Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Performativity the Feminine Not-All?

This is the question I have come to while thinking about a historicized critique of the phallus in work which uses Lacan. Initially, I was hoping to make a Butlerian critique of the concept, styled like what we debate folks would call a "language PIC", as Isaac West and Regnier properly identified the project.

This seems to have fallen by the wayside as I place more and more scrutiny on the clash between Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity and Joan Copjec's logic of the feminine not-all. Essentially, to be able to run the critique of the phallus, I would have to make use of the diachronically existing reserves that could render the phallus sensible as the very object I would critique of standing in for--the penis. After all, the goal of the critique would be to say "if you don't gain anything from calling it a phallus, why do that?". You could simply instead make reference to the point of impossibility that makes subjectivity possible--wholeness is not had so that partiality can be, and that partiality exists in relation to totality to explain why subjects move towards a perceived wholeness, although that is a fiction.

At any rate, after pushing Jason Regnier and Meryl on this question, and rereading Joan Copjec's chapter "Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason" in Read My Desire, I struggle to believe that I can make this historicized argument without repudiating Copjec's account of feminine sexuality. In order to conclude that there is something objectionable about the term phallus, I have to confer upon the term a certain historicized meaning which implicates me in already understanding sexual difference in a recognizable way, and particularly, as somehow reconstructing a binary of some sort which makes phallus recognizable as a term that has a gendered effect.

Ergo, I am thinking instead of pursuing the following question: is performativity for Butler the same thing as sexual difference in Copjec? After all, Butler's argument is simply that the always evident and prevalent performances of gender demonstrate that there is no such natural thing as woman or man, gay or lesbian, trans or straight. Each performance is evidence that there is no totality to which gender terms actually point. Similarly, Copjec's argument is that the feminine is evidence of the not-all of being, that totality is itself impossible- the difference between the masculine and the feminine is that the masculine claims to be complete. I think one could argue that this is consistent with Butler's position. The feminine, which is positively valenced for Copjec, is good because it provides a space of contingency outside of signification, crucial as an escape hatch to the discursive prison of say Foucault. This is why Copjec is running a critique of Butler--the feminine provides a hope for something beyond the mere existence of discursive survival. But I think one can read Butler as more than a mere survivalist- that gender performances which attempt "passing" are negatively valenced for Butler, who points to examples of what happens when someone "can not pass" as evidence of their failing to live up to some totality to which they are articulated. In the sort of best possible world for Butler, gender performances have denaturalized essences to the point that the recognition of difference is impossible. Crucially important to this argument is that we may not be where difference is meaningless; instead, difference is all there is, a series of performances that exist as singularities, not particularities articulated to a totality.

1 comment:

  1. I think Copjec's critique of Butler is centered a bit differently. Performativity is *exactly where* Copjec says Butler has a problem. Performativity is the field against which both sex and gender, as well as both masculine and feminine (in Butler's terms) play. It functions as a single point to which both are, in effect, reducible. Performativity is the place where sex and gender, masculine and feminine, as historic discursive constructs collapse into their coupled one-ness. Copjec wants to get at difference as such, the structural irreducibility of difference which cannot be collapsed. She is operating a a different register than Butler. Butler is operating at the materiality - the body as the field of inscription. Copjec is operating at the level of a logic - "references" to masculine or feminine and even to sexuality are perhaps homological to the body, but they are hyper-symbolic. Masculine and feminine for Copjec are ways of naming two irreducibly dissimilar logics - argumentative positions (hence all the stuff on Kant). Masculine is a not-all of being, perhaps just as much as the feminine is a not-all of being. But their not-all-ness is unique from each other, and NOT complementary (i.e. they don't fit together to make a single whole, there "is no sexual relation"). Their non-complementarity in their difference is *absolutely crucial* to Copjec's point.