September 14, 2012
Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory
By Judith Butler
Phenomenology - An approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct
Speech acts (by John Searle) – verbal assurances and promises that refer not only to a speaking relationship
but also a moral bond between speakers.
Action theory – seeks to understand what it is “to do” prior to any claim of what one ought to do.
Phenomenological theory of ACTS by Edmund Husseri, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and George Herbert Mead –
seeks to explain the mundane (ordinary) in which social agents constitute social reality through language,
gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign.
Gender is an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts (not a stable identity)
Theatrical or Phenomenological models: Gender is prior to its acts
Judith Butler: Constituting Acts Constituting Identity of the actor and constituting the identity as
compelling illusion, an object of belief
Sex/Gender: Feminist and Phenomenological Views
o Feminist theory: sex dictates or necessitates certain social meanings for women’s experiences.
o Merleau-Ponty’s “The phenomenology of perception”: the body is an historical idea rather than a
natural species. The body is a set of ideas to be continually realised.
o Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”: woman, and, any gender, is an historical situation rather than
a natural fact.
o The acts by which gender is constituted
o Butler’s goal: to examine in what ways gender is constructed through specific corporeal acts and what
possibilities exist for the cultural transformation of gender through such acts.
o The body: its appearance is not predetermined by some interior essence, and its concrete expression
takes a set of historical possibilities.
o “One is not simply a body..”
o Use vocabulary that resists the substance metaphysics of subject-verb (“we,” or “I”) and relies instead
on an ontology of present participles. “I” is the body and “what” is its possibilities.
o Elementary structures of embodiment: manner of doing, dramatizing, and reproducing a historical
o Sartre – style of being; Foucault: stylistics of existence e.g. corporeal style
o Distinction between sex as biological facticity and gender as the cultural interpretation or signification
of that facticity
o To be female is a facticity that has no meaning while to be woman is to have become a woman, to
compel the body to conform to an historical idea of “woman.”
o “Project” vs. “Strategy”
o As a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences those who fail
to do their gender right are regularly punished.
o The personal is political; Feminist impulse: recognises that my pain, my silence, my anger, or my
perception is finally not mine alone
o The gendered body us the legacy of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined foreclosed structure,
essence or fact, whether natural, cultural, or linguistic. (Concept of sedimentary rock) the body
becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time
o Feminist theory has sought with success to bring female specificity into visibility and to rewrite the
history of culture in terms, which acknowledge the presence, the influence, and the oppression of
women. However, we may not be able to represent the concrete lives of women
o Beauvoir: the body suffers a certain cultural construction
Binary Genders and the Heterosexual Contract
o Foucault et. Al: the association of a natural sex with a discrete gender and with an ostensibly natural
attraction to the opposing sex/gender is an unnatural conjunction of cultural constructs in the service
of reproductive interests. o Levì-Strauss & Gayle Rubin: incest taboo works to guarantee the channelling of sexuality into various
modes of heterosexual marriage.
o “Acts: are a shared experience and a collective action.
o Gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make
use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualised and reproduced as a reality
o Victor Turner: “Social action requires a performance which is repeated.” for gender, it is a public
o Gender is not a radical choice, nor is it imposed upon the individual.
o The gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations
within the confines of already existing directives.
o Gender reality is performative which means it is real only to the extent that it is performed.
o The theory of acts and ge