The Official Blog for ENGL 41416.

In the excerpt from Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler critiques the ideas of original and performative gender. Butler’s begins by implying that the body, far from being the determinant of sex/gender distinction, is simply a blank slate on which to inscribe the culture. She cites examples from Christian and Cartesian principles, which describe the body as a a “void”, “signifying nothing”, and “radically immaterial”. Foucault and Kafka provide the background for Butler’s idea on the cultural inscription of the body, where ” the body is always under siege, suffering destruction by the very terms of history, [which is] the creation of values and meanings by signifying practice that requires the subjection of the body” (497). I would further invoke Foucault’s concept of the prison system onto this idea. The final, most efficient form of social control that Foucault describes depends on the social construction of norms, through which an individual can judged as a deviant, these norms are the rules which govern society, and through which the governed learn to govern and judge themselves. Tying this back into Butler’s point of the body as a “passive medium”, one can consider the idea of gender norms as the rules that govern the sex/gender distinctions in society. Therefore, the body does not subscribe to a gender of it’s own volition, and according to Butler, it does not subscribe to a sex either.

Butler further cites examples that show how cultural discourse constructs the body. Mary Douglas explains that “the very contours of ‘the body’ are are established through markings that seek to establish specific codes of cultural coherence” (497). This means that the body is like clay to be molded for the creation of social order, “the body serves the purpose of instating and naturalizing certain taboos regarding appropriate limit, postures, and modes of exchange…” Like Ortner’s investigation of the parallel between Culture and Nature vs. Man and Woman, Douglas’ concept uses the same language of Culture’s manipulation or organization of Nature. Nature is raw and must be curbed by culture. She further goes on to explain how this concept relates to the polluting person; “he has developed wrong condition, or simply crossed over some line which should not have been crossed and this displacement unleashes danger for someone” (498). This explains the fear of homosexuality, with the belief that the homosexual has crossed a boundary, and is therefore at risk of passing on this disease, which is what I assume the “danger” another person may face from the polluted individuals “crossing”. Admittedly, some of this fear enlists from the view that AIDS if a “gay disease”, further alienating this community, but there is also the fear of catching “gayness” which Butler surprisingly does not mention though it is a major factor in the marginalizing of homosexuals. Returning to Foucault, punishment not only works to chasten the delinquent, but it should serve as an example or deterrent to possible delinquents as well.

Though I focused on the way rules and norms inscribe gender onto the body, as a Shakespearean, the idea of crossing dressing, in addition to gender norms and fear of pollution naturally bring me to the story of Hic Mulier and Haec Vir. Both represent a transgressive performance of gender by women and men respectively, and literally translated mean the manlike woman and the womanish man. However, at the same time, there was a belief that sex was  changeable and that a woman could physically transform into a man. Although there was no evidence of the converse happening, men harbored the fear of being turned into women.

-Kaydian Campbell

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