Undoing Gender

Reviewed by Erin Gray

Reviewed in this article

Undoing Gender
by Judith Butler, Routledge, 2004.

In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler develops upon her earlier work in gender and queer theory. Butler, a professor in Rhetoric, Comparative Literature, and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is best known for her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, in which she outlined her theory of gender performativity and the construction of sexuality. Since Gender Trouble appeared in 1990, feminist, queer, and literary work in the humanities has been heavily influenced by Butler’s nuanced exposure of gender’s construction. Moving beyond a binary frame in which gender is assumed to signify an essential self, Butler exposes the categories of sex, desire and gender as effects of specific power structures. Focusing more on linguistic action than on a theatrical sense of performativity, Butler defines the latter as a stylized repetition of acts that produces the effect of an internal, natural core on the surface of the body. Because gender is often assumed to be an extension of natural interiority, its sociality and public function is often overlooked. Butler’s emphasis on the simultaneity of improvisation/performance and constraint underscores the paradoxical nature of gendered identity construction. In Butler’s analysis, this is apparent in gender parodies such as drag, which, though parodic, is not necessarily subversive. Butler’s work has helped further expose the foundational categories of sex, desire and gender as effects of specific power structures, thus moving beyond a binary frame in which gender is assumed to signify an essential self.

As in Bodies that Matter (1993), Undoing Gender takes from Gender Trouble much of its conceptual and theoretical frameworks, but situates a critique of the production of gender norms within a materially based understanding of the complex relationship between survival and social transformation. Where Gender Trouble largely focused on gender as a doing, here Butler is concerned with undoing, or unperforming, hegemonic modes of gender and sexuality.

Gender is defined in Undoing Gender as a “practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint,” one that is always within a social context, and never outside of ideology. In her introduction, Butler writes that Undoing Gender offers an understanding of how “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life” might be undone. Butler stresses throughout the book that this process of undoing is not necessarily negative or positive, but is instead caught up in the paradoxical tension between societal-mediated survival and individual agency. Butler reminds us that one does not author one’s gender, for its terms are always negotiated within collective social contexts. In “Undiagnosing Gender,” for example, she addresses the tension within transsexual communities around the diagnosis of gender-identity disorder (GID). The tension arises because, though the diagnosis is an economic necessity in order for transsexuals to gain access to funds for sex-change operations, the diagnosis is inherently pathologizing in its conflation of transsex with disorder. Many people in trans communities view the diagnosis of GID as an institutional barrier to transautonomy, as it forces transsexuals to conform to the discursive power of the medical and psychoanalytic communities. Butler points out that the diagnosis, necessary under capitalism for economic access to surgery, exacerbates the tension between autonomy and community, as transsexuals must submit to discourse in order to gain autonomy at the level of the body. We are never, Butler reminds us, able to remove ourselves from ideology, and we must work with the dominant ideology’s tools in order to subvert its material effects.

In Undoing Gender, Butler seems to be fighting off critics’ accusations that Gender Trouble espoused a humanist desire for gendered autonomy, as she argues that individual bodily agency is conditional on its place within a collective whole; “not only does one need the social world to be a certain way in order to lay claim to what is one’s own, but it turns out that what is one’s own is always from the start dependent upon what is not one’s own, the social conditions by which autonomy is, strangely, dispossessed and undone”.

Desire, for Butler, is bound up with questions of power and social normativity. Asking what gender wants, Butler links desire with recognition in a Hegelian sense. It is through the experience of recognition, she writes, that people are constituted as social beings. Butler expands Hegel’s notion of recognition to point out that, since the terms by which we are recognizable are constituted socially, they are also alterable.

There is an implicit tension between desiring norms in order to survive, and maintaining a critical distance from them. For Butler, a critical relationship to norms depends on a collective ability to articulate alternative, oppositional “norms” that necessitate action. Doing, stresses Butler, is tied to being; “if I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social world I never chose. That my agency is riven with paradox does not mean it is impossible. It means only that paradox is the condition of its possibility”. It is this paradox that Butler investigates throughout the book, specifically in regards to the question of critical social transformation. This transformation of norms, Butler repeatedly reminds us, comes from within an understanding of how one is constituted by them. If Gender Trouble’s main concern was with exploring the dynamics through which genders are constructed and performed, Undoing Gender is concerned with the question of survival based undoings, performative resistance at the level of both ideology and the body, and which is, importantly, always social and collective.

In examining how bodies are normalized and made “human,” Butler explicitly concerns herself with the question of autonomy. Choosing one’s own body means navigating among norms, and individual agency is bound up with societal critique and social transformation. One’s personal gender is determined to the extent that social norms support and enable acts of claiming.

