I’ve recently read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, a key text in contemporary feminist and queer theory. It is provocative, with many interesting (and perhaps even true) ideas. It also says a few things that are either trivial, though maybe they weren’t so trivial in 1990, or just plain misconceived. It has a reputation for dense unforgiving prose, but the best bits of it are no more difficult to understand than a detailed argument in analytic philosophy. Indeed, without the silly numbering and lettering that litter some analytic philosophy, the argument reads as much smoother prose.
The worst paragraphs follow a pattern of disconnected quotations from various French thinkers presented as opposed perspectives but without much explanation of their theories, ending with a few questions that fall somewhere between the speculative and the rhetorical: “X says ‘this’, Y says ‘that’ but if Y is right, what does it mean for X’s fundamental theory?” She often doesn’t explain in these exchanges why we should care about these theories. Butler’s discussion of psychoanalytic thought, in particular, sinks into this pattern. I suppose these references are unavoidable in academic discussion where the ability to cite a broad literature is a prerequisite for presenting a fresh view. However, Butler is much better when she commits to making and defending an argument of her own. In Gender Trouble, this is a broadly Foucauldian strike on multiple fronts against all forms of sex and gender naturalism and determinism.
The key idea is that there is no stable ground on which to found a universal normative idea of sex (let alone gender). There is no past or future utopia of a ‘true’ sexuality that remains hidden by existing power structures. One cannot scour the psyche for a pure sexual desire or practice that is divorced from social or political power, at least not in a straightforward way, since even repressed sexualities (like lesbianism) are formed as distinct identities using the same forces that oppress them. It is heterosexuality that creates the homosexuality one sees practiced and desired. In fact, ‘sex’ as an institution is generated by social practice, a set of acts that are grouped together using various ethical, medical and juridical discourses.
This ‘troubles’ some feminists as it means that their primary category of political representation (women) is constituted by the very forces of power and domination that their theories attempt to oppose or reform. But, of course, it should trouble anyone who cares about human freedom since according to Butler, sexuality and gender are in no sense natural facts, but unchosen arbitrary institutional impositions on individuals. In fact, they even generate our individual identities and create, police and punish transgressions against them. Quite a lot of her critique hits the mark but I am going to look briefly at two weaknesses. They point to how classical liberals might answer the charge that the free institutions we espouse rely unthinkingly on the domination constituted by the social practices of sex and gender.
Butler’s critique of biological naturalism
One of Butler’s key points of attack is the binary distinction between sex and gender, or the classic idea that one ‘is born female, but becomes a woman’. She attempts to demonstrate that it is not just gender that is the product of social forces, as theorists have traditionally maintained, but that sex itself is a product of discourse. We are undifferentiated beings until discourse groups together certain physical characteristics and inscribes a sex on a body (in fact, constituting the very notion of a ‘body’ by doing so). We are not born even biologically male or female, but have these identities thrust upon us.
Butler holds the discourse of the biological sciences to be a product of this binary and solidified notion of embodied sex and, in turn, a site where the construction of sexuality is hidden behind a façade of nature. How does she argue this? In an early chapter, Butler seems to imply without any argument whatsoever that biology is a site of strategic action, where scientists carefully reproduce ‘common sense’ sexual discourses in order to establish the legitimacy of existing social divisions. In a later chapter, she bolsters this point with reference to a single scientific article on genetics, where scientists discuss their search for a master gene that will explain why some people with XY chromosomes fail to display typically male traits, and some with XX chromosome fail to have fully fledged female traits. She criticises their use of the label XX-females and XY-males which she says introduces the very assumption that needs proving, that genes correspond to actual observed sex. But it is unclear whether she is taking issue with this one article, the hypothesis one group of scientists are trying (and apparently failing) to prove, or the entire field of biological science. Beyond the search to explain exceptions, the correspondence between XX/XY chromosomes and female/male is certainly sufficiently durable that to deny it is to rapidly descend into Python-esque levels of radical obscurantism.
More generally, Butler offers a fairly skewed and partial interpretation of what biologists and geneticists are doing. Scientists use the male/female labels in a variety of ways which seem far from reinforcing and policing common sense notions of sex. They are completely unperturbed with the idea that plants have both male and female parts on the same body. They aren’t troubled by the notion that some amphibians can spontaneously change sex according to social context. Indeed they are fascinated by this discovery. That some lizards can reproduce by making something akin to clones of themselves is, similarly, not making trouble for a biologist. So one cannot assume, as Butler seems to, that the use of sexed labels in biology implies any specific reinforcement of strictly binary sexuality that one sees propounded by some in the human sciences. Natural scientists would generally be fascinated rather than troubled by the discovery of a distinct third or fourth biological sex within humans.
