and continues to seem, that feminism ought to be careful not to idealize
certain expressions of gender that, in turn, produce new forms of hierarchy and exclusion.
In particular, I opposed those regimes of truth that stipulated that certain kinds of
gendered expressions were found to be false or derivative, and others, true and original.
The point was not to prescribe a new gendered way of life that might then serve as a
model for readers of the text. Rather, the aim of the text was to open up the field of
possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized.
One might wonder what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has
understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible,’’ illegible,
unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.

Gender Trouble sought to uncover the ways in which the very thinking of what is
possible in gendered life is foreclosed by certain habitual and violent presumptions. The
text also sought to undermine any and all efforts to wield a discourse of truth to
delegitimate minority gendered and sexual practices. This doesn’t mean that all minority
practices are to be condoned or celebrated, but it does mean that we ought to be able to
think them before we come to any kinds of conclusions about them. What worried me
most were the ways that the panic in the face of such practices rendered them
unthinkable. Is the breakdown of gender binaries, for instance, so monstrous, so
frightening, that it must be held to be definitionally impossible and heuristically
precluded from any effort to think gender?

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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

Some of these kinds of presumptions were found in what was called “French
Feminism” at the time, and they enjoyed great popularity among literary scholars and
some social theorists.

Even as I opposed what I took to be the heterosexism at the core of sexual difference
fundamentalism, I also drew from French poststructuralism to make my points. My work
in Gender Trouble turned out to be one of cultural translation. Poststructuralist theory
was brought to bear on U.S. theories of gender and the political predicaments of
feminism. If in some of its guises, poststructuralism appears as a formalism, aloof from
questions of social context and political aim, that has not been the case with its more
recent American appropriations. Indeed, my point was not to “apply” poststructuralism to
feminism, but to subject those theories to a specifically feminist reformulation. Whereas
some defenders of poststructuralist formalism express dismay at the avowedly “thematic”
orientation it receives in works such as Gender Trouble, the critiques of poststructuralism
within the cultural Left have expressed strong skepticism toward the claim that anything
politically progressive can come of its premises. In both accounts, however,
poststructuralism is considered something unified, pure, and monolithic. In recent years,
however, that theory, or set of theories, has migrated into gender and sexuality studies,
postcolonial and race studies. It has lost the formalism of its earlier instance and acquired
a new and transplanted life in the domain of cultural theory. There are continuing debates
about whether my own work or the work of Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty
Spivak, or Slavoj Žizžek belongs to cultural studies or critical theory, but perhaps such
questions simply show that the strong distinction between the two enterprises has broken
down. There will be theorists who claim that all of the above belong to cultural studies,
and there will be cultural studies practitioners who define themselves against all manner
of theory (although not, significantly, Stuart Hall, one of the founders of cultural studies
in Britain). But both sides of the debate sometimes miss the point that the face of theory
has changed precisely through its cultural appropriations. There is a new venue for
theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural
translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple
historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable
claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet,
where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.

Gender Trouble is rooted in “French Theory,” which is itself a curious American
construction. Only in the United States are so many disparate theories joined together as
if they formed some kind of unity. Although the book has been translated into several
languages and has had an especially strong impact on discussions of gender and politics
in Germany, it will emerge in France, if it finally does, much later than in other countries.
I mention this to underscore that the apparent Francocentrism of the text is at a significant
distance from France and from the life of theory in France. Gender Trouble tends to read
together, in a syncretic vein, various French intellectuals (Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan,
Kristeva, Wittig) who had few alliances with one another and whose readers in France
rarely, if ever, read one another. Indeed, the intellectual promiscuity of the text marks it
precisely as American and makes it foreign to a French context. So does its emphasis on
the Anglo-American sociological and anthropological tradition of “gender’’ studies,
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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

which is distinct from the discourse of “sexual difference” derived from structuralist
inquiry. If the text runs the risk of Eurocentrism in the U.S., it has threatened an
“Americanization” of theory in France for those few French publishers who have
considered it.1

