U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gender Trouble and the “Somatic Turn”

Few terms seem more vilified by theory-averse academics than ‘the body.’ More than ‘body’ or ‘bodies,’ invoking ‘the body’ has become an all too easy parody of academic post-modern speak. For many American historians, and early Americanists in particular, using the concept ‘the body’ often alerts our anti-po-mo instincts, immediately signaling to us that the person invoking the term is an academic “other,” at best, or a fraud, at worst. There is some good reason for that. In seminar rooms and conferences across the academic world, as well as in formal publications, academics seeking to suggest more than assert and allude-to more than argue-plainly employ ‘the body’—often preceded with that attendant figure of speech “doing violence to.” I must admit that I too participated at times in spoofing the excessive usage of ‘the body,’ which in the minds of many historians stood out as a synecdoche for all that was wrong with cultural studies and po-mo academic culture.

Reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, however, has taught me anew; it reminded me why that category was and still is important and how turning to the body in what some call the “somatic turn” could be, not only a useful methodological maneuver, but a crucial one for understanding gender, sex, and sexuality. I have read excerpts from Gender Trouble and other of Butler’s writings over the years in various seminars, but only over winter break—in preparation for this themed week—did I read it as a whole. What I found was a text crackling with insights; the kind of text that synthesizes many observations you think you had aggregated on your own over the years into a lucid whole. A text that makes you feel as if you now understand what was plainly in front of your eyes all these years. I too will invoke in this post Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, for I last felt a similar lucidity when I finished that book.

While I had a bit of difficulty reading excerpts from Butler in the past, I never found the writings too overwhelming. Reading the whole book, however—as it was intended— made for an even clearer and more forthcoming reading than I could have expected from a text packed with such complex theoretical discussions. Thus, I do not at all understand what issue people could find with Gender Trouble’s accessibility. Not only does it render many bits of insights I’ve accumulated in the past more clear, it often better explains the many theorists Butler contends with than most other texts I’ve come across. For Butler seems to cut through so many theoretical gordian knots with swift motions that simplify and provide analytical transparency. Indeed, if in past readings of theory I have too often suspected that authors employed various conceits to infuse their insights with a sophisticated mystique, in Butler I found an open and forthcoming author, who clearly intends for readers to understand and glean insights. Perhaps Butler’s greatest strength as a theorist is the capacity to see things for what they are and not what one wants them to be or needs them to be in order to fit one prescription or another. That is also what makes Gender Trouble one of the best synthetical texts I’ve read, for Butler’s penetrating gaze quickly reveals the shortcomings and strengths of numerous ideological positions, weaving a genealogy of ideas regarding gender that refuses to romanticize its subject matter.

What I found particularly intelligible—concerning a topic so many in the past remained opaque about—was Butler’s use of the body as a useful category of analysis. This revealed to me the origins of the great attraction I too harbored at times for that category. It turns out that the concept of the body is quite simple and clear. It is one way among a few to discuss gender as a product of social and cultural construction, and Butler illuminates this very clearly. “It would be wrong to think that the discussion of ‘identity’ ought to proceed prior to a discussion of gender identity,” asserts Butler quite early in the book, “for the simple reason that ‘persons’ [or bodies] only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility.” (22) Later in the same chapter Butler reiterates this idea using the concept of the body: “[g]ender is the repeated stylization of the body [my italics], a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”(45) No wonder then that when Butler employs the concept of the body in more complex combinations in the third and last chapter of the book, its significance is crystal clear.

This also helps couch Bulter’s text in the historical moment in which it was produced, perhaps the heyday of the linguistic turn, when scholars realized the full ramifications of the insights of post-structuralism. It is not a coincidence that perhaps the history study that most insidiously frustrated our firm belief in the “truth regime” of modern biology, Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, came out around the same time in 1992. It is also not a coincidence that some of the studies in American history most linked with the recognition that our world is to a large degree socially constructed came out during these years: Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, which explained that the concept of ‘the people’ is “a fiction” came out in 1988; William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, which alerted us to the ramifications of nature as a cultural construction came out in 1991; Barbara Fields’ study “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Untied States of America,” which radically dealt with race as a non-material social construction, came out in the New Left Review in 1990. In retrospect, however, it seems to me that perhaps no text contended as lucidly with the implications of the linguistic turn as Gender Trouble. And, for me at least, no text conveyed the impulse towards the concept of the body as a useful category of analysis as well as Gender Trouble.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Eran: Given this was your first reading, I was pleased to see this statement in relation to comments on Claire Potter’s post: “Thus, I do not at all understand what issue people could find with Gender Trouble’s accessibility.” – TL

