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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 3. (pp. 185-188)
© 2004


The body as an act

The political aims of Gender Trouble are continued and elaborated upon in Butler's following book, Bodies that Matter. Gender Trouble evoked the question of what is left of the materiality of the body if bodies are regarded as constructions. This question arose in an elevated manner in that Butler in the final pages of Gender Trouble defined feminity as the effect of 'performative' speech acts. This raised suspicions that she would reduce everything to language, and would neglect the fact that the body is a material 'fact'. In Bodies that Matter Butler tries to remove this impression by rethinking the concept of construction, in conjunction with the concept of performative. The latter concept derives from John Austin, but Butler understands it especially through Derrida's deconstructive reading of Austin. Austin (1976) deployed the term performative to indicate linguistic utterances used to perform acts that go beyond just 'saying something'. Examples include: 'Hereby I delare the meeting open', 'I warn you', or less explicit: 'I do' (in the sense of: I take this man to my lawfully wedded husband). By saying something you do something in such cases.
   Even though this deed is performed using language, its effect is still a 'fact'. For Austin marrying, for example, is not merely a linguistic utterance. There are all kinds of conditions which the speaker and the circumstances must meet to ensure success for such an act. Austin lists these conditions. For example, the right person should follow, under the right circumstances and with serious intentions, the right conventional procedure. Derrida (1972) however demonstrates that such conditions can never be fully determined. One could say that, when resuming the norms and conventions that regulate comprehensibility, a repeatable scheme is cited (compare this to placing a signature, which is also a performative act). But, as Derrida contends, repetition always includes a certain room for deviation. Cross-dressing demonstrates how important precisely the materiality of the body is to such repetition.
   The openness through repetition indicated by Derrida is a central theme in Butler's work, which she traces back to Hegel ultimately (Butler, Laclau and Žižek 2000: 26, 172-175). In line with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austin's predecessor mentioned only in passing by Butler, one could posit that repeated application of a rule does not imply any fixed criterion for the manner in which the rule should be applied under new circumstances (cf. Kripke 1982, Helsloot 1990). Foucault's idea that power not only oppresses but also produces new forms of power, agrees with this position as well. Applied to Butler's problem, these different formulations suggest that interpretations of sex and sexuality excluded by the heterosexual norm could find acceptance exactly by joining the norm. Cross-dressing undermines precisely because of its imitation of existing gender roles.
   Butler now asks herself how this happens. How does subversive repetition occur? She demonstrates this by means of diverging sample cases in which attempts to attribute to bodies an unambiguous sex evoke forces stretching the bounds of cultural comprehensibility. For example, exactly because something is excluded, its effects may be erotic. To be sure, we are not concerned here with free choices of fully conscious subjects. Generally speaking, the materiality of the body as 'hard fact' cannot just be denied; rather, confirming one's own (or someone else's) sexuality requires continuous repetition, under concrete conditions, of acts which again and again turn it into a 'hard fact'. Every concept has a history, and there is no actual experience of one's sex lying at the base of historical constructions of sex without being historical itself. [*] Even the material body has a history, and each time an actual body is used as a sign of a specific sexual identity, this history is continued, sometimes in a direction that has not been anticipated.

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   *   In reaction to Butler, Halsema (2000) appeals to bodily experiences that are independent of constructions. She considers such experiences as anchors for change whereas, in fact, such anchors suffocate the openness by absorbing it into a private domain that cannot be shared. Not everything can be put into words, but this precisely does not mean that we already know where to get the words from!

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