15 August 2008

Progress Report

Life here at Mumpsimus Central continues on apace, despite the slow pace of posting. I finally got done all that I needed to do for Best American Fantasy 2008 and so now can begin trying to get organized for the next volume. I finished acting in a production of Taming of the Shrew that was fun and successful, and I enjoyed the irony of that being the show I appear in before teaching an introductory course in feminism this fall at Plymouth State (in The Riverside Shakespeare, Anne Barton makes the strongest case I've read for the play's subversive elements, but I'm still not really convinced). And I'm slowly getting organized with all of the tasks I have here at the house, though this has not been helped by the phone line getting hit by lightning, the lawn mower needing major service, etc.

In terms of reading, I've mostly been trying to prepare for my classes, sifting through gazillions (yes, that's a technical term) of essays and articles in search of ones to foist off on the feminism class -- I've collected well over 100 items, and am trying to determine which are most important and which are least -- a fun, if a bit overwhelming, process.

Yesterday I read Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer by Riki Wilchins, which I first learned about via Cheryl Morgan's excellent review essay about it. It's a readable and interesting book, good as a primer, though occasionally frustrating to anybody who's read a bit of Derrida and Foucault, since the use of their ideas is so simplistic, but I suppose that's a good counter to some of the tendencies of academics who have tried to write with the same sort of complexity as D&F but without much talent for it. Wilchins is better on Judith Butler's idea of performativity, but I may just think that because I'm less enamored of Butler than of Derrida and (especially) Foucault. I think Cheryl has given Wilchins short shrift on the concept of performativity -- I don't think Wilchins would deny that a person can have a strong sense of gender identity while also acknowledging that gender is performative and not essential (this is, as far as I can tell, why Wilchins devotes an entire chapter to race and critical race theory: race has a strong power over our sense of identity and many consequences for people's lives every day, but that doesn't mean we can't also point to the inadequacies of the concept of "race" and notice how the concept is constructed and enforced). But I don't think it's an important misreading (if it is even a misreading; I may be reading too much onto Wilchins's text to make it agree with my own feelings!), because so often the idea of performativity is used to suggest that a strong gender identity is something fanciful or easily discarded, or that transgender people are just pretending, and I'm glad Cheryl was able to attack that idea.

In any case, Queer Theory, Gender Theory is a clear and useful book to introduce people to important ideas about gender and its power in the world.

I had mentioned earlier that I was reading Nisi Shawl's Filter House for a Strange Horizons review, and might read Greg Bear's City at the End of Time for a review as well. I'm still intending to write about Filter House, but I won't review the Bear, since I managed to get 100 pages in and then just had to give up; I'm still quite fond of Bear's work in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the new novel is much too abstract and badly paced to hold my interest, and if I kept reading I'd just resent the whole thing. The Shawl collection is posing different difficulties -- what I've read so far is, alas, disappointing, though the fault may be more with my expectations than her writing: this is a book I very much want to like -- but the difficulties are ones I think I can write about, and, in any event, I'm hoping there will be a few stories among the ones remaining that work well for me.

I'm also still making my way through Meja Mwangi's novels, and enjoying them quite a bit. More on all that later.

A few days ago I got Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes and skimmed through parts of it. It got some press recently (under its British title, Excavating Kafka -- I don't know if there are differences beyond the title) for presenting information about and images from Kafka's collection of pornography. Hawes and his publisher are working hard to suggest that the book shatters all sort of myths, but aside from printing pictures of the porn (considerably less scandalous and disgusting than Hawes suggests -- I've seen worse in the art of the Greeks and Romans), Hawes doesn't seem to contribute much to the discussion that somebody who's read a bit about Kafka won't already know -- he's mostly attacking straw men. Worse, the narrative voice is so coy and grating that the book is nearly unreadable -- it's the voice of a teacher trying desperately to entertain an indifferent class, and only succeeding at shedding the last vestiges of his dignity.

Finally, my not-for-anybody-but-myself reading at the moment (always important when you have a lot of books to read for reviews or classes) is Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs, which is an extraordinary study of how Woolf wrote each of her books. It's the sort of book that will fascinate anybody interested in a writer's process, regardless of whether you've read all the books under discussion (I've pretty much read them all, but some of them not in over 10 years, when I took a Woolf course my senior year of college. But I even found the chapter on the one Woolf novel I've never read, Night and Day, compelling).


  1. Hi Matt, glad you found the Wilchins book useful. I'm not expert on Derrida or Foucault, but I did find the explanations of their positions understandable, which is more than I can say for many texts I have read.

    With regard to the performativity thing, the specific issue that gets my goat is when gender deconstructionists go on about how social pressures to conform are very strong, but you can choose to rebel against them. For many transgender people this is entirely back to front. The only reasonable explanation for the existence of so many transsexuals, despite the extreme prejudice that they face, is that gender identity is stronger than social pressure. Obviously that doesn't sit well with people who are peddling a line that gender identity can't exist because all gender is performance.

