The Modern and the Postmodern 7th assignment {Coursera / Wesleyan}

Butler writes that gender “is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.”

Discuss how her idea of improvisation compares with notions of creativity and self-invention we have seen in one other writer we have read this semester.

The “normal-different”

Judith Butler’s “Undoing Gender” critically reflects the political feminist movement, continuing her previous work on gender theory and queer studies. In her work, the notion of gender is described as “performative” and re-defined as “a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint”. [Butler 2004: p.1]

For Butler the question is not “what is really real” or what is really feminine or masculine. She approaches the issue of gender identity not as self- defining per se but rather as a product of social rituals in combination with individual improvisation.  At this point we are presented with a paradox; although people themselves strive for obtaining a unique, genuine role within the post-modern society, the latter still dictates norms in which gender roles must be “performed”. In this way, the individual mimics- creatively enough – a theatrical performance; the mask worn is what society conforms, the artist is the individual self, seeking to please the crowd in an endless effort to reinvent himself first. The postmodern men or women become creative in search for a self – definition; they are still bound however by the politically-correct norms of society.  Society argues that “difference is […] code for heterosexual normativity” [Butler 2004: p.202-203], thus implying that any transgression could be “unliveable”.

The seemingly non-academic writing style of the author gives way to practical examples of her analysis, especially concerning linguistic discourse.  Towards the end of her book, Butler  tries to exhibit that “…a prohibition on certain forms of love becomes installed as an ontological truth about the subject: The “am” of “I am a man” encodes the prohibition “I may not love a man,”…” [Butler 2004: p.199]. Chapter 5 of her book is attributed to kinship and heterosexual dominance in family ties and role-models [Butler 2004: p.102-130]. Gay marriage – a new creative, self-inventing proposal in order to belong – is taken as case in point and the author asks herself whether conforming to legal sanction of the marriage institution actually excludes those who do not wish to adhere to the nuclear, hierarchical prototypes.

The stable pair who would marry if only they could are cast

as illegitimate but eligible for a future legitimacy, whereas the sexual

agents who function outside the purview of the marriage bond and

its recognized, if illegitimate, alternative form now constitute sexual

possibilities that will never be eligible for a translation into legitimacy.” [Butler 2004: p. 106]

Žižek is another post-modernist thinker that has been associated with creativity and the self-invented Real. His main political and philosophical inspiration is attributed to the vast applicability of Freudian psychoanalysis and radical leftist political stance. Žižek likes using hype Lacanian terms such as the “Other” and the “Real” but he frequently adorns his speech with unconventional pop culture references.  Similar to Butler, the philosopher wonders:

Why does the decline of paternal authority and fixed social and gender roles generate new guilts and anxieties, instead of opening up a brave new world in which we can enjoy shifting and reshaping our multiple identities?” [Žižek 1999]

Again we see the self-identity struggle is marred by the social surroundings which allow little room for the “Other”. Power mechanisms that dominate society are attributed to libidinal Freudian pleasure taken when one exercises / obeys the law. We are growing in a society pseudo – liberal where acceptance is a guise for further restriction of the “Self” indirectly. The postmodern man / woman is reflexive when he listens to modern day doctrines;

 “This reflexivity undermines the notion of the Post-Modern subject free to choose and reshape his identity. The psychoanalytic concept that designates the short-circuit between the repression and what it represses is the superego.” [Žižek 1999]

It seems according to both authors the pursuit of self-identity and self-invention is contrary to populace beliefs not entirely a process of creativity; it is rather marked within boundaries of what society indicates or finds acceptable. Could the term “normal different” emerge in such a context? Perhaps.

Works cited:

Butler, Judith.  “Undoing Gender”.  2004.
Žižek, Slavoj. “You May!” London Review of Books, vol. 21. March 1999. Web.  Retrieved  8th May 2013 from: