Judith Butler, Ph.D. UC Berkerley, Comparative Lit. / Gender Theory
"Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory" (1988)
This pdf is 11 pages, Butler's complete text, including some half-dozen typos. Let's view this essay as presumptive introductory reading . . .
Starting with Descartes' epistemological ontology: "Cogito ergo sum." Being is founded in thought. This "being" would be an internal dialogue, a narrative with oneself about one's existential state. The metaphysical product in this paradigm is an internalized sense of self.
What about the externalized sense of self?
Let's argue here that the externalized sense of self is an ongoing, historical performance on the part of the "actor" and a semiotic, heuristic performance conveyed to an "audience" comprised of the linguistic interpretive community. This linguistic/interpretive community engages discourse regarding "gender" according to the cultural "lingua franca" of gender comprehension. At bottom, the agents in this performance are literally talking gender.
Butler suggests, along with Searle, Beauvoir, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Kristeva, etc. etc. etc. in rigorous academic iteration, that the "ontos" of identity is performative. Moreover, that the performance is an historical event. Butler describes this performance as "a present participle" -- the progressive, historical state of "being" rather than the fixed, static state of "to be." The upshot of this present participle state is that performance is ongoing, and accordingly fluid, variable -- and ultimately subject to "mis-readings," another historical present participle.
Butler suggests that the performance of self is a narrative fiction.
Physically our "being" is marked by sex. in the linguistic sense of of a semiotic ontology, sex would be a grammatical inflection. Biologically, the human form is -- with few exceptions -- divided (semiotically inflected) into cis-male and cis-female. This division is fundamental to the perpetuation and the survival of the species. The entirety of the sexual, reproductive process in humans is ineluctably bound up in socio-cultural convention, linguistic interpretive community, semantics, heuristics, and a great deal of proscription and ostracism of transgressors. Seemingly, this "grammatical inflection" of a physiologically distinct "difference" is heuristically consequential.
Derrida, in arguing "difference" suggests that difference, distinction, in narrative is problematic and subject to "mis-reading." Butler (above essay) notes that context functions in reading, One may applaud the performance of a "drag queen" on stage, but have a very different reaction to the same drag queen on public transportation. Heuristic context here plays a role in the interpretative "reading" of the historical performance. On stage, the context is "to suspend disbelief" but on the bus the context is one where the "performance" is read as a "fiction," and motive in the performance is called into question. Our interpretive communities (socio-cultural) have hegemonically oppressive edicts with regard to the strict grammar and conjugation of gender inflection. On stage the performance fits the cultural frame of propriety. On the bus, this same presentation is out of context and culturally proscribed as being outside the frame of the cultural regime.
The fundamental illusion of this fixed sexual dyad is that the categorical bifurcation of the sexes is a naturally occurring state, an illusion of static, a priori temporality. This culturally constructed edict of fixed sexual being is socially motivated by the valorization of kinship relations, incest taboo, normative heterosexual pair bonding, perpetuation of kinship structure, estates, legal, religious sanctions . . . This sexual "grammar" has strict rules. The culture is persuaded that this entire sexual schema is seamless, stable, and a priori derived.
Humans are a linguistically organized species, engaging every aspect of their being in an ongoing discourse of signifiers -- in all manner and form, verbal, visual, behavioral. We communicate our sexual status through a paradigm of signifiers. The relation of these signifiers to what they signify is culturally mediated. This although the interpretive community would like to assert that these relationships are fixed, stable, and fundamentally essentialist.
The resulting linguistic discourse is a performance of gender signification which is linguistically mediated, arbitrary, historical. Because gender signification is linguistic, semantic, the relationship between sex the signified and gender the signifier is in some limited cases fixed (genes, genitals, body hair . . . secondary sex features) but in most cases socio-culturally, linguistically organized and signified. This semantic paradigm of sexual signifiers is subject to mis-readings. This semantic paradigm is subject to appropriation and subversion, new readings, new interpretations, a poetics of innovative expression.
The social hegemony, which has a significant stake in perpetuation of the species, asserts that these signifiers are essentialist, seamless, and fixed. And accordingly there are strong socio-cultural edicts proscribing transgression (pun intended) across what they hope to assert is the fixed, categorical boundary between the sexes.
But the boundaries are arbitrary, dimensional, subject to appropriation and subversion. "Hetero-normative" is but one narrow, too often categorical frame of sexual orientation and gender expression.
The performance of our gender is rigidly structured along categorical lines of a discrete [hetero-normative] dyad. The structure of this performance is dictated by genre -- in French, in literature "genre" is the typological heuristic structure of the semantic narrative form. "Genre" provides an interpretive function. As an interpretive community, we understand the structure of the narrative heuristic according to genre: Tragedy, everyone dies. Comedy, everyone gets married.
"Genre" in French is also the term for "gender" which is the typological heuristic structure of the semantic narrative form: in the case of one's role in reproduction, one's generic role in the perpetuation of the species, and finally in the semantics of performing the signification of one's ontological being. "Genre here informs the interpretation of the performance.
The fixity of these heuristics is in a very real sense oppressive. The discourse of gender results in gender stereotypes. Stereotypes are semantic structures which define genre, which provide a frame from which to comprehend the heuristic being communicated. On the one hand, this social convention is safe. On the other hand, these putatively fixed, static, categorical genres are oppressive. In this same sense, the genre of sexual expression sets out a rigidly hegemonic interpretive structure with mediating social proscriptions. Such proscriptions are no less than a censorship of expression.
When we censor expression, we deprive ourselves of poetical, semantic creativity, a dimensional wonderment about the human condition, about who we are as metaphysical entities, ineluctably ensconced in epistemology of our ontological performance.