Gender as Performance
An Interview with Judith Butler
ludithButlerteaches in the Rhetoric Department at the University
of California, Berkeley. Her first book, Subjects of Desire:
Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France ( J987) traced
the dialectic ofpro- and anti-Hegelian currents in French theory
across the writings ofa wide range ofthinkers. She is best known,
however, for her second book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Subversion ofIdentity (J 990), which has proved as influential as
it is controversial in its analysis of ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’
as forms of enforced cultural performance. In particular, it has
been read by many as standing at theforefront of the new ‘queer
theory’ – a tendency within gay and lesbian studies which
foregrounds same-sex desire without specifying the sex of the
partners, in the hope of escaping the theoretical constraints of
gender difference. Gender Trouble calls into question the needfor
a stable ‘female’ identity for feminist practice, and explores the
radical potential of a critique of categories of identity. It argues
that gender identities acquire what stability and coherence they
have in the context ofthe ‘heterosexual matrix ‘. In this discursive
chaining of gender to sexuality, it is suggested, subversive
possibilities arise for making ‘gender trouble ‘. In her most recent
book, Bodies That Matter: The Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ ( J993),
Butler addresses some of the misconceptions which have
accompanied both the popularity and the notoriety of Gender
Trouble. Concentrating this time on what is meant by the materiality
of the body, she looks at the forcible production of ‘sex’, at
heterosexual presumptions, and how they can contribute to their
own subversion. In October J993, Butler came to London to give
a talk on ‘Subjection’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts,
London, and we took the opportunity to record this interview.
RP: We’d like to begin by asking you where you place your
work within the increasingly diverse field of gender studies.
Most people associate your recent writings with what has
become known as ‘queer theory’. But the emergence of gay
and lesbian studies as a discrete disciplinary phenomenon has
problematised the relationship of some of this work to
feminism. Do you see yourself primarily as a feminist or as a
queer theorist, or do you refuse the choice?
Butler: I would say that I’m a feminist theorist before I’m a queer
theorist or a gay and lesbian theorist. My commitments to feminism
are probably my primary commitments. Gender Trouble was a
critique of compulsory heterosexuality within feminism, and it
was feminists that were my intended audience. At the time I wrote
the text there was no gay and lesbian studies, as I understood it.
When the book came out, the Second Annual Conference of
Lesbian and Gay Studies was taking place in the USA, and it got
taken up in a way that I could never have anticipated. I remember
sitting next to someone at a dinner party, and he said that he was
working on queer theory. And I said: What’s queer theory? He
looked at me like I was crazy, because he evidently thought that
I was a part of this thing called queer theory. But all I knew was
that Teresa de Lauretis had published an issue of the journal
Differences called ‘Queer Theory’ . I thought it was something she
had put together. It certainly never occurred to me that I was a part
of queer theory.
I have some problems here, because I think there’s some antifeminism in queer theory. Also, insofar as some people in queer
theory want to claim that the analysis of sexuality can be radically
separated from the analysis of gender, I’m very much opposed to
them. The new Gay and Lesbian Reader that Routledge have just
published begins with a set of articles that make that claim. I think
that separation is a big mistake. Catharine MacKinnon’ s work
sets up such a reductive causal relationship betweessexuality and
gender that she came to stand for an extreme version of feminism
that had to be combatted. But it seems to me that to combat it
through a queer theory that dissociates itself from feminism
altogether is a massive mistake.
RP: Could you say something more about the sex-gender
distinction? Do you reject it or do you just reject a particular
interpretation of it? Your position on this seems to have
Butler: One of the interpretations that has been made of Gender
Trouble is that there is no sex, there is only gender, and gender is
performative. People then go on to think that if gender is
performative it must be radically free. And it has seemed to many
that the materiality of the body is vacated or ignored or negated
here – disavowed, even. (There’s a symptomatic reading of this
as somatophobia. It’s interesting to have one’s text pathologised.)
So what became important to me in writing Bodies that Matter
was to go back to the category of sex, and to the problem of
materiality, and to ask how it is that sex itself might be construed
as a norm. Now, I take it that’s a presupposition of Lacanian
psychoanalysis – that sex is a norm. But I didn’t want to remain
restricted within the Lacanian purview. I wanted to work out how
a norm actually materialises a body, how we might understand the
materiality of the body to be not only invested with a norm, but in
some sense animated by a norm, or contoured by a norm. So I have
shifted. I think that I overrode the category of sex too quickly in
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
Gender Trouble. I try to reconsider it in Bodies That Matter, and
to emphasise the place of constraint in the very production of sex.
RP: A lot of people liked Gender Trouble because they liked
the idea of gender as a kind ofimprovisational theatre, a space
where different identities can be more or less freely adopted
and explored at will. They wanted to get on with the work of
enacting gender, in order to undermine its dominant forms.
