Judith Butler

Towards a Livable Mode of Existence: Judith Butler’s [Undoing Gender]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Undoing Gender (2004)

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (2004)

Reading Butler is truly a worthwhile exercise for the mind interested in gender, queer theory, and human life in general. Undoing Gender is essentially a revision of Butler’s groundbreaking book entitled Gender Trouble, which was originally published in 1990. In Undoing Gender, Butler not only adds more nuance to the concept of gender performativity, but she also puts into question the very parameters that we use to devise the concept of the human. This is by far the most accessible book of Butler that I’ve read as of now. The more you read Butler, the more things begin to click and make sense–and although she still makes use of her trademark (dense and elusive) prose, most of her claims are poignant, accessible, and most importantly, insightful.

What makes life bearable for me? What makes life bearable for others? What makes us human? What are the elements that constitute a human ontology? These are some of the questions that Butler brings forth throughout the introduction to Undoing Gender. Butler highlights the fact that the parameters that have been used to approach, recognize, and categorize humans have always been in flux, and even more so, these parameters are not natural or essential, but rather , socially constructed. The greatest issue with the criteria used to define the human is that they are many times restrictive and paradoxical; the criteria that is used to grant the status of a human to one individual may deprive another individual from achieving this status:

On the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized; they fit no dominant frame for the human, and their dehumanization occurs first, at this level. This level then gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization which is already at work in the culture. (25)

This leads Butler to allude to her concept of the “unreal” life, which denotes individuals that have been denied access to a legitimate human existence through the power of discourse. For instance, notions such as skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, birth, and social class have been some of the concepts used to classify some as human while at the same time preventing others from being approached as such. If one is unable to be framed within the discursive and normative markers of identity that are used to approach and categorize humans, one is not only queered and otherized, but ultimately, one runs the risk of facing violence or of living an unbearable life because one does not count with the constituents of normative privilege. Because of this, Butler calls for a more open and permeable definition of humanity that allows room for change, in order to allow livability and freedom to thrive:

The necessity of keeping our notion of the human open to a future articulation is essential to the project of international human rights discourse and politics. We see this time and again when the very notion of the human is presupposed; the human is defined in advance, in terms that are distinctively, western, very often American, and, therefore, partial and parochial. (36-37)

Butler’s call for a plastic and flexible definition of the human is due first and foremost to the inability of current definitions to account for all of the legitimate modes of being and existence that are currently found within our society. This project of expanding the parameters of human definition also comply with the overall aim of this book, which is to illustrate the effects of undoing “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life” (1). It is Butler’s belief that through the eradication of normative restrictions, one not only changes his or her perspective of the self, but ultimately, this shift of perspective will pave the way for other selves to flourish in a more livable and accommodating world.

In Undoing Gender, Butler delves with more nuance into the implications of gender performativity, which approaches gender as a constant and reiterative doing through discourse. In Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to drag performances as a way of illustrating the claims she makes towards performativity, but the issue with this example is that gender performativity can be confused with actual performance. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that gender performativity is always referring to a discursive act, and the role that language plays in the construction of identities. Although Butler asserts that gender performativity may be unconscious to some degree, she does not approach it as an individualistic or automatic process. Instead, Butler posits that Gender performativity is an “improvisation” that takes into account others beyond the self. In other words, one’s gender performativity is not merely an individual struggle, but rather, it is a negotiation between one’s inner desires, the desires of others, and the “desires” of a particular cultural and political setting.  Thus, the formation of the self is dependent on the relationship between the self and norms:

the “I” that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms and dependent on them but also endeavors to live in ways that maintain a critical and transformative relation to them. This is not easy, because the “I” becomes, to a certain extent unknowable, threatened with unavailability, with becoming undone altogether, when it no longer incorporates the norm in such a way that makes this “I” fully recognizable. (3).

What this means is that even though one needs recognition to live, one may very well feel restricted by the very parameters that are used for this recognition. In order to illustrate this notion, Butler brings up the example of intersex children in order to concretize the continuum of human morphology, and how the norms that regulate the body do not approach these subjects as human. When a child is born intersex, doctors and parents sometimes make the decision of choosing the child’s sex without giving the child the opportunity to explore venues of being within the world. Intersex children evidence the futility of the male/female binary that is imposed upon humans, and it illustrates the spectrum of bodies that legitimately exist in the world. However, because the intersex child is unable to fit within the parameters of the normative male/female binary, intersexedness is approached by the status quo as a pathology.

Interestingly, Buler points out that the very discursive concepts that pathologize gender and sexual identity allow for its recognition. She alludes to the instance of transgender individuals who are able to make legitimate insurance claims that allow them to receive sexual assignment surgery–which in turn allows them to obtain a livable life. However, one must question why these markers of identity are necessary, and even more so, one must consider whether upholding a normative and binary gender system is enough to account for all of the lives that exist. Butler mentions how intersexuality and transexuality raise important concerns for queer theory, especially when focusing on the fact that queer theory, in essence, is supposed to be opposed to all forms of normativity and binaristic thinking. When an intersexual or transexual individual chooses to live as a particular sex, it can be said that they are buying into the normative regulation of binaristic sexuality. As Butler points out:

If queer theory is understood, by definition, to oppose all identity claims, including stable sex assignment, then the tension seems strong indeed. But I would suggest that more important than any presupposition about the plasticity of identity or indeed its retrograde status is queer theory’s claim to be opposed to the unwanted legislation of identity. (7)

I found Butler’s approach towards queer theory to be very useful and insightful. When it comes down to it, when we approach all forms of stability and “normativity” as negative, we resort to using the very types of binaristic thinking that queer theory seeks to dismantle. Thus, Butler emphasizes that more than anything, queer theory seeks to challenge the unwanted prescription and regulation of the body and identity. She argues that in due course, stability is an element that is absolutely necessary in order for a livable life to manifest. If the condition of individual is unlivable within the boundaries of a particular culture or society, then it is completely understandable  for that individual to seek out remedies that will allow that individual to live comfortably and freely. According to Butler, projects dealing with identity politics, such as queer theory, are ultimately focused on “distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself” (8).

Expanding on the notion of gender performativity as a relationship of power that extends beyond the self, Butler emphasizes the fact that the body also deviates from the individualism that is typically assigned to it. Although we may approach our bodies, as Susan Bordo would put it, as sites of struggles, we must admit that this struggle is not one of the self versus the self, and that the public dimension is very much implicated within conceptions of the body:  “constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine” (21). Despite this notion of the body belonging both to the self and the public, Butler asserts that it would be erroneous to assume that legal definitions of personhood and humanity are sufficient to account for the totality of one’s being: 

Although this language might well establish our legitimacy within a legal framework ensconced in liberal versions of human ontology, it fails to do justice to passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, and implicate us in lives that are not are [sic] own, sometimes fatally, irreversibly. (20)

Time Magazine Cover

Does gay marriage necessarily entail the death of queerness? Is gay marriage a form of assimilation? Can resistance towards gay marriage be seen as a form of regulation that queer theory seeks to disrupt?

Butler’s ideal of livability is particularly useful for approaching other issues and phenomena that seem to be at odds with the overall aims and goals of queer theory. What immediately comes to mind at this point is the issue of gay marriage. While today, there seems to be an increasing acceptance of gay marriage as a legitimate way of living within the United States, some may view this acceptance as a compliance with normativity. However, if one were to enforce a resistance to gay marriage as a form of protest, doesn’t this enforce the attitudes of legislation and regulation of identity that queer theory strives to obliterate? What if two queer individuals want to get married, or perceive marriage as an act that will enable a more livable and free life? As Butler posts, “marriage and same-sex domestic partnerships should certainly be available as options, but to install either as a model for sexual legitimacy is precisely to constrain the sociality of the body in acceptable ways” (26). In other words, gay marriage should definitely be an option of living within contemporary society; however, the advent of gay marriage should not enforce this type of union as the only legitimate or acceptable form or union amongst individuals with queer communities.

Furthermore, Butler believes that when an unreal life is introduced into the norm, this does not necessarily imply that assimilation is taking place. Rather than buying into the myth of complete integration within the system, Butler believes that incorporation of the unreal within the domain of reality leads to ” something other than a simple assimilation into prevailing norms,” and that ultimately, the “norms themselves can become rattled, display their instability, and become open to resignification. (28)

I will conclude this post with one of the most resounding passages that I identified within Undoing Gender. Butler, in due course, seems to be keen on the notion of fantasy, and the ability of fantasy to provide a utopian potentiality that can very well become a reality. As Butler eloquently puts it:

The critical promise of fantasy, when and where it exists, is to challenge the contingent limits of what will and will not be called reality. Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home. (29)

It is fantasy that ultimately allows one to carve our possibilities of being within the world. It is an envisioning outside of the parameters of reality that unreal subjects are able to work  for and towards a more livable mode of existence. This passage also evidences the emancipatory potential of fiction–one can only begin to imagine the possibilities that can be achieved when embodying and reifying the “otherwise” beyond the scope of reality–an otherwise that fiction is more than willing to provide.

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Male Back

Masculinity Without Men? Judith Halberstam’s [Female Masculinity]

Halberstam James Bond

Is the James Bond from the GoldenEye era truly an accurate representation of masculinity?

When we invoke the iconic image of James Bond, masculinity is usually one of the first notions that comes to mind. My friend and colleague, Dan Murphy, insightfully points out that even when James Bond utters his casual introductory catchphrase, “Bond, James Bond,” these simple words resonate within our thoughts because they express “an appealing version of masculine self-assertion and control. In the midst of uncertainty, through various episodes of geopolitical crisis and international intrigue, this character can sit at a bar with complete self-assurance, look in our eyes, and tell us who he is” (Check out Dan’s blog, Of Spaces and Things. He offers a very compelling view of matters in everyday life).

Even though this masculine image of James Bond resonates within the cultural milieu, Judith Halberstam, in her groundbreaking book entitled Female Masculinity, asks us to reconsider the masculinity of the iteration of Bond played by Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye. Halberstam goes as far as to approach Bond (of the GoldenEye era) as a subject that exudes “prosthetic masculinity” (3), mostly because his construction as a masculine figure relies on a supply of gadgets, a suit, and a ‘half smile” (4) to convey masculinity. Without these objects, James Bond has little to support his perception as a masculine figure–thus leading Halberstam to argue that female characters, such Bond’s boss M, convey a credible female masculinity that “exposes the workings of dominant heterosexual masculinity” (4). 

Golden Eye M

Halberstam approaches M as “a noticeably butch older woman who calls Bond a dinosaur and chastises him for being a misogynist and a sexist” (3).

Halberstam’s invocation of the GoldenEye-era James Bond serves two very distinct and important purposes: first and foremost, when juxtaposing Bond’s masculinity with M’s female masculinity, it illustrates how representations of dominant masculinities are reliant on minority masculinities. Secondly, this juxtaposition is queer in that it creates a disjuncture between masculinity and a male figure, thus highlighting the constructed nature of masculinity in the first place. Halberstam does not approach M’s masculinity as an imitation of an authentic masculinity, but rather, she approaches it as a fabrication that is no different from the one that men embody. Based primarily at highlighting the constructed nature of masculinity, Female Masculinity offers readers an opportunity to observe the deconstructive effects of scrutinizing masculinity in cases where it manifests outside of the hegemonic parameters of the white, middle-class male. In other words, Halberstam posits that masculinity

becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male middle-class body. Arguments about excessive masculinity tend to focus on black bodies (male and female), latino/a bodies, or working class bodies; these stereotypical constructions of variable masculinity mark the process by which masculinity becomes dominant in the sphere of white middle-class maleness. (2)

In Female Masculinity, Halberstam scrutinizes how the construct of masculinity manifests in subjects who are not found within a privileged hierarchical position in order to “explore a queer subject position that can successfully challenge hegemonic models of gender conformity” (9). Halberstam deems that through the exploration of masculinity in non-white non-male bodies, one could ultimate destabilize the power and control that the male and masculine subject exerts over how gender is approached and policed within contemporary societies.

What ideologies and hegemonic structures are upheld when restrooms are structured according to a gendered binary? What fears or insecurities uphold this divide? How is this divide complicated by the fact that not everyone fits neatly within the categories of male or female?

What ideologies and hegemonic structures are upheld when restrooms are structured according to a gendered binary? What fears or insecurities uphold this divide? How is this divide complicated by the fact that not everyone fits neatly within the categories of male or female?

Despite the fact that there has been great advances in terms of deviating from essentialist views of gender, Halberstam questions why that which is not male is viewed as female, and why that which is not female is viewed as male. There seems to be a refusal to think of sex and gender in ways that refute binaristic thinking. In order to illustrate this problem, Halberstam discusses the infamous bathroom problem that pervades within contemporary cultures. I think bathrooms are particularly interesting because, as Halberstam points out, they are physical spaces that are constructed with the purpose of upholding the view of femininity as a source of cultural purity that must be protected and upheld at all costs:

Sex-segregated bathrooms continue to be necessary to protect women from male predations but also produce and extend a rather outdated notion of a public-private split between male and female society. The bathroom is a domestic space beyond the home that comes to represent domestic order, or a parody of it, out in the world. The women’s bathroom accordingly becomes a sanctuary of enhanced femininity, a “little girl’s room” to which one retreats to powder one’s nose or fix one’s hair. (24)

The view of the restroom as a space of femininity becomes an important area of scrutiny for Halberstam, for it is deemed to be a domestic space that not only confines femininity, but that ultimately produces it. Whereas the men’s restroom is viewed as a more practical or utilitarian space, women’s restrooms are spaces that serve for functions well beyond the elimination of waste from the body. The women’s restroom becomes the space where women adjust their makeup, make sure they look attractive and presentable, and it even becomes a social space where women discuss developments that have occurred throughout a meal or while engaged in conversation with a larger group.

This notion of the women’s restroom as a feminized place becomes quite problematic when taking into account that this space is usually quite hostile toward women who do not comply with the physical expectations of “hardcore” femininity. Although virtually any person can use a men’s restroom without barely raising an eyebrow, this is not the case with women’s restrooms. Halberstam, who describes herself as butch, describes how she is often mocked when using a women’s restroom, and how some women have gone as far as to call security when they see her present within this feminized space.

Other women take a cruel approach to the presence of female masculinity within the women’s restroom, often putting into question the subject’s gender–knowing very well that the masculine females are still women. If they suspected that the subject were a “man,” they would panic or run out of the restroom rather than mock the subject. This illustrates how masculinity is only recognized as power when it is present within a heterosexual male body, and how masculinity is subordinated when present within a queer or female body. Furthermore, is demonstrates how the obstinacy of the male/female binary upholds its power through its impossibility to be altered or changed: “Precisely because virtually nobody fits the definitions of male and female, the categories gain power and currency from their impossibility. In other words, the very flexibility and elasticity of the terms “man” and ‘woman’ ensures their longetivity” (27).

