August 8, 2011 by Katie.
My lovely friend Nikki B. over at Women Are From Mars recently wrote a great post for Gay Pride Month (yes, that’s June…I’m a little behind) on the hypocrisy of the gay community judging those who define themselves through other alternative-sexual titles. (Go read it here.) Nikki B. gets all up on her soap box and I love her for it. I wanted to raise armies to rally to her cause. Unfortunately, I don’t have armies but I do have…books. And we all know the pen is mightier than the sword, right?
I present the Queen of Discursive Sexuality herself: Ms. Judith Butler.
Coincidently, I’ve been holed up in the densely verbose land of Ms. J. for the entirety of the summer (a full time job can make for slow reading) and I’m super stoked to share my findings. Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex is jammed packed with all sorts of delicious ideas but, in sum, she asks the question:
How does language – and the skads of context, history, and meaning in each word – limit, or delimit, sexuality, identity, and “normalcy”; not only in the realm of linguistics and definition but even into the realm of physical possibility?
To put it plainly: LABELING. How do LABELS make us. And, make us decide which bodies matter and which bodies don’t. Which (some)bodys matter, even.
And that’s what Nikki’s talkin’ about, right?
I want to point out one of the major textual layers of Butler’s argument. Words (concepts, ideas) like “sex” and its presumed naturalness (the “sex” of a being as being something that occurs in nature) work not only to include (limiting) – “Hi. I’m a woman.” or “Hi. I’m a man.” – but also to exclude (delimiting). I’ll quote Nikki (she’s quoting the “hypocrites”):
“Hey, look at these people over here! Now, they’re different. That shit? Totally not right, dudes. Totally. They really should figure their shit out.”
Ahem. Right. Maybe you should realize your citational performativity – and figure that shit out.
Which brings me to Butler’s sub-point: Performance as citation. Wtf does that mean?
You begin with a. Perfomance: an act that reiterates a social/cultural norm or set of norms that appears as an original intent of the performer but is actually concealing a long history of meaning. Or, more simply, we recognize the act because we’ve seen it a million times before; we recognize its meaning because the meaning is built in; you add in b. a Performative: a practice that enacts or produces that which it names. Similar to the Performance. Butler’s example, “Let there be light!” and…there was [light]; lastly, to further draw out the second part of Performance c. Citationality: when you Perform you are citing or drawing on all of the pre-established historical narrative of a Performance/Performative. The Performances/Performatives only work because they are already familiar. We “know” what they are supposed to mean we already “know” the limits. (Butler, pgs. 12-13.)
Why does this matter for gender/”sex”? How does this pertain to Nikki’s post? Well, the identification with a “sex” re: man/woman/heterosexual is inherently citational. The intelligible possibilities for a sexed body are produced, reiterated, and maintained through the constant citation of the norms. Furthermore, these citations, these “norms,” produce inclusion and exclusion. Remember “limiting” and “delimiting”? Yeah, that. If your citation is recognizable, you are included in society.
This particularly pertains to Nikki’s post because – I think – Homosexuality, to a certain extent, has become a recognizable citation. And, by drawing further attention to bisexuality, fluidity, or transexuality, those who are outside the norms – or excluded – homosexuals increase the cementation of the borders that include them as “normal.” This is understandable when you consider the results of exclusion: “psychosis, abjection, psychic unlivability.” (Butler, pg. 15.)
The good news is: these citations can be revised!; because, we, by citing the norms, by reiterating them, make them up!
Those who are excluded don’t have to be.
And this is what Butler is striving to do; this is what Nikki, in her post, asks us to consider:
How can we rethink these norms so that everyone, every body, is legitimized and MATTERS.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex.