Feminists often talk about gender in terms of norms and culture. Judith Butler GRD ’84 complicated this conversation yesterday, wildly gesticulating behind the podium in the Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium.
Her gray hair was trimmed into a tidy bob. Her body was dwarfed by the cinema-size stage. And her words spilled out over the hundreds of bodies filling every chair, dangling over the balcony and crammed into the aisles.
Butler is on the syllabus for several classes here on feminism, philosophy and sexual politics. Such is the fate of a scholar who has revolutionized the fields of gender and sexuality studies, political philosophy and cultural theory.
This resume earned her the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award last year. It also brought her to the Whitney Humanities Center yesterday to deliver the annual Naomi Schor Memorial lecture. Her topic: “What Does Gender Want of Me?”
Butler admitted at the beginning of the talk that Naomi Schor, a Yale French professor and feminist theorist who passed away in 2001, disagreed with some of her ideas. “She also told me that I didn’t know the proper format for endnotes,” she added, and the crowd exploded into a three hundred-strong chuckle.
The eruption was followed by rapt silence, as Butler launched into her subject. “We are not sovereign of our own actions,” she said. “We fail to account for the ways in which we are made.”
Many feminists suggest that gender and sexuality are presented to us as a range of social options. Butler, however, argued that these categories exist as “enigmatic signifiers,” borrowing a phrase from the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche.
This cloud of signifiers impinges on an infant from the adult world, before he or she is able to comprehend them. Our sexual drives, Butler argued, are not hereditary or adaptive. They do not emerge according to any biological logic. They are created when these signifiers lodge into our unconscious. They in fact form the structure of our unconscious through language, before we even say our first word.
“We have every reason to pause here,” Butler said. The audience collectively exhaled, including Alex Kain ’09.
“I thought her talk was dense and inaccessible for anyone with less than a thorough background in gender theory,” Kain said.
Colin Adamo ’10, one of the candidates for Yale College Council Treasurer, has read a lot of Butler’s work, so he was more prepared.
“I knew most of what she was going to say would go over my head,” he said. “So I pregamed with a double espresso and did my best to follow each sentence.”
Rachel Schiff ’10, a queer activist on campus, said, “My favorite part was how she kicks her leg while she was talking. And she acts out commas with her hands.”
Butler went on to describe the difference between sexual drives and biological instincts. The adult world begins to form our drives as soon as we are born, she claimed. This is the theory of general seduction — an exogenous process that is overwhelming, traumatic and continuous throughout our lives.
“I liked her distinction between drive and instinct,” Kain said. “But she was rehashing the beliefs of that French dude.”
For Adamo, the idea that living gender and practicing sexuality are never free acts will inform his senior essay in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies major.
“We are at once made and making,” Butler said. “It would be great if we could find a verb form to make sense of that simultaneous occurrence.”
How about “madaking”?
(I really hope Judith Butler does not read this article.)
Hundreds of students and professors shuffled out of the auditorium after Butler’s fifty-minute lecture, digesting one concentrated dose of psychoanalytic, post-structuralist gender theory. Gender, as Butler shows, wants far more than a fifty-minute talk. Gender demands unimaginable, inscrutable things from all of us.
For this undergraduate, so did Butler’s lecture.