1 Puche 1 Eduardo Puche Carbonell May 6, 2011 Final Paper A Critique of Judith Butler from Wittgensteninan Common Sense Abstract. This paper presents a criticism against Judith Butler s account of gender, arguing for a minimal notion of identity for politics out of Wittgenstenian common sense. Following Wittgenstein s concept of language-games I argue that gender categories should not be eliminated as Butler suggests, but they should only be used in a different way because subverting the categories would be harmful the oppressed groups who need something to be done about their situation. A recent movement in Feminism proposes that gender categories in the way they have been traditionally used are problematic. Judith Butler s view on this has been very influential and generates floods of secondary literature. 1 She proposes that we should eliminate gender categories because they are oppressive. Opposers suggest that a minimal notion of identity is necessary for politics. I propose to look at these issues from a background of Wittgensteinian common sense from which I argue against Butler s account of gender in favour of a minimal notion of gender necessary for politics. Butler s account of gender Judith Butler represents a new movement in feminism that finds that taking women as the subject of feminism is problematic. The problem here arises when one 1 Cadwallader, Jessica. "How Judith Butler Matters." Australian Feminist Studies 24, no. 60 (June 2009): Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011).
2 Puche 2 examines the question what is a woman? For Butler, the traditional connection between sex and gender does not exist as such but is only a social artifice. There are two main parts to her argument. The first part is that woman is not an effective labels because it is not all encompassing. To determine the identity of one as woman would mean that she has to be defined as woman. She would fit all the characteristics that are typically attributed to them. But in reality, what we have is a person that displays a few (or many) feminine traits, but not all. In the same way, when we speak of a man we envision a particular image of what a man would be like, but then, actual men do not fit that description perfectly. The second part of Butler s argument is that while gender identity terms are not effective in so far as they are descriptive, that are in many ways prescriptive. This is the real source of the problem with gender. Butler suggests that, as de Beauvoir said, One is not born but rather becomes a woman, 2 except she does not think that being born female needs to result in becoming a woman. What happens according to her, is that the infant will be raised in such a way that if she is born female she is treated as a girl and ends up becoming a woman. The way this works for her is that once she is defined as feminine, she is bound by social convention to do what is feminine. For this reason, Butler suggests that gender ends up being performative in a similar way to a theatrical production, where the actor plays someone who he is not. So fan, what Butler is suggesting has a strong intuitive appeal. It is very common to tell children when they are growing up that Boys don t cry for example, 2 De Beauvoir, Simone. Childhood. In Second Sex Vol. 2. Translated by H.M. Parshley
3 Puche 3 or that a lady never sits with her legs open. This type of things are an example of ways in which we are since a young age performing our genders in a theatric-like way, but also these become our habits and the performative aspect in which gender determine our identity. We act in certain ways because it is prescribed by our gender. Wittgenstenian Common Sense Before proceeding to a criticism of Butler s theory, I will go over what I refer to as Wittgenstenian common sense, which is the framework from which the criticism runs. Ludwig Wittgenstein held that we are always ina particular context. For him, we cannot think of ourselves as being in an empty space, but we are always in a certain place at a certain time, etc. In On Certainty, his emphasis is on language: whenever we think or speak something, we always do so in a particular context. He calls them language games. And one is always playing a language game, which contains the rules under which our communication and thought is made coherent. A language game can be taken as a necessarily presupposed framework with the rules that allow for structured thought and intelligible dialogue. For example, if two friends are sitting outside and one says to the other, Look, there s a bird on the tree, they are in a language game where the existence of the tree, for instance cannot be called into question. In their language game, it would make no sense for the other friend to reply, Do you really know that there is a tree there? However, in a philosophical discussion following the reading of Descarte s meditations, one might be playing a different language-game in which doubting the existence of the tree would be appropriate. Wittgenstein writes, I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and
4 Puche 4 again "I know that that's a tree", pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: "This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy." 3 The concept of language games can be also applied to genders. An easy example: if I find myself in a situation where I urgently need to use the restroom in a public place, it does not make sense for me to stand outside the public restroom wondering about the Men and Women sign on the door and be confused as to which one to go into. In urgent need of a bathroom, I would just look for the little man on the sign and walk in. The language-game which I am playing does not allow me to question genders or sexes. In a different language game, however, like one being played in a philosophy class on feminism and queer theory, calling genders into question is perfectly acceptable. Similarly, doubt would be justified in an anatomy class, although the language-game being played there would be very different from the philosophy class. Butler Wittgenstein Digression Butler is going to agree with Wittgenstein at this level. Just as Wittgenstein suggests that we are always in a particular language-game, Butler also thinks that we are always in context and that it is very important. For both philosophers, part of our being in the world is being influenced by it in a way in which we cannot be separated from the world. I mean this in a Heideggerian sense. But in Butler s context, the fact that we are always in a context means that we are never ourselves authentically 3 On Certainty. Reprinted with corrections and indices. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Translated by Danis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974.
