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What does it take to be a woman?

Worldly wise 4. Judith Butler has attracted a wide following for work that redefines our ideas about gender. But does her project have a political value beyond linguistic playfulness

When Gloria Steinem turned 40 and was told by a flattering interviewer that she did not look 40, she replied that this was what being 40 looked like. According to Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric at Berkeley, California and gender-theory superstar, this was a courageous act of resistance. "Gloria Steinem publicly redefined the standards of femininity for 40-year-olds all over the world," Butler says enthusiastically. "It was an enormously important speech act, a really, really great one. She performed an aggressive redefinition."

For somebody hearing Judith Butler speak for the first time, the idea of considering Steinem's reply as an act of political subversion might seem somewhat hyperbolic. It is hard, after all, to imagine how 40-year-old untouchables in India or 40-year-old township residents in South Africa can be greatly benefited by the "aggressive", glamorous appearance of a feminist in America. But for Judith Butler, 41, who was trained in continental philosophy at Yale and whose first book was on subjectivity from Hegel to Lacan, ideas, public identity and language are the crucial tools of political resistance. "We are in some fundamental way constituted by language and in language," she explains. "It produces the scene of our agency; it is what gives us the capacity to respond and to change things. If our language is being paralysed or censored, then I also think our capacity for self-transformation is being paralysed or censored."

Butler's first love is philosophy. She grew up reading the Jewish philosophers and taking tutorials with her local rabbi, and she says even now that the books she wants to be stranded with on a desert island are Nietzsche and Hegel. And yet her abstract and theoretical philosophical writing paradoxically attracts a devoted following. At a colloquium on ethics held at Harvard University, flocks of graduate students - mostly skinhead gays and butch lesbians - crowd in to hear her speak a heady mixture of Hegel, Nietzsche, Foucault and Levinas. In between the esoteric observations, Butler, blond and diminutive, plays to her audience, telling jokes, offering personal anecdotes, giving instant analytical readings of the latest Clinton scandal. "This is Butler on Clinton," she says mischievously, in the self-conscious knowledge that she has become a public phenomenon and is liable to be cited. The audience laughs back appreciatively.

Butler has been a public phenomenon since the publication of her book Gender Trouble in 1990. Widely seen as the seminal text in what has become known as Queer Theory, Gender Trouble pitted itself against the notion of a natural or essential feminine identity which French feminists like Hel ne Cixous promoted. According to Butler, rather than being biologically determined, gender is a performance, a "culturally intelligible norm", an identity stabilised as "natural" only through the fictional and coercive "heterosexual matrix". She urged that norms should be exposed through parody and challenged, notoriously through cross-dressing. Butler explains:

"What I particularly like about drag is that it challenges our notions about what gender reality might be because our gender norms are separable from biological persons. When one is performing a gender that doesn't quite seem to fit, then that seems to be testing our sense of the boundaries of gender."

The challenge to fixed gender identities gained immediate popularity among the 1990s post-Aids generation who were confused about their sexuality and feeling constrained to conform to expected roles. Butler was hero-worshipped across the US as the most high-profile lesbian academic; sentences were lifted from her complex book and adopted as rallying slogans. A group of devotee graduate students even began a fanzine magazine entitled Judy!

The book developed a life of its own and was given meanings which Butler never intended. One of the misrepresentations which rankled most and which she tackled in her next book, Bodies That Matter, was the notion that since gender was performative, it could become a matter of choice. "I don't think you can get up in the morning and choose to change your gender," Butler declares. "I think there are really deep resistances to changing gender in most people. I think it's a very difficult thing to put one's gender on the line, that some people would rather die than have their gender altered." Indeed, Butler believes that although gender is not fixed or natural, it has become so ingrained that it informs our very sense of ourselves as human beings. In order to be recognised by others, we must conform to a particular gender. "Gender is not a role we put on," she explains. "It's a norm which permits us to appear as humans."