However, at the beginning of Bodies That Matter you say that,
of course, one doesn’t just voluntaristically construct or
deconstruct identities. It’s unclear to us to what extent you
want to hold onto the possibilities opened up in Gender
Trouble of being able to use transgressive performances such
as drag to help decentre or destabilise gender categories, and
to what extent you have become sceptical about this.
Butler: The problem with drag is that I offered it as an example
of performativity, but it has been taken up as the paradigm for
performativity. One ought always to be wary of one’s examples.
What’s interesting is that this voluntarist interpretation, this
desire for a kind of radical theatrical remaking of the body, is
obviously out there in the public sphere. There’s a desire for a
fully phantasmatic transfiguration of the body. But no, I don’t
think that drag is a paradigm for the subversion of gender. I don’t
think that if we were all more dragged out gender life would
become more expansive and less restrictive. There are restrictions
in drag. In fact, I argued toward the end of the book that drag has
its own melancholia.
It is important to understand performativity – which is distinct
from performance – through the more limited notion of
resignification. I’m still thinking about subversive repetition,
which is a category in Gender Trouble, but in the place of
something like parody I would now emphasise the complex ways
in which resignification works in political discourse. I suspect
there’s going to be a less celebratory, and less popular, response
to my new book. But I wanted to write against my popular image.
I set out to make myself less popular, because I felt that the
popularisation of Gende r Trouble – even though it was interesting
culturally to see what it tapped into, to see what was out there,
longing to be tapped into – ended up being a terrible
misrepresentation of what I wanted to say!
RP: Perhaps we could help to set that right here, by asking you
what you mean by ‘performativity’ – by describing gender as
performance. What’s the ontological status ofperformativity,
for example? And how does it fit into the Foucauldian discourse
about regulatory norms which you deploy? Is performativity
the generic category of which regulatory norms are historically
specific instances, or what? Are you offering us a kind of
Butler: First, it is important to distinguish performance from
performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter
contests the very notion of the subject. The place where I try to
clarify this is toward the beginning of my essay ‘Critically Queer’ ,
in Bodies that Matter. I begin with the Foucauldian premise that
power works in part through discourse and it works in part to
produce and destabilise subjects. But then, when one starts to
think carefully about how discourse might be said to produce a
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
subject, it’s clear that one’s already talking about a certain figure
or trope of production. It is at this point that it’s useful to turn to
the notion of performativity, and performative speech acts in
particular – understood as those speech acts that bring into being
that which they name. This is the moment in which discourse
becomes productive in a fairly specific way. So what I’m trying
to do is think about performativity as that aspect ofdiscourse that
has the capacity to produce what it names. Then I take a further
step, through the Derridean rewriting of Austin, and suggest that
this production actually always happens through a certain kind of
repetition and recitation. So if you want the ontology of this, I
guess performativity is the vehicle through which ontological
effects are established. Performativity is the discursive mode by
which ontological effects are installed. Something like that.
THE BODY IN QUESTION
RP: And what about the body? You see bodies as forcibly
produced through particular discourses. Some might say that
you haven’t adequately addressed the biological constraints
on bodies here. Take the female body’s capacity for
impregnation, for example. Why is it that male bodies don’t
get produced as child bearing? There are certain constraints
coming from the body itself which you don’t seem to register.
Shouldn’t you be talking about the constraints on discourse as
well as ‘the discursive limits of “sex'” .
Butler: Yes, but doesn’t everybody else talk about that? There’s
so much out there on that.
RP: But if you don’t say anything about it, people
. . will think
you don’t accept any limits.
Butler: Yes, there will be that exasperated response, but there is
a good tactical reason to reproduce it. Take your example of
impregnation. Somebody might well say: isn’t it the case that
certain bodies go to the gynecologist for certain kinds of
examination and certain bodies do not? And I would obviously
affirm that. But the real question here is: to what extent does a
body get defined by its capacity for pregnancy? Why is it
pregnancy by which that body gets defined? One might say it’s
because somebody is of a given sex that they go to the gynecologist
to get an examination that establishes the possibility of pregnancy,
or one might say that going to the gynecologist is the very
production of ‘sex’ – but it is still the question of pregnancy that
is centaring that whole institutional practice here.
Now it seems to me that, although women’s bodies generally
speaking are understood as capable of impregnation, the fact of
the matter is that there are female infants and children who cannot
be impregnated, there are older women who cannot be impregnated,
there are women of all ages who cannot be impregnated, and even
if they could ideally, that is not necessarily the salient feature of
their bodies or even of their being women. What the question does
is try to make the problematic of reproduction central to the sexing
of the body. But I am not sure that is, or ought to be, what is
absolutely salient or primary in the sexing of the body. If it is, I
think it’s the imposition of a norm, not a neutral description of
I do not deny certain kinds of biological differences. But I
always ask under what conditions, under what discursive and
institutional conditions, do certain biological differences – and
they’re not necessary ones, given the anomalous state of bodies in
the world – become the salient characteristics of sex. In that sense
I’m still in sympathy with the critique of ‘sex’ as a political
category offered by Monique Wittig. I still very much believe in
the critique of the category of sex and the ways in which it’s been
constrained by a tacit institution of compulsory reproduction.
