This project started as a short reading response in a seminar on rhetoric and subjectivity. As you might guess, it has immense personal importance to me. It represents a kind of agitated response to a rhetoric of intentionality in circulation in queer communities that’s aimed at justifying one’s own gendered practices as chosen, and therefore, revisionist.
It sounds something like this: &quot;because I choose my gendered practices, I free them from their injurious potential.&quot; I think this rhetoric of intentionality is a bad strain, a weakened version of the theory of gender performativity advanced most influentially by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble.
First published in 1990, Gender Trouble rearranged the map of feminist inquiry by extending the insights of psychoanalysis, Derridean performativity, Foucaultian power relations to the formation of the gendered subject. Gender performativity was widely circulated (and circulates still) as a theoretical tool for fundamentally decoupling gender (masculinity, femininity, and more) from &quot;biological&quot; sex. But, the argument laid out in Gender Trouble more strictly speaking is not that gender and sex are distinct and discrete, but more like the opposite: that sex is always already gender, i.e. that the matrix of gender is a filter through which sexual biology (and lots more) is passed, and which filtering renders some constellations of sex, gender, and sexuality intelligible, and others not.
Here’s an older cover of Gender Trouble I found on Google Image search. It seems instructive to note the changes. The cover image remained the same, but the new version excludes the older surrounding context. The old version has a frame, the ticker up the left side reading “thinking gender,” repeated again and again. Notice the way the size and position of &quot;Gender Trouble&quot; and &quot;Judith Butler&quot; get inverted; the new version perhaps privileging again the author, the subject, and shrinking the title. And perhaps most importantly the subtitle, which disappears: “Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” Maybe if that subtitle had persisted there’d be no question about “queer” identity politics bearing any subsequent fruit.
In my project, I want to counter the rhetoric of intentionality, the belief that force of will can change gender from a matrix of intelligibility that always, for its very existence, excludes what it renders queer—the belief that force of will can change that into an agentive act of good political conscience. That is not what Butler argued, nor what Gender Trouble gives us to think. Look what Butler wrote in the preface to the 1990 edition:
“To make trouble was, in the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.” I like to think of this “first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power” dawning on a tiny Judith Butler, in her childhood. Gender Trouble does not refer to a rebellion that launches a revolution; a clean snap of liberation from gender’s matrix of intelligibility. “The rebellion and its reprimand” are “caught in the same terms.” I title this presentation “between masculinity and misogyny” to suggest that perhaps these are not the same terms, at least, not simply self- identical—but the space of their differentiation doesn’t belong simply to a will and a way. It belongs to the radical structural division at the heart of every gendering mark, a non-identity Derrida calls “iterability” and which makes repetition possible. I&apos;ll argue that only the repetition of the mark, the repetition of gender, makes it possible to repeat-with-a-difference: to revise; but also that each revision entails a repetition.
[SLOW] To trace the way this iterability of gender butchers identity and the rhetoric of intentionality, in fact of subjectivity itself, I turn to a reading through my own butch gender, situated as it must necessarily be between masculinity and misogyny. The butch subject is always already a butchered one: a body that has been through a gendering machine, that has had its physical and psychic excesses sheared off and/or (re)attached, and in whom (that is, on whose body) the conflict between masculinity and the exclusion of its opposite becomes legible. That conflict—between masculinity and misogyny—will afford us the chance to read the characteristic marks of butch gender as capable of narrating subjectivity as such, though they are visible only at the site of contest: the butch(ered) body.
A performative theory of gender must at no expense elide the gendered body of the butch that speaks it (or rather, that it speaks through). So I must commit to a sometimes intimate and highly disclosive examination of evidence drawn from my own lived experience, the goal of which is to re-member the body (the meat) that may otherwise seem absent from the scholarly talk and text. In her 1999 Preface to Gender Trouble Butler insists, &quot;there is a person here… there is someone here,&quot; (xvii) yet she also reserves a problematic: &quot;that this someone is given in language.&quot; While gender inscribes itself in the material of human flesh, gender is also inscribed through its materialization in that flesh, and this might mean that there is no discourse of gender apart from (always already) gendered meat.
About two years ago, I saw this poster circulating on the internet. It reads: “Feminine is not anti-feminist! Challenge internalized misogyny!” I don’t know who made this or to what incident it responds. I know I agree with the first claim it makes—that feminism is not incompatible with the feminine gender—and when you put it that way, it frankly gives pause. To look at this poster, you’d think there was a rash of feminist anti-femininity going around.
Maybe in a sense there is, but hold that thought in your mind while you consider the second claim. A feminist anti-femininity gets aligned here with internalized misogyny. Anti-femininity is misogyny, the poster argues, but it makes the even stronger claim (though it makes it more subtley) that this misogyny is internalized by feminists. So if feminists have internalized misogyny, are they self-hating women? Self-hating people of feminine gender? What I&apos;m concerned about and what I&apos;m after here is the tendency to stabilize the subject of feminism as a woman, whose femininity is on the line.
