Undoing and Redoing gender: theory, criticism and politics


The overwhelming interest provoked by the visit of the North American philosopher –more than a thousand people came to the three conferences she gave at the university– not only confirmed her status as one of the most influential thinkers of recent decades, but also revealed how the networks of political-feminist connections have managed to generate a proximity despite the distances between the two latitudinal extremes. In this text the culture critic Nelly Richard, who held a conversation with Butler during the Palabras Públicas (“Public Words”) discussion, analyses the importance of what is today “the theory of precarious lives and vulnerable bodies, of people who suffer and communities that are stigmatized”. 

By Nelly Richard
Photos: Felipe PoGa

Judith Butler is, in the sense of Walter Benjamin, a thinker of “cultural translation”. In several texts she refers to translation to highlight how when something expressed is shifted to a different context it suffers loss (words from an original are distorted when they move from one language to another), but also undergoes a transformative change, as the transfer between languages supposes a “movement and renovation” of meaning. This applies to words that are displaced from language to language when the translation is idiomatic. It also applies to theories that move from their original formulation –generally validated by a metropolitan seal of cultural authority– to contexts of local reception that transform them critically depending on their own dynamics of meaning. Translation –not only as a linguistic mediation but also a process of cultural re-signification of theories– ensures that the debate of ideas that Butler’s work stimulates, intersecting north and south, contemplates the dissonance of what is expressed, the asymmetry of context and the discrepancy between times as creative resources of otherness.

Judith Butler declares herself convinced that theory “opens possibilities” that become successful only when “it leaves the context in which it was created in order to enter another context and become something different”. Perhaps it is because of her questioning of an Original superior truth and her inclination towards deviations via the peripheral that something happened during her recent trip to Chile, as told to Faride Zerán, Vice-Rector of the Center of Outreach and Communication at the Universidad de Chile on the same day that the university was awarding Butler the Honoris Causa. Zerán received the following message: “The event was taking place as I was on the bus between La Serena and Coquimbo, so I was listening to Judith on my phone via internet. A group of kids were also listening to the discussion on loudspeaker on a phone and one of them shouted to the driver “Hey, can you turn the radio off?” and he did. So the whole bus was listening, and at the end, when she was awarded the Honoris, everyone started clapping. On a bus between La Serena and Coquimbo. The whole bus celebrating the Honoris… Amazing”.

There’s no logical explanation for the strangeness of this story. We can only imagine that the “amazingness” of this remote and surprising “cultural translation” is due to how the networks of political-feminist connections, bridging the gap between extreme latitudes, was able to generate proximity between bodies that felt equally motivated by the same consciousness of what urgently needs to be achieved in terms of rights and identities.

The “ideology of gender” versus “critical theory”

I like to quote the following phrase from Judith Butler: “There is a new venue for theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet, where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.” To write about “impure theory” is, first and foremost, to write about a theory that doesn’t consider itself self-sufficient, but recognizes that it depends on a series of external factors (other disciplines, other ways of knowing and doing, other communities, other embodiments and materials) to transit through zones of contact and friction that test its limits and conditions. Butler accepts the insufficiencies of theory which, far from seeking refuge in purity and the infallibility of method as academicism claims to, embraces contact with the heterogeneous forms of the current process that modify the content of texts according to the circumstances of their use. 

Judith Butler. Photo: Felipe PoGa

This understanding of theory –as impurity and uncertainty– obviously has an effect on the very definitions of “university” that Judith Butler projects, from critical theory and its commitment to a transformative future for the humanities: a university whose inner working (rituals of teaching, hierarchies and classification of knowledge, organization of disciplines etc.) is challenged by an exterior world made up of the struggles and rebellions of bodies and identities revolving around the incomplete meanings of democracy.

For Butler, theory formulates itself as a located exercise in analysis and understanding that takes thinking to dialogue with action in order to extract from it strength and energy, in the midst of social unrest. 

Butler has insisted that “Feminist theory is never fully distinct from feminism as a social movement. Feminist theory would have no content were there no movement, and the movement, in its various directions and forms, has always been involved in the act of theory. Theory is an activity that does not remain restricted to the academy. It takes place every time a possibility is imagined, a collective self reflection takes place, a dispute over values, priorities and language emerges”. 

