Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) is today, along with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), considered one of the foundational works of modern Feminisms, such that even if one has never read the book, one cannot help repeating and reiterating the ideas contained therein if one wants to converse within the discourses of gender and sex generally. At the heart of Gender Trouble is a thesis concerning the nature of identity. Butler defends, with vigour and force, the idea that gender is performative, that is; that the cultural and social signifiers which designate gender roles are a like a kind of language or grammar which are delivered in performed acts which construct gender quite apart from biologically determined sex. This idea, liberating and radical in its time, derives from the work of the postrstructuralists writing in the 1960s and 70s, particularly Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. One running thread is the idea of iteration and its link with identity. Derrida analyses identity in the form of a signature and demonstrates that the value of a signature comes not from its uniqueness or its unreproducibility, but rather from the converse, from the fact that it can be reproduced continuously. In this language-based model, the identity formed by a signature, formed by signification attached to a particular object (in this case, a written name attached to a personage), is produced from the way the signifier is repeated, from the way it is reiterated, reinscribed, and reperformed. To put it more directly: no signature is any use if it can’t be signed the same way many times, no identity makes any sense unless it is recognisable as itself.
In her extension of this idea to gender, Butler maps repeatable markers of identity across a much broader scope than the signature, which refers to a singular identity only. Gendered performances such as those found in drag are famously described by Butler here, in an analysis I will not recapitulate in full. Suffice to say that after Butler, the simplistic division of masculine and feminine as characteristics of personality and identity became much harder to tie to a biological or physiological root with any certainty or concretion. Yet here start a number of other troubles.
The dismantling of rigid social roles comes to a dramatic fruition in this 21st century paradigm; a great and perhaps concluding collapse of few hundred years’ slide in history from the demise of feudalism, the diminishing roles of religion and caste and the divisions of class, wealth, race, sex and gender to the present where the diversities and mobilities of social groups of all kinds are visible and even dominant in the public eye. This is what is today called identity politics and is variously celebrated as a vehicle for change, decried as a mask which covers over the absence of actual liberation, and villified as a destroyer of identity itself. This is not to mention the ever-present mantra for the good Neoliberal: Capitalism capitalises. Hence we have everyone from Kanye West and Floyd Mayweather to Hillary Clinton and Nigel Farage cashing in their oppressed-identity cheques and selling their free-market moralised politics (Farage’s great appeal was his identity as a ‘normal’ ‘oppressed’ White British working-class man. Hillary, of course, mobilised her gender combined with an unhealthy complacency to disastrous effect. Kanye and Floyd have both made much of their race and their ‘oppressed’ status despite enjoying obscene wealth and comfort.). High street fashion sells so-called ‘gender neutral’ apparel (which is little more than slim mens’ clothing in grey). Facebook supports over 40 different sexual orientations. Starbucks, once the demonized tax-evading megacorp, reintegrates itself as the safe-space for open office gatherings aimed at the young and ambitious ‘entrepreneurs’ who fail to identify with the traditional workplace. Identity politics comes with a tote bag bearing Beyonce’s face and a receipt.
Let’s step back a little.
What is identity? We can quite safely say that it is not something reducible to race, sex, sexuality, gender, wealth, class, caste, biology, physiology, psychology, medical condition, star sign, birthstone, what car your dad drives (or didn’t drive), what street you live on (or didn’t live on), what school you went to (or didn’t go to), what haircut you asked for at the salon last Wednesday, what kind of knot you tie your shoelaces with, what you drink at the pub on Saturday afternoon, how often you cut your nails, the list goes on… It seems that the history we have has spent a lot of its time capably refuting what identity is not, but has been unable to find what identity itself is. From this, the best answer we seem to arrive at is that identity must be that which is not reducible to, well, anything. In current philosophy we have a couple of writers who work in this direction. One is Object-Oriented Ontology which proposes that the identity of any given object is that which cannot be exhausted by either its parts or its effects. Another is Tristan Garcia’s anti-reductionist philosophy which claims that the identity of an object must be the difference between its parts and its effects. The difference between these two is not strictly important here (and requires more semantic discussion than I wish to undertake now) so, for simplicity’s sake, let us state straightforwardly that identity is that which retains what it is regardless of the parts it is made from or the effects it has on other things.