    In the end it comes down to whether one wants to take an extreme position or not. Sure, much gender is performance, but not all of it. And in many ways the fact that people feel compelled to resist social conditioning despite the manifest disadvantages of doing so is more interesting than the strength of the social conditioning itself.

    I could go on about how if gender is performance then it is silly to criticize people for choosing to adopt gendered behavior that you don't like, but I've probably kicked enough people for one comment.

  2. Riki Wilchins8/16/2008 10:32 AM

    THanks for the 'good ink' Matt. The chapter on race --specifically Critical Race Theory -- wasn't so much to try to extend the idea of performativity (which I'm not too fond of to begin with) but really simply because I think the ongong pomo discussions about "queering the body," while engaging sex, gender and orientation, have pretty much ignored race and issues of race. It's a pretty startling omission, so this was my (small) attempt to make up some lost ground. And there is so much creative thought going on in race critical analysis.

    Also, I love Cheryl's comment here. I stil think everyone (to Butler's dismay) conflates "performance" with "performativity" although they are quite difference. And unfortunately those who are hostile to gender freedom contine to use the concepts to politicize gender behaviors with which they are uncomfortable ("but if gender is all performance, then why do people have to dress so butch/change sexes/get breast augmentation/yourchoicehere."

    The use of pomo -- which if anything is about valorizing minorty and marginalized voices to remarginalized and disempower them is particularly depressing. It shows -- in my mind, anyway -- the limits of feminist philosophy has developed as a liberatory analysis.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Riki Wilchins

  3. So would either of you like to take a stab at defining the difference between "performance" and "performativity"?

    I know that academics sometimes have to make up words, but if they make up a new one that sounds very much like an old one they really shouldn't be surprised if people conflate the two.

  4. A stab? Well, let's see. Eeek. It's been a couple years since I read even a word of Butler or thought much about the concept, but it's a pleasant Saturday here, so why not risk being utterly and completely wrong...

    As I understand it at this moment, Butler did not intend for performance/performativity to mean "mere performance", like putting on a mask, playing a character, etc. I like in Queer Theory, Gender Theory where "performatives" are brought up -- statements that are also actions ("I now pronounce you man & wife" creates the legal bond between two people, somebody says "I bet $1000" in a poker game creates the bet) -- "The woman-ness is never there apart from my actions; I call it into being by creating it moment to moment. It has no more underlying identity or reality than being married, being under arrest, or making a bet. All of these exist only through a recognized set of acts that call into being important social states" (133).

    It's basically arguing against an essentialist idea of "woman" or "man" -- against there being something beyond what we do. How this differs from social construction I'm less able to explain -- the ideas seem awfully similar to me, but I'm sure there is some distinction I'm forgetting or never knew in the first place. Or perhaps performativity is a type of social construction.

    Anyway, there's a lot in this that is beyond individual control. I think Butler refers to gender as a type of script, one waiting for actors, and the various gender acts through the ages have enacted a particular script, made certain ways of being man or woman not just acceptable but even visible. Deviations from the script that has been rehearsed through the years can be seen as invalid or threatening, or they might not even be seen at all -- as Riki Wilchins says, "I can do woman all I want, but I'm still going to be called 'Sir' about half the time. And I have some butch friends who are very much involved in not doing woman, but who still get referred to as 'Miss' (not to mention 'Honey' and 'Sweetie') about half the time. But the idea of performativity gives us hope that we might be able to reenact gender differently, to see genders that aren't there for us right now" (133).

    That's the part of the idea I like best, the idea of introducing more than two scripts into the world. I'm pretty agnostic about the biology of it all, and I take seriously some of the biologists who have criticized the whole idea, but I've known at least a few people over the years for whom neither the male nor the female script fit very well, and that knowledge -- those people -- have made the biology seem a bit irrelevant, because no matter what our tendencies as human organisms is to be or become, I know there are people who have only found something resembling happiness by existing outside those boundaries, and I just don't think there's enough happiness in the world for us to be regulating it based on who we think somebody should or shouldn't be because of ideology or biology or whatever. (Yes, I'm sometimes a sappy idealist. So it goes. But it's real lives that are affected by these ideologies, and that matters.)

    I may have just blathered and been confused and confusing rather than helpful, but it was an attempt!

  5. OK, I think I get it. So in Butler terms gender is not so much performing a role as adopting an archetype, It isn't something you can script or have much control over. It kind of goes back to the Commedia dell'arte with the idea that there are certain stock characters that everyone recognizes and other people will impose one of those stereotypes on you whether you like it or not.

    I think there is room for gender identity in here. If it is imposed from the outside then there's no reason why a given individual should be comfortable with what is imposed.