Performativity and Marginalization

An SF bridge at night

An SF bridge at night

It’s been just over a week since I got home from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in San Francisco and I am well on the road to recovery from the plague that everyone caught. The trip was worth a feverish cold. I had a blast catching up with colleagues, meeting new people, hearing new ideas and fresh interpretations, and trying out my own (more about that in my next post). The fabulous Laurie Stras and I stayed in a hotel a short walk from the main venue, and passed by the Occupy San Francisco encampment at least twice a day. Friday night was a special treat, as I actually escaped from the small circuit between hotel and conference centre. The LGBT Study Group held an evening session in the Castro District—the area where Harvey Milk lived and worked and agitated—and Rachel Cowgill and I lucked out bumping into Byron Adams who not only knows the area well but also took us for an impromptu tour with sad stories, affectionate stories, and hilarious asides. The walk worked up an appetite which we satisfied with delicious fried egg sandwiches in a diner that had been there since Harvey Milk’s time.

The session was “Trans/gendering the Voice: Julia Serano in Conversation with Stephan Pennington”, and it was really stimulating. I am already rethinking the way I will teach the construction of gender on my return to the classroom. Many feminists will challenge gender dimorphism (the concept that there are only two genders and they have distinct body shapes) and gender essentialism (the idea that we are the way we are because of our body/sex—males are masculine, females are feminine, and we have no option but to behave the way we do) by raising examples of people who are intersex or transgender, but Serano pointed out that it’s dehumanizing to always/only be the exception that proves the rule. (I don’t remember if Serano mentioned this, but it’s often tokenistic, too, since people who are intersex and/or transgender are mentioned in that one class to make the basic point and then might be forgotten about for the rest of the course.) And it is basically lazy, since people who are cis-gender (that is, not transgender) are just as socially, culturally, medically, physically constructed. That point I am definitely taking on board.

Serano had a really interesting take on the slogan version of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Serano noted that the whole book often gets reduced to ‘gender is performance’, which then implies that gender is something one can put on and take off. Serano went on to note that she is the same person inside now that she was before she transitioned and thus Serano queried the idea that there is no core identity. I can see this problem: the over-simplified slogan can lead to the idea that gender is as straightforward as getting dressed in the morning. Performativity is different from performance. It is through performativity, through daily interaction with our gendered society, daily repetition of certain behaviours (which might include behaviors that flout social convention), that the very subject—my self, a thinking, feeling, acting agent, which I think is what Serano meant by core identity—comes into being. What’s more, according to Butler, we continue to come into being on a daily basis because we are never fixed. Not one of us stays the same through our entire lives, although the changes may be tiny and barely noticeable on a day to day scale. Our social system and our culture don’t remain static either, even if the changes are miniscule evolutions rather than revolutions. (Although sometimes there are revolutionary changes—civil rights, and the political-legal-social-cultural recognition of same sex unions, to take just two examples.) So, I need to do more thinking about this. I’m not quite ready to ditch performativity in the way I understood Butler to mean it. I will keep chewing this one over, though.

Alas, I didn’t manage to catch the whole session—not just because of the fried egg sandwich, there was also a long wait for transport down to Castro—but other snippets that came up after I arrived included the continuity of the voice—which ties in nicely with Serano’s core identity—and Pennington’s discussion of steps he takes to be perceived as non-threatening, such as wearing a bow tie, and stepping off the sidewalk when passing a woman he thinks might feel threatened by his presence. I was talking to a friend about that last one and it turns out he does it too and hadn’t even realized he did it. (Incidentally, that’s an example of gender performativity in the Butlerian sense—regular repetition of a gesture without necessarily knowing one does it at all.) I found myself wondering whether any other axes of difference intersect with that gendered action.

So, all in all, a very productive session which I’m clearly going to be thinking about for a long time yet. Thanks so much, Julia Serano and Stephan Pennington!

8 thoughts on “Performativity and Marginalization

  1. What great comments, thanks for the review! Sorry we didn’t get to talk and talk and talk after the presentation!

    About the actual Butlerian performativity (vs. the slogan people have boiled it down to in order to find something liberatory in it)–the problem a lot of folks I know have with it (especially trans people)–is that if performativity works the way she describes it, if we are gendered by society the moment we are born (before even)…if who we are is only constructed by the compulsory construction of society’s repetition…if there is no there there…then their can be no transexuals–who ultimately insist that there is a core self that is not the one that society gendered us as from birth and continuously thereafter.