Part of what intrigues me the most about Halberstam’s Female Masculinity is its overall structure and approach. Rather than focusing her analysis exclusively on the analysis of literary texts, Halberstam also includes analyses of photography, film, ethnographic studies, interviews, and self-testimonials in order to discuss how the notion of female masculinity challenges the construction of masculinity as a hegemonic force. Halberstam thus devises a queer methodology, which she approaches as

a scavenger methodology that uses different methods to collect and produce information on subjects who have been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior. The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.” (13)

I found this method to be quite convincing, especially when it comes to demonstrating how there are different types of masculinity in both men and women, and how a recognition of these masculinities should take place instead of the use of “catch-all” categories (110) such as lesbianism, homosexuality, or inversion. I though that her analysis of John Radclyffe Hall was particularly useful in terms of demonstrating how a multiplicity of female masculinities existed when when the catch-all term of the “invert” predominated in the early nineteenth century (there were women who thought of themselves as men and presented themselves as men, just as there were woman who thought of themselves as men but presented themselves as women).

Another instance that was particularly illuminating was Halberstam’s approach to masculinity and performance, in which she blurs the lines that exist between performing and being through an analysis of performers at a drag king contest. Halberstam, rather than lumping all of the performers together under the label of drag king, goes on to create distinct “taxonomies” in order to approach how masculinity is embodied or channeled by different subjects. These categories are:

  • Butch Realness – A biological female who can easily pass as male. It focuses a lot on the notion of realness, and it is placed “on the boundary between transgender and butch identification (248).
  • Femme Pretender – A performative masculinity with added camp and exaggeration that deliberately avoids a naturalistic male look.
  • Male Mimicry – An attempt to reproduce male masculinity, “sometimes with an ironic twist” (250). They usually embody stereotypical masculine behaviors and attitudes. They can many times pass, but they do not necessarily convey the maleness of butch realness.
  • Fag Drag – When women fetishize gay male culture by appropriating gay men’s parodies of masculinity, often donning leather clothing and handlebar mustaches.
  • Denaturalized Masculinity – A masculinity that is more theatrical than butch realness, but that explores alternative masculinities to those embodied by male mimicry.

Although I find it difficult to see some differences between the “taxonomies” that Halberstam develops for drag king performances, I do recognize that this taxonimization allows one to see masculinity not only as a construct, but as a spectrum. I also appreciate Halberstam’s attempts to destabilize the divides not only between masculinity and femininity, but also the divide between performing and being.

Work Cited

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print.


John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”: A Postmodern Critique of the Developmental Narrative

“Lost in the Funhouse” is a short story in John Barth’s book of the same name, originally published in 1968.  The stories within this collection are typically approached as postmodern due to their self-reflexivity, their self-awareness, and their use of self-reference. The short story “Life in the Funhouse,” in particular, is known for its active destabilization of truth, linearity, and structure, and it is an ideal text to study when engaging in the frustrating exercise of defining postmodernity as it pertains to the study of literary texts.

Plot-wise, not much occurs within this narrative. In a nutshell, a teenage boy named Ambrose travels with his family to Ocean City, Maryland, where they spend most of their time sunbathing at the beach, going on amusement park rides, and entertaining themselves with games at the Ocean City boardwalk. Ambrose is nervous because he really likes this girl named Magda, and wants to develop the courage to confess his love for her. Although he eventually invites Magda to go into a funhouse with him, Magda eventually trails off with Ambrose’s brother, Peter, leaving him alone and isolated within the dark confines of the funhouse. The rest of the narrative traces Ambrose’s thoughts and dissatisfaction caused not only by his inability to express his feelings, but also  by his inability to escape from the funhouse.

This plot, however, constitutes a really small part of the narrative. “Lost in the Funhouse” is peppered with moments of self-reflexivity and meta-awareness, and the narrator often deviates from the plot in order to make claims regarding the intricacies of language, the difficulties of writing, and the impossibility of literary innovation. Within this narrative, we have a triangulation of three perspectives: the perspective of the protagonist, the perspective of the author, and the perspective of the speaker/narrator (who also shares most of the meta-fictional elements within the short story). Given the fact that this text is a meta-fiction, the elements within the story should be approached not only by how they develop the plot, but also by their commentary as pertaining to the acts of writing and reading fiction. This is particularly why close-reading and deconstruction are crucial in terms of determining what the text is trying to achieve. In an attempt to highlight the complexity and richness of this story, let me turn my attention to unpacking the following passage:

One reason for not writing a lost-in-the-funhouse story is that either everybody’s felt what Ambrose feels, in which case it goes without saying, or else no normal person feels such things, in which case Ambrose is a freak. “Is anything more tiresome, in fiction, than the problems of sensitive adolescents?” And it’s all too long and rambling, as if the author. For all a person knows the first time through, the end could be just around the corner; perhaps, not impossibly it’s been within the reach any number of times. On the other hand he may be scarcely past the start, with everything yet to get through, an intolerable idea. (88)

Although plot-wise there is an actual or concrete funhouse, the term is also being invoked as a symbol for narrative, fiction, or perhaps even the mind of the protagonist. “Lost in the Funhouse” is an exploratory narrative that delves into the woes that Ambrose faces when analyzing his own precociousness, and when confronting the confusing and contradictory issues that arise when one grows up–making the story, in essence, a coming-of-age narrative. In the passage above, the narrator uses quotation marks to bring up the tired and overwrought nature of the coming-of-age genre. Furthermore, the quote asks readers to reflect on how sensitive protagonists within this genre suffer from the woes of over-thinking, and how they often share thoughts that are deemed to be too advanced or “unrealisitic” given the protagonist’s age.