Outside the academicist refuge of pure philosophical abstraction, Butler’s practical theory helps feminism multiply its axes of understanding in terms of how the dominant sexual-gender system works –symbolically and materially– in culture and society; rebuilding and debating the worldviews that this system imposes on public structures and private worlds; and stimulating new “interpretative acts” around sexuality and identity that liberate alternative forms of subjectivity to those imposed by the dominant patriarchy, in association with other socio-political rebellions.

For her detractors (who paradoxically contribute to her fame reaching beyond the narrow –and inoffensive– boundaries of academia, and publicize her name as an international symbol of the dangerous moral and sexual dissolution that feminism represents today), Judith Butler is the author of a Machiavellian “gender ideology” that stands accused of perverting the sexual naturalism of original bodies divided by the fixed separation of the masculine and the feminine, as well as of corrupting the sacred nucleus of the family as an entity for procreation. 

But what her enemies don’t know is that Butler is much more dangerous to them as what she really is: not the author of a “gender ideology” (false consciousness, manipulation and indoctrination), but quite the opposite: a thinker whose “critical theory” denaturalizes the moral, religious and cultural foundations of the dominant sexual ideology called “patriarchy”. This is an ideology that never refers to itself in this way, but prefers to disguise its doctrinal apparatus as a “value-based agenda” that projects across society its metaphysical beliefs in a universal essence of the maternal-feminine.

As one of the best known exponents of “critical theory” in contemporary philosophy, the author of Gender Trouble (1990) practices a criticism of gender ideology that helps explain how what conservatism disguises as “sexual nature” is made up of constructions of meaning that invisibly tie bodies, powers and representations to masculine systems of interest and domination.

The queer effect

Queer currents –inspired by Judith Butler’s work– criticize feminism for regulating the term “gender”, considering that feminism is responsible for reaffirming the masculine-feminine binarism of the heterosexual structure that excludes “sexual dissidence” (gays, lesbian, trans, inter, etc.) through its normalizing cut-off point. These queer currents have been useful for feminism because they have forced it to introduce the multiplicity of difference into its masculine-feminine arrangement of gender, de-essentializing, as a by-product, the reference “women” as the homogenous and complete subject of the feminist program. The theories of the North American philosopher have critically destabilized the normative discourse of gender, inviting feminism to include discordant sexualities into its anti-patriarchal reformulation of subordinated identities.

Throughout her work Judith Butler has always insisted that “My view is that no simple definition of gender will suffice, and that more important than coming up with a strict and applicable definition is the ability to track the travels of the term through public culture. The term “gender” has become a site of contest for various interests,” as she writes in Undoing Gender (2012). She is aware of the ambivalence and contradictions that divide categories, with a constant coming-and-going that makes one revise one’s own thinking, so this quotation impels us to ask the following: in the face of the advancing extreme right-wing that claims feminism as a primary enemy in its campaigns against “gender ideology”, isn’t it worth defending the theoretical conquests that represent for feminism the conceptualization of the term “gender” (even though queer theories treat them with suspicion), mobilizing the tactical uses of this term with greater precision than ever to counterattack the neo-conservatism that aims to destroy its critical potential?

As Butler comments, gender has become the primary disputed signifier in the confrontation of interests between the extreme right-wing, neoliberalism, feminism and the left-wing. While feminism mustn’t neglect the provocation and the lessons of the queer, it doesn’t seem like a good moment to abandon the category (“gender”) when faced with the neo-conservative offensive that seeks to re-naturalize the bodies and the family in an anti-feminist structure. Butler, ever vigilant, suggests that we should wholeheartedly apply our critical intelligence to a struggle against “all forms of political de-activation of feminism” while still asking ourselves, self-critically, “a term like feminism… how it plays, what investments it bears, what aims it achieves, what alterations it undergoes”.

