Gender and Sexuality - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Gender and Sexuality
The Rise of Literary Theory

Since the late 1980s, theories of Gender and Sexuality have redefined how we think about culture and society. They have raised new questions about the construction of the gendered and sexualized subject and put forward radical new ideas about PERFORMANCE and PERFORMATIVITY as the means by which the body becomes a SIGNIFYING SYSTEM within SOCIAL FORMATIONS. At the foundation of most theories of Gender and Sexuality is a thoroughgoing critique of the SUBJECT and SUBJECTIVITY. As a social and political category, the subject cuts across all disciplinary and theoretical boundaries. Being a subject can mean many things - a citizen of a particular community, an AUTONOMOUS being in possession of a sense of personal wholeness and unity, the subject of an oppressive ruler or of a discourse. Being a subject and possessing subjectivity are not the birthrights of all human beings, however; they are specialized attributes, more or less unique to Western or Westernized cultures. This notion of the modern subject begins in the Enlightenment, with the reflections of John Locke, who regarded personal identity as unique, sovereign, and autonomous. Subjectivity, the consciousness of one's historical and social agency, was the prerogative of the Western individual who defined himself in opposition to the OTHER, to that which was not a subject and did not possess subjectivity. The classic philosophical expression of this relationship of the subject to what is not the subject is Hegel's dialectic of the master and slave. As is so often the case in Enlightenment thought, the potential for subversion and AMBIVALENCE is contained in what appears to be a universal concept. For Hegel's dialectic also suggests the possibility of the disenfranchised slave or nonsubject acquiring subjectivity by overpowering the master. By the end of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche could speak of the “subject as multiplicity,” and by the 1920s, Freud would call into question most of our preconceived notions about of selfhood and sexual identity.

Closely linked to the concept of the subject is the concept of IDENTITY, which is typically used to cover the process by which a subject becomes a particular kind of subject. Rather than a fixed quality or ESSENCE, identity is understood by theorists of Gender and Sexuality as an ongoing process of construction, performance, appropriation, or mimicry. This perspective, strongly influenced by Michel Foucault's theories of sexual

ity, came be known as SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONISM, the idea that subjectivity and identity are not natural categories or essential features of human existence, unique and indivisible aspects of one’s being; they are rather the material effects of the discourses and images that surround us. The crucial questions raised by theories of Gender and Sexuality have to do with agency and determination: Who or what determines the construction of gender and sexuality? How is social AGENCY acquired and maintained by these constructions? Is one constructed solely by social ideologies and institutions? or do individuals have the freedom to act reflexively, to engage in what Anthony Giddens calls “projects of the self”? For Foucault, sexuality has played a fundamental role in developing modern modes of social organization and regulation. in his landmark study, History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault argues that sexuality, far from being proscribed or repressed in the nineteenth century, became part of a discourse that sought to identify and regulate all forms of sexual behavior. “Instead of a massive censorship,” he claimed, “what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (34). Religious confession, Psychoanalysis, sexology, literature - all were instrumental in this incitement, which simultaneously made sexuality a public matter and a target of social administration. “Under the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it was no longer directly named, sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite” (20).

Foucault’s critique of sexuality brilliantly exposed the ideological mechanisms by which sexual identities are maintained and regulated by institutional authorities. In this regard, his work paralleled that of Louis Althusser whose theory of IDEOLOGY held that the subject is always already “interpellated,” coercively recruited by ideological apparatuses of the State. (On Althusser, see pp. 112-13.) Subjectivity, selfhood, and citizenship are the products of socialization; agency, that quantum of will that enables the subject to move within social spheres, is a product of those very spheres. In another direction, Giddens argues that the individual has many significant opportunities to intervene in the ideological construction of subjectivity; she is able to choose from an array of available discursive strategies and write the narrative of herself. These techniques of self-development guarantee freedom even in contexts of overwhelming social power. In his later work, Foucault recognized that the individual possessed a necessary freedom from POWER, which is “exercised only over free subjects … and only insofar as they are free. By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments may be realized” (“Subject” 221).

Judith Butler is perhaps the most influential theorist to explore the idea of sexual and gender identity as a social PERFORMANCE, a site of power and discourse. “To what extent,” she asks, “do regulatory practices of gender formation and division constitute identity, the internal coherence of the subject, indeed, the self-identical status of the person?” (Gender Trouble 16). As an alternative to such naturalized regulatory practices, she developed a model of PERFORMATIVITY, which she distinguished from a normative model of PERFORMANCE:

[performance] presumes a subject, but [performativity] contests the very notion of the subject… . What I'm trying to do is think about performativity as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names. Then I take a further step, through the Derridean rewriting of [J. L.] Austin, and suggest that this production actually always happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation. So if you want the ontology of this, i guess performativity is the vehicle through which ontological effects are established. Performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed. (“Gender” 111-12)

