REVIEW BY HEATHER WRIGHT
by Judith Butler
What exactly is "woman" and in whose name do we speak when we demand representation for "her"? Judith Butler has written a lucid, succinct account of the issues involved in representational identity politics as they arise in current feminist debates. Gender Trouble makes use of texts by Lacan, Freud, Irigaray, Kristeva, Wittig, and Foucault to point to the dangers feminists run by adopting a fixed gender identity in their quest for representation. At the same time, Butler suggests some subversive strategies for avoiding these dangers.
The problem inherent in the demand for representation is that the description of the identity to be represented - the qualifications for candidature in the category called "woman" - inevitably enforces the exclusion of those who do not qualify. Moreover, what usually accompanies this invocation of a universal feminine subject is the notion that all women are struggling under the oppression of universal patriarchy, an idea which many critique for its ethnocentrism. What is at stake here is the idea that the "feminine" has an ontological status independent of any cultural construction. For Butler argues that in their desire to find a universal basis for feminism, feminists may be duplicating the regulatory practices of phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.
As Butler observes, there is no escaping representational politics: "The juridical structure of language and politics constitute the contemporary field of power; hence, there is no position outside this field, but only a critical genealogy of its own legitimating practices. ... And the task is to formulate within this constituted frame a critique of the categories of identity that contemporary juridical structures engender, naturalize, and immobilize" (p.5). Gender Trouble is Butler's attempt to do just that.
The text is divided into three chapters which propose a critical genealogy of the construction of gender categories in a number of different discursive domains. In the first chapter, Butler investigates the status of "women" as the subject of feminism and the sex/gender distinction. Drawing on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Monique Wittig and Michel Foucault, she considers where and how phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality converge in language. On Butler's account, gender would appear to be the effect of a series of per formative acts, and not the assumption of the role demanded by a particular "natural" sex. Indeed, as she argues in the following two chapters, sex is a "per formatively enacted signification" just as culturally constructed as gender.
Looking at some psychoanalytic and structuralist accounts of sexual difference in chapter two, Butler shows how they have both exposed and reproduced the regulatory regimes of phallogocentrism and heterosexuality outlined in her first chapter. In analyzing the work of Levi-Strauss, Freud and Lacan, she argues that accounts of the incest taboo as the mechanism for enforcing discreet and coherent gender identities give homosexuality and bisexuality prediscursive origins (before the entry into the Symbolic) which are therefore unintelligible within the dominant culture. And if they are unintelligible they cannot provide positions from which to critique that culture.
In chapter three, Butler extends this critique to Kristeva's placement of the feminine and maternal outside of the Symbolic. She is particularly critical of Kristcva's acceptance of Lacan's contention that culture is equivalent to the Symbolic, that the latter is fully subsumed under the "Law of the Father", and that the only modes of no psychotic behaviour are those which participate in the Symbolic. As Butler sees it, Kristcva takes heterosexuality to be prerequisite to kinship and culture, and thus also renders homosexuality ineffectual as a subversion of heterosexuality. Butler prefers Foucault's account of the feminine, the bisexual, and the homosexual as effects of the paternal law which both represses and produces the objects of its repression. But, if Butler is right, in his work on Herculine Barbin, Foucault, too, participated in the idealization of a pre-discursive sexuality.