In “Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex,” Judith Butler attempts to define and examines the most recent explanations of the term “queer”. She is most concerned with the temporality of the term. Butler argues, “When the term has been used as a paralyzing slur, as the mundane interpellation of pathologized sexuality, it has produced the user of the term as the emblem and vehicle of normalization; the occasion of its utterance, as the discursive regulation of the boundaries of sexual legitimacy” (223). Butler explores the connections between discourse and recontextualizing terms like “queer” over time. Using Nietzsche and Foucault, Butler analyzes the epistemology of words and their abilities to change context and meaning. Like Foucault, Butler comments on the relationship between power and discourse and the (potential) injurious effects of both.
Butler also examines Sedgwick’s ideas about queer performativity. She contends that we should consider how speech acts apply to queer practices, and also “how it is that queering persists as a defining moment of performativity” (228). Butler describes performative acts as forms of authoritative speech. There are multiple types of binding power within these acts that also function as discourse. She later discusses the paradoxical position of “I” within discourse. She concludes that recognition “is not conferred on a subject, but forms the subject” (230). The impossibility of ever fully becoming one’s social identity explains the “instability and incompleteness” of subject formation. The power of decentered subjectivity is ambivalent as full recognition of oneself as signified is not really possible.
The writer is responding to an ongoing discussion of the term queer and the epistemological roots of such a term within the context of queer studies, linguistics, and cultural studies. Butler’s primary goal with this analysis is to discuss the relationship between discourse and power through the study of the term “queer.” She relates this discussion to research on subjectivity, sexuality, and how language and social problems are connected.