    • Tim, I don’t mean to imply that it is an easy read, but that it was easier than one might expect given the complexity of the discussion. I also want to stress that I was very impressed with Butler’s ability to simplify. The prose, content, and structure of the argument gave me a clear sense that the author is doing their best to make their writing accessible, I can’t ask for more.

  2. So, as someone who has recently, in a tentative way, tried to integrate the history of the body into my thinking about intellectual history, I’m glad to be reading Butler and thinking about bodies–but also not entirely sure what you, Eran, mean here by the “somatic turn” and how it might be related to Butler and especially to how she wants to think about bodies in *Gender Trouble*.

    I have also not spent much time reading Butler up to now (and my sense, having finished this book, is that she mostly approaches the question of bodies in *Bodies That Matter*). Reading this was for me also a minor surprise. So many anticipations of more recent themes! Extraordinarily sophisticated readings. However that may be, on the basis of *GT*, I thought that the point here was to reject the notion of the body as, in any sense, prior to gender. But, then, since the point of troubling gender for Butler seems to me to be to make it easier to live within it (since we cannot leave it), I am left with the question, easier for who or what? The answer to that question seems to be, easier for individual bodies (like Herculine, for instance) to survive. Rephrasing Butler: We can’t leave gender, but we can make it more capacious and less cruel; perhaps in doing so, we will arrive at a very different kind of politics. Incidentally, this seems to me like classically social-democratic reformist politics, bordering on liberalism. Not that this need be a bad thing!

    I take Butler’s political focus to be on the individual. I think this is one reason that she has got to work so hard to explain why birth, maternity, ought not be the center of the question. It makes sense to center birth for certain kinds of identitarian feminisms, but also for Marxist feminisms that take seriously the notion of species-being. Can’t have a species without birth –unless, as Shulamith Firestone and no doubt others suggested, we are radical enough to imagine the full disconnection of reproduction from biological necessity. Anyway all that is a perspective that Butler rejects in favor of an individual that is…what, exactly? The performing body? Is that an accurate account of her argument?

    Anyway, I’m glad for the provocation to think more about Butler and bodies–and perhaps should go read *Bodies that Matter* next. I’d add to your list of historiography contemporary to Butler Joan Scott’s “Evidence of Experience” & “Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis” essays–I am embarrassed to say that I hadn’t realized until Claire Potter’s excellent post earlier how closely connected Scott and Butler were. And, then, of course, there’s the interesting question of Butler and the reception of Foucault in the US academy, something quite relevant for any discussion of the historiography of sexuality, gender, or bodies.

    (apologies for this absurdly long response!)

    • I presumed that **somatic turn** referred to appraisals of nonrepresentational theory as well as Stoller “sensuous scholarship” or even John Dewey foundations. Good question, though.

    • Thanks for this Eric. My post was probably not as coherent as I would have liked it to be. In “Gender Trouble” I thought to find a discussion of bodies before Butler addressed the question she presents in the preface to “Bodies that Matter”: “What about the materiality of the body Judy?”
      And indeed in “Gender Trouble”I found an organically emerging need for ways to discuss gender as a social construction that turned to the body as useful category. As you note, Butler does not think that the body is an altogether stable category either. Here for instance the frustrates the notion that we can easily talk about a body: “The sex/gender distinction and the category of sex itself appear to presuppose a generalization of ‘the body’ that pre-exists 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 cultural constructed body, however, ought to question ‘the body’ as a construct of suspect generality when it is figured as passive and prior to discourse.” (175-6)
      I guess what I was saying is that in the end turning to the body was more simple than it appears. Butler demystified the body for me, though it remains a blurry concept. It is not so mysterious, but simply a concept that allows us to develop the idea of gender, sex, and sexuality, as constructed. Perhaps a better concept Butler uses is ’embodiment.’
      The somatic turn is perhaps a misnomer, but is a sense that academics turned to the category of the body, or at other times to biopolitics during this period.
      I do think this is linked to the linguistic turn as well as both seem to stem to a large degree from Foucault’s thought and his discussion of truth regimes in which discursive practices ultimately affect–for lack of a better term–bodies.

  3. The **body** both facilitated and confounded ethnographies of communication that included, but were not limited to, studies on **buzz words** such as affect, semiotics, phonetics, and phonologies (irrespective of the etymologics in “unwritten languages” and any “Western” reductions to a **linguistic turn**). Thanks for the post.

  4. I think it is problematic to take in (post)-structuralist claims so unreflexively in this way by referring to their work as spearheading a ‘turn’ to the body — as though they have definitively captured ‘the body’ as an object of knowledge. Surely this would contravene the thrust of their own epistemology?

    I am fundamentally unpersuaded, I think, that the Butler-Foucault crowd haven’t just substituted a highly articulated intellectual reification of post-nietzschean paranoia in place of the purported social reification of capitalist modernity (or whatever the term might be). A *true* scholarship of the body, to my mind, would be a sort of pathologically reflexive descriptive phenomenology that would almost defy the accumulative generalization of trans-personal experience.

    But maybe this is just my problem? I am a complete amateur in this field. But I feel the real, prior, and more permanent issue (post)-structuralism has opened is the circular nature of any (meta)-discursive claim to knowledge. But ‘the body,’ in these terms, cannot be opened to more powerful forces of reflection — since the nature of that reflection (as reflection has now been defined) is just as problematic as the reflection it stands to criticize.

    In these conditions the body has not really been ‘captured’ as a ‘category of analysis.’ It has more properly been ‘set loose’ — no? And the fully realized implications of this ‘fact of knowledge’ could very well contravene Butler’s political intentions.

    • Many scholars still adhere to “there is nothing outside of the text” [il n’y a rien hors du texte, although reassessed with a passage from a Derridian bio on Nietzsche] or prefer, for example, Zizek’s ontology of the Real to Foucauldian discourse analysis. In addition, a given publication on nonrepresentational theory can at once claim a Foucauldian biopolitics but aim to elucidate “nondiscursive somatic practices.” Beginning in a 1994-95 reevaluation of “We Refugees” and his own Homo Sacer studies, Giorgio Agamben further argued for a reconfiguration of Foucauldian biopolitics in states of exception. Please note that, at times, contributors to global subaltern studies distinguish between successive “waves” of **(post) structuralism** in order to fulfill, perhaps, varieties of an **accumulative generalization of trans-personal experience.**

  5. one last thing: footnote 54 to the first chapter is, i think, a pretty important one for locating JB’s attitude toward bodies and theories of/about them.

  6. Apparently, in recent times, the turn trope got going after Rorty described the “linguistic turn,” and over the years I’ve noted almost 40 other turn terms. The AHR Forum in June 2012, Historiographic “Turns” in Critical Perspective, made a start on treating them as a historical topic, but to my knowledge we’ve had no full-blown history of the metaphor, its presuppositions, diffusion and uses. Nor have I seen an overview or survey of how the “somatic turn” has been described and employed, but at best it’s only one way to situate Butler’s work.

    Eran, as I read the passage you quoted [164 in my 1999 paperback edition], Butler was troubled by the idea that some, including Foucault, are inclined to fall back on the body as pre-existing gender [and sex also?], as an utterly “passive medium” or “blank page,” reliably before and outside the binarisms of discourse, power, language, and suggests that Sartre and de Beauvoir as well are tempted by this “Cartesian dualism.” Later, in interesting footnote, she reaches further back, commenting that, along with Merleau-Ponty, they “tend to use the term embodiment, [which] drawn as it is from theological contexts,… tends to figure ‘the’ body as a mode of incarnation, and, hence, to preserve the external and dualistic relationship between a signifying immateriality and the materiality of the body itself.” [195n.15 in my copy] This reminded me of Mimesis, and Auerbach’s contrastive concept of figura.

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