It becomes important to question why Barth shares this critique of the “lost-in-the-funhouse” narrative when the story itself incorporates every single element that is critiqued: the protagonist of the story is a sensitive character, who often offers long, rambling, and contradictory interpretations of himself and the people that surround him. The text explores the perceived incongruity of sensitive adolescents expressing ideas that surpass their faculties, at least within fiction: “Is it likely, does it violate the principle of verisimilitude, that a thirteen-year-old boy could make such a sophisticated observation?” (70). Despite this questioning, the protagonist still  engages with intense philosophical and existential ideas, leading the reader to come with their own answers to the aforementioned question. Not only can this be approached as an attempt to destabilize stereotypes in terms of what adolescents are or are not capable of deliberating, but it also pushes the reader to question the foundations that generate these so-called truisms and verisimilitudes.  Is it possible for a teen to conceive of sophisticated ideas? Is there a specific age that a person must reach before being able to formulate complex ideas?

It can be said that the narrator considers the coming-of-age genre to be important or useful given its universality, but at the same time, the text makes overt critiques on the use of conventions and patterns to portray universal themes. Growth, development, and linearity (both from a textual and non-textual perspective) are thus prominent themes that are scrutinized within the depths of the funhouse.


Figure 1. This graphic is a replication of the diagram found in page 91 of “Lost in the Funhouse,” in which the narrator discusses the general pattern that most fictional narratives follow: exposition, conflict, complication, climax, and resolution.

The narrator of the story makes a critique of patterns by illustrating the conventions that narratives usually appropriate in order to assure that they are effective. The text painstakingly depicts the usual structures and conventions that narratives employ to deliver a story (see Figure 1). “Lost in the Funhouse” deviates immensely from the conventional and linear plot, and it is self aware of this deviation: “The beginning should recount the events between Ambrose’s first sight of the funhouse early in the afternoon and his entering it with Magda and Peter in the evening. The middle would narrate all relevant events from the time he loses his way; middles have the double and contradictory function of delaying the climax while at the same time preparing the reader for it” (74). Although the narrator stresses that this is how stories should be structured, “Lost in the Funhouse” deliberately refutes these conventions by delivering a narrative with a prolonged exposition that is contradictory and that does not follow typical patterns of resolution. Details of the plot’s so-called climax, introduction, and conclusion are also scrambled throughout the text, and are not found within the expected locations. Although the narrator admits that this deviation forsakes “the effects of drama” that are possible in the short story, he also makes it clear that this deviation of narrative conventions “can better effect” the dramatic possibilities of the story (91).

With this in mind, it can be argued that the narrator is not necessarily refuting the importance of fiction with sensitive adolescents, but rather, he is contesting the usefulness of a linear narrative to do justice to the multifaceted, complicated, and fragmentary nature of the issues that are faced during the coming-of-age process. I thought this notion was particularly apparent as Ambrose ventures through the maze of mirrors in the funhouse. As Ambrose sees multiple selves being reflected as he tunnels through those mirrored paths, he realizes the futility of trying to approach the self as a single, atomized unit:

Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. He even foresaw, wincing at his dreadful self-knowledge, that he would repeat the deception, at ever-rarer intervals, all his wretched life, so fearful were the alternatives. (90)

The passage above is one of the most overt critiques on linearity, development, and the conventions that are usually invoked when writing developmental narratives. It attacks the notion of teleology and fulfillment, going as far as to argue that development is not always achieved by following points A to D. Furthermore, this passage refutes the notion of self-fulfillment by highlighting the cyclic nature and the folly of trying to pin down a clear and clean definition of the self. The self is always more fragmented and unreachable than narratives of development usually convey, and the self is always found in a state of constant change and growth. Thus, “Lost in the Funhouse” offers an alternative way of thinking about and approaching the process of development. The narrative implies that it would be foolish to approach an individual’s development through how well he or she complies with conventions of growth, maturation, and development–just as it would be equally foolish to judge this text by how well it adheres to narrative conventions.

When it comes to truth, perhaps the narrator is right when asserting that “we will never get out of the funhouse” (74).

Work Cited

 Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. Print.

Six Degrees Separation

John Guare’s [Six Degrees of Separation] and the Postmodern Schizophrenic

Six Degrees of Separation Cover

Front cover of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990)

If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience of psychic life. With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.

-Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or , The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (p. 27)

The loss of historicity, according to Jameson, has created a mode of existence that greatly resembles a state of schizophrenia. The postmodern condition has weakened the subject’s linkage to the past, thus obliging a firm grasp onto the present. This schizophrenic state, as Jameson points out, is induced when the relationships between signifiers are broken, thus leading said signifers to be scattered and disconnected–alluding to the postmodern benchmark in which pieces must be rearranged and put together to create a simulacrum of the whole.

The Jamesonian schizophrenic subject is an important notion to bring up when discussing John Guare’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play entitled Six Degrees of Separation. The play is centered on a confidence man who goes by the name of Paul, who pretends to be the son of Sidney Poitier in order to gain the sympathies and support of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, a wealthy family who lives in an upper-class estate near Central Park. Paul leads Flan and Ouisa to believe that he is a friend of their children, and he offers tidbits of information that lead the unsuspecting couple to believe that he’s telling the truth. After the couple give Paul some money and let him stay over their place, they soon catch Paul in bed with a male hustler–and he thrown out of their home, ashamed and embarrassed.

The figure of the con artist is very susceptible to postmodern analysis because their personas are typically deliberate and careful constructions. Not only must con artists be hyper-aware of the elements that construct this alter ego, but they must also avoid invoking any past information that might reveal their true identities. We are not given insight into the person who dons the alter ego known as Paul. What Six Degrees of Separation makes clear is that Paul is an amalgamation of texts, other people’s experiences, and fiction. For instance, Paul projects himself as a friend of the Kittredge’s children, he demonstrates to have a lot of knowledge of literature (especially J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), he is familiar with Sidney Poitier’s background, and he also proves to be an excellent cook. All of these traits and sources of knowledge, however, are merely an intermixture that serves to create the character known as Paul. This is particularly highlighted in a phone call exchange between Paul and Ouisa towards the end of the play:

PAUL: You let me use all the parts of myself that night–

OUISA: It was magical. That Salinger stuff–

PAUL: Graduation speech at Groton two years ago.

OUISA: Your cooking–

PAUL: Other people’s recipes. Did you see Donald Barthelme’s obituary? He said collage was the art form of the twentieth century. (Guare 107)

Paul seems to be overt with the fact that he is collection of “parts” that work together to form a collage. He thus represents the collapse of the signifying chain. He is a character who is disconnected from the past, and he is a character who approaches himself as a gathering of multitudinous pieces rather than a whole. Paul can therefore be approached as a postmodern schizophrenic because his presence and his existence boils down to a collection of “material signifiers”–material expressions with no relation that congregate in a specific point in time.

The play initially leads us to believe that Paul focuses his cons on wealthy victims, as it is revealed that he pulled a nearly identical con with the Kittredge’s friends, Kitty and Larkin. Nevertheless, Paul is shown to pull off a con with another young couple of struggling actors–Rick and Elizabeth–who moved to New York from Utah and who work as waiters in the city. Using random and disconnected knowledge that he has obtained from other people, he dazzles Rick and Elizabeth with his intelligence and wit, leading them to invite Paul to stay in their very humble abode: “A railroad loft […] The tub’s in the kitchen but there’s light in the morning” (Guare 86). Paul grows closer to the couple, especially Rick. He then tells the couple that he needs $250 to meet his father–who is deviously claimed to be Flan Kittredge–who is going to present him for the first time to his grandparents. Although Elizabeth firmly claims that they can’t lend him the money, Rick secretly goes to the bank and gives Paul their entire savings. Paul uses the money to buy fancy tuxes for himself and for Rick, he takes Rick out dancing, and they ultimately have sex. Rick confesses his affair with Paul to Elizabeth, and he commits suicide soon after.

In all of the cons, Paul uses the money that he gains in order to achieve a fleeting moment of sexual connection to another man. When Ouisa and Flan catch him with a hustler in their home, Paul exclaims:

I got so lonely. I got so afraid. My dad coming. I had the money. I went out after we went to sleep and I brought [the hustler] back. I couldn’t be alone. You had so much. I couldn’t be alone. I was so afraid. (Guare 50)

Paul focuses his discourse on the fear of loneliness, and the importance of not being alone, but it would be reasonable to question why he chooses to establish connections with people that are temporary and that reject futurity in their entirety. This is not only seen when Paul uses the fifty dollars that the Kittredges give him to buy the company of a hustler, but also when he uses the $250 that Rick gives him in order to spend a romantic day with him. The other relationship that Paul engages with in the play is a three month tryst with an MIT student named Trent. This relationship is depicted as purely physical. Paul exchanges sexual favors for information on the wealthy subjects listed in Trent’s address book, and by the time Paul leaves, Trent confesses that he doesn’t “know anything” (Guare 80) about Paul.