The limits of identitarian feminism

Her adversaries try to pigeon-hole Judith Butler in the category of queer extravagance, only interested in the transsexual fantasies of minority groups whose individualist voluntarism only dreams of constantly changing identity, sex and gender. Butler knows better than anyone that the real world doesn’t magically become a theatre of performance. She has often recognized that the materiality (the physical, political, economic and social) of bodies subjects them to endless limitations and restriction. Butler is the theorist of precarious existences and vulnerable bodies, of suffering lives and stigmatized communities. Which is why she is notable for her intellectual courage and political commitment to the individuals and groups mistreated by war, by the mechanisms of economic and social exploitation and oppression, the lack of rights allowed those considered inferior by the differential and selective violence of a neoliberal system that expels them as waste (the poor, immigrants). Judith Butler has amplified the feminist focus to include multiple and complex structures of inequality and subordination that do not only function through gender-sexuality. She asks feminism to turn away from the identitarian self-referential posture “we, the women” as a separate group, in order to intertwine gender with other dynamics of identity and individual positions (class, race, age) that intervene in the configuration of the individual and collective subjectivity.

In the book Judith Butler en disputa (2012) the philosopher states: “I don’t think that a phrase beginning with ‘I’m a feminist’ or ‘I’m a queer feminist’ is enough to construct a policy… given that the coalitions needed to fight against injustice have to cross the categories of identity… Nor do I believe that strong alliances are a mere collection of identities, or that identities on their own can guide us towards issues of sexual justice, economic equality, anti-war protests, and contemporary struggles against the precariousness and privatization of public education”. Starting from the basis that identities are not absolute but relative, transitive and contingent, Butler has insisted that “to be a feminist” cannot mean adopting a closed-off form of pure, demarcated identity. The feminist agency must connect identities that don’t assume they are predetermined, identities that aren’t fixed but are mobile, variable and in construction. Inviting groups and individuals to join the feminist project implies that feminism must show itself capable of formulating projects for society which are desirable –not intimidating– for those (including dissatisfied men) committed on other fronts of the war. Butler stated in an interview “the road to defeating a political movement that is based in hatred, without a doubt, cannot reproduce that hatred. We have to continue finding ways of opposing that do not reproduce the violence of those we are faced with… We must find a way of incorporating into our practices the rejection of the normalization and intensification of violence in this world”.

In her unequalled book Traces of War: When is Life Grievable (2010), Judith Butler analyses the function of the “frame” which consists both of showing a scene and giving it visibility (that which is within and allows itself to be framed) as well as rendering invisible the combination of norms and criteria that control the scene, relegated to the outside of the frame of representation. It could be argued that the author uses feminism to interrupt, remove or fracture those “frames” of language and meaning that make up the dominant world views (patriarchal, colonial, imperialist, fascist), revealing their devices of power and oppression through what they hide as a subtext “outside the frame”.

Judith Butler. Photo: Felipe PoGa

Immediately after her visit to Chile Judith Butler participated in an international conference Memory at the Crossroads of Political Present: The Question of Justice that took place at the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti, in Buenos Aires. In front of a huge audience, Eduardo Jozami, Butler and Estela de Carlotto took part in the closing round-table event, after the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo had announced the identification and rescuing of the 129th grand-daughter stolen during the dictatorship. Butler, clearly moved by the solemnity of the occasion, put aside the “frame” of feminism (she didn’t speak about feminism although she spoke “as a feminist” against the criminal alliance of the patriarchy and neoliberalism) so that the “frame” of human rights could stage, with absolute seriousness, its demands for truth, justice and reparation in cruel and indifferent times that affect Argentina and other countries, which is to say, when it is necessary to raise an ethical refuge against an erasure of the past and the neoliberal conformation of a time without historicity or morality.  

The embrace of Estela de Carlotto, representing the NUNCA MÁS movement, and Judith Butler expressing north-south solidarity (as Luis Ignacio García, who participated in the conference from Córdoba, put it), with the NI UNA MENOS movement, it was a moving example of how feminism raises “the challenge of our times of different strands of the left questioning and impacting on each other”. Like the critical intellectuality of Judith Butler –from political philosophy, feminist theory, the humanities, and social activism– it acts to displace, insert and rotate successive “frames of appearance” so that the relation between the connection and the judgement is made visible, to quote Traces of War, as an “ethical and political practice”.

“Butler projects a definition of a “university” whose inner working (rituals of teaching, hierarchies of knowledge) is challenged by an exterior world made up of the struggles and rebellions revolving around the incomplete meanings of democracy.

Her enemies don’t know that Butler is much more dangerous as what she really is: not the author of a “gender ideology”, but quite the opposite, a thinker whose “critical theory” denaturalizes the moral, religious and cultural foundations of the dominant sexual ideology called “patriarchy”.

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