According to Butler, gender and sexual identity (self-consciousness about the ontology or “being” of the self) has always been a matter of performance, acquiescence to social norms and to mystifications about sexuality and gender derived from philosophy, religion, psychology, medicine, and popular culture. Performativity upsets these norms, sometimes appropriating them in a transformed fashion, at other times parodying or miming them in a way that draws out their salient elements for criticism. The “ontological effects” to which Butler refers are all that we can see or know of “true” gender or sexual identity, a situation dramatized most clearly in drag and other forms of transvestism. For while the drag queen prides himself on getting every detail right and being true to a particular vision of femininity, his performance is in the end a critique of the very category of woman he strives to imitate faithfully. These reflections on the ontology of sexual identity have led Butler and others to argue that the so-called biological notion of “sex” may itself not be

free from a performative dimension. Performativity, as a mode of subject- and identity-formation, is clearly indebted to poststructuralist notions of language and TEXTUALITY premised on the idea of the subject as the subject of a discourse. It is the quintessential expression of personal agency in a context of late MODERNITY, a context in which naturalistic, biological, or ESSENTIALIST conceptions of the subject and of gender and sexual identity are no longer operative. Performativity is, paradoxically, the provisional result of a process of construction and the material sign of an authentic self. Butler's later work, especially Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997), indicates the decisive role that public language - her chief example is “hate speech” - plays in constituting the performative element of social life.

Innovations in queer theory have made it evident that performativity is a function of the choices that gay and lesbian individuals make every day and in all walks of life. To a certain extent, such individuals have always known that the performative is the real. This is why, as Alan Sinfield argues in The Wilde Century (1994), Oscar Wilde's life experience is as valuable for queer theory as his literary works, for it posits perfor- mativity at the foundation of queer identity.

Queer theory seeks, among other things, to describe or map out the ways homosexual or homoerotic desire manifests itself in literary and cultural texts. It is strongly reliant on psychoanalytic categories and concepts, but seeks to overcome the heterosexual limits of psychoanalytic theory. Teresa de Lauretis, who was one of the first to use the term queer theory, has since rejected it because of its appropriation by mainstream media. Certainly popular television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy have made the word “queer,” which had been appropriated by the gay and lesbian movement as a symbol of political empowerment, into a sanitized label for homosexuals with no political agenda. Others feel that queer theory privileges gay male experience at the expense of lesbian and bisexual experience. To some degree, the male bias is due to the strong influence of gay male theorists. It is also due to the enormous influence of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985), which, along with Foucault's History of Sexuality, provided the theoretical scaffolding for academic queer theory. One of her most powerful formulations, the concept of homosociality, has come to enjoy rather widespread use across academic disciplines. HOMOSOCIAL DESIRE is grounded in Rene Girard's theory of “triangular desire” and in Gayle Rubin's theory of the “sex/gender system,” specifically her critique of Levi-Strauss's analysis of kinship systems in which women function as gifts in economic exchanges between men. According to Sedgwick, homosocial desire between men is expressed in a triangular structure with a woman (or a “discourse” of “woman”) standing as a putative object of at least one of them: “the ultimate function of women is to be conduits of homosocial desire” (99). These relationships need not be sexual; in fact they are far more potent whenever the sexual element is sublimated in the MIMICRY of a heterosexual identity that effectively disguises homosexual “deviancy.” Homosocial structures frequently elicit homophobia as an institutionalized check on repressed homosexual desire, but they more often lead to “changes in men's experience of living within the shifting terms of compulsory heterosexuality” (134). Her chapter on Henry James in her Epistemology of the Closet (1990) illustrates the divide between homosocial networking, which confirms the heterosexual status quo, and “homosexual panic,” which reacts violently against any manifestation of eroticism or “genitalized” behavior that might emerge out of such networks.

Queer theory has come to encompass a substantial body of work in lesbian studies. Monique Wittig's Lesbian Body attacks the tradition of anatomy based on the orderly and ordered male body and offers instead the lesbian body as a model of the desiring subject. Like other feminists who challenge the authority of PATRIARCHAL discourse, Wittig openly confronts the problem of the SUBJECT POSITION she occupies as a theorist and writer; she disrupts the texture of her writing and thus repeats at the level of her discourse the disorderly nature of the lesbian body itself. Adrienne Rich, in her much-anthologized essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence,” attacks “heterocentricity” as a covert mode of socialization that seeks willfully to repress the “enormous potential counterforce” (39) of lesbian experience. Because heterosexuality is the compulsory cultural norm, the oppression of women - their sexual slavery - is more difficult to name. Rich revalues the so- called perversity of lesbian desire, more frightening even than male homosexuality, and posits a “lesbian continuum” free of invidious binary sexual typologies. Lesbian Feminism is not concerned with hating men but rather with celebrating the life choices of women who love women. It is not that heterosexuality is in and of itself oppressive, it is that “the absence of choice remains the great unacknowledged reality” (67).

Acknowledging this reality and creating and preserving choice is what motivates the successors of Rich and Wittig. Thus Theresa de Lauretis, in The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (1994), challenges psychoanalytical theories of normative sexuality that would limit such choices, and Lynda Hart, Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (1994), attacks the pathologization and appropriation of lesbian sexuality by the “male imaginary” and defends women who respond criminally to men who attempt to foreclose lesbian desire. in both cases free choice is celebrated, for without it there can be no chance for free subjects to combat the fortified positions of social and cultural power.

Note. For more on issues related to gender and sexuality, see Feminism, Ethnic Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.


Butler, Judith. “Gender as Performance.” Interview. In A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals. Ed. Peter Osborne. London: Routledge, 1996. 108-25.

---- . Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. 1976. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

---- . “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Eds. Herbert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 208-26.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence.” In Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. New York: Norton, 1986. 23-75.