Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Is Gender Burning?

Notes towards Day 15 of
Critical Feminist Studies

Is Gender Burning?
A Conversation About Reading,
among Livingstone, Butler and hooks

"For 'reading' means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance, insulting or deriding someone. For a performance to work, then, means that a reading is no longer possible...the impossibility of reading means that the artifice works, the approximation of realness appears to be achieved" (Judith Butler, "Gender is Burning").

I. Coursekeeping:
back to the question about pairing up with alums? time to go ahead with this--
sign up if you are game....also: last call for tickets to Age of Arousal (guests, etc.)
how we doing with accessing the film and the readings??

for Thursday, read around in Katie's Canon,
esp. Forward, Preface, Introduction and Appendix;
also recommended: Chapters 4, 5 & 10
conversation about exoticizing:
reading Sor Juana in Spanish (but not de Beauvoir in French?)

II. Going to talk @ you for a while, then sit down and have a
conversation among ourselves, Livingstone, Butler and hooks
Want to give you some ground to stand on first,
some backstory to Butler, who’s so complicated…

key idea from de Beauvoir is that identity is fundamentally relational;
we are defined by what we are NOT (not new: Hegelian master/slave)

applicable re: evolution of Gender Studies from Feminist Studies
argument re: name change of program,
moving from the "ghetto of the marginalized"
(women’s history, psychology of women, etc.) to
the relational nature of the identity “woman”:
can’t talk about women w/out talking about men,
hetrosexuality without homosexuality, gender without transgender, sex without intersex, etc.

awareness by contrast (old/white/Quaker/traveling American in Guatemala)
surrounded by those who are NOT, see ourselves through the difference
naming any category of “one” creates an “other”: any term dependent on what is exterior to it

danger: this dynamic becomes a structure of rigid/polar exclusion
need to disorganize these structures: naming/categorizing/analysis “interminable,”
identity a perpetual reinvention/revision (Mark Lord: a shell game, not an entity)
new task force on transgender and the woman's college

Butler's way of dealing w/ identity is different from de Beauvoir's; it has to do w/ performance,
(& might help us beyond the impasse of Thursday’s class--how not to be othered?)
she talks about the misrecognition that occurs when we occupy social roles,
the range of disobedience available to us…

“Gender is Burning” comes from Butler’s 1993 book, Bodies That Matter
I saw her perform at the Greater Phila. Philosophy Consortium 15 yrs ago;
she was working then on the material that got published as Gender Trouble,
a book which plays w/, plays out the idea that gender is performative,
a role we take on and perpetuate by repeating it throughout our lives

at the end of her talk, someone asked Butler
if she really didn’t think there were bedrock differences between men and women;
she came back to the podium, ran her fingers through her hair, and said,
“Oh, those rocks in the bed!”

moment of utter social construction, absolute dismissal of biological essentialism
which I won’t ever forget--and the moment I began to ride the 3rd wave!
(3 waves: 1st women be like men; 2nd women claim femininity;
3rd see masc/fem as constructions)

work is notoriously difficult, but interesting/provocative/imp’t: should know her
reading her for the first time is like stepping into a stream
on rocks you haven’t met before, hard to negotiate...
but let’s try: let me lay out a a few rocks for you to step on:

Butler begins with Althusser & Gramsci
(remember from our discussion of Spivak? interpellation, hegemony....?)

& Jacques Lacan (1901-81) French practictioner, theorist of psychoanalysis

who used structuralist linguistics to revise Freud’s
biological theories of the unconscious, and of gender differentiation

Lacan focused on the entry of children into the “symbolic,”
into the signifying system of language;

the ultimately impossible act of being forced to speak, to articulate our desires,
which involves a breakup of the primordal unity w/ the mother,
stepping out of “the real” into the unattainable/inexpressible limits of language

Butler argues that, when Althusser traces the “formation” of subjects,
he acknowledges the possibility of MISrecognition
between the law and the subject it compels;

(we can HAIL you to a certain performance,
but you can not RESPOND as we expect/hope)
Althusser really doesn’t consider the RANGE OF DISOBEDIENCE
that such a law might produce:

the law can produce a set of consequences that exceed, confound
its “disciplining intentions,”
it creates more than it meant to, an excess of its intent:
and it is this slippage which interests Butler,

this ambivalence of being socially constituted:
what happens if you enter social life on terms that both enable/violate you?
how can you occupy the interpellation in order to resignify it?

that is the theoretical framework she uses to examine Paris Is Burning,
to ask how the kinship structures of the houses open possibilities for resignifying,
for reworking “queer” from abjection to politicalized affiliation
she is working w/ a very complex understanding of how we get made, formed as subjects:
drawing on Althusser, she describes the self as a crossroads, a nexus of forces,
which construct but don’t determine it

her argument is that, on the one hand, the drag balls in Paris is Burning
defy the norms of a homophobic culture, by parodying them:
the drag balls show is that all gender is drag, a process of imitation;
they show us that heterosexuality is not natural, but a constant performance,
meant to perpetuate an ideal
in doing that, drag is subversive, destabilizing, insurrective
because it disputes naturalness of heterosexuality

BUT this insurrection is also a defeat
if black faggots talk back to the culture that feminizes them,
by out-womaning women, performing womanhood so well that they compel belief as real,
they are also reinscribing the hegemonic form:
reconsolidating the binary of hyperbolic heterosexuality

when Venus describes her desire to be "a whole woman, w/ a man,"
& a house in ‘burbs w/ washing machine,
the dominant norms are not displaced, but painfully reiterated
hegemony is still operating

in Butler’s analysis, Paris Is Burning demonstrates
an unstable co-existence of insurrection/resubordination
w/ queer black men engaging in reverse-occupations of the norms,
but the norms still wielding power

# of other provocative lines of thought in her essay:
some probing questions about the place of the filmmaker in constructing this narrative
an assault on the colonialist trope of the ethnographic gaze

of the white Jewish lesbian from Yale,
doing a favor for marginalized black gay subculture by making them public
& an acknowledgement of bell hooks’ critique of the film,
for its failure to interrogate the whiteness that it celebrates

Butler ends by asking whether the film will alter the lives recorded in it:
same question re: her work: what are the practical effects of this sort of theorizing?
for the lives of those she and Livingstone discuss, for the lives of others, like us?

So: let me sit down, invite Judy, Jeanne, bell and all of you to a conversation:
what did you learn from this intersection of the movie and two commentaries?
have you been able to integrate all the perspectives?
have they generated questions for you?

What is real? What is reading?
"What reading does the film encourage,
and what does the film conceal?"

" watch this film means to enter into a logic of fetishization
which installs the ambivalence of that 'performance' as related to our own."