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The Domain â" Matrix
Performing Lesbian at the End of Print Culture
By Sue Ellen Case
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1996 Sue-Ellen Case
All rights reserved.
Immediately upon launching into the matrix, we find the critical shoal that, while seeming to prompt such a performance of reading, actually seeks to hinder it. The depth charge of essentialism would sink such a surfer.
In writing "performing lesbian" in the face of "queer performativity," I want to directly confront the charge of essentialism. This charge has been leveled against both "lesbian" and "performance." The contention of essentialism implies, without directly stating it, the anxiety around the end of print culture. It actually operates in the service of retaining the dominance of print culture by rewriting, or correcting its traditions. In this process, lesbian and performance, identity and visibility have seemingly been evacuated so that writing and reading may continue to exercise the dominance of print culture.
Briefly, the charge is that identity politics rest on the base that one might "be" a lesbian, thereby invoking an ontological claim. According to the poststructuralist critique, such a notion posits the formation of the subject position as prior to other social constructions — possibly even determining them. Moreover, it charges that identity has been imagined as visible, demanding space in the regime of representation as one of its political projects. Identity and visibility are both made to claim the notion of presence in their constitution of the "live" and the body. In order to evacuate the regime of identity and visibility, the charge of essentialism has attended so diligently to the problems inherent in the claim of "being" that it has obscured the broader, structural function of the term.
What is essentialist, or at least metaphysical, the ruinous worm buried in essentialism, is the kind of argument that is ultimately based on a self-generating self-referentiality, which has, in the eurocentric tradition, historically secured its closed status by an appeal to "ontology." In other words, what is structurally essentialist or metaphysical in an argument is the claim that the system rests, finally, on some self-generating principle — that it cuts loose from outside dependencies — operates outside the historical, material conditions of change. Essentialism procures the metaphysical through a notion of Being as an essence. An essence, as Teresa de Lauretis notes in "The Essence of the Triangle, or Taking the Risk of Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, the U.S., and Britain," claims the function of "the reality underlying phenomena" or "that internal constitution, on which all the sensible properties depend" (4-5). In other words, an essence functions in a philosophical system as the location where "the buck stops," or where "the thing" is, beyond any other referent "in itself." De Lauretis counters the charge of essentialism by distinguishing a "nominal essence" in contrast to a "real" one; the former would, within a feminist project, proffer an "embodied, situated knowledge," as mutable and historically contextualized (12). She slips the rug out from under or from within the "thing," resting its identity claim as contingent upon volition, on the one hand (the feminist project), and material circumstances, on the other. Her aim is to retain the project of identifying in order to challenge "directly the social-symbolic institution of heterosexuality" (32). Within this critical environment, "performing lesbian" would be taking what de Lauretis calls "the essentialist risk" to perform the identity of lesbian against that of heterosexual. Certainly, this is a familiar and welcome strategy.
De Lauretis redefines essence to counter the essentialist charge. Borrowing her adjustment to recontextualize the issue, I want to reverse the charge — to identify a metaphysical base within the poststructuralist argument. For the assumption that that base is corrected by abandoning a certain kind of materialist critique will have debilitating effects on notions of the body and of nation in the course of dangerous conservative agendas. The loss of discourse's ability to pose an outside referent directly unhinges political coalitions around issues of land, wages, processes of social discrimination, etc. De Lauretis, in defense of such prior commitments, reconfirms an open system, in which signs still retain a sense of referents outside their purely textual ones. Heterosexuality in her argument appears as both a social and a symbolic institution. In poststructuralist arguments, the charge of essentialism has been used to erode this sense of a referent outside the linguistic or discursive system. De Lauretis's gesture of reinstating a configuration of feminist politics against the charge of essentialism, through a study of an actual political collective in Italy — a system that accounts for and is accountable to a social movement — traces the critical space in which I would like to counter the poststructuralist charge that would empty out identity and the order of visibility. For, as we will see, such anti-essentialist systems, while they eschew ontology, may rest on other terms which function to set up a self-generating, self-referential, and in that manner metaphysical argument. The poststructural "corrections" operate in the refined atmosphere of "pure" theory and writing, abandoning earlier materialist discourses that signaled to activist, grassroots coalitions while claiming a less essentialist base.
