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.