Butler also looks at the various ways in which humans are normalized as human. She importantly points to the connections between these types of gender discrimination, gender violence, and the harsh normalizing mode of the promotion of gay and lesbian marriage: “the critical question… becomes, how might the world be reorganized so that this conflict can be ameliorated?”. In the case of gay and lesbian marriage, for example, she writes that gay and lesbian kinship forms are not recognized as kinship unless they mimic a heterosexual familial structure. This normative family form is predicated upon recognition from the state, a site for the articulation of the fantasy of normativity, legitimation, and anonymity. Like GID and surgery on intersexed babies, gay and lesbian marriage diagnoses and institutes gender norms, but norms which are necessary in order for many people to survive.

In detailing the paradox of autonomy, Butler writes that, until society is radically altered, freedom will continue to require unfreedom, and autonomy subjection. She does not however, offer an explanation of how the paradox of autonomy, or, more precisely, the relationship between gender normalization and gender self-fashioning, may be resolved within a wider process of social transformation. This is, obviously, out of the stated scope of Butler’s text, but something which needs to be articulated between gender and queer theory, and connected to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist theory and practice.

Butler has been criticized for replacing so-called “real” politics with symbolic politics, leaving little room for large scale social change. Professor Martha Nussbaum, in an article in The New Republic, accuses Butler of “hip quietism” and a pessimistic, amoral, anarchic disavowal of the law and social normativity. Her view of politics, according to Nussbaum, is oddly pessimistic in its poststructuralist belief that there is no agent prior to social forces that produce the self. Though Butler repeatedly stresses agency and the need for resistance, Nussbaum questions where this ability comes from if autonomy may only be sought by parodying dominant discourses and practices; “there is a void, then, at the heart of Butler’s notion of politics. This void can look liberating, because the reader fills it implicitly with a normative theory of human equality or dignity. But then we have to articulate those norms – and this Butler refuses to do.”

Nussbaum’s critique was published in response to Gender Trouble and Excitable Speech, and focuses largely on Butler’s “difficult,” academic writing style. Though Butler, who was trained in philosophy at Yale, may be inaccessible to those who have no previous experience in the work of the theorists she references, Undoing Gender is an arguably easier read than some of her earlier work. While this may merely be the result of my having marginal experience with Butler’s ideas, there is still something to be said for Butler’s tenacious emphasis on subversion, even while she recognizes how difficult that subversion may be. And it is not as though Butler has no experience in activism; she has worked in AIDS activism within queer communities, and is an outspoken, and harshly criticized, anti-Zionist Jew.

Gender is a project of cultural survival, a strategy, and, as stated earlier, acts of gender create the idea of gender. The relevance of theory for activism has been contentious in both the academy and on the street, with many radical theorists, from Marx to bell hooks, pointing out the need to theorize oppositional consciousness and action. Theoretical practice helps destabilize the binary on which dominant modes of thought have worked to create marked rifts between how we define ourselves in relation to others. Butler’s emphasis on survival and on the relationship between the tactile and the discursive, emphasizes how neo-liberal rhetoric plays itself out on the real bodies of the disenfranchised.

Butler’s emphasis on the extent to which our bodies have a public dimension reminds us that struggling for autonomy requires a struggle for a conception of the self within a community; “to live is to live a life politically, in relation to power, in relation to others, in the act of assuming responsibility for a collective future”. Emotions such as desire, mourning, and rage allow people to relate to others, as they enact an undoing of the self, and allow for an apprehension of the social dimensions of embodied life. Grief and rage, therefore, have implications for activism, as they allow people to return to a source of vulnerability, to a collective responsibility for our physical lives.

Butler therefore, steps away from the largely inaccessible tone of Gender Trouble in order to explore the complex relationship between social power and the embodiment of gender norms, as well as the terms through which agency and survival may be articulated. Focusing on the relationship between feminist and queer politics and radical democratic theory, Undoing Gender is influenced by how “New Gender Politics” (social movements concerned with transgender, transsexuality, intersex, feminist, and queer politics) may work together to construct a future of resistance.

Undoing Gender is thus indispensable not only for feminist, queer and transsexed investigations of philosophical and practical social change, but is useful for wider anti-imperialist work as well. It is precisely our task, as anti-heterosexist activists, to articulate the relationship between the radical ideologies we embody and how we perform gender and grassroots politics. Butler’s philosophical musings on subjectivity, and the conditions required by current social relations for one to be considered a living, human subject, have implications for our collective struggles against capital and empire, and, as well as asking how we may subversively undo gender, we can also ask how all oppressive structures may be undone. As Butler contends, queer politics are about resisting assimilation, and remaking reality at the level of the body: “to intervene in the name of transformation means precisely to disrupt what has become settled knowledge and knowable reality and to use …one’s unreality to make an otherwise impossible or illegible claim”. Desire is itself a transformative activity, and it is our task, as radicals, to perform our resistance, our desire for change, and to demand the impossible.

Erin Gray is a student, writer, and activist in Toronto. She organizes with GRAIN (Grassroots Anti-Imperialist Network) at York University, and will be completing an MA on the politics of the avant-garde in the coming year.