Does Judith Butler’s post-structuralist feminism offer a critique of power, identity, or both? Essay Example
Judith Butler’s post-structuralist feminism offers a critique of both power and identity. Post-structural is defined as the relationship between the language, structure and subject as well as the radical understanding of the referent object of what politics means (Finlayson & Valentine, 2002). Judith Butler is a kind of a renaissance lady who mainly focuses on feminist issues, gender, modern philosophy and sexuality studies. She points out that the question regarding what to be left outside the norm leads causes a paradox for thinking. The idea about being quite masculine or feminine is something that should be understood exclusively based on an individual’s relationship to being quite masculine and feminine (Butler 42).
As a post-structuralist philosopher, Butler sees gender as a construct made by the society purposely to control people’s behaviour, and thus the entire distinction between male and female is itself an inclusive social construction. Although Butler has irrevocably changed the way feminist view gender identity, others have accused her of failing to take into consideration the aspect of bodies in her academic journey about issues of identity and language. Based on the relationship between intelligibility and the human, it can be noted that Butler takes this as theoretical urgency in which the human is particularly encountered at the limits of intelligibility. Therefore, this interrogation is more or less connected to justice that is not exclusively concerned with how individuals are treated or societies constituted. Instead, a relationship in which justice also looks at consequential decisions regarding the identity of a person as well as the social norms that have to be respected and expressed for personhood to be identified. Therefore, post-structural feminism not only challenges the structure of patriarchy, but also looks at the social meanings associated with sex as it is essentially political and problematic in nature for human existence (Butler 57-58).
Judith Butler is one of the post-structuaralist feminist theorists who have been at the forefront to problematize the long-held perception about sex and gender issues as well as the relationship between discourse and materiality of body. She does not support modernist notion of the self as autonomous agent who achieves his or her objectives through actions and self-determination. Therefore, she argues that the self lacks inherent structures or natural attributes, and thus ontological intact to reflect about the subject placed in a cultural context. Butler’s view is that besides expressing the necessary truth concerning the human condition, a priori characteristics that define what human means as backgrounds for reason, moral deliberation, and the free will entirely rely on the cultural discourses discussed in the historical time period of modern thinkers. According to Butler, a poststructuralist understanding of the self would make sense because subjectivity is basically constituted through the social and discursive relations of a person’s culture. Generally, the meaning of subjectivity in understanding the poststructuralist theory is the conscious and unconscious views and emotions of a person, the sense of his or her self and the relation to the world. This implies that the subject is constituted to be seen as the consequence of some rules-governed discourses that determine the logical invocation of identity. It is important to note that such discourses involve the linguistic narratives about self and the world as well people’s social practices and their institutional systems. This clearly shows that a person’s sense of the self or own identity is basically constructed and formed by relating to other people in the reigning power-discourse contexts of a given society (Beste 10).
In relating Anglo-American to French post-structuralist feminism, Butler explained the limits existing between their thought and politics, and thus making her Gender Trouble successful. Therefore, Butler relied largely on the Foucault’s work where various form of power the juridical, bio-power and disciplinary power were considered to unveil the basis of Anglo-American feminism’s understanding of power. By supporting Foucault’s critique of what he considered as sovereign or juridical power, Butler explained that the Anglo-American feminism movement was critically concerned with how the state power was exercised to promote its political agenda. The operation of sovereign or juridical power was particularly important in understanding to what extent does a woman becomes the subject of feminism as well as in determining how such social issue could be embedded in disciplinary power and bio-power. However, she argued that sovereign or juridical power failed to recognize the wider political value of women’s issues or promote their equality because its main objective was to sustain its authority rather than enhancing the welfare of its people or subjects. By reflecting on the Gender Trouble, it can be noted that Butler intended to show how disciplinary power helps to form gender subjects. She observed that disciplinary power reminds people about the possibility that they are not exempted from power or its formative force. Similarly, this form of power requires each and every person to reflect on how they become subjects, and thus expected to form a genealogy of subject related to feminism and woman. This means that people should pay attention to the manner in which the aspect of language and power form the subject of feminism (Loizidou 3-4).
The Gender Trouble (1990, 2) provides a general reflection of Judith Butler’s analysis of the subjection. In this massively influential book, she emphasizes in support of Foucault’s view that juridical systems of power result in subjects that represent them, and thus juridical perceptions of power tend to regulate the political life in a more negative way. However, such subjects regulated by the structures of judicial powers are as a result of being subjected, formed and defined based on the requirements of these structures. In this case, Butler points out that feminist critique can rely on this kind of information to understand the position of women as well as how the subject of feminism is perceived and controlled by such structures of power particularly where liberation is needed. In a different study about Bodies that Matter (1993), Butler decided to examine the impact of subjection in wider context to include the bodily content of the subject. According to Butler (34), power operates in the constitution of the materiality of its subject where in principle it forms and regulates the subjection of a subject in a simultaneous manner. This implies that power subjection in Butler’s view is exercised by determining the kind of bodies that matter most whose their lives are considered liveable, while their deaths as grieve.