Biddy Martin has advanced a version of the same critique that the internet poster offers; she has argued that butch gender accrues privilege as a politically “radical” gender because of its cross-identification. Judith (Jack) Halberstam replied to Martin’s critique, arguing that “[Martin] assumes that conformity is &apos;bad&apos; and &apos;transgression&apos; is good. It is surely only within an academic discussion” “that conformity and transgression can be so thoroughly uprooted from daily experience. While academics may celebrate transgression, the experience of transgression itself is often filled with fear, danger and shame rather than heroic self-satisfaction.” Halberstam’s underscoring of the danger and shame that attend gender transgression remind us of the affective and in fact bodily tools with which gender inscribes itself. 13 years after this publication Halberstam provokes the question of the subject of feminism so pointedly: &quot;If we refuse to become women, we might ask, what happens to feminism?&quot; (126)
For some, butch gender marks a site where the refusal to become women is celebrated, and hard fought. Precisely the transgression of one&apos;s normative gender (that is, femininity in women) makes butchness hypervisible. Halberstam’s perhaps most widely received text, Female Masculinity, attests to a wide range of masculinities so inscribed in female bodies. The question I want to provoke is how gender stabilizes the body bearing female masculinity as female at all. It would seem that femininity should render a body as female, and masculinity, male. Yet in the case of female masculinity, it is the persistence of femininity, its persistent markings, that renders the butch’s body legible as the body of woman. The contradiction in gendering terms gives rise to a crucial insight. Follow this carefully: it is the same gendering that renders masculinity as if it were a polar opposite of femininity that also renders butchness as a transgressive &quot;female&quot; masculinity. Making butchness a transgressive gender, even a failed masculinity, shows masculinity to have always been vulnerable to the incorporation of femininity (for this butch, through the vehicle of a female body). That is to say: masculinity is predicated on the exclusion of its opposite. But this exclusion is never clean and simple; in fact, it produces femininity as the &quot;other&quot; of masculinity. And in this production, masculinity shows its vulnerability, in fact, the impossibility of an air-tight gender border patrol.
Femininity always already haunts the masculine. This femininity, which Derrida might call parasitic, which feeds on the masculinity that purported to exclude it, may be to a butch a kind of betrayal. That is, the gendering marks of my own femininity betray me, sometimes to my danger, sometimes to my shame, sometimes to my privilege. But the legibility of more than one inscription of gender in me is precisely the seam that betrays gender as the matrix of intelligibility it is--and not the self-selected practices of the humanist subject. The misogyny inherent in masculinism, in a sense called out by the internet poster, nevertheless battles the feminism so central to my desire to do masculinity queerly, as a revision. But then it&apos;s always still a repetition.
Still a repetition; never a perfect exclusion. A haunting. A betrayal. Even an insufficiency, and failure. In Halberstam’s recent Queer Art of Failure, she argues that the failure of butch masculinity—a product, I would argue, of the impossible gender incorporations and exclusions on which it relies—is actually a failure common to all masculinity. It gets localized in the figure of the butch so as to contain it and “to make male masculinity seem possible.” “What remains unattainable in the butches’ masculinity, we might say, is what remains unattainable in all masculinity: all ideal masculinity by its very nature is just out of reach, but it is only in the butch, the masculine woman, that we notice its impossibility.” The impossibility is actually part of masculinity, even of gender itself.
But that impossibility, the failure that makes the feminine-hating, woman-hating, self-hating part of my masculinity howl with butch conflict, is also the very possibility of revising out the misogyny, redefining the subject of feminism, and even redefining the subject as such. In the reiteration of gender and its practices, there is room to exploit the structural non-identity of every iterable mark. Butchness is one such exploitation; it exposes the vulnerability of masculinity to its own opposite.
The very possibility of butchness, indeed of gender and of subjectivity as such, comes through that unavoidable swerve that repetition produces even as it tries to elide. To exploit that swerve, to play it up, is to intervene, and revise. It may not be that the subject can control, let alone predict, or even fully understand the effects and consequences of the swerve. But butches bear the danger and pleasure along together, and fold the vulnerability into the very possibility of generosity and protection.
Butch(er)ing Subjectivity: Between Masculinity and Misogyny
by Kendall Joy Gerdes
presented for the Rice University English Symposium
“After Queer, After Humanism”
September 14, 2012
"because I choose my gendered
practices, I free them from their
• Size and order of name and
To make trouble was, in the reigning
discourse of my childhood, something one
should never do precisely because that
would get one in trouble. The rebellion and
its reprimand seemed to be caught in the
same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise
to my first critical insight into the subtle
ruse of power: the prevailing law
threatened one with trouble, even put one
in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble.
Hence, I concluded that trouble is
inevitable and the task, how best to make
it, what best way to be in it.
– Judith Butler, 1990 Preface to Gender Trouble
St. Judy, from the “International Discourse Theorist
[Martin] assumes that conformity
is 'bad' and 'transgression' is
good. It is surely only within an
academic discussion, however,
that conformity and transgression
can be so thoroughly uprooted
from daily experience. While
academics may celebrate
transgression, the experience of
transgression itself is often filled
with fear, danger and shame
rather than heroic selfsatisfaction.
-- J. Halberstam, “Between
• Gendering renders
• Butchness is rendered as
• Masculinity is vulnerable to
the opposite it excludes
What remains unattainable in the
butches’ masculinity, we might
say, is what remains unattainable
in all masculinity: all ideal
masculinity by its very nature is
just out of reach, but it is only in
the butch, the masculine woman,
that we notice its impossibility…
The failure of ideal masculinity …
must be located in the butch in
order to make male masculinity
• Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990. New York, NY:
Routledge, 1999. Print.
• Halberstam, J. "Between Butches." butch/femme:
Inside Lesbian Gender. Ed. Sally R. Munt.
Washington, DC: Cassell, 1998. 57-65. Print.
• Halberstam, J. Female Masculinity.
• Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure.
• Martin, Biddy. "Sexualities Without Genders and
Other Queer Utopias." Diacritics 24.2-3 (1994): 104121. Print.