It’s a practical problem. If you are in your late twenties or your
early thirties and you can’t get pregnant for biological reasons, or
maybe you don’t want to, for social reasons – whatever it is – you
are struggling with a norm that is regulating your sex. It takes a
pretty vigorous (and politically informed) community around you
to alleviate the possible sense of failure, or loss, or impoverishment,
or inadequacy – a collective struggle to rethink a dominant norm.
Why shouldn’t it be that a woman who wants to have some part
in child-rearing, but doesn’t want to have a part in child-bearing,
or who wants to have nothing to do with either, can inhabit her
gender without an implicit sense of failure or inadequacy? When
people ask the question ‘Aren’t these biological differences?’,
they’re not really asking a question about the materiality of the
body. They’re actually asking whether or not the social institution
of reproduction is the most salient one for thinking about gender.
In that sense, there is a discursive enforcement of a norm.
THE HETEROSEXUAL COMEDY
RP: This leads us to the question of heterosexuality.
Butler: I don’t know much about heterosexuality!
RP: Don’t worry, it’s a theoretical question. You have argued
that one thing the gay/lesbian pair can give to heterosexuals
is the knowledge of heterosexuality as both compulsory system
and inevitable comedy. Could you say more about why it’s
inevitably a comedy. If we understand heterosexuality as
repetitive performance, why does the performance always
fail? What is it that makes it fail, that means it can only ever
be a copy of itself, a copy of something it can never fully be?
Butler: Maybe there’s a relationship between anxiety and
repetition that needs to be underscored here. I think one of the
reasons that heterosexuality has to re-elaborate itself, to
ritualistically reproduce itself all over the place, is that it has to
overcome some constitutive sense of its own tenuousness.
Performance needs to be rethought here as a ritualistic reproduction,
in terms of what I now call ‘performativity’.
RP: But what creates this tenuousness?
Butler: Why is it tenuous? Well, it’s a fairly funny way of being
in the world. I mean, how is it – as Freud asked in the Three Essays
on the Theory ofSexuality – that you get this polymorphous, or at
least minimally bisexual, being to craft its sexuality in such a way
that it’s focused exclusively on a member of the opposite sex, and
wants to engage with that person in some kind of genital sex?
RP: So you’d give a psychoanalytical answer. We thought you
might have a more Foucauldian response. Does the above
apply to all social categories?
Butler: No, it applies to all sexual positions. It’s not just the norm
of heterosexuality that is tenuous. It’s all sexual norms. I think that
every sexual position is fundamentally comic. If you say ‘I can
only desire X’, what you’ve immediately done, in rendering
desire exclusively, is created a whole set of positions which are
unthinkable from the standpoint of your identity. Now, I take it
that one of the essential aspects of comedy emerges when you end
up actually occupying a position that you have just announced to
be unthinkable. That is funny. There’s a terrible self-subversion
When they were debating gays in the military on television in
the United States a senator got up and laughed, and he said, ‘I must
say, I know very little about homosexuality. I think I know less
about homosexuality than about anything else in the world.’ And
it was a big announcement of his ignorance of homosexuality.
Then he immediately
which suggested that he
thinks that homosexuals
only have sex in public
bathrooms, that they are
all skinny, that they’re all
male, etc, etc. So what he
actually has is a very
aggressive and fairly
obsessive relationship to
the homosexuality that of
course he knows nothing
about. At that moment you
realise that this person
who claims to have
nothing to do with
homosexuality is in fact
utterly preoccupied by it.
I do not think that these
exclusions are indifferent.
Some would disagree with me on this and say: ‘Look, some
people are just indifferent. A heterosexual can have an indifferent
relationship to homosexuality. It doesn’t really matter what other
people do. I haven’t thought about it much, it neither turns me on
nor turns me off. I’mjust sexually neutral in that regard.’ I don’t
believe that. I think that crafting a sexual position, or reciting a
sexual position, always involves becoming haunted by what’s
excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost,
and the more threatening it is in some way. I don’t know if that’s
a Foucauldian point. It’s probably a psychoanalytic point, but
that’s not finally important to me.
RP: Would it apply to homosexuals’ relationship to
Butler: Yes, absolutely.
RP: Although presumably not in the same way …
Butler: Yes, there’s a different problem here, and it’s a tricky one.