With this in mind, the sexual relationships that Paul forges are very presentist in that they approach sexual and romantic connection in a fashion that disrupts, or better said, refutes, both the past and the future. In other words, these relationships are not based on prolonged efforts to know who the sexual partner is (the past), nor do they take place with the goal of creating a lasting form of kinship. Paul’s sexual relationship in the play thus heighten the present while refuting its connection to other ends of the temporal spectrum (thus obliterating the signifying chain of temporality). Jameson would argue that this intense focus on the present would, to the postmodern subject, be no different from the relief and the euphoria provided by opiate drugs:

the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases this present of time from all of the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of practice; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming, which effectively dramatizes the power of the material–or better still, the literal–signifier in isolation. The present of the world or material signifier comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity. (Jameson 27-28)

Interestingly, even though Paul’s fleeting relationships are focused on the present, and even though they seem to be disconnected from each other, they are all share a common meaning. Every one of Paul’s relationships can be approached as an attempt to stave off loneliness, and they also highlight Paul’s paradoxical fear of being alone while at the same time being resistant to stasis and permanency. None of these relationships, however, possess the element that Paul needs to transgress the clutches of the present. Paul’s relationships reflect the woe expressed in Ouisa’s most prominent speech, in which she expresses the torment and tension behind the theory of six degrees of separation:

Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A] tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B’ like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. (Guare 81)

The play seems to disrupt any attempts at reifying the concatenation and the linearity that the “six degrees of separation” theory ultimately provides. Paul is the product of disconnection. The character we know as Paul is an incomplete amalgamation of texts, anecdotes, fictions, recipes, backgrounds and people. Any attempt to understand Paul is futile precisely because he resists signification.  His inability to feel beyond the present highlights the fact that Paul exists beyond the signifying chain of connection that Ouisa refers to. Thus, the Paul who we are familiar with is a schizophrenic simulacrum: an incomplete and unknowable representation that has replaced reality.

Works Cited

Guare, John. Six Degrees of Separation. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.


Foucault and the History of Sexuality: A “Queer” Overview

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom.

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality – Volume I (p. 6)

Although Michel Foucault did not work within an established queer theory framework, he is undoubtedly one of the most important precursors to queer theory and the study of gender. His ideas and approaches not only helped to develop a useful framework to understand and contest normativity, but I would go as far as to posit that the ideas discussed in the three volumes of The History of Sexuality have become integrated with the gestalt of human culture and consciousness. His work has enabled conversations of the constructed nature of sexuality and the role of power, culture, and society in this construction. Furthermore, his work has served as a theoretical platform for prominent queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butlter. Foucault’s ideas have particularly helped Butler to approach gender as a construction, and to develop the concept of performativity as a way of exemplifying how language and discourse are reiterated in order to produce the very phenomena that discourse regulates and controls. Performativity is a very Foucaldian notion, developed partially from Foucault’s concept of genealogy (derived from Nietzsche’s approach), which outlines the development of discourses not on the basis of their linearity, but rather, on their relationships, their paradoxes, and their fixations.

The History of Sexuality is in essence, a three-volume study of sexuality, power, and regulation in the Western World. The most influential of these volumes is the first, often referred to as the introduction of the study. This first volume focuses its attention on attacking the preconception that discourses of sex were suppressed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and how sex was very much an integral component of religious, scientific, and political conversations.

As mentioned previously, one of the most influential ideas discussed within this first volume was the notion of sexuality as a construct with social and cultural origins. This very much went against essentialist views of sexuality, in which sexual desire was exclusively deemed to be a naturally or biologically driven phenomenon. Foucault does a similar move in terms of approaching power as a hegemonic distribution that is not inherently present within a being or a thing, but rather, that is generated through discourse and through complex relationships that defy easy categorizations. Although to some extent sexuality is based on biology and desire, Foucault stresses that ultimately, these biological drives are shaped and influenced by institutions and discourses, thus creating the phenomenon of sexuality. The notion of sexuality as a construct inspired Foucault’s contemporaries and successors to focus their attention not on what produces sexuality, but rather, on what sexuality produces.

Another prominent concept discussed within the first volume of The History of Sexuality is the development of Scientia Sexualis, which is the introduction and proliferation of sexuality into psychoanalytic, political, and scientific discourse—which in turn illustrates the spread of sexual discourse despite its supposed repression prior to the 20th century. Psychoanalysis, for instance, focused much of its attention on ascertaining the source of sexuality through the processes of confession and truth-sharing. Confession has important connotations in terms of sexuality, its religious contexts, and even its contemporary contexts (as Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, confession is crucial in terms of the coming out process that queer individuals face during their day-to-day lives). Because of the linkage between confession and sexuality, sexuality becomes closely associated to discourse, and consequently, truth. As Foucault posits, the evasive scientific discourse of sexuality

set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining them with the new themes of asepsis, and the great evolutionist myths with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the physical vigor and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardized populations. In the name of a biological and historical urgency, it justified the racisms of the state, which at the time were on the horizon. It grounded them in “truth.” (54)

Because of the linkage of sexuality to truth, sexuality developed into a marker of identity. In other words, the practice of sexuality became tethered to truth, thus becoming an ontological categorization no different from racial or ethnic typologies. In order to evidence this notion, Foucault alludes the invention of the concept of homosexuality (and in tandem, the invention of the homosexual), arguing once again that homosexuality was not discovered, but rather, produced through dialectical exchange: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43).

