My WomanTheory story: Sylvie Allendyke on Judith Butler

bulterI think it might be the audacity of Judith Butler’s work that I have found most compelling, her daring and questioning of where we begin. In particular it has been Gender Trouble (1990), and The Psychic Life of Power (1997) that have changed inquiry for me. In Undoing Gender (2004) Butler wryly suggests that she is a “bad materialist” because when she starts to write about the body, it always ends up being about language; but here I would suggest that her ‘bad-materialist-writing’ produces a profoundly-visceral-reading. The muscularity of her prose, the sinewy sentences that do not end either when I would expect, or when I would like, produced in me a straining and a retraining. I couldn’t just read her work, I had to read-write-analyse her work from the get go.

In Gender Trouble she questions the order of things, the way in which we go about politics, what we take for granted in building our politics and identities; particularly which bodies enact a foundation on which we can stand and say “I”. There is much in the quote below that has provoked thought for me, particularly the idea of ‘failing to conform to normative requirements’. In my own work I have used this unsettling of the foundations of identity politics to explore the way in which the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) produces, and forecloses, identities in the context of ‘eating disorder’. In other words, if we move away from seeing difference as pathology, and move to the possibilities of difference as identity there still remain those who are produced as surplus: not worthy of the label, to quote Joanne, a young woman who helped me to engage with difference and relationships to feeding the body. It is perhaps the final sentence of the quote, that I find most twinkle, the idea that “[p]erhaps, paradoxically, ‘representation’ will be shown to make sense for feminism only when the subject of ‘women’ is nowhere presumed” (1990: 8). I love this idea for the way in which it takes to task presumptions, which are always already materially situated, about how, who and what a body is or may become:

“In the course of this effort to question ‘woman’ as the subject of feminism, the unproblematic invocation of that category may prove to preclude the possibility of feminism as a representational politics. What sense does it make to extend representation to subjects who are constructed through the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the subject? What relations of domination and exclusion are inadvertently sustained when representation becomes the sole focus of politics? The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation. Perhaps, paradoxically, ‘representation’ will be shown to make sense for feminism only when the subject of ‘women’ is nowhere presumed.” (1990: 8)

Sylvie Allendyke

Research Associate

Manchester Metropolitan University

http://www.esri.mmu.ac.uk/resstaff/profile.php?surname=Allendyke&name=Sylvie

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