postproblematizationizing the material

(this is in response to sections of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity)

Leave it to a poststructuralist to conflate, confute, and confound what (my nemesis) Shakespeare already said briefly and to the point: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Among other things, in Butler’s deconstruction of sex and gender, I found both compelling and problematic the notion of “fantasies,” which she returns to a number of times (regulatory fictions, linguistic fictions, enacted fantasies, incorporations). In Gender Trouble, all is performance, all is discursive construct. Yet to my reading, I didn’t feel that Butler adequately dealt with the material in her discussion of “the body” (I retain her quotation marks to emphasize her conceptualization). That is, it’s not so much that she makes the claim that we are not material, but that there doesn’t seem to be room for materiality at all in her theory. This especially struck me as she was blowing apart the notion of a natural, pre-constructed body. Is it that she ignores it, or is it really that she thinks the material is insignificant to the construct? (I suppose that I inadvertently came across “insignificant” as I’m writing this is telling—according to Butler “the body” signifies only as a construct; the biological “reality” is no reality at all.) I kept finding myself asking of Butler “What is NOT the fantasy here? Is there anything at all that’s nonfantastic?” I suppose her answer would be a longer version of: “No, dude. Quit being so phallogocentrically bought into the misogynist concept of inert reality.” Still, if “the body” is a total construct, is there anything at all natural? Is there ever something before construction?

Anyhow, as I was reading this, then I began trying to hammer out a continuum of sorts, one based on a fact/value thread (dichotomy) running through some of the works we’ve been reading. If my readings are at all accurate to the texts at hand, I see in Canguilhem a strong distinction between facts and values, especially in his discussion of anomalies and abnormalities—one being a difference “in fact,” and the other being a difference “in value.” For Foucault, perhaps we could say that the relationship is murkier it its recursiveness—through panoptic social structure, a fact (technologies of power) becomes a value (discipline) which then translates into a new self-norming fact (the docile body). Butler goes further—for her there is no fact, only constructed values, fact-fantasies that continually reenact the appearance of substance, the fantasy of the inert, prediscursive body. Perhaps some of the distinctions on this continuum have to do with each author’s level of inclusion of the material in their spectrum. Perhaps this is just an example of Butler’s point that we can’t really escape our binaries.

My final comment is methodological in nature, and is one I would hope is bound to come up any time poststructuralism comes into the picture. And I ask these questions as someone who has a real fetish for the practice I’m about to question—at what point does it become methodologically self-defeating to continually destabilize and problematize everything? To what extent is such continual theoretical oscillatio vital academic practice, and to what extent is it simply intellectual masturbation? (Ohhh, look at my hegemonic discursive norms seeping out everywhere…)


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