Judith Butler’s “Critically Queer”
By: Liz Jacoby
Butler starts off by examining the history of the term “queer.” She illustrates how a term which once meant “strange” was turned into a “paralyzing slur” and is now attempted to be “taken back” by academics. Even though the word is seemingly rising from a term once used to insult, she equates the reversal attempt to the highly disputed term “nigger.” She is not only concerned about the temporality of the word but the limits of the term reversal. Language, historically, has been used to oppress and define individuals and cultures. Although she seems hesitant, I believe the first part of Butler’s essay is purely an examination of the social and political implications of the reversal attempt and a potential forecast of future impacts. The future use of the term will be geared against the historicized version which hinders those who persist to use the term negatively because it will be constantly pulled back from those who wish to use it in that manner. It will be a consistent fight against homophobic culture to keep the term from being “redeployed, twisted, or ‘queered’ back to a slur” (228). This allows agency, but also sets the limits of future agency.
Butler is worried about the exclusionary component that labeling entails. “As much as identity terms must be used, as much as ‘outness’ must be affirmed, these same notions must become subject a critique of the exclusionary operations of their own production.” Butler says that identity categories are dangerous because they are undoubtedly exclusionary. There is no way around it. So, is “queer” the term academics really want to use? I think Butler is hesitant because of her traditional stand against labels. She notes, if we “lay claim to ‘woman,’ ‘queer,’ ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ precisely because of the way these terms…lay their claim on us prior to our full knowing” (229). However, she recognizes that some consensus and cohesion must be attained to make any progress- “Identity is a necessary error” (230).
Butler uses drag performance to explain gender as an act of impersonation. She illustrates that drag is a performance of gender through acts, movements, and clothing. However, when spectating we should not assume that the clothing genders the person. It is an impersonation and representation of their gender, something central to their existence. Power, then, acts as discourse if it is linked with performativity. She also says femininity is forced as a citation act– which confuses me terribly. What does she mean by a citation act? I understand that subject formation is necessary for legitimizing the gender norms but the use of the word “citation” eludes me, although I’m sure this is an integral part of her argument. Butler goes on to argue that gender is a choice but it is not something that can be changed on a daily basis. However, she states that we should not use drag as a way to understand homosexuality since many performers are straight.
In reference to the heterosexual matrix that Butler introduces, she says we can use drag to blur the lines of gender norms. “What is performed in drag is of course, the sign of gender, a sign that is not the same as the body that it figures, but that cannot be read without it.” Drag seems to be an “allegorization” of heterosexuality and homophobia is seen as a damaging of the heterosexual matrix. That is, that it deconstructs gender norms. Therefore, sexuality is seemingly “shamed” and regulated through gender. Butler thus concludes that the heterosexual matrix is “imaginary logic and is unmanageable.”
I think her essay can be best summed up in this solitary quote:
“Gender performativity is a matter of constituting who one is on the basis of what one performs.”
1. She ends with an intriguing question: How will we know the difference between the power we promote and the power we oppose (political unknowingness)?
2. Butler seems to think that anyone with the “hope to be able to be fully recognized in the terms by which one signifies is sure to be disappointed.” Do you think this is true?
I hope our discussion yesterday clarified Butler’s notion of “citation” for you — it comes down to her focus on intelligibility, and the ways that we become intelligible to ourselves and others through the structures and laws (not just the legal system but an idea of law influenced by Lacan) that exist around us and prior to us.
(Have you noticed how impossible it is to write about Butler in short or straightforward sentences?)