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modernization theory and dependency theory

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Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler Review by: Mary McIntosh
Feminist Review, No. 38 (Summer, 1991), pp. 113-114
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395391 .
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Reviews

Gender Trouble:
Feminism and the
Subversion of Identity
Judith Butler
Routledge:London 1990
ISBN 0 415 90043 3 Pbk ?8.99
ISBN 0 415 90042 5 Hbk ?30.00

A book that comes with nuggets of
unstinting praise from such names
as Harding, Haraway, Scott and
Spivak printed on its cover is bound
to excite expectations - and perhaps
bound to disappoint them as well.
These writers have found it authoritative, brilliant, innovative, startling, lucid, witty, provocative,engaging, subversive, powerful and constructive. With some reservations about its lucidity, I think I would agree with all of these.

The book is concerned with exploring the ways in which binary gender identities are presumed to
flow from given biological sex and to
require compulsoryheterosexuality.
She takes up the writings of a number of, mainly French, theorists: Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan,
Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva,
Monique Wittig, mobilizing Michel
Foucault's critique of the 'repressive
hypothesis' against the psychoanalytic notion of a polymorphous sexuality 'before'the law of heterosexual civilization.
At the beginning of the book,
Butler has some trenchant comments on the tendency of feminist theory to seek a universal basis for
feminism. 'The notion of a universal
patriarchyhas been widely criticized
in recent years for its failure to
account for the workings of gender
oppression in the concrete cultural
contexts in which it exists ... That

form of feminist theorizing has come
under criticism for its efforts to
colonize and appropriate nonWestern cultures to support highly Western notions of oppression'(p. 3).
On this basis, she questions 'the
political assumption that there must
be a universal basis for feminism,

one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist cross-culturally' (p. 4). Following the ideas of Michel
Foucault, she argues for a feminist
genealogy 'to trace the political operations that produce and conceal what qualifies as the juridical subject of feminism' (p. 5). Yet, in the bulk of her own
analysis of the 'power regimes of
heterosexism and phallogocentrism'
(p. 32), she completely ignores these
strictures on globalizing theory.
'Gendercan denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender and desire, only when sex can be understood in some
sense to necessitate gender - where
gender is a psychic and/or cultural
designation of the self- and desire where desire is heterosexual and therefore
differentiates
itself
through an oppositional relation to
that other gender it desires' (p. 22).
And she says, 'the "unity" gender is
of
the effect of regulatory practice that
seeks to render gender identity
uniform through compulsoryheterosexuality' (p. 31), despite the fact that she is aware that there exist
societies with radically different
regimes of gender and of desire. The
point of Foucault's approach is
surely to give an historical specificity
to what Butler calls 'the compulsory
order of sex/gender/desire', to show
that it is a peculiar feature of our
own societies that sexuality has become 'the truth of our being' and the basis of our identity. Feminists from
the non-Western world have often
made the same point, in very different theoretical terms: that sexuality is not always central to women's
oppression and Western women who
put it top of the agenda are not
speaking for feminism world-wide.
I find Butler's use of the sex/
gender distinction confusing. This
distinction is mainly used in certain
sociological, historical and psychological circles in the English-speaking world; it does not sit well with any of the French work that Butler
engages with. Those writers in the
French tradition who have problem-

113

114

Feminist Review
atized the category of 'woman'have
not used the term gender. What they
have done is to question whether the
biological category 'woman'has any
stable social significance, not to
question the biological category as
such. Those in this French tradition,
like Jacqueline Rose or Jane Gallop
who have written about the 'constructed status of sexual difference' and its contradictions (p. 28), have
not been referring to 'sex' in the
biological sense of the sex/gender
distinction. Indeed, Butler quotes
Foucault as saying 'the notion of
"sex"made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures and it enabled one to make
use of this fictitious unity as a causal
principle, an omnipresent meaning'
(p. 92). It is precisely this fictitious
unity that the sex/gender distinction
was designed to disrupt. If, as Butler
claims, 'the ostensible natural facts
of sex are discursively produced by
various scientific discourses' (p. 7),
what follows is not that sex was
'genderall along'(p. 8), but that both
'sex' and 'gender' are meaningless.
If, on the other hand, you reject
her principled antifoundationalism
(which is merely asserted here) and
define 'sex' as whatever may eventually turn out to be the difference at the basis of sexual reproduction,

then you open up a space for the
critique of gender, including 'the
ostensible natural facts of sex' of
current scientific fumblings. Seeing
the body as merely a discursive construction is not the only way of transcending mind/bodydualism. We are then left with what is, to
me at any rate, a much more interesting substantive issue: in a world where there is a 'compulsoryorderof
sex/gender/desire',what are the subversive possibilities of overt hermaphrodism, from one side, or butch-femme lesbian identities,
from the other? Here Butler offers
some incisive criticisms of Julia
Kristeva, a discussion of Foucault's
comments on the memoires of the
hermaphroditeHerculineBarbin, an
exploration of Monique Wittig's lesbian-feminist strategy. All these solutions, she says, are self-defeating because they presuppose and therefore consolidate the very order they appear to contest. The way forward,

instead, involves recognizing that
gender attributes are performative
rather than expressive. Parodic performances, such as drag and the stylization of butch and femme can
reveal this, and so cause the kind of
gender trouble that Butler wants to
make.
Mary McIntosh

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