IA. QUEER PERFORMATIVITY
Debates over the meaning of performativity have been linked to the adoption of the term "queer" in some critical quarters. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes it in "Queer Performativity," Judith Butler's proposal of gender-bending performativity in Gender Trouble has been a central tool for the "recruitment" of graduate students into gay studies (1). The journal glq (a journal of lesbian and gay studies) even dedicated its inaugural issue to a dialogue between Sedgwick and Butler on queer performativity. If queer corrects the tradition of lesbian identity politics, performativity corrects the attendant regimes of the "live" and performance. Looking to Sedgwick's and Butler's articles as concise summaries of the positions, the necessary bond between "queer" and "performativity" may be seen to focus several critical anxieties that the departure from the troubled territories of "lesbian" and "performance" seeks to allay.
Performativity describes a critical strategy seemingly more deconstructive in its account of "performance" as sign. It strips the mask from masquerade that would still retain an actor/subject behind the show. In contrast, queer performativity identifies its operation as iterations of power contested at the sites of gender identification and legal, medical discourses concerning sexual practices. Performativity, as Sedgwick sees it, "carries the authority of two quite different discourses, that of theater on the one hand, of speech-act theory and deconstruction on the other. ... Spanning the distance between the extroversion of the actor, the introversion of the signifier" (2). Sedgwick attributes the exclusive relation between performativity and the performance of gender to the Butler compound — particularly drag performances. Sedgwick would extend performativity to "coming out, for work around AIDS and for the self-labeled, transversely but urgently representational placarded body of demonstration." In other words, the "live" body is performative when "self-placarded [in] demonstration."
Certainly, the hard-won "visibility" of ACT UP! demonstrations has spurred critics such as Sedgwick to account for such activism in writing theories dependent on some notion of the subculture. Sedgwick's sense of "self-placarded" admits agency and the visible, while semiotizing it. To those familiar with the standard practices of agitprop theater, or the Brechtian notion of "distanciation," ACT UP!'s strategies and Sedgwick's representation of them do not seem to diverge from numerous historical models. The Brechtian tradition of political theater has long regarded any modes of suturing as empathetic structures that retain mystified class relations, thus rendering every performing body a placarded demonstration of social gesture — either complicit with dominant practices or, in Brechtian epic practices, a challenge to the status quo. However, what Sedgwick identifies as the queer-specific mode of performativity is one catalyzed by "shame," distinguishing it from those propelled into representation by other mechanisms of oppression, such as class relations in the Brechtian model. Unlike the material relations of class, the catalytic relation of "shame" to "performativity" establishes a bridge between internal dynamics and the order of the visible. This crossing of the internal/external divide may provide the key contribution of "queer" to "performativity" that has made the compound so inviting to theorists in recent years. Diana Fuss, in her introduction to the influential anthology inside/ out, marks this relation as the signature of new critical practices. We will see in a later discussion just how this works along the borders of the visible and writing. Yet Sedgwick only passingly admits demonstrations into her discussion. Instead, she ultimately settles upon Henry James's prefaces in the New York edition of his work as the prime site of performativity.
Before addressing the consequences of that settlement, I want to turn briefly to Butler's use of "queer performativity" to explore just how reading and writing have been made to overtake traditional notions of performance. In "Critically Queer," Butler emphasizes that "there is no power, construed as a subject, that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability" (1993, 17). Butler's mission is to evacuate traditional notions of the subject/agency from within the system of performativity. She emphasizes that "performativity, then, is to be read not as self-expression or self-presentation, but as the unanticipated resignifiability of highly invested terms" (28). Butler continues, working from J. L. Austin, to locate such performativity within studies of speech acts, asserting that "performative acts are forms of authoritative speech." Reframing the operations of "queer" within those of "performativity," Butler finds that "the term 'queer' emerges as an interpellation that raises the question of the status of force and opposition, of stayability and variability, within performativity" (18). The term "queer," operating within these parameters, provides the solution to earlier conundra that Butler identified in her influential article "Imitation and Gender Subordination," in which she problematizes the rubric "lesbian theory."
To install myself within the terms of an identity category would be to turn against the sexuality that the category purports to describe; and this might be true for any identity category which seeks to control the very eroticism that it claims to describe and authorize, much less "liberate." ... For it is always finally unclear what is meant by invoking the lesbian-signifier, since its signification is always to some degree out of one's control, but also because its specificity can only be demarcated by exclusions that return to disrupt its claim to coherence. (1991, 14–15)
For Butler, "lesbian" as an identity is overdetermined by heterosexuality. It is actually produced by homophobia, articulates the, by definition, unarticulable in its claim to sexuality, is both "out of control" for those reasons and oppressive in drawing exclusionary borders of specificity. "Queer" evacuates the fulsome problematic of "lesbian" to operate as an unmarked interpellation, thus avoiding that exclusionary specificity.
"Queer" occurs within "performativity," which Butler in the earlier article defines as evacuating "performance" by denying "a prior and volitional subject"; in fact, as she would have it, "performative" "constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express" (24). Unlike Sedgwick's, Butler's sense of performativity sets out to contradict traditional agitprop or Brechtian theatrical strategies that encourage actors and spectators alike to imagine themselves as an agent of change. Butler gives over that agency to a "reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability ... a nexus of power and discourse that repeats or mimes the discursive gestures of power" (17). She insists that the subject is merely a product of such iterations:
Where there is an "I" who utters or speaks ... there is first a discourse which precedes and enables that "I." ... Indeed, I can only say "I" to the extent that I have first been addressed, and that address has mobilized my place in speech; paradoxically, the discursive condition of social recognition precedes and conditions the formation of the subject. (18)
Generally, this treatment of subject formation is familiar to readers of poststructuralist or even Gramscian theory. The signature of Butler's strategy here resides in its own emphasis on "precedes and conditions."
Moving an argument through the notion of "preceding" is reminiscent of an earlier philosophical move that would also confront idealism, the mother of essentialism, but that also, finally, reinscribes a metaphysical presumption at its base: Aristotle's notion of the prime mover in his Metaphysics. Marking his base as "substance" in contrast to Plato's Ideas, Aristotle finds himself within the currently familiar dilemma of the contradictions between compound, or heterogeneous, "substances" and the unity of "identity." Against the essentialist stasis of identity, Aristotle also arrives at the function of acting (read performativity) as mutable and motile: "Nothing, then, is gained even if we suppose eternal substances, as the believers in the forms do, unless there is to be in them some principle which can cause change — for if it is not to act there will be no movement" (1071a 14-18). But the cause of action, or change, suggests prior agency — a problem that both Aristotle and Butler would solve. Butler poses discourse as that which precedes and "mobilizes" the formation of such agency in the subject position. Then how do discourse and power avoid the same correction as the subject — to be preceded by something that determines their agency? Butler posits "reiterated acting that is power" as the generator of the system. Aristotle strikes a structurally consonant tone, as his chain of "precedings" resolves in the self-referential notion of "thought thinking on itself" (1072b 19-22; 1074b 34-36). Since thought is both the subject and the object of its operations, argues Aristotle, it iterates itself and thus becomes the "prime mover." "Reiterated acting" describes a similarly self-referential function that "precedes and determines" agency, without begging a further precedent. Now, Aristotle literalizes the theological implications in such a strategy, calling the prime mover "god," while still insisting on substance against Idea. Butler, in overwriting human agency with self-iterating acting as "power," embeds the theological, self-referential "preceder" in what she emphasizes is an anti-essentialist move. In order to deconstruct the location of the subject as preceding the social, Butler reverses the equation, necessarily retaining what is metaphysical in both postulations: a self-iterating function that "precedes."
In Butler's argument, iteration itself, mediating the relation of power to acting, finally functions as re-iteration. Whereas Aristotle found, in thought thinking on itself, a self-generating collapse of subject/object positions, Butler fires up the motor of iteration by repetition. When all referents fail to signal anything outside the system, repetition becomes its dynamic, as is obvious in several of Butler's key concepts: "the psyche calls to be rethought as a compulsive repetition" (28), "repetition is the way in which power works to construct the illusion of a seamless heterosexual identity," "the very exercise of repetition is redeployed for a very different performative purpose" (1991, 24). Repetition, then, the dynamic of self-generating self-referentiality, is the action, the activism, proposed by the argument.
Yet lurking in the project to make writing active, to make theorizing a significant actor in spite of all repetitive iterations, or theoretical stomps, is the writer. Ironically, but fittingly, the evacuation of identity, the old political compound, by self-referentiality becomes literal, concluding the argument at the site of the self — the author. Finally, "queer performativity" is located in Butler's decision to accept (mis)readings of her own writing:
It is one of the ambivalent implications of the decentering of the subject to have one's writing be the site of a necessary and inevitable expropriation yielding of ownership over what one writes [and] not owning of one's words. ... the melancholic reiteration of a language one never chose. (29)
Excerpted from The Domain â" Matrix by Sue Ellen Case. Copyright © 1996 Sue-Ellen Case. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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