Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Grief and Desire

In “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification” Butler presents a “stark and hyperbolic construction of the relation between gender and sexuality” (p. 248) that turns on the necessity of the repression of same-sex desire in order to inhabit an unstable gender of “masculine” or “feminine.” This repression goes unrecognized and ungrieved, thus leading to the melancholy that is at the heart of gender.

Although Butler notes that this formation is necessarily stark for the purposes of rhetoric and argument, it still raises several questions. First of all, extrapolating from her argument, does this necessarily mean that gender exists around a core of loss and renunciation, and is, if not hollow, then erected around emptiness?  Furthermore, I am left wondering if is it possible to conceive, at the individual level, of a heterosexual gender identification that does not involve melancholy and loss. Perhaps if one never felt constrained by same-sex desire or drawn to it, then the embrace of heterosexuality and gender identification can be positive or at least affirmative. By the same token, it isn’t clear if homosexuality is contingent on the same kind of melancholy and loss as heterosexuality. Does the embrace of homosexual desire require the repudiation of all same-sex desire and inability to mourn that loss? Or is it a different kind of melancholy, one that stems from the panic, arising from feelings of same sex desire, that one is not really a “masculine” man or a “feminine” woman, and thus monstrous in some way? Lastly, what does it look like, at the personal and social level, to have the kind of language Butler asserts will permit dramatic exposure of the feelings of ambivalence and loss that currently constrain our gender identification, desire, and sexuality.

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