5 Puche 5 because there is a normative aspect to language which contributes to capturing us in performative genders. She rules out the possibility of an isolated self such as Descartes cogito. Here is where Butler turns destructionist and I stop liking her. Butler s theory places too much emphasis on the effects that culture has on people to an extent that does not allow for a real self. What we think of as our self is not really our self s self but Butler thinks it is product of many social artifices. This is problematic because eliminating the self leaves no room for there to be free agency. So we end up with a self that is trapped in performative roles and has no way out of it. Butler s solution to this problem is the use of non-exclusionary language. This seems like a plausible alternative for some because it is true that terms like man or woman are not all encompassing. The problem is that if one takes it as far as Butler suggests, one needs to give up all possible discourse of gender. Her controversial claim which I resist is that there are as many genders as there are people. With this view, there is nothing else to do but to completely eliminate all sort of gender identities, since they are not allowing people to be their authentic selves, but traps them in performative roles. In the same way that gender identity would be eliminated, so should our classifications of ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, etc. because they are also not all encompassing terms that impose performative roles on people. I resist the cancelation of gender identity categories. The first reason, which I will not go into in full depth, is that the same method with which it was determined that gender identity is inadequate will result in a total deconstruction of language so
6 Puche 6 that interpersonal communication ends up being impossible. I agree with Butler that gender identity labels are not all encompassing. But most words we use do not happen to be all encompassing in every case. Here I bring back Wittgenstein s language-games to suggest that gender categories are appropriate in some contexts. If we follow Butler s method, for example, we will not be able to classify a particular song under a particular gendre, becausewe might say that the particular song is a rock song, but it has some elements of blues, so then rock is not appropriate genre for the song. Taking this one step further, it seems that no term we use has the exact same complete meaning for everyone, so we should have to eliminate all descriptive category terms. This might sound like a straw man argument because after all, Butler wants to eliminate gender categories because they are constraining to the self, and the fact that the gender terms are not all encompassing is only a part of the issue. Following Wittgenstein, I way that in reality the non-all-encompassingness of a term should not be a problem because we are able to communicate even in absence of actual referents. Wittgenstein imagines a situation in which this becomes evident. He writes: Suppose each person had a box with something inside which we call beetle. Nobody is allowed to look into others boxes; and each person would say he knows what a beetle is just from looking at his beetle. But it could also be that each one has something different (127) 4. 4 Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, Print.
7 Puche 7 Even if each person had a different thing in their box, and hence a different understanding of what a beetle is, they could still refer to a beetle as whatever is in the box. That is to say, while Butler is concerned with the power of language to subject individuals and the ability of these individuals to appropriate the very language that subjects them, Wittgenstein empazises how communication is possible and understanding exists, even in the absence of actual referents. 5 With this in context I will now move on to an area where the issue of gendered identity is of great Concern for Politics In the opening section of Gender Trouble, Butler addresses the question who should be the subject of feminism? This question is problematic for Butler because she rejects the classic binary gender distinctions so that women cannot easily be taken as the subject of feminism because she suggests that we topple gender identity categories. In an article titled The Politics of Sex and Gender: Benhabib and Butler Debate Subjectivity, Fiona Webster writes that, Gender is performative, according to Butler, in the sense that it is not a stable of fixed point of agency, but rather an identity category created and constituted through a stylized repetition of acts. 6 Butler s suggestion turns out to be very unpractical because without a stable population for feminist politics not much can be done for the current situation of women. The most important criticisms of Butler run along these lines. But there is also a problem with free agency in Butler s theory. This was briefly discussed earlier. Going 5 Schmidt, Gary. "Performing in Handcuffs: Leo Perutz's Zwischen neun und neun." Modern Austrian Literature 43, no. 1 (March 2010): Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011). P.10 6 Webster, Fiona. The Politics of Sex and Gender: Benhabib and Butler Debate Subjectivity. Hypatia 15, no.1 (winter 2000) Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 17, 2011).
8 Puche 8 into more detail, in Butler s theory we are entrapped in performative roles and social constraints so that the authentic self has been completely suppressed. That is to say, Butler places such an importance on culture as a determinant of the self that there is no self left to be involved in the performative roles. The performative roles become the self. This follows the lines of Wittgenstein s suggestion that we are always playing a language-game and there cannot be any thought outside the language-games because coherent, intelligible thought is always in language. And language, according to Butler, has the power to subject individuals so that there ends up being no self that can be completely set aside from all the social constructs. In this way, there is no room for free agency because the individual is so heavily influences by the culture and society. This lack of free agency is problematic for politics, because in many ways free agency needs be presupposed for politics. So a system that does not allow for free agency fails for politics. Also the lack of free agency implies that people are trapped in this perverse situation to which there is no way out. So Butler s theory ends up being quietist. Butler might say that people who claim that are misinterpreting her work. In Gender Trouble she writes If identities were no longer fixed as the premise of a political syllogism, and politics no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old. 7 But this claim does not come off as very well grounded. For once, just consider the practical implications of 7 Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 1999
9 Puche 9 what such a change would entail. But mostly, even if Butler does not think so, there is not really much room for free agency in her theory. Picking up on the lack of room for free agency, Martha Nussbaum created a well known argument against Butler s deconstructionism. Nussbaum recognizes the validity of Butler s claim that there is a prescriptive aspect of language that does end up constraining people to performative roles. But she disagrees to the degree to which it happens. For Butler, culture is such an important determinant that she disregard biology for instance, but more important than that, she denies the possibility of free agency. With this in mind Nussbaum writes that "The great tragedy in the new feminist theory in America is the loss of a sense of public commitment... Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it." 8 Along similar lines, Seyla Benhabib elaborates a criticism of Butler but she proposes a possible solution with a minimal notion of gender which is necessary in order to conduct feminist politics. She too, agrees with Butler that there is a performative aspect to language, and that gender identity labels are not all encompassing, but she refuses to let everything collapse into Butler s destructionism that cancels all discourse of gender. The real argument runs like this: Butler says that gender labels are oppressive and should be completely subverted, while Benhabib says that all that is necessary is to situate the labels and in that way identify the baggage that they carry with them 8 Nussbaum, Martha. The Professor of Parody. The New Republic Online. February Posted November 2000.
10 Puche 10 and work from there. 9 So in that way, we can have gender identities but break their power to subject individuals on grounds that they are only being used as a minimum notion in order to allow for discourse of politics and ethics regarding the situation of women. Because what Benhabib proposes is only a minimal notion, the terms would not be intended to be all inclusive and she does not fall into the downsides of using non-exclusionary language. This minimal notion of gender identity works from the perspective of Wittgenstenian common sense. What Benhabib calls is for a slight modification in the rules of certain language-games. The referents to gender cannot practically be dropped because there are many language-games that necessitate them. So, agreeing with Butler to a degree, one could say that gender labels might not be good words in a language-game of determining one self, but in some others like politics, it is very harmful to suppress such categories. In some cases these terms are necessary if anything is going to be done about the situation of the oppressed. 9 Guerra Palmero, Maria Jose. Subvertir o Situar la Identidad?: Sopesando las estrategias feministas de Judith Butler y Seyla Benhabib. Daimon Revista de Filosofía. No. 14 (1999):
11 Puche 11 Works Cited Beauvoir, Simone de. Childhood. In Second Sex Vol. 2. Translated by H.M. Parshley Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 1999 Guerra Palmero, Maria Jose. Subvertir o Situar la Identidad?: Sopesando las estrategias feministas de Judith Butler y Seyla Benhabib. Daimon Revista de Filosofía. No. 14 (1999): Cadwallader, Jessica. "How Judith Butler Matters." Australian Feminist Studies 24, no. 60 (June 2009): Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011). Nussbaum, Martha. The Professor of Parody. The New Republic Online. February Posted November Schmidt, Gary. "Performing in Handcuffs: Leo Perutz's Zwischen neun und neun." Modern Austrian Literature 43, no. 1 (March 2010): Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011). Webster, Fiona. The Politics of Sex and Gender: Benhabib and Butler Debate Subjectivity. Hypatia 15, no.1 (winter 2000) Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 17, 2011). Wittgenstein, Ludwig On Certainty. Reprinted with corrections and indices. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Translated by Danis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1967.