When the woman in the audience at my talk said ‘I survived
lesbian feminism and still desire women’, I thought that was a
really great line, because one of the problems has been
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
the normative requirement that has emerged within some lesbianfeminist communities to come up with a radically specific lesbian
sexuality. (Of course, not all lesbian feminism said this, but a
strain of it did.) Whatever you were doing in your sexual relations
with women had to be very much between women. It could have
no hint of heterosexuality in it. In the early days that included a
taboo on penetration. More recently, there have been questions
about relations of domination and submission, about sadomasochism, questions of pornography, of exhibitionism, of dildoes,
and any number of fetishistic displays. The question is: are these
‘practices straight, or can they be made gay? And if they can be
made gay, can they be radically and irreducibly gay? Because we
don’t want to be seen as somehow borrowing from, or copying, or
miming heterosexual culture.
I guess this is my Hegelianism: one is defined as much by what
one is not as by the position that one explicitly inhabits. There is
a constitutive interrelationship. Lesbians make themselves into a
more frail political community by insisting on the radical
irreducibility of their desire. I don’t think any of us have irreducibly
distinct desires. One might say that there are heterosexual structures
that get played out in gay and lesbian scenes, but that does not
constitute the co-option of homosexuality by heterosexuality. If
anything it’s the reterritorialization of heterosexuality within
RP: It’s interesting that you refer to your Hegelianism here.
To what extent would you be prepared to characterise your
work as ‘dialectical’? Most people who use Foucault and
Derrida, for example, in the way you do, would want to resist
the notion of dialectic.
Butler: I don’t know if I resist the notion of dialectic. I certainly
think that it has to be supplemented. I would say that in the
construction of any binary – when we take masculine and feminine
as a binary, for example – what’s interesting is not just how the
masculine presupposes the feminine, and ‘is’ the feminine in the
Hegelian sense, or the feminine presupposes and ‘is’ the masculine,
but how a field is produced in which there are these two mutually
exclusive and mutually defining possibilities, and only these two.
There are a set of exclusions that are made in the production of any
binary, and those exclusions never make their way into intelligent
discourse. That’s where the notion of the abject comes in. I accept
the Derridean notion that every dialectical opposition is produced
through a set of exclusions, and that what is outside the dialectic
– which is not a negation – cannot be contained by the dialectic.
This provides the opportunity for an important critical reflection
on the limitations of dialectical opposition.
RP: Speaking of binaries, it is interesting, isn’t it, the quite
pivotal role which discussions oflesbian sexuality have had in
feminist approaches to sexuality since the 1970s. Amber
Hollibaugh said that at one point all feminists were trying to
have sex the way they thought dykes were doing it. Then later
on, in response to the puritanism which some feminists ended
up adopting because of this, it was lesbian discussions that
introduced a new sexual radicalism. All the way through
feminist discussion of sexuality, discussions about lesbian
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
sexuality have been in the vanguard of how to think about sex.
Butier: Yes, some of the romanticising of lesbianism is a
consequence of heterosexual guilt, which is the corollary of the
phenomenon that I’m talking about. If what is radically lesbian is
over here, untainted by heterosexuality, then heterosexuality is
constructed as a phenomenon that can only be staining or hurtful.
And when it emerges within lesbianism, it is the selling out of
lesbianism. And for the straight or bisexual woman, this opposition
reconsolidates gUilt. This has kept us from really thinking through
the comedy of heterosexuality – the compulsory and comic
character of heterosexuality – because that means in some sense
to own it. On the other hand, I think it’ s impoverished our analyses
of lesbianism and bisexuality as well. The other way this logic
works is to make bisexuality into a sell-out position or a traitorous
position, or a duplicitous position. That’s a horribly moralising
and unfruitful way to think about it.
RP: You yourself have made quite a move, haven’t you, from
over a decade ago, when you contributed to the book Against
Butler: No, that wasn’t me, that was someone else with my name!
RP: It wasn’t you?
Butler: Okay, it was me, but I disavow it. I was really young! I
was really guilt-tripped by feminism. That essay is very ambivalent
about the notion that sexuality and power are co-extensive, but I
didn’t yet know how to reflect on that ambivalence in a nonmoralising way.
PSYCHOANALYSIS & THE SYMBOLIC
RP: Perhaps we could go back to psychoanalysis at this point.
Gender Trouble contains a fairly severe critique of the
psychoanalytical perspective on sexual difference. Yet
psychoanalysis has since come to play an increasingly central
role in your work. How useful do you find psychoanalysis for
your theorisation of gender?
Butler: I probably misled you earlier. I don’t actually accept
Freud’s postulation of a primary bisexuality or pol ymorphousness,
although I do think that any given sexual arrangement is peculiar,
and not necessary. The problem I have with Freud’s articulation
of bisexuality is that it is actually heterosexuality. There’s the
feminine part that wants a.masculine object, and the masculine
part that wants a feminine one. Swell, we have two heterosexual
desires and we’re going to call that bisexuality. So I reject that.
I also think that polymorphousness is a fantasy: the minute
you’re born into the world you’re interpolated in various ways.