Research shows that the theory of identity particularly in the USA has been the main subject of feminist debates, a version that has also been articulated dramatically by Judith Butler in her Gender Trouble (1990) and the related works. Despite the critique made against Butler’s approach, her work has greatly influenced feminist discussions of identity where the notion a fixed and essential identity has been replaced with an identity constituted through changing and fluid discursive forces (Hekman 28). It is notable that Butler’s theory has replaced the ideal subject of modernist discourse and the psychoanalytic theory with a discriminated woman as a being constructed by various discourses that constitutes her world. Therefore, the identity proposed by Butler tries to cover the problems associated with the modernist identity of woman where a socially constituted woman rejects this identity by seeing it as a fiction (Spencer 24). In addition, Butler shows that identity politics is a solution to the problems faced by women or feminist politics in the political context because it provides various identities from which women can freely choose. Therefore, it is worthwhile to mention that since her Gender Trouble, feminists who endeavour to analyze the subject of identity should refer to Butler’s theory because it is quite clear that her main objective was to alter feminist notions of identity as well as their practices of identity politics (Hekman p.290-92).
In an article entitled ‘Feminism and the Subversion of Identity’, Judith Butler (1999 p.3) examines women in the context of subjection or as the subject of feminism. She argues that for decades past, the assumption behind the feminist theory has been that some identity exists which is constructed through the category of women seen as initiator of feminist interests and goals in discourse. This means that the position of women constitutes the subject through which the political representation also pursued. Butler notes that in the recent years, the perceived relationship between feminist theory and politics has been challenged through feminist discourse. Furthermore, the juridical notions views of power seems to regulate the political life in an increasingly negative way through limitation and prohibition, protection, regulation and control of people subjected to that particular political structure based on the contingent and retractable approaches of choice. Since the subjects regulated through the political structures are as a result of being subjected to them, defined, formed and generated based on the structural requirements. This means that the juridical formation of both language and politics in which women are represented as the subject of feminism can be taken as a discursive formation or effect of a particular aspect of representational politics. Butler’s view is that the juridical structure that represents the relationship between language and politics focuses more on the contemporary notion of power (Butler 4-8).
As one of the most exciting feminists, Judith Butler supports Foucault’s work as a basis resource for feminists to reason beyond the normal structures of the identity politics. She emphasized that feminists should not only see politics as a fixed idea about the nature and interests women (Butler, 4). Drawing on Foucault’s historical idea of how sexuality is constructed and the role of sex in the construction process (Foucault 4), Butler is among feminists who have managed to rethink gender in a different way not related to its cultural meanings as a pre-given sex but as the cultural means through which a natural sex exists as prior to culture. The fundamental idea here is that natural sex that exists prior to culture and socialization is generally reflected in the production and continued exercising of the gendered power relations. Thus, it makes the regulatory idea about a supposedly natural heterosexuality more natural, rendering the reproductive constraints made on sexuality more strong (Bulter 1990, 7).
Judith Butler perceives the body as being historically and culturally performed materiality or a discursive field through which discourse generates and differentiates what it represents rather than being seen as a natural or universal entity. Therefore, Butler was particularly interested in establishing the various ways in which gender is regulated and understood from a complex process perspective referred to as “reiterative performativity.” In this process, there is a continuous re-signification of the gendered and heterosexual bodies so that they can be seen as normative. It is in Butler’s view that people do not necessarily behave like man because they are human beings, but to grow up as individuals who constantly reinforce their gender to themselves and others. She notes that identity is through performance constituted by its expressional results (Butler 25).
Based on the above discussions, it can be concluded that Judith Butler’s post-structuralist feminism is a general a critique of both power and identity. Post-structural feminism not only challenges the structure of patriarchy, but also takes into account the social meanings associated with sex as it is essentially political and problematic in nature for human existence. It is notable that power operates in the constitution of the materiality of its subject where in principle it forms and regulates the subjection of a subject in a simultaneous manner. Generally, the natural sex that exists prior to culture and socialization is reflected in the production and continued exercising of the gendered power relations. It is quite clear that Judith Butler was particularly interested in knowing the various ways in which gender is regulated and understood through a process of reiterative performance. An individual’s sense of the self or own identity is basically constructed and formed as he or she relates to other people in the reigning power-discourse contexts of a given society. Since identity politics offer various identities from which women can freely choose, it is an ideal approach to address the problems faced by women or feminist politics in the political context.
Beste, Jennifer. The Limits of Post-structuralism for Feminist Theology. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol.22, No.1, (2006), pp.5-19.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, NY: Rutledge. (1993).
Butler, Judith. ‘Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transgender’, in Undoing Gender. New York. Rutledge. (2004), pp. 57-74.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Rutledge. (1990).
Finlayson, Alan & Valentine, Jeremy. Politics and Post-structuralism. Edinburgh University Press. (2002).
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality 1: The Will to Knowledge. Penguin. (1998).
Hekman, Susan. Beyond identity: Feminism, identity and identity politics. Vol.1. No.3, (2000), pp.289-308. Sage Publications.
Hekman, Susan (ed.). Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press. (1996).
Loizidou, Elena. Judith Butler: Ethics, Law and Politics. Rutledge. (2007).
Spencer, Beth. Chapter 2: Post-structuralist Feminism and the Body: The Body as a Fiction. Australia. University of Ballarat. (2006).
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