It is this notion - derived from Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault - of the way in which "social operations" or powerful cultural expectations and pressures permeate our very identities and interior lives which gives rise to the particular problem of freedom - or what she calls "agency" - in Butler's work. This - the attempt to bring together ideology and psychoanalysis - is the subject of the latest addition to her prolific output, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, a study which, in its complex and subtle engagement with Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Althusser and Foucault, is not likely to whip up the same frenzied fandom as her work in the past. People find themselves in an ambiguous position philosophically, she argues. We are all subject or subordinate to institutions of power, to the powerful ideology of our age or to the power of social expectations and assumptions. Yet that subordination also allows us to exist in society, to form our sense of identity and even to assert our own desires and fantasies. "To desire the conditions of one's own subordination is required to persist as oneself," Butler writes. "One is dependent on power for one's very formation, that formation is impossible without dependency, and the posture of the adult subject consists precisely in the denial and reenactment of this dependency."

It all begs the question of whether a genuinely radical act, which breaks the mould of contemporary politics and the status quo, is ever possible. In a post-revolutionary world, in which left-right politics are supposedly dead and the belief in radical insurgency seems naive, Butler's picture of the pervasiveness of power seems particularly relevant. She herself does not actually rule out the possibility of resistance. "I don't think we can return to the notion that there is some fabulously revolutionary libido at work that will always disrupt the ways in which we are socially ordered but I do think we are never fully determined by the categories that construct us." But what would an authentic act of resistance look like? How can you dissent from the norms of society? "There are ways of occupying the very categories by which one is constituted and turning them in another direction or giving them a future they weren't supposed to have," Butler says simply.

One of the principal ways of "occupying categories" which Butler probably has in mind is to transform insults into verbal badges of honour. This is the topic of her book Excitable Speech, published last year, which struck a blow against the powerful political correctness campaign in America. If we agree that, unlike the proverb, words can hurt us just as much as sticks and stones, Butler asks, how can that hurt be resisted or "turned around"? This is a challenge, particularly given Butler's theoretical notion of the pervasiveness of power and the limitation of agency. But it is done through "restaging of resignifying speech", as she puts it in the book, or by repeating the insult ironically until it loses its original power to hurt. Foucault, for example, points out that homosexuals in the late 19th century used the newly coined term of insult as an occasion for political mobilisation. "That's a great moment because that's the moment when you take a term that's normative and pathologising and being used against you, and you turn it to do something else, to other meanings from what it was supposed to have." Other examples might include the claiming of the word "queer" as a badge of pride by the gay community or black men's defiant description of themselves as "niggers".

In advocating the "restaging" of injurious speech rather than censoring it, Butler is effectively protesting against the brand of feminism advocated by Catherine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin, activists who want to protect women against verbal and physical abuse through legislation and the state. The way to prevent people being victimised by insults and the violence of pornography according to Mackinnon and Dworkin is to ban pornography and curb unlicensed, injurious speech. But according to Butler, this only represses the problem without confronting it. Mackinnon has underestimated "the power people have to change language and to be changed by language". So how would Butler deal with violent and degrading pornography? "I'd like pornography as a genre redefined. I'm not even sure I would want to call it pornography. I think there needs to be a shame-free exploration of sexuality in art."

The answer tantalises. And its apparent lack of ethical concern and postmodern parody of her earnest American colleagues' political efforts continue to annoy and provoke. Yet, while they rumble objections, critics are reluctant to go into print, such is the intensity of Butler adulation, especially in theUS.

The question of whether her work has any ethical or political value beyond linguistic playfulness and intellectual speculation has always dogged Butler. Her mother, who was always enthusiastic about her education, worried about whether she was going to grow up to be useful and to help people and to change the world and this is the question that critics repeat today. "I have in effect invited my mother's reprimand by the character of my work". Butler admits. "It will continue to haunt me.'' But she goes on to say that there is no reason why intellectualism and political activism cannot go hand in hand. "What I worry about are intellectual efforts that abandon the political because they see it as definitionally anti-intellectual or political efforts that embrace the anti-intellectual and abandon the critical position of the intellectual. I don't want to have to choose."

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