But this is where I would stop – this is where I would depart from
both a structuralist psychoanalysis and a more developmental
object-relations one. Because at that moment they’re going to
start saying: ‘you’re subject to the law of sexual difference from
the minute you’re born in the world’. And that law becomes
unalterable. There are various relationships to it that can be taken,
but the law itself remains unalterable. Or there’s a developmental
trajectory, differentiation from the mother, etc., which leads to
certain kinds of object formations, or formations of attachment.
This is where I want to take these models apart, because I feel
that’s the moment at which a certain kind of heterosexual norm is
I think there’s a really strong heterosexualizing imperative in
the Lacanian account of the Oedipal phase, the Oedipal scene, one
should say. And I also think that in object relations theory
lesbianism is almost always figured as a certain kind of fusion,
which I find extremely problematic. On the other hand, there is
much in psychoanalytic perspectives that is very valuable. It is the
best way we have of understanding how sexual positions are
assumed. It is the best account of the psyche – and psychic
subjection – that we have. I don’t think one can offer an account
of how sexuality is formed without psychoanalysis. But I also
think that the psychoanalytic sciences are part of the forming of
sexuality, and have become more and more part of that forming.
I’m with Foucault on that. They don’t simply report on the life of
the infant, they’ve become part of the crafting of that life.
RP: We’d like to turn to your critique of the tripartite
Lacanian division of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real
at this point. One thing we found particularly interesting was
the way you criticised Lacan’s division between the imaginary
and the symbolic by arguing that the role of the phallus in
making that distinction is homologous to the role of the bodily
image in the mirror phase. So entry into the symbolic is
actually merely an extension of the imaginary, and what
Lacanians call the symbolic, and reify into the law of the
father, is in fact only a
RP: We have two problems
with this. The first is that,
as we understand Lacan,
the imaginary is always
already symbolic, so ‘entry’
into the symbolic is simply
the point at which the
symbolic character of the
imaginary becomes clear.
Secondly, although your
critique dethrones the
phallus from its position of
psychic absolutism in the
Lacanian symbolic, on the other hand what you call the
‘heterosexual matrix’ stands in for it. So although the phallus
is no longer king by virtue of some kind of psychic law, there’s
a Foucauldian, historicist equivalent to it, which is equally
absolute. It may be socially and historically produced, but you
treat it as being just as absolute within the present.
Butler: Good question. Two responses. One is that although I
would accept the notion that every speaking being is born into a
symbolic order that is always-already-there, I think the Lacanians
describe that order, and the status of its always-already-thereness,
in too static away. The symbolic is repeatedly produced,
reproduced, and possibly derailed. I agree with Derrida here in his
analysis of structure in ‘Structure, Sign and Play’ in Writing and
Difference. A structure only becomes a structure by repeating its
structurality. Iterability is the way in which a structure gets
solidified, but it also implies the possibility of that structure’s
derailment. So I do think the symbolic is always-already-there,
but it’s also always in the process of being made, and remade. It
can’t continue to exist without the ritualistic productions whereby
it is continuously reinstalled. And it gets reinstalled through an
imaginary idealisation which is rendered as symbolic, as necessary
and as immutable. The symbolic is the rendering immutable of
RP: And where does this come from – the rendering
Butler: It’s what Lacan gives us as the mirror stage. When we talk
about the operation of the imaginary, we’re talking about a
misrecognition by which an idealised version of oneself is taken
to be oneself.
RP: So you believe in the mirror phase?
Butler: Believe in the mirror phase! I think it allegorises a certain
kind of idealising move that continuously misrepresents and
idealises the ego. And I think the phallus is precisely such an
idealisation. Now, if that’s true, and if the mirror stage is part of
the imaginary, then the phallus is nothing other than an imaginary
and impossible idealisation of the masculine. The symbolic gets
reproduced by taking imaginary projections and recasting them as
law. That’s much more of a Freudian approach than a Lacanian
one. But I don’t mind that. I’m probably closer to-Freud than I am
to Lacan. There’s more leeway, more complexity, in Freud.
RP: And slightly less authoritarianism?
Butler: Well, at least he throws up his hands every once in a while
and says, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing here’! At least he models
a certain self-questioning. As for your second point – the
heterosexual matrix – I think you’re right about Gender Trouble.
The heterosexual matrix became a kind of totalising symbolic,
and that’s why I changed the term in Bodies That Matter to
heterosexual hegemony. This opens the possibility that this is a
matrix which is open to rearticulation, which has a kind of
malleability. So I don’t actually use the term heterosexual matrix
in Bodies That Matter.
RP: Presumably, the dependence of coherent genders on a
‘compulsory’ heterosexual framing couldn’t be universalised,
anthropologically, could it?
Butler: Well, you could probably make an argument that gender
positions within culture are in some ways related to positions
within reproductive relations. But it would be a bit of a leap to
claim that those reproductive relations involve compulsory
heterosexuality, since there are cultures that accommodate
reproductive relations without mandating heterosexuality.
There’s a very specific notion of gender involved in compulsory
heterosexuality: a certain view of gender coherence whereby
what a person feels, how a person acts, and how a person
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
expresses herself sexually is the articulation and consummation
of a gender. It’s a particular causality and identity that gets
established as gender coherence which is linked to compulsory
heterosexuality. It’s not any gender, or all gender, it’s that specific
kind of coherent gender.
RP: Psychoanalytically, this leads us in the direction of the
Lacanian ‘real’. One way that someone like Zizek would
respond to your erosion of the fixity of the Lacanian symbolic
by the fluidity ofimaginary identifications would be to appeal
to the ‘real’ as the ultimate bedrock of a compulsory
construction of this kind of coherent gender. How would you
respond to that?
Butler: That’s where I get scared. He wants to make it permanent,
and we’re the permanent outside. It’s as if we’ve got girls, we’ve
got boys, and then we have the permanent outside. No w~y!
We’ve got lots of people rolling around the streets who are the
‘outside’ to girls and boys who Zizek is naming as the impossible
real. It’s a hell of a thing to live in the world being called the
impossible real- being called the traumatic, the unthinkable, the
psychotic – being cast outside the social, and getting named as the
unli vable and the unspeakable. This worries me. What he’s doing
is consolidating these binaries as absolutely necessary. He’s
rendering a whole domain of social life that does not fully
conform to prevalent gender norms as psychotic and unlivable.
RP: You find a moralising compulsion in Zizek’s Lacanianism?
Butler: The line between psychosis and the social and sexual
positionalities that have been rendered abject or unthinkable in
our society is very fuzzy. The structural rigidity of the symbolic
in Zizek’s work runs the risk of producing a domain of psychosis
that may well be a social domain. One of the problems with
homosexuality is that it does represent psychosis to some people.
Many people feel that who they are as egos in the world, whatever
imaginary centres they have, would be radically dissolved were
they to engage in homosexual relations. They would rather die
than engage in homosexual relations. For these people
homosexuality represents the prospect of the psychotic dissolution
of the subject. How are we to distinguish that phobic abjection of
homosexuality from what Zizek calls the real- where the real is
that which stands outside the symbolic pact and which threatens
the subject within the symbolic pact with psychosis?
THE LESBIAN PHALLUS
RP: Could you say something about what you mean by the
‘lesbian phallus’? Presumably, it’s part of your counterhegemonic struggle against the phallus itself …
Butler: I thought it was kind of funny. People get a little worried
RP: Some people take it literally and say: ‘I know just what
it is, 1 keep three of them in my drawer.’
Butler: Yes, that’s unfortunate, -an unfortunate literalization! I
wouldn’t exclude it, but it would be a problem for me if the lesbian
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
phallus were reduced to the notion of the dildo. That would ruin
its speCUlative force.
So, what does it signify? Well, in the first place, it’s a
contradiction in terms for most people who talk about the phallus,
to the extent that ‘having’ the phallus and ‘being’ the phallus
within the Lacanian framework correspond to a masculine position
and a feminine position, respectively. In the lesbian the having
and the being are in relation to one another (although of course
Lacan would say this is not a relation at all). To claim that the
lesbian either has or is the phallus is already to disrupt the
presumptive alignment of
masculinity with having and
femininity with being, and with
that, the relation in which they are
However, I wanted to do more
crossings than that. I wanted to
suggest that having and being are
not mutually exclusive positions,
and that there are a variety of
identificatory possibilities that get
animated within homosexuality
bisexuality, which cannot be
easily reduced to that particular
framework. Of course, there’s
also a joke in ‘The Lesbian
Phallus’ because to have the
phallus in Lacan is also to control
the signifier. It is to write and to
name, to authorise and to
designate. So in some sense I’m
wielding the lesbian phallus in
offering my critique of the
Lacanian framework. It’s a certain
model for lesbian authorship. It’s
RP: Could there also be the
female heterosexual phallus?
Butler: Yes, but that’s been
around for a while. The female
heterosexual phallus has been the
phallic mother. The way it usually
works is that when the woman
has it she becomes the phallic
mother, and she becomes
RP: Couldn’t one have it
without being the mother?
Butler: That’s the question: why
is it that when the woman is said
to have the phallus she can only
be the terrifying engulfing
mother? What would it mean to
separate the heterosexual woman who has the phallus from the
phallic mother? It’s an important thing to do.
RP: Perhaps we could move on to the politics of queer theory,
and in particular to the ideas of subversive repetition and
transgressive reinscription, which we touched on earlier when
we asked you about drag. Alan Sinfield has suggested that the
problem with supposedly subversive representations of gender
is that they’re always recuperable. The dominant can always
find a way of dismissing them and reaffirming itself. On the
other hand, Jonathan Dollimore has argued that they’re not
always recuperable, but that any queer reading or subversive
performance, any challenge to dominant representations of
gender, can only be sustained as such collectively. It’s only
within critical subcultures that transgressive reinscriptions
are going to make a difference. How do you respond to these
views on the limits of a queer politics of representation?