In fact, it seems more likely that scientific discourse (when used properly) has played a role in breaking down essentialist notions of sex. We know through evolutionary biology that the existence of sexed bodies is not a stable fact of any obvious normative consequence or significance, but the result of contingent (often random) mutations over the course of millions of years that have impacted on the way humans reproduce. There is no intrinsic reason why reproductive functions couldn’t have been divided up in a different way to how they are; it just happens that a two-sex divide generally holds amongst humans, but only in the same way that we generally have two feet, two hands and two eyes. Of course, why people should have their body inscribed and defined by their reproductive functions is another matter and one much more in need of critique, but it isn’t scientific discourse that contributes especially to this process.
Targeting biology in this way is particularly ill advised, considering that even Martin Heidegger (who sits at the roots of much post-structuralist theory and had a major influence on Foucault) was, at least on some accounts, a realist with respect to the entities of natural science. Of course, once one introduces a human element to a practice, such as in medicine with its notion of wellness and illness, then you have lost the unique scientific perspective that Heidegger called de-worlding (the studied treatment and analysis of entities as divorced from the human world and its values), but to claim that biology falls into this category requires rather a lot more proving.
Gender as a ‘social formation’
Butler’s references to classical liberalism are quite basic, treating it essentially as adherence to consent and contract as a foundation of legitimate power. She does not discuss classical liberal social theory at all. This is unfortunate as elsewhere Butler seeks out a concept that breaks down the binaries of natural facts and social constructs, and free will and determinism. She notes that although always acting within or against a set of boundaries defined by social institutions, freedom can be found through elaboration on or even parodying of existing practices. Hence, she emphasises the role of queer sexuality in opening up new possibilities in human discourse. Such a concept, of a contingent social framework that structures individual will and identity, or something very close to it, can be found in Hayek’s social theory.
‘Social formations’, for Hayek, are emergent institutions that are the product of human action but not of human design. Like, for example, natural rock formations that are formed over millions of years, they look so elaborate that one assumes they are a product of intelligence. In fact, they are hewn over generations of human interaction, discourse and commerce, not according to a single plan or design. Institutions like language, law and property all fall under this category. So, for example, there is no author of the English language, but a designer trying to come up with an easy means of verbal communication could hardly have come up with a better system (Esperanto, a ‘rationally’ constructed language, never took off). It is unavoidable that people come to be defined and identified by many of these social formations, whether as English speakers or as subjects of common law, and this is prior to the deliberate decisions and designs of individuals or Governments, which have to contend with what a post-structuralist might call the ‘always already’ present aspect of these institutions.
Social change is characterised by the piecemeal adaptation of these institutions. What a liberal wants from these institutions is a framework through which people can form and pursue plans of action without being constantly interrupted and disrupted by the arbitrary powers of others (whether it is being arrested, attacked or having one’s property expropriated). In carrying out their plans, individuals have an imperceptible but eventually decisive role in shaping the future of their social world.
Gender and sexuality fit this notion of social formation quite well. They are institutional impositions that provide a durable set of norms, practices and mutual expectations within a social field. That heterosexuality developed and flourished as a norm when reproductive capacity was scarce and in demand is unsurprising. Now, however, heterosexual norms, enforced either legally or socially, operate like a trade union’s closed shop, restricting access to and legitimating only some kinds of sexual interaction and preventing possible innovations in human relations. Some people continue to benefit from this asymmetrical enforcement of sexual norms, while others find themselves excluded. In addition, the policing and prohibition of sexuality has led (as with most prohibitions) to unintended consequences that are both interesting and sometimes tragic, which is a parallel idea to Butler’s explanation that juridical prohibitions help to generate the very subversive sexual desires they avowedly attempt to snuff out.
Sex in a free society
It goes almost without saying that classical liberals believe that consensual sex should not be subject to any legal regulation, that medics should have no power to decide what kinds of sex are healthy (though they would remain able to offer advice to those willing to listen), and that marriage should not be instituted by the state at all. All these things, to some extent, arbitrarily exclude and punish individuals who are merely pursuing their own personal plans. But what would a classical liberal expect sexual relations to look like in the absence of these juridical and medical impositions? Could sex as a concept disappear to be replaced by more generalised notions of simply ‘adults at play’? Or would everyone have their own unique notion of sexuality?
My hunch is that most people would be satisfied with following a set of sex and gender norms in the same way that most people are happy to pick out a style of clothes that suits them (and in a sense comes to define them), rather than making their clothes from scratch. What you would see, as we already witness, is more choice. In other words, the question would not just be whether one is to identify as gay or straight, but a whole range of possible practices and lifestyles. In this context, ‘queer’ individuals would take the role of social entrepreneurs or pioneers, experimenting with new ways of living, with the more successful, interesting or aesthetically engaging lifestyles being imitated subsequently by others. Just as owning an IPhone has advantages because they are so popular and compatible with various other products, so most people will tend to define themselves along relatively popular lines just for ease of co-ordination and participation. The important thing is that popular identities are not protected and policed through violence or law, and that alternatives and elaborations on existing sexualities are allowed to flourish. And, of course, they should always be available for parody. This is one liberal response to gender trouble.