Of course, “French Theory” is not the only language of this text. It emerges from a
long engagement with feminist theory, with the debates on the socially constructed
character of gender, with psychoanalysis and feminism, with Gayle Rubin’s extraordinary
work on gender, sexuality, and kinship, Esther Newton’s groundbreaking work on drag,
Monique Wittig’s brilliant theoretical and fictional writings, and with gay and lesbian
perspectives in the humanities. Whereas many feminists in the 1980s assumed that
lesbianism meets feminism in lesbian-feminism, Gender Trouble sought to refuse the
notion that lesbian practice instantiates feminist theory, and set up a more troubled
relation between the two terms. Lesbianism in this text does not represent a return to what
is most important about being a woman; it does not consecrate femininity or signal a
gynocentric world. Lesbianism is not the erotic con- summation of a set of political
beliefs (sexuality and belief are related in a much more complex fashion, and very often
at odds with one another). Instead, 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?

The idea that sexual practice has the power to destabilize gender emerged from my
reading of Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women” and sought to establish that normative
sexuality fortifies normative gender. Briefly, one is a woman, according to this
framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual
frame and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of
place in gender. I take it that this is the first formulation of “gender trouble” in this text. 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 language. This issue has become
more acute as we consider various new forms of gendering that have emerged in light of
transgenderism and transsexuality, lesbian and gay parenting, new butch and femme
identities. When and why, for instance, do some butch lesbians who become parents
become “dads” and others become “moms”?

What about the notion, suggested by Kate Bornstein, that a transsexual cannot be
described by the noun of “woman” or “man,” but must be approached through active
verbs that attest to the constant transformation which “is” the new identity or, indeed, the
“in-betweenness” that puts the being of gendered identity into question? Although some
lesbians argue that butches have nothing to do with “being a man,” others insist that their
butchness is or was only a route to a desired status as a man. These paradoxes have surely
proliferated in recent years, offering evidence of a kind of gender trouble that the text
itself did not anticipate.2
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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

But what is the link between gender and sexuality that I sought to underscore?
Certainly, I do not mean to claim that forms of sexual practice produce certain genders,
but only that under conditions of normative heterosexuality, policing gender is sometimes
used as a way of securing heterosexuality. Catharine MacKinnon offers a formulation of
this problem that resonates with my own at the same time that there are, I believe, crucial
and important differences between us. She writes:

Stopped as an attribute of a person, sex inequality takes the form of gender;
moving as a relation between people, it takes the form of sexuality. Gender
emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men
and women.3

In this view, sexual hierarchy produces and consolidates gender. It is not heterosexual
normativity that produces and consolidates gender, but the gender hierarchy that is said to
underwrite heterosexual relations. If gender hierarchy produces and consolidates gender,
and if gender hierarchy presupposes an operative notion of gender, then gender is what
causes gender, and the formulation culminates in tautology. It may be that MacKinnon
wants merely to outline the self-reproducing mechanism of gender hierarchy, but this is
not what she has said.

Is “gender hierarchy” sufficient to explain the conditions for the production of
gender? 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?

Katherine Franke, a contemporary legal theorist, makes innovative use of both
feminist and queer perspectives to note that by assuming the primacy of gender hierarchy
to the production of gender, MacKinnon also accepts a presumptively heterosexual model
for thinking about sexuality. Franke offers an alternative model of gender discrimination
to MacKinnon’s, effectively arguing that sexual harassment is the paradigmatic allegory
for the production of gender. Not all discrimination can be understood as harassment. 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.

Whereas MacKinnon offers a powerful critique of sexual harassment, she institutes a
regulation of another kind: to have a gender means to have entered already into a
heterosexual relationship of subordination. At an analytic level, she makes an equation
that resonates with some dominant forms of homophobic argument. One such view
prescribes and condones the sexual ordering of gender, maintaining that men who are
men will be straight, women who are women will be straight. There is another set of
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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

views, Franke’s included, which offers a critique precisely of this form of gender
regulation. 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 belabor this point because some queer theorists have drawn an analytic distinction
between gender and sexuality, refusing a causal or structural link between them. This
makes good sense from one perspective: if what is meant by this distinction is that
heterosexual normativity ought not to order gender, and that such ordering ought to be
opposed, I am firmly in favor of this view.4 If, however, what is meant by this is that
(descriptively speaking), there is no sexual regulation of gender, then I think an
important, but not exclusive, dimension of how homophobia works is going unrecognized
by those who are clearly most eager to combat it. It is important for me to concede,
however, that the performance of gender subversion can indicate nothing about sexuality
or sexual practice. Gender can be rendered ambiguous without disturbing or reorienting
normative sexuality at all. Sometimes gender ambiguity can operate precisely to contain
or deflect non-normative sexual practice and thereby work to keep normative sexuality
intact.5 Thus, no correlation can be drawn, for instance, between drag or transgender and
sexual practice, and the dis-tribution of hetero-, bi-, and homo-inclinations cannot be
predictably mapped onto the travels of gender bending or changing.