    Transexual experiences are nullified and invalidated by Butler’s core insistence that no identity exists behind the acts that purport to express gender, and that these acts are only the illusion of the stable gender identity. The transexual (as opposed to the genderfucker) insists that there is indeed a stable gender identity that is different than gender expression. That one can perform a gender and be gendered in one way, but nonetheless know that is a different core body ego/subconscious sex/gender identity underneath.

    Butler makes transexual people delusional and asserts her cissexual experience over the experienced of a very marginalized group. Well, and then the other problem is that Butler does some really irresponsible things with trans people’s lives in Bodies the Matter/Gender Trouble. If you haven’t read Jay Prosser’s Second Skins–you really should! There is an increasing body of gender/queer theory by trans people that you might find interesting. Or not!

    • Stephan, Thanks so much for taking the time to outline the critique in more detail. I’ll certainly read Second Skins and the other book you mentioned via Twitter. I’ll get that Facebook reading group up and running just as soon as I’m over our move this week.

  2. Really interesting to hear of the US AMS take on Judith Butler. I’ve just bought a copy of Freya Jarman-Iven’s book Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities and the Musical Flaw (Palgrave Macmillan), and by about page 3 my head was full of lots of joy and questions all at once – might be worth a look? I’d recommend it, even though it’s quite pricey for a fairly slim volume (but that’s Palgrave for you…).

    • Hi Lisa, I don’t know the book–sounds intriguing. It’s on the list! And thanks for commenting.

  3. I found that reading Butler in conjunction with Anthony Giddens was surprisingly fruitful (despite the apparently very different worlds). In Modernity and Self-Identity, Giddens talks a lot about the role of internal autobiography in maintaining this sense of stable core. So there is continuity, but it’s a continuity actively maintained by the subject, rather than an inherent essence. The notion of ‘lifestyle sectors’ was also useful: one has access to somewhat different sets of performative options in different social groups.

    (And thanks to Laurie Stras for leading me over here!)

    • That sounds like a useful approach; thanks for sharing it. Have you published your thoughts? I could read your work as well as the Giddens.

  4. Hi! To qualify my statements on Twitter: Butler’s understanding of performativity is derived from Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context,” which revises JL Austin’s performative utterance. Austin coined the concept as an utterance that not only describes an event but brings it into being through its very utterance, such as his highly contended “marriage example,” where to say “I do (take you to be my lawfully wedded whatever)” is to perform the act of marriage. Austin understands all performative utterances as acts of a ceremonial nature, where the utterance becomes an act because it is used ceremoniously/conventionally. Derrida disagrees and says that these acts are only ceremonial or conventional because they have been cited in this way, i.e. to perform the marriage vow is only performative because it cites acts of the same nature that have come before. Butler uses this notion of citationality in her argument on gender, where to “be” a certain gender is only to be this gender because the “I” performs recognisable gendered acts that pre-exist him/her (have a look at “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” which pre-dates Gender Trouble). Therefore, one is “feminine” only because one is citing “feminine” acts in the very performance of these acts. Furthermore, James Loxley (New Critical Idiom: Performativity) says that Butler also understands gender as performative because the performance of gendered acts bring the “I” into being. I spent the entirety of my first chapter (of my PhD) on bringing together disparate theories of performativity together -you’re more than welcome to read it if you want.

    • I’d certainly like to read your thesis chapter, if I may. I understand Butler to be saying that the violence of our way of doing gender comes from this–that it’s very hard to come into being as anything other than a heterosexual masculine male or a heterosexual feminine female. So, in effect anyone who is ‘being’ or doing in some other way is not legible, not comprehensible to the system. (I don’t have my books with me–they’re in storage in Cork–so I can’t check to find the exact passages I’m thinking of.)

      I don’t remember Butler being very strong on historical change. Perhaps I just skipped those sections. The repertoire of acts there to be cited does change over time, and so I think there are going to be new ways of being culturally intelligible. This is happening with the legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships, for example. (In fact, Lisa told me just a year or two ago that she has already noticed that this has made a difference among her students.) So, it seems that perhaps there is hope for other ways of being too.

Comments are closed.