Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Can We Have Gendered Means Without Gendered Ends?

In Jose Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, he describes political philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s theory of gesture—that is, action and that which constitutes performance—as “means without ends” (91). In other words, gesture is something that occurs, but it is not in the service of any achievable end goal (despite an impulse to think otherwise). Rather, gesture is characterized by a nothing-ness that “interrupts the normative flow of time and movement” (91) because it does not contribute to the forward movement of time; instead, Muñoz urges us to see gesture as something that suspends time, not propelling it to unfold but expanding possibilities within time. Gesture, then, holds potential because of its ability to “interrupt” and defy normative time—an important potentiality because normative time has a distinct “heteronormative bent” (91). (Time has this “heteronormative bent” because it is coopted by institutions with a heteronormative agenda—we organize time around heterosexual acts, sync it with the heterosexual body, and time seemingly moves forward with heterosexual reproduction which helps reproduce the reigning social order.)

Not being in the service of an end goal, gesture can perhaps pave the way for other ends, thus holding the potential for futures not akin to the futures required and sustained by (hetero)normative time.

This idea of gesture being a “means without ends” was reiterated for me when reading Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Subordination.” She describes gender as a series of repetitive acts (or gestures) that the subject performs even though “repetition never fully accomplishes identity” (131). In other words, gender—and the subject supposedly doing gender—is never “fully” complete. Rather, these acts are always in the service of an impossible end goal, and thus can be considered “means without ends.” But while gendered performances are in the service of an inapproachable gendered end, gender is still a “compulsory performance” (130). In other words, even though there is no end or possibility for completion to gender, we do it anyway because we have to, perhaps even because we perceive the means will and do lead to some gendered end: our performative acts might allow us to say and even believe “I am [insert gender category here].”

But because gender is always happening, it follows that Butler has concerns with organizing these acts to be indicative of static identity categories. She opens the piece with her concerns over theorizing under the label of lesbian, and she worries that present use of the sign “lesbian” in this case impedes “future use of the sign. There is a political necessity to use some sign now, and we do, but how to use it in such a way that its futural significations are not foreclosed?” (126).

In a way, Butler is worried that we are too caught in the “ends” of the “means”—by necessitating gestures to lead to some neat and tidy category (thus implying some finished end), Butler worries that other not-yet-realized ends become “foreclosed.” What futures might become available to us if we abandon the present use of categories and labels to describe gender and sexuality? Is there really any viable way to eschew the “political necessity” to use categories in the present, or would doing so be a step backwards for activists who utilize the categories to promote social change? If gesture is, according to Munoz, “laden with potentiality” (91), can the gestures and acts that produce gender be laden with the same potentiality? How can we access that potentiality in the label-loving and, in some ways, label-necessary 21st century?

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