Hell if I know. Read a bit of Judith Butler re: part of getting better with gender history and body history, want to get into questions of disabled bodies, acceptable/unacceptable bodies.

Butler seems to have two points in the selection I read (“Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Suberversions” in Gender Trouble). One is to argue that the interesting things about bodies, politically speaking, are historical in nature rather than innate. The other is to argue against a notion of bodies existing outside cultural contexts. The first point is eminently sensible. The second seems wrongheaded. The first point is also found, though in a different vocabulary, in a lot of other and earlier feminist writing. That is, this point does not require Butler’s particular theoretical ensemble.

Butler asks “is there a political shape to “women”, as it were, that precedes and prefigures the political elaboration of their interests and epistemic point of view?” (128.) “Is “the body” or “the sexed body” the firm foundation on which systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is “the body” itself shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex?” (129.) Butler’s answers to these three questions are, in order, No, No, and Yes.

Butler argues that “[t]he sex/gender distinction and the category of sex itself appear to presuppose a generalization of “the body” the preexists the acquisition of its sexed significance. This “body” often appears to be a passive medium that is signified by an inscription from a cultural source figured as “external” to that body. Any theory of the culturally constructed body, however, ought to question “the body” as a construct of suspect generality when it is figured as passive and prior to discourse.” (129.) Do not “understand “the body” as so much inert matter, signifying nothing,” Butler urges the reader. Thus when Butler rights that “the contours of the body [are] clearly marked as the taken-for-granted ground or surface upon which gender significations are inscribed, a mere facticity devoid of value, prior to significance” (129) Butler’s move is not to contest the devaluing of the body as part of devaluing that which signifies but rather to say that the body is of signification and thus valuable.

Butler’s implied notion of “inert” and of unimportant is that which does not signify. What matters, what is significant, is that which signifies. Why this should be so is beyond me. It seems to me that the implied conceptual moves here are as follows: for something to matter, that something must signify. That which does not signify is insignificant, it does not matter. This means that either matter which does not signify does not matter, or that all matter signifies. I see no reason to accept either point.

Furthermore, Butler suggests via a passing reference to a short story by Kafka that in talking about “a body prior to that inscription” we are talking about a “stable and self-identical body.” The implication here is that in “maintaining a body prior to its culture inscription,” which means “to assume a materiality prior to signification and form,” that one imagines one entity called The Body, a homogeneous and self-identical materiality. (130.) I don’t see why this should be so and Butler presents no argument. I don’t see any reason why holding something to be pre-discursive must mean holding that something to be self-identical.

Now, it may be that in the work Butler has in mind to criticize that we have a notion of bodies as insignificant or unimportant, not signifying, stable, and self-identical, but it is not the case that these things imply one another. These four qualities are logically independent. Butler juxtaposes them, rather than establishing a relationship to them.

I think Butler presumes (rightly) that that which is discursive is at least theoretically revisable, subject to modification through collective activity. This is how the assertion “X is discursive” can be considered a liberatory gesture: showing X to be constructed underscores that X might be made otherwise. There are two issues here. On the one hand, if the issue is really about revisability, then why not argue simply “X is revisable” rather than “X is discursive”? Second, it seems to me that there are important aspects of corporeal existence which are not discursive and not revisable through cultural means. For example, try as I might, I am unable to stop my hair loss. Now, the discursive construction of hair loss as lamentable may well be changed – though I don’t know how I could contribute to this – but that’s another matter. Hair loss aside, my bad joints – the often aching knees for which I sometimes wear a knee brace, the more recent occasionally aching ankle (and recently now when I’m climbing too often my knuckles and sometimes my shoulder) – are not subject to discursive revision. They just hurt. My sensibility about pain might be changed or perhaps medical intervention is possible, though I’m not sure about either, really. These pains strike me as insufficiently grasped by reference to the body as constructed discursively. That is to say, I find it insufficient to say that “the body is not a being” but instead “a signifying practice within a cultural field.” (139.) The body is the latter, but not only the latter, and is still a being. There are important aspects of bodily-ness that don’t seem to make sense otherwise.

None of this is to argue against Butler’s point that political interests are precisely that, political rather than innate, nor against her understanding of gender as contingent and historical. Likewise her take on the sex/gender distinction is reasonable as well: it’s not the case that there is a pre-social inherent set of traits which are sex and sexuality. Rather, sex and sexuality are constructed categories. Though it’s been a very long time since I read Refusing To Be A Man, I remember John Stoltenberg arguing against the sex/gender distinction by invoking a wide variety of corporeal traits that don’t fit into any particular grouping of bodies into just male and female. Actually existing humanity is much more diverse than that. Stoltenberg, however, appealed precisely to what could I think be called a pre-social or pre-discursive body, or set of many differing bodies, supporting what I suggested earlier, that there’s no reason to equate prediscursive with identical.

Now onto some selections from Bodies That Matter.