We notice here that identity takes on the character that the existentialists (among whose company Simone de Beauvoir finds herself, incidentally) give to the human individual. That is, radical freedom – a kind of insurmountable withdrawnness which makes it impossible for any person (or being in general) to be totally identified with anything other than itself. It is a kind of tautology of essence: I am me, so to speak.
Now, a conflict develops between Butler’s notion of performativity and the existentialist idea of identity as freedom. On the one hand we have identity as defined by repeatability, by the repetition and reiteration of performed acts which proliferate in a public, discursive space. On the other we have identity as something which cannot be exhaustively disclosed in public at all, something entirely private, something by definition impossible to iterate, impossible to reduce to any kind of action, form, signifier, or performance. This dispute arises in a confusion best clarified in Kant, but taken note of in a great deal of thought since then: the split in reality between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or rather the split between things-in-themselves and things as they appear in phenomena for other entities. This is not the same as a divide between mind and body, nor is it identical to the duality between private and public (though this is closer to it). Rather, in this case, noumenal refers to something without relation at all, whereas phenomenal refers to something as it relates to other things.
It should be clear that, seen through this lens, advocates of performativity are speaking in the realm of the phenomenal, whereas the existentialists are speaking in reference to the noumenal. The one group are discussing identity as it appears socially, as it appears in language, in culture, as it appears for others, and the other group examine identity as it belongs only to itself. There is something like an order or presidence here too. Only a subject essentially free to begin with in itself could choose to present itself or perform itself in the various roles it wants to adopt in the public eye. Yet all is not resolved. Freedom in the context of these two realms is more troublesome than meets the eye.
This is because the logics of these two kinds of freedom reverse in opposite directions. The freedom of the existentials reverses into non-freedom in that in its originary sense I will always be me; there is no escaping identity as oneself, even if this absoluteness of identity also gives that identity freedom from all external influences. The freedom of performativity reverses into non-freedom in that total freedom of performance (in the sense that one can perform any role, any identity at all) leads to non-identity. That is to say that if performative identity is based on the repeatability of the performance, of the signature so to speak, then if one never repeats their performative acts, one never achieves an identity in the social or discursive realm. For the existentialist, radical freedom as myself means I am riveted to myself, absolute unfreedom. For the performativist, radical freedom to perform means I am entirely unmoored; I can act the masculine the one day, the feminine the next, the sys-trans asexual for the next half hour and the left-legged unicorn for the next fortnight if it takes my fancy, at the cost of maintaining any kind of stable identity whatsoever.
Herein lie the weaknesses in identity politics and its affiliates which are so easily exploited and reintegrated into the Neoliberal profit margin. This is also where many well-meaning humans shoot themselves in the foot.
Consider the modern job market. The ideal worker is expected to be flexible, multivalent, diverse. She is expected to fast-paced, adaptable, entrepreneurial. All of this amounts to justifying employers in offering as much occasional and fixed-term work as they can, in other words, offering workers ‘freedom’ (to explore your own avenues, to find yourself, to not be fixed to one role, to be your own boss) in exchange for never having to offer permanent contracts, abdicating long-term responsibilities to employees, and pay less and less out in wages for the same work done. Yet simultaneously, the ideal worker should be unique, he should bring not only skills, but personality to the workplace, he should have a lasting impact on his team, make his mark, do what only he can do, make the job his own. This justifies employers is leaving roles ‘undefined’ or ‘developing’, which means dispensing with training of any sort, and treating employees as expendable in lieu of profitable results or as soon as a more exploitable offer comes along. The result of this playing of performative identity against existential identity is the ‘gig’ economy, which has already built up a healthy body of criticism for the conduct of companies from Deliveroo and Uber to Amazon, which I shan’t repeat here.
Every industry today from Fashion and beauty to Fitness and Health is moving toward capitalising on the same paradoxes: You can be (buy) any identity you want, we have a huge range of underarm toner colours for you to choose from, but God forbid you look like anyone else, find your own look, make your own style, out of the huge range of underarm toner colours we have for you to choose from. You have freedom! Come to the gym and try our range of classes, build (buy) yourself into whoever you want to be! But remember not to be like everyone else, why not go the extra mile and become the true you (with a gold membership and a personal trainer)? Meditate daily! Liberate yourself of your worldly attachments, remember you can become anything you want and be free (classes in meditation and Yoga for £15 an hour or a discount rate if you book monthly!)! But remember you’re exactly okay as who you are, treat yourself, be happy in yourself, be good to yourself (cake and coffee after an avocado toast all for a delicious £19.99)!