Much of my work in recent years has been devoted to clarifying and revising the
theory of performativity that is outlined in Gender Trouble.6 It is difficult to say precisely
what performativity is not only because my own views on what “performativity” might
mean have changed over time, most often in response to excellent criticisms,7 but
because so many others have taken it up and given it their own formulations. I originally
took my clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading
of Kafka’s “Before the Law.” There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of
the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation of an
authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and
installed: the anticipation conjures its object. I wondered whether we do not labor under a
similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be
disclosed, an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates.
In the first instance, then, the performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis,
the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as
outside itself. Secondly, performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual,
which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood,
in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.8

Several important questions have been posed to this doctrine, and one seems
especially noteworthy to mention here. The view that gender is performative sought to
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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a
sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body. In this way, it
showed that what we take to be an “internal” feature of ourselves is one that we anticipate
and produce through certain bodily acts, at an extreme, an hallucinatory effect of
naturalized gestures. Does this mean that every-thing that is understood as ‘‘internal”
about the psyche is therefore evacuated, and that internality is a false metaphor?
Although Gender Trouble clearly drew upon the metaphor of an internal psyche in its
early discussion of gender melancholy, that emphasis was not brought forward into the
thinking of performativity itself.9 Both The Psychic Life of Power and several of my
recent articles on psychoanalytic topics have sought to come to terms with this problem,
what many have seen as a problematic break between the early and later chapters of this
book. Although I would deny that all of the internal world of the psyche is but an effect
of a stylized set of acts, I continue to think that it is a significant theoretical mistake to
take the “internality” of the psychic world for granted. Certain features of the world,
including people we know and lose, do become “internal” features of the self, but they
are transformed through that interiorization, and that inner world, as the Kleinians call it,
is constituted precisely as a consequence of the interiorizations that a psyche performs.
This suggests that there may well be a psychic theory of performativity at work that calls
for greater exploration.

Although this text does not answer the question of whether the materiality of the body
is fully constructed, that has been the focus of much of my subsequent work, which I
hope will prove clarifying for the reader.10 The question of whether or not the theory of
performativity can be transposed onto matters of race has been explored by several
scholars.11 I would note here not only that racial presumptions invariably underwrite the
discourse on gender in ways that need to be made explicit, but that race and gender ought
not to be treated as simple analogies. I would therefore suggest that the question to ask is
not whether the theory of performativity is transposable onto race, but what happens to
the theory when it tries to come to grips with race. Many of these debates have centered
on the status of “construction,” whether race is constructed in the same way as gender.
My view is that no single account of construction will do, and that these categories
always work as background for one another, and they often find their most powerful
articulation through one another. Thus, the sexualization of racial gender norms calls to
be read through multiple lenses at once, and the analysis surely illuminates the limits of
gender as an exclusive category of analysis.12

Although I’ve enumerated some of the academic traditions and debates that have
animated this book, it is not my purpose to offer a full apologia in these brief pages.
There is one aspect of the conditions of its production that is not always understood about
the text: it was produced not merely from the academy, but from convergent social
movements of which I have been a part, and within the context of a lesbian and gay
community on the east coast of the United States in which I lived for fourteen years prior
to the writing of this book. Despite the dislocation of the subject that the text performs,
there is a person here: I went to many meetings, bars, and marches and saw many kinds
of genders, understood myself to be at the crossroads of some of them, and encountered
sexuality at several of its cultural edges. I knew many people who were trying to find
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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

their way in the midst of a significant movement for sexual recognition and freedom, and
felt the exhilaration and frustration that goes along with being a part of that movement
both in its hopefulness and internal dissension. At the same time that I was ensconced in
the academy, I was also living a life outside those walls, and though Gender Trouble is an
academic book, it began, for me, with a crossing-over, sitting on Rehoboth Beach,
wondering whether I could link the different sides of my life. That I can write in an
autobiographical mode does not, I think, relocate this subject that I am, but perhaps it
gives the reader a sense of solace that there is someone here (I will suspend for the
moment the problem that this someone is given in language).