Butler: I think that Sinfield is right to say that any attempt at
subversion is potentially recuperable. There is no way to safeguard
against that. You can’t plan or calculate subversion. In fact, I
would say that subversion is precisely an incalculable effect.
That’s what makes it subversive. As for the question of how a
certain challenge becomes legible, and whether a rendering
. requires a certain collectivity, that seems right too. But I also think
that subversive practices have to overwhelm the capacity to read,
challenge conventions of reading, and demand new possibilities
For instance, when Act Up (the lesbian and gay activist group)
first started performing Die-ins on the streets of New York, it was
extremely dramatic. There had been street theatre, a tradition of
demonstrations, and the tradition from the civil disobedience side
of the civil rights movement of going limp and making policemen
take you away: playing dead. Those precedents or conventions
were taken up in the Die-in, where people ‘die’ all at once. They
went down on the street, all at once, and white lines were drawn
around the bodies, as if they were police lines marking the place
of the dead. It was a shocking symbolisation. It was legible insofar
as it was drawing on conventions that had been produced within
previous protest cultures, but it was a renovation. It was a new
adumbration of a certain kind of civil disobedience. And it was
extremely graphic. It made people stop and have to read what was
There was confusion. People didn’t know at first, why these
people were playing dead. Were they actually dying, were they
actually people with AIDS? Maybe they were, maybe they
weren’t. Maybe they were HIV positive, maybe they weren’t.
There were no ready answers to those questions. The act posed a
set of questions without giving you the tools to read off the
answers. What I worry about are those acts that are more
immediately legible. Those are the ones that I think are most
readily recuperable. But the ones that challenge our practices of
reading, that make us uncertain about how to read, or make us
think that we have to renegotiate the way in which we read public
signs, these seem really important to me.
The Kiss-ins that Queer Nation did at various shopping malls
were quite outrageous. There had been Kiss-ins in front of the
Supreme Court when gay statutes were being discussed. I think
that was the first one, actually, the Kiss-in at the Supreme Court
building. (I was invited but I didn’t go, because I didn’t want to
kiss just anybody!) They worked for a while, but they always run
the risk of becoming tropes. Once they’ve been read, once they’re
done too often, they become deadened tropes, as it were. They
become predictable. And it’s precisely when they get predictable,
or when you know how to read them in advance, or you know
what’s coming, that they just don’t work any more.
RP: So they’re most subversive when the subculture itself is
still struggling over them? When one group of lesbians, for
example, are trying to smash up the screen and rip the film out
of the projector, while the other ones are saying ‘Yes, this is
a really usefully rethinking of female sexuality, look how it
undoes the heterosexual reading by placing the lesbian couple
differently within the scenario’, etc?
Butler: Right. Some people would say that we need a ground
from which to act. We need a shared collective ground for
collective action. I think we need to pursue the moments of
degrounding, when we’re standing in two different places at once;
or we don’t know exactly where we’re standing; or when we’ve
produced an aesthetic practice that shakes the ground. That’s
where resistance to recuperation happens. It’s like a breaking
through to a new set of paradigms.
RP: What are the relations of this kind of symbolic politics to
more traditional kinds of political practice? Presumably, its
function is in some way tied to the role of mass media in the
political systems of advanced capitalist societies, where
representations play a role they don’t necessarily have
Butler: Yes, I agree.
RP: Yet at the same time, it is a crucial part of this role that
the domain of representation often remains completely cut off
from effective political action. One might argue that the
reason a politics of representation is so recuperable is precisely
because it remains within the domain of representation – that
it is only an adjunct to the business of transforming the
relationship ofsociety to the state, establishing new institutions,
or changing the law. How would you respond to that?
Butler: First of all, I oppose the notion that the media is monolithic.
It’s neither monolithic nor does it act only and always to
domesticate. Sometimes it ends up producing images that it has no
control over. This kin? of unpredictable effect can emerge right
out of the centre of a conservative media without an awareness
that it is happening. There are ways of exploiting the dominant
media. The politics of aesthetic representation has an extremely
important place. But it is not the same as struggling to change the
law, or developing strong links with political officials, or amassing
major lobbies, or the kinds of things needed by the grassroots
movement to overturn anti-sodomy restrictions, for example.
I used to be part of a guerrilla theatre group called LIPS – it
stood for nothing, which I loved – and now I’m contemplating
joining the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human
Rights Commission. There’s nothing to keep me from doing one
rather than the other. For me, it does not have to be a choice. Other
people are particularly adept working in the health care fields,
doing AIDS activism – which includes sitting on the boards of
major chemical corporations – doing lobbying work, phoning, or
being on the street. The Foucauldian in me says there is no one site
from which to struggle effectively. There have to be many, and
they don’t need to be reconciled with one another.
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
DEMOCRACY AT LARGE
RP: Do you see the success of these kinds of sexual politics as
depending on their connection to broader left-liberal alliances?