No wonder identity-based-politics finds it no easier to make heads or tails of governance, much less any given individual trying to make his or her way in the world. Many a feminist has fought compatriots over whether gender identity is determined or fluid (existential or performative). Many a disenchanted young man has heard all about his proposed social mobility and freedom (performative) and found himself stranded in a seemingly bottomless pit of occasional work and unskilled labour after running up against the paradoxes of the job market. Many an ethnic minority tries to preserve and protect its identity (existential) but attacks those who attempt to share in cultural identity (performative). The slew of arguments surrounding appropriation, cultural diversity / authenticity, free speech, discrimination, and on and on testify to this fundamental confusion.
What to do?
What both the performative and existential models of identity as I have characterised them here take for granted is that identity is a kind of freedom. Identity is not, however, solely to do with freedom. This does not require contesting, but rather accepting both the existential and performative accounts of identity and, crucially, taking responsibility for them. What does it mean to take responsibility for identity in these senses together? It means giving up freedom (performative). If freedom (existential) is absolute (I am always me, and can never be reduced to other) then this means I am committed to being me, to a completely unalterable identity at all times. Thus, responsibility means attributing freedom (performative) to identity (existential), which is to say performative action, public identity and presentation must become worthy of and responsible for the person from whom they emanate. It means that, while performative identity remains free, it must willingly surrender its freedom and commit itself to a stable identity capable of bearing the gravity of existential identity.
Take the case of John Barrowman, actor most well known in the UK for his role in the TV series Dr Who. Openly gay, Barrowman acts as a public voice combating homophobia and discrimination. In the context of identity and performance, this is already a step towards a responsible approach to identity. To be publicly disclosed in this way is a commitment to a performative identity, a commitment to being who, and what, he is claiming to be in the public eye. If we consider a counter-case of a Barrowman who does not publicly disclose his sexuality – well, who could blame him, anyone might want to do without the trouble, and what business is it of the general public what his sexuality is anyway? This is all correct, and it would be his right and an exercise of his freedom (performative) to remain not publicly disclosed in this way. Yet how much more is he able to do, able to be, when publicly disclosed? When his performative identity stabilises and rivets itself to his existential identity, how much more does he become? An undisclosed Barrowman retains an identity as Barrowman = Barrowman alone. A disclosed Barrowman becomes Barrowman = Barrowman = gay = campaigner against homophobia = role model = inspiration etc. Disclosed this way, he sacrifices freedoms he would otherwise have enjoyed but gains responsibilities he may otherwise never have been able to fulfil.
A further example: Barrowman took part in a 2008 TV series in which his homosexuality was investigated through a series of empirical and scientific methods. The goal was, purportedly, to demonstrate a causal root for his orientation. Memorably, Barrowman was shown a scan of his brain activity in response to men and women, and expressed immense anxiety followed by relief upon discovering that his brain registered a great deal more activity in response to men than women. Regardless of the scientific interpretation of the results, what does Barrowman’s own response tell us? On some level he places a high determining factor on the data presented in the form of his brain scan. In terms of performative freedom this is indeed an abdication of freedom, but it has the opposite effect as before. This is because Barrowman does not surrender his performativity by returning the responsibility for his performance to his identity, rather he surrenders it by donating responsibility for his identity to some external body, in this case, a scientific discourse. Imagine again a counter-case where Barrowman is not anxious to know the results of his brain scan and retains the certitude of his self-identification as homosexual regardless. Is this not a greater example of bearing responsibility for chosen identity? Does this kind of self-dependent certainty not do more justice to who he is in himself and the freedom he claims? Conversely, does a dependence on the scientific discourse, or any other discourse for that matter, not betray an ultimate weakness or uncertitude in identity? Does it not fail to do justice to identity and undermine the commitment made to a performative role?
An understanding of one’s own identity and a commitment and investment made this way is something that anyone can accomplish, and I see no reason why a culture-wide change in this arena could not be achieved with the appropriate educational framework. I am not hopeful for the actualisation of such a thing in the near future, yet I am certain that without such a transformation in the generally deployed concept of identity, the general malaise that is identity politics and its affiliates will continue and continue to do more damage than good in the arenas in which it performs.
Thanks for reading.
Please forgive the sloppiness of my concepts this time. I am far below par as a writer here, so I am grateful for the reader bearing with my imprecision.