Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Undoing Gender

[Judith Butler. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.]

I don't want to fall into the trap of claiming there is only one proper way to take up university-derived ideas in relation to the struggles of ordinary people, because there are lots. Moreover, I think encouraging experimentation with and proliferation of approaches is important, given that rigid exclusions are likely to end up turned against the people I'm most interested in listening to anyway. So the fact that this work takes up questions at least in part because of their importance to oppressions experienced and resisted by ordinary people deserves a thumbs up, and the fact that it is an academic superstar who is doing it -- well, the fact that it is someone trying to make good use of the space she has carved out through fortune and work in an often anti-woman, anti-queer (though also white-privileging) academy also deserves to be affirmed. Nonetheless, despite the fact that it addresses many questions that I consider interesting and important, I'm still kind of ambivalent about the specifics of how this book goes about it.

I came to this book via a course in the first four months of my year-long digression into graduate school -- I read a couple of the pieces in the collection for that reason and then decided to read the whole thing. My ambivalence about the book is not, I should point out, related to Butler's famously opaque prose. Even in the early book that first made her reputation, Gender Trouble, the writing is not as difficult as it is sometimes made out to be, and not only is this book more obviously oriented towards practical questions than that one, it is also more clearly and just plain better written. It's still definitely an academic book, but it is not a hopelessly obscure one.

As is generally true of books constructed by collecting essays, the ground covered by this one is a quirky reflection of the author's interests, meaning both her scholarly interests and her activist interests. A number of common topics and themes weave into different essays in different ways. Perhaps the recurring theme that I was least compelled by was Butler's commitment to recovering psychoanalytic theory from sexism and heterosexism -- while I quite like the idea of developing practices that are all about super close listening to help people understand themselves, and I do think we need to understand in a more general sense the ways in which people come to be who we are, my encounters (limited but not completely trivial) with psychoanalytic theory have left me unconvinced that it is a particularly useful way to undergird either of those projects, even with the kinds of changes Butler wants to make.

Most of the other stuff, though, seems interesting and important. She returns several times to questions about what it means for people to be admitted or excluded from the category "human" and for lives to be intelligible to the people who encounter them. She connects this to a discussion of socially enforced norms as not just being about discipline and about shaping people in oppressive ways, but also about creating the conditions for intelligibility and, indeed, for thriving. It is clear that these questions relate to her own work around the human rights of queer people in international contexts, and to her efforts to think through how to do that work such that it does not play into the opportunistic concern for queers that has in recent years sometimes been mobilized by Western states for imperial and white supremacist ends.

Another recurring set of questions in this book has to do with a set of interrelated binaries -- things like sexual difference versus gender, queer theory versus feminist theory, the symbollic versus the social. What this boils down to, I think, is relating to approaches that differ fundamentally from her own understanding of gender as iterative social enactment in ways that are not just arguing against them but trying to take a step back and understand more about the origins of such differences. At times the discussion feels pretty abstract, but it is important because it underlies various disagreements among different strands of feminism, between some feminist and some queer politics, and among various ways of understanding kinship (which relates to various struggles for official state recognition of the legitimacy of some kinds of queer relationships).

She also covers some important ground in terms of the ways in which trans and intersex lives are erased, twisted, distorted, and regulated. And the final essay of the book includes some interesting reflections on the state of philosophy, as something that exists both as a clearly defined discipline and as a set of broader practices that get called philosophy but that are regarded by the discipline as clearly Other to itself -- while I didn't necessarily get all the ins and outs with respect to philosophy, it did make me think about the relationship of my own movement history work to disciplinary history.

I'm not sure I completely understand my own reservations about this book. One way to think about at least some of them is the socialist distinction between "from below" and "from above," I think. In saying this, I don't mean to cast aspersions on Butler's activist commitments, her scholarship, or her efforts to relate the two -- as I said, I respect the impulse, and I find much of the resulting writing to be thought provoking and very much relevant to life and struggle. However, I think there is an extent to which Butler's efforts to do academic theory in ways that are responsive to struggles for justice and liberation remains more committed to the intellectual terrain of struggle within the academy than I would want my own work to be. That shapes how she writes, what problems she takes up (even when guided by political priorities), and what she picks out as important in those problems. There is value in this, certainly. Refusing to cede elite terrains of discourse can sometimes appear to be pointless and/or hopelessly compromised, but what happens in such terrains can matter a great deal in shaping people's experiences and the space they have to struggle, and it makes sense for activists who already have high status in such contexts to take up that aspect of struggle. At the same time, I think there is also a need for intellectual work by people who are willing (as needed) to take up writing done in the academy but that have no attachment to producing work that necessarily responds to the expectations and norms for work in the academy, and so is more able to respond to requirements based in lives and movements. So I think work like this book is useful, but it comes nowhere close to exhausting the possible content -- the possible kinds of content -- with which we might fill the category "intellectual work from below."

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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