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Niels Helsloot Niels Helsloot


Niels Helsloot, 'Who are the happy few? Judith Butler's constructive desire'.
Translation by Johan van Es.
Section 2. (pp. 182-185)
© 2004


Gender m/f / ...

Butler's breakthrough to a larger audience came with Gender Trouble, which is a critique on the overwhelmingly heterosexual bias of feminist literary theory. The style of this book is often considered 'difficult', but the topic sounds more sparkling than 'Hegel'. Yet here again the desiring subject is not far away, and once more it does not succeed in guaranteeing its – his or her?! – identity. What is beautiful, and at the same time debatable, about Gender Trouble is that it concentrates this problem on a concrete societal exclusion, the exclusion of everyone not at ease within the rigid division between man and woman. For traditional forms of feminism it is objectionable to call this normative distinction into question. [*] After all, it lies at the bottom of every hope for emancipation of 'women' in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. After all, feminism's aim was to obtain for women, like men, the status of subjects. It is precisely this ideal of identity that is a matter of contention to Butler. To her the division itself appears to be absolutist and therefore a repressive representation, which for example disqualifies homosexuals, intersexuals and transsexuals, and removes class and ethnic differences to the background. This critique affects equally those who defend a biological sexual difference and those who see gender as a societal given. There is no fundamental difference: both dichotomies are equally constructions (cf. Laqueur 1990). It matters just as little whether you follow Simone de Beauvoir with the proposition that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one within the ruling male order, or follow Luce Irigaray in her belief in an independent female many-sidedness which is not reducible to a rectilinear male subject. Butler accounts for the compulsiveness of all such dichotomies by referring to language (discourse) and this approach allows her to try and find a way out.
   At this point Butler links up with post-structuralism. [**] Broadly speaking, she seems to sympathise more with Foucault's historical analysis of power than with Lacan's psychoanalysis. Lacan proceeds from the taboo on incest as a universal norm which incorporates speakers of both sexes into the cultural order of language. Cultural comprehensibility requires a series of shifts of desire: desire for the mother (in girls) is replaced by desire for the father, and this, again, by desiring a husband from outside the family; in its turn, an extra step could conceal this desire for a man by desire for a woman. Thus, implicitly the taboo on incest is accompanied by a taboo on homosexuality. Through the compulsory displacements of desire, all speech unconsciously gives expression to an original pleasure which has been irreplaceably lost. Normality is only achieved by masking this loss. As opposed to the assumption of a universal law, Foucault posits that linguistic and cultural norms are not just repressive. Their power does not only impose forms of sexuality by forbidding others, but at the same time brings forth, in an uncontrolled manner, substituting desires and identities. Besides being repressive, power is productive as well. It is exactly the existence of the norm which results in forms of expression, 'masquerades', which exceed the bounds of the norm.
   Butler elaborates this point of view in a way which offers hope for politically subversive masquerades. The observation that sexual identity itself is a mask implies that the repressive sides of this construction can be disturbed by constructions of identity which exploit the masquerade creatively. In an exemplary manner, this happens through travesty, or cross-dressing. Because every break with the past remains related to that past in some way, it is impossible to replace the whole heterosexual system in one go by a cultural system within which many sexes and forms of sexuality could co-exist. Rather, cross-dressing enlarges the possibilities by conforming to the traditional norm, be it in a parodying manner, which makes terms such as 'man' and 'woman' more widely applicable. Butch and femme identities also undermine the self-evident nature of the traditional gender distinction precisely by copying it as it were in a lesbian setting. By deploying existing powers in a novel manner, the self-evident nature of repressive categories lapses, as a result of which they may gradually lose their repressive power. The disappearance of Hegel's – traditionally masculine – subject leaves behind an openness which cannot be closed by a feminine subject just like that, but which offers opportunities precisely because of its openness.

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   *   In particular Nussbaum (1999) expresses her aversion to Butler's undermining of the female subject, in a manner that is enlightening precisely because of its caricatured incomprehension.
**She resumes the post-structuralist urge against imposed identifications without its initially too static representation of dominant discourse, cf. Helsloot 1984.

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