It has been one of the most gratifying experiences for me that the text continues to
move outside the academy to this day. At the same time that the book was taken up by
Queer Nation, and some of its reflections on the theatricality of queer self-presentation
resonated with the tactics of Act Up, it was among the materials that also helped to
prompt members of the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American
Psychological Association to reassess some of their current doxa homosexuality. The
questions of performative gender were appropriated in different ways in the visual arts, at
Whitney exhibitions, and at the Otis School for the Arts in Los Angeles, among others.
Some of its formulations on the subject of “women” and the relation between sexuality
and gender also made its way into feminist jurisprudence and antidiscrimination legal
scholarship in the work of Vicki Schultz, Katherine Franke, and Mary Jo Frug.

In turn, I have been compelled to revise some of my positions in Gender Trouble by
virtue of my own political engagements. In the book, I tend to conceive of the claim of
“universality” in exclusive negative and exclusionary terms. However, I came to see the
term has important strategic use precisely as a non-substantial and open-ended category
as I worked with an extraordinary group of activists first as a board member and then as
board chair of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (1994–7),
an organization that represents sexual minorities on a broad range of human rights issues.
There I came to understand how the assertion of universality can be proleptic and
performative, conjuring a reality that does not yet exist, and holding out the possibility
for a convergence of cultural horizons that have not yet met. Thus, I arrived at a second
view of universality in which it is defined as a future-oriented labor of cultural
translation.13 More recently, I have been compelled to relate my work to political theory
and, once again, to the concept of universality in a co-authored book that I am writing
with Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žizžek on the theory of hegemony and its implications
for a theoretically activist Left (to be published by Verso in 2000).

Another practical dimension of my thinking has taken place in relationship to
psychoanalysis as both a scholarly and clinical enterprise. I am currently working with a
group of progressive psychoanalytic therapists on a new journal, Studies in Gender and
, that seeks to bring clinical and scholarly work into productive dialogue on
questions of sexuality, gender, and culture.

Both critics and friends of Gender Trouble have drawn attention to the difficulty of its
style. It is no doubt strange, and maddening to some, to find a book that is not easily
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Preface (1999)." Judith Butler. Gender Trouble.
New York: Routledge Press, 1999.

consumed to be “popular’’ according to academic standards. The surprise over this is
perhaps attributable to the way we underestimate the reading public, its capacity and
desire for reading complicated and challenging texts, when the complication is not
gratuitous, when the challenge is in the service of calling taken-for-granted truths into
question, when the taken for grantedness of those truths is, indeed, oppressive.

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. But formulations that twist grammar or
that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are
clearly irritating for some. They produce more work for their readers, and sometimes
their readers are offended by such demands. Are those who are offended making a
legitimate request for “plain speaking” or does their complaint emerge from a consumer
expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps, a value to be derived from such
experiences of linguistic difficulty? If gender itself is naturalized through grammatical
norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most
fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar
in which gender is given.

The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly “clear” view.
Avital Ronell recalls the moment in which Nixon looked into the eyes of the nation and
said, “let me make one thing perfectly clear” and then proceeded to lie. What travels
under the sign of ‘‘clarity,” and what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain
critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devises the protocols of
“clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on
parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does
“transparency” keep obscure?

I grew up understanding something of the violence of gender norms: an uncle
incarcerated for his anatomically anomalous body, deprived of family and friends, living
out his days in an “institute” in the Kansas prairies; gay cousins forced to leave their
homes because of their sexuality, real and imagined; my own tempestuous coming out at
the age of 16; and a subsequent adult landscape of lost jobs, lovers, and homes. All of this
subjected me to strong and scarring condemnation but, luckily, did not prevent me from
pursuing pleasure and insisting on a legitimating recognition for my sexual life. It was
difficult to bring this violence into view precisely because gender was so taken for
granted at the same time that it was violently policed. It was assumed either to be a
natural manifestation of sex or a cultural constant that no human agency could hope to
revise. I also came to understand something of the violence of the foreclosed life, the one
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