Although it is known that people engaged in same-sex relationships prior to the invention of the concept of homosexuality, this ontological category encouraged people to identify themselves or to view others as homosexual. The emergence of homosexuality as a “species” led to unfortunate developments, such as the classification of homosexuality as a pathology that had to be suppressed or regulated. It also led to the demonization of sexualities that were not deemed to be “productive.” It is here that we begin to see the roots of what Lee Edelman would call reproductive futurity, in which procreation is deemed necessary to meet the needs of a system based on production, capitalism, and futurity. Society’s increasing linkage to capitalism, thus, incremented the need of reproductive futurity in order to assure that the capitalist machine continues to run smoothly:

There emerged the analysis of the modes of sexual conduct, their determinations and their effects at the boundary line of the biological and the economic domains. There also appeared those systematic campaigns which going beyond the traditional means–moral and religious exhortations, fiscal measures–tried to transform the sexual conduct of couples into a concerted economic and political behavior. (26)

The 19th century, in particular, witnessed the emergence of doctrines and scientific approaches that had an intense focus on eradicating or handling forms of sexuality that deviated from the notion of reproductive futurity. Crucial to the development of identity politics, Foucault discusses how the categorization of homosexuality led to the emergence of a reverse discourse that challenged the negative valences associated with individuals who were now approached as homosexuals. Although people labeled as homosexuals did deal with negative effects due to the pathological nature of their categorization, this opened up the opportunity for these communities to have a voice. Homosexuality thus began to defend itself as a legitimate mode of existence, demanding its social and cultural recognition. Discursively, the fact that homosexuality was pathologized inevitably led many to conclude that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon—homosexuals are, as Lady Gaga would put it, “born that way.” The reverse discourse generated by the advent of homosexuality goes on to exemplify the circuitous nature of power established by Foucault, in which every instance of power also presents some form of resistance.

To what extent can Lady Gaga’s Born This Way be approached as a form of discursive resistance?

Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, respectively titled The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, focus more on earlier establishments of culture that surfaced before the advent of Western modernity—particularly Greek and Roman cultures. Within volume II, Foucault addresses how Christianity changed the Western view of sexuality and partnership not only from a moral stance, but also from an ethical stance:

it will be said that Christianity associated [sexuality’ with evil, sin, the Fall, and death, whereas antiquity invested it with positive symbolic values. Or the definition of the legitimate partner: it would appear that, in contrast to what occurred in Greek and Roman societies, Christianity drew the line at monogamous marriage and laid down the principle of exclusively procreative ends within that conjugal relationship. Or the disallowance of relations between individuals of the same sex: it would seem that Christianity strictly excluded such relationships, while Greece exalted them and Rome accepted them, at least between men. (14)

While it may initially seem that Christianity completely radicalized sexuality, Foucault posits that there is actually a continuity between “paganism” and Christianity in terms of the discourses of sex. A particularly illuminating example was the image of same-sex relationships. In the 19th century, homosexuals were pathologized as “inverts” and were deemed to have stereotypical and feminized behaviors and traits. The term invert actually alludes to an inversion of the subject’s sexual role–a motif that was very much present in Greco-Roman literature, in which the young boys who donned the passive role are approached as spineless, delicate, and ornamental. Foucault posits that

It would be completely incorrect to interpret this as a condemnation of love of boys, or of what we generally refer to as homosexual relations; but at the same time, one cannot fail to see in it the effect of strongly negative judgments concerning some possible aspects of relations between men, as well as a definite aversion to anything that might denote a deliberate renunciation of the signs and privileges of the masculine role. (19)

Thus, although same-sex relationships were deemed to be “freer” in Greco-Roman cultures, one can still genealogically trace negative valences towards homosexuality–thus exemplifying the discursive nature of sexuality even before the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, when comparing Greco-Roman cultures to later European cultures, there are some differences in terms of how sexuality was approached from a moral, ethical, and stance. Within volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, the notion of individuality is quite important, especially when it came to its conjunction with concepts such as ethics and morality. Interestingly, morality in Greco cultures was not viewed as a norm or a standard under which people had to comply, but rather, it was viewed as a relationship between the individual and the self—thus making ethics an individualized process rather than a struggle of the individual versus society:

moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of [severe self-discipline] than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. If exception is made of the Republic and the Laws, one finds very few references to the principle of a code that would define in detail the right conduct to maintain, few references to the need for an authority charged with seeing to its application, few references to the possibility of punishments that would sanction infractions. (31)

However, the advent of Christianity broke with this individualistic model of the moral and ethical world. Christianity, according to Foucault, produces the meaning of sex rather than focusing its attention on the meanings sex produces—thus making Christianity a regulating and hegemonic force. In these latter volumes, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind that Foucault has hesitation in terms of approaching sexuality, ethics, and individuality through the perspective of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. This is because he does not necessarily approve of them in their entirety—especially when it comes to their perspective of who can or cannot be an individual (slaves and women, for instance, were very much excluded from being approached as individuals).

There is much more to be said in terms of the rich concepts and ideas discussed in Foucault’s work, but it is my hope that this overview has given you a substantial look at the most prominent ideas and concepts discussed in The History of Sexuality–especially the ideas that I deem most useful for queer theory and gender studies.

You can purchase The History of Sexuality by clicking here (Volume 1), here (Volume 2), or here (Volume 3).

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume II: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.