BUTLER is influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis,
phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, George Herbert
Mead, etc.), structural anthropologists (Claude Levì-Strauss,
Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, etc.) and speech-act theory (particularly
the work of John Searle) in her understanding of the "performativity"
of our identities. All of these theories explore the ways that social
reality is not a given but is continually created as an illusion "through
language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign" ("Performative"
270). A good example in speech-act theory is what John Searle terms
illocutionary speech acts, those speech acts that actually do
something rather than merely represent something. The classic
example is the "I pronounce you man and wife" of the marriage
ceremony. In making that statement, a person of authority changes the
status of a couple within an intersubjective community; those words
actively change the existence of that couple by establishing a new marital
reality: the words do what they say. As Butler explains, "Within
speech act theory, a performative is that discursive practice that enacts
or produces that which it names" (Bodies
13). A speech act can produce that which it names, however, only
by reference to the law (or the accepted norm, code, or contract), which
is cited or repeated (and thus performed) in the pronouncement.
Butler takes this formulation further by exploring
the ways that linguistic constructions create our reality in general
through the speech acts we participate in every day. By endlessly citing
the conventions and ideologies of the social world around us, we enact
that reality; in the performative act of speaking, we "incorporate"
that reality by enacting it with our bodies, but that "reality"
nonetheless remains a social construction (at one step removed from
what Lacan distinguishes from reality by the term, "the
Real"). In the act of performing the conventions of reality,
by embodying those fictions in our actions, we make those artificial
conventions appear to be natural and necessary. By enacting conventions,
we do make them "real" to some extent (after all, our ideologies
have "real" consequences for people) but that does not make
them any less artificial. In particular, Butler concerns herself with
those "gender acts" that similarly lead to material changes
in one's existence and even in one's bodily self: "One is not simply
a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one's body and, indeed,
one does one's body differently from one's contemporaries and from one's
embodied predecessors and successors as well" ("Performative"
272). Like the performative citation of the conventions governing
our perception of reality, the enactment of gender norms has "real"
consequences, including the creation of our sense of subjectivity but
that does not make our subjectivity any less constructed. We may believe
that our subjectivity is the source of our actions but Butler contends
that our sense of independent, self-willed subjectivity is really a
retroactive construction that comes about only through the enactment
of social conventions: "gender cannot be understood as a role
which either expresses or disguises an interior 'self,' whether that
'self' is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative,
gender is an 'act,' broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction
of its own psychological interiority" ("Performative"
Butler therefore understands gender to be
"a corporeal style, an 'act,' as it were" ("Performative"
272). That style has no relation to essential "truths"
about the body but is strictly ideological. It has a history that exists
beyond the subject who enacts those conventions:
The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense,
an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence,
gender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives
the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual
actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once
What is required for the hegemony
standards to maintain power is our continual repetition of such gender
acts in the most mundane of daily activities (the way we walk, talk,
gesticulate, etc.). For Butler, the distinction between the personal
and the political or between private and public is itself a fiction
designed to support an oppressive status quo: our most personal acts
are, in fact, continually being scripted by hegemonic
social conventions and ideologies.
Butler underscores gender's constructed nature
in order to fight for the rights of oppressed identities, those identities
that do not conform to the artificial—though strictly enforced—rules
that govern normative heterosexuality. If those rules are not natural
or essential, Butler argues, then they do not have any claim to justice
or necessity. Since those rules are historical and rely on their continual
citation or enactment by subjects, then they can also be challenged
and changed through alternative performative acts. As Butler puts it,
"If the 'reality' of gender is constituted by the performance itself,
then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized 'sex' or 'gender'
which gender performances ostensibly express" ("Performative"
278). For this reason, "the transvestite's gender is as fully
real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations"