Sunday, March 16, 2008

In the name of the Maternal Body and Herculine Barbin

Part 3: Subversive Bodily Acts

I. The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva

In this section Butler goes about deconstructing Julia Kristeva's theory of the semiotic dimension of language in which she bases much of her argument off of Lacan's theory of "the Symbolic." Since I knew nothing about the semiotic (Butler assumes her audience is as well read as her) I looked it up to get a better grasp of it. This website may not be 100% dependable but it was able to break down the "semiotic" for me.

The "semiotic" is a language directly connected to the maternal body. "For Kristeva, the semiotic expresses that original libidinal multiplicity within the very terms of culture, more precisely, within poetic language..."(108) This poetic language within the maternal body attempts to "disrupt, subvert, and displace the paternal law." (108) Butler is critical of Kristeva's theory of the semiotic because she is basing her very argument off of the paternal law and therefore perpetuates its very existence and dominance. Butler tries to "show how the failure of her (Kristeva's) political strategy follows in part from her largely uncritical appropriation of drive theory." (109) Kristeva believes that we all have drives and some are repressed through our existing language in the paternal law. There is a "multiplicity" of drives that are repressed are then expressed disobediently through a poetic language grounded in the maternal body. It is grounded in the maternal body because we have all shared the experience of actually living in the maternal body. This maternal body represents a "continuity rather than a discrete subject or object of desire" (110) which the Symbolic desire proclaims.

I am trying to clarify whether or not Butler is stating this or if she is stating this is where Kristeva's theory falters (I'm guessing it's the latter.) This semiotic language comes from a connection to the mother, it is natural and rhythmic therefore it is primitive to the paternal law...? Is this not perpetuating the dichotomy that "women" are more connected to the earth and less rational because of it? And that men are more rational and civilized therefore must create a patriarchal language to set themselves above this maternal body and primitive language?
This must be where Butler believes Kristeva goes wrong in her theory.

I was also confused by the connection of a psychosis language to the maternal body. Is that really a true connection along with the connection with infants and mothers? Are psychotic people the only ones that truly understand themselves enough to reject and subvert from the paternal law and speak in tongues or their "mother tongue"?

Does that make any sense or am I just spouting out "glossalalias"?

Butler then explains that the homosexuality and childbirth are the only forms of semiotic that "can be sustained within the the terms of the Symbolic." (115) Homosexuality is a break from the paternal law because it portrays a multiplicity of drives (or that is what I have gathered from all of this.) Butler also states that a complete rejection of the Symbolic is impossible (116.) While the semiotic is a "nice try" in subversion from the paternal law, it is not possible because she uses the paternal law to produce her theory through the language. Butler poses the question: "how do we know that the instinctual object of Kristeva's discourse is not a construction of the discourse itself?" (120)

And of course that is a brilliant point to bring up but couldn't Butler ask herself that very same question when it is all boiled down to nothing? I mean she is still speaking English somewhat. If she really wants to avoid using reject this paternal law and discourse she should create her own language. (And of course it always goes back to the language for Butler and Butler basically knows everything that is wrong with everyone else's theories.) The End. But not really the end...ever.

II. Foucault, Herculine, and the Politics of Sexual Discontinuity

Butler starts out this chapter by discussing Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality and the story of Herculine Barbin, the 19th-century French hermaphrodite. Butler explains that there is a disconnect between Foucault's theory of sexuality in The History of Sexuality and his writings and studies of Herculine's tragic life. Butler believes that "he fails to recognize the concrete relations of power that both construct and condemn Herculine's sexuality." (128) I thought it was very interesting when she described Foucault's theory of sexuality and that the analysis of sexuality pretty much became simplified into the analysis of sex. And this very simplification became problematic for all sexualities.

I also thought his ideas on being "sexed" were very interesting along with critiques of feminism...if I understood them correctly. Feminists are subjecting themselves to a set of social regulations by using the "binary restrictions on gender as a point of departure" for their arguments. (130)

Anyway, the chapter goes on to analyze Herculine or Alexina's life and struggles with gender or rather the law's and science's struggle with her gender or "non-identity." Herculine was a threat to the very system that sexuality, sex, and gender were built on therefore they constantly tried to define her. They tried to justify her sexuality and attractions to women by finding as many signs of masculinity as possible. This story is proof enough that sex has everything to do with power because with the smallest of threats all hell breaks loose!

Foucault describes Herculine to be in a "happy limbo of non-identity" state and that maybe this is possibly what homosexuals also experience because of their bodily likeness. I felt as if Butler was putting words into Foucault's mouth when she questioned his "happy limbo of non-identity" even though what she was saying did make sense. By saying homosexuality promotes a non-identity state which then presumes that heterosexuality promotes a identity state. Then it was almost as if Butler was psychoanalyzing Foucault in her comparison to Herculine. At that point I thought she was going crazy but maybe she really is on to something...or maybe this is just her way of saying she can relate to both Foucault and Herculine as well??? Hmmmm...

*Concluding Unscientific Postscript*

In this section Butler talks about a biological study at MIT in 1987 conducted by Dr. David Page. Dr Page claimed from this study that they found "the binary switch upon which hinges all sexually di-morphic characteristics." (145) He then made the claim that "perhaps it was not the presence of the gene sequence in males versus its absence in females (X and Y chromosomes) that was determining, but that is was active in males and passive in females." (146) Which Butler humorously responds "Aristotle Lives! What was not included in this study but Anne Fausto-Sterling reveals is that the subjects in the study were "far from unambiguous in their anatomical and reproductive constitutions." (146) In the end these people were being gendered only upon their external genitals, whether or not they were functional making their research into the "master gene" hardly necessary. In the end, it is all brought back to language, a language being used not only by our society but also through science to perpetuate these restrictive and damaging gender binaries.


Emily N. said...

First, I love your She-Hulk (interesting how she is defined in terms of her male counterpart).
I also really appreciated your definition of semiotic, because the Merriam-Webster definition I was going off of was very confusing to me in the contexts that Butler used it.
I also found Butler's pseudo-psychoanalysis of Foucault to be fairly provocative in the assumptions Butler makes about Foucault relating to Herculine. She interprets some of Foucault's judgements of Herculine as insecurities he has about his identity, which makes me think about the impossibility of an objective perspective on sex and gender because everyone in our society subscribes to some permutation of sexual and gender identity.

Matt said...

You were able to bring up Butler's views of Feminism as something that depends upon the "binary restrictions on gender" and, without your insight, I may have glossed over that important part of her argument. She's consistently bringing her argument full circle. Will such an emphasis on what constitutes identity, as you brought up with her critique(?) of Foucault, we're right back to where she began the book, post-prefaces, regarding the characteristics of the female vs. the male and the masculine vs. the feminine.

Anya G said...

Interesting that you point out that Butler is susceptible to the same criticisms about language that she applies to Kristeva. As you say, she is still speaking English....this makes me wonder about how to really, in reality, revise our way of speaking and thinking about gender without ending up speaking gibberish. I wonder if awareness is enough to transform grammatical law....

Jessica said...

I was also confused about Foucault characterizing Herculine as in a "happy limbo of non-identity" given that she committed suicide. Given that we were able to understand this problem, through Butler's writing (tough!), I doubt that he wouldn't be able to see this as problematic. I just can't figure out what he would have meant by it. Maybe Butler is taking this part out of context? Maybe it's from the time of Herculine's relationship with Sara, rather than close to her suicide? It wouldn't shock me if Butler looked for things that seemed conflicting from people's arguments, even if that was not the point the person was trying to make.