Or do you view them more autonomously, more defensively
perhaps, as part of a separate sphere which will have to look
after itself, since its agenda is treated with such suspicion or
contempt by the mainstream?
Butler: I don’t think that I could make the gay arena into the
fundamental one, and then approach questions of racism or
feminism, for example, within the context of the gay movement.
I understand myself as a progressive anti-Zionist Jew. I think my
Jewish background is more formative than anything else – which
is probably why I can’t write about it. My agony and shame over
the State of Israel is enormous, and the kind of contributions I
make in that domain have very little to do with my being queer.
They may have something to do with being a woman, but they’re
more closely related to certain kinds of anti-racist views that I
I don’t believe that states ought to be based on race. It puts
Israel on a par with South Africa. I’m willing to make that
analogy, and I’m also willing to talk about the economic and
military arrangements that those two countries have between
them. So I feel left of the Jewish left in this particular way. I was
touring recently in Germany. I was supposed to be talking about
gender, but I ended up only talking about race. I started writing
about racism and responsibility in the German press. (There’s a
debate going on about the relationship between the Turks, as the
new Jews, and German guilt, and how guilt relates to responsibility.)
It’s a whole other venue for me.
It’s extremely important to find ways to work between these
various struggles. The absence of a common grounding on the left
has been very problematic. It’s produced new forms of identity
politics without developing a vocabulary for making connections.
Unfortunately, there are people from the New Left in the United
States, mainly white men who are feeling a little left out of things,
who are more than happy to supply the ground. I know that some
people have worried about Cultural Studies offering itself as an
umbrella organisation for this kind of realignment within the
academy. But it depends what they’re talking about. Cultural
studies in the United States is very different from what it is in
Britain. It’s often at some distance from the kind of global
political analyses offered by Stuart Hall.
RP: Perhaps we could return, briefly, to your Foucauldianism
here. Implicit in what you have been saying (and it was explicit
in your talk at the ICA), is a distinction between enabling and
regressive practices and interpellations – although, of course,
some practices might be both enabling and regressive at the
same time. The question that immediately arises is: what’s the
criterion for the distinction? What are the grounds for
affirming some norms and rejecting others?
Butler: The trouble with the question of theoretical grounds is
that it presupposes that we live outside of these norms, that we can
witness them and engage them by a set of standards that are not
inherent in the practices that we’re analysing. What worries me
most is that form of rationalist imperialism that thinks it has
access to a set of principles extracted from practices, that it can
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994
then apply to other practices. The Habermasian recourse to
normative grounds is nothing other than an extraction of a
contingent set of norms from practices – abstraction and
decontextualisation – and then a re-application of those norms
universally. It strikes me as circular and politically wrong. There’s
a really problematic circularity in that notion of normativity.
Whenlsay ‘enabling’, I would admit, sure, there’s a normative
direction in my work, but I would hope that there is no normative
ground. I don’t think that in order to have a viable normative
direction you need a ground. If! want to claim and describe certain
ways of producing gender as restrictive or cruel, that entails that
I have some more expansive or complex view of what gender
might be. I’m willing to say that without filling in the content of
what that’s going to be, or prescribing an ideal norm for what
that’s going to be. I am in favour of opening up certain kinds of
practices, be they sexual or gender practices, as sites of contestation
and rearticulation. In one sense, that is enough for me. I see that
as part of a democratic culture.
RP: The refusal to rationalistically foreclose the results of
Butler: Yes, and the opening up of spaces for a certain kind of
democratic contestation, or more locally, for a contestation of
RP: But doesn’t the very notion of a democratic contestation
itself imply a norm of some kind of equality of input to the
contest? That would be the Habermasian point, I suppose.
Butler: Except that the Habermasians tend to impose an
exclusionary norm in constructing the notion of the subject whose
‘input’ would count.
RP: We’d like to end by asking you how you see the future of
Butler: Catharine MacKinnon has become so powerful as the
public spokesperson for feminism, internationally, that I think
that feminism is going to have to start producing some powerful
alternatives to what she’s saying and doing – ones that can
acknowledge her intellectual strength and not demonise her,
because I do think there’s an anti-feminist animus against her,
which one should be careful not to encourage. Certainly, the
paradigm of victimisation, the over-emphasis on pornography,
the cultural insensitivity and the universalisation of ‘rights’ – all
of that has to be countered by strong feminist positions.
What’s needed is a dynamic and more diffuse conception of
power, one which is committed to the difficulty of cultural
translation as well as the need to rearticulate ‘universality’ in nonimperialist directions. This is difficult work and it’s no longer
viable to seek recourse to simple and paralysing models of
structural oppression. But even here, in opposing a dominant
conception of power in feminism, I am still ‘in’ or ‘of’ feminism.
And it’s this paradox that has to be worked, for there can be no
pure opposition to power, only a recrafting of its terms from
resources invariably impure.
Interviewed by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal
London, October 1993